Never Read a Qur'anic Verse

You don’t expect to hear the words of the Qur’an while watching the Oscars, but that’s what happened this year. Raed Al Saleh received an Oscar for his documentary short, The White Helmets, but couldn’t attend the ceremony. He provided a statement that was read and it included part of Surah 5:32, a verse from the Qur’an. The relevant part of the statement was this: “Our organization is guided by a verse in the Qur’an: To save one life is to save all of humanity.”

This wasn’t the first time someone cited that verse. It’s like the John 3:16 of the Qur’an. President Obama, months after being inaugurated in 2009, spoke to the Muslim people from Cairo, Egypt and said, “The Holy Qur'an teaches that whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind; and whoever saves a person, it is as if he has saved all mankind.” People love this passage because they interpret it to mean that Allah prohibits Muslims from killing innocent people. In fact, killing one person is as grievous as killing the whole human race. Conversely, if you save one person, then you are credited with saving all of humanity.

As we say at Stand to Reason, though, “Never read a Bible verse.” Always read the whole paragraph, chapter, or more. Never try to understand the meaning of a passage without considering the context. This should apply to Islamic texts as well. Never read a Qur’anic verse. In the case of Surah 5:32, the context is critical. Here are verses 32 and 33 (Yusuf Ali translation) that are written after Cain kills his brother Abel:

  1. On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person—unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land—it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people. Then although there came to them Our apostles with clear signs, yet, even after that, many of them continued to commit excesses in the land.
     
  2. The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter....

Two things you’ll notice when you read the passage in context. First, the passage is addressed to Jews, not Muslims (Allah ordains for “the Children of Israel”). The verse’s implication on killing, therefore, applies to Jews. Muslims are addressed in the next verse, but what they’re told is different than what Jews are told. Verse 33 commands Muslims to ensure that the penalty for transgressors is “execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land.” That’s very different from what people are led to believe about Muslims when the passage is read out of context, as it was at the Oscars. By the way, I’m not claiming that most Muslims obey this passage or are violent. That’s a different question altogether. In fact, I’ve stated in my public speaking and writing that most Muslims are peaceful people. The point here is about what Islam teaches, not what Muslims do.

Second, the words of Surah 5:32, which are allegedly the divine words of Allah, sound very similar to ancient Jewish writing in the Talmud (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). This source contains a commentary on Genesis 4:10, a verse about Cain killing Abel. The Talmudic author writes,

We find it said in the case of Cain who murdered his brother, ‘the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth out’ and he says, ‘it does not sayeth he hath blood in the singular, but bloods in the plural.’ Thou was created single in order to show that to him who kills a single individual, it should be reckoned that he has slain the whole race. But to him who has preserved the life of a single individual, it is counted that he has preserved the whole race.

Now, I’m not sure I agree with the rabbi’s commentary on that verse. I think he’s mistaken. What’s interesting, though, is the author of the Qur’an picks up the rabbi’s last two sentences and passes them off as divine writ, the words of Allah. That means either Allah inspired a Jew to write bad commentary on Genesis 4:10 (and then told Mohammed the same thing 400 years later) or Surah 5:32 does not include the words of Allah, but was copied from a third-century rabbi.

Either way, citing a part of Surah 5:32 at the Oscars provides a good lesson in context and source criticism. Next time a religious text is read, hopefully the person will pay attention to the words before and after the cited text. If they do, they deserve an Oscar.

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Alan Shlemon

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