Lost in Translation: Friendships with Non-Muslims

A closer analysis of Qur’an, 5:51

By Suheil Laher

Are Muslims allowed have non-Muslim friends? If not, then what should be our stance towards others?! Anyone who thinks that Muslims must take all non-Muslims as enemies is ignorant of the Qur’an and the life and teachings of Prophet Muhammad, and ignorant of the centuries of friendly co-existence between Muslims and others across history, not mention that such a person is blind to the decency and goodness to be found and appreciated in many other human beings. The Prophet’s own example clearly illustrates that the attitude of the Muslim toward the non-Muslim is not one of bigotry or unconditional animosity. For example, “when Makkah was in the grip of famine, [the Prophet Muhammad] personally went out to help his enemies. When non-Muslim prisoners of war were presented before him, he treated them with such tenderness [as] many cannot even claim to have done in respect to their children. A delegation from Banu Thaqif who had not yet embraced Islam upto that time came to visit him. They were given the honor of staying in the Mosque of the Prophet. Umar [the second Caliph] gave allowances to needy dhimmis (non-Muslim subjects) [rather than obliging them to pay the jizyah tax.” [see: Muhammad Shafi`’s (erstwhile Grand-Mufti of Pakistan) Ma`ariful-Qur’an, 2/57-58.]

Nor can it be that Muslims are supposed to just pretend to be nice to others while hating and cursing them among themselves in private, for the Prophet has denounced duplicity:

You will find the worst person to be the two-faced one, who comes to [one people] with one face, and to [another people] with another face.” [Bukhari]

In the Qur’an, the common origin (and hence essential oneness) of the human race is stressed:

O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” [Qur’an, 49:13]

And basic values and decency are not to be reserved only for fellow Muslims:

God does not prohibit you from being kind and just to those who have not fought you on account of religion, nor expelled you from your homes. Allah loves those who are just.” Q[60:8]

We may note that the word used in the verse for ‘kindness’ (al-birr) is the same word used in some hadiths for loving, kind treatment of one’s parents.

But what about the verse (notorious in English translation) that seems to prohibit Muslims from taking non-Muslim friends? The short answer is: lost in translation. But for a more detailed answer, let’s take a closer look at it.

“O ye who believe! Take not the Jews and Christians as your awliya’; they are awliya’ to one another. And whoever takes them as awliya’ is of them. Indeed, Allah guides not wrongdoing people.” Q[5:51]

The word “awliya’” in the above verse is often translated as ‘friends’, but such a translation can be misleading. Let us look at the word, its root and meanings, and attempt to apply this, in the context of other relevant texts, to understand the verse above.

`Awliya is plural of waliyy, the lexical root being W-L-Y, and among the associated nouns are wala‘, waly, tawali and walayah. If someone is my waliyy, I have wala or walayah toward him/her.

Al-Raghib al-Isfahani says, in his Qur’anic lexicon Mufradat al-Qur’an,

Wala‘ and tawali is that two things become such that there is not between them anything which is not of them. This is then used figuratively to indicate closeness of place, attribution, religion, friendship, support/seeking victory, or belief. Walayah is giving support or victory.”

Al-Fayruzabadi says, in his renowned classical dictionary Al-Qamus al-Muhit,

Waly is closeness and drawing near…A waliyy is a lover, friend or supporter.”

Ibn al-Manzur says, in his encyclopedic dictionary Lisan al-`Arab,

“Ibn al-A`rabi said: The waliyy is the loving follower.”

We can distill from the above that taking another person as a waliyy could potentially be in the sense of any of the following:

  1. Taking on his name
  2. Following his religion or beliefs
  3. Lovingly following his conduct
  4. Giving support to him to achieve victory
  5. Loving him
  6. Taking him as a friend

Now, which of the above meanings is the verse [5:51] prohibiting, and to what extent? Let us look at each meaning in turn.

1) Adopting Names

Taking on the name of a Jew or Christian could be permissible for a Muslim whose father was Jewish or Christian, for people are customarily known by their father’s or family’s name. If that name was offensive to Islam (e.g. `Abdul-Masih which means ‘slave of the Messiah’ and is therefore contrary to pure monotheism), then some further thought may be needed, although in passing we may note that the Prophet did use such names to refer to people who had them (e.g. `Abdul-`Uzza, `Uzza having been an idol), on a de facto basis. As for taking on the names of Prophets of Israel, this is clearly permissible if not recommended, for Muslims accept these prophets as amongst their own, and indeed names such as Joseph, Jacob, and the like are widespread amongst Muslims.

2) Following in Religion

Clearly, a Muslim is prohibited from following any religion other than that contained in God’s final revelation to mankind, i.e. Islam. Suddi has narrated that the circumstances in which the verse [5:51] was revealed, was that two men were conversing after the Battle of Uhud (a major attack by the Makkan pagans on the Muslims, in which the Muslims suffered considerable losses). One said, “As for me, I will go to such-and-such Jew, take refuge with him, and embrace Judaism with him; perhaps it will benefit me if something happens.” The other said, “As for me, I will go to such-and-such Christian in Syria, take refuge with him, and embrace Christianity with him. [al-Sabuni’s abridgement of Ibn Kathir’s exegesis, 1/526]

Islam expects people to realize the truth and submit to it rationally and intelligently. It does not behoove the human being to merely follow the prevailing religion of society. There is a marked difference between culture and religion, most notably that religion is a matter of choice and conviction affecting one’s eternal fate.

Let not any of you be a characterless opportunist, saying “If people do good, we will do good, and if they are unjust, we will be unjust. Rather, prepare yourself mentally, that you will do good if people do good, but that if they do evil then you will not commit injustice.” [Tirmidhi (hasan)]

3) Following

A Muslim is expected to lovingly follow the conduct of the Prophets of God.

“They are those whom God has guided, so emulate their guidance.” Q[6:90]

and especially that of the Final Prophet, whose life is perhaps better documented and more accurately verifiable than that of his predecessors.

“Surely, there is for you in the Messenger of God an excellent role-model for anyone who believes in Allah and in the Last Day and remembers Allah much.” Q[33:21]

The Prophetic way in belief, conduct and behavior is the gauge for measuring all others: whether Muslim or non-Muslim. In all cases, emulation of any non-Prophet should only be by virtue of that emulated person exemplifying some attribute or trait known to be praiseworthy from the sacred texts. A Muslim may follow a good example set by someone else – Muslim or not – but the reason for doing so needs to be clear; it should not be blind imitation or following.

4) Giving support and victory

Similarly, giving support to someone to achieve victory depends on the cause and the circumstances. If a Muslim is able to cooperate with a non-Muslim (Jew, Christian or even pagan) to achieve a common, desirable goal, without violating any Islamic precept in the process, then this is permissible. In Makkah, the Prophet had participated with pagans in the Fudul Pact to restore justice to a Yemeni trader who had been wronged in Makkah.

Even military alliances with non-Muslims can be permissible, for we see that the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) included the Jews of Madinah in the city’s Constitution which included military cooperation against common enemies. In fact, this constitution proclaimed that the Jews of Madinah are “an ummah with the believers,” (ummah is the same word that is commonly used nowadays to refer to the worldwide community of Muslims). The same constitution declared that there should be between the Muslims and Jews, “sincerity, advice and righteousness”; a phrase that epitomizes good friendship (in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words, “A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere.”). The Muslim state also undertakes to protect the non-Muslim subjects of the state (dhimmis), such as Jews and Christians, in the event the country is attacked. Dhimmi means “a covenanted person”, and the Prophet declared that,

“Anyone who unjustly kills a person of the covenent of dhimmah, Allah has prohibited Heaven for him.” [Abu Dawud, Nasa’i; Bukhari, Ibn Majah, Ahmad, Tirmidhi(hs), Darimi]

If, however, a goal is antithetical to Islam (such as establishing a bar), or – even worse – detrimental to Islam and the general Muslim welfare, then granting support to or working for the victory of such a cause is clearly prohibited. Amongst the overt implications of 5:51 is that a Muslim is prohibited from granting military or strategic help to non-Muslims who are fighting against Islam as a religion, or against Muslims simply because they are Muslim.

The renowned early exegete, Abu Ja`far al-Tabari, comments on 5:51,

“Anyone who takes the Jews and Christians as awliya’ to the exclusion of the Muslims he is of them, which is to say: Anyone who takes them as awliya’ and seeks victory for them over the Muslims is a member of their religion and creed, for no ally allies himself [to this extent] with anyone without approving him, his religion and his conduct.” [Tabari, Jami` al-Bayan fi Ta’wil al-Qur’an]

Another later famous exegete, al-Qurtubi, explains the phrase “Anyone among you takes them as awliya’ is of them,” saying,

“i.e. Anyone who supports them against the Muslims.” [Qurtubi, al-Jami` li-Ahkam al-Qur’an]

In Muslim Andalusia, a governor named Ibn `Abbad wrote to the Christians seeking their help against a Muslim rival. Muhammad ibn Yusuf ibn Tashafin al-Lamtuni, Caliph at the time, sought edicts from numerous prominent scholars of his time, and most of them asserted that Ibn `Abbad had committed apostasy, because he sought to defeat Islam (i.e. to defeat God) by allying with non-Muslims. [Suyuti, Tarikh al-Khulafa’] Whether this was the actually case, or whether Ibn `Abbad was just blinded by rivalry and pursuit of personal power and prestige, is not our concern. What is clear, however, is that for an ostensible Muslim to seek to destroy Islam, or to shun his co-religionists and prefer to seek help outside the faith, especially against the Muslims at large, betrays at least a deficiency in faith and religious loyalty.

The implication that a Muslim may not take the side of those who are at war with Islam (as a religion) is brought out more clearly by another verse:

“Allah prohibits you from being awliya’ only to those who have fought you on account of the religion, and expelled you from your homes, and assisted others in your expulsion. Whoever takes them as awliya’ is a wrongdoer.” [Surah al-Mumtahanah (60), 8-9]

5) Love

Love can be of many different levels, and for a variety of reasons. A Muslim whose parents or other family members happen to be Jewish or Christian is clearly still going feel familial affection to them. Prophet Abraham clearly loved his father, who persisted upon idolatry, as we see from the Qur’anic accounts in which Abraham (peace and blessings be upon him) repeatedly entreats and pleads with his father to embrace monotheism. A Muslim man can love a Jewish or Christian woman for various reasons, as is indicated by the Qur’anic permission to marry women of the People of the Book (Q[5:5]).

The Muslim is certainly not blameworthy for such love, unless he allows it to interfere with the requirements of his faith, or places it above his love for God. To the contrary, numerous sacred texts enjoin kindness to one’s parents and maintenance of ties of kinship without restricting this to Muslims. Asma bint Abi Bakr narrates that her mother, still a pagan, came to visit her. She enquired from the Prophet whether she should maintain her relationship with her, and he told her to do so. [Bukhari and Muslim] Another narration [in Musnad Ahmad] states that Asma’ at first refused to accept her mother’s gifts, or to allow her to enter the house, and that this was the cause for revelation of a verse of the Qur’an.

Allah does not prohibit you from being kind and just to those who have not fought you on account of religion, nor expelled you from your homes. Allah loves those who are just.” Q[60:8]

[vide: Sabuni, op. cit., 3/484]

At the same time, we should note that the deepest loving relationships come from the affinity of shared faith, and the resulting doctrinal and ideological consonance between Muslims. Just as the Muslim loves Islam, and loves God and all the Prophets, he will naturally feel a special affinity for other Muslims. Similarly, he will feel a revulsion or aversion for beliefs which are contradictory to the truths embodied in human nature and God’s revelation. From 60:8, we see that a Muslim is clearly permitted to be on friendly terms with non-Muslims. However, the differences in fundamental beliefs and values will inevitably leave some inconsonance which preclude a totally intimate bond. Personal interests and expediencies cannot be given priority over the values of faith and over affinity directly deriving from faith. We should stress that the Muslim loves all people in the sense of being concerned for their welfare, and hence while he hates sins, blasphemy and unbelief, he still desires the welfare of sinners, blasphemers and unbelievers, and therefore desires for them – and strives to help them if he can – to find the straight path.

Another potentially problematic verse (Quran, [5:82]) might seem to paint all Jews as enemies of Muslims, but a deeper look reveals that it has never been taken as a blanket prejudice against all Jews; it does not mean every single Jew is an enemy. Islam affirms individual free-will, and also the fact that there are both honest and dishonest people amongst the People of the Book (Q[3:75]). Ibn Salam was a Jewish rabbi of Madinah who embraced Islam. There have been Jews living peacefully with Muslims since the time of the Prophet. When the Prophet died, some of his property was being held by a Jew as collateral for a loan the Prophet had taken from him [Bukhari], showing that Muslims and Jews continued to have neighborly relations even to the very end of the Prophet’s life. When a prominent companion of the Prophet, `Abdullah ibn `Amr, found out his family had slaughtered and cooked a sheep, he instructed them to send some of the meat as a gift to their Jewish neighbor, for the Prophet had continued to emphasize the rights of the neighbor, to the extent that people thought the neighbor might even inherit. [Mundhiri, al-Targhib wal-Tarhib, where he mentioned that this is narrated through many chains of narration.] This attitude of peaceful coexistence, and even cooperation, continued through Muslim history. Bigoted extremism is a recent phenomenon, and cannot stand up to the sacred texts and the dominant Muslim understanding over history.

The famous Sultan Saladin was one of many Muslim rulers whose personal physicians were Jewish (Saladin’s physician was none other than the famous Maimonides). Muslims in North Africa accepted and provided refuge to Jews who were fleeing the persecution of the Spanish Inquisition. Jews are perhaps the closest people to the Muslims in beliefs and lifestyle, and the two peoples have a closely intertwined history. It is sad, then, that one of the greatest conflicts in the world today (the Palestine-Israel conflict) is between these two groups of people. Such macro-scale facts are clearly the primary import of the verse (5:82). As far as individual Jews, (and individual Christians or members of any other religion, for that matter), the Muslim should base his interaction (friendship or otherwise) on the specific individual and circumstances, and not on blanket generalizations or stereotypes. There are many Jews who are decent, kind members of society, who stand up and speak for justice, and even defend the rights of Muslims. As Muslims, we cannot justify not being friendly to such Jews; to the contrary we find a religious obligation to be friendly to them:

God does not prohibit you from being kind and just to those who have not fought you on account of religion, nor expelled you from your homes. Allah loves those who are just.” Q[60:8]

6) Friendship

Friendship can be understood in various senses, and hence in order to answer the question of whether a Muslim can have non-Muslim friends, it is important to distinguish which sense of friendship is meant. Anyone to whom religion and worldview are important will naturally feel closer to those have the same core values and beliefs. Hence, the most intimate bond of friendship is towards those who are similarly religiously aware and observant, and one will feel most comfortable discussing religious matters and concerns with such people. (Less confident Muslims also need to take consideration of the danger of being too shy to practice some aspects of Islam in the presence of non-Muslim friends, or non-observant Muslim friends.) A true friend will respect you, and not try to pressure you to contravene your beliefs. But it is up to the Muslim to make sure he/she is secure and confident enough in his/her faith to maintain his/her identity, and not be influenced to compromize them. If the Muslim is weak in character, and feels he will lose his faith or compromize his religious practice because of a particular friendship, then he should not pursue that friendship, but the limitation here is due to his own character, and not due to a blanket religious prohibition. There are many personal and situational factors, as well as issues of compatibility, that must be taken into consideration to judge the viability and desirability of any friendship, and the purpose of this article is neither to deny these, nor to exhaustively discuss them.

So, it is natural that an observant Muslim’s deepest, most intimate friendships will typically be with other observant Muslims, with whom he/she can pursue both worldly and religious activities. As the Prophet has said,

A person is on the religion of his intimate friend (khalil), so let each of you look [well] as to who he is making his/her intimate friend.” [Tirmidhi (hasan), Abu Dawud]

It is worth noting an observant Muslim will not have this deepest sort of bond with a sinful Muslim either. For example, [Qur’an, 8:72] prohibits Muslims from having ‘walayah‘ toward Muslims who have not emigrated (to save their own faith) from a land of religious persecution. In general, one has wala’ (affinity) for a person to the extent of his goodness, and bara’ (disaffection/disavowal) for him to the extent of his misguidance, misconduct or evil, and for most people one will therefore have some combination of both wala’ and bara’. The Muslim is expected to hate a sin, regardless of whether it is being committed by another Muslim or by another non-Muslim, and similarly to appreciate good values and actions regardless of what the religious affiliation of the doer is.

There are of course types of meaningful friendships that can be shared across religious boundaries. A Muslim can have a strong relationship, based on sympathy, kindness and concern, with Jews, Christians and other non-Muslims (excluding enemies in war, as alluded to earlier). And a Muslim is expected to maintain cordiality, pleasant behavior and politeness even with people who are outside his/her circle of friends (both Muslims and non-Muslims). A Muslim is also permitted to have business and professional dealings with non-Muslims (including employing and being employed by them), as is clear from Islamic law manuals, and he/she is expected to conduct such dealings with honesty and integrity.

To wrap up, then, kindness, concern, fairness and productive cooperation are part of the Muslim attitude towards people in general. When the people are not just fellow human beings, but one’s neighbors, it becomes even more important for the Muslim to treat them well, as we find from the Qur’an (4:36) and from numerous authentic hadiths about the rights of the neighbor. Yes, a Muslim should not let any relationship (even with other Muslims) interfere with his religious belief and practice. Nor should a Muslim allow his friends (Muslim or non-Muslim) to influence him to do what he believes is wrong. Faith in Islam is not blind, andthe Muslim should have the confidence and strength of character to be open about and stand by his/her principles. But the notion that a Muslim can never have non-Muslim friends is clearly a case of a whole lot being lost in translation.

3 thoughts on “Lost in Translation: Friendships with Non-Muslims

  1. I’m a Christian. because of this information, You may not win my heart to convert into Islam but a deepest respect towards Islam and gentle Muslim people will continue to grow and begin to understand more of the faith of my muslim friends in my country. May this article enlighten us all regardless of faith, race and religion to live in peace and unity.


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