Many Muslim apologists and their ilk, including the current president, quote this verse as a proof text that Islam is peaceful and condemns the killing of innocent persons. But is this true? Is this what the verse means? Continue reading.
First, it must be noted that the verse is not quoted in its entirety. This is done purposefully. The entire verse reads, "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 messengers with clear signs, yet, even after that, many of them continued to commit excesses in the land."
1) Note to whom this verse is directed. "We ordained to the Children of Israel ...". This verse has nothing to do with proving Islam is a peaceful religion. The target audience is not Muslims, it is Jews. Jews are being addressed here, the Children of Israel. And why is Allah using the term "we" if he is absolutely singular?
2) What does it mean to "spread mischief in the land?" After all, that seems to be an exception for which killing someone is justified by this verse. If Muslims want to ignore point 1 above and personalize this verse for the Muslim community, as they do frequently, we must understand what it means to spread mischief. This is important because "spreading mischief" is justified as means to kill someone who is engaged in "spreading mischief."
Ibn Kathir is an authoritative scholar and exegete of the Quran. Although he does not develop the term "make mischief" here, he does so in other similar verses. Sura 2:11-12 uses the same term, and Ibn Kathir defines what it means to "make mischief." Speaking of hypocrites and other disbelievers of Islam, Sura 2:11-12 says, "When it is said to them: "Make not mischief on the earth,” they say: "Why, we only Want to make peace!" Of a surety, they are the ones who make mischief, but they realise (it) not."
In his commentary on these verses, Ibn Kathir says, "Their mischief is disobeying Allah, because whoever disobeys Allah on the earth, or commands that Allah be disobeyed, he has committed mischief on the earth. The hypocrites commit mischief on earth by disobeying their Lord on it and continuing in the prohibited acts. They also abandon what Allah made obligatory and doubt His religion, even though He does not accept a deed from anyone except with faith in His religion and certainty of its truth." In other words, to disobey Allah is to spread mischief. Anyone who does not pray five daily prayers, fast during Ramadan, obey Muhammad as Allah's messenger, believe in absolute Islamic monotheism, is spreading mischief.
Spreading mischief in the land is an exception to the prohibition to kill in Sura 5:32. Thus, Sura 5:32 allows the murder of those who spread mischief in the land - those who disbelieve in Allah and his messenger. This verse is not about peace at all.
3) What is the origin of Sura 5:32? Interestingly, the origin can be deduced from the first few words: "We have ordained for the Children of Israel...". This verse comes from Jewish tradition, the Talmud, and not from Allah. It is a commentary by a Rabbi on Genesis 4:10 which discusses the murder of Abel by Cain. In the Mishna Sanhedrin it reads, "Therefore, humans were created singly, to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul [of Israel], Scripture accounts it as if he had destroyed a full world; and whoever saves one soul of Israel, Scripture accounts it as if she had saved a full world. And for the sake of peace among people, that one should not say to his or her fellow, "My parent is greater than yours;" and that heretics should not say, "There are many powers in Heaven."
It has nothing at all to do with Islam, nor is it an apologetic to prove Islam forbids killing anybody.
Moreover, the common accusation by Muslims is that a verse is taken out of context. Fine. Let's look at the context. The very next verse, Sura 5:33 says this: "The punishment of those who wage war against God 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..."
What exactly does it mean to 'wage war' against Allah and his messenger? After all, according to this verse, anyone who 'wages war' against Allah is fair game for curcifixion, execution, or for having opposing hands and feet cut off.
Once again, Quranic exegete Ibn Kathir comes to the rescue and defines for us exactly what it means to 'wage war' against Allah.
"`Wage war' mentioned here means, oppose and contradict, and it includes disbelief, blocking roads and spreading fear in the fairways." So according to Ibn Kathir, anyone who simply disbelieves in Allah is guilty of waging war against Allah and thus liable for crucifixion, or exile, or having opposing limbs cut off.
So peaceful. So tolerant.