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Lost in Translation: Friendships with Non-Muslims | Blog


This article was originally published on Dewdrops.com

A closer analysis of Qur’an, 5:51 - Part I

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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? In the next parts we look at each meaning in turn.


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