At a speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009, President Barack Obama proclaimed, “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.'” Obama, like Bush before him, believes that Islam is a religion of peace, and he cited Qur’an 5:32 to prove the point.
Unfortunately, his citation is misleading. Qur’an 5:32 actually says, in full:
“We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one killed a person — unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land — it would be as if he killed the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.”
Note the exception: “unless for murder or mischief.” This is explained further in the next verse, Qur’an 5:33:
“Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth to make mischief is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land. That is for them a disgrace in this world; and for them in the Hereafter is a grievous punishment.”
In other words, while taking a life may be equivalent to killing all humanity (or an entire people), if one is spreading “mischief in the land” then one should indeed be “killed or crucified or have their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land.” And that’s exactly how jihadists often justify their behavior: that their victims were “making mischief” or spreading corruption, which of course is conveniently elastic enough that it can mean almost anything.
It’s also worth noting that the saying of Qur’an 5:32 originates in the Talmud, in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 and Babylonian Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 37a. It’s a rabbinical commentary on the Cain and Abel story, and neither text contains the qualifier about making mischief.
Qur’an 5:32 thus derives from the Talmud, and even the Qur’an acknowledges that the injunction was first given to the Jews (“the Children of Israel”). But the Qur’an adds a clause, and follows it with a verse, which dramatically changes (or corrects) the Talmudic meaning. This is blatantly ignored by those who cite 5:32 to prove Islam is a religion of peace, when it indicates the opposite.