“He who saves/destroys one life, saves/destroys humanity” (The Talmud vs. The Qur’an)

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.

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4 thoughts on ““He who saves/destroys one life, saves/destroys humanity” (The Talmud vs. The Qur’an)

  1. Don’t people always do that sort of thing, read into or make allowances for material in order to manage it, i.e., enable the words to mean what they want them to mean? Far too few of us actually pay attention to intended meanings or try to see through the haze of interpretation to get to such meanings. Bush and Obama both WANTED to say (either because they believed or wanted others to believe they believed) that Islam is a religion of peace. Therefore it served their purpose (whether conscious or unconscious) to view the text through the lenses they had chosen to wear. Truth is a hard thing to get at and maybe none of us ever get it fully. But at least we should take off the glasses which obscure the meanings of others’ own words more often than we do.

  2. Don’t people always do that sort of thing, read into or make allowances for material in order to manage it, i.e., enable the words to mean what they want them to mean?

    Basically they reclaim the material on their own terms. That’s what the Qur’an’s authors were doing with the Talmud saying, as that’s what Bush and Obama have done in turn with the Qur’an’s. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, though we should acknowledge what we’re doing. I made the same point in my analysis of the way Abraham has been willfully reinterpreted in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

  3. Any more information on the original intention of “making mischief”? I mean, if it’s a term that refers to blowing raspberries at your little sister, then the direction is incompatible with Western principles; on the other hand if it means severely disrupting society of putting a community at risk (I guess what we would call “terrorism”) then ascribing a harsh punishment in that place and time is at least a bit more understandable.

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