Words, both nouns and verbs, derived from the root wa-la-ya are ubiquitous in the Qur’an. Words with the root wa-la-ya include nouns such as mawla (pl. mawali), wali (pl. awliya), and verbs such as waliya, walla, and tawalla. The casual reader, however, can easily misinterpret the sense of these words in the Qur’an if she fails to pay close attention to the general linguistic context, for this root is a famous example of what Arab lexicographers referred to as addad, i.e., words that have two meanings, its primary meaning as well as its opposite. Thus, mawla can be used both to mean master, e.g., ‘anta mawlana fa-insurna ‘ala al-qawmi al-kafirin (You, (O God!) are our Master, so aid us against the disbelieving folk!, al-Baqara, 2:286, and servant/dependent, e.g., ‘fi-in lam ta’lamu aba’ ahum fa-ikhwanukum fi-l-dini wa mawalikum (so if you know not their fathers, they are [nevertheless] your brothers in religion and your wards), al-Ahzab, 33:5.
Another word derived from this root that presents interpretive difficulties is the word wali. Literally, it means “close,” and thus the Islamic term for saint is “wali allah,” which literally means “close to God,” or “friend of God.” Likewise, the Qur’an uses the term wali to mean, among other things, patron, e.g., ‘allahu waliyyu alladhina amanu (God is the patron of those who believe). Al-Baqara, 2:257.
Proper understanding of this multivalent term, wali, is critical for anyone who wishes to understand the Qur’an’s perspective on inter-religious communal relations. Thus, the Qur’an prohibits Muslims from taking disbelievers as “patrons” exclusively of Muslims, e.g., al-Nisa, 4:139 and 144. Furthermore, the Qur’an prohibits Muslims from taking Christians and Jews as “patrons”, “for they are the patrons of one another, and whosoever of you [Muslims] takes them as patrons, he is of them.” Al-Ma??ida, 5:51.
Similarly, the Qur’an forbids Muslims from taking as “patrons those disbelievers who take your religion as an [occasion for] mockery and jest.” Al-Ma’ida, 5:56. Unfortunately, some translators of the Qur’an have inaccurately translated the word wali in these and other verses to mean “friend,” implying that Muslims cannot have friends from outside their faith. Indeed, one often hears some Muslims interpreting these verses to mean precisely that.
This reading of wali, however, is mistaken. Sensitivity to the Qur’anic use of this term reveals that the more accurate rendering is that of “patron,” as used above. The political/legal content of this term is clear from the verse in which God says “As for those who are killed unjustly, we have given his wali authority [to seek justice], so let him not be excessive in killing.” Al-Isra??, 17:33. Here, wali obviously means the deceased’s next of kin who is given legal standing to pursue the murderer. To understand it as friend would simply be absurd. While it would not be absurd to read the use of wali in the previous verses as “friend” if the verses are read in isolation, when these verses are read along with other Qur’anic verses dealing with Muslims’ relationships with non-Muslims, it is obvious that the political/legal meaning of the word is the one intended. Two verses makes this particularly clear.
First, God allowed Muslim men to marry Christian and Jewish women. Al-Ma’ida, 5:5. Because Muslims are allowed to marry Christian and Jews, a fortiori they Muslims can be “friends” with Christians and Jews.
More generally, God said, “God forbids you not from dealing justly and lovingly with those who have not fought you on account of your religion or expelled you from your homes. He prohibits you from taking as patrons only those who waged war against you on account of your religion, expelled you from your homes, and aided one another to expel you. Whosoever takes them as patrons are certainly wrongdoers.” Al-Mumtahina, 60:8-9. Thus, so long as non-Muslims maintain peaceful relations with Muslims, Muslims are certainly not prohibited from reciprocating those feelings. Indeed, they are permitted to interact with them not only on the basis of justice, but also deal with them on the higher level of birr, the same term that the Qur’an uses to describe the duty of children to their parents.
Moreover, this last verse makes clear that Muslims are only prohibited from having friendly relations with those who wage war against them on account of their religion, and commit against them other types of outrages, including, expulsion from their homes. Thus, the verses of the Qur’an which prohibit Muslims from taking Jews, Christians, and other non-Muslims as “patrons” must be interpreted in light of the last two verses of al-Mumtahina, and thus mean, that a Muslim should not take these groups as “patrons,” i.e., political protectors, where these non-Muslim groups are engaged in hostile acts, e.g., religious persecution, against Muslims. Where non-Muslims maintain peaceful and friendly relations with Muslims, however, these verses simply do not apply. That this was also the understanding of medieval Muslim theologians is confirmed by the rule, accepted by a majority of jurists, that non-Muslims could exercise political power (wilaya) over Muslims so long as in so doing they were merely implementing the commands of Islamic law. This type of authority was known in Islamic law as wilaya tanfidhiyya, which corresponds roughly to modern notions of executive authority, i.e., the right and duty to enforce the law. And God knows best.
Reprinted with authors permission.