Let not the believers take disbelievers for friends in preference to believers - and whoever does that has no connection with Allah - except that you cautiously guard against them. And Allah cautions you against His punishment; and to Allah is the returning. (3:29)
It is alleged that this verse commands Muslims to only take other Muslims in friendship, others should be treated as enemies. Those who make allegations say that this verse alludes to a discrimination against non-Muslims.
To understand the context of this verse we need to reflect upon the situation in Arabia at the time of Holy Prophet Muhammad (on whom be peace). Arabia at the time was inflicted with tribal conflict and feuds. Further, the two superpowers of the time, Rome and Persia had been locked into a prolonged war right on the border of Arabia and this caused alliances and conflicts to spill over into Arabian politics fueling the fluid and incendiary environment at the time. The verse warns Muslims to make alliances (friends) with those who subscribe to the same principles and ideals as they do. The powers of the time would not tolerate a new movement rising and gaining power so an alliance or dependency on such powers would be risky and harmful to the Muslims.
Dr. Peter Frankopan, Director of Byzantine research at Oxford University states the following in his international best seller: ‘The Silk Roads’—A New History of the World: The region (Arabia) had been all but untouched by the fighting between the Romans and Persians. In fact, the southwest heel of Arabia had long been a crucible of confrontation between Rome and Persia, where less than a century earlier the kingdom of Himyar and the cities of Mecca and Medina had thrown in their lot with Persia against the Christian coalition and Himyar’s deadly Red Sea rival, Ethiopia.
As the Islamic movement began to gain momentum and political power with more and more tribes joining its ranks, it came into clash with local power centers some of which were known to be aligned with Rome or Persia such as the Ghassanid dynasty, a known Roman ally. This is also historically attested to in Peter Frankopan’s book: Central to this new identity was a strong idea about unity. Muhammad actively sought to fuse the many tribes of southern Arabia into a single block. The Romans and Persians had long manipulated local rivalries and played leaders off each other.
Verse 3:29 embodies the guiding principle that Muslims should enter into a treaty or alliance with non-Muslims which could in any way injure, or conflict with, the ideals of Islam. There were many groups in Arabia at the time that fought the Muslims for power and control and there were incidents of treason and sabotage such as Jewish Banu Quraizah tribe during the battle of the trench. This verse cautions Muslims not to make alliances and friendships with people who may harbor ill will to the Muslims.
Further expanding on this, the following hadith illustrates this situation in early Islam during the time of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) as recorded in the Asbab An-Nuzul by Al-Wahidi which reports the occasion of revelation of this verse:
Said Ibn ‘Abbas: “A group of Jews including al-Hajjaj ibn ‘Amr, Kahmas ibn Abi al-Huqayq and Qays ibn Zayd used to keep close company with a group of Muslims to try to make them renounce their religion. And so a group of people comprising Rifa’ah ibn al-Mundhir, ‘Abd Allah ibn Jubayr and Sa’id ibn Khaythamah said to this group of Muslims: ‘Stay away from these Jews and beware of keeping their company lest they drive you away from your religion’. The group of Muslims refused to stop seeing them or keep their company, and so Allah, exalted is He, revealed this verse”. And al-Kalbi said: “This verse was revealed about the hypocrites: ‘Abd Allah ibn Ubayy and his companions. They allied themselves with the Jews and the idolaters (who were against the Muslims), supplying them with information, hoping that they would have the upper hand over the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and gave him peace. And so Allah, exalted is He, revealed this verse, warning the believers against acting like them”.
“The phrase, in preference to believers, means: (1) that Muslims should not form friendly relations with disbelievers in preference to believers, shunning the latter and seeking the former; (2) that they should not form any connection with disbelievers in a way that may harm the interests of Muslims. They are, however, free to contract friendly relations with such non-Muslims as are friendly to them, according to the exigencies of time and circumstances as clarified in verse 60:9-10 below
“Allah forbids you not, respecting those who have not fought against you on account of your religion, and who have not driven you forth from your homes, that you be kind to them and act equitably towards them; surely Allah loves those who are equitable. Allah only forbids you, respecting those who have fought against you on account of your religion, and have driven you out of your homes, and have helped others in driving you out, that you make friends of them, and whosoever makes friends of them — it is these that are the transgressors.” (60:9,10)
The verse also instructs Muslims to be on their guard against the plots and machinations of disbelievers. The expression, except that you cautiously guard against them, refers not to the power of the enemy but to his cunning against which Muslims should always be on their guard.
The clause “wayuhadhdhirukumul-llahu nafsahu” rendered as, And Allah cautions you against His punishment, may also be translated as “and Allah cautions or warns you concerning Himself”, meaning that if you do not faithfully accept the guidance of God, and make friends with disbelievers in preference to believers, you will lose God, Who will in that case have no connection with you.
Another aspect to this verse is to warn sincere followers of the religion of Islam to remain cautious and conservative when befriending non-Muslims as friendship will lead to psychological and ideological influences as well as lifestyle inclinations. Verse 3:119 clarifies that the reason to be cautious and conservative is to avoid corruption.
“O ye who believe! take not others than your own people as intimate friends; they will not fail to corrupt you. They love to see you in trouble. Hatred has already shown itself through the utterances of their mouths, and what their breasts conceal is greater still. We have made clear to you Our commandments, if you will understand.” (3:119)
This does not mean that one does not maintain cordial and friendly relations with non-Muslim members of a larger community. The Holy Prophet Muhammad (on whom be peace) was selected by non-Muslims as the Chief Arbitrator of Medina with multi-ethnic and multi-cultural communities. Historically, he was a very successful leader of this community.
The following verses instruct Muslims to deal with anyone who has not fought them in order to destroy their religious movement with kindness and equity. The caution is advised only against those who fought against the Muslims with calls to destroy the movement of Islam.