Marshall, David, 1999, God, Muhammad and the Unbelievers




This study explores how the Qur’an comments on the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims as it evolves from the earliest Meccan to the latest Medinan periods of Muhammad’s ministry. Particular attention is paid to the portrayal in the Meccan ‘punishment-narratives’ of a fascinating and complex triangular relationship between God, the powerless and persecuted believing community with Muhammad at its centre, and the unbelieving Meccans who rejected Muhammad’s preaching.  This dynamic then changes following the Hijrah and the beginning of armed conflict.  The book presents a detailed and illuminating analysis of many important Qur’anic themes and passages, and offers a coherent and original account of significant developments within the thought of the Qur’an as a whole.

(Adapted from the jacket)


Dr Martin Whittingham, Director, Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies

Date of Review: 2009

What does the Qur’an say about unbelievers? Moreover, what does it say about the relationship between God and unbelievers, and what Muhammad’s attitude to  unbelievers should be? These are the questions at the heart of David Marshall’s painstaking study of the Qur’anic data on unbelievers.  In addition the author explores the question of what punishment unbelievers are likely to encounter, and whether it will occur in this life or the next.

Now ten years old, this book remains important for its clear and careful analysis of the relevant verses. Marshall tackles a potentially controversial subject, but achieves what any good academic study should: the presentation of evidence in a clear and dispassionate manner, so that even if not all the author’s conclusions are accepted, subsequent discussion can rest on a firmer foundation than was previously available.


Adopting the traditional dating of Qur’anic suras as Meccan and Medinan, the author traces a shift in the responses to unbelief not just by Muhammad, but also by other Qur’anic prophets, such as Noah and Abraham. This shift is from a complex reaction to a more straightforward one (108). The complex reaction is a combination of grief and concern for the unbeliever mixed with warnings of judgment. This reaction gradually simplifies to become an attitude of detached  hostility (106). There are repeated commands from God not to feel sorrow for unbelievers (111), although God commands Muhammad to forgive them (113). Sūrat al-Tawba 9:3 says ‘God is quit of the idolaters and so is the Messenger’, that is, Muhammad’s responsibility and sorrow for them should cease. A parallel for this development is found in the life of the Qur’anic Abraham. Sūrat al-Tawba 9:114 states that he is also now ‘quit’ of his idolatrous father, in contrast to Abraham’s earlier role (Sūrat al-Mumtahana 60:4) as an exception to the position of being ‘quit’ of unbelievers.

Regarding punishment, in Mecca there are repeated warnings that unbelief will be punished, but these do not involve believers as instruments of punishment. In Medina, however, permission is granted for the Muslims to fight against unbelievers. The Battle of Badr is the turning point in this transition (134), and after Badr the believers become instruments of divine punishment. One of the key developments in Medina is that Muhammad and the believers are called to identify more closely with God’s hostility to unbelievers. Consequently, the Medinan phase of Muhammad’s life, unlike the Meccan, stresses, ‘the communal participation in God’s triumph over the unbeliever’ (181).