Bloodshed (safk al-dimāʾ) is mentioned twice in the Qurʾān (Q 2:30, 84) using Form-I verb safaka (“to shed”) in conjugation with the noun dimāʾ (sing. dam, “blood”), metonymically referring to mass killing of human beings. Derived from the root s-k-f, safk can be used to indicate the flowing of any liquid—particularly tears—or, metaphorically, copious speech, safaka al-kalām (“he spoke profusely”) (Zabīdī, Tāj, sub s-f-k). This article is limited to the two verses where the phrase safk al-dimāʾ appears; for a broader discussion of the theme, see Killing (qatl).
The first of the two Qurʾānic references to bloodshed appears in the question asked by the angels when informed of the Divine plan to place humans on earth: And when your Lord said to the angels: “Behold, I am placing a successor (khalīfa) on earth,” they said: “Will You place therein such as will spread corruption and shed blood (yasfiku al-dimāʾ), while we extol Your praise and sanctify You?” He said: “Surely I know what you know not” (Q 2:30). Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad b. Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (224-310/839-923) says the angels were in fact saying: ‘Teach us, our Lord: will You place someone with this attribute and will You not place a successor from among us, we who proclaim Your praise and call You Holy?’ They did not contest what their Lord had told them, although they were dismayed when informed that He would have a creature who would disobey Him” (Tafsīr). Fakhr al-Dīn Muḥammad b. ʿUmar al-Rāzī (543-606/1148-1209) and ʿImād al-Dīn Ismāʿīl b. ʿUmar Ibn Kathīr (700-774/1300-1373) both explain that when the angels said that the new creation would spread mischief and shed blood, they were not referring to Ādam himself, upon him peace, but to his progeny (Tafsīrs, sub Q 2:30). According to Nāṣir al-Dīn Abū Saʿīd ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿUmar al-Bayḍāwī (d. 685/1286), the angels’ statement was not “an objection to Allah Most High, nor an aspersion cast upon Ādam’s progeny by way of slander, for [angels] are above any such suspicion, because Allah Most High said [about them], nay, but they are honored slaves; they do not speak ahead of Him, but they act by His command alone [Q 21:26-27]” (Tafsīr, sub Q 2:30).
Several explanations are offered to the question of how the angels knew humans would work corruption (q.v.) and shed blood: (i) they could have known it through an inquiry made of their Lord; (ii) they read it in the Preserved Tablet (iii) they extrapolated it from the past transgressions of the jinn, who had inhabited the earth before humans; (iv) they inferred it from the connotations of the word khalīfa (“successor”), which include making deliberative judgments, preventing oppression, and forbidding unlawful acts and sins—thereby presupposing the possibility of bloodshed (Ṭabarī; Qurṭubī; Bayḍāwī; Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīrs, sub Q 2:30). “It is as if they knew that the appointee to successorship possessed three faculties upon which his disposition depended: (a) appetitive, (b) wrath—both of which lead to corruption and bloodshed, and (c) intellect, drawing him to knowledge and obedience” (Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:30).
The angels’ inference being based on the previous dwellers of earth is supported by a report from Ibn ʿAbbās (3bh-68/619-688), Allah be pleased with him and his father, who said the jinn lived on the earth before humans, spread corruption, shed blood, and killed one another—whereupon Iblīs (see Satan), who according to most exegetes was an angel named ʿAzāzīl before his disobedience, was sent to chase them away to distant mountains and islands. When Ādam was placed on earth, he was called khalīfa (lit. “successor” ) in the sense of coming after the jinn (Ṭabarī; Rāzī; Qurṭubī; Tafsīrs, sub Q 2:30), although “the sound position” (al-ṣaḥīḥ, Baghawī) is that of vicegerency for the implementation of sacred Law on earth as per Ibn Masʿūd (d. 32/ca.652), Ibn ʿAbbās, and al-Suddī (d. 127/744) (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī; Baghawī; Rāzī; Qurṭubī; Bayḍāwī, sub Q 2:30). In the latter context, the angels’ characterization of human beings as given to corruption and bloodshed applies only to those who fall short of that lofty rank to which they are called (Bayḍawī).
The second Qurʾānic reference to bloodshed occurs as a prohibition included in the Covenant Allah Most High established with the Children of Isrāʾīl: And when We made a Covenant with you, “Do not shed the blood of your own (lā tasfikūna dimāʾakum), and do not expel your own from your homes.” Then you ratified it, bearing witness. The commands are explained as “do not shed the blood of one another and do not expel one another” (Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf). The Children of Isrāʾīl did not fulfill their Covenant: And yet it is you, the very same, who kill your own (taqtulūna anfusakum) and expel a party of you from their homes, conspiring against them in sin and enmity. And if they come to you as captives you ransom them, though their expulsion was forbidden to you. Do you, then, believe in part of the Book and disbelieve in part? (Q 2:85). The phrase taqtulūna anfusakum means “you slay one another” (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr).
Although these injunctions have broader implications in the history of the Children of Isrāʾīl, commentaries refer also to the bloodshed of Jews by Jews in the historical context of Yathrib where the three Jewish tribes (Banū Qurayẓa, Banū al-Naḍīr, and Banū Qaynuqāʿ) were divided in their loyalties and alliances (see Alliance and Treaty) with the two Arab tribes, Banū Aws and Banū Khazraj (see Anṣār). The Banū Qaynuqāʿ were allied with the Banū Khazraj, and the other two tribes were allies of Banū Aws (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr; Ibn Ḥazm, Jamharat ansāb al-ʿArab p. 481). Whenever war broke out between the Aws and the Khazraj, the Jews would fight on both sides, kill their own brethren in faith, plunder their property, and exile them. Afterwards, they would ransom their captives in accordance with the Torah, thus believing in some parts of the Scripture and denying others (Q 2:85) (Samarqandī, Baḥr; Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:84).
Bloodshed through widespread killing is a sign of the End of times, as foretold by the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace: “Near the onset of the Hour, a time will come when ignorance will spread, knowledge will be removed and there will be widespread harj.” [The Companions] asked, “what is harj?” He said, “killing, killing!” (Bukhārī, Fitan, ẓuhūr al-fitan; Muslim, Fitan wa ashrāṭ al-sāʿa, idhā tawājaha al-muslimān bi-sayfayhimā fal-qātil wal-maqtūl fī-l-nār; Muslim, al-ʿilm, Bāb rafʿi-ʿilm wa qabḍihi wa ẓuhūr al-jahl wa-l-fitn fī ākhir al-zamān).
Ibn Ḥazm, Abū Muḥammad ʿAlī b. Aḥmad b. Saʿīd. Jamharat
anṣāb al-ʿArab. Ed. ʿAbd al-Salām Muḥammad Hārūn. 5th ed. Cairo: Dār
Ibn Kathīr. Tafsīr.