Surrendering the Sword of the ‘Sword-Verse’

Flag of Saudi Arabia, unfortunately  has a sword put next to the creed of Islam: There is no god but (the One) God (Allah), Muhammad is God’s messenger. The creed of Islam should be linked to only symbols of love and pluralism

Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

Here is the verse that has been called by the critics of Islam as the sword verse: “And when the forbidden months have passed, kill the idolaters wherever you find them and take them prisoners, and beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent and observe Prayer and pay the Zakat, then leave their way free. Surely, Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful.” (Al Quran 9:5)

What does it mean when read in the context of time and of the Surah Taubah, chapter 9, where it belongs, is the subject of this article?

Free thinkers in Bangladesh are being serially hacked to death in their homes. An infamous hit list appeared in 2013 naming 84 “atheist bloggers.” By the end of 2015 there had been seven such murders across the country, and, tragically, April 2016 alone claimed three more victims.

One of them, a university professor was hacked to death in Bangladesh, in an attack police say is similar to killings of secular bloggers and atheists by suspected Islamist extremists.

AFM Rezaul Karim Siddique, 58, was a professor of English at Rajshahi University in the country’s north-west.

He was attacked with machetes as he left home to go to work.

So-called Islamic State militants say they killed him for “calling to atheism” in Bangladesh.

I consider every human life to be precious and sacred and killing of any human life to be a great threat to world peace and akin to triggering a genocide, based on the most common reading of the Quranic verse 5:32/33.

Those who are actively killing in the name of Islam, may indeed be a very small minority of the Muslim population in Bangladesh and other countries. But, a very large portion has strong sympathies for Shariah Law and would want to enforce it, if provided with an opportunity. This certainly creates a grave concern for not only the non-Muslims, but, many a moderate Muslims like me, as well.

Like any religious group, the religious beliefs and practices of Muslims vary depending on many factors, including where in the world they live. But Muslims around the world are almost universally united by a belief in one God and the Prophet Muhammad, and the practice of certain religious rituals, such as fasting during Ramadan, is widespread.

In other areas, however, there is less unity. For instance, a Pew Research Center survey of Muslims in 39 countries asked Muslims whether they want sharia law, a legal code based on the Quran and other Islamic scripture, to be the official law of the land in their country. Responses on this question vary widely. Nearly all Muslims in Afghanistan (99%) and most in Iraq (91%) and Pakistan (84%) support sharia law as official law. But in some other countries, especially in Eastern Europe and Central Asia – including Turkey (12%), Kazakhstan (10%) and Azerbaijan (8%) – relatively few favor the implementation of sharia law.[a]

Now different people will have different understanding of Shariah and it does evolve over time and their circumstances.

However, like me each and every Muslim takes the Holy Quran to be the literal word of God, including the so called sword verse (Al Quran 9:5).

So, how each Muslim understands this verse, has global implications, not only now, but, for decades and centuries to come?

The sword verse is widely-cited by critics of Islam to suggest the faith promotes violence against “pagans” (“idolators”, mushrikun), by isolating the portion of the verse “fight and slay the Pagans wherever you find them.” The next immediate verse (often excluded from quotes) appears to present a conditional reprieve within the statement: “if any of the idolaters seeks of thee protection, grant him protection till he hears the words of God; then do thou convey him to his place of security — that, because they are a people who do not know.”[1]

Qur’anic exegetes al-Baydawi and al-Alusi explain that the sword verse refers to those pagan Arabs who violated their peace treaties by waging war against the Muslims.[2][3]

But, the literal reading of this verse will certainly suggest violence and at least marginalization of the pagans and there are no guarantees that zealots will not use this verse now or in decades and centuries to come, to marginalize non-Muslims, especially the polytheists, unless we are able to educate masses about the over arching peaceful and pluralistic message of the Holy Quran, so they are not vulnerable to herd mentality that sometimes the Muslim scholars and politicians create among them.

Each and every Quranic verse should be understood in the context of the time and the context of the whole of the Quran, especially the immediate one. The entire passage in which 9:5 occurs is:

An acquittal, from God and His Messenger, unto the idolaters with whom you made covenant: (1) ‘Journey freely in the land for four months; and know that you cannot frustrate the will of God, and that God degrades the unbelievers.’ (2) A proclamation, from God and His Messenger, unto mankind on the day of the Greater Pilgrimage: ‘God is quit, and His Messenger, of the idolaters. So if you repent, that will be better for you; but if you turn your backs; know that you cannot frustrate the will of God. And give thou good tidings to the unbelievers of a painful chastisement; (3) excepting those of the idolaters with whom you made covenant, then they failed. you naught neither lent support to any man against you. With them fulfil your covenant till their term; surely God loves the godfearing. (4)

Then, when the sacred months are drawn away, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent, and perform the prayer, and pay the alms, then let them go their way; God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate. (5)

And if any of the idolaters seeks of thee protection, grant him protection till he hears the words of God; then do thou convey him to his place of security — that, because they are a people who do not know. (6)

How should the idolaters have a covenant with God and His Messenger? — excepting those with whom you made covenant at the Holy Mosque; so long as they go straight with you, do you go straight with them; surely God loves the godfearing. (7)

How? If they get the better of you, they will not observe towards you any bond or treaty, giving you satisfaction with their mouths but in their hearts refusing; and the most of them are ungodly. (8)

They have sold the signs of God for a small price, and have barred from His way; truly evil is that they have been doing, observing neither bond nor treaty towards a believer; they are the transgressors. (9-10)

— Trans. Arberry[4]

Here is a link to read forty different simultaneous translations of these verses of the Holy Quran in English.

Dr. Maher Hathout clarifies the historical context of the verse:

This verse was revealed towards the end of the revelation period and relates to a limited context. Hostilities were frozen for a three-month period during which the Arabs pledged not to wage war. Prophet Muhammad was inspired to use this period to encourage the combatants to join the Muslim ranks or, if they chose, to leave the area that was under Muslims rule; however, if they were to resume hostilities, then the Muslims would fight back until victorious. One is inspired to note that even in this context of war, the verse concludes by emphasizing the divine attributes of mercy and forgiveness. To minimize hostilities, the Qur’an ordered Muslims to grant asylum to anyone, even an enemy, who sought refuge. Asylum would be granted according to the customs of chivalry; the person would be told the message of the Qur’an but not coerced into accepting that message. Thereafter, he or she would be escorted to safety regardless of his or her religion. (9:6).[5]

According to the mainstream Islamic scholarship, the verse relates to a specific event in Islamic history. Namely that the Arab Pagans made and broke a covenant with the Arab Muslims. The verses immediately preceding and following 9:5, 9:4 and 9:6, make the context very clear: Only those Pagans who broke the covenant were subject to violent repercussions. Furthermore, any Pagans who honored the covenant as well as those who repented were to be spared. 

Patricia Crone states that the verse is directed against a particular group accused of oath-breaking and aggression and excepts those polytheists who remained faithful. Crone states that this verse seems to be based on the same above-mentioned rules. Here also it is stressed that one must stop when they do.[7]

Explaining the context of this verse, modern Quranic scholar Muhammad Asad restricts the permission to fight and kill as being given regarding specific tribes already at war with the Muslims who had breached their peace agreements and attacked them first.[8] A similar interpretation of the verse as limited to defensive warfare is also found in Ahmadiyya literature, notably in Muhammad Ali‘s 1936 The Religion of Islam.[9]

The sword verse, I believe, was of only temporal and limited scope and was directed at those polytheists, who were at war with the Muslims. This is how the Muslims understood it in the centuries to come. They ruled India for more than 1200 years and co-existed with the Hindus, for centuries before the British rule in India. When the British took over India in the nineteenth century, it was a Hindu majority country, despite a long Muslim rule, a testament that the Muslims never took this verse to be universal and permanent in scope.

Still, I believe that those who are intoxicated with Shariah Law, especially if such an enterprise will give them political authority and power, will not be shy to herd the masses into a literal understanding of this and other allegorical verses of the Holy Quran.

In understanding and interpreting the Quran, it itself provides us with a golden rule to explain any writing on the basis of what is fundamental, unequivocal and clear rather than equivocal, dubious and susceptible to misinterpretation:

He it is Who has sent down to thee the Book; in it there are verses that are decisive in meaning — they are the basis of the Book — and there are others that are allegorical and are susceptible of different interpretations. But those in whose hearts is perversity pursue such thereof as are susceptible of different interpretations, seeking discord and seeking wrong interpretation of it. And none knows its right interpretation except Allah and those who are firmly grounded in knowledge. (Al Quran 3:7)

The Holy Quran has very clear and fundamental verses that talk about universal compassion and having brotherly and sisterly relationships, with every one, regardless of faith. The following verses are unequivocal and of very clear meaning for developing a pluralistic society and should serve as a matrix or a framework to explain the sword verse or any other difficult verse of the Holy Quran:

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 justly and compassionately towards them; surely Allah loves those who are just.

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 intimate friends of them, and whosoever makes intimate friends of them — it is these that are the transgressors. (Al Quran 60:8-9)

These are fairly obvious teachings, we cannot be friendly and kind to those who are after us and trying to destroy us, until they extend some olive branch to us, every one else we should deal with kindly and compassionately.

Additionally, if the circumstances are suitable, the Holy Quran does not shy away from befriending even the enemies, by kind gestures. The Quran says:

And good and evil are not alike. Repel evil with that which is best. And lo, he between whom and thyself was enmity will become as though he were a warm friend. But none is granted it save those who are steadfast; and none is granted it save those who possess a large share of good. (Al Quran 41:34-35)

Let me conclude with what Muhammad Abdel Haleem writes in the introduction to his translation of the holy Quran, under the heading Issues of Interpretation, in regards to the sword verse:

Equally misinterpreted and taken out of context is what has become labelled as ‘the sword verse’ (9:5) although the word ‘sword’ does not appear in the Qur’an: ‘When the [four] forbidden months are over, wherever you find the polytheists, kill them, seize them, besiege them, ambush them’. The hostility and ‘bitter enmity’ of the polytheists and their fitna (persecution: 2:193; 8:39) of the Muslims during the time of the Prophet became so great that the disbelievers were determined to convert the Muslims back to paganism or finish them off: ‘They will not stop fighting you [believers] until they make you revoke your faith, if they can’ (2:217). It was these hardened polytheists in Arabia, who would accept nothing other than the expulsion of the Muslims or their reversion to paganism, and who repeatedly broke their treaties, that the Muslims were ordered to treat in the same way—either to expel them or to accept nothing from them except Islam. But, even then, the Prophet and the Muslims were not simply to pounce on such enemies, reciprocating by breaking the treaty themselves: an ultimatum was issued, giving the enemy notice that, after the four sacred months mentioned in 9:5 above, the Muslims would wage war on them.

Yet the main clause of the sentence—‘kill the polytheists’—is singled out by some non—Muslims as representing the Islamic attitude to war; even some Muslims take this View and allege that this verse abrogated many other verses, including ‘There is no compulsion in religion’ (2: 256) and even, according to one solitary extremist, ‘God is forgiving and merciful’. This far-fetched interpretation isolates and decontextualizes a small part of a sentence and of a passage, 9:1-1 5, which gives many reasons for the order to fight such polytheists: they continually broke their agreements and aided others against the Muslims, they started hostilities against the Muslims, barred others from becoming Muslims, expelled them from the Holy Mosque and even from their own homes. At least eight times the passage mentions the misdeeds of these people against the Muslims. Moreover, consistent with restrictions on war elsewhere in the Qur’an, the immediate context of this ‘sword verse’ exempts such polytheists as do not break their agreements and who keep the peace with the Muslims (9:7); it orders that those enemies seeking safe conduct should be protected and delivered to the place of safety they seek (9:6). The whole of this context to verse 5, with all its restrictions, is ignored by those who simply isolate one part of a sentence to build on it their theory of war and violence in Islam.

Suggested Reading

Two Hundred Verses about Compassionate Living in the Quran

Defensive War in the Holy Quran in 600 Words

Defensive War: Why Fighting Was Allowed?



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