In the Name of God, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful
Before we move on with our discussion of the so-called “Verse of the Sword,” I must add something I failed to mention in my previous post about the violent opposition on the part of the Meccan oligarchy to the message of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). There are those who claim that the Meccans tried to reach a compromise with the Prophet, namely, that each group to be free to practice their religion. These detractors of the Prophet (pbuh) claim that the Prophet refused this compromise, choosing to confront the Meccans instead.
This is not exactly the case. Indeed, the Meccans did try to compromise with the Prophet (pbuh), but this compromise was one of fundamental faith. They offered the Prophet (pbuh) this compromise: they would worship God for one day, and then the Prophet would worship their gods for one day. Obviously, the Prophet (pbuh) said no. The Meccans then discussed amongst themselves and came back to the Prophet with another compromise: they will worship God for one month, and the Prophet would worship their gods for one day. The Prophet (pbuh) said no once again.
The Meccans then told the Prophet that they will worship God for one year, and all the Prophet (pbuh) had to do was worship their gods for one day. The Prophet, one more time, said no. The Qur’an confirms this attempt at compromise:
“they would like thee to be soft [with them], so that they might be soft [with thee]” (68:9).
But, they were not offering peaceful co-existence. They wanted him to worship their gods, to practice idolatry. No one claiming to follow the religion of Abraham would ever agree to such a thing, and thus the Prophet refused. In response to this incident, these verses of the Qur’an were revealed:
“Say [O Muhammad]: ‘O you who deny the truth! I do not worship that which you worship, and neither do you worship that which I worship. And I will not worship that which you have [ever] worshipped, and neither will you [ever] worship that which I worship. Unto you, your religion, and unto me, mine!’” (109:1-6)
Thus, the Prophet rejected any compromise when it came to matter of faith and worship. Never would he agree to worship their idols of stone and wood as gods besides the One God of Abraham. This is the “compromise the Prophet rejected,” and those who claim otherwise are distorting the truth.
That having being said, let us return to the issue at hand: verse 9:5, the infamous “Verse of the Sword.” Now that we understand that fighting in Islam is purely self-defensive and that the Prophet (pbuh) was violently opposed to the bitter end, we can understand verse 9:5 – along with those similar to it – more completely. Indeed, the verse is very violent at first glance:
“…slay the pagans where you may come upon them, and take them captive, and besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every conceivable place” (9:5).
Yet, go back and start at the beginning – whilst knowing what we already know – and you will understand that this verse is not an open exhortation for violence against those who are not Muslim:
Verses 9:1-3 say: “Disavowal by God and His Apostle [is herewith announced] unto those who ascribe divinity (i.e., pagans) to aught beside God, [and] with whom you [O believers] have made a covenant. [Announce unto them:] ‘Go, then, [freely] about the earth for four months, but know that you can never elude God, and that, verily, God shall bring disgrace upon all who refuse to acknowledge the truth!’ And a proclamation from God and His Apostle [is herewith made] unto all mankind on this day of the Greatest Pilgrimage: ‘God disavows all who ascribe divinity to aught beside Him, and [so does] His Apostle. Hence, if you repent, it shall be for your own good; and if you turn away, then know that you can never elude God!’ And unto those who are bent on denying the truth give thou [O Prophet] the tiding of grievous chastisement.”
On the surface, these verses seem to contradict my contention that verse 9:5 is one of self-defense, don’t they? I mean, the verses state that the treaty obligations of Muslims toward non-Muslims are null and void. Not so fast. According to the classical commentators Tabari, Baghawi, Zamakhshari, and Razi, this disavowal of treaty obligations was for treaties with those hostile tribes who deliberately broke their treaty obligations first. This interpretation is clearly correct when one reads the next verse:
“But excepted shall be, from among those who ascribe divinity to aught beside God, [people] with whom you [O believers] have made a covenant and who thereafter have in no wise failed to fulfill their obligations towards you, and neither have aided anyone against you: observe, then, your covenant with them until the end of the term agreed with them. Verily, God loves those who are conscious of Him.” (9:4)
Those pagan tribes that are not subject to the disavowal are those which have “not failed in their obligations towards you and neither have aided anyone against you,” i.e., those that have not been hostile towards the Muslims. Those pagan tribes are not to be attacked because there is a treaty of peace with them. Now comes the “Verse of the Sword”:
“And so, when the sacred months are over, slay those who ascribe divinity to aught beside God wherever you may come upon them, and take them captive, and besiege them, and lie in wait of them at every conceivable place. Yet if they repent, and take to prayer, and render the purifying dues, let them go their way: for, behold, God is Much-Forgiving, a Dispenser of Grace.” (9:5)
It is clear, therefore, that this verse is one of self-defense. The Muslims here are commanded to “slay the pagans” who are hostile towards them. It is not a carte blanche to “kill all infidels.” This verse is specific to a specific time, and it is not understood by the overwhelming majority of Muslims to be a general call for murder against all those who are not Muslim.
By the way, it seems that the verse has a “convert or die” clause by saying “if they repent…”, but Muhammad Asad has a nice explanation of this:
“Now the enemy’s conversion to Islam – expressed in the words, ‘if they repent, and take to prayer (lit., “establish prayer”) and render the purifying dues (zakah)’ – is no more than one, and by no means the only, way of their “desisting from hostility”; and the reference to it in verses 5 and 11 of this surah certainly does not imply an alternative of ‘conversion or death,’ as some unfriendly critics of Islam choose to assume.”
Fighting is only in self-defense, and verse 9:5 is in keeping with this principle. This is further supported by the subsequent verses in the chapter, and that is the subject of my next post. Stay tuned.
To be continued…