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Saint Augustine
Qur'anic Concepts of the Ethics of War: Challenging the Claims of Islamic Aggressiveness - Explaining the Verse of the Sword
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Article Index
Qur'anic Concepts of the Ethics of War: Challenging the Claims of Islamic Aggressiveness
Understanding Abrogation
Explaining the Verse of the Sword
The Origins of Self-Defensive Concepts of War
Proportionate Response, Last Resort and Discrimination
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Explaining the Verse of the Sword


It is quite true that, taken in isolation, Surah 9:5 (the verse of the sword) seems an unusually violent pronouncement for a Prophet who had for twenty years preached tolerance, peace and reconciliation. Yet it is equally true that, when read in the context of the verses above and below Surah 9:5, and when the circumstances of its pronouncement by Muhammad are considered, it is not difficult for readers without preconceptions and bias to understand it more fully. Here is the verse again:

But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war).

The fact that the verse actually starts with the Arabic conjunction “fa,” translated above as “but,” indicates that its line of logic flows from the verse or verses above it. Indeed, the preceding four verses explain the context.

Ayah 1 gives the historical context as a violation of the Treaty of Hudaybayah, signed in 628 by the State of Medina and the Quraysh tribe of Mecca. In short, this was a peace treaty between Muhammad and his followers and those Meccans who had spent a decade trying to destroy them. Two years after the treaty was signed the Banu Bakr tribe, which had allied with the Quraysh, attacked the Banu Khuza'a tribe, which had joined the side of the Muslims. Muhammad considered the Bana Bakr attack a treaty violation, arguing that an attack on an ally constituted an attack on his own community.28 Then, following his extremely peaceful seizure of Mecca and his purification of its holy site (he destroyed no fewer than 360 idols in the Ka’aba), the Qur’anic revelation contained a very stern warning. (Other sources reveal that Muhammad then explained it publicly from the steps of the Ka’aba and sent out deputies to the regions around Mecca to destroy pagan shrines and idols and utter the warnings to local communities.29) The scriptural warning was clear: anyone wanting to undertake polytheistic pilgrimages to Mecca (or immoral rituals within it, such as walking naked around the Ka’aba30) in accordance with existing agreements with the Quraysh tribe or with Muhammad’s own community should understand that henceforth they would not be permitted to do so. No polytheism (worship of more than one god) and idolatry (worship of any man or object instead of the one god) would ever again be tolerated within Islam’s holy city. From that time on it would be a city devoted to Allah alone.31 As Surahs 9:17 and 18 say:

It is no longer proper for idolaters to attend Allah’s mosques, since they have admitted to their unbelief. … Allah’s mosques should be attended only by those who believe in Allah and the Last Day, who observe prayer and give alms and fear none but God.

Ayat 2 and 3 were revealed through Muhammad to give polytheists or idolaters living in Mecca and its environs as well as any polytheistic or idolatrous pilgrims in transit along Muslim-controlled trade and pilgrimage routes a clear warning that they should desist or leave. The scriptures generously included a period of amnesty that would last until the end of the current pilgrimage season. Thus, Arab polytheists and idolaters would gain a four-month period of grace. Ayah 4 makes clear that during that period of amnesty, polytheists or idolaters were to be left untouched so that Muslims would not themselves become promise-breakers. (“So fulfil your engagements with them to the end of the term; for Allah loves the righteous.”) After clarifying that the threatened violence would apply only to those who had ignored the warnings and continued to practice polytheism or idolatry in and around the holy city and its sanctuary, and were still foolish enough not to have left after four months, Ayah 5 — the sword verse — clearly warned them that there would be a violent military purging or purification in which they seriously risked being killed.

Although this is sometimes omitted by critics of the Verse of the Sword, the verse actually has a secondary clause which, after the direction to root out and kill anyone who had ignored the clear and solemn warnings and continued their polytheism or idolatry, enjoined Muslims to remember that they must be merciful (“to open the way”) to those who repented and accepted their penitent obligations in terms of Islam. Moreover, the Verse of the Sword is immediately followed by an unusually charitable one — again ordinarily left out of Islam-critical treatments — in which any of the enemy who asked for asylum during any coming violence were not only to be excluded from that violence, but were to be escorted to a place of safety.32

The rest of Surah 9 contains more explanation for the Muslims as to why they would now need to fight, and fiercely, anyone who broke their oaths or violated the sanctity of holy places, despite earlier hopes for peace according to the terms of the Treaty of Hudaybiyah. The “controversial” Ayah 29, which talks of killing polytheists and idolaters, actually comes right after Ayah 28, which speaks specifically about preventing them from performing religious rituals or pilgrimages in or around the newly purified sanctuary in Mecca. Ayah 29 thus also refers to the purification of Mecca and its environs as well as to the need to secure the borders of the Arabian Peninsula from greater external powers which might smother the Islamic ummah (community) in its infancy. The rest of Surah 9 also apparently contains scriptures relating to the later campaign against Tabak, when some groups which had treaty obligations with Muhammad broke their promises and refused to join or sponsor the campaign. It is worth noting that, in this context also, Muhammad chose to forgive and impose a financial, rather than physical, penalty upon those who genuinely apologised.33

It is clear, therefore, that the Verse of the Sword was a context-specific verse relating to the purification of Mecca and its environs of all Arab polytheism and idolatry so that the sanctuary in particular, with the Ka’aba at its centre, would never again be rendered unclean by the paganism of those locals and pilgrims who had long been worshipping idols (reportedly hundreds of them) there.34 It was proclaimed publicly as a warning, followed by a period of grace which allowed the wrong-doers to desist or leave the region, and qualified by humane caveats that allowed for forgiveness, mercy and protection. It is thus not bloodthirsty or unjust, as Robert Spencer and his colleagues portray it. Indeed, it is so context-specific that, even if it were still in force — and I share the assessment that it has not abrogated the scriptures encouraging peace, tolerance and reconciliation — it would only nowadays have any relevance and applicability if polytheists and idolaters ever tried to undertake and re-establish pagan practices in the Saudi Arabian cities devoted only to Allah: Mecca and Medina. In other words, in today’s world it is not relevant or applicable.

Critics apparently fail to grasp the specific nature of the context — the purification of Mecca from polytheistic and idolatrous pilgrimages and rituals — and even misquote the famous medieval Islamic scholar Isma’il bin ‘Amr bin Kathir al Dimashqi, known popularly as Ibn Kathir. Spencer claims that Ibn Kathir understood the Verse of the Sword to abrogate all peaceful verses ever previously uttered by the prophet.35 Ibn Kathir said no such thing. He quoted an earlier authority, Ad-Dahhak bin Muzihim, who only stated that the Verse of the Sword cancelled out every treaty which had granted pilgrimage rights to Arab pagans to travel along Islamic routes, enter Mecca and perform unpalatable rituals there.36 Because this earlier source referred to the Verse of the Sword “abrogating” something, Spencer mistakenly extrapolates this to claim that this one single verse cancelled out all existing inter-faith practices and arrangements and that it forever negatively changed attitudes to non-Muslims in general.

In case any readers are not convinced, there is another verse in the Qur’an — also from the later period of Muhammad’s life — which (using words virtually identical to the Verse of the Sword) also exhorted Muslims to “seize and slay” wrongdoers “wherever ye find them”. Yet this verse, Surah 4:89, is surrounded by so many other explanatory and qualifying verses that its superficially violent meaning is immediately moderated by its context of tolerance and understanding. First, it threatened violence in self-defence only against those people or groups who violated pacts of peace with the Muslims and attacked them, or those former Muslims (“renegades”) who had rejoined the forces of oppression and now fought aggressively against the Muslims. Second, it stated that, if those aggressors left the Muslims alone and free to practice their faith, and if they did not attack them, but offered them peaceful co-existence, then Allah would not allow Muslims to harm them in any way (“Allah hath opened no way for you to war against them”).37 The verse went even further. It not only offered peaceful co-existence to those who formally made peace with the Muslims, but also to anyone, even backslidden Muslims, who merely chose to stay neutral; that is, who did not take either side in the tense relations between the Muslims on the one hand and the Quraysh and their allies on the other.38

Last Updated on Thursday, 14 July 2011 10:33