In my last article, “Islam: A Religion of Hate???” I undertook to repudiate, by means of the Qur’an itself, the notion that Islam is a hateful religion. As part of my demonstration, I referred to several of the passages of the Qur’an which refer to armed fighting. One passage, though, Sura 9, I saved for later as I wished to go into a bit more detail which would overextend the length of that article.
A little bit of background on this Sura (chapter) may be helpful. Every Sura in the Qur’an – except this one – begins with what is known as the “Bismillah”. This “Bismillah” is rendered into English something like this: In the name of God [Bismillah], Most Gracious, Most Merciful. From the very earliest Islamic history following the Prophet Muhammad (on whom be peace), it has been recognized that the lack of the “Bismillah” in Sura 9 was deliberate, in order to indicate the close relationship with Sura 8. Sura 9 was revealed 7 years after Sura 8, but was nevertheless deliberately placed immediately following it. Both Suras deal largely with the subject of warfare – Sura 8 with the battle of Badr in the second year following the immigration of Muhammad and the Muslim believers to Medina; and Sura 9 mostly with the events and problems at the time of a military expedition to Tabuk, about half way between Medina and Damascus in Syria, in the ninth year after the immigration. Toward the end of Sura 8, instructions are given as to how to respond to communities who violate the peace treaties they had with the Muslims of Medina; and Sura 9 begins with the same subject.
For these reasons, it was apparently questioned initially whether the 2 were in actuality to be considered as only 1 Sura. Eventually it came to be the accepted course to number them separately, with the absence of the “Bismillah” indicating the unity between the two. Even now, though, they are lumped together as one in speaking of “the seven long Suras”: Suras 2-9.
Sura 9, then, begins this way: [9:1] DISAVOWAL by God and His Apostle [is herewith announced] unto those who ascribe divinity to aught beside God, [and] with whom you [O believers] have made a covenant. [9:2] [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!” [9:3] 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. [9:4] 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 fulfil 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. In Sura 8 verses 56-58, the believers had been instructed with regard to those who, every time they made a covenant with the Muslims, wound up breaking that covenant: the Muslim believers were to “cast” the treaty back at the violators in an equitable way. If the unbelievers were at war with the believers, the believers were to fight back without hesitation or reservation. Sura 9 begins with an example of that very thing coming to pass.
After the Muslims returned from their expedition to Tabuk, Muhammad (PBUH) was instructed to announce the abrogation of the treaties because they were always being violated by the pagans (as well as many of the Jews and Christians). The polytheists were constantly mocking the Muslims and their religion, and persecuting the believers whenever they got the chance. Even on the journey to Tabuk – which turned out to be unnecessary [* see footnote at the end of this article] and no fighting took place – some had tried to kill the Prophet (unsuccessfully, obviously). Since the non-Muslims obviously wanted war, they could have it. This announcement was a “declaration of war”.
However, the announcement was indeed made “in an equitable manner”, as the rebellious unbelievers were given 4 months to reconsider before the Muslims would take action. These 4 months probably were the “4 sacred months” in which fighting was forbidden in Arabic tradition. Or at least 3 of them were “sacred months”. 3 of the “sacred months” were consecutive, and it is generally believed that this revelation came in the month preceding those 3 months. So the rebellious polytheists were to be allowed to travel about for 4 months without fear of being attacked – so long as they did not attack the Muslims, of course.
After the end of the 4 months, though, the Muslims would attack without hesitation wherever they found their enemies. [9:5] 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 for them at every conceivable place. Yet even then, there was always the opportunity to resolve the conflict. If the unbelievers repented and turned to God, fighting would of course end: 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). [9:11] Yet if they repent, and take to prayer, and render the purifying dues, they become your brethren in faith: and clearly do We spell out these messages unto people of [innate] knowledge! But even if they didn’t embrace Islam, any who wished to cease hostilities and seek protection from the Muslims were to be granted that protection: [9:6] And if any of those who ascribe divinity to aught beside God seeks thy protection, grant him protection, so that he might [be able to] hear the word of God [from thee]; and thereupon convey him to a place where he can feel secure: this, because they [may be] people who [sin only because they] do not know [the truth]. These were referred to in 4:90 as such as come unto you because their hearts shrink from [the thought of] making war either on you or on their own folk. And of course, it is always the case, as stated in 8:61 (and the other war passages): But if they incline to peace, incline thou to it as well, and place thy trust in God: verily, He alone is all-hearing, all-knowing! The best resolution, of course (so far as the Muslims were concerned), was that the polytheists would give up their worship of false deities and embrace the monotheistic faith; but the main aim was that the unbelievers would cease their hostilities whether or not they gave up their non-Muslim religion.
Two very important things need to be kept in mind regarding this renunciation of treaty obligations, and declaration of war, by the Muslims. (1) This was not a declaration of war against all unbelievers, and especially not just because they were unbelievers. Just as Sura 8 had referred to those who violated their covenant every time one was made, so here in Sura 9 it is explicitly stated that those who remained faithful to the treaties were not included in the declaration of war. [9:4] 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 fulfil 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… [9:7] HOW COULD they who ascribe divinity to aught beside God be granted a covenant by God and His Apostle, unless it be those [of them] with whom you [O believers] have made a covenant in the vicinity of the Inviolable House of Worship? [As for the latter,] so long as they remain true to you, be true to them: for, verily, God loves those who are conscious of Him. In general terms, those who did not violate the covenant were excepted. Specifically mentioned were those in Mecca who had remained faithful although they had not converted.
(2) It is specifically against the covenant violators that the declaration of warfare was made. This is mentioned several times in these first few verses of Sura 9: [9:8] How [else could it be]? – since, if they [who are hostile to you] were to overcome you, they would not respect any tie [with you,] nor any [covenant] obligation to protect [you]… [9:9] God’s messages have they bartered away for a trifling gain, and have thus turned away from His path: evil, behold, is all that they are wont to do, [9:10] respecting no tie and no [covanant] protective obligation with regard to a believer; and it is they, they who transgress the bounds of what is right! … [9:12] But if they break their solemn pledges after having concluded a covenant, and revile your religion, then fight against these archetypes of faithlessness who, behold, have no [regard for their own] pledges, so that they might desist [from aggression]. But these covenant violations were not minor infractions. It involved intense persecution and attempts to kill Muhammad and the believers. [9:13] Would you, perchance, fail to fight against people who have broken their solemn pledges, and have done all that they could to drive the Apostle away, and have been first to attack you? Do you hold them in awe? Nay, it is God alone of whom you ought to stand in awe, if you are [truly] believers! These were those who were referred to in 8:57: if thou find them at war [with you], make of them a fearsome example for those who follow them, so that they might take it to heart.
It is clear, then, that this passage from Sura 9 says nothing different than was said in earlier “violent” passages. Although verse 5 sounds pretty bad when taken out of context – slay those who ascribe divinity to aught beside God wherever you may come upon them – it is in fact no different from Sura 2, considered in my last article: [2:190] AND FIGHT in God’s cause against those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression – for, verily, God does not love aggressors. [2:191] And slay them wherever you may come upon them, and drive them away from wherever they drove you away.
Islam makes no claim to complete pacifism; armed fighting is permitted for self defense and for protection of others against aggression and persecution. Such violent aggressors and persecutors are indeed “unbelievers” and “infidels”, but they are not to be fought merely for that reason. When unbelievers dispute with the believers, the believers should argue only in a kind way. When the “infidels” get rude and start mocking, the Muslims should simply leave them alone, and turn to God for help in overcoming “Satanic” promptings to violent reactions. Only when the argument and mocking progress to actual aggression against the believers are Muslims permitted to respond with physical fighting.
Even then, it is to be done as a community, governmentally authorized and supported, action. Prior to the Islamic covenant with the Medina community, the Muslims could only endure persecution or flee elsewhere. When Muhammad (PBUH) had been accepted as a political leader, in addition to religious leadership, then God authorized the community to fight defensive warfare. The Medina government was religiously pluralistic, each group covenanting to cooperate with the others in political matters. So long as each party to the covenant fulfilled the covenant obligations, peace prevailed among them. The Muslims did not seek to compel the Jews, Christians, or polytheists, to adopt the Islamic religion as revealed through Muhammad – because one of the primary laws of Islam is that there is to be no compulsion in religion (2:256).
In a country like the USA, Muslims can also live quite comfortably and peacefully even though the government is not specifically “Islamic” – since the same sort of pluralistic covenant relationship exists in which each religion is protected by the government. The government takes no sides in matters of religion – but it is pledged to protect the religious liberty of all citizens. Muslims find this to be a very “Islamic” principle. That is true “political Islam”. 🙂 If and when any religious group is oppressed and persecuted because of their faith, they must rely upon that government to which they are pledged in “covenant” for protection and defense. No citizen may take the law into his own hands; it is no more permissible under Islamic law than it is under US and State laws. Of course, the government itself has a “covenant obligation” to protect all of its citizens, and it is duty bound to fulfill this pledge.
* I say with a little bit of hesitancy that the Tabuk expedition was “unnecessary”. While the expected opposing forces did not materialize, the mission did provide the occasion for the hypocrisy of many of the Medinans and surrounding Bedouins to be exposed. Teaching about this hypocrisy takes up a good portion of Sura 9.
In a footnote on 9:107, Muhammad Asad explained what the Tabuk expedition was all about: …The historical occasion to which this verse refers may be thus summarized: Ever since his exodus from Mecca to Medina the Prophet was violently opposed by one Abū ‘āmir (“The Monk”), a prominent member of the Khazraj tribe, who had embraced Christianity many years earlier and enjoyed a considerable reputation among his compatriots and among the Christians of Syria. From the very outset he allied himself with the Prophet’s enemies, the Meccan Quraysh, and took part on their side in the battle of Uhud (3 H.) [3 years after the immigration to Medina]. Shortly thereafter he migrated to Syria and did all that he could to induce the Emperor of Byzantium, Heraclius, to invade Medina and crush the Muslim community once and for all. In Medina itself, Abū ‘āmir had some secret followers among the members of his tribe, with whom he remained in constant correspondence. In the year 9 H. he informed them that Heraclius had agreed to send out an army against Medina, and that large-scale preparations were being made to this effect (which was apparently the reason for the Prophet’s preventive expedition to Tabūk)… For whatever reason, the Byzantine army did not show up, and Muhammad returned to Medina with his army without having fought a battle.