Time and again, over and over and over again, I either read or hear from people that Islam calls for the murder of “infidels,” or all those who are not Muslim. This perception is so pervasive, so entrenched, and I really do not know from where it comes. Yes, there are Muslims who do believe this: 19 of them crashed three planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, killing nearly 3,000 of my innocent American brothers and sisters. But, I don’t know from where they got this idea.
“It is the Qur’an, you idiot!!!” I am quite sure some of you just screamed that to your computer screen. Really? Where? I do not know of one verse which directs the believers to kill all “infidels.” Yet, I am constantly reminded of the contrary, such as this verse:
“Now when you meet the unbelievers, smite their necks until you overcome them fully…” (47:4).
Or this one:
“O you who have attained to faith! Fight against those unbelievers who are near you and let them find you adamant, and know that God is with those who are conscious of Him” (9:123).
Or this one:
“O Prophet! Strive hard (lit., make “jihad”) against the unbelievers and the hypocrites and be adamant with them… ” (66:73).
Yet, perhaps the “poster child” of all the verses in the Qur’an which are cited as evidence that Islam calls for the murder of infidels is this one, the so-called “Verse of the Sword”:
“Slay the pagans wherever you may come upon them, and take them captive, and besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every conceivable place…” (9:5).
Case closed? Wrong. These verses have a context, and when understood in their proper context, it will become quite clear that the verses cited above are not a carte blanche for Muslims to kill all non-Muslims.
Before I address specific verses, however, a few general principles of the Qur’an when it comes to fighting must be explained. Also, I rely almost exclusively upon Muhammad Asad’s explanation of the Qur’an as my source material. Let us begin, then.
In the Qur’an, the principle of fighting is purely self-defensive. According to all available Traditions, the earliest verses revealed with regards to fighting are these:
“Permission [to fight] is given to those against whom war is being wrongfully waged and, verily, God has indeed the power to succour them; those who have been driven from their homelands against all right for no other reason than their saying, ‘Our sustainer is God!’” (22:39-40).
Along with this verse is 2:190, which says:
“And fight in God’s cause against those who wage war against you…”
Thus, it is quite clear that fighting is to be done in self-defense. Now, anyone can commit acts of terror and aggression and say, “it’s in self-defense.” In fact, that is precisely what Al Qaeda is doing: they claim by killing 3,000 people in New York City and Washington, D.C., they are “defending” the Muslim nation against “Zionist and Crusader” aggression against the Muslims. What sheer rubbish.
The Qur’an clearly states, in the remainder of 2:190 it says:
“…but do not commit aggression, for verily, God does not love aggressors.”
“Committing aggression” includes killing innocent civilians in Tel Aviv, Beslan, New York, Baghdad, or wherever. Furthermore, when the enemy ceases its hostility, fighting must cease:
“…but if they desist, then all hostility shall cease, save against those who [willfully] do wrong” (2:193).
Another verse repeats this insistence that hostility must cease when the enemy stops its aggression against you:
“But if they [the enemy] incline to peace, incline thou to it as well, and place thy trust in God: verily, He alone is all-hearing, all-knowing! And should they seek but to deceive thee [by their show of peace] – behold, God is enough for thee! He it is who has strengthened thee with His succour, and by giving thee believing followers” (8:61-62).
Thus, even if the enemy is feigning a peaceful posture, the Muslims are still commanded to cease hostility and “place their trust in God.” Thus, it is quite clear that fighting is in self-defense, and aggression is not allowed. Now, Muslims have waged wars of aggression in the past, for sure, and they even called them “jihad against the infidels” in order to justify their desire for territorial expansion. In fact, one of the most pertinent examples of this was the Ummayad Dynasty, which enacted a policy of “jihad” as perpetual warfare. But, such a policy is not Islamically correct, and as the collapse of the Ummayad Dynasty showed, not sustainable.
Still, the point of the matter is, the framework underlying fighting in Islam is self-defense, and all other verses which deal with fighting or call on the believers to “fight the unbelievers” must be understood in this framework. Yet, this begs the question: why are these verses even in the Qur’an at all? Why fight at all? What was the historical context of these verses of the Qur’an which tell the believers to “fight the unbelievers”? It was a very violent one.
From the very beginnings of his ministry, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was opposed by his people. In fact, on the first day he openly called his people to Islam, his own uncle cursed him by saying, “May you perish!” And why? Because he called his people to abandon their worship of idols and worship instead the One God of Abraham. This was unacceptable, however, to the Meccan oligarchy.
At first, the Meccans simply ignored the Prophet’s call. Yet, he would not relent, and Islam began to gain a growing, yet still small, number of followers. This began to alarm the Meccan oligarchy, because fundamentally, the message of Islam was a direct challenge to the status quo, one which greatly benefited those in power in Mecca. The Quraysh, the Prophet’s main tribe, were the guardians of the Ka’ba, or the main shrine in Mecca. This shrine was originally built by Abraham and his son Ishmael for the worship of the One God. Over time, it was defiled by 360 pagan idols, gods worshiped as intermediaries between man and the Creator.
Prophet Abraham (pbuh) began the practice of an annual pilgrimage to this shrine, and the Arabs followed in this tradition. Quraysh, being guardians of the Ka’ba, would host the pilgrims, but also sell their goods to the pilgrims. In fact, they made rules that entrenched this economic monopoly. One of the prime examples of this is that pilgrims can only circumambulate the Ka’ba with clothes made by Quraysh. If they could not afford such clothes, they must circumambulate naked. Thus, the idolatrous system in Mecca had a direct economic benefit for the Meccan oligarchy. Moreover, their occupation as guardians of the Holy Shrine made their stature among the Arabs even more elevated.
The Prophet’s message of “there is none worthy of worship except God” was a direct challenge to this power structure. If the Arabs abandon their worship of the pagan gods, the Quraysh’s logic went, Quraysh’s economic monopoly vanishes. Moreover, “there is none worthy of worship besides God” also challenged their non-chalant attitude toward the enormous injustice of Arab society in the Seventh Century. When someone pledges that there is none worthy of worship except God, they necessarily accept God’s way of doing things and running their lives. Preventing injustice and having concern for the poor and less fortunate is an essential aspect of Islamic ethics, and this was a challenge the Meccan oligarchs were not willing to take up. Thus, they opposed the Prophet’s message.
When ignoring the Prophet did not work, they began to actively oppose it. The Prophet, however, enjoyed the protection of his uncle Abu Talib and the clan of Bani Hashim, thus they could not harm him physically. There are some who claim that the only reason the Meccans opposed the Prophet was because he reviled their gods. This is not exactly true. Indeed, the Prophet did revile their gods. Yet, the Qur’an directed him to stop, when the pagans threatened to revile God in revenge:
“But do not revile those [beings] whom they invoke instead of God, lest they revile God out of spite and in ignorance: for goodly indeed have We made their own doings appear unto every community. In time, [however], unto their Sustainer they must return: and then He will make them [truly] understand all that they were doing” (6:108).
Thus, the Prophet stopped, but the Meccans did not stop their opposition. In fact, it only increased. Seeing that they could not harm the Prophet physically, they resorted to physical torture of anyone who converted to Islam. In fact, they killed two people, Sumaya and Yasser, when they refused to give up Islam. The situation became so bad that the Prophet sent away around 70 of his companions, including his own cousin Ja’afar ibn Abi Talib, to Abyssinia for asylum.
Even physical torture did not stop the flow of converts to Islam. Thus, the Meccans boycotted the Prophet, his clan Bani Hashim, and all those who followed Islam. The Meccan oligarchy prevented anyone from buying from or selling to anyone associated with the Prophet. They could not marry to or from Bani Hashim. They were banished to some mountain tracts just outside of Mecca, and there they stayed for three years. When the Sacred Months would come, during which all hostilities must cease, the Meccans would raise the prices of their goods to such an extent that the Muslims could not buy anything. Many Muslims, including the Prophet, went hungry, and his uncle Abu Talib and wife Khadija died as a result of this boycott.
After the boycott ended – and with his main source of support, Abu Talib, now dead – the persecution of the Prophet increased exponentially. Now, not just the elite of Mecca attacked the Prophet, but even young children hurled dust and insults at the Prophet. The Prophet soon realized that there was no hope left for the Meccans to accept his message, and he thus looked to the South, to the sister city of Ta’if, for aid and support. He was immediately rejected, and the leaders of Ta’if sent the street children after him to pelt his legs with stones, bloodying them severely. The situation was so dangerous for the Prophet that he could not return to Mecca except under the protection of Mut’im ibn ‘Adi, one of Mecca’s most powerful leaders, who pitied the Prophet.
When the Meccans learned of Mut’im’s pact of protection, they came to him and asked, “Protector or follower?” He replied, “Only a protector.” They said to him, “If you would have said ‘follower,’ we would have fought you.” This to one of the most powerful men of Mecca, showing the deep enmity the Meccans had for the Prophet. When all hope was lost, an unexpected boost came from the North. The people of Yathrib, a city more than 250 miles away, had accepted Islam and now asked for the Prophet to come to them. He took an oath of allegiance from them, and he ordered his followers to emigrate to Yathrib, soon to be called Madinat-un-Nabi, or City of the Prophet. After the Prophet made sure all of his followers left Mecca safely, along with returning the property his enemies had entrusted to him (because of his impeccable honesty), the Prophet himself emigrated to Medina along with his trusted friend Abu Bakr.
Yet, the hostilities did not cease with the Prophet now expelled from Mecca. After he left, the Meccans seized all the property of the Muslims which was left behind in Mecca, including that of the Prophet, and enriched their caravans with it. This was a blatant act of war, and thus the Prophet raided the caravans of Quraysh to get their property back. This led to the first major battle between the Muslims and the Meccans, the Battle of Badr. The Meccans were handle defeated by the Muslims. This enraged the Meccans, and they returned less than two years later with a larger, more powerful army to crush the Muslims at foot of Mount Uhud.
At first, the Muslims easily defeated the Meccans, but when 50 archers disobeyed the direct order of the Prophet, the Meccans regrouped, and the Muslims were defeated. The Prophet himself was severely wounded in the ensuing chaos, and he was nearly killed. Yet, this small victory did not satisfy the Meccans. They returned once more with the largest army ever assembled in the history of the Arabs – 10,000 strong – composed of all the hostile tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. The pagans marched directly for Medina, seeking to wipe out Islam once and for all. This effort also did not succeed, and the pagan Arab army was sent back in defeat.
On top of the relentless attacks and hostility toward the Muslims from the direction of Mecca, many surrounding Arab and Bedouin tribes were also hostile to the Muslims, and they joined in the fight against the Prophet. In fact, these Arab tribes sought to assassinate the Prophet on many occasions. The hostility did not cease until the signing of the Treaty of Hudaybiyah in 628 C.E., and it was only after the Meccans broke the treaty (contrary to some modern accusations) that the Prophet finally marched on Mecca and conquered it in 630.
It was in this terribly hostile environment that the verses commanding the Muslims to “fight the unbelievers” were revealed. This was the historical context of verse 9:5 and others like it. Quite clearly, the verses are commanding the Muslims to defend themselves against the aggression of their enemies, and they are not commands for the Muslims to “kill all infidels.” In the next article, we will discuss more fully the infamous “Verse of the Sword” and show that this verse is not a carte blanche for violence against all those who are not Muslim.
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at godfaithpen.com.