Last time, we discussed how the principle of fighting in Islam is in self-defense, and we outlined the violent opposition on the part of the Meccan oligarchy to the message of the Prophet Muhammad (pubh). Now, let us discuss verse 9:5, the infamous “Verse of the Sword,” directly. Given the discussion in the previous article, 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 says:
“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 if any of those who ascribe divinity to aught beside God (i.e., the pagans) 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]. ” (9:6)
The commentator Razi believes the phrase “place where he can feel secure” denotes his homeland. As Muhammad Asad explains, this implies that he is free to accept or not accept the message of the Qur’an. If verse 9:5 is a open exhortation for the murder of all non-Muslims, then why would the Qur’an immediately tell the Muslims to grant a pagan protection to hear the word of God and then let him go to a place of safety?
“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 obligation to protect (you). They seek to please you with their mouths, the while their hearts remain averse [to you]; and most of them are iniquitous…But if they break their solemn pledges after having concluded a covenant and revile your religion, then fight against these achetypes of faithlessness who, behold, have no (regard for their own) pledges, so that they might desist [from aggression]. 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 the 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 !” (9:8-13).
This is why verse 9:5 tells the Muslims to “slay the pagans!” These pagans attacked the Muslims first, and they showed relentless hostility towards the Muslims, as verses 9:8-13 further explain. Again, this is in keeping with the principle that fighting in Islam is for self-defense only. The same goes true for all the other verses in the Qur’an that tell the believers to “fight the unbelievers.” Those unbelievers against whom the Qur’an commands to fight are those who are attacking the Muslims first. The Qur’an is quite clear: if non-Muslims do not show hostility towards the Muslims, then they are not to be harmed. Nay, they are to be treated with kindness and respect:
“As for such [of the unbelievers] as do not fight against you on account of [your] faith, and neither drive you from your homelands, God does not forbid you to show them kindness and to behave towards them full equity, for verily, God loves those who act equitably .” (60:8)
According to Zamakhshari, the expression “God does not forbid you” implies a positive exhortation. Moreover, remember the first verse revealed about fighting? I did not tell you why God has ordained armed conflict as a last resort in Islam…until now:
“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!’ For, if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, [all] monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques – in [all of] which God’s name is abundantly extolled – would surely have been destroyed [before now] .” (22:39-40, emphasis added).
If non-Muslims are “worse than trash” in Islam, if Muslims are supposed to “kill all the infidels,” then how could it be that the protection of churches and synagogues (along with mosques) are cited as the reason to fight? This can be when one realizes that the contention that Muslims are supposed to “kill all the infidels” is a farcical falsehood, which it is. Non-Muslims are not “worse than trash” in Islam, the Qur’an itself says so:
“Verily, those who have attained to faith [in this divine writ], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians (author note: possibly the Mandaeans, the followers of John the Baptist) – All who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds – shall have their reward with their Sustainer, and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve.” (2:62)
Are there Muslims, however, who believe that non-Muslims are “worse than trash”? Are there Muslims who cite verse 9:5 and others similar to it as justification of their acts of murder and terror? Are there Muslims who think killing innocent Westerners is “self-defense” and therefore sanctioned by Islam? Yes, yes, and yes. Does that mean that what they do is Islamic? NO! NO! NO! NO!
These Muslims defame Islam, defy both the letter and spirit of its law, and are an ugly aberration of the true way of the faith. Their sins – and horrific sins they are – can never be confused for the doctrines of Islam. Islam does not call for the murder of “infidels.” Now, I am frequently confronted by people who tell me, “But, Imam so-and-so says all non-Muslims are to be killed…” or “Shaykh such-and-such says that you must hate all non-Muslims…” or “Maulana whatchamacallhim said that jihad is ‘holy war’ against the infidel…” Frankly, I could care less about what Imam so-and-so, or Shaykh such-and-such, or Maulana whatchamacallhim says. Their words are meaningless to me. I know what God says: I am not supposed to “kill all the infidels.” It just can not be any clearer than that.
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.