IS ISLAM A “RELIGION OF THE SWORD”?

Kabir Helminski and Hesham Hessaboula

There are a number of verses in the Qur’an that appear to call for Muslims to kill non-Muslims, and these verses have been too often quoted out of context with what appears to be a willful disregard of the context in which they occur. Among these—and perhaps the most often cited—is the infamous “Verse of the Sword”: “Kill the mushrikeen[1] (those Meccans who had declared war against Muhammad and his community) wherever you find them, and capture them, and blockade them, and watch for them at every lookout…”(9:5). On the surface, this verse would seem to bolster the claim that Islam advocates violence against non-Muslims. There is much more to this story, however. This verse, and the others like it in the Qur’an, have a linguistic, historical, and textual context. Understanding that context is essential in understanding the message of the verse. Careful and unbiased study of these verses, in their proper context, will reveal that the exhortations to fight “idolators” and “unbelievers” are specific in nature and are not general injunctions for the murder of all those who refuse to accept Islam as their way of life. We must remember the challenging historical circumstances of these Qur’anic verses. As is known from the Prophet’s biography, the Meccan oligarchy fought against the Prophet’s message from the very beginning. It resorted to violent repression and torture of the Prophet and his followers when they realized that the flow of converts to Islam was increasing. The Prophet himself survived several assassination attempts, and it became so dangerous for the Muslims in Mecca that the Prophet sent some of his companions to take asylum in the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia. After thirteen years of violence, Muhammad was compelled to take refuge in the city of Medina, and even then the Meccans did not relent in their hostilities. Later, furthermore, various hostile Arab tribes joined in the fight against the Muslims, culminating in the Battle of the Trench, when 10,000 soldiers from many Arab tribes gathered to wipe out the Muslim community once and for all. As we know, the Muslims survived these challenges and eventually went on to establish a vast civilization.

At the time Verse 9:5 was revealed, Mecca had been conquered, the Meccans themselves had become Muslims, and many of the surrounding pagan Arab tribes had also accepted Islam and sent delegations to the Prophet pledging their allegiance to him. Those that did not become Muslim were the bitterest of enemies, and it was against these remaining hostile forces that the verse commands the Prophet to fight. It was in this violent context that the “Verse of the Sword” was revealed. This verse is part of a long chapter entitled “Repentance,” and it was revealed nine years after the Prophet immigrated to Medina.

Yet, verse 9:5 must never be quoted out of context. The verses immediately before and after it explain why verse 9:5 exhorts the believers to “kill idolaters wherever you find them.” The first verses state: “There is immunity from God and the messenger of God for those polytheists (mushrikeen) with whom you have made treaties; So travel the earth for four months, and know that you cannot elude God, and that it is God who brings disgrace upon all who refuse to acknowledge the truth” (9:1-2). The polytheists in these verses are those pagan Arabs who have deliberately broken the treaties they forged with the Prophet. How do we know this? Verse 4 continues: “Except those polytheists with whom you have made a treaty and who have not failed you in anything and have not helped anyone against you; fulfill your treaties with them to the end of their term, for God loves the conscientious.” Had we only quoted only 9:1-2, without the qualifying verse 9:4, it would seem that the Qur’an invalidates all non-aggression treaties made with the non-Muslims so that they can be “slaughtered” according to 9:5. That is clearly not the case. Those who want to malign Islam quote only 9:1-2 and neglect to mention 9:4.

Now, in its proper context, verse 9:5 can be properly understood. Most who quote 9:5 do so incompletely. The full verse reads: “But when the sacred months are past, then kill idolaters wherever you find them, and capture them, and blockade them, and watch for them at every lookout. But if they repent and practice prayer and give alms, then let them go their way; for God is most forgiving, most merciful.” This was a specific command to the Prophet at that specific time to fight those idolaters who were fighting the Muslims; those idolaters who, as 9:4 mentioned, failed in their treaty obligations and helped others fight against the Muslims. It is not a general command to attack all non-Muslims, and it has never signified this to the overwhelming majority of Muslims throughout history. Had it been so, then every year, after the “forbidden months are past,” history would have witnessed Muslims attacking every non-Muslim in sight. The “forbidden months” are four months out of the year during which fighting is not allowed. Three of them occur in a row: the eleventh, twelfth, and first month of the Islamic calendar. This yearly slaughter never occurred. In addition, if one reads on in the ninth chapter, the Qur’an further explains why 9:5 commands the Prophet to “kill idolaters wherever you find them”: “How, when if they get the better of you they do not respect either blood relations or treaty with you? They satisfy you with their words, but their hearts are averse, and most of them are dissolute” (9:8). Further along the Qur’an declares: “Will you not fight people who broke their oaths and planned to exile the messenger, and they took the initiative the first time? Do you fear them? God is more worthy of your fear, if you are believers” (9:13). These pagan tribes, as the Qur’an clearly states, would not hesitate in the least to attack and kill the Muslims at their first chance, and thus they must be fought against. Furthermore, if 9:5 was a general exhortation to kill all non-Muslims, then verse 9:6 would make no sense: “And if one of the polytheists asks you for protection, then protect him, until he hears the word of God: then deliver him to a place safe for him. That is because they are people who do not know.” Yet, verse 9:6 does make sense because the command to “kill idolaters wherever you find them” refers solely to those who are in active hostility to the Muslims. Had verse 9:5 been an open invitation to kill all non-Muslims, it would have been more convenient for the verse to be revealed as soon as the Prophet arrived as leader in Medina, with an army of believers ready to fight to the death for him. Yet, as I previously mentioned, the verse was revealed nine years after the Prophet came to Medina.

Another set of verses seemingly declares that all non-believers are to be attacked and killed: “And let them not think—those who are bent on denying the truth [i.e., unbelievers]—that they shall escape [God]: behold, they can never frustrate [His purpose]. Hence, make ready against them whatever force and war mounts you are able to muster, so that you might deter thereby the enemies of God, who are your enemies as well, and others besides them of whom you may be unaware, but of whom God is aware; and whatever you may expend in God’s cause shall be repaid to you in full, and you shall not be wronged” (8:59-60). Once again, the textual context must be examined. These two verses refer to those who are in active hostility against the Muslim community. An examination of the verses that come before these elucidates this point: “As for those with whom you have made a covenant, and who thereupon break their covenant on every occasion, not being conscious of God—if you 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; or, if you have reason to fear treachery from people [with whom you hast made a covenant], cast it back at them in an equitable manner: for, verily, God does not love the treacherous!” (8:56-59). When read together, it is clear that 8:59-60 speak of those unbelievers who actively fight against the Muslims and break their covenants “every time.” Again, there is no general exhortation to fight and kill all non-Muslims.

In yet another set of verses, the Qur’an tells the believers to kill non-believers not once, but twice: “…seize them and slay them wherever you may find them” (4:89) and “…seize them and slay them whenever you come upon them: for it is against these that We have clearly empowered you [to make war]” (4:91). We deliberately quoted these two verses out of context to illustrate how deceitful and misleading such a practice is. Again, once the verses are understood in context, it is quite clear that theses verses tell the Muslims to fight only those who fight them. First of all, theses verses are part of a slightly longer passage that begins thusly: “How, then, could you be of two minds about the hypocrites, seeing that God has disowned them because of their guilt? Do you, perchance, seek to guide those whom God has let go astray—when for him whom God lets go astray you can never find any way?” (4:88)  The verse speaks of the “hypocrites,” which begs the question of who these “hypocrites” are. They are those Muslims who feigned outward acceptance of Islam, but secretly worked for the destruction of the Muslims. They constantly acted as a fifth column within the Muslim community in Medina. Chief among them, as we discussed earlier, was Abdullah ibn Ubay. This man worked continually to harm the Muslims. For example, on the way to the mountain of Uhud, where the second battle against the pagans in Mecca took place, Abdullah ibn Ubay told his followers to go back home because he did not think a battle was going to be waged. His followers, and some true believing Muslims, obeyed him, and the Muslim army was cut by two-thirds, from 1000 men to approximately 300. During this battle, the Prophet was severely wounded and was nearly killed by the Meccans.

Yet, despite their treachery, verses 4:89 and 4:91 do not call on the Prophet to “kill them all,” but only those who are in open hostility to him: “They [the hypocrites] would love to see you deny the truth even as they have denied it, so that you should be like them. Do not, therefore, take them for your allies until they forsake the domain of evil for the sake of God; and if they revert to open enmity, seize them and slay them wherever you may find them. And do not take any of them for your ally or giver of succor” (4:89) [emphasis added]. Furthermore, 4:90 explains that if these hypocrites do not fight the Muslims, they are not to be harmed: “Unless it be those that have ties with people to whom you yourselves are bound by a covenant, or such as come to you because their hearts shrink from [the thought of] making war either on you or on their own folk… Thus, if they let you be, and do not make war on you, and offer you peace, God does not allow you to harm them.”

The same is true for the following verse 4:91: “You will find others who would like to be safe from you as well as from their own folk, but who, whenever they are faced anew with temptation to evil, plunge into it headlong. Hence, if they do not let you be, and do not offer you peace, and do not stay their hands, seize them and slay them whenever you come upon them: for it is against these that We have clearly empowered you.” [emphasis added] Yet again, the Qur’an says to fight only those who fight against the Muslims.

It should be quite obvious by now that there is a recurring theme in the above verses: fighting is only in self defense, and it is only against those who fight against the Muslims. Indeed, Islam is a religion that seeks to maximize peace and reconciliation. Yet, Islam is not a pacifist religion; it does accept the premise that, from time to time and as a last resort, arms must be taken up in a just war. If Muslims are fought against, Islam demands that they fight back. Hence, one will find very belligerent verses in the Qur’an, such as the ones I quoted above. But, as we mentioned, these verses exist in a context and are specific in their scope. They are not general exhortations to violence. The Qur’an is quite clear about this. The verses concerning fighting that were revealed soon after the Prophet arrived in Medina are self-defensive in nature: “Victims of aggression are given license [to fight] because they have been done injustice; and God is well able to help them” (22:39). Why was this permission granted? The Qur’an continues: “[They are] those evicted from their homes without reason except that they say, ‘Our Sustainer is God’…” (22:40).

Furthermore, when Muslims do fight in war, all is not “fair,” as it has been said. Islamic Law has always recognized principles of just war. Muslims are strictly forbidden to commit aggression: “And fight for the sake of God those who fight you; but do not be brutal or commit aggression, for God does not love brutal aggression” (2:190). The next verse also says, “slay them wherever you may come upon them,” but if the entire verse is read, it is clear that the “slaying” is in also self-defense: “And slay them wherever you may come upon them, and drive them away from wherever they drove you away—for oppression is even worse than killing. And fight not against them near the Inviolable House of Worship [Ka’abah] unless they fight against you there first; but if they fight against you, slay them: such shall be the recompense of those who deny the truth” (2:191). If the enemy inclines toward peace, however, Muslims must follow suit: “But if they stop, God is most forgiving, most merciful” (2:192). Also read: “Now if they incline toward peace, then incline to it, and place your trust in God, for God is the all-hearing, the all-knowing” (8:61). Moreover, God insists that the Muslims should incline towards peace if their enemies do the same, even though the possibility might exist that the enemy is deceiving them: “And if they mean to deceive you, surely you can count on God, the one who strengthened you with Divine aid and with the believers” (8:62).

Even if those who fight against the believers are other believers, the Qur’an says that they should be fought against: “If two parties of believers contend with each other, make peace between them. Then if one of the two acts unjustly to the other, fight the side that transgresses until it goes back to the order of God…” (49:9) [emphasis added]. Again, fighting is only allowed against those who transgress, those who fight against the believers. Indeed, the Qur’an explains why fighting and warfare is even allowed in God’s Plan. An important reason is to prevent oppression on the earth, in keeping with the Qur’an’s strong insistence that justice be upheld: “Why would you not fight in the cause of God, and oppressed men, women, and children, who say, ‘Our Lord, get us out of this town, whose people are oppressors. And provide us a protector from You, and provide us a helper from You’” (4:75). Yet, an equally important reason—and one that may come as a surprise to the reader—is to protect the free and unfettered worship of God:

“For if God did not parry people by means of one another, then monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques—wherein the name of God is much recited—would surely be demolished. And God will surely defend those who defend God—for God is powerful, almighty” (22:40).

This is truly remarkable. The Qur’an endorses armed conflict, as a last resort, in order to protect Christian, Jewish, and Muslim houses of worship. So much for Islam’s intolerance. This principle is further outlined in this verse: “Hence, fight against them until there is no more oppression (lit., fitnah), and all worship is devoted to God alone; but if they desist, then all hostility shall cease, save against those who [willfully] do wrong” (2:193). The verse states that Muslims should fight them on until there is no more fitnah. In verse 2:191 above, again it says that “oppression (lit., fitnah) is even worse than killing.” What is this fitnah?

The word fitnah appears at least 28 times in the Qur’an, and its use and meaning varies depending on the verse in question. Some classical commentators, particularly Ibn Kathir, have written that fitnah, especially in verse 2:193, denotes idolatry. As a result, those who wish to smear Islam use the opinion of Ibn Kathir to speak for the text and claim that the Qur’an says: “Become Muslim or die.” Yet, despite the scholar’s opinion, the text of the Qur’an itself, and how it uses the word fitnah, does not agree with this scholar’s interpretation. For example, in quite a few verses, fitnah means “trial or tribulation”: “And know that your possessions and your children are but a trial (lit., fitnah), and that there is a higher reward in the presence of God” (8:28). Also read: “Every living being tastes death: and We try you with ill and good as a test (lit., fitnah); and you will be returned to Us” (21:35). Yet another verse says: “All the emissaries We sent before you did eat food and walked along the streets. And We made some of you a trial (lit., fitnah) for others; will you be forbearing? For your Lord is all-seeing” (25:20). In other verses, fitnah means corruption and discord (9:47-48) Now, in verse 33:14, fitnah does indeed mean apostasy: “But if they were invaded from the sides, then asked to dissent and join in civil war, they would do so with but little delay” (33:14). The verse literally says “…and they were asked for fitnah, they would do so with but little delay.” The “they” in this verse refers to the Hypocrites, about whom we discussed earlier. The use of the word fitnah here, however, can not be generalized to every other verse in the Qur’an.

Verse 2:193, which exhorts the believers to “fight against them until there is no more fitnah, and all worship is devoted to God alone” must be understood in context. This verse comes after verse 2:190, which commands the believers to fight those who fight them, i.e., the hostile Arabs who stopped at nothing to be the first to draw Muslim blood. In addition, these people, especially the Meccan oligarchy, violently persecuted any new converts to Islam and prevented the free worship of God by these Muslims. It is to this religious persecution, I believe, that the word fitnah in 2:193 refers. This definition of fitnah is supported by another verse, which responded to the Meccans’ claim that the Prophet does not honor the sanctity of the Sacred Months. Recall that the Muslims mistakenly killed a Meccan during one of the Sacred Months, when fighting between enemies is strictly forbidden. The verse reads: “They ask you [O Muhammad] about fighting in the sacred month. Say, ‘Fighting then is an offense; but more offensive to God is blocking the way to the path of God, denying God, preventing access to the sacred mosque, and driving out its people. And persecution (lit., fitnah) is worse than killing…” (2:217). Again, here the fitnah about which the verse is speaking is the prevention of access to the path of God and His Sacred Mosque, driving out the believers from Mecca, and even denying God Himself. All this is the violent repression of religious freedom, and this must be prevented, even if it means armed conflict. Again, this whole discussion about fighting until there is no more fitnah follows the same theme of fighting only in self-defense. A more careful analysis of the Qur’an—in its proper historical, linguistic, and textual context—clearly shows that it does not give a general, time-honored exhortation to kill all non-Muslims. That Islam calls for a “war on unbelievers” is sheer fallacy and utter fantasy.


[1] Literally, “those who “partnerize” God,” i.e. those who place their trust in imaginary gods, i.e. who worship the idols of their own superstition or self-interest.

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