When the [four] forbidden months are over, wherever you encounter the idolaters, kill them, seize them, besiege them, wait for them at every lookout post; but if they turn [to God], maintain the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms, let them go on their way, for God is most forgiving and merciful. (Al Quran 9:5)
By Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times
As the war began in the Middle East this time and the newspapers got filled with the gory details, I stopped reading them. My heart was too timid to read the bloody details. I did not want to know about the dead, dying, injured and crying children on both sides.
I have gone into a news hibernation and have started reading the Quran instead. I thought about the verse from Surah Taubah that the critics of Islam have labeled as Sword Verse and I have put it as an epigraph to this article. I read the verse, but, I put the sword down, even metaphorically. I did not want any animosity against anyone even in my thinking, for previously, I had written an article: I am a Jew, a Catholic, a Christian and a Muslim; I am Zia H Shah.
I became a Muslim Quaker, I did not want to fight even intellectually on either side of the war. But, my scripture is the Quran rather than the Bible.
I recalled I had years ago written a short article titled: Defensive War in the Holy Quran in 600 Words.
I can simply reproduce it here:
When the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, claimed Monotheism in the polytheistic society of Mecca they turned against him and he and his followers had to face persecution for 13 long years. He migrated to Medina but the Meccans did not leave him alone there and attacked Medina, it was in these circumstances that the following verses were revealed:
Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is made, because they have been wronged — and Allah indeed has power to help them — Those who have been driven out from their homes unjustly only because they said, ‘Our Lord is Allah’ — And if Allah did not repel some men by means of others, there would surely have been pulled down cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques. (Al Quran 22:40-41)
By mentioning Churches and Synagogues before Mosques, the revelation was laying the foundation of genuine religious freedom for the whole of humanity. These verses were revealed around 624 CE and these teachings through the practices of Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, in Arabia laid foundation of freedoms that were put into action by Umar Farooq, may Allah be pleased with him, in Jerusalem in 638 CE, when he took control of Jerusalem, after a relatively bloodless siege by the Muslim army.
The Quranic teachings about dealing with defensive war are black and white, if you are not wearing colored glasses. In the second chapter the Quran is describing a state of defensive war, for the Muslims, as it highlights need to take every opportunity for peace, note the emphasis, on the word ‘desist,’ mentioned twice in the verses below:
And fight in the cause of Allah against those who fight against you, but do not transgress. Surely, Allah loves not the transgressors. And kill them wherever you meet them and drive them out from where they have driven you out; for persecution is worse than killing. And fight them not in, and near, the Sacred Mosque until they fight you therein. But if they fight you, then fight them: such is the requital for the disbelievers. But if they desist, then surely Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful. And fight them until there is no persecution, and religion is freely professed for Allah. But if they desist, then remember that no hostility is allowed except against the aggressors. The violation of a Sacred Month should be retaliated in the Sacred Month; and for all sacred things there is the law of retaliation. So, whoso transgresses against you, punish him for his transgression to the extent to which he has transgressed against you. And fear Allah and know that Allah is with those who fear Him. (Al Quran 2:191-195)
In the above verses Allah has also laid down the principle of proportionate punishment for any offence, from petty crime to terrorism to a world war.
Now let me describe the essence of the message of the Holy Quran towards people of other faiths. Allah wants us to be kind and nice to them, except those who are belligerent and want to make us homeless:
Allah forbids you not, respecting those who have not fought against you on account of your religion, and who have not driven you forth from your homes, that you be kind to them and act equitably towards them; surely Allah loves those who are equitable. Allah only forbids you, respecting those who have fought against you on account of your religion, and have driven you out of your homes, and have helped others in driving you out, that you make friends of them, and whosoever makes friends of them — it is these that are the transgressors. (Al Quran 60:9-10)
If the Quran only talks about defensive wars, then how can we explain the Sword Verse or other hawkish verses in Surah Taubah?
Perhaps, the solution lies in reading the Surah as a whole, in light of the fundamental verses on the subject in other Surahs that I have just quoted above.
The other insight I have is that the subject of hawkish verses were only those people that had been persecuting the Muslims. As the first addressee of the Quran are the seventh century Arabs, when we apply the Quran to the 21st century situations of our global village, since the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by all the countries in 1948, we have to read the Quran in contemporary paradigms. This brings me to a collection of articles from a website, TheQuran.Love about Scope, Style and Preservation of the Quran:
- Rumi: The Quran is Like a Shy Bride!
- Truth Cannot Contradict Truth: Understanding the Holy Quran
- Sometimes the Quran is Written on Stone and Often on Paper?
- The Scope, Style and Effect of the Holy Quran
- The History of the Qur’anic Text: From Revelation to Compilation
- Sources or Criteria for Interpretation of the Holy Quran
- The Quran Gives Principles of Justice, But No Judicial System
- The Quran Only Means What Our Wisdom and Intentions Dictate: A Progressive Understanding
- The Holy Quran and the Seventh Century Arabian Metaphors
- Is God Alive or Dead: A Metaphor for the Scriptures from the US Constitution?
- God Is Living, So Why Does Religion Treat God As Dead?
- Video of Berkley Center: Islam, Human Rights, and the Secular
- I was an Isis sex slave. I tell my story because it is the best weapon I have
Now, let us go back to the Sword Verse again, which is epigraph of this article and read it in the light of the defensive war verses and the above scholarship about the Quran in general. I will now quote all the peaceful and dovish verses from the same Surah from Oxford University Press translation by MAS Abdel Haleem in quotes and my commentary in between:
The first two verses of the Surah create the impression that the Muslims are ready to throw away the treaty. But, the fourth verse highlights that the Muslims should honor their treaties and the earlier verses only apply to those persecutors of the Muslims, who have been violating the treaty:
A release by God and His Messenger from the treaty you [believers] made with the idolaters [is announced] –– you [idolaters] may move freely about the land for four months, but you should bear in mind both that you will not escape God, and that God will disgrace those who defy [Him]. (1-2)
As the exception mentioned in the verse 4 clarifies the subject matter of the preceding verses, let us read it now:
As for those who have honored the treaty you made with them and who have not supported anyone against you: fulfil your agreement with them to the end of their term. God loves those who are mindful of Him. (4)
The verse three highlights that the offenders still have the option of repentance as the Surah is not presenting a close and shut case against them:
On the Day of the Great Pilgrimage [there will be] a proclamation from God and His Messenger to all people: ‘God and His Messenger are released from [treaty] obligations to the idolaters. It will be better for you [idolaters] if you repent; know that you cannot escape God if you turn away.’ [Prophet], warn those who ignore [God] that they will have a painful punishment. (3)
Then we get to the Sword Verse itself:
When the [four] forbidden months are over, wherever you encounter the idolaters, kill them, seize them, besiege them, wait for them at every lookout post; but if they turn [to God], maintain the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms, let them go on their way, for God is most forgiving and merciful. (5)
Rather than focusing exclusively on this verse, I read: Two Hundred Verses about Compassionate Living in the Quran.
When I returned to the Sword Verse, I realized that these adversaries are not going to be taken as prisoners of war or killed. There are options for them as the very next verse states:
If any one of the idolaters should seek your protection [Prophet], grant it to him so that he may hear the word of God, then take him to a place safe for him, for they are people with no knowledge [of it]. (6)
The next verses explain that the Muslims are not supposed to be belligerent, the fact of the matter is that their adversaries are:
How could there be a treaty with God and His Messenger for such idolaters? But as for those with whom you made a treaty at the Sacred Mosque, so long as they remain true to you, be true to them; God loves those who are mindful of Him. 8[How,] when, if they were to get the upper hand over you, they would not respect any tie with you, of kinship or of treaty? They please you with their tongues, but their hearts are against you and most of them are lawbreakers. (7-8)
In verses 9-13 it is highlighted that the adversaries are the aggressors and they do not respect the ties of blood relationships and do not honor their oaths:
They have sold God’s message for a trifling gain, and barred others from His path. How evil their actions are! Where believers are concerned, they respect no tie of kinship or treaty. They are the ones who are committing aggression. If they turn to God, keep up the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms, then they are your brothers in faith: We make the messages clear for people who are willing to learn. But if they break their oath after having made an agreement with you, if they revile your religion, then fight the leaders of disbelief– oaths mean nothing to them– so that they may stop. 13How could you not fight a people who have broken their oaths, who tried to drive the Messenger out, who attacked you first? Do you fear them? It is God you should fear if you are true believers. (9-13)
The next two verses highlight that the Muslims are not the belligerent party, hateful, revengeful or hate driven. The defensive war strategy and constantly being reminded to give peace to those who seek peace, gives them a tranquility of heart and soul, which will not be true if the Sword Verse meant, what the critics of Islam will have us believe:
Fight them: God will punish them at your hands, He will disgrace them, He will help you to conquer them, He will heal the believers’ feelings and remove the rage from their hearts. God turns to whoever He will in His mercy; God is all knowing and wise. (14-15)
Perhaps, I could keep going through the rest of the Surah, it has 128 verses, but in the interest of time, I will stop here.
But, I am definitely not picking up the sword in the Sword Verse for I have previously also written:
I think in this day and age of information, solutions lie in dialogue and not in war and especially for the Muslims, as they have little edge in war technology. The Muslims would be well reminded that the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, never picked up weapons, not even in defense, when he was extremely weak in the early part of his ministry in Mecca.