‘The Sword Verse’

Surah 9 (Al-Tawbah/Repentance): 1-5

1. IMMUNITY is granted those idolators by God and his Apostle with whom you have a treaty.

2. (They can) move about for four months freely in the land, but should know they cannot escape (the law of) God, and that God can put the unbelievers to shame.

3. A general proclamation is (made) this day of the Greater Pilgrimage on the part of God and His Apostle, that God is not bound (by any contract) to idolaters, nor is His Apostle.

It is, therefore, better for you to repent. If you do not, remember that you cannot elude (the grip of) God. So announce to those who deny the truth the news of painful punishment,

 

4. Except those idolaters with whom you have a treaty, who have not failed you in the least, nor helped anyone against you.

Fulfil your obligations to them during the term (of the treaty). God loves those who take heed for themselves.

 

5. But when these months, prohibited (for fighting), are over, slay the idolaters wheresoever you find them, and take them captive or besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every likely place.

But if they repent and fulfil their devotional obligations and pay the zakat, then let them go their way, for God is Forgiving and Kind.

[‘Al-Qur’ān, A Contemporary Translation’, Ahmed Ali, 1984 (Pakistani author/diplomat)]

{9.1-5}, the ‘sword verses’, are generally considered to be among the final verses of the Qur’an to have been announced and are certainly its most notorious. For their full significance, they should be read alongside but distinct from the ‘tribute verses’, {9.28-29}, see 〈50.〉 preceding, and also {9.30}, see 〈88.〉

 

In {9.1-5}, God states that He is not bound by any obligation previously given to the ‘mushrikun’ (rendered ‘idolaters’ above, more accurately ‘associators of partners with God’, see 〈19.〉). The mushrikun were given notice that they were being permitted a period of four months grace, on the expiry of which, unless they enjoyed protection under some other treaty, they must either have renounced their ‘shirk’ and pledged to pay the ‘zakat’ (the believers’ tax 〈54.〉), or else face being put to the sword.

 

{9.6-19} comprises a cryptic series of instructions and observations that seems to swing schizophrenically from the bellicose (‘Will you not fight a people who broke their oaths…? Fight them and God will punish them by means of your hands and disgrace them’) to the conciliatory (’…and if any of the mushrikun seek asylum with thee, grant him asylum until he hears the word of God…If they repent and perform the prayer and give the alms then they are your brethren in religion’).

 

{9.28} prohibits the mushrikun from approaching the Masjid al-Haram.

 

{9.29} commands believers to fight the People of the Book ‘until they pay the jizya (the submitter’s tax), having been humbled’.

 

{9.30} asserts that: ‘The Jews say that Ezra is the son of God and the Christians say the Messiah is the son of God’.

 

These verses cannot have all been announced on one occasion for their terms conflict with one another. Of those that lend themselves to literal interpretation, {9.5} commands believers to slay the mushrikun ‘wheresoever (they) find them’ (as per {2.191} 〈36.〉, and {4.89}), and so it would make no sense that {9.28}, if it was announced at the same time, should ban the mushrikun from going to the Masjid al-Haram. And if Jews and Christians call Ezra and Jesus the sons of God, this must make them guilty of associating partners with God, and liable to be killed, under {9.5}, in which case there would be no purpose served by also requiring them to pay the jizya, {9.29}.

 

The majority Islamic view is that these verses can be reconciled, by regarding {9.30} as failing to quite amount to an accusation that Christians and Jews are ‘mushrikun’. The traditional narrative presents Muhammad’s principal struggle as being with the polytheists of Mecca, whilst his expeditions against Jewish or Christian communities were either localised punishment raids occasioned by those tribes’ rebellion against his authority as God’s messenger or, as with Kaybar, purely acquisitive. The pagans had eventually been overcome and had surrendered to Muhammad in the expectation that they would be permitted continued freedom of worship, at least during the sacred months. Many had in fact converted en masse to Muhammad’s creed, but others had continued to practise pagan rituals including circumambulating the Ka’aba naked . This stubbornness was initially tolerated by God, but was eventually deemed by Him to be unacceptable in what was now a city of believers. So, it is commonly understood, through {9.1-5} He commanded the polytheists’ complete removal. Christians and Jews, on the other hand, as recognised monotheists of a sort, fell under a different regime. They were to be permitted the concession of living under Muslim rule, for so long as they pay a separate tax, the jizya, as Muhammad had spared the lives of the Jews of Kaybar in return for half of their produce.

 

This understanding was probably dictated by the reality of the Arab world’s dependency upon tributary Jewish and Christian communities by the time that the first post-Qur’an Islamic texts came to be composed. However, this proposed twin track approach – of killing mushrikun but taxing People of the Book – is not justified from the text. As has been seen, the sin of shirk, the association of partners to God, is by no means the same thing as polytheism, since the Qur’an accepts that the mushrikun acknowledged Allah as their creator and Lord 〈11.〉 Their sin was that of associating other beings with Allah, such as seeking the intercession of goddesses and angels in the belief that these were God’s daughters. If there were any doubt that {9.30} is accusing Jews and Christians of being guilty of shirk, this should be removed by {9.28} which clearly introduces the following two verses and names the offence of which these later verses give the particulars. Furthermore, the traditional understanding provides no purpose whatsoever for the exclusion of the about-to-be-slain mushrikun from the Masjid al-Haram.

 

The only interpretation that is true to the text is that {9.28-30} were announced to condemn Jews and Christians as ‘mushrikun’, to ban them from the Masjid al-Haram and require them to pay the jizya; whilst verses {9.1-5} were announced upon a later occasion, and supersede {9.28-30} by requiring that all ‘mushrikun‘ must be slain. So doing marks the logical culmination of Muhammad’s mission. His progression from warning of the imminent apocalypse, through threatening divine punishment in the here and now and then presenting his raids and expeditions as the instrument of God’s wrath, had taken him to a position of strength from which he was able to order the annihilation of all those who reject his prophecy, just as, he preached, God had done so many times to rebellious populations in ages past. Whatever the precise circumstances in which the order was given for this final solution, it will be noticed that the violence instructed by these verses is deliberately worded to be unlimited by geography – ‘wheresoever you find them’- and is explicitly aggressive – ‘besiege them and lie in wait for them at every likely place.’ And as the Qur’an’s last words, at least on the subject of interfaith relations, the application of the doctrine of abrogation requires that {9.1-5} overrule not just {9.28-30} but any more tolerant verse that had been previously announced.