Hypocrites, sectarians and rebels

Surah 33 (Al-Ahzab/The Parties): 18-19

18. Surely God knows those among you who hinder and those who say to their brethren: ‘Come hither unto us.’ Yet they come not to battle save a little,

19. Greedy toward you. But when fear comes, thou seest them looking at thee with eyes rolling like one whom death overwhelms.

Then, when fear subsides, they assail thee with sharp tongues, greedy for good things.


Later verses of the Qur’an address problems that the initial community of devout followers did not have to concern themselves with: hypocrisy, factionalism and rebellion.


The ‘munāfiqūn’, that is to say those who show duplicity (‘nīfāq’), almost invariably translated as ‘hypocrites’, are condemned repeatedly in the Qur’an, most extensively in Surahs 4, 9 and 33:

{4.61-68, 88-89 & 138-145},
{9.64-69, 73-78, 93-97 & 101}, and
{33.1, 12-20, 24, 48 & 60-61}.

Hypocrites are frequently and not unreasonably bracketed together with unbelievers, {4.40}, {9.64} and {33.1 & 48}, or with ‘those in whose hearts is a disease’, {8.49}, {33.12 & 60}, and as with the open unbelievers, their lack of faith is explained as a seal having been set upon their hearts {2.7} and {63.3}, see 〈18.〉


In many of the above verses ‘hypocrite’ seems to carry its general English meaning. Followers are chastised for inconstancy (‘…those who believe, and then disbelieve, and then believe, and then disbelieve’, {4.137}), for falsely pretending to believe (‘And when they meet those who believe they say ‘We believe’, but when they are alone with their satans they say we are with you, we were only mocking’, {2.14}), for taking disbelievers as friends rather than fellow believers ({4.139}), for mocking, {8.64}, or being around those who mock, {4.139}, the Qur’an and for laxness in following the what has been forbidden and prescribed. In {57.13-15}, the term is linked to the Qur’an’s version of the parable of the unprepared bridesmaids 〈18.〉


In other verses the term takes on the specific meaning of those who refuse to fight as they have been directed. One motive for their treachery is that such people agree to join Muhammad’s fighting force in the hope of a share in the booty, but they prove unreliable if they consider that a particular expedition is likely to be too risky:

{4.71} O you who believe! Take your precautions, then go forth in companies or go forth all together.

{4.72} Among you indeed is one who would tarry. Then if misfortune should befall you, he would say ‘God has blessed me in that I did not accompany them.’

{4.73} But should bounty come to you from God, he would surely say – as if there had been no affection between you and him –
‘O, would that I had been with them, so that I had attained a great triumph.’

Similarly {9.74}, {29.10-11}, {33.18-19} (produced above) and {33.24}.


Elsewhere, {63.1-8}, states that some hypocrites ‘took their oaths as a shield’, probably a reference to those submitting out of fear that if they did not ‘voluntarily’ submit to the new regime, submission would be forced upon them.


Short shrift is given to excuses, which should be met with harsh words:

{4.62} …Then they will come to thee, swearing by God: ‘We sought naught but virtue and harmony.’

{4.63} They are those who God knows what is in their hearts. So turn away from them and admonish them and speak to them about their souls with penetrating words.

See also {2.12}.


These verses are clearly issued in response to particular events. In {33.13}, said to have been announced as Muhammad marched his fighters out to do battle with the Meccans at Mount Uhud 〈41.〉:

{33.13}a group among them said:
‘O people of Yathrib. There is no stand for you, so turn back’.

And a group among them sought permission from the prophet saying: ‘Truly our houses are exposed’ though they were not exposed: they wanted naught but to flee.

In Surah 63 The Hypocrites, following an extended denouncement of the moral failings of hypocrites who are ‘like leaning timbers’, the Qur’an seems to reveal a plot by an enemy within to turn upon the believers and to expel them from Medina (traditionally believed to have been hatched by a Yathrib tribal chief and serial hypocrite – 〈41.〉, 〈42.〉 – Abd’allah ibn Ubayy):

{63.7} There are ones who say: ‘Do not spend on those who are with the Messenger of God, that they may disperse.’

Yet to God belongs the treasuries of the heavens and the earth, but the hypocrites comprehend not.

{63.8} They say: ‘If we return to Medina the mightier will surely expel the weaker therefrom.’

Yet unto God belongs the might and unto His Messenger and the believers, but the hypocrites know not.


The loyalty of Bedouins – who are invariably presented as tending to be somewhat weaselly, {9.90, 93-97 & 101} and {48.11, 15-16} are particularly suspect.

{58.7} hints at a suspicion of treacherous plotting:

Has thou not considered that God knows whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is on the earth? There is no secret converse amongst three but that He is their fourth, nor among five but that He is their sixth, nor less than that nor more but that he is with them wheresoever they are…

As the Quranic community grows in strength, it is able to order the execution of deserters and rumour-mongers:

{4.89}: ‘… But if they turn their backs, then seize them and slay them wherever you find them’, see 〈93.〉 below, and

{33.60-61}: ‘If the hypocrites do not desist … as well as those who spread false rumours in the city, We shall surely spur you against them. Then they will not be your neighbours therein but for a short while.

Accursed! They will be seized wheresoever they are found, and utterly slain.’

whereupon, naturally, they are destined to be consigned to the Hellfire; indeed for hypocrites, ‘the lowest depths of the Fire’, {4.145}.



Four passages suggest a greater level of disjunction, even amongst genuine believers in the Qur’an than one might expect to find from the traditional narrative.


One of these is {4.92}, which, as has been seen in 〈73.〉 above, sets down sanctions that must be observed in the event of an accidental killing which vary according to the classification of the victim. One class is that of believer, and another is unbelievers with whom one has a covenant. Between these two, is a category: ‘If he belonged to a people who are your enemies and is a believer… ‘ In these verses the Qur’an appears to go beyond a prudent recognition of occasional disharmony as a regrettable fact of life. In formally prescribing a distinct legal sanction for the scenario where one group of believers is in a state of enmity of another group of people, the Qur’an institutionalises the fragmentation of the community of believers into factions. It is likely that this verse reflects divisions that were already resulting in deadly, or potentially deadly, violence, that had formed within the Muslim community even during the lifetime of its founder.


The same impression is strengthened by:

{49.9} If two parties among the believers fall to fighting, make peace between them.

If one of them aggresses against the other, fight those who aggress until they return to God’s Command. And if they return make peace between them with justice and act equitably.

Truly God loves the just.


It seems unlikely that such an instruction – for one group of believers to fight other believers to counter the latter’s aggression – would have been thought necessary if there was not serious discord, enough to justify violence, within the early Muslim community, that could not be resolved through obedience to God and His messenger.


Whilst in the above two verses the Qur’an author sets out rules for managing conflict between believers, that may have had nothing to do with religion and which suggest that he was somewhat removed from the fray, in {15.90-91} he addresses a group who ‘make division’ (either dividers of the Qur’an itself or of the believing community) ‘who made the Qur’an into fragments’ (‘shredsper Yusuf Ali). In {9.107-108} the founders of a mosque are denounced as schismatic.

{9.107} And as for those who established a mosque for harm and disbelieve, and to divide the believers and to be an outpost for those who made war on God and His Messenger before, they will surely swear:
‘We desire only what is best.’ But God bears witness that truly they are liars.

{9.108} Never stand therein! Truly a mosque founded upon reverence from the first day is worthier of thy standing therein. Therein are men who love to purify themselves and God loves those who purify themselves.


Ibn Ishaq offers the following background for this verse:

The apostle went on until he stopped in Dhu Awan, a town an hour’s daylight journey from Medina. The owners of the mosque of opposition had come to the apostle as he was preparing for Tabouk, [see 〈49.〉] saying:

‘We have built a mosque for the sick and needy and for nights of bad weather, and we should like you to come and pray for us there’. (Muhammad) said that he was on the point of travelling and was preoccupied or words to that effect and that when he came back if God willed it, he would come to them and pray for them in it.

When he stopped in Dhu Awan news of the mosque came to him and he summoned Malik bin al-Dukhshum, brother of Salim bin Auf, and Ma’n ibn Adiy, or his brother Asim, brother of al-Ajlan, and told them to go to the mosque of those evil men and destroy and burn it.

They went quickly to Banu Salim bin Auf who were Malik’s clan and Malik said to Ma’n: ‘Wait for me until I can bring fire from my people.’ So he went in and took a palm branch and lighted it, and then the two of them ran into the mosque where its people were and burned and destroyed it and the people ran away from it. A portion of the Qur’an came down concerning them: ‘Those who chose a mosque in opposition and unbelief… [{9.107}].


This passage provides no clue as to why it was that the mosque was destroyed or in what way these mosque founders were evil men. Later commentaries, including that of Ibn Kathir, would try to fill this lacuna by suggesting that the mosque was built by a Christian, Abu ‘Amir al-Rahib (not mentioned in Ibn Ishaq’s list of twelve mosque founders) to foment rebellion in the Islamic community, but six centuries after the event this is far too late in the historical record to be considered to be reliable.