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The Sword Verse in the Koran

Now, I am going to talk about the “Sword Verse” — Koran 9:5. I think that this verse is frequently misunderstood and misinterpreted by Pseudo-Islamic extremists and Islamophobes. In order to properly understand this verse, one must look at it in context. Taking the verse out its context will most likely result in a misinterpretation and a misapplication.

First, let us look at the whole passage in question. I am using Shakir’s translation.

1 (This is a declaration of) immunity by Allah and His Messenger towards those of the idolaters with whom you made an agreement.
2 So go about in the land for four months and know that you cannot weaken Allah and that Allah will bring disgrace to the unbelievers.
3 And an announcement from Allah and His Messenger to the people on the day of the greater pilgrimage that Allah and His Messenger are free from liability to the idolaters; therefore if you repent, it will be better for you, and if you turn back, then know that you will not weaken Allah; and announce painful punishment to those who disbelieve.
4 Except those of the idolaters with whom you made an agreement, then they have not failed you in anything and have not backed up any one against you, so fulfill their agreement to the end of their term; surely Allah loves those who are careful (of their duty).
5 So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captives and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush, then if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, leave their way free to them; surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.
6 And if one of the idolaters seek protection from you, grant him protection till he hears the word of Allah, then make him attain his place of safety; this is because they are a people who do not know.
7 How can there be an agreement for the idolaters with Allah and with His Messenger; except those with whom you made an agreement at the Sacred Mosque? So as long as they are true to you, be true to them; surely Allah loves those who are careful (of their duty).
8 How (can it be)! while if they prevail against you, they would not pay regard in your case to ties of relationship, nor those of covenant; they please you with their mouths while their hearts do not consent; and most of them are transgressors.
9 They have taken a small price for the communications of Allah, so they turn away from His way; surely evil is it that they do.
10 They do not pay regard to ties of relationship nor those of covenant in the case of a believer; and these are they who go beyond the limits.
11 But if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, they are your brethren in faith; and We make the communications clear for a people who know.
12 And if they break their oaths after their agreement and (openly) revile your religion, then fight the leaders of unbelief — surely their oaths are nothing — so that they may desist.
13 What! will you not fight a people who broke their oaths and aimed at the expulsion of the Messenger, and they attacked you first; do you fear them? But Allah is most deserving that you should fear Him, if you are believers.
14 Fight them, Allah will punish them by your hands and bring them to disgrace, and assist you against them and heal the hearts of a believing people.
15 And remove the rage of their hearts; and Allah turns (mercifully) to whom He pleases, and Allah is Knowing, Wise.
16 What! do you think that you will be left alone while Allah has not yet known those of you who have struggled hard and have not taken any one as an adherent besides Allah and His Messenger and the believers; and Allah is aware of what you do. (Koran 9:1-16, Shakir)

Reasons for War

Self-Defense

War in the Koran is sanctioned only if one of three conditions are met. First, if the Muslim community is under military attack. Then, they may fight back in self-defense. In Koran 2:190, it says:

Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress. Indeed. Allah does not like transgressors. (Koran 2:190, Sahih International)

Some people must already be fighting the Muslims before they can fight. The verse does not say, “Fight.. those who are not fighting you.” It says, “Fight.. those who fight you.”

To End Religious Persecution

The second reason for war is to end religious persecution. In Koran 22:39-41, it says:

Sanction is given unto those who fight because they have been wronged; and Allah is indeed Able to give them victory; those who have been driven from their homes unjustly only because they said: Our Lord is Allah –- For had it not been for Allah’s repelling some men by means of others, cloisters and churches and oratories and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft mentioned, would assuredly have been pulled down. Verily Allah helpeth one who helpeth Him. Lo! Allah is Strong, Almighty –- those who, if We give them power in the land, establish worship and pay the poor-due and enjoin kindness and forbid iniquity. And Allah’s is the sequel of events. (22:39-41, Pickthall)

The Muslims are allowed to fight people who are persecuting them. One way that non-Muslims persecuted Muslims was to drive them from their homes. They did this because the Muslims worshiped only one God. The polytheists worshiped other gods in addition to God. They mistreated the Muslims because of their religion.

Also, in Koran 2:193, it says:

And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah. But if they desist, then let there be no hostility except against wrong-doers. (Koran 2:193, Pickthall)

The purpose of the war according to this verse is to end religious persecution and make it possible for people to worship God.

No Compulsion in Religion

The words, “religion is for Allah,” do not mean that people are forced to accept Islam. Muhammad was not a “compeller over them.” He was not supposed to force people to convert to Islam.

We (that is, the Holy Trinity) are best aware of what they say, and thou (O Muhammad) art in no wise a compeller over them. But warn by the Qur’an him who feareth My threat. (Koran 50:45, Pickthall)

He was only a warner and a bearer of good tidings.

And We (that is, the Holy Trinity) have sent thee (O Muhammad) only as a bearer of good tidings and a warner. (Koran 25:56,  Pickthall)

Only God can change a person’s heart so that he becomes a believer.

And had your Lord willed, those on earth would have believed — all of them entirely. Then, [O Muhammad], would you compel the people in order that they become believers? And it is not for a soul to believe except by permission of Allah, and He will place defilement upon those who will not use reason. (Koran 10:99,100, Sahih International)

To Liberate the Oppressed

The third reason for war is to liberate the oppressed. In Koran 4:75, it says:

How should ye not fight for the cause of Allah and of the feeble among men and of the women and the children who are crying: Our Lord! Bring us forth from out this town of which the people are oppressors! Oh, give us from thy presence some protecting friend! Oh, give us from Thy presence some defender! (Koran 4:75, Pickthall)

Whenever Muslims are being oppressed by non-Muslims, Muslims from another country or place can engage the oppressors in war to liberate their fellow-Muslims.

The War Against Those Idolaters

After the four Sacred Months have passed, the Muslims were told to “slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captives and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush.” (Koran 9:5, Shakir) The reasons for fighting the idolaters (not the Christians and the Jews) are:

  • They did not pay regard to the Muslims in regard to ties of relationship and covenant.  (Koran 9:8,10) They broke their oaths after the agreement and reviled the Islamic religion. (Koran 9:12) They were treaty-breakers. Their treaty-breaking resulted in religious persecution against the Muslims.
  • They tried to expel Muhammad from the city and attacked the Muslims first. (Koran 9:13)

So, there are two basic reasons for the war authorized in Koran 9:5: to end religious persecution and to engage in self-defense against a people who attacked them first. The Muslims were on their way to Mecca for their pilgrimage. The “immunity” which was issued was taken to the idolaters by Abu Bakr, one of Muhammad’s closest friends. He was the first caliph after Muhammad’s death according to the Sunni Muslims.

“If they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, leave their way free to them; surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” (Koran 9:5, Shakir) During the war, some of the idolaters might convert to Islam from polytheism. The Muslims were forbidden to fight against them. These new converts were their “brethren in faith.” (Koran 9:11)

“And if one of the idolaters seek protection from you, grant him protection till he hears the word of Allah, then make him attain his place of safety; this is because they are a people who do not know.” (Koran 9:6, Shakir) Some of the idolaters might not wish to fight the Muslims. Instead, they might seek protection from them. In that case, the Muslims were supposed to proclaim to them the “word of Allah” and then take them to a place of safety. They were not supposed to kill the idolaters if they rejected the Islamic religion.

“So long as they are true to you, be true to them.” (Koran 9:7) The Muslims were supposed to honor their agreements with the idolaters as long as the idolaters honored their agreements with the Muslims.

God would help the Muslims successfully fight against the idolaters and win. (Koran 9:14-16)

Peace is Better

The principle of abrogation is given in Koran 2:106.

None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar: knowest thou not that Allah hath power over all things? (Koran 2:106, Yusuf Ali)

The abrogating revelation is always either better or similar to the one being abrogated. The Koran says that Satan sows discord among people. (Koran 17:53) It says, “Follow not the footsteps of the devil.” (Koran 24:21) People who start wars are following in the footsteps of Satan. So, according to the Koran, “offensive military jihad” is Satanic. The Koran also says that “peace is better.” (Koran 4:128) Since peace is better and offensive military jihad is Satanic, it is a Muslim’s duty to strive toward peace with others and not to promote war.

Offensive spiritual jihad against Satan is acceptable. This is done by praying, fasting, and proclaiming the truth.

Conclusion

So, Koran 9:5 is not a “revelation authorizing offensive jihad” against non-Muslims. When one examines the verse in context, one can see that the war of which it speaks was defensive in nature. The idolaters had broken their treaty with the Musims, began persecuting the Muslims, and initiated a military conflict with them. No one was being forced to convert from polytheism to Islam. An idolater who sought the protection of the Muslims during the war had to listen to the “word of Allah” and afterward he was taken to a place of safety. If the idolaters kept their agreements with the Muslims, the Muslims were required to do the same toward them. The Muslims had to spare those who converted to Islam during the military battle. They were not allowed to kill them because they had become the Muslims’ “brethren in faith.” Muhammad was only a bearer of good tidings and a warner. He was not a compeller over the people to whom he preached. Only God could change a person’s heart so that he would become a believer. Peace is better than offensive military jihad. Offensive military jihad is Satanic.

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