We start a new surah again today — named “Repentance,” a Medinan surah — and by the fifth ayah we are back into a sticky situation:

When the [four] forbidden months are over, wherever you encounter the idolaters, kill them, seize them, beseige them, wait for them at every lookout post. (9:5a)

Again, this is an oft-quoted passage supposedly exemplifying Muslim barbarism.  In today’s passage we also come to these admonitions:

Fight these leaders of disbelief — oaths mean nothing to them — so that they may stop. (9:12)

Fight them: God will punish them at your hands, He will disgrace them, He will help you to conquer them. (9:14)

How can you claim Islam is a religion of peace when you have commands like these in your sacred book?  Or so goes the accusation.

I have only one desire: to simply listen to the text and let it speak for itself.  Context is most important at this point.  When you read this passage as a whole, here is what we see:

  • This is stated within the broader context of relating to idolatrous neighbors of the first Muslims with whom the Muslims had a treaty.  Commentator Ali says the pagan neighbors of the first Muslim were well-known for making treaties with the Muslims only to break these later when it was expedient.  This is a time-bound context; once again, this is not a for-all-time command for how to relate to all non-Muslims (see this past post  and this one for discussion of similar passages).   
  • The idolaters are encouraged to repent and given time to do so before any kind of punitive action is taken (9:3).  Four months was a time of notice the Muslims gave the pagans to make amends. 
  • God is “forgiving and merciful” so the Muslims should be as well as much as is possible (9:5, 11).
  • They are to extend protection before punishment, with the hope that such compassion will cause the idolater to turn to God (9:6).
  • They are only to fight the disbeliever who is actively rejecting the words of Allah and keeping others from worshiping  Him (9:9).
  • In this context, it was the idolaters who were the aggressors, not the Muslims (9:10, 13).  The idolaters proved untrustworthy where treaties were concerned and therefore were a threat (9:11).  This fighting was responsive and defensive. 
  • The Muslims were to be instruments of divine punishment, not people with a political agenda or opportunistic (9:14). 

Just by broadening our focus we can understand the original meaning of 9:5 much better.  Those who turn this into a command for holy war against all non-Muslims in any place and at any time, especially when no antagonism has taken place — whether those people are Muslim clerics with political agendas or non-Muslim fearmongers, often with political agendas as well — is to misunderstand this passage, it would seem. 

What do you think? 

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