Qur’an (9:5) – “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.”
This article is about the oft-quoted, or rather misquoted, Surah 9:5 verse of the Quran, which is claimed to call upon “all” Muslims to kill “all” non-Muslims or the so-called “Infidels”.
Muslims are often questioned, “Did not Muhammad call on all Muslims to kill the infidels?” The answer is absolutely not!
Then, we are asked another question: “Why then does the Quran say, “fight and slay the pagans (or infidels or unbelievers) wherever you find them?” (9:5).
There are two interrelated answers to that question. The first is historical. The second is related to the nature of the Quran itself.
When the Islamic state was rapidly expanding in the seventh and eighth century, many people came under the direct governance of Muslims. These peoples belonged to different religions, races, ethnicities, etc. If the hypothesis that “Muslims are required to eradicate non-Muslims or “infidels” was correct, then a pattern of deliberate extermination, forced conversions, and/or expulsion would have been observed throughout the history of Islam, especially when Muslims were powerful and winning over their opponents.
That systematic pattern is simply absent. For example, let us take India. India (or considerable parts of it) was for several centuries under the Muslim Mughal Empire. Many of the subjects of the empire, up to and including very high-ranking state officials, were Hindu. (This does not mean that Hindus lived under no discrimination whatsoever. But this is another issue.) Till now, India is a predominantly Hindu country. The facts on the ground belie the hypothesis that Muslims have believed that non-Muslims should be killed, evicted, or forced to convert.
Another example: in contemporary Egypt, which was included in the Islamic state only ten years after the demise of the Prophet, about 6-10% of the people are Christians. Contrast this with Spain. For about eight centuries, Spain was a place of peaceful co-existence for Muslims, Christians, and Jews. (Again, I am not, at all, claiming that everyone enjoyed the same rights under the Arab/Muslim ruling.) However, in 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella signed the Edict of Expulsion designed to rid Spain of its Jews. The Jews were given a stark choice: baptism or deportation. An estimated 50,000 fled to the Ottoman empire where they were warmly welcomed. And about 70,000 converted to Christianity and remained in the country only to be plagued by the Inquisition which accused them of insincerity. In 1499, the Spanish state gave its Muslims the same choice: convert or leave. The result of these policies was simple: Spain almost entirely got rid of millions of people who were not Christians. (Spain now of course has minority groups, including Muslims coming mainly from North Africa as immigrants.)
The list goes on. Investigating history clearly shows that most (saying “all” cannot sustain historical scrutiny) Muslims have never believed that they are under obligation to exterminate non-Muslims, or as non-Muslims refer to such people as “Infidels”. Of course, it would not be scholastic to say non-Muslims, at many times, enjoyed “full citizenship” (though this term is an anachronism in the context discussed here) but compared to other locations, minorities were significantly better off under Muslim ruling, when Muslims were in fact capable of inflicting severe harm on non-Muslims, especially if we were to acknowledge the absurd notion of Muslims ambition to “kill the infidels…”
I thought it was best to stop here for a few minutes to scrutinize this term “Infidel”. We have heard, over and over again, the majority of commentators and “experts” on Islam using this term and attributing it to Islam’s and Muslims sentimentality of non-Muslims.
I, as a Muslim, have never called a non-Muslim an “Infidel”, so this word was actually foreign to my vocabulary, until I have heard it mentioned several time by Christian and Zionist so-called “experts” on Islam. As a matter of fact, I took the liberty of going through several widely used translations of the Quran to find this oft-spoken “infidel” term. The translations of the Quran of which I researched included: M. Khan, Yusuf Ali, Shakir, and Pickthal, only to find out that in all of these translations, I did not find this word “infidel” in any of them! The Arabic word “Kaafir, Kafir, Kufar” was translated as Disbelievers or Unbelievers.
What’s more interesting, after digging deeper, we discovered this term was being used centuries before the advent of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The term infidel comes from the Latin word infidelis, which means “unbelieving” or “unfaithful.” During the Middle Ages ( A.D.c. 450–c. 1500), the Catholic Church (Christians) used the term to describe Muslims (followers of Islam, the religion founded by the prophet Muhammad; c. A.D.570–632).
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary states the following on the term “infidel”:
Main Entry: in·fi·del
Pronunciation: ‘in-f&-d & l, -f&-“del
Etymology: Middle English infidele, from Middle French, from Late Latin infidelis unbelieving, from Latin, unfaithful, from in- + fidelis faithful — more at FIDELITY
1: one who is not a Christian or who opposes Christianity
2 a: an unbeliever with respect to a particular religion b : one who acknowledges no religious belief
3: a disbeliever in something specified or understood
– infidel adjective
Two remaining points:
(1) There is the claim that Muslims only refrained from killing the infidels because of the economic benefits of “enslaving” them. Most of those who claim this also claim that Muslims are inherently violent because of the “clear” Quranic injunctions against the “Infidels”. This position is, at least, contradictory. Because on the one hand, Muslims’ violence is rooted in the Quran, and, on the other hand, generations upon generations of Muslims simply discarded the Quran for their economic well-being. If Muslims persistently and universally prefer economic prosperity to the Quran and the commandments of the Prophet, then both the Quran and the Prophet are irrelevant to them. So why the attempt to ground Muslim behavior in the Quran and the Prophetic tradition if these are in fact not important at all to Muslims? If Muslims stick to the Quran, so why did not they exterminate the other, a policy allegedly supported unequivocally by the Quran? There is no way out of this fallacious reasoning except by saying that Muslims evoke whatever serves their interest. This statement of the entire Muslim nation being innately incoherent and immoral is espoused by many Islamophobes. This statement tells us much more about the Islamophobes themselves than about Muslims, however.
(2) In the modern era, some Muslim people participated in the genocide of non-Muslims, such as the Armenians by the Turks and the East Timorese by the Indonesians. However, these killings were undertaken by secular regimes for nationalistic reasons. I do not think anyone can claim, for instance, that Ataturk, the father of the secularized Turkey and the abolisher of the Islamic caliphate, oppressed the Armenians (and the Greeks), to rid Turkey of them, in the name of Islam.
(A relevant link to this discussion concerning the genocide in Rwanda and the attitude of Muslims.)
(1) The Quran is not classified subject-wise. Verses on various topics appear in dispersed places in the Quran and no order can be ascertained from the sequence of its text. The first verses revealed in the Quran was in chapter (surah) 96.
(2) The structure of the Quran makes it necessary to approach it using the dialectic “both and” methodology of reasoning. This means that to investigate a certain issue, the verses pertaining to the issue should be gathered together. The verses are then analyzed comprehensively while paying attention to the historical context (in Islamic terminology called the “occasion of revelation”) of each verse. The truth is considered to be found in all the relevant verses, because if the Quran is divine as the vast majority of Muslims believe, it should be free from real contradictions and inconsistencies. Apparent contradictions are not only reconciled and transcended but are thoroughly investigated because they actually reflect deep meanings and paradigms. (This is akin, for example, to the process of understanding the Chinese idiom, “a man is stronger than iron and weaker than a fly.” Although the wise saying is superficially self-contradictory, it reveals a deep fact about humans who, in some situations, are very strong. Yet, in other contexts, these same people are very weak.) If the reductionist approach to the Quran is valid, then all ideas, from violence to absolute pacifism, can be justified and rationalized using the Quran. For the Quran does not only contain verses about war, it is also replete with verses about forgiveness and countering evil with good.
(3) The same Quran that reads, “Whoever then acts aggressively against you, inflict injury on him according to the injury he has inflicted on you” (2:194), also reads, “Goodness and evil are not the same. So repel evil with goodness, then the one who had enmity between you becomes a trusted and dear friend” (41:34). When it comes to dealing with a transgressor, the Quran is basically delineating four different strategies, the validity of which is contingent on the situational and contextual factors. The first is retaliation which is permissible on the condition that it does not exceed the limits. Verse (2:194) is clear on this, “whoever then acts aggressively against you, inflict injury on him according to the injury he has inflicted on you.” Verse (16:126) gives the same meaning, “and if you take your turn, then retaliate with the like of that with which you were afflicted.” Verse (3:134) gives the other three strategies, “and those who restrain their anger and pardon men; and God loves the doers of good to others.” The three methods given here are, (a) to restrain one’s anger and not respond, (b) to pardon the wrongdoer, and (c) to do good to the transgressor. According to verse, method (c) is the most beloved by God. Here the Quran teaches the superiority, in the sight of God, of responding to evil with goodness. Now what should the Muslim do when wronged? It depends on the context, on the situational factors. Under some circumstances, the wrongdoer must be punished. Under others, one should refrain from retaliation, or go a step further to wholehearted forgiveness, or even repel the transgressor’s evil with goodness. The above is important for explaining how to deal with the Quranic text.
(4) The Quranic principle for dealing with the ‘other’ non-Muslim is clear from verses (60:8-9), “God does not forbid you respecting those who have not made war against you on account of your religion, and have not driven you forth from your homes, that you show them kindness and deal with them justly; surely God loves the doers of justice. God only forbids you respecting and loving those who made war upon you on account of your religion, and drove you forth from your homes and backed up others in your expulsion, that you make friends with them, and whoever makes friends with them, these are the unjust.” The Quran does not present Islam as a religion of unquestionable pacifism or relentless aggression. Those who do not transgress should be treated humanely and benevolently with complete respect. Those who transgress should be fought, “And fight in the cause of God those who fight against you, and do not commit aggression. Indeed God does not love those who are aggressors,” (2:190). In other words, Islam is a religion of peace, not in the sense that it is pacifist, but in the sense that Muslims can and should co-exist peacefully with others who respect them. Neither transgression is permitted nor forcing others to espouse Islam as the Quran says, “there is no compulsion in religion,” (2:256).
(5) Based on the above, we can now investigate verse (9:5), “But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, an seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practise regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.” One of the main concerns of Chapter (Surah) 9 of the Quran (a Surah is a collection of verses) was to delineate the strategies for dealing with the polytheists of the Arabian Peninsula after the Muslims, under the leadership of Prophet Muhammad, peacefully captured Mecca (In January, 630, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his followeres were joined by tribe after tribe along their way to Mecca. They entered Mecca without bloodshed and the Meccans, seeing the tide had turned, joined them.) the city that since the beginning of Islam lead the oppression and persecution of the Muslim converts.
(6) Since the polytheists differed in their relationship with the new religion after its victory, there was a need to differentiate between the malevolent enemies of Islam bent on destroying the Muslims and who did not observe their treaties with the Muslims, those who hated Islam but were willing to honor their treaties with Muslims, those who rejected Islam but peacefully co-existed with the Muslim community, etc. The aforementioned verse (9:5) was concerned with the most vehement opponents of the Islamic faith not by virtue of their refusal to be Muslims but by continually breaching their treaties with the Muslims and fighting them. Given that, their treatment is not equal, the complete verse says, “So when the sacred months have passed away, then fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them, and take them captives and besiege them and keep them under observation, then if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, leave their way free to them; surely God is Forgiving, Merciful.” Meaning: so when the grace period (4 months) is past, and if the other party insists on fighting Islam, then a state of war is inevitable. The struggle may take the form of killing, or capture and imprisonment, or just keeping an eye on these enemies to fend off their evil if they decide to launch an offensive against Muslims. The punishment should be fair and just and, thus, must be proportional to the crimes actually committed. Not only this, but the pagans can repent and accept Islam, as evident from the last part of (9:5), or desist from attacking Muslims and ask for protection, as evident from the next verse (9:6), “If one amongst the pagans ask you for asylum, grant it to him, so that he may hear the word of God; and then escort him to where he can be secure.”
Understanding the verses’ historical context is crucial, not to confine them to their context, but for a proper comprehension of their implications. Moreover, as shown previously, the verse must be interpreted along with all the other verses explicating how a Muslim should deal with others, Muslim or non-Muslim, including verse (8:61), “And if they incline to peace, then incline to it and trust in God; surely He is the Hearing, the Knowing.”
The worst thing to do with the Quran is to approach it seeking confirmation for what one already believes in and turning a blind eye to any evidence that is inconsistent with his/her pre-conceived attitudes and biases. Anyone can find in the Quran whatever he/she wants to prove. Anyone can do the same thing with the Bible. The challenge, however, is to make a judgment only after a thorough and exhaustive investigation of all available Quranic evidence.
A Muslim may become selective and simply ignore some indispensable principles while working out what she or he should do in a given situation. Apart from self-indulgence, the socio-political context plays an important role in inducing this selectivity. A Muslim living where she or he finds Islam constantly reviled, the Prophet perpetually vituperated, and the Quran persistently misquoted may respond apologetically by declaring Islam as an “obviously” pacifist religion, ignoring anything in the Quran and the Prophetic traditions testifying to the contrary. A Muslim witnessing his wife being raped and his children slaughtered will very likely discard the well-established Islamic rules of engagement. The prevalent conditions are not a valid justification, but Muslims are humans after all, and humans — all humans — succumb to their overwhelming context. (Interestingly, the context was correctly and convincingly evoked in the U.S. media to understand the Abu Gharib prison abuses. When it comes to why some Muslims go to extremes, there is no context, only a culture of evil and fanaticism.)