This article contains too many or overly lengthy quotations for an encyclopedic entry. (September 2016)
The Sword Verse (ayat as-sayf) is the fifth verse of the ninth sura (or Surat at-Tawbah ) of the Qur'an (also written as 9:5). It is a Qur'anic verse widely cited by critics of Islam to suggest the faith promotes violence against "pagans" ("idolators", mushrikun), by isolating the portion of the verse "fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them" (fa-uq'tulū l-mush'rikīna ḥaythu wajadttumūhum فَاقْتُلُوا الْمُشْرِكِينَ حَيْثُ وَجَدْتُمُوهُمْ; trans. Abdullah Yusuf Ali). The next immediate verse (often excluded from quotes) appears to present a conditional reprieve within the statement: "if any of the idolaters seeks of thee protection, grant him protection till he hears the words of God; then do thou convey him to his place of security – that, because they are a people who do not know."
Text and translations
The Meaning of the Glorious Koran (1930)
|Abdullah Yusuf Ali,|
The Holy Qur'an (1934)
|فَإِذَا انْسَلَخَ الْأَشْهُرُ الْحُرُمُ
فَاقْتُلُوا الْمُشْرِكِينَ حَيْثُ وَجَدْتُمُوهُمْ
وَخُذُوهُمْ وَاحْصُرُوهُمْ وَاقْعُدُوا لَهُمْ كُلَّ مَرْصَدٍ
فَإِنْ تَابُوا وَأَقَامُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَآتَوُا الزَّكَاةَ
إِنَّ اللَّهَ غَفُورٌ رَحِيمٌ ([Quran 9:5])
|fa-idhā insalakha l-ashhuru l-ḥurumu
fa-uq'tulū l-mush'rikīna ḥaythu wajadttumūhum
wakhudhūhum wa-uḥ'ṣurūhum wa-uq'ʿudū lahum kulla marṣadin
fa-in tābū wa-aqāmū l-ṣalata waātawū l-zakata fakhallū sabīlahum
inna llāha ghafūrun raḥīmun
|"Then, when the sacred months have passed,
slay the idolaters wherever ye find them,
and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush.
But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free.
Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful"
|"But when the forbidden months are past,|
then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them,
and 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."
Giving context to the verse are the first seven verses of Surat at-Tawbah, with the number of the verse given after, not before, the verse (the "Sword Verse" being the fifth):
An acquittal, from God and His Messenger, unto the idolaters with whom you made covenant: (1) 'Journey freely in the land for four months; and know that you cannot frustrate the will of God, and that God degrades the unbelievers.' (2) A proclamation, from God and His Messenger, unto mankind on the day of the Greater Pilgrimage: 'God is quit, and His Messenger, of the idolaters. So if you repent, that will be better for you; but if you turn your backs; know that you cannot frustrate the will of God. And give thou good tidings to the unbelievers of a painful chastisement; (3) excepting those of the idolaters with whom you made covenant, then they failed. you naught neither lent support to any man against you. With them fulfil your covenant till their term; surely God loves the godfearing. (4) Then, when the sacred months are drawn away, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent, and perform the prayer, and pay the alms, then let them go their way; God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate. (5) And if any of the idolaters seeks of thee protection, grant him protection till he hears the words of God; then do thou convey him to his place of security -- that, because they are a people who do not know. (6) How should the idolaters have a covenant with God and His Messenger? -- excepting those with whom you made covenant at the Holy Mosque; so long as they go straight with you, do you go straight with them; surely God loves the godfearing. (7)
According to several mainstream Islamic scholars, the verse relates to a specific event in Islamic history -- namely that Arabian pagans made and broke a covenant with Arabic Muslims. The verses immediately preceding and following 9:5, 9:4 and 9:6, make the context very clear: Only those pagans who broke the covenant were subject to violent repercussions so that any pagans who honored the covenant or repented their betrayal were to be spared. Commentating on the following verse, 9:6, Asma Afsaruddin brings the position of different early commentators, and the overall direction taken is that it concerns the Arab polytheists and doesn't translate into indiscriminate killing:
Mujāhid said that this verse guarantees the safety of people in general (insān) who came to listen to the Prophet recite from the Qur’ān until they had returned to the place of refuge whence they came.
The Tanwīr al-miqbās says that the verse commands the Prophet to grant safe conduct to anyone from among the polytheists who asks for it, so that he may hear the recitation of the speech of God. If he does not believe (sc. embrace Islam), then he is to be granted safe passage back to his land (waṭanahu). This is so because they are people ignorant of the commandments of God and His oneness.
Hūd b. Muḥakkam similarly comments that the polytheist who requests safe conduct from Muslims in order to listen to the word of God is to be so granted and returned unharmed to his place of origin, whether he embraces Islam or not. This was the view of Mujāhid, for example. Al-Kalbî quoted as saying that the verse referred instead to a group of polytheists who wished to renew their pact with Muḥammad after the sacred months had passed. When Muḥammad asked them to profess Islam, off er prayers, and pay the zakāt, they refused, and the Prophet let them return safely to their homes. Ibn Muḥakkam further notes that al-Ḥasan al-Basrī had remarked thus on the status of this verse: “It is valid and unabrogated (muḥkama) until the Day of Judgment.”
Al-Qummî affirms briefly that this verse asks Muslims to recite the Qur’ān to the polytheist, explain it to him, and not show him any opposition until he returns safely. It is worth noting that Furāt regards Qur’ān 9:6 as abrogating Qur’ān 9:5 and thus overriding the seemingly blanket injunction concerning the polytheists contained in the latter verse. In this he agrees with many of his predecessors that the polytheist who wishes for safe conduct in order to listen to the word of God should be so granted and then peacefully escorted back to his home, regardless of whether he had embraced Islam or not.
Al-Ṭabarî says that in this verse God counsels Muḥammad, “If someone from among the polytheists (al-mushrikīn)—those whom I have commanded that you fight and slay after the passage of the sacred months—were to ask you, O Muḥammad, for safe conduct in order to listen to the word of God, then grant this protection to him so that he may hear the word of God and you may recite it to him.” Such an individual, according to the verse, is to be subsequently escorted back to his place of safety even if he rejects Islam and fails to believe after the Prophet’s recitation of the Qur’ān before him. Scholars in the past who have agreed with this general interpretation include Ibn Isḥāq, al-Suddî, and Mujāhid (as above).
In the same breath, still on 9:6, bringing later scholars and Quranic commentators, she mentions that "in his similarly brief commentary, al-Zamakhsharî explains this verse quite literally—that if one of the polytheists, with whom no pact (mīthāq) exists, were to request safe conduct from the Muslims in order to listen to the Qur’ān, then he should be granted it so that he may reflect upon God’s words. Afterward, he is to be escorted back to his home where he feels safe. This, al-Zamakhsharî says, is established practice for all time." Concerning the influential Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, "unlike previous exegetes, al-Rāzī further comments that this verse indicates that imitation of precedent (al-taqlīd) is not sufficient in religion, and that critical inquiry (al-nazar) and the seeking of proofs (al-istidlāl) are indispensable requirements within religion.
Tafsir al-Kabir (Fakhr al-Din al-Rāzī, commentary on verses 9:5-6):
"Know that these verses indicate that blind imitation is not sufficient in matters of religion. There must be investigation and argumentation. This is so because, if blind imitation were sufficient, the non‐believer would not have been given respite. Rather, one would have said to him, “Believe or we kill you!” Since this is not what God ordered, and instead we gave him respite and removed the fear from him and since it is obligatory for us to take a non‐believer to his place of safety, we know that this is only because blind imitation in matters of religion is not sufficient. One must have proof and argument….if this is clear, we say that these verses do not indicate the period of the respite [in the case of the non‐believers seeking protection]. Perhaps this period can only be known by some customary practice [i.e., it is certainly not indicated in our Scripture]. So when there is some sign that the polytheist is trying to seek the truth in religion by way of argumentation, he is to be given respite and to be left alone. But if he appears to be turning away from the truth, buying time by lies, one is not to pay attention to that polytheist. God knows the truth!"
If emulation of precedent were enough, he argues, then this verse would not have granted a respite to this unbeliever, and he would have been merely given a choice between professing his belief [in Islam] or death. As this did not occur, it confirms that Muslims are required to offer safe conduct to such a person and thereby assuage his fears and allow him the opportunity to deliberate upon the proofs of religion.
While for al-Qurtubi, the famous Andalusian scholar, he "dismisses as invalid the views of those who say that this verse’s injunction was valid only for the four months mentioned in the preceding verse. On the basis of the occasion of revelation cited by Sa‘īd b. Jubayr (as previously discussed) and on the authority of ‘Alī b. Abī Ṭālib, al-Qurṭubī concludes that this verse is muḥkam and valid for all time."
As per Muhammad Abdel-Haleem, translator of the Qur'an, while contextualizing 9:5 and bringing the wider sequential narrative:
It was these hardened polytheists in Arabia, who would accept nothing other than the expulsion of the Muslims or their reversion to paganism, and who repeatedly broke their treaties, that the Muslims were ordered to treat in the same way – to fight them or expel them. Even with such an enemy Muslims were not simply ordered to pounce on them and reciprocate by breaking the treaty themselves; instead, an ultimatum was issued, giving the enemy notice, that after the four sacred months mentioned in 9:5 above, the Muslims would wage war on them. The main clause of the sentence ‘kill the polytheists’ is singled out by some Western scholars to represent the Islamic attitude to war; even some Muslims take this view and allege that this verse abrogated other verses on war. This is pure fantasy, isolating and decontextualizing a small part of a sentence. The full picture is given in 9:1–15, which gives many reasons for the order to fight such polytheists. They continuously broke their agreements and aided others against the Muslims, they started hostilities against the Muslims, barred others from becoming Muslims, expelled Muslims from the Holy Mosque and even from their own homes. At least eight times the passage mentions their misdeeds against the Muslims. Consistent with restrictions on war elsewhere in the Qur’an, the immediate context of this ‘Sword Verse’ exempts such polytheists as do not break their agreements and who keep the peace with the Muslims (9:7). It orders that those enemies seeking safe-conduct should be protected and delivered to the place of safety they seek (9:6). The whole of this context to v.5, with all its restrictions, is ignored by those who simply isolate one part of a sentence to build their theory of war in Islam on what is termed ‘The Sword Verse’ even when the word ‘sword’ does not occur anywhere in the Qur’an.
According to Maher Hathout:
This verse was revealed towards the end of the revelation period and relates to a limited context. Hostilities were frozen for a three-month period during which the Arabs pledged not to wage war. Prophet Muhammad was inspired to use this period to encourage the combatants to join the Muslim ranks or, if they chose, to leave the area that was under Muslims rule; however, if they were to resume hostilities, then the Muslims would fight back until victorious. One is inspired to note that even in this context of war, the verse concludes by emphasizing the divine attributes of mercy and forgiveness. To minimize hostilities, the Qur'an ordered Muslims to grant asylum to anyone, even an enemy, who sought refuge. Asylum would be granted according to the customs of chivalry; the person would be told the message of the Qur'an but not coerced into accepting that message. Thereafter, he or she would be escorted to safety regardless of his or her religion. (9:6).
Patricia Crone states that the verse is directed against a particular group accused of oath-breaking and aggression and excepts those polytheists who remained faithful. Crone states that this verse seems to be based on the same above-mentioned rules. Here also it is stressed that one must cease fighting when the enemy does.
Rejecting the idea of abrogation (naskh), the influential Islamic reformist scholar Muhammad Abduh "citing the views of al-Suyūṭī, ‘Abduh argues that in the specific historical situation with which the verse is concerned—with its references to the passage of the four sacred months and the pagan Meccans—other verses in the Qur’ān advocating forgiveness and nonviolence were not abrogated by it, but rather placed in temporary abeyance or suspension (laysa naskhan bal huwa min qism al-mansa’) in that specific historical circumstance." Another modern Qur'anic scholar, Muhammad Asad, also states that the permission to fight and kill was restricted to specific tribes already at war with the Muslims who had breached their peace agreements and attacked them first.
The founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, held the same views, that "the sword verse was directed only at polytheists and not at the People of the Book", as, in his words, it contradicted Qur'anic verses “which decree inviting to Islam with wisdom and good counsel and attribute to God the final adjudication of differences on the Day of Judgment.” Generally attached to the MB, at least informally, Yusuf al-Qaradawi too believes that 9:5 is contextual.
The late authoritative Syrian scholar, Mohamed Said Ramadan Al-Bouti, followed the same thinking, as he "comments that if Qur’ān 9:5 is understood to command the fighting of polytheists until their death or their acceptance of Islam, then such a command is countermanded by the very next verse that exhorts Muslims to offer refuge and safe conduct to polytheists while they are in their state of polytheism. He dismisses as irresponsibly arbitrary the view of those who suggest that Qur’ān 9:5 abrogates Qur’ān 9:6; this goes against the usual rule of abrogation that a later verse may supersede an earlier verse, and he stresses that their understanding of Qur’ān 9:5 contradicts other, more numerous verses of the Qur’ān that were later revelations and the praxis of the Companions."
A similar interpretation of the verse as limited to defensive warfare is also found in Ahmadiyya literature, notably in Muhammad Ali's 1936 The Religion of Islam. In The English Commentary of the Holy Quran, which is a collective commentary supervised by the fourth caliph of the Ahmadis, Mirza Tahir Ahmad, and reuniting views of their second caliph, Mirza Basheer-ud-Din Mahmood Ahmad, as well as well-known Ahmadi scholars like Mirza Bashir Ahmad, Maulvi Sher Ali and Malik Ghulam Farid, concerning 9:5 we can read:
To wage war after the expiry of the four forbidden months did not apply to all idolaters without exception but was directed only against such avowed enemies of Islam as had themselves started hostilities against Islam and had broker their plighted word and plotted to expel de Holy Prophet from the city. The reason for this ultimate is given in the following few verses, viz. 9:8-13. As for those idolaters who had not been guilty of faithlessness and treachery, they were to be protected (see 9:4, 7). It is highly regrettable, however, that, divorcing this commandment from its context, some critics have made this verse the basis for an attack against Islam, alleging that it inculcates the destruction of all non-Muslims. The Quran and history belie that baseless allegation.
- The Qur'an. OUP Oxford. 2004-05-13. pp. xxiii. ISBN 9780192805485.
- "Quran Chapter 9 Verse 5"
- "Quran Chapter 9 Verse 6"
- Anwar al-Tanzeel wa Asrar al-Ta’weel, al-Baydawi, (9:5).
- Rūḥ al-ma‘ānī fī tafsīr al-Qur’ān al-‘aẓīm wa-al-sab‘ al-mathānī, Mahmud al-Alusi, (9:5).
- Arthur John Arberry, The Koran Interpreted, (9:1-7).
- Asma Afsaruddin, Striving in the Path of God: Jihad and Martyrdom in Islamic Thought, OUP USA (2013), pp. 88-89
- Asma Afsaruddin, Striving in the Path of God: Jihad and Martyrdom in Islamic Thought, OUP USA (2013), pp. 89-90
- Muhammad Abdel Haleem, Understanding the Qur'an: Themes and Style, I.B. Tauris (2001), pp.65-66
- Hathout, Jihad vs. Terrorism; US Multimedia Vera International, 2002, pp.52-53.
- Patricia Crone, "War" in Encyclopedia of the Qur'an (2006), p. 456
- Asma Afsaruddin, Striving in the Path of God: Jihad and Martyrdom in Islamic Thought, OUP USA (2013), pp. 238-239
- Asad, Muhammad. The Message of the Qur'an, 1980. Redwood Books, Wiltshire, Great Britain. p. 256, Footnote 7.
- For similar arguments see also e.g. Hesham A. Hassaballa, Articles; "Does Islam Call For The Murder of 'Infidels'"; Zakir Naik, "Terrorism and Jihad: An Islamic Perspective".
- Asma Afsaruddin, Striving in the Path of God: Jihad and Martyrdom in Islamic Thought, OUP USA (2013), p. 244
- Asma Afsaruddin, Striving in the Path of God: Jihad and Martyrdom in Islamic Thought, OUP USA (2013), p. 230
- Asma Afsaruddin, Striving in the Path of God: Jihad and Martyrdom in Islamic Thought, OUP USA (2013), p. 249
- Ali, Maulana Muhammad. The Religion of Islam. The Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha’at Islam (Lahore) USA, 1990. Chapter V, "Jihad", page 414.
- The Holy Quran with English translation and commentary, volume 5, p. 910