Saturday, April 23, 2011

Is the “Ayah of the Sword” Really as Militant as it Sounds?

In a discussion regarding the a context of Sura At-Tawba, one of my Muslim colleagues linked me to an article[1] supposedly explaining verse 5, the famous “ayah of the sword,” as it is often called. I would like to review and critique the article to see whether the case that it makes holds any water. Quotes from the original article are in underline.

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.

It’s pretty hard to deny that there was a lot of conflict between Hindus and Muslims ever since Islam first came into the Indian subcontinent. After all, that is the reason why today we have India on the one hand and Pakistan and Bangladesh on the other. As historian Will Durant has noted: “...the Islamic conquest of India is probably the bloodiest story in history.”[2] Winfried Corduan notes: “The relationship between the Hindu population and the Muslim government was perpetually hostile.”[3] The reason why Hindus by and large have been able to preserve their heritage is because unlike most other subjugated peoples, the Hindus were very nationalistic and chose to fight back rather than allow themselves to be cowed into submission (no puns intended).

Case in point: Early on in the history of the Sikh religion, the tenth Guru Gobind Singh commanded all male members of the Khalsa order to carry the Kirpan (dagger or sword). To this day we still see Sikhs doing this, although back then they actually did use the Kirpan to fight rather than just carry them for ceremonial purposes. Why? Because the Sikhs used their swords to counteract Muslim aggression; many Sikhs at the time were being harassed and killed by their Muslim overlords, which forced them to fight back. The reason why Sikhism still exists today is because its followers chose to militarize rather than give in to Islamic intimidation.[4]

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.

And it used to be a whole lot higher prior to the Islamic conquest in the seventh century. Don’t even get me started on the numerous human rights violations that go on in Egypt, because that could be an essay in and of itself.

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.)

Islamic Spain, admittedly, did have a track record of being more tolerant than most other Muslim regimes (relatively speaking). However, this is the exception to the rule, and for the most part Jews have faced a lot of death and oppression at the hands of Muslims (remember the Banu Qurayza?). There is a theological reason for this: There is a hadith where Muhammad is reported as saying, “The last hour would not come unless the Muslims will fight against the Jews and the Muslims would kill them until the Jews would hide themselves behind a stone or a tree and a stone or a tree would say: Muslim, or the servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me; come and kill him” (Sahih Muslim 41:6985).[5]

Also, Brown University professor Andrew G. Bostom recently published a 766 page volume entitled “The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism: From Sacred Texts to Solemn History,” which documents the numerous references to oppression and mistrust of Jews that are to be found all over Muslim tradition and history. This is also proved by the fact that the recent increase in Muslims in France has resulted in an increase in the number of attacks against French Jews and synagogues, along with an increasing number of French Jews leaving France to find safety in Israel, with a similar trend being reported in other European countries that have high rates of Muslim immigration as well.[6]

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...”

Which just makes you wonder why civil rights’ violations and martyrdoms of non-Muslims are a constant throughout all of Dar al-Islam. I can point to killings, kidnappings and other such atrocities being committed by Muslims from as far west as Morocco to as far east as Indonesia, as well as very other country in between those two. If Islam is such a peaceful and tolerant religion, why is it so hard to be a Jew or a Christian in any of the 50 plus Muslim majority countries that exist today? If this claim was true, these countries should be at the top when it comes to tolerance and freedom of religion.

I’m going to skip over the discussion of the word “infidel” because it’s a red herring; it really doesn’t matter to me what word one uses. In fact, I myself will avoid the use of the term and prefer the Qur’anic words “kafir” and “mushrik.”

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.

Funny enough, one eyewitness report by a Turkish soldier states that the genocide was carried out under the fatwa of a leading Islamic sheikh at the time who stated that it was lawful to kill the Armenians.[7] This underscores the religious element behind the massacre. So, if the genocides against the Armenians and Greeks were carried out for nationalistic reasons, then why is it that the Muslims in Egypt, Mesopotamia and North Africa (which were also under the rule of the Ottoman empire) remained relatively unmolested? Is it a mere coincidence that the Turks targeted Christian Greeks and Armenians and yet spared the Muslims in the aforementioned lands? Highly implausible.

Also, the thesis that the attacks upon the East Timorese by the Indonesians were motivated by nationalistic reasons is contradicted by the fact that other Indonesians who are not Muslim (or are not recognized as such) frequently experience the exact same kind of treatment. A good example of this is a recent incident where three members of the Ahmadiyya sect (which claims to be Muslim yet is regarded as heretical and thus non-Muslim by most Sunnis) have been killed by a mob of 1,500 Sunni Muslims.[8]

(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.

That is only if one does not take into account the doctrine of the abrogator and abrogated (al-Nasikh wa al-Mansukh). Simply put, if a later verse says the total opposite of an earlier verse, the later one takes precedence and abrogates the earlier verse. This is taught in the following Qur’anic verses:

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? (Sura 2:106)

When We substitute one revelation for another,- and Allah knows best what He reveals (in stages),- they say, "Thou art but a forger": but most of them understand not. (Sura 16:101)

For more information on this doctrine, see Abdullah Al Araby’s article “The Quran's Doctrine of Abrogation.”[9] Most of the relevant information concerning which verses abrogate which can be found therein. Also, it is worth looking at a chronological ordering of the suras in order to know which ones come earlier and which ones come later.

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).

The key to understanding these verses is to read it in light of Sura 48:29 (which is a very late sura and thus has precedence). In it, we read: “Muhammad is the apostle of Allah; and those who are with him are strong against Unbelievers, (but) compassionate amongst each other.” Related to this is a tradition where Muhammad is reported as saying, “Do not greet the Jews and the Christians before they greet you and when you meet any one of them on the roads force him to go to the narrowest part of it.” (Sahih Muslim, 26:5389)[9]

So does Islam promote mercy and forgiveness? Only if you’re a Muslim, since believers are commanded to be compassionate towards one another (unless one apostatizes, since Muhammad also said, “Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him” in Sahih Al-Bukhari 9: 84:57). However, if you’re a Dhimmi, then an entirely different set of rules apply. For example, the punishment for murdering a Muslim is death, yet we have a hadith which reports that “no Muslim should be killed in Qisas (equality in punishment) for killing a Kafir (disbeliever)” (Sahih Al-Bukhari 9:83:50). There are so many more documents expressing the same sentiment, but to highlight the oppressive nature of Dhimmitude would again require an essay in and of itself.[10]

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.

And yet we have numerous examples throughout the ahadith and in Islamic history where those who do not transgress are not “treated humanely and benevolently with complete respect.” Again, I will not go into examples, as they would be too many to count.

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).

The problem is that since the Qur’an came in stages, there was a stage when only defensive fighting was allowed, but in the later period this policy was changed and offensive warfare became permitted. As one famous hadith puts it:

Narrated Ibn 'Umar: Allah's Apostle said: “I have been ordered (by Allah) to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that Muhammad is Allah's Apostle, and offer the prayers perfectly and give the obligatory charity, so if they perform that, then they save their lives and property from me except for Islamic laws and then their reckoning (accounts) will be done by Allah” (Sahih Al-Bukhari 1:2:24).

Also, the verse which states “there is no compulsion in religion” is generally regarded by Muslim scholars to have been abrogated by later verses (such as those in sura 9). Again, see the aforementioned article by Al Araby.

(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.”

The problem with this explanation should be obvious: At this point in time, Muslims had already dominated Mecca, so the pagans were in no position whatsoever to launch any kind of offensive against the Muslims. Also the Tafsir by Ibn Kathir paints a different picture. He states that when the verse says “fight the Mushrikin wherever you find them,” this means “on the earth in general.” Unless we make the implausible hypothesis that every pagan around the world had declared war on Islam, this could not possibly mean defensive jihad only.

Further on, he writes: [D]o not wait until you find them. Rather, seek and besiege them in their areas and forts, gather intelligence about them in the various roads and fairways so that what is made wide looks ever smaller to them. This way, they will have no choice, but to die or embrace Islam.” That does not sound like defense to me. Mentioning verse 6 doesn’t really prove much since it only applies to Pagans who are willing to convert to Islam; for those who aren’t, the above-mentioned mandate still holds. As Muhammad again said: “Two deens shall not co-exist in the land of the Arabs” (Malik’s Muwatta 45:5:17). Yes, very tolerant.

Sura 9:5 is called the “ayah of the sword” for a reason: It authorizes complete unmitigated warfare against Dar al-Harb. This is evidenced from reading the rest of the sura, particularly the following ayat:

Fight them, and Allah will punish them by your hands, cover them with shame, help you (to victory) over them, heal the breasts of Believers (verse 14).

It is He Who hath sent His Apostle with guidance and the Religion of Truth, to proclaim it over all religion, even though the Pagans may detest (it) (verse 32).

O Prophet! strive hard against the unbelievers and the Hypocrites, and be firm against them. Their abode is Hell,- an evil refuge indeed (verse 73).

But the Apostle, and those who believe with him, strive and fight with their wealth and their persons: for them are (all) good things: and it is they who will prosper (verse 88),

O ye who believe! fight the unbelievers who gird you about, and let them find firmness in you: and know that Allah is with those who fear Him (verse 123).

Remember: We’re talking about just one sura. Similar statements can be found in other places as well, and their frequency increases the later in time one goes.

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.”

Sura 8 was revealed during the earlier defensive phase, which is right around the beginning of the Medinan period. Remember once again that the later passages take precedence. Ironically, that little piece of “historical context” proves the exact opposite of what is being claimed here.

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.

I agree. However, as I have just shown, the historical context behind Sura At-Tawba only worsens the impact of these verses, especially when one takes into account the various ahadith and commentaries that expand upon and clarify these passages.

End Notes
  1. “Kill the Infidels, Surah 9:5.” Muslim Access.
  2. Quoted by Nosostro, Rit in “Hindu-Muslim Conflict and the Partition of India.” Hyper History.
  3. Corduan, Winfried. Neighbouring Faiths: A Christian Introduction to World Religions. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998. 261.
  4. Ibid., 264-265. Interesting note: Of the ten gurus of Sikhism, two of them (Arjan and Tegh Bahadu) were killed by the Muslim emperors of their day, and the tenth guru, Gobind Singh, was assassinated by a Muslim henchman.
  5. All Hadith quotations are taken from “The Hadith Database.” International Islamic University of Malaysia.
  6. Ye’or, Bat. Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005. 25-28.
  7. Baas, Sayied Ahmed Moukhtar. “First-hand account by a Turkish army officer on the deportation of Armenians from Trebizond and Erzerum, December 26, 1916.” Armenian National Institute.
  8. Maala, Abdul Musawir. Ahmadiyya Times.
  9. Al Araby, Abdullah. “The Quran's Doctrine of Abrogation.” Islam Review.
  10. Bat Ye’or has written four well-researched scholarly books on this topic which are well worth obtaining and reading for more information on Dhimmitude. These are: The Dhimmi: Jews & Christians Under Islam (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985), The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996), Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001) and The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom (Deror Books, 2010).

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