Insights Into Sura’ At-Tauba

Hesham Azmy

Surat-ul-Tauba, which is the 9th Chapter of the Qur’an, was revealed 15 months before the Prophet’s(P) demise. Before its revelation, Muslims used to follow a very wise policy, that is “If they charge thee with falsehood, say: my work to me, and yours to you ye are free from responsibility for what I do, and I for what ye do!” (Holy Qur’an 10:41).

But the polytheists were not satisfied with this policy and they did not refrain from treacherous acts against Muslims, that was why the command to punish these groups came, and this is the discharge from God and His Apostle. Missionaries concentrate upon a piece of verse and ignore the rest of the passage. For example, they claim that the Sura declared war against all unbelievers and quote “fight the Pagans all together” without completing the passage “as they fight you all together” (Holy Qur’an 9:36).

Also in the following saying “God and His Messenger dissolve (treaty) obligations with the Pagans” (Holy Qur’an 9:3). Some went to interpret it to mean all the Pagans ignoring the next exception and note.

First there is an exception “(But the treaties are) not dissolved with those Pagans with whom ye have entered into alliance and who have not subsequently failed you in aught, nor aided any one against you. So fulfil your engagements with them to the end of their term: for God loveth the righteous” (Holy Qur’an 9:4)

It is decisively clear that the war was against certain people who failed Muslims’ treaties and aided others against them. Are we to be blamed for fighting such people?

And the next note is very important, because during the process of punishing the transgressors, some innocent people who have nothing to do with war would appear. They did not want to fight, nor did they seek it. That was why the command came to secure them.

“If one amongst the Pagans ask thee 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. That is because they are men without knowledge” (Holy Qur’an 9:6).

So where is the unprovoked assault in this context? Let us explore more in the Sura, Islam gave the Pagans four months in order to re-consider and fix themselves:

“Go ye, then, for four months, backwards and forwards, (as ye will), throughout the land, but know ye that ye cannot frustrate God (by your falsehood) but that God will cover with shame those who reject Him” (Holy Qur’an 9:2).

This means that the term of four months is not out of weakness, so do not be fooled by your alleged power. Moreover, the Sura’ says:

“How can there be a league, before God and His Messenger, with the Pagans, except those with whom ye made a treaty near the Sacred Mosque? As long as these stand true to you, stand ye true to them: for God doth love the righteous” (Holy Qur’an 9:7)

We are sincere with those who keep their covenants, but those who transgress the limits and act treacherously have no covenants with us, since they did not keep their treaties, we do not keep them.

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It seems that Muslims were afraid from the consequences of this attitude and realized that their enemies are powerful, and their power is what made them transgress without respect for Muslims. The Qur’an disliked this fear and provoked Muslims to fight: “fight ye the chiefs of unfaith: for their oaths are nothing to them: that thus they may be restrained” (Holy Qur’an 9:12). Then the tone gets stronger to provoke Muslims against traitors and assailants:

“Will ye not fight people who violated their oaths, plotted to expel the Messenger, and took the aggressive by being the first (to assault) you? Do ye fear them? Nay, it is God Whom ye should more justly fear, if ye believe!” (Holy Qur’an 9:13).

During the course of following the Sura’, one discovers that those whom Muslims are commanded to fight were not people of peace and trust, and they used to abuse and insult Muslims for a long time and they hurt them in the long run.

“Fight them, and God will punish them by your hands, cover them with shame, help you (to victory) over them, heal the breasts of Believers” (Holy Qur’an 9:14).

Do you find in this context any assault against peaceful people? Indeed, the description of this Sura’ as a change in Muslims? policy indicates nothing but stark ignorance of the claimant. Muslims remain the same: we are peaceful with whoever is peaceful with us and fight whoever fights us. We still preach our Faith with nice speech and beautiful exhortation without accepting humiliation.

Before moving on, it is noteworthy to know that Pagans in Arabia quickly embraced Islam and no one waited until the end of four months’ grace period. In order to understand this rapid collapse of Paganism, one should recall the status of Mecca as the capital and spiritual center of Arabia. When it was converted into a purely Islamic city and the Pagans were prevented from attending it, they found that their idolatrous practices are no longer valid and so they embraced Islam, Pure Monotheism, without hesitation.

Now, we deal with attitude of Islam toward Christianity and Christians. Since the early days of Islam, Christians used to come to Mecca, then to Madinah in order to listen to the new Revelation. Some embraced Islam and some discussed Islamic rejection of Jesus’ (P) divinity despite the great respect and reverence of Muslims to him. Islam never felt threatened by Christians of Yemen or others, but the threat came from the Roman Empire in the north.

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Here, we would like to draw attention to two points:

  • Islam was (and still) a friend for Christians and the Prophet (peace be upon him) ordered his followers with migration to Abyssinia (i.e. Ethiopia) when they were persecuted in Mecca. Also, Muhammad(P) was the only person on face of the earth who predicted victory of Romans over Persians after their massive defeat (Qur’an 30:2-4).
  • Despite this friendship with Christian peoples, Islam was explicit in its denial of the Trinity and rejection of divinity of Jesus (P) and Gabriel. Revelation in Mecca and Madinah confirmed this view and asked followers of the Christ (P) to correct their beliefs, worship God alone without partners, follow the divine Law and equate Popes and Bishops with other creatures.

God in Islam is One and Only, Eternal, Absolute, never begets, never has been begotten and there is none like unto Him. Roman Empire shut its doors before Islam and used its army to prevent Islamic teachings from reaching its lands. The first battle was at Mu’ta between 3.000 Muslim soldiers and 200.000 Roman soldiers (were Muslims really looking for trouble?), and three generals of the Muslim army were killed in this battle.

To be more explicit, Romans persecuted the Church of Arius who said that Jesus is a creature not Creator. They persecuted Eastern Churches and considered them ‘heretics’ as well. Was they then ready, at any level, to accept Islamic creed? Indeed, Islam was fighting for religious freedom. When Surat-ul-Tauba was revealed, hostility was already established between the new Islamic State and mighty Roman Empire. In that time, Roman Empire was on top of the world after its tremendous victory over Persian Empire while Muslims were only a small portion of Arabs and the rest of Arabs were allies either to the Romans or to the Persians.

The command of fighting the Romans frightened many Muslims who feared its consequences, which was why the Qur’an came to rebuke them:

“O ye who believe what is the matter with you, that when ye are asked to go forth in the cause of God, ye cling heavily to the earth? Do ye prefer the life of this world to the Hereafter? But little is the comfort of this life, as compared with the Hereafter” (Holy Qur’an 9:38)

“Say: if it be that your fathers, your sons, your brothers, your mates, or your kindred; the wealth that ye have gained; the commerce in which ye fear a decline: or the dwellings in which ye delight- are dearer to you than God, or His Messenger, or the striving in His Cause- then wait until God brings about His Decision: and God guides not the rebellious” (Holy Qur’an 9:24)1

Lastly, coming to the most quoted verse by Christian missionaries and polemicists:

“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.” (Holy Qur’an 9:5)

I have already shown that the pagans meant here are those who had broken their covenants with Muslims after exclusion of those who kept their covenants (Qur’an 9:4) and those who sought peace (Qur’an 9:6). Abdullah Yusuf Ali wrote in his commentary on this verse, that

“When war is inevitable, it must be prosecuted with vigour. According to the English phrase, you cannot fight with kid gloves. The fighting may take the form of slaughter, or capture, or siege, or ambush and other stratagems. But even then there is a room for repentance and amendment on the part of the guilty party, and if it takes place, our duty is forgiveness and the establishment of peace.”2

One reads the beginning of the Sura and its end with wonderment! It begins with dissolving treaties with evil-doers and traitors and ends with reminding people with God’s Mercy for sending the Prophet of peace and war. He is a warrior prophet standing with arms against those who hold arms, as the famous Egyptian poet, Ahmad Shawqi said:

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War for returning rights is your law,
For medicine is derived from most deadly poisons.

But in the same time, he (P) seeks peace in every inch of land, removes dust from every face and lifts burdens of each agonized person.

“Now hath come unto you a Messenger from amongst yourselves: it grieves him that ye should perish: ardently anxious is he over you: to the Believers is he most kind and merciful.” (Holy Qur’an 9:138)

He did not fight out of love for war, but out of dislike for mischief and transgression. So, if justice is guaranteed, freedom prevails and rights are observed, then none seeks war but a criminal. This is why the Sura was sealed with the following verse:

“But if they turn away, say: “God sufficeth me: there is no god but He: on Him is my trust- He is the Lord of the Throne (of Glory) Supreme!”” (Holy Qur’an 9:139)

And this is the same Sura’ that is claimed to have declared war against non-Muslims!

And to God is the decision in all affairs.

Footnotes

  1. For more detailed understanding, we recommend the book “Journey Through The Qur’an — The Content and Context of the Suras” by Muhammad Al-Ghazali, published by Dar Al Taqwa Ltd; 7A Melcombe Street, London NW1 6AE []
  2. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, “The Holy Qur’an Text, Translation and Commentary“, Publications of Presidency of Islamic Courts and Affairs, Qatar, Copyrighted 1946 by Khalil Al-Rawaf, p. 439 []

1 Comment

  1. Dear Sir

    I’d like to agree with the article’s general conclusions. They are well taken. But I’d like to add that the reason for revelation given is wrong because the sources are not given. The text points out that some pagan Arabs who were polytheists violated the agreement they had with the muslims of that time. Hence God commanded anddesolved the teaty Muslims had with them. They were given 4 month’s to either repent and keepthe treaty by following it or tobe ready for open war with them.

    Verse 9:5 is also not very well and clearly explained in the article. Its intended meaning is that if they repent their VIOLATION OF THE TEATY, Always Follow (aqaamus salaat)it,and give it growth by acting fruitfully, they should be left free to go on their OWN WAY of life (sabeeli hum ), othewise they will have to face war. This implies that they will have freedom of religion as well as peace if they observe the terms of the treaty sincerely. In this interpretation, all the words are well related and well organized in thought expression. Also because the next verses clearly point out that they WERE STILL POLYTHEISTS and when they would come toMuslims, they willbe respected and returned to their homes and the Quran would be recited tothem for consideration and acceptance if they chose to do so.

    Thus it shows that Islamgives them free choice and protection if they follow the treaty. The others whofollowed their agreements were left in peace. The problemis that people don’t read the Quran in contexxt.

    Liaquat Samma

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