Statements by scholars dating back to the 3rd century Hirji have claimed that the following verse, which has become known as “the verse of the sword,” has abrogated, i.e. annulled, many Qur’anic verses:
When the Inviolable Months have passed away, kill the polytheists wherever you find them. Seize them, besiege them, and wait for them at every place of observation. If they repent, observe prayer, and pay the obligatory alms then let them go their way. Allah is forgiving, merciful. (9.5)
The significance of these reports is the nature of the alleged abrogated verses. The latter include numerous verses that call on the Muslims to be tolerant, forgiving, and patient, and to display such positive attributes toward non-Muslims that allowed Muslims to live peacefully with various religious groups for 1,400 years. Although the alleged abrogating function of verse 9.5 has been dismissed by most scholars, it has become very popular among Muslim terrorist groups and individuals who use it to justify their atrocities.
There are a number of fundamental problems with this abrogation claim, which I will summarize here. For those who are interested in a more detailed analysis of this issue with references to primary sources and other works, there is a dedicated chapter in my book Abrogation in the Qur’an and Islamic Law.
First, only by taking 9.5 completely out of context it maybe be claimed that it has abrogated verses that command the Muslims to show tolerance to non-Muslims. To see how blatant that distortion is, I have quoted 9.5 with the verses that surround it:
A proclamation from Allah and His Messenger to people on the day of Greater Pilgrimage that Allah is clear of the polytheists, as is His Messenger. If you repent that is better for you but if you turn away then know that you are not beyond the power of Allah. And give [O Muhammad!] glad tidings of a painful chastisement to the disbelievers. (9.3) Except those of the polytheists with whom you have a treaty and they did not break its terms or aid someone against you, so abide by their treaty until their term. Allah loves the pious. (9.4) When the Inviolable Months have passed away, kill the polytheists wherever you find them. Seize them, besiege them, and wait for them at every place of observation. If they repent, observe prayer, and pay the obligatory alms then let them go their way. Allah is forgiving, merciful. (9.5) If anyone of the polytheists seeks your protection [O Muhammad!], then protect him so that he may hear the Word of Allah, and escort him to his place of safety. That is because they are a people who do not know. (9.6) How can there be a treaty with Allah and with His Messenger for the polytheists, save those with whom you [O you who believe!] made a treaty at the Inviolable Mosque? So long as they are true to you, be true to them. Surely, Allah loves the pious. (9.7) How [can there be any treaty for the others] when if they would get an advantage over you they would not honor any relation or treaty with you? They satisfy you with their mouths while their hearts refuse. Most of them are backsliders. (9.8) They have purchased with the verses of Allah a little gain, so they have turned away from His way. Surely, evil is what they do. (9.9) They do not honor any relation or treaty with a believer; these are the transgressors. (9.10) But if they repent, observe prayer, and pay the obligatory alms, then they are your brethren in religion. We detail Our verses for the people of knowledge. (9.11) If they break their oaths after their treaty and assail your religion, then fight the heads of disbelief. Surely, they have no binding oaths, so that they may desist. (9.12) Will you not fight a people who broke their oaths, set out to drive out the Messenger, and attacked you first? Do you fear them? Allah is more worthy of your fear, if you are believers. (9.13)
I have analysed these verses in my book Jihad in the Qur’an. The verse immediately before 9.5 commands the Muslims to honor any peace treaty they had with disbelievers. Then verse 9.6 shows that Islam does not consider a peaceful disbeliever an enemy. The Qur’an even commanded the Prophet to give protection to any polytheist who sought his help.
Verse 9.7 commands the Muslims to honor their treaty with the polytheists as long as the latter honored it. God considers this to be an act of piety: “Allah loves the pious.” He reminds the Muslims in verses 9.8-10 that the polytheists used to break their peace treaties whenever they felt they had the upper hand and that they showed a similar disregard for their relations with the Muslims. He explains that the polytheists made peace with their mouths but did not embrace it with their hearts.
Muslims were commanded to forgive the polytheists, live with them in peace if the latter honored peace, and forgive and consider them brothers if they convert to Islam (9.11). God then emphasizes that the aim of fighting the heads of disbelief is to make them desist and establish peace (9.12).
Finally, verse 9.13 urges the Muslims to fight aggression, reminding them of the background of the conflict with the disbelievers. First, it was the polytheists who broke the treaty they had with the Muslims. Second, like the Meccans who forced the Prophet to immigrate to Medina, the polytheists were trying to expel him from Medina. Third, it was the polytheists who attacked the Muslims first.
Second, there are verses in other places in the Qur’an commanding the Muslims to establish peace with any party that wants peace (e.g. 4.90, 8.72). The Qur’an even has clear references to the Prophet continuing to make peace with people who repeatedly violated their peace treaties with the Muslims:
Surely, the worst of beasts in Allah’s sight are those who are ungrateful as they would not believe. (8.55) Those with whom you [O Muhammad!] have made a covenant yet they break their covenant every time and do not act piously. (8.56) Therefore, should you get hold of them in war, make of them an example that would disperse [the gathering army of] those who are behind them that they may be mindful. (8.57) If you fear treachery from a people, then throw back to them [their treaty] on equal terms. Surely, Allah does not love the treacherous. (8.58) Let not those who disbelieve think that they can outstrip [Us]. Surely, they are not impregnable. (8.59) Prepare [O you who believe!] for them what you can of force and horses tethered, to frighten thereby Allah’s and your enemy and others besides them whom you do not know but Allah knows. Whatever you spend in the way of Allah will be paid back to you in full and you shall not be wronged. (8.60) If they incline to peace then incline [O Muhammad!] to it, and rely on Allah. Surely, He is the Hearing, the Knowing. (8.61) If they intend to deceive you, then surely Allah is sufficient for you. It is He who supported you with His help and with the believers. (8.62)
Third, verse 9.5 is claimed to have abrogated even verses commanding the Muslims to be patient in general, not specifically when dealing with the polytheists or their enemies! This shows the false nature of the claims of abrogation involving this verse in general.
Fourth, those who argue that 9.5 has the power to override other verses ignore the fact that this verse targeted certain groups of polytheists, as they apply it to all idolaters. They make an even bigger mistake by claiming that it applies to all non-Muslims, including even the Jews and Christians. Yet the verse talks about the “mushrikīn,” which is the term the Qur’an applies to the polytheists of Arabia, whereas the Qur’an calls the Jews and Christians “Ahl al-Kitāb” or the “People of the Book.” Even when referring to Jews and Christians behaving like “mushrikīn,” the Qur’an still calls them “Ahl al-Kitāb,” as in verse 29 from the same chapter as the verse of the sword.
Fifth, in addition to the fact that scholars have disagreed on how many verses are supposed to have been abrogated by 9.5, the number of claims of abrogation by 9.5 grew over time. This clearly shows that the claims were based on the opinions of certain later scholars rather than sources that go back to the Prophet or even his Companions or the Successors.
Sixth, if 9.5 really abrogated tolerance and forgiveness for the disbelievers, it would have abrogated all of the many verses that promote such concepts. Yet even when considering all the verses that are claimed to have been abrogated by 9.5, there are still many other verses that command the Muslims to live peacefully with the disbelievers left uncovered by abrogation claims.
It should now be clear that the claim that verse 9.5 has abrogated other verses, let alone such a large number of them, is absurd. Even the title “the verse of the sword” is a late invention. While “the verse of alms” has been given this name by scholars because it talks about almsgiving and other verses have been given names after words that occur in them, the expression “the verse of the sword” is very much a misnomer because the term “sword” is not found in the verse. Even more telling is the fact that this word does not exist anywhere in the Qur’an!
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