The Fighting Verses in the Quran: Are They a Hotbed for Extremism?
The fighting verses in the Quran are found in Chapter 9 in the Quran titled "al-Tawbah" or “Repentance”. In this article, we will take a closer look at these verses and examine the leading exegesis of renowned Muslim scholars to have an overarching look at the context, circumstances, methods, regulating rules, results and amnesties which these verses discuss.
The Prophet, during his encounter with Quraysh and other tribes which strived to destroy the newly born Islamic state in Madinah suffered immensely from their continuous treachery, breaking vows, betraying trust, breaching pacts and numerous peace treaties that they had with the Prophet. The growing powers of the new Islamic state with its popular influence on people's hearts posed a threat to Quraysh's economic interests and jeopardized their prestigious position as custodians of the holy site of Ka'ba.
Historical records show that the Prophet was a firm believer in the importance of peace in order to advocate for his divine message. For this reason, he conducted the peace treaty of Hudaybiya with the tribe of Quraysh though the terms of the treaty were unfair for the Muslim community and its conditions were inclined towards favoring Quraysh over them. The Prophet had foresight and considered this pact as a blessed start that would work in favor of the Islamic message. The reasons for initiating the treaty were that the Prophet and around 1400 companions had embarked on a journey to perform the smaller pilgrimage ('umrah) in Makkah in the sixth year of Hijrah. The Prophet and his companions were not bearing arms but only the light weapons that were customarily necessary to protect themselves from the dangers of the desert roads. The Prophet meant no harm and had no intention of waging a war against Quraysh as he only intended to perform 'umrah, but on the way he learned that Quraysh were raising arms and preparing for a war to prevent him from entering the holy site of Ka'ba. He thus agreed on conducting a peace treaty as he wanted to avoid war at all costs. Although this treaty prevented Muslims from performing 'umrah in that year and did not allow them to enter the holy site of Ka'bah, the treaty indicated a 10-year truce between the two parties during which safety and security would be granted to them both. The Muslims were disappointment by the provision which stated that they were not to receive any Muslim convert from Quraysh and must return him or her whereas Muslims who wanted to go back to Quraysh would be welcomed and would not be returned to the Muslims.
When the Prophet and his companions were on their way back to Madinah, a Quranic verse was revealed and it described the peace pact of Hudaybiya as a victory; the Quranic chapter which contained these verses was titled “al-Fath” or the “Victory”. God says, "Indeed, We have given you, [O Muhammad], a clear victory. That God may forgive for you what preceded of your sin and what will follow and complete His favor upon you and guide you to a straight path. And [that] God may aid you with a mighty victory" (Quran 48:1-3). The verses consoled the Prophet's companions who then embraced the goodness of this pact. This incident reveals that Muslims were neither warmongers nor eager to wage wars, and turned away from seeking personal interests or achieving private gains.
After making the Hudaybiya peace pact, Quraysh breached the pact and waged attacks on the Muslims. Due to these offensive acts, God revealed some Quranic verses prescribing on Muslims the just methods of engaging in a war with those who did not honor their agreement. The verse says, "So travel freely, [O disbelievers], throughout the land [during] four months…" (Quran 2:9) and this means that those who breached the pact by attacking Muslims had four months of safety after which a war will take place as a response for such breach. Al- Tabari (d. 310 AH.) in his renowned exegesis Jami' al- Bayan stated that the four- month waiting period was only for those who waged offensive attacks against Muslims and thus breached their pact. As for those who did not breach their pact with the Muslims and honored their agreement, they were safe and secure.
As for the famous verse exploited by extremists and terrorists as a free-killing pass which always quote to justify their heinous killings of non-Muslims, it was actually designated to non-Muslims who breached their peace pact by attacking or conspiring with others to attack Muslims. Therefore, God in the verse says, "And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah, let them [go] on their way. Indeed, God is Forgiving and Merciful" (Quran 9:5).
This verse does not bear multiple interpretations. There is no room to say that this verse meant all non-Muslims regardless whether they honored their pact or not because there are multiple prophetic traditions which state that Ali ibn Abi Talib went to all the tribes which kept their pacts with the Prophet intact and assured them that the pacts will be honored until its due time. This means that Muslims were not killing people indiscriminately and without legally binding causes. The punishment of waging war in the event of any violation of the peace treaty between two belligerent parties is an integrated part of the terms of peace treaties in our modern times and is approved by the international law.
The merciful nature of war in Islam is even more emphasized in the very next verse in which God says, "And if any one of the polytheists seeks your protection, then grant him protection so that he may hear the words of God. Then deliver him to his place of safety. That is because they are a people who do not know" (Quran 9:6). Al-Tabari commented on this verse by saying that it proves that Prophet Muhammad and the Muslims were not asked to kill polytheists randomly. Even after giving those who broke their pacts and launched offensive attacks against Muslims a four month safety period, God still instructed the Prophet that if polytheists ask for an extension of the safety period or inquired about the message of Islam and contemplate on the nature of the Islamic faith, safety should be granted to them. If they were not convinced of the Islamic faith, they should be escorted back to their homes in safety.
The above verses prove that Muslims are not warmongers and that they don't engage in warfare except for legally binding reasons and with strict principles and clear guidelines of moral conduct. The current horrific images of killing, slaughtering, torturing and mutilating people are nothing but a deviation from the Islamic faith both in letter and spirit. We call all sensible people, whether Muslims or non-Muslims, not to be lured by the extremist interpretation of the fighting verses of the Quran because a religion which was sent only as a mercy to the world cannot in any way, shape, form, or condone such horrific massacres which are condemned not only by Islam but by humanity at large.