Verse of the Sword or Ayat ul sayf: Need for re-interpretation
There is a verse in Quran which is commonly regarded as the Verse or Ayah of the Sword. It is found in the chapter 9 (Surah Baraah), verse 5 which is translated in English as follows by various scholars:
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 practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for God is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.
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.
So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captives and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush, then if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, leave their way free to them; surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.
And when the forbidden months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever you find them and take them captive, and beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent and observe Prayer and pay the Zakaat, then leave their way free. Surely, Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful
Hilali & Khan
Then when the Sacred Months (the Ist, 7th, 11th, and 12th months of the Islamic calendar) have passed, then kill the Mushrikun (see V.2:105) wherever you find them, and capture them and besiege them, and prepare for them each and every ambush. But if they repent [by rejecting Shirk (polytheism) and accept Islamic Monotheism] and perform As-Salat (Iqamat-as-Salat), and give Zakat, then leave their way free. Verily, Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.
Now let us read carefully the widely accepted explanation/commentary or tafsir of the above mentioned verse. The most acclaimed tafsir is that of Imam Ibn Kathir who is highly regarded as the foremost classical commentator of Quran. The following explanation of Ibn Kathir is found: (internet source: www.tafsir.com)
This is the Ayah of the Sword:
Mujahid, `Amr bin Shu`ayb, Muhammad bin Ishaq, Qatadah, As-Suddi and `Abdur-Rahman bin Zayd bin Aslam said that the four months mentioned in this Ayah are the four-month grace period mentioned in the earlier Ayah,
[Arabic Text ]
(So travel freely for four months throughout the land.) Allah said next,
(So when the Sacred Months have passed...), meaning, `Upon the end of the four months during which We prohibited you from fighting the idolators, and which is the grace period We gave them, then fight and kill the idolators wherever you may find them.' Allah's statement next,
(then fight the Mushrikin wherever you find them), means, on the earth in general, except for the Sacred Area, for Allah said,
(And fight not with them at Al-Masjid Al-Haram, unless they fight you there. But if they attack you, then fight them. )[2:191] Allah said here,
(and capture them), executing some and keeping some as prisoners
(and besiege them, and lie in wait for them in each and every ambush), do 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,
(But if they repent and perform the Salah, and give the Zakah, then leave their way free. Verily, Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.) Abu Bakr As-Siddiq used this and other honorable Ayat as proof for fighting those who refrained from paying the Zakah. These Ayat allowed fighting people unless and until, they embrace Islam and implement its rulings and obligations. Allah mentioned the most important aspects of Islam here, including what is less important. Surely, the highest elements of Islam after the Two Testimonials, are the prayer, which is the right of Allah, the Exalted and Ever High, then the Zakah, which benefits the poor and needy. These are the most honorable acts that creatures perform, and this is why Allah often mentions the prayer and Zakah together.
In the Two Sahihs ( Books of sayings of Muhammad), it is recorded that Ibn Umar said that the Messenger of Allah said, "I have been commanded to fight the people until they testify that there is no deity worthy of worship except Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, establish the prayer and pay the Zakah.) This honorable Ayah (9:5) was called the Ayah of the Sword, about which Ad-Dahhak bin Muzahim said, "It abrogated every agreement of peace between the Prophet and any idolator, every treaty, and every term.'' Al-`Awfi said that Ibn `Abbas commented: "No idolator had any more treaty or promise of safety ever since Surah Bara'ah was revealed.
Dr. M. Khan, the translator of Sahih Bukhari( Book of authentic hadiths) and the Quran into English writes:
"Allah revealed in Sura Bara'at the order to discard (all) obligations (covenants, etc), and commanded the Muslims to fight against all the Pagans as well as against the people of the Scriptures (Jews and Christians) if they do not embrace Islam, till they pay the Jizia (a tax levied on the Jews and Christians) with willing submission and feel themselves subdued (as it is revealed in 9:29). So the Muslims were not permitted to abandon "the fighting" against them (Pagans, Jews and Christians) and to reconcile with them and to suspend hostilities against them for an unlimited period while they are strong and have the ability to fight against them. So at first "the fighting" was forbidden, then it was permitted, and after that it was made obligatory.(Introduction to English translation of Sahih Bukhari).
In Syed Abu-Ala' Maududi's chapter Introductions to the Qur'an, he writes in the chapter dealing with Sura Baraah, In order to prepare the Muslims for Jihad against the whole non-Muslim world, it was necessary to cure them even of that slight weakness of faith from which they were still suffering. Moreover, a clear declaration was made that in future the sole criterion of a Muslim's faith shall be the exertions he makes for the uplift of the Word of Allah and the role he plays in the conflict between Islam and kufr. Therefore, if anyone will show any hesitation in sacrificing his life, money, time and energies, his faith shall not be regarded as genuine.
There are many more similar interpretations by Islamic scholars which reflect the same underlying idea of persecution of non-muslims till they embrace Islam and implement its rulings and obligations. Now if this is not the real meaning of the above Quranic verse, then the onus of giving the world the real interpretation lies on the Muslim world.
In this context it is noteworthy to read what some present day, liberal and progressive-minded Muslim scholars have to say in the matter of reforming and reinterpreting Islam and its scripture.
Ishtiaq Ahmed, associate professor of Political Science at Stockholm University writes, An Islamic Reformation has yet to materialize, but without it the Muslim world is seriously handicapped, intellectually and materially, in facing the challenges of the present and future.
He further writes about the interpretation of Quran, Some schools approached the Quranic text as a multi-layered discourse comprising literal as well as symbolic and esoteric messages. On the other hand, populist movements insisted that each word should be understood in the literal sense. The latter tendencies gave birth to anthropomorphist doctrines about Gods detailed intervention in all matters and came to represent the fundamentalist strand.
It is time to reject extremist, politicized Islam and the terrorism associated with it. We need a reformation which retains the eternal message of compassion and humility that the Prophet (PBUH) practiced in Mecca. I am convinced most Muslims still believe in such a humane Islam.
Prof. Ziauddin Sardar is a cultural critic, Muslim scholar, author of many books, and editor of Futures: The Journal of Planning, Policy, and Futures Studies. He is based in London and expresses his views about reinterpretation and rethinking within Islam in the following way:
Serious rethinking within Islam is long overdue. Muslims have been comfortably relying, or rather falling back, on age-old interpretations for much too long.
This is why we feel so painful in the contemporary world, so uncomfortable with modernity. Scholars and thinkers have been suggesting for well over a century that we need to make a serious attempt at Ijtihad, at reasoned struggle and rethinking, to reform Islam
We have failed to respond to the summons to Ijtihad for some very profound reasons. Prime amongst these is the fact that the context of our sacred texts the Quran and the examples of the Prophet Muhammad, our absolute frame of reference has been frozen in history. One can only have an interpretative relationship with a text even more so if the text is perceived to be eternal. But if the interpretative context of the text is never our context, not our own time, then its interpretation can hardly have any real meaning or significance for us as we are now. Historic interpretations constantly drag us back to history, to frozen and ossified context of long ago; worse, to perceived and romanticized contexts that have not even existed in history.
Indeed, the Quran has to be reinterpreted from epoch to epoch which means the Shari`ah, and by extension Islam itself, has to be reformulated with changing contexts.