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    Period of Revelation: This Surah was revealed in the 9th year of Hijrah in three different discourses. The first discourse (vv. 1-37) was revealed in Zil-Q’adah and set a new policy towards the mushrikeen. The second discourse (vv. 38-72) was revealed in Rajab and dealt with the campaign of Tabuk. The third discourse (vv. 73-129) was revealed upon the Prophet’s return from the Campaign of Tabuk. There are some pieces in this discourse that were sent down on different occasions during the same period and were afterwards consolidated by the Prophet into this Surah in accordance with the inspiration from Allah. Major Issues, Divine Laws and Guidance:

    • Policy towards the mushrikeen.
    • Commandments relating to participation in Jihad.
    • Regulations relating to hypocrisy, weak faith, and negligence.
    • Campaign of Tabuk.
    • Establishment of a Dar-al-Islam (an Islamic state).
    • Extending the influence of Islam to adjoining countries.
    • Crushing the mischief of the hypocrites.
    • Preparing the Muslims for a struggle in the cause of Islam.
      Now that the administration of the whole of Arabia had come into the hands of the believers, and all the opposing powers had become subservient, it was necessary to make a clear declaration of the policy which was to be adopted to make his newly formed Islamic state a prefect Dar-al-Islam. In order to accomplish this objective, the following measures were taken:
    1. A declaration was made that all the treaties with the mushrikeen were abolished and the Muslims would be released from the treaty obligations with them after the expiration of four months notice.
    2. A decree was issued that the guardianship of the Ka’bah should be taken away from the mushrikeen and placed permanently in the hands of the believers (vv. 12-18), that all the customs and practices relating to the era of “ignorance” should be abolished, and that the mushrikeen should not be allowed in the vicinity of the Ka’bah (v. 28). A decree was issued to crush the non-Muslim powers forcing them to accept the sovereignty of the Islamic State. The object of Jihad was not to coerce them to accept Islam, as they were free to accept or not to accept it. The object was to allow them the freedom to remain misguided, if they chose to be so, provided they paid Jizyah, the protection tax (v. 29), as a sign of their subjugation to the Islamic State.
    3. To ensure the stability of the Islamic State, gangs of the hypocrites who were being tolerated despite their flagrant crimes, were crushed. The Muslims were enjoined to treat them openly as disbelievers (v. 73). Accordingly, the Prophet on fire the house of Swailim, where the hypocrites used to gather for consultations in order to dissuade the people from joining the expedition of Tabuk. When the Prophet returned from Tabuk, he ordered that Masjid-e-Zirar, which was being used by the hypocrites as a place for hatching plots against the true believers, be pulled down and burned.
    4. Those people who lagged behind in the Campaign of Tabuk or showed the least negligence, were severely taken to task if they had no plausible excuse for not fulfilling that obligation. For there could be no greater internal danger to the Islamic community than weakness of faith, especially at the time of a conflict with the whole non-Muslim world.
    5. A declaration was made that in the future, the sole criterion of an individual’s true faith would be the exertion that individuals make for spreading the Word of Allah and the role they play in the conflict between Islam and Kufr. Therefore, if anyone shows any hesitation in sacrificing his life, wealth, time, and energies, his faith shall not be regarded as genuine. (vv. 81-96)

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    this surah, also known as al-Bar¥’ah, was revealed fifteen months before Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 ac, or twenty-two years after he began to receive the first revelations of the Qur’an. All through those twenty-two years, the Prophet’s policy towards Islam’s antagonists was dictated by the Qur’anic statement:

    If they disbelieve you [Muhammad] say, “My deeds are mine and your deeds are yours. You are not accountable for my actions, nor am I accountable for what you do.” (Y‰nus: 41)

    It is a policy that any fair-minded person can see as nonbelligerent. However, some of Islam’s detractors were determined that it should not take root or find its way into the rest of Arabia. They instigated a series of military expeditions and incursions against the Muslims, most of which resulted in their forces being routed and finally totally overwhelmed by Islam. Nevertheless, they did not learn the lesson, and as soon as one skirmish or battle was over, they would prepare for the next one. Eventually, they ended by becoming marauding hordes and raiders threatening the stability and security of the young state in Madinah, which made it necessary for the Muslims to fight them and take decisive action against them.

    This is the aim of and the justification for the “disclaimer,” given at the beginning of this surah, which was made on behalf of the Prophet through the Qur’anic revelation. Unfortunately, this has

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    been generally misinterpreted and maliciously misconstrued by some scholars to show that the surah was in effect a “declaration of war” on all non-Muslims without exception. Phrases such as “…and fight the unbelievers altogether” have been culled from the text and taken to mean all non-Muslims, without exception, omitting the rest of the sentence which says, “as they too fight you altogeth- er.” Some also understood the word “people” in verse 3, which says “this is a proclamation from God and His Messenger to the people on the day of the greater pilgrimage…” to refer to all humankind, overlooking the exceptions and the comments that follow in the same verse. The exceptions are: “…those idolaters who have hon- ored their treaties with you in every detail and have not aided anyone else against you” (4). The meaning could not be clearer or more unequivocal. The war, for which no apology should be made, was to be prosecuted specifically against those groups who had aided the enemies of Islam or violated the rights of Muslims.

    The comments that follow are even more significant. In every conflict there are innocent people who have no inclination to sup- port either of the fighting sides. The Prophet was instructed to guarantee such people safety and security and secure for them right of passage until they reached their safe lands. God says:

    And when an unbeliever seeks asylum with you, give him pro- tection so that he may hear the words of God, and then enable him to reach his place of safety, because such people have no knowledge. (6)

    How can this be an advocacy of aggression or warmongering? This misunderstanding seems to have arisen when some commentators and historians stretched the surah’s statements to cover Muslim con- quests which took place in later years in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, and which were to allow the Muslims to sweep over the whole of the Persian and a large part of the Byzantine empires. However, this is a

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    totally unjustified interpretation, since the Muslim armies did not target the capitals of those empires but moved over lands usurped by them to address those communities they had dominated by force. The armed conflicts that took place between these two powers or their proxies came about as a result of Muslim response to aggression and intimidation along with the desire to free those communities and release them from the grip of Byzantine or Persian political, cul- tural, and religious control. Only then were those communities able to learn about Islam and adopt its culture and way of life. The surah is therefore free of any charges of inciting Muslims to war, or of lay- ing down religious or legal justifications for hostility or aggression against innocent or peaceful people. Let us have a closer look at its main themes and arguments.

    The surah begins by directing the Prophet to give his enemies in Arabia, who were at war with the Muslims, a four-month grace period, a cessation of hostilities, during which they could review their attitude and plans towards Islam and the Muslims. God says to those enemies: “You shall go unmolested in the land for four months, but be warned that you shall not escape the reach of God and that God will bring humiliation on the unbelievers” (2). That con- cession was not in any way made out of weakness, and they should not, therefore, have been deceived by any strength they may have had or by any temptation to exploit the situation. The announce- ment was made during the pilgrimage to Makkah, in which, at that time, both Muslims and non-Muslims from all over the Arabian peninsula were able to participate. It was therefore made publicly and to the widest possible audience in Arabia at the time.

    The surah continues to elaborate on that decision, putting an end to all possible charges and accusations of aggression leveled against the Muslims, saying:

    How could God or His Messenger have any trust in the unbelievers, except those with whom you made treaties at the Sacred Mosque

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    [at Makkah]. So long as they keep faith with you, keep faith with them. (7)

    The distinction is very clear. Commitments and obligations must be respected and honored by all sides. However, the surah continues to warn:

    How can they [the unbelievers] be trusted? If they prevail over you they will respect neither agreements nor obligations. They seek to appease you with their words only, but their hearts spurn you, and most of them are evil-doers. They exchange God’s words for a pit- tance and debar others from His path, and their actions are damned. They respect no agreements with or obligations towards any of the believers, because they are transgressors. (8–10)

    No aggression was committed by the Muslims, nor were they plan- ning any aggression or breach of agreements. One detects, in fact, a certain degree of fear and apprehension on the part of the Muslims, who felt that those acts of intimidation indicated confidence and strength in the enemy camps. God sought to allay that fear by urging the Muslims to keep up the struggle and face the enemy head-on: “fight the leaders of unbelief because they are untrustworthy, so that they may desist” (12). Trust and honesty spring from faith and com- mitment to principle; the unscrupulous and devious cannot be trusted. The urging and prompting continue:

    Would you not fight against those who have breached their agree- ments and were determined to drive the Prophet out, and who had attacked you first? Do you fear them? Surely, it is God you should fear most, if you are true believers. (13)

    As we read on, it becomes clear that the groups singled out for attack were neither men of peace, nor people who could be trusted.

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    Rather, they were people with deep-seated grudges who had been agitating and instigating aggression and ferment against Islam and Muslims for a considerable time. As these are further exposed, the surah’s tone becomes even more forceful:

    fight against them and God will chastise them at your hands and humiliate them. He will grant you victory over them and heal the spirit of the believers. He will take away the rancor that is in their hearts. (14–15)

    Not a trace of warmongering or aggression against innocent or peaceable people is to be found in this passage. The fact is that to describe this surah as the turning point in Islam’s attitude towards war is a gross misunderstanding. Muslims have always been and will continue to be peace-loving people, using open debate and per- suasive peaceful means to introduce their religious beliefs and the principles of their way of life, and refusing to be intimidated or coerced.

    Before the revelation of this surah, Arab paganism had been tolerated for twenty-two years. Even so, the non-Muslim Arabs continued to treat Islam as an outlawed religion in Makkah. They refused to recognize the new Muslim state emerging in Madinah and insisted on waging war against it, which resulted in some thirty battles and skirmishes. Arab casualties in all those long years of con- frontation did not exceed two hundred; a figure that cannot be compared with the number of Protestants slaughtered by the French Catholics in the famous 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris. Indeed, over those twenty-two years, the Muslims were guid- ed by the Qur’anic instructions that said:

    Now then, for that [reason], call [them to the Faith], adhere as com- manded to the straight path and do not be led by their [the unbelievers’] desires. Say, “I believe in all the Books that God has

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    revealed and I have been commanded to exercise justice among you. God is our Lord and your Lord. We are accountable for our actions and you are accountable for your own actions. There is no [need for any] argument between us and you. God will bring us all together, and to Him we shall return.” (al-Sh‰r¥: 15)

    Unfortunately, it all proved to be in vain. The motto of “you keep your religion and I shall keep mine,” which the Muslims raised, had been rejected. The Arabs insisted on armed confrontation, and that was when the Muslims gave them four months to decide either to change their opinion and refrain from fomenting trouble or leave the region which had by then become a Muslim domain. The only other law set out by Islam at that time was that unbelievers should no longer be allowed to perform the pilgrimage to Makkah and no one should worship naked at the Ka¢bah, as was the custom of pagan Arabs. All the idols around the Ka¢bah were destroyed and Makkah purged of all forms of idol worship once and for all. This was affirmed in the surah thus:

    It is no longer proper for the idolaters to attend God’s mosques, since they have admitted to unbelief. Their works are in vain and in hellfire they shall abide for ever. God’s mosques should be attended only by those who believe in God and the Last Day, who observe prayer and give alms and fear none but God. (17–18)

    God was of course aware that Muhammad’s life was drawing to an end. He went on to live for only fifteen months after this surah was revealed. It was time to prepare the Muslims for that tumul- tuous event and the grave consequences that were to follow it. So, although Arabia had been secured for Islam, the Byzantines were still posing a threat in the north. Some non-Muslim Arabs had fled there, still harboring grudges and aggressive designs against the Muslims. The potential for trouble was very real indeed. As soon as

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    the news of Muhammad’s death in 632 ac spread, rebellion broke out in various places around the fringes of the Arabian peninsula. It was left to the Prophet’s first successor and Caliph, Ab‰ Bakr, to put down the rebellion before the Muslims were able to feel completely secure and confident to take on the Byzantines, whose domination of Syria and Palestine represented a real obstacle to the northward spread of Islam.

    Muslims are therefore basically opposed to war and are never the ones to start it. By the imperative of their own religion, they are taught not to impose their beliefs on others by force. Their mission is to impart and communicate God’s message, leaving people free to decide whether to believe or reject it. Those who refuse to believe are free to pursue their lives in peace as long as they do not pose any obstacle or threat to Islam and the Muslims, who perceive their faith as the strongest and most vital binding relationship between God and humankind and that it is their responsibility to make others aware of it and provide them with the opportunity to understand and appreciate it. This is the basis of the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in Islamic society. God says elsewhere in the Qur’an: “Therefore, if they [the unbelievers] do not trouble you and cease their hostility towards you and offer you peace, God gives you no authority over them” (al-Nis¥’: 90). Those who take up arms against a Muslim state or parts of it must be met with force, and if they are overcome, they should be disarmed. Once that is achieved, they are free to lead their own lives and practise their beliefs in peace and security under the protection of the Muslim authorities, in return for which they have to pay a levy.

    This is the background against which prescription of the jizyah,

    or exemption tax, came into being. It is not due from those who are neutral and have never taken up arms against the Muslim state. The surah gives ample explanation for the reasons behind the estab- lishment of this tax, for it stipulates who should pay it. They are those

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    who do not believe in God and the Last Day, who do not forbid what God and His Messenger have forbidden, and who do not fol- low the true religion, until they pay the exemption tax unreservedly and with humility. (29)

    Those liable to pay such tax are described further as those who “wish to blow God’s light out, but God insists on making His light prevail” (32). Some of their religious leaders are described as greedy and fraudulent people. On a closer look at how this exemption tax or jizyah was implemented, it becomes clear that as a result of the early huge waves of converts to Islam in countries such as Egypt, Persia, and Asia Minor, funds collected from this type of tax had greatly diminished—doubtless to the delight of Muslims! The aim of Muhammad’s mission had never been to amass wealth but to spread God’s guidance and mercy.

    Ab‰ Bakr, a senior Companion of Muhammad, led the Muslims during the pilgrimage to Makkah in the ninth year ah, 631 ac, in which non-Muslim Arabs were also allowed to participate. The pil- grimage organized a year later was led by the Prophet himself and was restricted to Muslims only, since God had declared in the Qur’an that “the idolaters are unclean, and should not, from this year onwards, approach the Sacred Mosque [at Makkah]” (28). Non-Muslim resistance to Islam in Arabia all but collapsed. All treaties and agreements hitherto in force came to an end, and the Prophet assumed total religious, political, and administrative sover- eignty over the whole region. Idol worship was wiped out. And as a result of a series of confrontations with the Muslims, the last one of which took place during the sixth year after the Hijrah, 628 ac, at Khaybar in north-central Arabia, Jewish power and influence had

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    also been shaken. Certainly Jews continued to live (and thrive) in peace as farmers and tradesmen in Madinah and various parts of Arabia, although they no longer had any organized military pres- ence. Their religious and personal freedom was nonetheless fully guaranteed and protected. When the Prophet died, a shield of his was found in trust with a Jewish citizen of Madinah. Christian dele- gations were arriving at Madinah in droves, as they had done at Makkah previously, from various parts of Arabia and the surround- ing regions to learn about the new religion, debate with the Prophet, and compare what they heard with their own beliefs and scriptures. Some of them of course converted to Islam. The Muslims saw no threat in any of that. The one major threat that was seen looming on the horizon was coming from forces of the Byzantine empire who were in control of Syria and Palestine in the north. The Byzantines were growing weary of Islam and began to take measures to curb its spread into their territories.

    Here we must highlight the two following important facts:

    1. Islam showed a great deal of amicability and warmth towards the Christians. When the Muslims of Makkah first thought of escap- ing the persecution of the Arabs, Prophet Muhammad instructed them, in 615 ac, to take refuge with the Negus, the Christian king of Abyssinia, whom he described as “a just and benevolent king.” The Qur’an, in the surah entitled al-R‰m, or The Romans, expressed strong sympathy with the Christians in their war against the Persians in 615 ac in Syria and predicted that they would triumph in the fol- lowing round of fighting.
    2. In spite of this amity and sympathy, Islam was very clear in its rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus or the Holy Spirit. The Qur’an, first at Makkah and later on at Madinah, continued to emphasize these views and call upon Christians to review their doctrines and correct their beliefs. The last statement to be revealed in this connection appears in this surah condemning mis- guided Jews and Christians for taking:

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    their rabbis and monks, as well as the Messiah, son of Mary, as gods instead of God. They were commanded to worship but one God; there is no god but Him. Exalted be He above those they take as gods besides Him. (31)

    In Islam God is one, without ancestry or offspring, supreme in His control over all creation. For religious leaders and clerics to set out laws and enforce religious practices and edicts of their own is nothing but heresy according to the Qur’an. Churches in America and Europe have blessed colonial wars and, more recently, sanctioned depraved practices such as homosexuality, without proper reference to authentic revelation.

    The Byzantines had entrenched their power in regions north of the Arabian peninsula, and were known to resort to the use of force to prevent Islam from making inroads into their territory. Byzantine armies began to move southward to enforce Byzantine authority over the region, clashing with the Muslims twice, at Mu’tah in 629 ac, and at Tab‰k in 630 ac. There is no doubt, however, that the Muslims wanted to have access to the populations of Byzantine ter- ritories to introduce them to Islam, a task they perceived to be their right. However, those early Muslims were also mindful of the fact that they could not use force or coercion to impose their religion on others. The Byzantines resisted that effort and appeared determined to advance their version of Christianity and impose it on their sub- jects. Their emperors had long rejected the Arius doctrine that Jesus was human and not divine. They had barred the eastern churches who differed with them radically over the nature of Christ, detained the Patriarch of Egypt, and killed his brother. However, the Muslims were fighting for freedom of religion. They entered Egypt and Syria, offering security and immunity from persecution and guaranteeing freedom of worship.

    In anticipation of Byzantine resistance, the Prophet devoted

    much attention to removing the barriers placed in the way of Islam

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    north of Arabia. He embarked on the mobilization of Muslim forces to enable them to deal with Byzantine intimidation. When the moment of confrontation arrived, the Byzantines were the most powerful nation on earth. They had defeated the Persians and become the dominant superpower in the area. No wonder, then, that some faint-hearted Muslims were shaken when war with the Byzantines became imminent. Yet another, more sinister, danger was also in evidence—the hypocrites or fifth-columnists working from within the Muslim community.

    Thus the second half of the surah is devoted to exposing these hypocrites and waverers, while at the same time mobilizing loyal and sincere Muslims and spurring them to action. These are addres- sed in no uncertain terms:

    Believers, why is it that when it is said to you, “Go forth and strive for the cause of God,” you drag your feet? Are you content with this life in preference to the life to come? The joys of this life are paltry compared with those of the life to come. If you do not go and strive, He will punish you sternly and replace you with others, and you shall do Him no harm whatsoever. (38–39)

    The time had come to free the Muslim community and Muslim lands from the hypocrites, just as they had been emancipated from idolaters and traitors. The realm of Islam had to be defended and consolidated.

    This surah comes as a series of intensive drills, a rich and power- ful mixture of instructions and confidence boosters to prepare the Muslims to face the world without the divinely inspired leadership of Prophet Muhammad. The first drill was to be the confrontation with the Byzantines. It was to expose the strengths as well as many of the weaknesses of the Muslims on both the individual and col- lective levels.

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    People who strive for a just cause can triumph only when their loyalty to God is stronger than their enemy’s loyalty to their aims and their leaders. God says: “Some people take other gods besides God and accord them adoration equal to that due to God, but the believers have stronger adoration for God” (al-Baqarah: 165). This becomes clearer at the critical times of conflict between true belie- vers and ardent infidels. Hence we read in this surah the following:

    Say, “If your fathers, your sons, your brothers, your wives, your clan, the property you have acquired, the merchandise you fear may not be sold and the homes you love, are dearer to you than God, His Messenger, and the struggle for His cause, then wait until God’s ret- ribution arrives. God does not guide the evil-doers.” (24)

    When the time came to issue the orders to confront the Byzantines, the main factors prevalent at the time can be summa- rized as follows:

    1. The Byzantines were the undisputed superpower in the region, especially after their decisive victory over the Persians.
    2. The Muslims comprised a small section of the Arabs who had embraced the new religion, while the majority of the Arabs continued to be clients or subjects of either the Byzantine or the Persian empires.
    3. The Muslim fighting force was relatively limited and lacking, as shown at the Mu’tah and Th¥tu al-Sal¥sil battles.
    4. The young Muslim community was plagued from inside by the intrigues of the hypocrites and a handful of disgruntled groups who had not fully integrated into the new society and were prey to rumors, conspiracies, and outside influences.

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    The surah came at the right moment to overhaul the Muslim community and expose its weaknesses before it was too late. It lashes out at those who refuse to join in the fighting for the cause of Islam, saying:

    Why is it that, when it is said to you, “Go forth and strive for the cause of God,” you drag your feet? Are you content with this life in preference to the life to come? The joys of this life are paltry com- pared with those of the life to come. (38)

    It rejects the absurd and false excuses given by the cowardly and the lazy:

    Those who believe in God and the Last Day will not beg you [Muhammad] to exempt them from striving with their wealth and their lives. God best knows the righteous. Those who seek such exemption are people who disbelieve in God and the Last Day, whose hearts are filled with doubt and are left wavering. (44–45)

    Further on in the surah we read:

    Those Arabs turned up with excuses, asking to be exempt

    [from helping in fighting off the Romans]

    , while those who denied God and His Messenger actually stayed behind. Those of them who dis- believed shall be afflicted with a terrible anguish. (90)

    Indeed, most of those who had chosen to stay behind and refused to join the fighting were the faint-hearted and the skeptics who had no confidence in Islam. One such person had the temerity to beg the Prophet to allow him to remain at home because he feared the temptation, as he put it, of beautiful Byzantine women. He would only go and fight, he said, if the Prophet were to guarantee him that

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    he would not fall for them:

    Some of them say, “Give me leave to stay behind, and do not expose me to temptation.” Surely they have already succumbed to temptation. Hell shall engulf the unbelievers. (49)

    It is only natural that those who go and fight should meet with many challenges, tests, and temptations, including the possibility of defeat, which is a severe test in itself. Nevertheless, the surah reassures the Prophet and the Muslims:

    If you [Muhammad] meet with success, it grieves them [the unbe- lievers], but if a disaster befalls you, they say, “We have already taken our precautions,” and they turn away rejoicing. Say, “Nothing shall befall us except what God has predestined for us. He is our Guardian. Let the believers put their trust in God.” (50–51)

    The battle of Tab‰k in 630 ac brought down God’s wrath upon the hypocrites within the Muslim community. It uncovered their intrigues and completely exposed them to the rest of the commu- nity. This, as stated earlier, was necessary to purge the Muslim ranks and clear the way for a new phase in history and the spread of Islam. Hypocrites and traitors could destroy any society, no matter how politically and economically powerful. God says in the surah: “Do not be taken in by their wealth or their [numerous] offspring. God only seeks to punish them in this life, and they shall die unbelievers” (55). The hypocrites came in many disguises. There were the greedy self-centered ones who were happy only if they received financial gifts from the Prophet, or else they would curse and complain. These the surah describes as follows: “Some of them speak ill of you [Muhammad] with respect to the alms. If they are given of them, they are contented, but if they are not they grow resentful” (58). Some of them spread rumors and invented malicious lies about the Prophet personally, but then would go and swear to him that they

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    never said such things. They would take advantage of the Prophet’s magnanimity and benevolence. The surah exposes that aspect of their conduct too:

    Some of them speak ill of the Prophet, saying, “He believes every- thing he hears.” Say, “He hears only what is good for you. He believes in God and trusts the believers. He is a blessing to those of you who have believed, but those who harm the Messenger of God shall receive stern punishment.” (61)

    These hypocrites had their own supporters and special groups who used to meet privately. As a phenomenon, they grew gra- dually from a series of different situations and developments, and for varying reasons. Although the Qur’an has referred to them on many occasions, the present surah has gone all the way in expos- ing them and condemning their aims and activities. This was dictated, as already mentioned, by the decisive and critical phase reached by Islam when the surah was revealed. The Muslims had just established their religious and political hegemony over the Arabian peninsula and were preparing to face the strongest super- power of the time, the Byzantine empire. If Prophet Muhammad were to waver at that moment, the very existence and the whole future of Islam would have been put in jeopardy. Indeed, the hypocrites and the non-Muslim Arabs were looking forward with hope to the Muslims being routed by the Byzantines and that would have been the end of Islam. However, the Qur’an was assuring Muhammad and the Muslims: “It is He who has sent forth His Messenger with guidance and the religion of truth to make it prevail over all religions, even though the idolaters may not like it” (33).

    Events began to move very fast, contrary to the expectations of

    the hypocrites whose activities reached a climax as the Muslims

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    were preparing for battle.

    Whenever a chapter [of the Qur’an] was revealed, saying, “Believe in God and strive behind His Messenger,” the rich ones among them [the hypocrites] would ask your permission, saying, “Let us remain with those who will stay behind.” They were content to be with those who stayed behind, and their hearts were sealed, and so they shall not understand. But the Messenger and those who believed with him strove with their wealth and their lives. They shall have all the good things, and they shall be successful. (86–88)

    The phenomenon of the hypocrites first appeared after the Muslims emigrated to Madinah in 622 ac. It had by then become clear that Islam was more than just a system of beliefs, it was a politi- cal entity also, severely reducing the chances of any tribal or religious personalities in Arabia who were aspiring to political or religious leadership and power. Some had simply found it too much to abandon their paganistic and promiscuous way of life to which they had been accustomed. In the initial stages, Islam’s approach in dealing with this problem was soft and tolerant. As the threat from the hypocrites, which is well documented in those surahs revealed in Madinah, started to grow, it became apparent in this surah that the Qur’an was adopting a more unequivocal approach towards them, which culminated in the showdown portrayed in this surah. Indeed, the Qur’an’s remarks about the hypocrites, in the aftermath of the Muslim defeat at U^ud, were quite mild:

    The disaster that befell you on the day the two camps clashed was by the will of God, in order to identify the true believers. It was also to identify the hypocrites who, when it was said to them, “Come and fight for the cause of God, or lend support,” they said, “We would have gone with you, had we known that there would be real fighting.” On that day they were closer to unbelief than to belief.

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    (®l ¢Imr¥n: 166–67)

    But, the tone of the Qur’an was distinctly different regarding those who refused to join the fighting at Tab‰k. God says admonishingly:

    They swear by God that they had said nothing [against the Prophet]. Yet, they uttered the word of unbelief and renounced Islam after embracing it. They also sought to achieve what they had failed to achieve [killing the Prophet]. Are they resentful only because God and His Messenger were generous to them? (74)

    Some of the hypocrites pledged that if they became rich they would be kind to others and contribute to the war effort, but they went back on their promises. The surah again exposes them:

    Some of them made pledges to God, saying, “If He gives us of His bounty we will give in charity and be righteous.” But when God bestowed upon them of His grace, they became niggardly, turning their backs, and they recanted. He [God] then allowed hypocrisy to set in within their hearts until the day they meet Him. (75–77)

    And so it became inevitable that the Muslim society should be protected against the hypocrites. They were becoming too cynical and unfairly critical of those good and sincere Muslims who were trying to do their best for Islam and the Muslims. This was threatening to undermine the unity and welfare of the whole community:

    Those that censure the believers who volunteer to give for charity, and scoff at those who give according to their means, shall have God scoff at them. A woeful chastening awaits them. (79)

    The hypocrites had been growing in power and in numbers. They had embarked on building a mosque of their own as an alter-

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    native to the mosque of the Prophet, where they could recruit sup- porters, hold meetings, and plan their campaigns. The surah again exposes these plans mercilessly:

    And there are those [hypocrites] who built a rival mosque to pro- mote unbelief and cause divisions among the believers, and in anticipation of the coming of him [an Arab monk called Ab‰ ¢®mir] who had declared war against God and His Messenger. They swear that they mean well, but God bears witness that they are lying. (107)

    This provided the Prophet and the Muslims with tangible proof of their evil intentions and their determination to sow division and discord in the heart of the Muslim community. However, the Muslims, led by the Prophet himself, decided to demolish that alter- native mosque in obedience to the Qur’an:

    You shall never worship in it. The mosque that was from the first day founded on piety is best suited for you to worship in. It is attended by men who love to remain pure, and God loves those who remain pure. (108)

    The surah continues relentlessly with its confrontation of the hypocrites to ensure that the Muslim community is free from their influence as from that of the idolaters. Eventually, the Muslims were ready to undertake the bigger and more important task of taking Islam out of Arabia and into the rest of the world, as “a mercy and a blessing to all humanity” (al-Anbiy¥’: 107) as the Qur’an put it.

    The surah then makes it very clear to the Muslims that in order to carry out that great task, they will be required to make vital and substantial sacrifices. It says: “God has offered to trade the lives and wealth of the believers for Paradise” (111). What does this solemn transaction entail? Why does the trade-off include such valuable possessions? The reward is obviously commensurate with

    surah 9 • Al-Tawbah

    the sacrifices being made. The enormity of the task ahead and the vehemence of the opposition with which Islam would be resisted and fought justified the high price. If God’s cause was to be upheld and defended, vital preparations needed to be made. God says: “Believers, bear arms against the unbelievers dwelling around you, and let them feel your strength, and be sure that God is with the righteous” (123).

    Who were those neighboring infidels against whom the Muslims were commanded to wage war? The overall drift of the surah indi- cates that they were the Byzantines. They had come from imperial Constantinople, sweeping across Anatolia and Syria, settling right on the edge of the Arabian peninsula. They were the masters of their time; their aims were to usurp, colonize, exploit, and dominate. They had no respect for the beliefs or lives of other nations, while their own beliefs were false and distorted.

    The deal that emerges concerns the followers of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, whose part is to work together for the advance- ment and enforcement of God’s messages and cause. The surah says:

    God has offered to trade the lives and wealth of the believers for Paradise. They fight for the cause of God, slay, and are slain. It is a true promise He has made in the Torah, the Gospel, and in the Qur’an. And who is more true to his promise than God? (111)

    The contrast between the opening passages of the surah and its ending cannot be more striking. It begins with a “disclaimer” and stern warnings to those who have breached their treaties and agree- ments with God and the Muslims, but ends with assurances from God that He has sent Prophet Muhammad, out of mercy and care for humanity, as a blessing to all. Muhammad was a prophet and a leader working for peace but if fighting was unavoidable, then so be it! His objective was to establish justice, remove oppression, and alle- viate suffering. The surah ends with calm reassuring words:

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    There has now come to you a Messenger from among yourselves who grieves for your predicament and who cares for you, and who is kind and merciful to the believers. If they turn away, say, “God is All-Sufficient for me. There is no god but Him. I put my trust in Him. He is the Lord of the Glorious Throne.” (128–29)

    Muhammad went to war only to eradicate oppression and injus- tice. Once basic rights and freedoms are guaranteed and protected, war becomes an abominable crime. This is a fact established in this surah which puts war and peace in a clear and proper perspective, and can in no sense therefore be described as a “declaration of war.”

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    بَرَاءَةٌ مِّنَ اللَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِ إِلَى الَّذِينَ عَاهَدتُّم مِّنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ

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    فَسِيحُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ أَرْبَعَةَ أَشْهُرٍ وَاعْلَمُوا أَنَّكُمْ غَيْرُ مُعْجِزِي اللَّهِ ۙ وَأَنَّ اللَّهَ مُخْزِي الْكَافِرِينَ

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    وَأَذَانٌ مِّنَ اللَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِ إِلَى النَّاسِ يَوْمَ الْحَجِّ الْأَكْبَرِ أَنَّ اللَّهَ بَرِيءٌ مِّنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ ۙ وَرَسُولُهُ ۚ فَإِن تُبْتُمْ فَهُوَ خَيْرٌ لَّكُمْ ۖ وَإِن تَوَلَّيْتُمْ فَاعْلَمُوا أَنَّكُمْ غَيْرُ مُعْجِزِي اللَّهِ ۗ وَبَشِّرِ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا بِعَذَابٍ أَلِيمٍ

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    إِلَّا الَّذِينَ عَاهَدتُّم مِّنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ ثُمَّ لَمْ يَنقُصُوكُمْ شَيْئًا وَلَمْ يُظَاهِرُوا عَلَيْكُمْ أَحَدًا فَأَتِمُّوا إِلَيْهِمْ عَهْدَهُمْ إِلَىٰ مُدَّتِهِمْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُتَّقِينَ

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    فَإِذَا انسَلَخَ الْأَشْهُرُ الْحُرُمُ فَاقْتُلُوا الْمُشْرِكِينَ حَيْثُ وَجَدتُّمُوهُمْ وَخُذُوهُمْ وَاحْصُرُوهُمْ وَاقْعُدُوا لَهُمْ كُلَّ مَرْصَدٍ ۚ فَإِن تَابُوا وَأَقَامُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَآتَوُا الزَّكَاةَ فَخَلُّوا سَبِيلَهُمْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ

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    وَإِنْ أَحَدٌ مِّنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ اسْتَجَارَكَ فَأَجِرْهُ حَتَّىٰ يَسْمَعَ كَلَامَ اللَّهِ ثُمَّ أَبْلِغْهُ مَأْمَنَهُ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ بِأَنَّهُمْ قَوْمٌ لَّا يَعْلَمُونَ

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    كَيْفَ يَكُونُ لِلْمُشْرِكِينَ عَهْدٌ عِندَ اللَّهِ وَعِندَ رَسُولِهِ إِلَّا الَّذِينَ عَاهَدتُّمْ عِندَ الْمَسْجِدِ الْحَرَامِ ۖ فَمَا اسْتَقَامُوا لَكُمْ فَاسْتَقِيمُوا لَهُمْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُتَّقِينَكَيْفَ يَكُونُ لِلْمُشْرِكِينَ عَهْدٌ عِندَ اللَّهِ وَعِندَ رَسُولِهِ إِلَّا الَّذِينَ عَاهَدتُّمْ عِندَ الْمَسْجِدِ الْحَرَامِ ۖ فَمَا اسْتَقَامُوا لَكُمْ فَاسْتَقِيمُوا لَهُمْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُتَّقِينَ

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    كَيْفَ وَإِن يَظْهَرُوا عَلَيْكُمْ لَا يَرْقُبُوا فِيكُمْ إِلًّا وَلَا ذِمَّةً ۚ يُرْضُونَكُم بِأَفْوَاهِهِمْ وَتَأْبَىٰ قُلُوبُهُمْ وَأَكْثَرُهُمْ فَاسِقُونَ

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    اشْتَرَوْا بِآيَاتِ اللَّهِ ثَمَنًا قَلِيلًا فَصَدُّوا عَن سَبِيلِهِ ۚ إِنَّهُمْ سَاءَ مَا كَانُوا يَعْمَلُونَ

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