Babikir Faysal Babikir

The fifth verse of the Sūrat al-Tawba is considered to be the verse that presents the most problems in understanding the thinking on Jihad in Islamic law. It is held to be the foundational verse for statements on violence adopted by what is known as the Salafi-Jihadi tendency, one which is waging a fierce war against the ruling regimes in the Arab and Islamic worlds, and indeed against the West under the leadership of the United States.

In this essay I shall attempt to present three Islamic readings of this verse according to the historical conditions in which it appeared. The verse in question is the fifth verse of the Sūrat al-Tawba in which the Almighty states:

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 [Qur’ān IX,5]

A majority of commentators consider every verse  abrogated that runs counter to it

The first reading, the one adopted by the Salafi-Jihadi tendency, is a reading that is based on the understanding and interpretation that a lack of faith in God and submission to Him should be held to be a justification in itself for proscribing the life of a man, even if that man is not an enemy combatant. This viewpoint bases itself on the statements of a majority of jurisprudents and commentators who consider that the ‘Verse of the Sword’ has abrogated every verse that runs counter to it. Abrogation here means that such verses that run counter to this sense ‘have lost their authority even while their textual form remains,’ and that they therefore should not bear any influence on legislation.

This verse was given its own section in one of the most significant founding ideological documents of the Salafi-Jihadi current in the second half of the 20th century. This is the document entitled The Absent Obligation by the engineer Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salām Farag, the leader of the Al-Gihād al-Islāmī group which assassinated Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat.

In his document Farag states the following:

Muhammad Farag: foundational ideologue of the Salafi-Jihadi current

Most commentators spoke concerning the Qur’ānic verse which they termed the Verse of the Sword, where the Almighty says: 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. In his commentary on the verse, al-Hāfiz ibn Kathīr stated: “Al-Dhahhāk ibn Muzāhim said that it abrogated every treaty, every contract and term made between the Prophet and any of the Mushrikīn”. Al-ʽAwfī cited Ibn ʽAbbās concerning this verse, that “no treaty or covenant of protection was left for any of the Mushrikīn after the Sūrat al-Barā’a [i.e. the Sūrat al-Tawba] was revealed.” The author of the commentary Al-Tashīl li-‘Ulūm al-Tanzīl, Al-Hāfiz Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Juzayy al-Kalbī, stated: “We find here that which has abrogated the issue of the Disbelievers, from turning away from them keeping patient about the harm they do, in favour of an order to fight them. This was so as to dispense with repeating what was abrogated whenever it occurs, and which is mentioned in 114 verses out of 54 sūras. But the Almighty abrogated all of that with His words: Slay the idolaters wherever ye find them and Fighting is prescribed for you.”[1] Concerning these verses al-Husayn ibn Fadl said: “This Verse of the Sword abrogated every verse of the Qur’ān in which turning away from the enemies and being patient with the harm they cause is mentioned. It is strange to find someone still using these abrogated verses as evidence for abandoning fighting and jihad.”

Despite the consensus of many scholars  on abrogation there are some who did oppose them

Despite the consensus of many scholars of law on the principle of abrogation there are some who did oppose them, such as Ibn al-Jawzī who denied that there was an abrogation implicit in the understanding of the Verse of the Sword. In his work Nawāsikh al-Qur’ān he dismisses those who claim there is an abrogation as: “purveyors of commentaries, who lack understanding.”

The second reading of the verse of the Sword is the one given by the late Professor Mahmud Muhammad Taha, the founder of republican thought in Sudan, in his proposals on what are known as the ‘fundamental’ and ‘subsidiary’ verses. It is a reading that in a way embraces abrogation but one which differs from the first reading, in that it indicates that the Meccan verses are the foundation of the Qur’ān. These are verses that call for freedom of belief and equality and do not force others to choose between Islam or warfare. Examples of these verses are the Almighty's words:

Say: (It is) the truth from the Lord of you (all). Then whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve [Qur’ān XVIII,29] and

Remind them, for thou art but a remembrancer, Thou art not at all a warder over them [Qur’ān LXXXVIII,21-22]

The guiding of them is not thy duty (O Muhammad), but Allah guideth whom He will [Qur’ān II,272]

In spite of its attempt to impart a historical dimension to the reading of religious texts, this reading suffers from a basic flaw, represented by the selectivity that is being employed to read the text. Not all of the Madinan verses (the ‘subsidiary verses’) call for violence and killing. The opposite of this also holds true with the Meccan verses (the ‘fundamental verses’) which do not all of them call for freedom of religion, for turning the other cheek and for freedom to choose. An example of a Madinan verse that calls for freedom of choice is verse 256 of the Sūrat al-Baqara where the Almighty states:

There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is henceforth distinct from error [Qur’ān II,256]

The Al-Gihad group activating the command to "Slay the idolaters wherever ye find them": The assassination of President Sadat on October 6 1981.

Coming now to the third reading, this is one which rejects the principle of abrogation altogether and calls for the Verse of the Sword to be read in its Qur’ānic environment, that is, in among verses that were revealed before it and subsequent to it. One of the proponents of this reading is the Egyptian scholar Dr. Nehru Tantāwī who rejects the title ‘The Verse of the Sword,’ considering it to be the invention of jurisprudents and commentators. This reading calls for the verse not to be cut off from the environment in which it was sent down, in that it was revealed in the context of early verses of the Sūrat al-Tawba[2], preceded by four verses and followed by a further ten – 15 in all. Proponents of this reading maintain that a proper understanding of the Verse of the Sword in its internal context does not lead to the conclusions arrived at by jurisprudents and commentators who are proponents of the first reading, whereby the verse was revealed for the purpose that everyone on the planet should be fought against so that they embrace Islam. These 15 verses are full of exceptions for certain mushrikīn, exceptions revealed in verses revealed prior, and subsequently, to the Verse of the Sword. Examples of these are the Almighty’s words:

Excepting those of the idolaters with whom ye (Muslims) have a treaty, and who have since abated nothing of your right nor have supported anyone against you. (As for these), fulfil their treaty to them till their term [Qur’ān IX,4]

And if anyone of the idolaters seeketh thy protection (O Muhammad), then protect him so that he may hear the Word of Allah, and afterward convey him to his place of safety [Qur’ān IX,6] and

Save those with whom ye made a treaty at the Inviolable Place of Worship? So long as they are true to you, be true to them. Lo! Allah loveth those who keep their duty safety [Qur’ān IX,7]

This last reading appears to hold closer to the two earlier readings, except that it suffers from the lack of a specific reference to the historical context (in the sense of a historical reading) and from its focusing upon the internal context of the text, something which is likely to lead proponents of this reading into a number of dilemmas in interpreting other verses of the Qur’ān.


[1] Qur’ān II,216. On this verse see Almuslih article Warfare in the Qur’ān by Said Nachid.

[2] Qur’ān IX.