An introspective probe into Sura al Tawbah that puts many of its so called sword verses in their historical perspective and calls for broadening the horizons of Islamic supplication (Du’a) to include the polytheists and atheists – dead or alive.
By Muhammad Yunus, New Age Islam
Co-author (Jointly with Ashfaque Ullah Syed), Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009
October 29, 2013
The theme needs no introduction or any beating about the bush as the issue dominates current hermeneutic narratives and polemical debates and must be understood in the historical context of the Qur’an and in light of its holistic message.
Those who insist on literalist interpretation must admit that any literalist interpretation of the Qur’an will call for, among other things, employing birds of prey to hunt for food (5:4), journeying to Mecca on lean mounts (22:27), resisting an invasion by standing firm like a solid block in the battlefield (61:4) and having a cavalry division in the armed forces (8:60). Hence, literalism can cause immense confusion and kill the liberating and dynamic spirit of the Qur’an - its call to probe its verses (39:18, 47:24), seek its best meaning (39:18, 39:55) and use reason (‘Aql) and cognitive faculty (Fiqha) to come to the right judgment (Rushd) on issues. Therefore, we must not draw any conclusion from any single verse of the Qur’an and take account of its historic context and holistic message to properly comprehending its message. With this we delve into the Qur’an, which, having been uttered, recorded and memorized at the same historical point is of undoubted authenticity , though we draw on the exegetic sources as relevant.
As the exegetes unanimously agree, the 9the Sura (al Tawbah) of the Qur’an (featuring the verse 9:28) was revealed during the closing years of the revelation, covering the period between the integration of Mecca (8 H/ 630 CE) through the demise of the Prophet (10/ 632). It was a period of great instability and uncertainties in the new (Muslim) community which had risen like a phoenix from desert sand under the spell of the Qur’an and singular drive of its Prophet, and with his advancing age, its future hung in the balance.
The Attitude of the Hypocrites
The hypocrites of Medina who had covertly opposed the Prophet and conspired against him since his arrival in Medina (622 CE) had become desperate and along with the pagan tribes (the mushrikin) were conspiring to get rid of the Prophet. Meanwhile, the Prophet was planning very hazardous mission (631) up north to the outer fringes of the mighty Roman Empire – some 350 miles across barren desert terrain. In military terms, the mission was doomed to total annihilation in view of immense military superiority, organizational skill, battle experience, strict drilling regime, defensive position and logistic advantages of the Imperial Army. Accordingly, the hypocrites among the Prophet’s followers detested the mission. With this introduction, we probe deeply into the Qur’an’s fragmentary records (printed in italics, paraphrased) leading up to the captioned proclamation.
As the mission was hazardous and journey long, the hypocrites made excuses to the Prophet and sought exemption from the mission (9:42, 9:49), which he granted (9:43). The hypocrites, who stayed back, were glad to have opposed the Prophet and boasted that they did not like to go forth in the heat (9:81). As they laughed in their hearts (at Muhammad’s folly) the revelation reminds them that they will weep a lot (9:82). They built a mosque rivalling the mosque of the Prophet, as a rallying point for those opposed to the Prophet, but they later swore that they had good intentions (9:107). The revelation refers to this mosque as a building founded on the brink of a crumbling bank of eroded earth, crumbling into the fire of hell (9:109) – a building that could never cease to be a source of doubt in their hearts until their hearts were detached (9:110). It forbids the believers to stand in it, and declares that it was more fitting that they should stand in the first mosque that the Prophet had founded on Taqwa (God consciousness/Moral uprightness) (9:108).
As the Prophet returned from his mission, the revelation declares that the hypocrites may be rightly reproached as they were fully able (to go forth with him) (9:93). As the hypocrites made excuses, the revelation asked them to make no excuses (9:94). They swore by God to the Prophet to spare them (any punishment), and the revelation asked the Prophet to spare them as they were spiritually unclean (Rijz) for whom the hell was a more fitting abode (9:95). They swore to the Prophet hoping that their pleadings might soften his heart, but God condemned them as deviants (Fasiqun) (9:96). At the same time, the nomadic Arabs were harshly reproved for being most stubborn in their denial (of the Prophet’s mission) (Kufr) and hypocrisy (Nifaq) (9:97).
As in the divine scheme, the Prophet had hardly a year before him – he died in 632; the hypocrites were to be integrated to avoid the disintegration of the Muslim community soon after his death. Accordingly, the Qur’an adopts a stern tone against them.
It declares that the hypocrite men and women were of the same kind. They enjoined the evil, and forbade the good, and held back their hands. They were oblivious of God and God was oblivious of them, and without doubt, they were the deviants (Fasiqun) (9:67). It declares that God had promised them as well as the pagan opponents (Kuffar), the fire of hell and that was enough for them, and God had cursed them and a lasting punishment was in store for them (9:68). It reminded them that almost every year they were tested; yet they declined to repent (9:126). It commands the Prophet to continue his struggle against the pagans (Kuffar) and the hypocrites and to be firm with them (9:73).
The revelation asks the Prophet to tell the hypocrites who volunteered to take part in any ensuing expedition that they would not go out with him as they refused the first time (9:83). It forbids the Prophet to pray over any of them who had died, nor to stand by his grave (9:84) and tells him that even if he sought forgiveness for them seventy times, God will never forgive them (9:80).
The Unrelenting Hostility of the Pagans
Meanwhile, the pagans remained unrelentingly hostile. Whenever they came upon the Muslims, they defied the treaty (of Hudaibiyyah) and disregarded even blood ties (9:10). They pleased the Muslims with their mouths, but there was aversion in their hearts (9:8). The revelation exhorts the Muslims to kill such archetypes of defiance (Kufr) who broke their oaths after pledging them, and defamed their religion (9:12), and who had previously planned to exile the Messenger and were the first to attack them (9:13), and assures them that God will help them against their enemies, bring disgrace upon them and soothe the bosoms of those who believe (9:14). Finally, on the day of the Great hajj (9/631), the revelation gives an ultimatum of four months to the hostile pagans who were repeatedly breaking their treaty obligations (9:1-3), and commands the Muslims to kill, capture, blockade and ambush them after the expiry of this period unless they repented, kept up prayer and contributed to Zakah (9:5, 9:11). However, those among the pagans (mushrikin) with whom the Muslims had a treaty and who were honouring them and not helping anyone against the Muslims were to be given time until the treaty term expired (and not to be coerced to embrace faith) (9:4), while those who sought protection were to be given protection, until they heard the word of God and then to be delivered to a place of security (i.e. their tribal homelands) (9:6).
The exemption of the friendly pagan tribes from the ultimatum obviously created confusion in the status of the Sacred Mosque (Masjid al Haram): the Muslims using it for pure worship of Allah while the pagans of friendly tribes having treaty alliances with the Muslims bringing their idols into it. This paradox had to be corrected immediately as the divine scheme was aware of the imminent death of the Prophet. The Qur’an therefore declares that the pagans were spiritually unclean (Rijz) and were not permitted to approach the Sacred mosque (Masjid al Haram)  after that year. Since this meant loss of trade and gifts from the pilgrims, the Muslims were assured that God would enrich them from His bounty, if He wills (9:28). The revelation also forbade the Prophet and the believers from asking forgiveness for the pagans even if they were relatives as it had become clear to them that they were the inmates of the blaze (9:113).
Probing the Verse 9:28 against the Above Setting
The foregoing construction of the circumstances leading up to the revelation of this verse based on the Qur’an’s testimony irrefutably demonstrates its existential character. There can no doubt that the Qur’an condemned the stubbornly recalcitrant and unrelentingly hostile pagans of the era who were bent on thwarting the Prophet’s mission, as spiritually unclean (Rijz), but it used the same word for the hypocrites among the Muslims as well (9:95). The Qur’an also described some of the nomadic Arabs from among his followers as intense in Kufr (denial of the Prophet’s mission or atheism in a generic sense) and hypocrisy and consigned them to hell (9:97) as noted above. The question is: Are we going to take these and other similar admonitions of God directed at a people whose sole object was to obliterate Islam that the divine scheme had ordained for humanity. The Arab pagans and hypocrites of the era were engaged in a war against God – they are described as the enemies of God and the Prophet (8:60). Are we going to regard all the hypocrite Muslims and unbelievers or ‘mushrikin’ for all times as God’s enemy and spiritually unclean (Rijz) as their counterparts of the Prophet’s era?
Probing deep into the Qur’an, one can see that it came with a clear agenda: to bring humanity out of darkness into light (14:1, 57:9) and to lift the burden that lay upon it from before (7:157). Given the all pervading moral degradation of pre-Islamic Arabia and the global human society at large, the Qur’an was up against an almost impossible task, which it aimed at accomplishing through human institutions - that is, without direct divine intervention by way of a miracle. Therefore, like all social revolutions in human history, it needed a core ideology which had to serve as the bedrock of all its ensuing reforms. The Qur’an’s mission statement was very simple and straightforward: ‘There is no deity but God’ – a declaration of pure monotheism that virtually annulled Arab paganism with all its 360 odd idols, arbitrary and cruel tribal mores and concomitant vices. Hence, any form of atheism and polytheism stood as an anathema to its core ideology - the greatest and unpardonable sin. But whether God will forgive the foremost in good deeds and moral integrity among the atheists and polytheists of a later era or regard them as God’s enemy or spiritually unclean (Rijz) must be left to Him to decide and cannot be deduced from the Qur’an as a priori. The precarious existential dimension and virtual impossibility of any success of the Prophetic mission rendered it unparalleled in human history. Therefore, its proclamation relating to existential issues must also be treated as part of its closed unparalleled history, and not any eternal precedent.
From a different perspective, in the divine scheme, all humanity, including the atheists and polytheists are inspired with a conscience (Taqwa) – an inborn morality, a notion of good and evil, and at Final Reckoning, God will judge all including the atheists and polytheists based on deeds and Taqwa (22:17). Thus, it may be misleading to take the Qur’anic admonitions to the Meccan Kuffar and mushrikin, who were bent on thwarting the divine scheme and thus acted veritably as the enemies of God (8:60) binding upon atheist and polytheists for all times.
Furthermore, it is a historical fact that the Prophet led the funeral prayer for the chief of the hypocrites, Abdullah Ibn Ubayy who died two months after his return from Tabuk – some 150 miles from Medina, the end point of his perilous ‘Roman’ expedition. When reminded of the Qur’anic prohibition against seeking forgiveness for the hypocrites (9:84), the Prophet is reported to have said that he would seek forgiveness for more than seventy times (9:80 above) to earn his forgiveness.
The Qur’an also offers a similar illustration in its fifth Sura (al-Maidah). When God said to Prophet Jesus whether he had asked his followers to deify him and his mother, he instantly denied having made any such suggestion (5:116-117) and made this supplication to God: ‘If You punish them, they are Your servants; if you forgive them, You are Mighty, Wise’ (5:119). So, notwithstanding what the Qur’an says about the hypocrites and the mushrikin, we humans have no basis to apply God’s vocabulary to our fellow humans with whom we are asked to have cordial interaction (49:13) and to collaborate in goodness and Taqwa (moral uprightness) (2:148, 5:2, 5:48).
In consideration of the foregoing Qur’anic illustrations, any suggestion to regard polytheists and atheists and any other category of unbelievers post the revelation era as spiritually unclean (Rijz) stands untenable. This demeaning word was directed to the highly recalcitrant pagan Arabs of the Prophet’s era, who, for more than 20 years at a stretch, violently resisted his mission to establish Islam as an historical reality and are described as the enemies of God as well as the Prophet (8:60). Islam became a historical reality as the revelation came to a close and with this closed the history of its mission. Hence, any community paralleling the Arab pagans of the Prophet’s with the divine stigma of Rijz are no more to encountered, and if so God alone knows the pure from the Rijz - it is not for the Muslim to claim moral purity (Zakah) (53:32) by slapping this stigma on the ‘mushrikin’ and atheists of their era.
This opens up the question of allowing the mushrikin and atheists to pay a visit to the Sacred Mosque if they so desire, despite the incongruity of their religious thoughts/ intellect with this ancient symbol of monotheism (9:17). This certainly needs deep reflection. Notwithstanding the verse 9:28, literally barring the mushrikin from approaching the Sacred Mosque, the engineering, design, construction and beautification of its superstructure may have received considerable inputs from the atheists and mushrikin. What sin may be there to allow these people to visit the Sacred Mosque, which the Qur’an describes as a resort for all humanity, a sanctuary (2:125)? God alone knows! This writer has attempted to draw the best meaning of the Qur’an (39:18, 39:55) and if he has gone overboard, for all its warnings in the Sura al Tawbah, God also promises to turn in mercy to whom He wills for God is Most Forgiving and Most Merciful (9:27).
The arguments tabled on the strength of the Qur’an can also help in expanding the horizon of Islamic thoughts to include the atheists and polytheist, dead or alive, in their prayers despite the prohibition that a literal reading of the verse 9:80 imposes. This is urgently needed to enable the Muslims to play their role as scripturally the most balanced community (2:143).
1. Maxime Rodinson, Muhammad, English translation, 2nd edition, London 1996, p.x [Foreword]. Maxime Rodinson, Muhammad, English translation, 2nd edition, London 1996, p.x [Foreword].
2. The expression Masjid al-Haram rendered as the ‘Sacred mosque’ literally means the Ka‘ba, including the adjacent pavement and the place where Abraham stood for prayer, as it stands to this day and is used in the Qur’an as such (17:1) – it was originally founded by the Prophet Abraham (2:127) and is the first house of pure worship for mankind (3:96).
Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.