|“In chapter 9, verse 29 of the Quran, God Almighty only permitted the fighting in the context of Byzantine (Roman) Empire’s impending army to attack the Muslims… For some to claim that the verse allowed aggression and warfare against innocent people has no historical truth to it.”
(“Discover the Truth: Answering Jihad”)
Verse 9:29 of the Quran reads:
The verse literally tells Muslims to fight Jews and Christians until they convert, pay the jizya or die. It is from one of the final chapters of the Quran and dramatically clashes with the platitude that Islam is a peaceful religion. The sura even goes on to say: O you who believe! Fight those of the disbelievers who are close to you, and let them find harshness in you (9:123)
As they often do when challenged with inconvenient Quran verses, apologists (such as the notorious “Discover the Truth” website) immediately insist that there is a mitigating historical context that filters the real meaning of the verse so that it is much different than what it appears.
In this case, the argument goes that 9:29 was narrated when Muslims were “under attack” (from an aggressive Byzantine army at Tabuk), and the verse applies only to that particular situation (of self-defense).
The most obvious problem with this argument is that verse 9:29 bluntly says to fight Jews and Christians on the basis of their religious belief. Not only is there no mention of a Byzantine army in this divine order, there is not even a rationale hinting that it is limited to matters of self-defense. The enemy is defined simply as those who “believe not in Allah” nor acknowledge the superiority of Islam.
This is extremely important because the Quran is claimed by Muslims to be perfect and complete. Why would Allah neglect to mention an opposing army if it is critical to interpreting the passage? What’s worse is that instead of laying out the case for self-defense, Allah explicitly curses Jews and Christians in the next verse (9:30):
What a strange way for Allah to make the point that targets are defined by acts of aggression and not by religious belief! (For that matter, why even bring believing Jews into this if he is speaking of a Byzantine army?)
Clearly, the most honest and straightforward interpretation of this passage in the Quran is that it refers to religious members of Judaism and Christianity. To declare that it is “bound” to an historical context that must be gleaned elsewhere is a very subjective ploy that clearly falls into the realm of wanting to read more into the Quran than what Allah chose to include.
Given that there is no textual context for self-defense in Sura 9, the next problem for apologists is that the historical record is not terribly cooperative either, even from Muslim sources. In the first place, there is no independent confirmation that there was ever a military advance at Tabuk on Muhammad’s tribe. In other words, there is not a shred of historical evidence that a Byzantine army had been assembled at that time, much less that it was attacking Muslims.
The two most reliable Muslim sources (Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim) reference the Tabuk campaign in several places, but there is only one mention in each of an opposing army. The context is not necessarily that one exists, but that Muhammad is preparing to meet one as a precaution (both verses use Badr as an example, in which the Muslims set out for a looting raid unprepared for the battle that ensued).
Even the more questionable sources do not say that there was a real army at Tabuk, just a possible rumor that one was being put together. [Apologists such as “Discover the Truth” routinely interchange reliable and weaker sources to make it appear that Muslims at Medina were in imminent danger at the time. They also alter the wording from the original verse and introduce events that occurred after Tabuk as if they preceded it].
The only connection between the Tabuk expedition and the notion of self-defense is from commentary drawn several hundred years after the fact – not from the earlier more reliable sources, which make no mention of an actual threat. In fact, if the Tabuk expedition is famous for one thing, it is that many Muslims did not want to join it. In other words, there was no sense of urgency or danger.
Muhammad had difficulty rallying the faithful, because the people at Medina did not want to travel such a great distance through wilting heat and unreliable sources of water. This belies a critical element to the story: Muslims were not under attack.
Muhammad was actually going off to fight Byzantines in Byzantine territory, which sounds a lot more like offensive warfare for the cause of Allah than self-defense! (Verse 9:33 reads: He sent His Messenger (Muhammad ) with guidance and the religion of truth (Islam), to make it superior over all religions). From a tactical standpoint, it is usually better to let the enemy deal with oppressive conditions and great distance, particularly when it means having the defensive advantage.
What everyone also agrees to, ironically, is that there was no Byzantine army at Tabuk when Muhammad arrived – and thus, no battle. In other words, the rumor was false, making the apologist argument all the less credible.
If 9:29 (and the balance of Sura 9) were really about self-defense in the face of aggression, then one would expect it to plainly say so. Barring that, it would at least be convenient if the passage was revealed at a time of imminent danger – say when an enemy was breaking through the gates of Medina during a siege of hapless Muslims who had exhausted all avenues for peace.
Instead, the real historical context turns out to be a Muslim military expedition across a great distance to attack a people in that people’s territory when the victims do not have any defense. Once there, Muhammad kills a few Christians, and bullies the rest into handing over their possessions before heading back.
What the apologists also don’t tell you is that there is a far more credible explanation for the Tabuk expedition that comes from a reputable Muslim source. Ibn Kathir is one of Islam’s most respected historians, which even the apologists admit. He worked at a time when Islamic scholars were far less concerned about spin than fact. His research determined that the expedition to Tabuk was about loot and tribute to compensate for the loss of pilgrimage revenue:
This is the opposite of what modern-day apologists tenuously argue. It also makes more sense and agrees perfectly with the Quran. The Muslims were not under attack when verses 9:29 and 9:123 were narrated.
“Discover the Truth” adds a few other embellishments to the story, such as claiming that the opposing army had fled (supported by neither Muslim nor independent accounts) and also that “no harm was inflicted on any Christian or Jews” once Muhammad arrived at Tabuk. This is what is called a bald-faced lie. Here is the actual account of what Muhammad did:
So there’s that. A Christian family going about their business is ruthlessly attacked and robbed on Muhammad’s order. At least one member is killed and the others save their lives by agreeing to pay jizya (ie. extortion)… odd how that got overlooked.
The final nail in the coffin that verse 9:29 and the rest of Sura 9 mean something other than what it says comes from the example of Muhammad’s own companions. Presumably, they would best know if the verses were either limited to self-defense or a call to wage war against Jews and Christians in their own lands.
Needless-to-say, these companions of Muhammad did not spread out from the Arabian peninsula on humanitarian missions of kindness and charity after their prophet’s death. They engaged in brutal military campaigns to establish Islamic hegemony, capture slaves and extort jizya from populations unable to adequately defend themselves. In just a few decades, the Islamic reach extended from Spain to the Indian sub-continent. No serious historian believes that this had anything to do with self-defense.