When is it permissible to break moral laws? When the Islamic community is being persecuted. That is the impact of the small and easily-overlooked phrase “persecution is worse than slaughter,” which appears in Qur’an 2:217 (as well as in 2:191).
Verses 189-242 of Sura 2, “The Cow,” answer various questions that apparently the Muslims had asked Muhammad, since Allah begins his answers to Muhammad with “They ask you” (vv. 189, 215, 217, 219, 220, 222). One of these questions was whether or not fighting was permissible during the sacred month, which Allah takes up in v. 217.
Muhammad’s first biographer, an eighth-century Muslim named Ibn Ishaq, gives the background of this verse. After the Hijrah, Muhammad’s move from Mecca to Medina, the Muslims began raiding caravans of the pagan Quryash – Muhammad’s own tribe, which had rejected him. Muhammad himself led many of these raids. These raids served a key economic purpose: keeping the Muslim movement solvent. At one point Muhammad sent one of his most trusted lieutenants, Abdullah bin Jahsh, along with eight other Muslims out with orders to watch for a Quraysh caravan at Nakhla, a settlement not far from Mecca, and “find out what they are doing.”
Abdullah and his band took this as an order to raid the Quraysh caravan, which soon came along, carrying leather and raisins. But it was the last day of the sacred month of Rajab, during which, by longstanding Arab custom, fighting was forbidden. This presented them with a dilemma: if they waited until the sacred month was over, the caravan would get away, but if they attacked, they would sin by killing people during the sacred month. They finally decided, according to Ibn Ishaq, to “kill as many as they could of them and take what they had.”
On the way home to Medina Abdullah set aside a fifth of the booty for Muhammad. But when they returned to the Muslim camp, Muhammad refused to share in the loot or to have anything to do with them, saying only: “I did not order you to fight in the sacred month.” But then Allah revealed v. 217, explaining that the Quraysh’s opposition to Muhammad was more offensive in his eyes than the Muslims’ violation of the sacred month: the raid was therefore justified: “for persecution is worse than slaughter.” Whatever sin the Nakhla raiders had committed in violating the sacred month was nothing compared to the Quraysh’s sins. Ibn Ishaq explained this verse: “they have kept you back from the way of God with their unbelief in Him, and from the sacred mosque, and have driven you from it when you were with its people. This is a more serious matter with God than the killing of those whom you have slain.”
Once he received this revelation, Muhammad took Abdullah’s booty and prisoners. Abdullah was considerably relieved, and asked, “Can we hope that it will count as a raid for which we shall be given the reward of combatants?” Here again Allah answered in a revelation, saying that those who “strive in the way of Allah…have hope of Allah’s mercy” (v. 218). “Strive” here is jahadu (جَاهَدُو) which is a form of jihad, and “jihad for the sake of Allah” or “jihad in the way of Allah” (جَاهَدُواْ فِي سَبِيلِ اللّهِ) always in Islamic theology refers to jihad warfare, not to more spiritualized understandings of jihad.
Ibn Kathir, following Ibn Ishaq, also recounts this incident, which was a momentous one: good became identified with anything that redounded to the benefit of Muslims, and evil with anything that harmed them, without reference to any larger moral standard. Moral absolutes were swept aside in favor of the overarching principle of expediency. Sayyid Qutb explains that “Islam is a practical and realistic way of life which is not based on rigid idealistic dogma.” Islam “maintains its own high moral principles,” but only when “justice is established and wrongdoing is contained” — i.e., only when Islamic law rules a society — can “sanctities be protected and preserved.” So evidently they need not be before that point.
Verses 211-216 again remind the Jews of all of Allah’s spurned favors toward them (v. 211) and notes how the unbelievers scoff at the Muslims (v. 212). V. 213 contains in capsule form the Islamic view of salvation history: Allah sent prophets to the world, and “with them He sent the Book in truth,” and even “the People of the Book” — mainly Jews and Christians — agreed with one another, “except through selfish contumacy.” Then Allah guided the Muslims to the truth about the things the People of the Book disagreed about. Ibn Kathir explains that they disagreed about the “day of Congregation”: “The Jews made it Saturday while the Christians chose Sunday. Allah guided the Ummah [community] of Muhammad to Friday.” They also disagreed about the direction to face when praying (qiblah), postures of prayer, fasting, and the true religion of Abraham: “The Jews said, `He was a Jew,’ while the Christians considered him Christian. Allah has made him a Haniyfan Musliman” — that is, a pre-Islamic monotheist.
V. 216 exhorts the believers to fight, even though they “dislike it.” Maulana Bulandshahri explains the traditional view: “While the Muslims were in Makkah, they were weak and few in number, never possessing the capability nor the divine permission for Jihad (religious war). After migrating to Madinah, they received the order to fight their enemies in defence, as a verse of Surah Hajj [chapter 22 of the Qur'an] proclaims: ‘Permission (to fight) has been granted to those being attacked because they are oppressed’ [22:39]. Later on the order came to fight the Infidels (kuffar) even though they do not initiate the aggression.” Bulandshahri was a modern-day theologian, but this view of the three stages of development of the Qur’an’s teaching on warfare is found in Ibn Ishaq’s eighth-century work, and in the writings of mainstream Islamic theologians throughout the ages, including Ibn Kathir, Ibn Qayyim, Ibn Juzayy, As-Suyuti, and many others.
V. 219 concerns alcoholic drinks and gambling. Several early authorities — Ibn `Umar, Ash-Sha`bi, Mujahid, Qatadah, Ar-Rabi` bin Anas and `Abdur-Rahman bin Aslam — say it was the first of three verses to be revealed on this subject, and that would mean that the other two would take precedence over it. Here Allah says that there is “some benefit” in alcohol, but in 5:90 he says that it is “Satan’s handiwork,” which would rule out the ol’ demon rum as being beneficial at all.
V. 221 forbids Muslims to marry “unbelieving women.” Ibn Kathir records a large amount of disagreement among Islamic authorities over whether this prohibition applies to Jewish and Christian women, or just to polytheists. However, he notes that there is Ijma` — consensus — among Islamic jurists that such marriages are allowed, although of course Muslim women are not allowed by any school of Islamic law to marry Jewish or Christian men. In a culture that requires women to be utterly subservient to men, these unequal laws ensure that non-Muslim communities remain subjugated, not enjoying equality of rights or equality of dignity with Muslims.
Next week: When you might need a “temporary husband,” and an exploration of the much-vexed question of what it means that “there is no compulsion in religion.”
(Here you can find links to all the earlier "Blogging the Qur'an" segments. Here is a good Arabic Qur’an, with English translations available; here are two popular Muslim translations, those of Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, along with a third by M. H. Shakir. Here is another popular translation, that of Muhammad Asad. And here is an omnibus of ten Qur’an translations.)