"Therefore, when ye meet the Unbelievers in fight, smite at their necks"
The Medinan sura 47 is alternatively known as Al-Qital, “The Fighting” – and indeed, it is much preoccupied with war against unbelievers. It affirms of those who oppose Islam that Allah will “render their deeds vain” (vv. 1, 8-9, 28, 32). Bulandshahri explains: “Even though the disbelievers may carry out many good deeds and render great services to mankind, these deeds will not be recognized on the Day of Judgment on account of their disbelief.” By contrast, Allah will improve the condition of the believers (vv. 2, 7, 35).
Teachings such as these lead to the common Islamic idea that Islamic purity will lead to worldly prosperity, and unbelief conversely to ruin in this life. For Allah protects the believers, while the unbelievers have no protector (v. 11). In a hadith in An-Nasai’s collection – one of the six collections Muslims consider most reliable – Muhammad prays, “O Allah, I seek refuge with you from unbelief and poverty.” Someone asked him, “Are they equal?” Muhammad answered, “Yes.” This connection is often clearly refuted by reality, but is tenaciously held nonetheless.
Then come instructions to behead the unbelievers when the believers meet them in battle (v. 4). The literal understanding of this verse is paramount among Islamic commentators. Ibn Kathir says that it means that when Muslims “fight against” unbelievers, they should “cut them down totally with your swords.” The Tafsir al-Jalalayn spells it out further: “in other words, slay them — reference is made to the ‘striking of the necks’ because the predominant cause of being slayed is to be struck in the neck.” Zamakhshari takes “strike at the necks” to mean that Muslims should strike non-Muslims specifically on the neck rather than elsewhere, so as to make sure they are dead and not just wounded.
The twentieth-century Qur’an translator Abdullah Yusuf Ali likewise takes the injunction literally, justifying it by saying, “You cannot wage war with kid gloves.” However, Muhammad Khatib, a modern Sunni commentator, says that this command applies only to Muhammad’s day, although Shi‘ites “think it is a universal precept.” Modern-day Sunni jihad groups such as Zarqawi’s Al-Tawhid wal-Jihad in Iraq a few years ago pointed to this and other Qur’anic verses as justifications for their beheadings.
The same verse goes on to call for the taking of prisoners and allowing for “either generosity or ransom” of prisoners of war. This has been enshrined in Islamic law: ‘Umdat al-Salik, a manual of Islamic jurisprudence certified by Al-Azhar University in Cairo (the most respected authority in Sunni Islam) as conforming “to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni community,” lays out four options for prisoners, in line with this verse: “When an adult male is taken captive, the caliph considers the interests ... (of Islam and the Muslims) and decides between the prisoner’s death, slavery, release without paying anything, or ransoming himself in exchange for money or for a Muslim captive held by the enemy” (o9.14).
Then comes an oft-repeated refrain: Don’t the unbelievers travel around the earth and see how Allah has destroyed earlier unbelieving peoples (vv. 10, 13)? Allah will admit the believers to the gardens of Paradise, while the unbelievers will eat as the cattle eat and drink boiling water that will cut their bowels to pieces (vv. 12, 14-15). Some listen to Muhammad but are insincere (v. 16), and some even ask that a chapter of the Qur’an be sent down for them – but when one is sent down that commands fighting, they draw back (v. 20). Ibn Kathir explains that “Allah mentions that the believers were hoping that Jihad would be legislated. But when Allah ordained it, many of the people turned back” – and he explains why they did so in a way that makes it clear that the jihad in question involves hot war: they drew back, says Ibn Kathir, because of “their fear, terror, and cowardice concerning meeting the enemies.”
Then come more excoriations of unbelievers, with familiar charges reissued: Allah has cursed the unbelievers and made them deaf and blind (v. 23); their hearts are locked so that they cannot understand the Qur’an (v. 24); and they apostatize from Islam because Satan beguiles them (v. 25). This life is mere “play and amusement,” but those who obey Allah will not have to give up their worldly goods (v. 36), but they should not hesitate to spend money in Allah’s cause (v. 38).
Sura 48 is also from Medina. The “victory” from Allah in v. 1 is for some the Muslim conquest of Mecca late in Muhammad’s life; for others it is the Treaty of Hudaybiyya, which Muhammad concluded on disadvantageous terms with the pagan Quraysh tribe of Mecca before he conquered that city. Umar, one of Muhammad’s closest followers, asked him about this three times, got no answer, and then went away in fear that a passage of the Qur’an would be revealed about him! But instead there came this sura, telling Muhammad that Allah would forgive his past and future sins (v. 2) and would admit the believers to Paradise (v. 5), while the hypocrites and polytheists will go to hell (v. 6).
Those who pledge loyalty to Muhammad pledge loyalty to Allah (v. 10). Those who refused to go with Muhammad to meet the Quraysh, fearing that they would be massacred, make excuses, but Allah knows that they hoped Muhammad and the Muslims would not return (vv. 11-12). Allah tells Muhammad to tell them that they will be called upon to fight against a powerful people, unless they submit to Islam; if they fight then, they will be rewarded (v. 16). Islamic scholars differ as to which powerful people is meant – some suggested the Persians and Byzantines. The blind, lame, and ill need not fight in jihad warfare, but those who do will go to Paradise (v. 17). Allah is pleased with the believers who pledged fealty to Muhammad under the tree (v. 18) – Ibn Kathir says there were 1,400 Muslims who did so, under a tree near Hudaybiyya. Allah sent them as-sakinah (v. 18), which is the presence of God in the Old Testament but is understood simply as “tranquility” by Muslim commentators. He also promises the believers much booty (v. 19), which they soon collected in the raid on the Jewish settlement at the oasis of Khaybar.
The unbelievers, if they fight the Muslims, will flee (v. 22). Allah protected the believers from the unbelievers at Hudaybiyya, giving them “tranquility” (vv. 24-26) -- and the truce he concluded with the Meccans at Hudaybiyya will allow Muhammad and the Muslims to visit the Ka’aba (v. 27). Those who follow Muhammad are merciful to believers but harsh to unbelievers (v. 29) – a stark contrast to Jesus’ injunction in the Sermon on the Mount to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
Next week: Sura 49, “The Chambers”: “The (true) believers are those only who believe in Allah and His messenger and afterward doubt not, but strive with their wealth and their lives for the cause of Allah.”
(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.)