According to the twentieth century Islamic scholar Muhammad Asad, verses 4 and 6 of Sura 9 belie the impression that many take from v. 5: that pagans are to be offered the choice of “conversion or death.” V. 4, however, only specifies that if non-Muslims honor the terms of their existing treaties with Muhammad and the Muslims, the Muslims will honor those treaties to the end of their term. And v. 6, according to Ibn Kathir, gives pagans “safe passage so that they may learn about the religion of Allah, so that Allah’s call will spread among His servants….In summary, those who come from a land at war with Muslims to the area of Islam, delivering a message, for business transactions, to negotiate a peace treaty, to pay the Jizyah, to offer an end to hostilities, and so forth, and request safe passage from Muslim leaders or their deputies, should be granted safe passage, as long as they remain in Muslim areas, until they go back to their land and sanctuary.” The reference here to paying the Jizyah refers to the tax specified for the People of the Book under Islamic rule in v. 29; thus the choice, at least for those who have received a written scripture (mainly Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians), is not conversion or death, but conversion, subjugation or death.
The Tafsir al-Jalalayn, As-Suyuti, and Ibn Juzayy agree with this view of v. 6. Ibn Juzayy says that it means that Muslims should “grant them security so that they can hear the Qur’an to see whether they will become Muslim or not. (then convey them to a place where they are safe) If they do not become Muslim, return him to his place.” He notes, however, that this is not a unanimous view: “This is a firm judgment in the view of some people while other people say that it is abrogated by fighting.”
The treaty that the Muslims concluded with the pagans “near the sacred Mosque” (v. 7) refers to the Treaty of Hudaybiyya. In 628, according to Islamic tradition, Muhammad had a vision in which he performed the pilgrimage to Mecca — a pagan custom that he very much wanted to make part of Islam, but had thus far been prevented by the Quraysh control of Mecca. But at this time he directed Muslims to prepare to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, and advanced upon the city with fifteen hundred men. The Quraysh met him outside the city, and the two sides concluded a ten-year truce (hudna), the treaty of Hudaybiyya.
Some leading Muslims were unhappy with the prospect of a truce. After all, they had recently broken a Quraysh siege of Medina and were now more powerful than ever. Were they going to bargain away their military might for the sake of being able to make the pilgrimage? According to Muhammad’s first biographer, Ibn Ishaq, a furious Umar went to Abu Bakr and said, “Is he not God’s apostle, and are we not Muslims, and are they not polytheists? Then why should we agree to what is demeaning to our religion?” The two of them went to Muhammad, who attempted to reassure them: “I am God’s slave and His apostle. I will not go against His commandment and He will not make me the loser.”
But it certainly didn’t seem as if the treaty was being concluded to the Muslims’ advantage. When the time came for the agreement to be written, Muhammad called for Ali and told him to write, “In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful.” But the Quraysh negotiator, Suhayl bin Amr, stopped him: “I do not recognize this; but write ‘In thy name, O Allah.'” Muhammad told Ali to write what Suhayl had directed.
But Suhayl was not finished. When Muhammad directed Ali to continue by writing, “This is what Muhammad, the apostle of God, has agreed with Suhayl bin Amr,” he protested again. “If I witnessed that you were God’s apostle,” Suhayl told Muhammad, “I would not have fought you. Write your own name and the name of your father.” Again the Prophet of Islam, to the increasing dismay of his followers, told Ali to write the document as Suhayl wished.
In the final form of the treaty, Muhammad shocked his men by agreeing to provisions that seemed disadvantageous to the Muslims: those fleeing the Quraysh and seeking refuge with the Muslims would be returned to the Quraysh, while those fleeing the Muslims and seeking refuge with the Quraysh would not be returned to the Muslims.
Yet soon Muhammad broke the treaty. A woman of the Quraysh, Umm Kulthum, joined the Muslims in Medina; her two brothers came to Muhammad, asking that they be returned “in accordance with the agreement between him and the Quraysh at Hudaybiya.” But Muhammad refused: Allah forbade it. He gave Muhammad a new revelation: “O you who have believed, when the believing women come to you as emigrants, examine them. Allah is most knowing as to their faith. And if you know them to be believers, then do not return them to the disbelievers…” (60:10).
In refusing to send Umm Kulthum back to the Quraysh, Muhammad broke the treaty. Although Muslim apologists have claimed throughout history that the Quraysh broke it first, this incident came before all those by the Quraysh that Muslims point to as treaty violations. The contemporary Muslim writer Yahiya Emerick asserts that Muhammad based his case on a bit of legal hair-splitting: the treaty stipulated that the Muslims would return to the Quraysh any man who came to them, not any woman. Even if that is true, Muhammad soon — as Emerick acknowledges — began to accept men from the Quraysh as well, thus definitively breaking the treaty.
The breaking of the treaty in this way would reinforce the principle that nothing was good except what was advantageous to Islam, and nothing evil except what hindered Islam. Once the treaty was formally discarded, Islamic jurists enunciated the principle that truces in general could only be concluded on a temporary basis of up to ten years, and that they could only be entered into for the purpose of allowing weakened Muslim forces to gather strength to fight again more effectively.
Nevertheless, Ibn Kathir and others maintain that the Quraysh broke the treaty first. And Allah certainly give the impression that they did indeed break it, excoriating the pagans for selling “the signs of Allah” for a “miserable price” (v. 9) and for violating oaths they made with the Muslims (vv. 12, 13). Thus because of all their enormities, Allah exhorts the Muslims to fight them (vv. 13-14). According to Ibn Juzayy, “Allah will punish them by your hands” (v. 14) means “killing and capture. That is a promise of victory for the Muslims.” The Tafsir al-Jalalayn concurs: “Fight them, and God will chastise them, He will have them killed, at your hands and degrade them, humiliate them through capture and subjugation, and He will give you victory against them.”
“Allah will punish them by your hands” is a momentous statement: it means that Muslims on earth are the executors of Allah’s judgment, and are charged with the responsibility of punishing the unbelievers in accord with the divine wrath. Thus when Muslims call upon Allah to punish someone, they’re essentially calling upon their fellow Muslims to carry out that punishment. Doing so will “satisfy the breasts of a believing people and remove the fury in the believers’ hearts” (vv. 14-15): doing violence to unbelievers in the cause of Allah will calm the hearts of the believers.
(Revised May 2015)