In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
This so-called ‘verse of the sword’ commands Muslims to defend their community against idolaters who violated their peace treaty obligations and were waging a war of aggression. The verse is applicable only to hostile armies and not to non-Muslims in general. We should look at the entire chapter and interpret the verses comprehensively and consistently, rather than taking one verse out of context.
فَإِذَا انسَلَخَ الْأَشْهُرُ الْحُرُمُ فَاقْتُلُوا الْمُشْرِكِينَ حَيْثُ وَجَدتُّمُوهُمْ وَخُذُوهُمْ وَاحْصُرُوهُمْ وَاقْعُدُوا لَهُمْ كُلَّ مَرْصَدٍ ۚ فَإِن تَابُوا وَأَقَامُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَآتَوُا الزَّكَاةَ فَخَلُّوا سَبِيلَهُمْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ
When the sacred months have passed, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give charity, let them go on their way. Verily, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.
Surah At-Tawbah 9:5
Some scholars referred to this as the “verse of the sword” because it commands the Muslims to defend the community against their enemies, but this is merely the designation of some scholars and it was not labeled as such by the Prophet, his companions, or the early Muslims.
The verse allows for hostilities to cease if the idolaters repent from their transgression and become Muslims. Even if they refuse to accept Islam, the verse immediately following commands peace with any idolater who stops fighting and asks for a covenant of security.
وَإِنْ أَحَدٌ مِّنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ اسْتَجَارَكَ فَأَجِرْهُ حَتَّىٰ يَسْمَعَ كَلَامَ اللَّهِ ثُمَّ أَبْلِغْهُ مَأْمَنَهُ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ بِأَنَّهُمْ قَوْمٌ لَّا يَعْلَمُونَ
If any one of the idolaters seeks your protection, then grant him protection so that he may hear the words of Allah. Then deliver him to his place of safety. That is because they are a people who do not know.
Surah At-Tawbah 9:6
Therefore, it cannot be said that the “verse of the sword” allows Muslims to kill any non-Muslim or to compel them to enter Islam. The following verses make clear that hostilities are only against those who violated their peace treaty.
Muslims have been commanded to be faithful to the idolaters who upheld their treaty obligations.
فَمَا اسْتَقَامُوا لَكُمْ فَاسْتَقِيمُوا لَهُمْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُتَّقِينَ
So as long as they are upright toward you, be upright toward them. Verily, Allah loves the righteous.
Surah At-Tawbah 9:7
The hostile idolaters were only fought because they habitually broke their security covenants. Even then they were given the chance to repent and cease hostilities.
لَا يَرْقُبُونَ فِي مُؤْمِنٍ إِلًّا وَلَا ذِمَّةً ۚ وَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُعْتَدُونَ فَإِن تَابُوا وَأَقَامُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَآتَوُا الزَّكَاةَ فَإِخْوَانُكُمْ فِي الدِّينِ ۗ وَنُفَصِّلُ الْآيَاتِ لِقَوْمٍ يَعْلَمُونَ
They do not observe toward a believer any pact of kinship or covenant of protection and it is they who are the transgressors. But if they repent, establish prayer, and give charity, then they are your brothers in religion. We detail the verses for a people who know.
Surah At-Tawbah 9:10-11
Al-Bara’ reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
إِنَّ الْأُلَى قَدْ بَغَوْا عَلَيْنَا إِذَا أَرَادُوا فِتْنَةً أَبَيْنَا
Verily, they were the first to transgress against us. If they intend persecution, we have refused.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 2638, Grade: Sahih
Another verse makes clear that the reason for fighting was to make them stop persecuting Muslims, not to force them into Islam.
وَإِن نَّكَثُوا أَيْمَانَهُم مِّن بَعْدِ عَهْدِهِمْ وَطَعَنُوا فِي دِينِكُمْ فَقَاتِلُوا أَئِمَّةَ الْكُفْرِ ۙ إِنَّهُمْ لَا أَيْمَانَ لَهُمْ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَنتَهُونَ
If they break their oaths after their treaty and defame your religion, then fight the leaders of disbelief, for verily there are no oaths sacred to them, that they might cease.
Surah At-Tawbah 9:12
Some classical commentators said the “verse of the sword” has “abrogated” the peaceful verses which came before it, by which they did not mean the peaceful verses were cancelled, but rather they were restricted: some verses apply to one situation and other verses apply to another. The idea that the peaceful verses are cancelled is a lone extremist opinion with no scholarly support.
M.A.S. Abdul Haleem, Professor of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, writes:
The main clause of the sentence – “kill the polytheists” – is singled out by some non-Muslims as representing the Islamic attitude to war; even some Muslims takes this view and allege that this verse abrogated many other verses including, “There is no compulsion in religion,” (2:256) and even according to one solitary extremist, “God is forgiving and merciful.”
This far-fetched interpretation isolates and decontextualizes a small part of a sentence and of a passage which gives many reasons for the order to fight such polytheists: they continually broke their agreements and aided others against the Muslims, they started hostilities against the Muslims, barred others from becoming Muslims, expelled them from the Holy Mosque and even from their own homes. At least eight times the passage mentions the misdeeds of these people against the Muslims.
Moreover, consistent with the restriction of war elsewhere in the Quran, the immediate context of this “sword verse” exempts such polytheists who do not break their agreements and who keep peace with Muslims. It orders that those enemies seeking safe conduct should be protected and delivered to the place of safety they seek.
The whole of this context to verse 9:5, with all its restrictions, is ignored by those who simply isolate one part of a sentence to build on it their theory of violence in Islam.
Source: The Qur’an – English translation and parallel Arabic text. p. xxiii
Likewise, the classical scholar Ibn Al-Qayyim writes:
وَلَمْ يُكْرِهْ أَحَدًا قَطُّ عَلَى الدِّينِ وَإِنَّمَا كَانَ يُقَاتِلُ مَنْ يُحَارِبُهُ وَيُقَاتِلُهُ وَأَمَّا مَنْ سَالَمَهُ وَهَادَنَهُ فَلَمْ يُقَاتِلْهُ وَلَمْ يُكْرِهْهُ عَلَى الدُّخُولِ فِي دِينِهِ
The Prophet never forced the religion upon anyone, but rather he only fought those who waged war against him and fought him. As for those who made peace with him or conducted a truce, then he never fought them and he never compelled them to enter his religion
Source: Hidayat Al-Hayara 237
In conclusion, the “verse of the sword” commands Muslims to defend the community from attack by hostile forces. It does not allow Muslims to kill people just because they are non-Muslims or to force them to accept Islam.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.