Tafsir Zone - Surah 8: al-Anfal (The Spoils Of War )

Tafsir Zone

Surah al-Anfal 8:41

Overview (Verse 41)
The transition from the end of the previous passage to the beginning of the present one is very smooth. The beginning here continues to outline rulings concerning fighting, which were started with the last couple of verses in the previous passage. Those ran as follows: “Say to the unbelievers that if they desist, all that is past shall be forgiven them; but if they persist [in their erring ways], let them remember what happened to the like of them in former times. Fight them until there is no more oppression, and all submission is made to God alone. If they desist, God is certainly aware of all they do. But if they turn away, know that God is your Lord Supreme. How splendid is this Lord Supreme, and how splendid is this giver of support.” (Verses 38-40) The opening verse in this passage continues these rulings, outlining those that apply to spoils that are gained as a result of victory in battle.
The ultimate objective of any campaign of jihād was clearly stated in the statement instructing the believers to “fight them until there is no more oppression, and all submission is made to God alone.” (Verse 39) It is undertaken for the sake of God, and for well-defined goals that are related to the faith God has revealed and the code of living He has laid down. Ownership of the spoils of war has also been settled, with a statement that they belong to God and His Messenger. The fighters themselves are given no say in this, so that their effort is made purely for God’s sake, to earn His pleasure. Nevertheless, the Qur’ānic approach provides practical regulations for practical situations. The fact remains that there are fighters and spoils of war. The fighters go on a campaign of jihād ready to sacrifice their lives and property, paying for their own arms and equipment, and also providing equipment for other fighters who cannot buy their own weapons. Those same fighters take the booty which is only the result of their own steadfastness and determination. Since God has already purged their hearts of any greedy thoughts concerning this booty, declaring that it belongs totally to God and His Messenger, it is now appropriate that they are given part of it. They feel that this new gift is being made to them by God and His Messenger to meet practical needs and satisfy real feelings, leaving no room for any dispute over its division.
Such is the nature of the code of living laid down by God who is well aware of human nature. It is finely balanced, holistic in its approach, satisfying real needs and feelings, and ensuring no ill feelings over such material gains.
When the Fighting is Over

“Know that one-fifth of whatever booty you may acquire in war is for God and the Messenger, and for the near of kin, the orphans, the needy and the traveller in need. [This you must observe] if you believe in God and what We revealed to Our servant on the day when the true was distinguished from the false, the day when the two hosts met in battle. God has power over all things.” (Verse 41) Much controversy is found in reports and among scholars on several points relating to the meaning of this verse. The main points of debate are as follows:

Are the “spoils of war” mentioned in the opening verse of the sūrah the same as the “booty” mentioned here or are they two different things? The Qur’ānic text uses two different terms to refer to them.

Since four-fifths are given to the fighters and divided among them, how is the remaining portion of one-fifth to be divided? Is the one-fifth portion that belongs to God to be divided in turn into five equal shares? If so, one of these belongs to God, but is this share the same as that which belongs to God’s Messenger? Or is the Messenger’s share a separate one?

Does the Messenger’s share (i.e. one-fifth of one-fifth of the whole booty) belong to him personally? Or is it transferred to every Muslim ruler after him?
Is the share assigned to “the near of kin” exclusive to the Prophet’s relatives of the clans of Hāshim and `Abd alMuţţalib, as was the case during the Prophet’s time? Or does a Muslim ruler have any discretion over its distribution?

Are these fixed and equal shares into which the original portion of one-fifth of the booty must be divided? Or do the Prophet and the Muslim rulers who succeed him have discretionary authority over its usage and spending?
There are further points of debate over other matters of detail. Following our usual approach in this commentary, we prefer not to discuss such controversial points, leaving them to be pursued in specialized studies. Moreover, the whole question of spoils of war is far removed from the practical realities of the Muslim world today. This is not something that is facing us at the present time. We do not have a Muslim state led by an Islamic leadership, fighting a campaign of jihād which may give it spoils of war that need to be divided according to Islamic regulations. Our situation today is similar to the period when Islam was addressing humanity for the first time. Human beings have reverted to the type of jāhiliyyah, or ignorance, that prevailed then, associating partners with God that give them their man-made laws. This religion has gone back to its starting point calling on human beings to adopt it anew. It wants them to declare that they believe that “there is no deity other than God and Muĥammad is God’s Messenger.” This means in practical terms that Godhead, sovereignty and all authority belong to God alone. In all these aspects we receive guidance from God’s Messenger only. We acknowledge allegiance only to an Islamic leadership that strives to re-establish Islam in practical life, dissociating ourselves from all other types of society and leadership.
This is the real issue that confronts the Islamic faith today. At the outset there is no other issue to consider. There is no question of booty because no campaign of jihād is being launched. Indeed there is no single organizational or community issue, either at the internal or external level. The reason for this is very simple: there is no independent Islamic entity in need of specific rules to regulate its relations with other communities and societies.
Islam employs a very practical and realistic method. It does not preoccupy itself with issues that have no significance in reality. Hence, it does not concern itself with providing rules for such issues. Its outlook is too serious for that. Such an exercise may be pursued by those who devote their spare time to academic discussion that has no bearing on reality. Their time, however, would have been much more fruitfully utilized, had they dedicated it for the re-establishment of Islamic society according to the practical Islamic approach, starting with a call on people to believe in God’s oneness and the message of the Prophet Muĥammad. For this leads to a situation where some people accept the faith. They, thus, establish a community that has its own leadership, allegiance and independent entity. God then settles the dispute between this community and other people on the basis of truth. Only at this stage would scholars need to deduce rules and regulations to address the various questions that may confront that community, internally and externally. This is when such scholarly exercise has real value, because it is relevant to practical and real questions and issues.
Recognizing this serious approach of Islam, we do not wish to engage in any discussion of the juristic details concerning the question of booty and spoils of war until the time is right for such discussion. That is when God wills to bring into being an Islamic society which launches a campaign of jihād that leads to the acquisition of spoils of war. When that occurs, regulations will be needed to divide such spoils. In this commentary it is sufficient for our purposes to concentrate on the basic issue of faith in the historical progress of the Muslim community and the method of education to which it is exposed. This is a constant factor we find in God’s book which is not subject to change at any time. Everything else is of secondary value.
The general rule outlined in the Qur’ānic verse states: “Know that one-fifth of whatever booty you may acquire in war is for God and the Messenger, and for the near of kin, the orphans, the needy and the traveller in need.” (Verse 41) This rule assigns four-fifths of anything gained in battle to the fighters themselves. The remaining one-fifth is left to God’s Messenger (peace be upon him) and Muslim leaders implementing God’s law and striving to further God’s cause. They are required to dispense with it only “for God and the Messenger, and for the near of kin, the orphans, the needy and the traveller in need,” so as to satisfy real needs when such booty has been gained.
If You Truly Believe

Following this, we have a permanent directive in the following statement: “[This you must observe] if you believe in God and what We revealed to Our servant on the day when the true was distinguished from the false, the day when the two hosts met in battle. God has power over all things.” (Verse 41)
True faith has certain essential indicators to prove it. God makes His recognition of true faith for the fighters in Badr conditional on their acceptance of His ruling on the question of the spoils of war. If they accept then they are truly believers in God and what He revealed to His Messenger. In fact such acceptance is a practical demonstration of faith.
The real meaning of faith is thus stated clearly in the Qur’ān, without equivocation. It does not admit anything of the wide variety of interpretations and controversial details introduced by the different schools and sects. Such schools opened the way for argument, academic controversy and logical debate, which led, in turn, to accusations and counter accusations. It then became possible to brand someone as an unbeliever and for the refutation of such an allegation to no longer rely on the clear and basic essentials of faith. Instead, they relied on prejudice and the need to score a point against opponents. Thus people began to accuse others of unbelief because of disagreement on points of detail, while others sought to refute such accusations by following very strict lines of thought and action. Both attitudes were products of historical circumstances. The divine faith is clear, well defined, free from ambiguity and extremism. The Prophet says: “To be a true believer does not come about through wishful thinking. True faith is that which is firmly rooted in one’s heart and to which credence is given by practice.” To be a true believer presupposes acceptance of God’s law and its implementation in real life. Conversely, the rejection of God’s law and the implementation of a law other than the one He has laid down, in matters large or small, constitutes unbelief.
God’s law provides rulings that are clear and decisive. One example of these is provided in this verse: “Know that one-fifth of whatever booty you may acquire in war is for God and the Messenger, and for the near of kin, the orphans, the needy and the traveller in need. [This you must observe] if you believe in God and what We revealed to Our servant on the day when the true was distinguished from the false, the day when the two hosts met in battle.” (Verse 41) The same applies to all categorical statements that delineate the nature of true faith and its framework which we read in the divine book.
God has taken away the ownership of the spoils of war from those who actually collected them on the battlefield, and assigned that ownership to God and His Messenger, as stated clearly at the opening of the sūrah. His purpose was that those who fight for God’s cause may have only pure motives. Thus, they would be able to remove from their minds all thoughts and temptations that relate to the life of this world. They would be able then to submit themselves totally to God, fighting the battle for God’s cause, under His banner, in obedience to Him and to earn His pleasure. They accept His rule over their lives as they accept it over all their affairs, making no dissent or objection. This is the practical meaning of true faith, as clearly explained in the first verse of the sūrah which vested all authority over the spoils of war in God and the Messenger: “They ask you about the spoils of war. Say: ‘The spoils of war belong to God and the Messenger. So, have fear of God and set right your internal relations. Obey God and His Messenger, if you are true believers.’” (Verse 1)
When they accepted God’s ruling, demonstrating that faith is deeply rooted in their hearts, God gave them back four-fifths of the spoils of war, and retained one- fifth in its original ownership, i.e. belonging to God and His Messenger. The Prophet was then to dispense with it for the welfare of those in the Muslim community who needed help, be they near of kin, orphans, needy or wayfarers. When the share of four- fifths was given back to them, the Muslims were well aware that they did not own it by right of fighting or victory. They went to war for God’s sake, and achieved victory for His faith. They only deserved this share of four-fifths because God granted it to them, just as He determined the outcome of the battle and indeed all their affairs, and just as He granted them victory. They are reminded here anew that obeying this new order is a manifestation of faith. It is indeed both the condition and the outcome of being true believers: “Know that one- fifth of whatever booty you may acquire in war is for God and the Messenger, and for the near of kin, the orphans, the needy and the traveller in need. [This you must observe] if you believe in God and what We revealed to Our servant on the day when the true was distinguished from the false, the day when the two hosts met in battle.” (Verse 41) We see clearly how Qur’ānic statements support one another in confirming an essential and decisive principle of Islam that relates to the true meaning of having faith.
Let us now reflect for a moment on God’s description of His Messenger (peace be upon him) as “Our servant”, at this particular point where the ownership of the spoils of war is stated as clearly belonging to God and the Messenger: “If you believe in God and what We revealed to Our servant on the day when the true was distinguished from the false, the day when the two hosts met in battle.” (Verse 41) It is indeed an inspiring description. Being a truly obedient servant of God is the essence of faith, and, at the same time, the highest position any human being can achieve when being honoured by God. Hence it is expressly mentioned at the point when God’s Messenger is required to convey God’s orders and assign the task of dispensing what God placed at his disposal.
This is indeed the case in real life: being a servant of God is not merely a position of honour; it is the highest position to which a human being can aspire. True submission to God alone protects people from being enslaved by their own desires or by other human beings. No human being can attain this highest position unless he refuses to submit to his own desires or to anyone other than God.
Those who are too proud to submit themselves to God alone are automatically enslaved by their own desires and caprice, which is the worst type of slavery. They lose their sense of free will with which God has favoured human beings. They sink to the level of animals and soon descend to the worst rank of animals. They take themselves down to a level that God describes as “the lowest of the low,” (95: 5) after they have been created “in the fairest form.” (95: 4) They are willing to accept enslavement by others like them when they allow such people to conduct their lives according to narrow-minded theories and philosophies that are ignorant, deficient and arrogant.
Such people are also ready to submit to `certainties’ which they are told to be inevitable and to admit no discussion, such as the certainties of history, economic development and evolution! There is indeed a long list of such materialist certainties and inevitabilities which enslave man and keep his head in the sand.
A Criterion of Distinction
We need now to discuss the description of the Battle of Badr as the “day when the true was distinguished from the false,” as it occurs in the first verse of the present passage.
The Battle of Badr, which started and finished according to God’s own planning, direction and help, was indeed a criterion of distinction between truth and falsehood, as most commentators say. However, we are speaking here of a distinction that is much wider and far more profound. The truth, as meant here, is that original truth on the basis of which the whole structure of the heavens and the earth is established, as also the nature of all living things. It is the truth represented in the concept of God’s oneness, and His being the only deity who has the overall sovereignty, and authority over the universe. It is He who plans all that takes place. Everything in the universe: the heavens, the earth, animate and inanimate objects submit to His authority that admits no partnership with anyone. His will is enforceable without question. Falsehood, on the other hand, is incidental, although at the time of Badr it spread over the whole earth, beclouding people’s vision so that they could not distinguish the original truth. It also created tyrannical deities that ruled over people’s lives and conducted their affairs. That was the nature of the distinction that took place at Badr, when the original truth was distinguished from the tyrannical falsehood so that they could no longer be confused.
The far-reaching and profound significance of the distinction between the truth and falsehood that took place at Badr was multidimensional. It separated the truth from falsehood within people’s hearts and consciences. This provided, in effect, a complete distinction between absolute monotheism that assigns authority over human feelings, behaviour, morals, worship and submission to God alone, and polytheism in all its shapes and forms. This certainly includes mental submission to anyone other than God, be that a human being, a desire, a social value or a tradition.
Badr also separated truth from falsehood in daily life situations. It provided a clear separation between people’s practical enslavement by other people, desires, values, laws and traditions on the one hand, and accepting, in all these matters, God’s judgement, recognizing that He has no associate or partner, and that He is the only Lord and legislator. Thus human beings were able to raise their heads high, rejecting all tyranny and bending to no authority other than that of God, the only law-giver.
The Battle of Badr also separated two different stages in the history of the Islamic movement: the stage of grouping, perseverance and steadfastness, and the stage of strength, pre-emption and taking the initiative. The religion of Islam represents a new concept of life, a code of living, a social order and a system of state and government. All these are results of the liberation of humanity all over the world which Islam achieves through the establishment of God’s sovereignty in human life and by rejecting all tyranny. As such, Islam must always acquire strength and take the initiative. It is not in the nature of Islam to remain in waiting for events and developments. It cannot remain a collection of beliefs that are represented in worship rituals and moral behaviour. It must take action to establish its new concept, practice its code of living and lay the foundation of its new social order and state. This requires the removal of all physical and material impediments that hinder the practical implementation of its constitution in the life of the Muslim community at first, and later in human life as a whole. Needless to say, God has given us all these for practical implementation.
Badr also separated two epochs in human history. Prior to the establishment of the Islamic system, humanity as a whole was a totally different entity. The new Islamic concept of life and the new Muslim community meant a rebirth of humanity, while the new set of values provided the foundation of a new social order and a new code of law. After Badr, these were no longer the sole property of the Muslims alone. They gradually became the property of all humanity, which came to be profoundly influenced by them, within the land of Islam and outside it. This applied to those who adopted a friendly attitude to Islam, and also to those who were hostile. The Crusaders who marched from the West to exterminate Islam in its own territory were strongly influenced by the traditions of the Muslim society they came to destroy. When they went home, they put an end to the feudal system that prevailed in Europe, after they had seen the lingering traditions of the Islamic system.
Encouraged by the Jews and Crusaders living in the Muslim areas, the Tartars marched from the East to put an end to Islam. They, however, were eventually influenced by the Islamic faith. They not only adopted Islam, but went further to spread it across vast new areas and establish a new Islamic state that flourished close to the European hinterland from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries. Ever since the Battle of Badr, human history is strongly influenced by that great distinction between the truth and falsehood, whether in the land of Islam or in the land of its opponents.
Badr also provided a clear distinction between two outlooks defining the causes of defeat and victory. The battle took place at a time when all apparent factors clearly indicated a victory for the unbelievers and predicted a defeat for the Muslims. The hypocrites and those sick at heart declared: “Their faith has deluded these people.” (Verse 49) Since it was the first major battle between the unbelieving majority and the Muslim minority, God willed that it should take place in this particular fashion in order to provide a clear distinction between causes of victory and defeat. Strong faith was thus able to overcome numerical strength and superior equipment so that people should know that victory belongs to the faith that has the elements of strength and is designed to bring out the best in human beings. Those who believe in the true faith must strive hard and join the battle against falsehood, without waiting until they have the same material strength as their enemy. They should be aware that they have another type of strength that can tip the balance in their favour. These are not idle words. This is an evident reality.
The Battle of Badr was also a distinction between the truth and falsehood in a different sense, which we derive from God’s statement in the early part of the sūrah: “God promised you that one of the two hosts would fall to you. It was your wish that the one which was not powerful to be yours, but it was God’s will to establish the truth in accordance with His words and to wipe out the unbelievers. Thus He would certainly establish the truth firmly and show falsehood to be false, however hateful this might be to the evildoers.” (Verses 7-8)

Those Muslims who marched with the Prophet from Madinah wanted only to capture the trade caravan led by Abū Sufyān. God, however, wanted something else for them. He wanted them to miss out on capturing the trade caravan and to meet in battle the army led by Abū Jahl. He wanted them to go through a hard battle when fighters are killed and prisoners are taken. He did not want them to have an easy mission which ended in the capture of handsome booty. Furthermore, He told them that He willed this in order to “establish the truth firmly and show falsehood to be false.” (Verse 8)

This is a clear reference to a fundamental issue. In human society, the truth cannot be established and falsehood cannot be clearly seen as false on the basis of any theoretical exposition of each, or even by an academic belief that the one is true and the other is false. The establishment of truth and the eradication of falsehood in the real world can only come about when the might of falsehood is smashed and the authority of truth is triumphant. This takes place when victory is achieved by the army of truth over the forces of falsehood. This religion is not a mere theory for debate. It is a practical code of living.
God’s purpose was certainly achieved with the truth firmly established as true and falsehood clearly seen as false. He has indeed stated His purpose behind bringing His Messenger out of his hometown with the truth, allowing the caravan (the host of little might) to escape its chasers and bringing about the encounter with the mighty host, so that the battle could take place.
All this is a criterion of distinction characteristic of the method of operation of Islam. We are thus able to clearly see the nature of this method of operation and how it is perceived by Muslims. Today we feel the need and the importance of this criterion as we witness ambiguity creeping into people’s perception of basic Islamic concepts. Indeed some of those who call others to embrace this religion are not free from such ambiguity.
The Battle of Badr was indeed a way to separate the true from the false in the sense of this whole range of concepts.
“God has power over all things.” (Verse 41) The Battle of Badr was an indisputable example of the working of God’s power. It was an event that cannot be explained in any way other than its being brought about by God’s power which can easily accomplish whatever He wants.