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

Tafsir Zone

Surah al-Anfal 8:61

Overview (Verse 61)

When Peace is a Real Prospect

The third ruling given in this passage deals with the case of those who wish to live in peace with the Muslim community and give clear indications by word and action that they are genuine in their desire to have a friendly and peaceful relationship with the Muslims. With respect to these, the Prophet is instructed: “If they incline to peace, then incline you to it as well, and place your trust in God. He alone hears all and knows all.” (Verse 61) The use of the term `incline’ here is very apt as it gives connotations of a gentle attitude that prefers peace and friendly relations. The instruction to be inclined to peace is coupled with that of placing our trust in God who hears and knows everything and is certainly aware of all that is harboured behind words and appearances. Placing our trust in God is sufficient for ensuring protection and security.

It is important to recall here Imām Ibn al-Qayyim’s summary which we quoted earlier, outlining the various categories of unbelievers and their attitudes to the Prophet Muĥammad and his attitude to each of them, from the time when he first settled in Madinah to the Battle of Badr when this new ruling was revealed. Referring to this summary, we realize that this particular ruling applied to those unbelievers who did not fight against the Prophet, preferring to have peaceful relations with the Muslim community. God instructs His Messenger here to leave this group alone, and to extend friendly and peaceful relations to them. This remained in effect until the revelation of Sūrah 9, several years later. That sūrah gives a four-months’ notice to all groups which had no treaty with the Prophet or had a treaty with no specific time limit to define their attitudes. Their decisions would then determine what their relations with the Muslim state would be like in the future. Hence the ruling we have here is not final. Its provisions do not apply to all people. We have to consider it within the framework of its relevant circumstances and the attitude taken by the Prophet later in his life, as he received new revelations on the subject.

The ruling, however, had a kind of general application at the time. The Prophet implemented it until the revelation of Sūrah 9, Repentance. One aspect of its implementation was the conclusion of the peace treaty of al-Ĥudaybiyah in the sixth year after the Prophet’s settlement in Madinah.

Some scholars tend to consider this ruling final and permanent. They explain the inclination to peace as the acceptance of jizyah, or submission tax. This interpretation, however, does not fit with the historical events of the period. The provisions that regulate levying jizyah are included in the next sūrah, revealed sometime after the eighth year of the Islamic calendar, while the present verse was revealed in the second year, after the Battle of Badr, when the rules of jizyah had not yet been outlined. When we review events and the dates of various revelations and consider the practical nature of the Islamic approach, we come to the conclusion that it is perhaps more accurate to say that this particular ruling was not meant to be final at the time. It was amended later when the final rulings were revealed in Sūrah 9, which classified all people according to their attitude to Islam into three groups: those who are hostile and fighting Islam, those who are Muslims implementing God’s law, and those who accept the Islamic rule, paying jizyah and honouring their agreements with Muslims. These are the final rules that represent the final outcome of Islamic jihād. Any other situation should be changed into one of these three in order to fall in line with the final pattern. These three situations are outlined by the following ĥadīth related by Muslim and Imām Ahmad on the authority of Yazīd ibn al-Khaţīb:

When the Prophet despatched an expedition or an army, he would enjoin its commander to remain God-fearing and to take good care of the Muslims under his command. He would then say to them: “Set out on your campaign in the name of God and to serve His cause. Fight those who deny God. When you meet your enemies call on them to accept one of three options. Accept from them whichever option they prefer and leave them alone. Call on them to accept Islam. If they respond favourably, then accept that from them and call on them to move from their land to that of the Muhājirīn [i.e. the Prophet’s Companions who migrated with him to Madinah]. Inform them that if they do so, they will have the same obligations and privileges that apply to the Muhājirīn. If they choose to remain in their own land, then make it clear to them that they will be in the same position as the desert Arabs who are Muslims. All rules that apply to believers are also applicable to them but they will have no share of any spoils gained in war or without a fight unless they join forces with the Muslims in their jihād campaigns. If they refuse, then make it clear to them that they have to pay jizyah. If they are willing to do so, then accept that from them and leave them alone. If they refuse then pray for God’s help and fight them.”

This ĥadīth is problematic in one aspect, namely because it mentions the Muhājirīn and jizyah at the same time. It is confirmed that the jizyah was not imposed until the eighth year. It was not levied from the Arabs who were unbelievers because they accepted Islam before its provisions were revealed. It was applied to the Magians who were similarly unbelievers. Had those provisions been revealed at a time when there were unbelievers in the Arabian Peninsula, it would have been levied from them, as Imām Ibn al-Qayyim points out. This is also the view of Abū Hanīfah and one of two views attributed to Imām Ahmad.

Be that as it may, what we conclude is that there is no final rulings of universal application in this verse: “If they incline to peace, then incline you to it as well, and place your trust in God. He alone hears all and knows all.” (Verse 61) At the time when this sūrah was revealed, God instructed His Messenger to remain at peace with those groups who refrained from fighting him and the Muslims, whether they entered into a formal treaty with the Muslims or not. The Prophet continued to accept a peaceful relationship with unbelievers and people of earlier revelations until Sūrah 9 was revealed, when he could only accept one of two alternatives: either they embraced Islam or paid jizyah which indicated a state of peace. Otherwise, the only alternative was war, whenever this was feasible for the Muslims to undertake, so that all people submit to God alone.

Where to Place All Trust

I have dwelt rather extensively on the provisional nature of the rule outlined in this verse, which requires the Prophet and the Muslims to reciprocate any inclination to peace by the unbelievers. My aim is to clarify a certain aspect of confusion that arises from the spiritual and intellectual defeatism reflected in the work of many of those who write about Islamic jihād. Such people feel the pressure of modern values that prevail in international relations. Lacking a clear understanding of the true nature of Islam as they are, they find it too much for the divine faith to adopt a single and permanent approach towards all humanity, giving all people a choice between three alternatives: acceptance of Islam, payment of jizyah or being at war with Islam. They realize that all forces of jāhiliyyah are mobilized against Islam and its followers, while those who profess to be Muslims, without fully understanding or seriously appreciating the true nature of Islam, are too weak to stand up to the combined forces of other creeds and religions. They also feel that those at the forefront of Islamic advocacy are too small in number and have little power to reckon with. Hence, such writers try to impose a different interpretation on Qur’ānic statements and aĥadīth so that they can be seen to be in line with the situation in our present world with all its pressures on contemporary Muslims. They find the single approach of Islam and the three choices it offers too hard to swallow.

Such writers often interpret statements that have a provisional nature or qualified application as final, permanent and having general and universal application. When they tackle the final statements they interpret these in the light of those provisional ones to which they have applied a final import. Thus, they come up with the idea that Islamic jihād is merely a defensive operation to protect Muslim people and their land when they are attacked, and that Islam will always accept any offer of peace. To them, peace is merely a state of non- belligerence which, in practical terms, means that the other camp will not attack the land of Islam. According to their understanding, Islam should shrink inside its borders at all times. It has no right to call on others to accept its message or to submit to God’s law, unless such a call takes the form of a speech, statement or bulletin. When it comes to material forces, Islam has no right to attack the ruling forces in jāhiliyyah societies unless it first comes under attack, in which case Islam is right to defend itself.

Had those spiritually and intellectually defeatist people wanted to find in the rules and laws of their faith elements which can deal with a situation like the present one, without imposing any arbitrary interpretation on any statement, they would have been able to understand how Islam faced a situation that is not dissimilar to what we face today. They would then have been able to say that in similar situations Islam adopted such and such policy, but that does not constitute the final or the permanent Islamic attitude. It was merely a set of temporary measures that were necessary in a special situation or in an emergency. Within the same context, it is useful to look at examples of rulings and practices of a transitional nature, undertaken to meet emergencies.

In the early days after his settlement in Madinah, the Prophet concluded a peace and defence treaty with the Jews and the unbelievers in and around Madinah. The treaty made it clear that the supreme    authority in Madinah belonged to the Prophet, and committed the other groups to defend the city against the Quraysh. The signatories agreed that they would not extend any support to any aggressor who attacked Madinah. None would make any pact with the unbelievers who were hostile to the Muslims without the prior agreement of the Prophet. At the same time, God instructed the Prophet to extend peaceful and friendly treatment to any group who were inclined towards peace, even though they did not sign a treaty with him. He was to maintain that peaceful situation as long as they were committed to peace. All this changed later, as already explained.

When the events known as the Expedition of the Moat took place, with the Arab unbelievers mobilizing large forces and surrounding Madinah, the Qurayżah Jews violated their treaty with the Muslim state. The Prophet was worried that the Muslims might be in very serious trouble as a result of a planned pincer attack. To ease the situation the Prophet offered to make a deal with the chiefs of the second largest force, namely the Ghaţafān tribe, which would have them withdrawing all their forces in return for having one-third of Madinah’s harvest. That agreement would have left the Quraysh alone in the position of attack and the Muslims would most probably have been able to gain a quick victory against them. This was only an offer and no agreement was signed.

Before having the agreement signed and witnessed, the Prophet consulted the two leaders of the Anşār, Sa`d ibn Mu`ādh and Sa`d ibn `Ubādah. They asked him: “Is this something you would like us to do? In this case, we will accept it for your sake. Or is it something God has ordered and we have to accept it? Or is it something you are doing for our sake?” The Prophet answered: “I am doing it for you, having seen all the Arabs joining forces against you.” He added that all he wanted was to break up the unity of their enemies for the present. Sa`d ibn Mu`ādh said: Messenger of God, when we were, like these people, idolaters, unaware of any religion other than the worship of idols, they did not hope to get a single fruit from Madinah except as a present from us or if we sold it to them. Now that God has honoured us with Islam and guided us to it and has given us the honour and strength of having you in our midst, would we willingly give them our goods? We have no need for this agreement. We will give them nothing but the sword until God makes His judgement between us. The Prophet was pleased with this reply and said: “You do what you wish.” Turning to the Ghaţafān chiefs, he said: “You may go now, for we have nothing to offer you except the sword.” What the Prophet thought of doing on this occasion was merely a temporary measure in an emergency situation. It was by no means indicative of a final rule.

The Prophet also concluded the peace agreement at al-Ĥudaybiyah with the Quraysh when they were still associating partners with God. The terms of the agreement were far from satisfactory to many Muslims. The agreement stipulated that neither party would go to war against the other for ten years. People would live in peace and security. The Prophet and his companions would go back without entering Makkah, to return in a year’s time when they would be allowed in the city for three days only, having no armament other than swords in their shields. If an unbeliever should seek to join the Muslims, they would turn him back, but if a Muslim sought to join the unbelievers, they would not have to send him back. Acting on God’s instruction, the Prophet accepted those seemingly unfair conditions for a definite purpose known to Him. In similar circumstances the leaders of the Muslim community could take action on a similar basis.

The practical nature of the Islamic faith makes it necessary to face up to any situation with adequate means. Islam takes a practical and flexible approach which is at the same time clear and firmly based. If we seek in Islamic teachings a basis for positive action to deal with any practical situation, we will not need to twist Qur’ānic or aĥadīth statements, or give them arbitrary interpretations. What is needed is to fear God and to refrain from any attempt to make His faith subservient to evil and ignorant realities. We must also guard against adopting a defeatist attitude which puts Islam on the defensive when it is a faith that is meant to govern and regulate people’s lives. It satisfies, from a position of strength, all the needs of practical life. Praise be to God for having guided us to His faith.