Tafsir Zone - Surah 9: at-Taubah (Repentance )

Tafsir Zone

Surah at-Taubah 9:5

Overview (Verses 5)

When the Period of Grace is Over

When these months of grace are over, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captive, besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every conceivable place. Yet if they should repent, take to prayer and pay the zakāt, let them go their way. For God is Much-Forgiving, Merciful. (Verse 5)

Some people may feel differently, taking the order to mean that once the truce was over, the Muslims were meant to kill all unbelievers. They may quote in support of their view the next verse which states: ‘When these months of grace are over, slay the idolaters wherever you find them.’ (Verse 5) But this view is wrong. Verse 7 confirms our view and shows the opposite as wrong: ‘How can there be a treaty with God and His Messenger for the idolaters, unless it be those of them with whom you have made a treaty at the Sacred Mosque? So long as they are true to you, be true to them; for God loves those who are God-fearing.’ Those people to whom this verse refers are idolaters, and God commands the Prophet and the believers to remain faithful to their treaty with them as long as they kept their part and fulfilled their obligations.

Islam has honoured its obligations to those who were true to theirs. It did not give them notice of termination, as it did with all others. It allowed their treaties to run their term in recognition of their faithful observance of their obligations. This was the Islamic attitude, although Islam was in urgent need of eradicating all idolatry from the whole of Arabia, so that the Peninsula could become its safe base. The enemies of Islam in neighbouring countries were alerted to the danger to themselves that Islam represented. They began to make preparations for an eventual encounter with the Muslims, as we will explain in our discussion of the Tabūk Expedition. Indeed, the earlier Battle of Mu`tah served as a warning of the preparations the Byzantines had started for a battle with Islam. Moreover, they were in alliance with the Persians in Yemen, in southern Arabia.

Thus the opening verses of the sūrah make it clear that God and His Messenger would have no dealings whatsoever with the idolaters, whether or not they had a treaty with the Prophet. They were given a four-month period of grace in which they were safe. When this period was over, treaties would continue to be observed to the end of their terms, but only with those who were true to their obligations under those treaties, and did not collaborate with any enemy of the Muslims. Now the sūrah mentions what the Muslims were to do when the four-month grace period was over.
The Qur’ānic instruction is very clear. A state of all-out war was then to be declared: “When these months of grace are over, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captive, besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every conceivable place. Yet if they should repent, take to prayer and pay the zakāt, let them go their way. For God is Much forgiving, Merciful.” (Verse 5)
The word which is used here to describe those four months in the Qur’ānic text is ‘ĥurum’, which is the one that describes the four months when fighting is not allowed except to repel aggression. These form two periods every year when people can go freely, secure from any danger of war. Because of the same usage scholars have disagreed in their interpretations of this statement here, on whether the four months meant the same ones observed annually, i.e. Dhu’l-Qa`dah, Dhu’l-Ĥijjah, Muĥarram and Rajab. In that case, the remaining period of grace given after the declaration of the termination of treaties would only be the rest of Dhu’l-Hijjah and Muĥarram, i.e. 50 days. Or were these four months, when fighting was forbidden, to start on the day of sacrifice and to end on 10 Rabī` II? A third point of view suggests that the first interpretation applies in the case of those who had violated their treaties and the second applies to those who did not have any treaty and those who had treaties with an unspecified duration.
The correct interpretation, in our view, is that the four months meant here are different from the four sacred months observed annually. The same description is given to both because fighting during them is forbidden. This new period of grace also applied to all, except in the case of those who had treaties lasting for a specified length of time, in which case such treaties were to be honoured in full. Since God has said to them: “You may go freely in the land for four months,” then the four months must start from the day when the announcement was made to them. This fits with the nature of this announcement.
God’s instructions to the Muslims were clear: when the four months were over, they were to kill any idolater wherever he was found, or they were to take him captive, or besiege him if he was in a fortified place, or lie in wait for him so that he could not escape without punishment, except for those to whom obligations were to be observed for as long as their treaties remained in force. Indeed the idolaters were given enough notice, which meant that they were not taken by surprise. Nor did they fall victim to any treachery. Their treaties were terminated publicly and they were made fully aware of what was to be done with them.
Moreover, this was not meant as a campaign of vengeance or extermination, but rather as a warning which provided a motive for them to accept Islam. “If they should repent, take to prayer and pay the zakāt, let them go their way. For God is Much-Forgiving, Merciful.” (Verse 5) For 22 years they had been listening to the message of Islam put to them in the clearest possible way. For 22 years they were, nevertheless, trying to suppress the message of Islam by persecution, open warfare and forging alliances to destroy the Islamic state. This was a long history that contrasted with the never failing tolerance of Islam, as demonstrated by God’s Messenger and his Companions. Nevertheless, Islam was now opening its arms to them. Instructions are here issued to the Prophet and the Muslims, the very victims of persecution who were driven out of their homeland and suffered a war of aggression, to extend a hand of welcome to those idolaters should they turn to God in repentance. Such repentance should be genuine, confirmed by their observance of the main duties of Islam. That is because God never rejects anyone who turns to Him in sincere repentance, no matter how great his sins are: “For God is Much forgiving, Merciful.” (Verse 5)
We do not here want to go into any of the arguments which are frequently found in books of commentary on the Qur’ān or Islamic jurisprudence, i.e. fiqh, concerning the proviso mentioned in this verse: “If they should repent, take to prayer and pay the zakāt, let them go their way.” (Verse 5) These arguments discuss whether these are the essential conditions of being a Muslim, in the sense that a person who does not observe them is considered an unbeliever. They also discuss whether these are sufficient for the acceptance of anyone who declares repentance without going into the other basic duties of Islam. We do not feel this verse is concerned with any such argument. Rather, it simply tackles a real situation involving the idolaters in Arabia at the time. None of these would have declared their repentance, prayed regularly and paid the zakāt without the full intention of submitting themselves to God and being Muslims in the full sense of the word. Hence the Qur’ānic verse specifies the declaration of repentance, regular prayers and zakāt payment as a mark of the acceptance of Islam in full with all its conditions and significance. The first of these is naturally the submission to God by declaring one’s belief that there is no deity other than God and belief in the Prophet Muĥammad’s message by declaring that Muĥammad is God’s Messenger. This verse is not, then, about making any rulings on legal matters, but it outlines practical steps to deal with a particular situation where certain circumstances applied.