Verse 81-89 of Sura 9, “Repentance,” excoriate Muslims who refused to accompany Muhammad on his expedition to Tabuk, where he had hoped to fight the Byzantines in the year 631. Some begged off because of the scorching heat in Arabia, making an expedition particularly trying – leading Allah to taunt them about the heat of hell, for “they hated to strive and fight,” that is, wage jihad (yujahidoo, يُجَاهِدُوا) “with their goods and their persons, in the cause of Allah” (v. 81). Ibn Kathir explains: “if they have any comprehension or understanding, they would have marched with the Messenger of Allah during the heat, so as to save themselves from the Fire of Jahannam [Hell], which is much more severe.”
Even if the Hypocrites were to change their minds and want to join Muhammad on a future expedition, they are forever barred from doing so (v. 83). Muhammad and the Muslims should not even pray for them when they die (v. 84). They will be punished in this world also (v. 85 – a repeat of v. 55). But Muhammad and the Muslims who do “strive and fight [jahadoo, جَاهَدُواْ] with their wealth and their persons” will enter the gardens of Paradise (vv. 88-89).
Verses 90-105 single out for the Bedouin Arabs for especial criticism for not going to Tabuk. Ibn Juzayy says that this in itself invalidated their claim to be Muslim: “They were the people who did not go on jihad nor ask excuses to stay behind them, so they lied when they claimed to believe.” This is not to say that no one can be excused from jihad: one may stay behind if he is “infirm, or ill,” or has “no resources to spend (on the cause)” (v. 91). Ibn Kathir explains the conditions: “Allah mentions here the valid excuses that permit one to stay away from fighting. He first mentions the excuses that remain with a person, the weakness in the body that disallows one from Jihad, such as blindness, limping, and so forth. He then mentions the excuses that are not permanent, such as an illness that would prevent one from fighting in the cause of Allah, or poverty that prevents preparing for Jihad. There is no sin in these cases if they remain behind, providing that when they remain behind, they do not spread malice or try to discourage Muslims from fighting, but all the while observing good behavior in this state.”
But the rich claim exemption (v. 93) and present excuses to Muhammad, who is not to accept them (v. 94), for these people are unclean (v. 95). The worst unbelievers and Hypocrites are the Bedouins (v. 97). Allah accused some of them of plotting against Muhammad, and warned that their plots would backfire (v. 98). However, some truly believe (v. 99). Allah may forgive those who repent of their wrongdoings, who have “mixed an act that was good with another that was evil” (v. 102). Ibn Juzayy explains that “this ayat was sent down about Abu Lubaba. His virtuous action was jihad and his bad action consisted of advising the Banu Qurayza” – that is, the Jewish tribe that broke their covenant with the Muslims and that Muhammad subsequently had massacred. Those who repent can seal their repentance by giving alms (vv. 103-104).
Verses 106-112 contrast false belief with the genuine article. On the way back from Tabuk, Muhammad received news about a mosque that a group of Muslims had built in opposition to his authority. Allah gave him a revelation making clear the malign intent of the builders, despite their protestations of good intentions (v. 107). Muhammad ordered his followers to burn the mosque to the ground. Ibn Kathir says that its builders had “made it an outpost for those who warred against Allah and His Messenger.”
V. 111, with its guarantee of Paradise to those who “kill and are killed” for Allah, has become in the modern age the rationale for suicide bombing. Ibn Kathir explains: “Allah states that He has compensated His believing servants for their lives and wealth — if they give them up in His cause — with Paradise.” Ibn Juzayy adds, significantly: “It is said that it was sent down about the Homage of ‘Aqaba [an early pledge of Muslims’ willingness to wage war for Islam], but its judgment is general to every believer doing jihad in the way of Allah until the Day of Rising.” So it has been understood. Abu Abdel Aziz, a modern-day jihadist who fought in Afghanistan and Bosnia, said in a 1994 interview: “I have found that the best sacrifice we can offer for the sake of Allah, is our souls, then our possession[s].” Then he quoted v. 111.
The Qur’an says that this promise of Paradise to those who kill and are killed for Allah is also in the Torah and Gospel, but it isn’t – which is in itself more evidence for pious Muslims that those documents have been tampered with.
Verses 113-129 emphasize that loyalty to Allah comes before everything, and Allah controls all. Muhammad and the Muslims should not pray for pagans, even relatives (v. 113, cf. v. 84). Abraham even dissociated himself from his father when he realized he was an “enemy of Allah” (v. 114). Allah will not mislead a people after he has guided them to the truth (v. 115) – Ibn Juzayy explains: “This ayat was sent down about some Muslims who asked forgiveness for the idolaters without permission and then they feared for themselves on that account and so the ayat was sent down to console them, i.e. Allah would not take you to task for that before it was clear to you that it was forbidden.” The “three who were left behind” who are forgiven in v. 118 were three Muslims who, according to Ibn Juzayy, “stayed behind the Tabuk expedition without excuse and without hypocrisy nor intention to stay behind.” The believers must “Fear Allah and be with those who are true,” which means, according to as-Suyuti, “to be truthful in everything and in every situation.” However, Muhammad allowed for lying “in battle, for bringing reconciliation amongst persons and the narration of the words of the husband to his wife, and the narration of the words of a wife to her husband (in a twisted form in order to bring reconciliation between them).”
The people of Medina and the Bedouins should not have hesitated to follow Muhammad, because anything they suffered in that adventure would have been credited to them as a deed of righteousness. Nothing that infuriates the unbelievers will go unrewarded (v. 120). However, all the Muslims need not go forth to wage jihad warfare (v. 122). Ibn Abbas says, “it is not necessary for all the Muslims to go on raids.” This is a foundation for the Islamic legal principle that jihad is fard kifaya — that is, a community obligation from which some are freed if others take it up. Jihad becomes fard ayn, or obligatory on every believer, when a Muslim land is attacked. In general, Muslims must fight against the unbelievers, and be harsh toward them (v. 123).
Next week: Sura 10, “Jonah”: how Allah destroyed previous generations of unbelievers.
(Here you can find links to all the earlier “Blogging the Qur’an” segments. Here is a good Arabic/English Qur’an, here are two popular Muslim translations, those of Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, along with a third by M. H. Shakir. Here is another popular translation, that of Muhammad Asad. And here is an omnibus of ten Qur’an translations.)