Sura 8, Al-Anfal — “Booty,” or “The Spoils of War” — dates from the second year of the Medinan period, the second part of Muhammad’s prophetic career. It was revealed not long after the Battle of Badr, the first great victory of the Muslims over their chief rivals of the time, the pagan Quraysh tribe. The title of this sura is better known than most, since Saddam Hussein used Al-Anfal as the name for his genocidal 1988 campaigns against the Kurds, in which between 50,000 and 100,000 people were murdered.
At Badr, the Quraysh came out to meet Muhammad’s three hundred men with a force nearly a thousand strong. Muhammad had provoked the battle by sending his men out to raid a Quraysh caravan, telling them: “This is the caravan of Quraysh carrying their property, so march forth to intercept it, Allah might make it as war spoils for you.” As the battle loomed, according to Muhammad’s earliest biographer, Ibn Ishaq, the Islamic prophet strode among his troops and issued a momentous promise — one that has given heart to Muslim warriors throughout the ages: “By God in whose hand is the soul of Muhammad, no man will be slain this day fighting against them with steadfast courage advancing not retreating but God will cause him to enter Paradise.” One of the Muslim warriors, ‘Umayr bin al-Humam, exclaimed: “Fine, Fine! Is there nothing between me and my entering Paradise save to be killed by these men?” He flung away some dates that he had been eating, rushed into the thick of the battle, and fought until he was killed.
The Quraysh were routed. Some Muslim traditions say that Muhammad himself participated in the fighting; others that it was more likely that he exhorted his followers from the sidelines. In any event, it was an occasion for him to avenge years of frustration, resentment, and hatred toward his people who had rejected him. One of his followers later recalled a curse Muhammad had pronounced on the leaders of the Quraysh: “The Prophet said, ‘O Allah! Destroy the chiefs of Quraish, O Allah! Destroy Abu Jahl bin Hisham, ‘Utba bin Rabi’a, Shaiba bin Rabi’a, ‘Uqba bin Abi Mu’ait, ‘Umaiya bin Khalaf (or Ubai bin Kalaf).’” All these men were captured or killed during the battle of Badr. Ibn Ishaq says that one Quraysh leader named in this curse, ‘Uqba, pleaded for his life: “But who will look after my children, O Muhammad?” In the confrontation, ‘Uqba had thrown camel dung, blood, and intestines on the Prophet of Islam, to the great merriment of the Quraysh chieftans, while Muhammad prostrated himself in prayer. Muhammad had pronounced a curse on them, and now it was being fulfilled. Who would care for ‘Uqba’s children? “Hell,” Muhammad declared, and ordered ‘Uqba killed.
The victory at Badr was the turning point for the Muslims. It became the stuff of legend, a cornerstone of the new religion. And Allah rewarded those to whom he had granted victory. Verses 1-4 praise the true believers, who follow the Islamic rules concerning prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and address for the first time the question of the spoils of war from Badr. There was great booty for the victors — so much, in fact, that it became a bone of contention. Muhammad was receiving questions about the disposal of the booty, and Allah tells the Muslims that that is entirely up to Muhammad (v. 1). This was in accord with a special privilege that Allah had granted to Muhammad. Muhammad explained: “I have been given five (things) which were not given to any amongst the Prophets before me.” These included the fact that “Allah made me victorious by awe (by His frightening my enemies)” and “the booty has been made Halal (lawful) to me (and was not made so to anyone else).”
Verses 5-17 refer to various incidents that took place before and during the battle, emphasizing that Allah commands warfare and protects the believers in it. The true believers were willing to go out of their homes to wage jihad warfare, although some disliked doing so and disputed with Muhammad about having to do so (vv. 5-6). This echoes 2:216: “Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you.” Allah’s promise of “one of the two enemy parties” (v. 7) means, according to Ibn Kathir, that the Muslims would attain victory by either “confiscating the caravan or defeating the Quraysh army.”
Allah announced that a thousand angels joined the Muslims to smite the Quraysh (v. 9), and that he had “inspired the angels (with the message): ‘I am with you: give firmness to the Believers: I will instill terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers: smite ye above their necks and smite all their finger-tips off them’” (v. 12). The Tafsir Al-Jalalayn explains: “that is, [smite] the extremities of their hands and feet: thus, when one of them went to strike an disbeliever’s head, it would roll off before his sword reached it.” V. 12 became one of the chief justifications for the Islamic practice — then and now — of beheading hostages and war captives. At the beheading of American hostage Nicholas Berg in May 2004, for example, the now-dead Iraqi jihad leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi invoked the great battle: “Is it not time for you [Muslims] to take the path of jihad and carry the sword of the Prophet of prophets?…The Prophet, the most merciful, ordered [his army] to strike the necks of some prisoners in [the battle of] Badr and to kill them….And he set a good example for us.”
Allah sent angels against the Quraysh “because they contended against Allah and His Messenger: If any contend against Allah and His Messenger, Allah is strict in punishment” (v. 13). The Muslims must always advance, never turning their backs on the enemy, unless they do so as a strategem of war (vv. 15-16). Allah tells Muhammad that the Muslims were merely passive instruments at Badr. At one point, according to Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad threw pebbles toward the Quraysh, exclaiming: “Foul be those faces!” But it was Allah who killed the Quraysh and even Allah who threw the pebbles, “in order that He might test the believers by a gracious trial from Himself: for Allah is He Who heareth and knoweth (all things)” (v. 17).
Verses 18-19 address the unbelievers, warning the Quraysh not to attempt another attack, telling them they will again be defeated no matter how much more numerous they are than the Muslims. Verses 20-30 then address the Muslims again, exhorting them to faith and reminding them how Allah gave them victory at Badr despite the enemy’s superior numbers (v. 26). The unbelievers may plot and plan, but “Allah is the best of plotters” (v. 30).
Next week: “Strike terror into the hearts of the enemies of Allah!”
(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.)