In March 2006, a twenty-two-year-old Iranian student named Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar drove an SUV onto the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, deliberately trying to kill people and succeeding in injuring nine. After the incident, he seemed singularly pleased with himself, smiling and waving to crowds after a court appearance at which he explained that he was “thankful for the opportunity to spread the will of Allah.” Later he wrote six letters to the Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper of the University of North Carolina, explaining why he did it. In one of them, he gives a list of “Qur’an Notes Relevant to 3/3/06 Attack.”

These include “Instructions and guidelines for fighting and killing in the cause of Allah.” Under “Reasons for fighting in the cause of Allah,” he cited verses 14 and 15 of sura 9, explaining that fight was “to release anger and rage from Allah’s followers’ hearts.” And indeed, in those verses Allah promises that as he punishes the unbelievers at the hands of the believers and covers them with shame, he will “heal the breasts of believers, and still the indignation of their hearts.” Ibn Juzayy and the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, however, focus on the portion of the verse that says that “Allah turns to anyone He wills.” Ibn Juzayy explains: “Allah will turn to some of those unbelievers and so that they become Muslims.” That decision, as we have seen, is all Allah’s. Allah will not leave bereft those who “strive with might and main” (v. 16). The word used here is jahadu (جَاهَدُواْ), a form of “jihad,” as it is rendered here.

Then verses 17-22 declare that the idolaters or polytheists (mushrikeena, ْمُشْرِكِينَ, from mushrik, polytheist) are not worthy to take care of the Sacred Mosque in Mecca – although at the time of the revelation of this sura the pagans still control that mosque. They control it, but as comments Ibn Juzayy, “they do not have either the right or the duty to do so. They inhabit them through forceful occupation and injustice.” They have no right to the mosque because, according to Ibn Kathir and, indeed, generalized Islamic tradition, Abraham himself built it as a shrine to Allah.

Verses 23-28 tell the believers to separate from and fight the unbelievers. The believers should cut ties even with their own families if they are not Muslims (verses 23-24). Says Ibn Kathir: “Allah commands shunning the disbelievers, even if they are one’s parents or children, and prohibits taking them as supporters if they choose disbelief instead of faith.” Ibn Juzayy notes that v. 24, with its warning that one should value nothing in this life higher than Allah, is “a threat to anyone who prefers his family, property or home to emigration and jihad.” “Emigration” refers to the move to Medina which at that time was incumbent upon all true believers.

Verses 25 and 26 refer to the Battle of Hunayn, which took place after Muhammad conquered Mecca. Once he was the master of Mecca, there was one additional great obstacle between him and mastery of all Arabia. Malik ibn ‘Awf, a member of the Hawazin tribe of the city of Ta’if, south of Mecca, began to assemble a force to fight the Muslims. The people of Ta’if had rejected Muhammad and treated him shabbily when he presented his prophetic claim to them ten years earlier. They were historic rivals of the Quraysh, and viewed the conversion of the latter to Islam with disdain. Malik assembled a force and marched out to face the Muslims; Muhammad, according to Ibn Ishaq, met him with an army 12,000 strong, and said, in an echo of v. 25 (“your great numbers delighted you”), “We shall not be worsted today for want of numbers.”

The two forces met at a wadi – a dry riverbed — called Hunayn, near Mecca. Malik and his men had arrived first and taken up positions that gave them an immense tactical advantage. The Muslims, despite their superior numbers, were routed. As they broke ranks and fled, Muhammad called out: “Where are you going, men? Come to me. I am God’s apostle. I am Muhammad the son of ‘Abdullah.” Some of the Muslims did take heart, and gradually the tide began to turn – although with tremendous loss of life on both sides.

The Muslims eventually prevailed, wiping out the last major force that stood between the Prophet of Islam and mastery of Arabia. After the battle Muhammad received another revelation explaining that the Muslims had won because of supernatural help (v. 26). With Malik defeated, the Muslims later conquered Ta’if with little resistance. On his way into the city, Muhammad stopped under a tree, and, finding the property to his liking, sent word to the owner: “Either come out or we will destroy your wall.” But the owner refused to appear before Muhammad, so the Muslims indeed destroyed his property. Endeavoring, however, to win the tribesmen of Ta’if to Islam, Muhammad was lenient toward them. In his distribution of the booty, he also favored some of the recent converts among the Quraysh, hoping to cement their allegiance to Islam. His favoritism, however, led to grumbling. One Muslim approached him boldly: “Muhammad, I’ve seen what you have done today…I don’t think you have been just.”

The Prophet of Islam was incredulous. “If justice is not to be found with me then where will you find it?” Indeed, for Islam Muhammad’s words and deeds are the highest pattern of conduct, forming the only absolute standard: anything sanctioned by the example of the Prophet is good.

According to Ibn Juzayy, the promise that “Allah will turn to whomever he wills” (v. 27) means that “the tribe of Hawazin who had fought the Muslims at Hunayn became Muslim.”

The unbelievers are unclean, and thus must not enter the Sacred Mosque (v. 28). Shi’ites in particular regard this as a matter of ritual purity. The Ayatollah Sistani, whom many observers have identified as a beacon of democratic hope for Iraq, likely does not envision a state in which unbelievers have equal rights with believers, since he puts non-Muslims on the level of other impure things:

The following ten things are essentially najis [impure, unclean]:

1. Urine
2. Faeces
3. Semen
4. Dead body
5. Blood
6. Dog
7. Pig
8. Kafir [unbeliever]
9. Alcoholic liquors
10. The sweat of an animal who persistently eats najasat

This idea is based on v. 28. The Tafsir al-Jalalayn says that the polytheists are “impure because of their inward foulness,” and As-Suyuti adds that some say “they are actually impure so that they must do ghusl [the full ablution] if they become Muslim and one must do wudu’ [the partial ablution] after shaking hands with them.” As-Suyuti also notes that this verse forbids unbelievers to enter the Sacred Mosque in Mecca, although he points out that “Abu Hanifa says that People of the Book are not prevented because it is specific to idolaters.” Because of Muhammad’s prohibition on non-Muslims in Arabia, it is unlikely that a member of the People of the Book would be able to enter Mecca today.

Next week: The command to fight against and subjugate Jews and Christians.

(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.)