Verses 31-40 of Sura 8 discuss the perversity of the pagan Quraysh, whom the Muslims have just defeated in the Battle of Badr. They reject Muhammad’s preaching as “tales of the ancients” (v. 31) and keep the Muslims out of the Sacred Mosque in Mecca (v. 34). In verses 38-40, Allah tells Muhammad to call them to accept Islam, “and fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression [fitnah], and there prevail justice and faith in Allah altogether and everywhere; but if they cease, verily Allah doth see all that they do” (v. 39).
According to Ibn Abbas, Abu Al-`Aliyah, Mujahid, Al-Hasan, Qatadah, Ar-Rabi` bin Anas, As-Suddi, Muqatil bin Hayyan and Zayd bin Aslam, the statement that Muslims must fight until there is no more fitnah means that they must fight “so that there is no more Shirk.” Shirk is the association of partners with Allah – i.e., calling Jesus the Son of God. So this verse, although it was revealed in the aftermath of a seventh-century battle between Muslims and pagans, has a universal application: the Tafsir al-Jalalayn glosses it this way: “And fight them until sedition, idolatry, is, exists, no more and religion is all for God, alone, none other being worshipped…” Muhammad himself said: “I have been commanded to fight against people so long as they do not declare that there is no god but Allah, and he who professed it was guaranteed the protection of his property and life on my behalf except for the right affairs rest with Allah.”
Verses 41-44 concern the battle itself. After the Muslims’ victory, Allah directs the Muslims to give a fifth of the booty to Muhammad (v. 41). After one battle, Muhammad prayed “facing a camel from the war booty,” and then, holding some of the camel’s hair between his fingers, said to his men: “This is also a part of the war booty you earned. Verily, I have no share in it, except my own share, the fifth designated to me. Even that fifth will be given to you.” That indicated, according to the one telling this tale, the prophet’s generosity. Muhammad continued by exhorting the Muslims to turn over all the spoils of war to him for just distribution: “Therefore, surrender even the needle and the thread, and whatever is bigger or smaller than that (from the war spoils). Do not cheat with any of it, for stealing from the war booty before its distribution is Fire and a shame on its people in this life and the Hereafter. Perform Jihad against the people in Allah’s cause, whether they are near or far, and do not fear the blame of the blamers, as long as you are in Allah’s cause. Establish Allah’s rules while in your area and while traveling. Perform Jihad in Allah’s cause, for Jihad is a tremendous door leading to Paradise. Through it, Allah saves (one) from sadness and grief.”
Then Allah reminds Muhammad of various events before and during the battle, emphasizing how Allah controlled events and saved the Muslims (vv. 42-44).
Verses 45-63 address the believers, telling them not to imitate those who, like the “people of Pharaoh…rejected the Signs of Allah” (v. 52). (Here again, “signs” is ayat, the word used for the verses of the Qur’an.) For “the worst of beasts in the sight of Allah are those who reject Him: they will not believe” (v. 55) — another indication that unbelievers are worthy of no respect or consideration. If the Muslims “fear treachery” from unbelievers with whom they have a treaty, they should simply break the treaty (v. 58). Ibn Kathir says this means that Muslims should tell the unbelievers “that you are severing the treaty. This way, you will be on equal terms, in that, you and they will be aware that a state of war exists between you and that the bilateral peace treaty is null and void.” The Muslims should “make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into (the hearts of) the enemies, of Allah and your enemies” (v. 60), while being ready to make peace if the enemy wishes to do so (v. 61). Some however, do not believe this truce should be indefinite in length. Qutb explains:
At the time when this surah 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 Surah 9 was revealed, when he could only accept one of two alternatives: either they embraced Islam or paid jizyah [a tax levied on non-Muslims, per Qur’an 9:29] 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.
Verses 64-75 address Muhammad himself, giving him various instructions. Allah tells him that he will give pious Muslims more victories, even if they face odds even more prohibitive than those they had overcome at Badr, although this promise is almost immediately backtracked: originally a hundred would defeat a thousand unbelievers (v. 65), but this is almost immediately reduced to a hundred believers vanquishing two hundred unbelievers (v. 66). These became recurring themes of jihad literature throughout the centuries, up to the present day: piety will bring military victory, and the Muslims will conquer even against overwhelming odds.
According to the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, verse 67 – “It is not for any prophet to have captives until he hath made slaughter in the land” — was revealed when the Muslims “ransomed those taken captive at Badr.” The Muslims had released some of the prisoners at Badr, but this was out of their base desire for material gain: the money they would receive in ransom. The tafsir continues: “You, O believers, desire the transient things of this world, its ephemeral gains, by ransoming, while God desires, for you, the Hereafter, that is, its reward, through your killing them.” In other words, they should have killed the captives rather than ransoming them. However, the Tafsir al-Jalalayn concludes by asserting that v. 67 was abrogated by 47:4, which allows for ransom. Ibn Kathir notes that “the majority of the scholars say that the matter of prisoners of war is up to the Imam. If he decides, he can have them killed, such as in the case of Bani Qurayzah. If he decides, he can accept a ransom for them, as in the case of the prisoners of Badr, or exchange them for Muslim prisoners.”
Next week: Sura 9, the only chapter of the Qur’an that does not begin with “In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful” – and with very good reason.
(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.)