Sura 9, “Repentance,” is the only one of the Qur’an’s 114 chapters that does not begin with Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim – “In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful.” Explanations for this vary. The caliph ‘Uthman (and others, including Zamakhshari) explains that it was because some believed that sura 8 and sura 9 were actually one sura, and that “the holy prophet passed away without informing us whether Surah Bara’ah [sura 9] was part of Surah Anfal [sura 8] or not.” Ibn Kathir says that the omission is simply “because the Companions did not write it in the complete copy of the Qur’an (Mushaf) they collected.” Maududi asserts that the correct explanation was given by Imam Razi, who says that the Bismillah was left off because Muhammad himself didn’t recite it at the beginning of this sura. Al-Hakim says that Muhammad not only didn’t recite the Bismillah himself, but commanded that it not be recited at the beginning of this sura.

Why not? The Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains Muhammad’s command by saying that the Bismillah “is security, and [sura 9] was sent down when security was removed by the sword. ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib agrees, saying that the Bismillah “conveys security while this sura was sent down with the sword. That is why it does not begin with security.” The Tafsir al-Jalalayn adds that “Hudhayfa reports that they called it the Sura of Repentance, while it is, in fact, the Sura of Punishment.”

The prohibition, in any case, remains. Scholars such as Jazari and Shatbi say that the Bismillah should not be recited at the beginning of this sura, although Bulandshahri says that if someone recites sura 9 starting from anywhere other than its beginning, he may recite the Bismillah if he chooses to do so.

According to a hadith recorded by Bukhari, sura 9 was the last to be revealed as a whole, although part of another sura came later. Another hadith says that sura 110 was actually the last, but in any case sura 9 is very late, among the last revelations Muhammad received. It came around the time of an inconclusive expedition Muhammad undertook against a Byzantine garrison at Tabuk in northern Arabia in 631, and much of its contents revolve around the events of that attempt to engage the army of the great Christian empire in battle.

It begins, however, by addressing the pagans of Mecca. Verses 1-12 free the unbelievers from all obligations they may have incurred in treaties they concluded with the Muslims, and all existing treaties are restricted to a period of four months (vv. 1-3).

This restriction comes with the warning that “Allah will cover with shame those who reject Him” (v. 2), which the Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains as “humiliating them in this world by having them killed, and in the Hereafter, by [sending them to] the Fire.” The announcement is made during the Hajj that “Allah and His Messenger dissolve (treaty) obligations with the Pagans” and call them to repent and accept Islam (v. 3). This refers only to those pagans who have violated the terms of their treaties with the Muslims; the other treaties will be honored to the end of their term (v. 4). As-Sawi says that this is an exception to the four-month limit, giving to the Damra tribe, “who still had nine months of their treaty remaining.”

Then comes the notorious Verse of the Sword, containing the injunction to “slay the unbelievers wherever you find them (v. 5). This is, understandably, a verse much beloved by present-day jihadists. In a 2003 sermon, Osama bin Laden rejoiced over this verse: “Praise be to Allah who revealed the verse of the Sword to his servant and messenger [the Prophet Muhammad], in order to establish truth and abolish falsehood.”

Ibn Juzayy notes that v. 5 abrogates “every peace treaty in the Qur’an,” and specifically abrogates 47:4’s directive to “set free or ransom” captive unbelievers. According to As-Suyuti, “This is an Ayat of the Sword which abrogates pardon, truce and overlooking” – that is, perhaps the overlooking of the pagans’ offenses. The Tafsir al-Jalalayn says that the Muslims must “slay the idolaters wherever you find them, be it during a lawful [period] or a sacred [one], and take them, captive, and confine them, to castles and forts, until they have no choice except [being put to] death or [acceptance of] Islam.”

Ibn Kathir echoes this, directing that Muslims should “not wait until you find them. Rather, seek and besiege them in their areas and forts, gather intelligence about them in the various roads and fairways so that what is made wide looks ever smaller to them. This way, they will have no choice, but to die or embrace Islam.” He also doesn’t seem to subscribe to the view commonly put forward by Muslim spokesmen in the West today — that this verse applies only to the pagans of Arabia in Muhammad’s time, and has no further application. He asserts, on the contrary, that “slay the unbelievers wherever you find them” means just that: the unbelievers must be killed “on the earth in general, except for the Sacred Area” – that is, the sacred mosque in Mecca, in accord with 2:191.

If the unbelievers convert to Islam, the Muslims must stop killing them. The Tafsir al-Jalalayn: “But if they repent, of unbelief, and establish prayer and pay the alms, then leave their way free, and do not interfere with them.” Ibn Kathir: “These Ayat [verses] allowed fighting people unless, and until, they embrace Islam and implement its rulings and obligations.” Qutb says that the termination of the treaties with a four-month grace period, combined with the call to kill the unbelievers, “was not meant as a campaign of vengeance or extermination, but rather as a warning which provided a motive for them to accept Islam.”

Asad, however, says that v. 5 “certainly does not imply an alternative of ‘conversion or death,’ as some unfriendly critics of Islam choose to assume.” He says that “war is permissible only in self-defence,” in accord with 2:190, and that “the enemy’s conversion to Islam…is no more than one, and by no means the only, way of their ‘desisting from hostility.’ He points the reader to verses 4 and 6 for further elucidation; we will pick up with v. 6 next week.

Finally, it is noteworthy that, according to As-Suyuti, the jurist “Ash-Shafi’i took this as a proof for killing anyone who abandons the prayer and fighting anyone who refuses to pay zakat [alms]. Some use it as a proof that they are kafirun [unbelievers].” Likewise Ibn Kathir: “Abu Bakr As-Siddiq used this and other honorable Ayat as proof for fighting those who refrained from paying the Zakah.” Thus even Muslims who do not fulfill Islamic obligations fall into the category of those who must be fought. This is a principle that latter-day Salafist movements apply broadly and use frequently in branding governments that do not rule according to strict Islamic law as unbelievers who must be fought by those who regard themselves as true Muslims. This is playing out now in the Salafist revolt against Musharraf’s Pakistan, and to a lesser degree in Egypt against Mubarak and even in Saudi Arabia against the House of Saud.

Next week: “Fight them! Allah will chastise them at your hands!”

(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.)