Overview:

For many critics, the Sword Verse has achieved a kind of celebrity status.

It has been horribly misunderstood by these critics and also some Muslims.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Critics of Islam love the Sword Verse. It’s Koran 9:5, or the fifth verse of the ninth Surah, At-Tawbah, “The Repentance”. The bit they like says, “Kill the pagans wherever you find them.” The charge is often applied that Muslims are being instructed by Allah to murder everyone who does not share their religion.

At the risk of stating the obvious, Muslims generally do not feel obliged by Islam to kill everyone else. As a Muslim friend of mine said, “Imagine if we thought that? There’s two billion of us! You’d all be dead in a week!”

She’s not wrong.

Predictably, the phrase is taken out of context in two separate ways. Firstly, it’s part of a larger sentence translated in a number of ways. Secondly, there are other sentences around it which heavily influence its meaning.

Sword Verse variations

Here is the translation of the Sword Verse by Abdullah Yusuf Ali:

“But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, an seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.”

The first thing you might notice is that there is no mention of a sword. There is no sword in any translation of The Sword Verse. Presumably it sounds more dramatic.

Here is the translation of the Sword Verse in the Saheeh International Edition:

“And when the inviolable months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah, let them [go] on their way. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.”

To the Muslims of the time, this was treason and collaboration.

You will now notice a subtle shift from “pagans” to “polytheists”. The word used in the Koran is mushrik. This means people guilty of shirk, which has a broad application. It includes polytheism but it also includes things like horoscopes or even praying ostentatiously. Islamic scholars have been arguing about this, and every, verse in the Koran for centuries.

Here is the translation of the Sword Verse from Quran.com:

“But once the Sacred Months have passed, kill the polytheists [who violated their treaties] wherever you find them, capture them, besiege them, and lie in wait for them on every way. But if they repent, perform prayers, and pay alms-tax, then set them free. Indeed, Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.”

The editorial comment in square brackets is interesting. It specifies exactly which bits of the mushrik are to be killed. This makes more sense in context. The verses before this, 9:1-4, explain that there were Arab pagans who repeatedly broke peace treaties with the Muslims. They attacked Muhammad’s faction and aided their enemies. To the Muslims of the time, this was treason and collaboration. Societies everywhere at all times have punished treason and collaboration with the sharpest tools available.

What the Koran means

The elusive nature of the Sword Verse is symptomatic of the abject ambiguity of the Koran in general. Despite the Muslim insistence that it is the best book ever and contains the most wonderful, clear language, it is often confusing.

There are passages where it’s not immediately obvious who is speaking. Sometimes disconnected passages of dialogue float by untroubled by a subject. Even competing versions of the Koran aren’t clear on this, occasionally switching between “I” and “we” and “he.”

Also, there are times when it’s not clear who the target is. Sometimes a speech is obviously for Muhammad himself. Sometimes it’s for the nascent Muslim community. At the time, this was maybe a few thousand people. Other passages are clearly aimed at everyone in the world who isn’t a Muslim. They currently number around 6 billion. At other times, it’s not certain who’s supposed to be listening and what they’re supposed to do about it.

On almost every page, the Koran says that unbelievers will burn in hell forever. However, at no point is there any suggestion that any Muslim should do anything about it. In fact, the second verse of the second Surah, Al-Baqarah, “The Cow,” says that there is “no compulsion in Islam”. Accordingly, despite having a golden opportunity to tell Muslims to hurt unbelievers on every page, this does not happen.

The violence of the sword verse is therefore surprising. Furthermore, the fact that critics of Islam keep pushing one particular verse speaks to its uniquity.

A Gospel analogue

Christians come close to this level of context mangling when Jesus says that “blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven.” As with the Sword Verse, scholars have been arguing about what this means for centuries. And, as with the Sword Verse, certain followers of the religion take it absolutely literally without reading the sentences around it.

None of this will be particularly helpful if you’re on the business end of violence.

In Matthew 12, the Pharisees are cooking up a variety of stupid plans to delegitimize Jesus. One plan is to accuse Jesus of exorcising demons with devil magic. Jesus very sensibly snaps back that it would make no sense for a devil to cast out his own agents.

It’s possible that Jesus wanted to explain the rank stupidity of the Pharisees while they refused to acknowledge reality. In order to communicate the level of inanity, maybe he resorted to hyperbolic language. While it starts as a concern for any Christian who may have accidentally disrespected the Holy Spirit, it ends as explaining that a refusal to accept a miracle happening right in front of you is the stupidest move you could make.

Context similarly mitigates the Sword Verse. While it starts as a concern for any non-Muslim within melee range of any armed Muslim, it ends as an exasperated sentence passed on recidivist traitors in Arabia around 630 CE.

Violent Muslims

None of this will be particularly helpful if you’re on the business end of violence. In the real world, there are many Islamic extremist terrorist groups. Some of these groups engage in infidel-themed rhetoric. That the vast majority of their victims are themselves Muslims shouldn’t make anyone feel better about any of it.   

So, should Muslims kill me? Maybe they should, but not because of anything they’ve read in At-Tawbah or anywhere else in the Koran.

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Barry Purcell lives in Ireland and writes about religion, philosophy, psychology, politics and language for a variety of paper and online publications. He has been involved in campaigns to counteract the...