Muslims have attempted to explain away Q. 9:29, which exhorts Muhammad’s followers to fight the disbelievers until they have been subdued, by arguing that the historical context of the passage shows that the fighting which is prescribed here is solely defensive in nature. They claim that the Byzantine Emperor was planning to march out against the Muslims, and that Muhammad was permitted to gather his soldiers to fight them at a place called Tabuk.
There are several problems with this fanciful tale and desperate attempt of trying to explain away the clear-cut instruction of Q. 9:29 to subjugate solely because of what they believe.
First, the immediate context itself shows that the only reason why Muhammad ordered his men to attack other people is because of their religious beliefs:
O ye who believe! it is only the idolaters who are unclean; they shall not then approach the Sacred Mosque after this year. But if ye fear want then God will enrich you from His grace if He will; verily, God is knowing, wise! Fight those who believe not in God and in the last day, and who forbid not what God and His Apostle have forbidden, and who do not practice the religion of truth from amongst those to whom the Book has been brought, until they pay the tribute by their hands and be as little ones. The Jews say Ezra is the son of God; and the Christians say that the Messiah is the son of God; that is what they say with their mouths, imitating the sayings of those who misbelieved before.- God fight them! how they lie! They take their doctors and their monks for lords rather than God, and the Messiah the son of Mary; but they are bidden to worship but one God, there is no god but He; celebrated be His praise, from what they join with Him! They desire to put out the light of God with their mouths, but God will not have it but that we should perfect His light, averse although the misbelievers be! He it is who sent His Apostle with guidance and the religion of truth, to make it prevail over every other religion, averse although idolaters may be! S. 9:28-33
According to the above, Muslims are commanded to fight the following groups of people:
Those who do not believe in the Allah of the Quran, or hold to the view of the end times as taught in the Muslim sources.
Those who do the things which Muhammad has declared forbidden.
Those who believe that Allah has an offspring.
Those who have taken their rabbis and monks as lords in the place of Allah.
Those who would question or criticize Islam with their mouths.
Yet the one group that is not listed here are those who have attacked or oppressed the Muslims. It is rather ironic that the passage nowhere informs Muslims to fight those who have fought and oppressed them, which is what it surely would say if the context were one of self-defense.
The reason why it fails to mention such oppressors is because the context is clear that the only reason why Muhammad commanded his followers to fight people of other faiths is because of their religious views. Muhammad could not allow for other religions to coexist along with his, and therefore decided to force people to either convert or pay the jizyah as an acceptance of the fact that they have been subdued and humiliated since Islam is destined to dominate over all other religious views.
Second, it was Muhammad who initially threatened the Byzantine Emperor by sending him a letter warning him to convert or suffer the consequences:
Narrated ‘Abdullah bin ‘Abbas… Heraclius then asked for the letter addressed by Allah’s Apostle which was delivered by Dihya to the Governor of Busra, who forwarded it to Heraclius to read. The contents of the letter were as follows: “In the name of Allah the Beneficent, the Merciful (This letter is) from Muhammad the slave of Allah and His Apostle to Heraclius the ruler of Byzantine. Peace be upon him, who follows the right path. Furthermore I invite you to Islam, and if you become a Muslim you will be safe, and Allah will double your reward, and if you reject this invitation of Islam you will be committing a sin by misguiding your Arisiyin (peasants). (And I recite to you Allah’s Statement:)
‘O people of the scripture! Come to a word common to you and us that we worship none but Allah and that we associate nothing in worship with Him, and that none of us shall take others as Lords beside Allah. Then, if they turn away, say: Bear witness that we are Muslims (those who have surrendered to Allah).’ (3:64)
Abu Sufyan then added, “When Heraclius had finished his speech and had read the letter, there was a great hue and cry in the Royal Court. So we were turned out of the court. I told my companions that the question of Ibn-Abi-Kabsha) (the Prophet Muhammad) has become so prominent that even the King of Bani Al-Asfar (Byzantine) is afraid of him. Then I started to become sure that he (the Prophet) would be the conqueror in the near future till I embraced Islam (i.e. Allah guided me to it).” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 1, Number 6 https://sunnah.com/bukhari:7)
The noted historian al-Tabari provides additional details (much of which is simply mythical and clearly embellished):
According to Ibn Humayd – Salamah – Muhammad b. Ishaq – Khalid b. Yasar – a very old Syrian, who said: When Heraclius was about to leave the land of Syria for Constantinople because of the report he received about the Messenger of God, he assembled the Romans and said: “People of the Romans, I shall present certain matters to you. Consider what I have decided.” “What are they?” they asked. He said: “You know, by God, that this man is a prophet who has been sent [sic]. We find him in our book [sic]. We know him by the description whereby he has been described to us. Let us follow him, that our life in this world and the next may be secure.” They said, “Shall we be under the hands of the Arabs, when we are mankind’s greatest kingdom, most numerous nation, and best land?” He said, “Then let me give him TRIBUTE453 each year, SO THAT I CAN AVERT HIS VEHEMENCE FROM ME AND FIND REST FROM HIS WARFARE BY MEANS OF MONEY THAT I GIVE HIM.” They said, “Shall we concede to the Arabs [our own] HUMILIATION AND ABASEMENT BY A TAX THAT THEY TAKE FROM US when we are mankind’s most numerous nation, greatest kingdom, and most impregnable land? By God, we will never do it!” He said, “Then let me make peace with him on condition that I give him the land of Syria and that he leave me with the land of al-Sha’m.” … They said to him: “Shall we give him the land of Syria, when you know that it is the navel of al-Sha’m? By God, we will never do it!” They having refused, he said, “By God, you shall see that, if you hold back from him, you will be defeated in your own city.”…
453. Arabic jizyah, later the technical term for the poll tax paid by members of protected minorities, here is used in the general sense of tribute… (The History of al-Tabari: The Victory of Islam, translated by Michael Fishbein [State University of New York Press (SUNY), Albany, NY 1997], Volume VIII, pp. 106-107; bold and capital emphasis mine)
Pay careful attention to what is being said here. Heraclius’ statement that he would pay tribute or jizyah in order to avoid any warfare with Muhammad simply confirms that Muhammad actually threatened him and his empire with violence and bloodshed if the Byzantine emperor refused to embrace Islam.
Further notice that the people realized that paying such tribute was a sign of their humiliation and abasement, providing clear evidence that it was Muhammad who antagonized and harassed his enemies not the other way around.
Muhammad even threatened and harassed the Christian tribe of Ghassan, a group that was in league with the Byzantines:
In this year the Messenger of God sent out messengers. He sent out six persons in the month of Dhu al-Hijjah, three of them setting out together: Hatib b. Abi Balta‘ah of Lakhm, a confederate of the Banu Asad b. ‘Abd al-Uzza, to al-Muqawqis; Shuja‘ b. Wahb of the Banu Asad b. Khuzaymah, a confederate of Harb b. Umayyah and veteran of Badr, to al-Harith b. Abi Shimr al-Ghassani; and Dihyah b. Khalifah al-Kalbi to Caesar…
According to Ibn Ishaq: The Messenger of God sent Shuja‘ b. Wahb, a member of the Banu Asad b. Khuzaymah, to al-Mundhir b. al-Harith b. Abi Shimr al-Ghassani, the ruler of Damascus.
According to Muhammad b. ‘Umar al-Waqidi: He wrote to him via Shuja‘:
Peace be with whoever follows the right guidance and believes in it. I call you to believe in God alone, Who has no partner, AND YOUR KINGDOM SHALL REMAIN YOURS.
Shuja‘ b. Wahb brought the letter to him, and he read it to them. Al-Mundhir said: “Who can wrest my kingdom from me? It is I who will go against him!” The Prophet said, “His kingdom has perished.” (Ibid., pp. 98, 107-108; bold and capital emphasis mine)
423… The mission was to the ruler of the Banu Ghassan, an Arab tribal kingdom with its capital at Busra (Bostra) in Syria. The Ghassanids were Monophysite Christians and ruled as a client state of the Byzantine Empire… (Ibid., p. 98)
In light of the foregoing, it really doesn’t come as a surprise that the Ghassanite ruler killed Muhammad’s messenger for bringing such a threatening letter (assuming, of course, that these Islamic tales are recounting actual historical events):
“Another example of Muhammad’s interest in the north is the expedition that set out for Syria and was defeated by Byzantine troops and their Arab allies at Mu’tah in Jordan during the month of Jumada I, A.H. 8 (August-September 629). Al-Tabari’s account, which relies almost entirely on Ibn Ishaq, says nothing about the causes of the expedition. Al-Waqidi (W, II, 755) indicates that the immediate occasion was the killing by Shurahbil b. ‘Amr al-Ghassani (the Banu Ghassan were allies of the Byzantines) of a messenger whom Muhammad had sent to the ruler of Busra in Syria. Thus, although the motive for this mission remains a mystery, the immediate motive for the expedition was retaliation…” (Ibid, p. xviii)
Nor would it have been wrong for the Byzantines to march out against the Muslims in light of such threats, even though they didn’t. In fact, imagine what Muhammad’s response would have been to someone bringing a letter which threatened his life and the lives of his followers.
Third, the Muslim scholars themselves readily admit that the only reason why Muhammad chose to attack Tabuk was because he wanted to collect jizyah from them to make up for all the loss of revenue they incurred by prohibiting the disbelievers from entering into Mecca in order to make their annual pilgrimages:
“According to the scholars of Sirah, this battle took place in Rajab, in the 9th year of Hijra.
Occasion of the Battle
When Allah, Most High, ordered the believers to prohibit the disbelievers from entering or coming near the sacred Mosque. On that, Quraish thought that this would reduce their profits from trade. Therefore, Allah Most High, compensated them and ordered them to fight the people of the Book until they embrace Islam or pay the Jizyah… Therefore, the Messenger of Allah decided to fight the Romans IN ORDER TO CALL THEM TO ISLAM…” (Ibn Kathir, The Battles of the Prophet, translated by Wa’il ‘Abdul Mut’aal Shihab [Dar al-Manarah, El-Mansoura, Egypt: Second edition 2001], pp. 183-184; capital emphasis mine)
It had nothing to do with the Byzantines threatening the Muslims.
In fact, the following hadith shows that the people whom the Muslims were ordered to fight were, for the most part, caught off guard since they didn’t know why they were being attacked:
Narrated Jubair bin Haiya: ‘Umar sent the Muslims to the great countries to fight the pagans. When Al-Hurmuzan embraced Islam, ‘Umar said to him. “I would like to consult you regarding these countries which I intend to invade.” Al-Hurmuzan said, “Yes, the example of these countries and their inhabitants who are the enemies of the Muslims, is like a bird with a head, two wings and two legs; If one of its wings got broken, it would get up over its two legs, with one wing and the head; and if the other wing got broken, it would get up with two legs and a head, but if its head got destroyed, then the two legs, two wings and the head would become useless. The head stands for Khosrau, and one wing stands for Caesar and the other wing stands for Faris. So, order the Muslims to go towards Khosrau.” So, ‘Umar sent us (to Khosrau) appointing An-Numan bin Muqrin as our commander. When we reached the land of the enemy, the representative of Khosrau came out with forty-thousand warriors, and an interpreter got up saying, “Let one of you talk to me!” Al-Mughira replied, “Ask whatever you wish.” The other asked, “Who are you?” Al-Mughira replied, “We are some people from the Arabs; we led a hard, miserable, disastrous life: we used to suck the hides and the date stones from hunger; we used to wear clothes made up of fur of camels and hair of goats, and to worship trees and stones. While we were in this state, the Lord of the Heavens and the Earths, Elevated is His Remembrance and Majestic is His Highness, sent to us from among ourselves a Prophet whose father and mother are known to us. Our Prophet, the Messenger of our Lord, has ordered us to fight you till you worship Allah Alone or give Jizya (i.e. tribute); and our Prophet has informed us that our Lord says:– ‘Whoever amongst us is killed (i.e. martyred), shall go to Paradise to lead such a luxurious life as he has never seen, and whoever amongst us remain alive, shall become your master.’” (Al-Mughira, then blamed An-Numan for delaying the attack and) An-Nu’ man said to Al-Mughira, “If you had participated in a similar battle, in the company of Allah’s Apostle he would not have blamed you for waiting, nor would he have disgraced you. But I accompanied Allah’s Apostle in many battles and it was his custom that if he did not fight early by daytime, he would wait till the wind had started blowing and the time for the prayer was due (i.e. after midday).” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 53, Number 386 https://sunnah.com/bukhari:3159)
The response of the Persian contingent shows that the real reason why Muslims chose to attack other nations is not because they posed a threat to Islam, but rather because Muhammad had convinced his followers that it was their duty to conquer people for Allah until they either believed or, in the case of those whom Muhammad considered to be people that had received a divinely-inspired scripture, to pay the jizyah as a sign of them being subjugated and humiliated by Allah and his messenger.
After all, Muhammad himself is reported to have said that Allah had specifically sent him for the purpose of fighting against everyone until they embraced Islam:
(17) CHAPTER. (The Statement of Allah, “But if they repent [by rejecting Shirk (polytheism) and accept Islamic Monotheism] and perform As-Salat (Iqamat-as-Salat) and give Zakat(1) then leave their way free.”) (V. 9.5).
25. Narrated Ibn ‘Umar: Allah’s Messenger said: “I have been ordered (by Allah) to fight against the people till they testify La ilaha ilallah wa Anna Muhammad-ur-Rasul Allah (none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah), and perform As-Salat [Iqamat-as-Salat (prayers)] and give Zakat so if they perform all that, then they save their lives and properties from me except for Islamic laws, and their reckoning (accounts) will be with (done by) Allah. (The Translations of the Meanings of Sahih al-Bukhari (Arabic-English), translated by Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan [Darussalam Publishers & Distributors, Riyadh-Saudi Arabia, 1997], Volume 1: Ahadith 01 to 875, 2 – The Book of Belief (Faith), p. 66)
This brings us to our fourth point.
As we just saw from the above examples, the Muslim sources are clear that jihad is intended to be offensive in nature since one of its purposes is to cause the religion of Islam to become dominant by abolishing all other worldviews and ideologies and/or subjecting those who refuse to embrace it.
As one leading Salafi scholar put it when explaining the nature and extent of shirk:
“That the Prophet came to people who had differences in their (objects of) worship: from them were the worshippers of angels. And from among them were the worshippers of the prophets and the pious. And from them were the worshippers of trees and the stones. And from them were the worshippers of the sun and the moon. But the Messenger of Allah fought them all, and did not consider the differences between them.
“And the proof of this (that he fought all of them) is in His, the Exalted’s, saying:
‘And fight them until there is no fitnah and [until] the religion [i.e., worship], all of it, is for Allah.’ [Surah al-Anfal, verse 39]” (An Explanation of Muhammad Ibn ‘Abdul-Wahhab’s Four Principles of Shirk, Translation and commentary by Abu Ammaar Yasir Qadhi [Al-Hidaayah Publishing & Distribution, 2002], p. 52)
“In the first verse, Allah states to, ‘…fight them until there is no tribulations (fitnah), and the religion is only for Allah.’ The meaning of fitnah in this verse is shirk, as Ibn ‘Abbas stated. SO ALL TYPES OF SHIRK MUST BE FOUGHT AGAINST. No distinction is made between those who worship Jesus Christ or those who worship Rama and Krishna. All false deities and objects of worship MUST BE DESTROYED, and only the religion of Allah–based on the pure worship of Allah–CAN REMAIN. This verse is like an introduction to the verses that follow. It also shows that THE TRUE PURPOSE OF JIHAD (fighting in the way of Allah) IS SO THAT ONLY ALLAH BE WORSHIPPED AND SHIRK ELIMINATED.” (Ibid, pp. 53-54; bold and capital emphasis mine)
And here is what one of the leading manuals on the Shafi’i school of Islamic jurisprudence says concerning this issue:
(O: Jihad means to war against non-Muslims, and is etymologically derived from the word mujahada, signifying warfare to establish the religion. And it is the lesser jihad. As for the greater jihad, it is spiritual warfare against the lower self (nafs), which is why the Prophet said as he was returning from jihad,
“We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.”
The scriptural basis for jihad, prior to scholarly consensus is such Koranic verses as:
(1) “Fighting is prescribed for you” (Koran 2:216);
(2) “Slay them wherever you find them” (4:89);
(3) “Fight the idolaters utterly” (Koran 9:36);
and such Hadiths as the one related by Bukhari and Muslim that the Prophet said:
“I have been commanded to fight people until they testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and perform the prayer, and pay zakat. If they say it, they have saved their blood and possessions from me, except for the rights of Islam over them. And their final reckoning is with Allah.”;
and the hadith report by Muslim,
“To go forth in the morning or evening to fight in the path of Allah is better than the whole world and everything in it.”
Details concerning jihad are found in the accounts of the military expeditions of the Prophet, including his own martial forays and those on which he dispatched others. The former consist of the ones he personally attended, some twenty-seven (others say twenty-nine) of them. He fought in eight of them, and killed only one person with his noble hand, Ubbay ibn Khalaf, at the battle of Uhud. On the latter expeditions he sent others to fight, himself remaining at Medina, and these were forty-seven in number.
THE OBLIGATORY CHARACTER OF JIHAD
o9.1 Jihad is communal obligation… When enough people perform it to successfully accomplish it, it is no longer obligatory upon others…
and Allah Most High having said:
“Those of the believers who are unhurt but sit behind are not equal to those who fight in Allah’s path with their property and lives. Allah has preferred those who fight with their property and lives a whole degree above those who sit behind. And to each Allah has promised great good.” (Koran 4:95)…
o9.3 Jihad is also obligatory for everyone able to perform it, male or female, old or young when the enemy has surrounded the Muslims…
o9.8 The caliph makes war upon the Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians (N: provided he has first invited them to enter Islam in faith and practice, and if they will not, then invited them to enter the social order of Islam by paying the non-Muslim poll tax (jizya, def: o11.4)… until they become Muslim or else pay the non-Muslim poll tax (O: in accordance with the word of Allah Most High,
“Fight those who do not believe in Allah and the Last Day and who forbid not what Allah and His messenger have forbidden – who do not practice the religion of truth, being of those who have been given the Book – until they pay the poll tax out of hand and are humbled.” (Koran 9:29),
… The caliph fights all other peoples until they become Muslim…” (Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveler: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law, In Arabic with Facing English text, Commentary and Appendices Edited and Translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller [Amana Publications, Beltsville, Maryland, Revised Edition 1994], p. 599-603; bold emphasis mine)
With the foregoing in perspective, it is absolutely undeniable that passages such as Q. 9:29 do command Muslims to attack people who have done them no harm, solely because they hold to other religious beliefs. The purpose of such fighting is to cause Islam to become dominant over all other ideologies and worldviews which, because of the sovereign grace of our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, shall never happen.