The Qur’an: Book of war
The Qur’an is unique among the sacred writings of the world in counseling its adherents to make war against unbelievers. There are over a hundred verses in the Qur’an that exhort believers to wage jihad against unbelievers. “O Prophet! Strive hard against the unbelievers and the hypocrites, and be firm against them. Their abode is Hell, an evil refuge indeed” (9:73). “Strive hard” in Arabic is jahidi, a verbal form of the noun jihad. This striving was to be on the battlefield: “When you meet the unbelievers in the battlefield, strike off their heads and, when you have laid them low, bind your captives firmly” (47:4). This is emphasized repeatedly: “O ye who believe! Fight the unbelievers who gird you about, and let them find firmness in you: and know that Allah is with those who fear Him” (9:123).
This warfare was to be directed against both those who rejected Islam and those who professed to be Muslims but did not hold to the fullness of the faith: “Prophet, make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites and deal rigorously with them. Hell shall be their home: an evil fate” (9:73). This warfare was only part of the larger spiritual conflict between Allah and Satan: “Those who believe fight in the cause of Allah, and those who reject faith fight in the cause of evil: so fight ye against the friends of Satan” (4:76).
“Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them captive, and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free. Lo! Allah is forgiving, merciful” (9:5). The “poor-due” in this verse is zakat, which is a central obligation for Muslims. Thus the verse is saying that if the “idolaters” become Muslims, leave them alone.
Jews and Christians were to be fought along with “idolaters”: “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued” (9:29).
Jihad is the highest duty of Muslims: “Do ye make the giving of drink to pilgrims, or the maintenance of the Sacred Mosque, equal to the pious service of those who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and strive with might and main in the cause of Allah [jihad fi sabil Allah]? They are not comparable in the sight of Allah: and Allah guides not those who do wrong. Those who believe, and suffer exile and strive with might and main, in Allah’s cause [jihad fi sabil Allah], with their goods and their persons, have the highest rank in the sight of Allah: they are the people who will achieve salvation” (9:19-20). In Islamic theology, jihad fi sabil Allah refers specifically to taking up arms for Islam.
Paradise is guaranteed to those who “slay and are slain” for Allah: “Allah hath purchased of the believers their persons and their goods; for theirs (in return) is the garden (of Paradise): they fight in His cause, and slay and are slain: a promise binding on Him in truth” (9:111).
One may attempt to spiritualize such verses, but there is no doubt from the historical record that Muhammad meant them literally.
But what about peace and tolerance?
The closest the Qur’an comes actually to counseling tolerance or peaceful coexistence is to counsel believers to leave the unbelievers alone in their errors: “Say: O disbelievers! I worship not that which ye worship; nor worship ye that which I worship. And I shall not worship that which ye worship. Nor will ye worship that which I worship. Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion” (109:1-6). It also tells Muslims not to argue with them, but to say that their God is the same as the God of Islam: “And dispute ye not with the People of the Book, except with means better (than mere disputation), unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong (and injury): but say, "We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our God and your God is one; and it is to Him we bow (in Islam)” (29:46).
Above all, no Muslim should force anyone to accept Islam: “Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks” (2:256). This celebrated and famous verse doesn’t say, however, that Muslims should not strive to subjugate the People of the Book and make them pay the jizya, as per 9:29.
Also, the Qur’an’s last word on jihad is not defensive, but offensive. The Qur’an is not arranged chronologically, but according to length. However, Islamic theology divides the Qur’an into “Meccan” and “Medinan” suras. According to Islamic tradition, the Meccan ones come from the first segment of Muhammad’s career as a prophet, when he simply called the Meccans to Islam. Later, after he had fled to Medina, his positions hardened. The Medinan suras are less poetic and generally much longer than those from Mecca; they’re also filled with matters of law and ritual — and exhortations to jihad warfare against unbelievers. The relatively tolerant verses quoted above and others like them generally date from the Meccan period, while those with a more violent and intolerant edge are mostly from Medina.
Why does this distinction matter? Because of the Islamic doctrine of abrogation (naskh). This is the idea that Allah can change or cancel what he tells Muslims: “None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar: knowest thou not that Allah Hath power over all things?” (2:106). According to this idea, the violent verses of sura 9, including the Verse of the Sword (9:5), abrogate the peaceful verses, because they were revealed later in Muhammad’s prophetic career: in fact, most Muslim authorities agree that the ninth sura was the very last section of the Qur’an to be revealed.
In line with this, some Islamic theologians have asserted that the Verse of the Sword abrogates no less than 124 more peaceful and tolerant verses of the Qur’an. Tafsir al-Jalalayn, a commentary on the Qur’an by the respected imams Jalal al-Din Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Mahalli (1389-1459) and Jalal al-Din ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Abi Bakr al-Suyuti (1445-1505), asserts that sura 9 “was sent down when security was removed by the sword.” Another mainstream and respected Qur’an commentator, Isma’il bin ‘Amr bin Kathir al Dimashqi (1301-1372), known popularly as Ibn Kathir, declares that sura 9:5 “abrogated every agreement of peace between the Prophet and any idolater, every treaty, and every term….No idolater had any more treaty or promise of safety ever since Surah Bara’ah [the ninth sura] was revealed.” Ibn Juzayy (d. 1340), yet another Qur’an commentator whose works are still read in the Islamic world, agrees: the Verse of the Sword’s purpose is “abrogating every peace treaty in the Qur’an.”
Ibn Kathir makes this clear in his commentary on another “tolerance verse”: “And he [Muhammad] saith: O my Lord! Lo! these are a folk who believe not. Then bear with them, O Muhammad, and say: Peace. But they will come to know” (sura 43:88-89). Ibn Kathir explains: “Say Salam (peace!) means, ‘do not respond to them in the same evil manner in which they address you; but try to soften their hearts and forgive them in word and deed.’” However, that is not the end of the passage. Ibn Kathir then takes up the last part: “But they will come to know. This is a warning from Allah for them. His punishment, which cannot be warded off, struck them, and His religion and His word was supreme. Subsequently Jihad and striving were prescribed until the people entered the religion of Allah in crowds, and Islam spread throughout the east and the west.”
That work is not yet complete.
All this means that warfare against unbelievers until they either become Muslim or “pay the jizya” — the special tax on non-Muslims in Islamic law — “with willing submission” (9:29) is the Qur’an’s last word on jihad. Mainstream Islamic tradition has interpreted this as Allah’s enduring marching orders to the human race: the Islamic umma (community) must exist in a state of perpetual war, punctuated only by temporary truces, with the non-Muslim world.
Some Islamic theologians today are attempting to construct alternative visions of Islam based on a different understanding of abrogation; however, such efforts have met with little interest and support among Muslims worldwide — not least because they fly in the face of interpretations that have been mainstream for centuries.
The Bible does not contain similar teachings. The Qur’an exhorts believers to fight unbelievers without specifying anywhere in the text that only certain unbelievers are to be fought, or only for a certain period of time, or some other distinction. Taking the texts at face value, the command to make war against unbelievers is open-ended and universal. The Hebrew Scriptures, in contrast, record God’s commands to the Israelites to make war against particular people only. This is jarring to modern sensibilities, to be sure, but it does not amount to the same thing. That’s one reason why Jews and Christians haven’t formed terror groups around the world that quote these Scriptures to justify killing civilian non-combatants.
By contrast, Osama bin Laden, who is only the most visible exponent of a terror network that extends from Indonesia to Nigeria and into Western Europe and the Americas, quotes the Qur’an copiously in his communiqués. In his 1996, “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” he quotes suras 3:145; 47:4-6; 2:154; 9:14; 47:19; 8:72; and of course the notorious “Verse of the Sword,” sura 9:5. In 2003, on the first day of the Muslim holy day Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, he began a sermon: “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.”
Many will say that Deuteronomy and other Biblical books have violent passages as well. However, nowhere do the Jewish or Christian Scriptures tell all believers in general to wage war against unbelievers as such. Only the Qur’an contains such passages. Also, Islam, unlike Judaism and Christianity, has never gone through a period of reformation and enlightenment either involving or resulting in any thoroughgoing reevaluation of the literal sense of its sacred texts. This is why you do not see Jews or Christians slaughtering unbelievers and justifying their actions by quoting their Scriptures, while Muslims around the world do this with depressing frequency.For more information, see The Complete Infidel’s Guide to the Koran
 Ibn Arabi, in Suyuti, Itqan iii, 69. Cf. John Wansbrough, Quranic Studies, Prometheus, 2003, p. 184.
 “Surat at-Tawba: Repentance,” Tafsir al-Jalalayn, anonymous translation, reprinted at http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/ABewley/tawba1.html.
 Ibn Kathir, vol. 4, p. 377.
 “Surat at-Tawba: Repentance,” Tafsir Ibn Juzayy, anonymous translation, reprinted at http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/ABewley/tawba1.html.
 Ibn Kathir, vol. 8, p. 668.
 Osama Bin Laden, “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” 1996. http://www.mideastweb.org/osamabinladen1.htm.
 Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), “Bin Laden’s Sermon for the Feast of the Sacrifice,” MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 476, March 5, 2003.
 Osama Bin Laden, “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” 1996. http://www.mideastweb.org/osamabinladen1.htm. Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), “Bin Laden’s Sermon for the Feast of the Sacrifice,” MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 476, March 5, 2003.