2006-08-09 14:27:40 UTC
discourse. One of these categories is what I call "situational". By
that I mean information addressed to the Prophet himself as guidance in
a particular situation. A relatively clear example would be 33.28 which
tells the Prophet what to say to his wives.
I have been identifying the commands given to belivers in the Qur'an
and, in the course of this exercise, I have been passing over
situational commands as not applicable to believers in general. It has
become clear to me that I stumbled into a major hermeneutical crux.
The Qur'an says, many times, that believers should obey Allah and his
messenger. Speaking generically, this is usually read to mean obey
what is written in the Qur'an and obey what is reported in the Sunna.
Here I am concerned only with what is written in the Qur'an. Again
speaking generically, "obey" is usually read as "do all that is
recommended in the Qur'an" and "do not do what is disparaged". I have
deviated from this general approach by seeking out specifically
imperative commands in the Qur'an.
But the Qur'an does not say that believers should imitate the Prophet.
There are passages (for example, 53.2 and thereafter) that can be read
to say that the Prophet achieved perfection and from such passages
people have deduced that the Prophet is intended to be the universal
role model. Be that as it may, the hermeneutical crux I have in mind is
how to interpret the situational passages.
The particular example I want to discuss is the "sword ayat". The
sword ayat is 9.5, the fifth ayat in the ninth surat, al-Bara'at. It is
quite famous. Here, for example, is a comment about it (by a writer
hostile to Islam):
"An example of the abrogation: There are 124 versus that call for
tolerance and patience that have been cancelled and replaced by one,
single verse. This verse is called the verse of the sword: But when the
forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye
find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in
every stratagem (of war)..... "
But the ayat 9.5 is clearly situational and applied, once upon a time,
to a particular situation the proto-Muslims were faced with. The entire
passage involved extends from 9.1 to 9.22. 9.1-2 may not belong to this
situation, but rather to a slightly earlier one.
The situation involves mosques (as in 9.17) and to one particular
mosque called the "sacred" (HRAM) mosque (as in 9.7). It also involves
the Hajj (as in 9.3) and the sacred months (which months these are is a
side issue I will avoid for now). The passage as a whole says that
whatever truce was in place with the "idolators" ends (according to 9.5
itself) when the sacred months end. Then outright war is declared.
However if any of the "idolators" asks for protection (that is,
surrenders) he is to be protected (this is a singular imperative) (as
Thus it seems clear that the entire passage applies only to one
situation. Traditionally (according to Ibn Ishaq) that situation
occured in 9 AH after Mecca had become Muslim. It is not clear in the
tradition whom the hostility is addressed against. Ibn Ishaq speaks in
terms of a general agreement with all the "polytheists". Since the
deputations from the tribes to Muhammad begin immediately thereafter,
it seems to me that, although he does not so state (or Ibn Hisham has
removed the statement), we are supposed to understand that, deprived of
their sanctuary, the tribes of Arabia all turned to Islam to regain
access to it.
From the point-of-view I have deduced for Ibn Ishaq the sword passage(9.1-22) set off a very important historical event. But neither he nor
I see any reason for reading it as a precedent for all Muslims forever.
Thus I maintain that the sword ayat abrogated nothing at all, that it
is not a command to Muslims in general, that it is not a precedent
anyone should follow and that it applied to a single event (even if Ibn
Ishaq may have gotten some of the details wrong) that happened a long
This, of course, is not the traditional conclusion drawn from the sword
ayat. However, I would be surprised if I were the first person to
advocate this treatment of the sword ayat.