Qur’an Verse 9:29

The moderators at the Middle East Strategy at Harvard blog kindly allowed me to post some comments on Raymond Ibrahim’s article.  Since they have now closed the thread, I’ll finish my thoughts here.  Ibrahim has been arguing that the Qur’an contains very clear doctrines on warfare.  I disagree; this is where the Qur’an is most confusing, which is why later scholars had to come up with the doctrine of abrogation to explain away the contradictions.  Ibrahim retorted by citing verse 9:29, which is traditionally taken to be a justification for fighting Jews and Christians until they submit and pay a tax.

I responded to Ibrahim by saying that verse 9:29 does not support his position well since it is notoriously ambiguous.  He shot back that “(t)here is nothing ambiguous about 9:29—at least not to native Arabic speakers.”   For those of you that don’t know Arabic and might be inclined to believe someone who plays the native card, here is a literal rendering of the verse, minus any punctuation (which is not found in the Qur’an anyway):

Fight those who do not believe in God or in the Last Day and who do not forbid what God and His Messenger forbade and who do not acknowledge the religion of truth among those who were given the Book until they give the jizya out of hand while being submissive

The meaning of this passage may be completely apparent to any native speaker who has absorbed its medieval Muslim interpretation, but it is far from unambiguous to anyone unfamiliar with that tradition, native or not.  Taken on its face, it reads like a commandment to fight those who do not acknowledge Judaism and Christianity or perhaps to fight Jews and Christians who are not adhering to their scriptures, which are both very different readings from the traditional Muslim understanding of the verse.  Which goes back to my main point: the Qur’an is a bad place to look for clear doctrines on warfare.  This is not to say that the Qur’an doesn’t endorse fighting for religion or that it can’t be read as advocating total war; only that it cannot be held up as a clear exposition on these subjects.

If Ibrahim wishes to continue this discussion, I happily invite him to do so here.  I’m not hopeful, since he characterized my thoughts as “pedestrian,” but I thought I’d give it a shot.

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One Response

  1. My issue with Raymond Ibrahim is that although his interpretation of this verse is consistent with the majority of classical commentators, the conclusion he seeks to prove is not furthered by that interpretation. In other words, the interpretation of 9:29 that he suggests is in line with traditional tafseers, but the argument is a non-sequitur if he is arguing that 1) There is a perpetual state of war between Muslims v. Jews and Christians; 2) That the Qur’an contains very clear doctrines on war.

    In fact, the mere existence of significant controversy over the legal implications and affect of 1) proves that 2) is false.

    Jurists and commentators from the earliest days of Islam have differed over the meanings of verses in the Qur’an. There is no consensus even on what verses were abrogated. Thus, it is embarrassingly sophomoric for Raymond Ibrahim to say that that “the Qur’an contains very clear doctrines on warfare.”

    There are centuries of interpretive texts that have mediated towards a normative understanding of the Qur’an. But it is completely false to say that the conclusions of these texts are obvious and straightforward. In fact, a significant amount of historical literature is necessary to understand the proper context of any verse in any text, ESPECIALLY a verse in the Qur’an precisely because the Qur’an is often very ambiguous and assumes that the reader is already familiar with the background information.

    To say that the Qur’an is clear on the issue of warfare is a sign that the pseudo-scholars like Ibrahim are far more interested in their agenda-driven articles than in actual scholarship. If Ibrahim was a real academic or scholar, he should have had the integrity to inform his readers that the OVERWHELMING majority of Muslim jurists and commentators (both classical and modern) REJECT the very idea that Ibrahim and his allies are known for – that Islam as a “political theology” requires subjugation of all non-Muslims and imposition of jizya. Stating that this is even a mainstream belief in orthodox Islam is a shameless lie and part of the propaganda used to further the clear objectives that Raymond and his patrons desire.

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