Some honest questions for my Muslim friends on Sura 8 (‘The Spoils of War)

Posted: October 11, 2014 in Biblical Theology, Exegesis, Islam, Student Ministry
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This last week at Flinders Uni was Islam Awareness Week. I thought it would be appropriate to be aware of Islam (more that I am normally) by seeking to reflect on what is being communicated by our Muslim friends, and to give some responses and some questions from a Christian perspective. This is the second of a few posts I will be making over the next few days.

Disclaimer: I do not claim to be an accomplished Quran scholar, and to be honest, I always find most English translations of the Quran grammatically awkward and difficult to read. So I am willing to recognise that my interpretation of this Sura may not be entirely sound. However, I have been trained – and have taught for many years – the principles of Biblical interpretation, which can mostly be applied to any piece of literature.


Sura 8:11-18, with a depiction of the Battle of Badr

Sura 8:11-18, with a depiction of the Battle of Badr

Sura 8 (suras are the equivalent of books in the Bible) contains a verse often quoted by Islamic ‘extremists’ to justify their terrorist actions:

‘I will instil terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers: smite ye above their necks and smite all their finger-tips off them.’ (8:12, Yusuf Ali – the version quoted throughout this post)

On the face of it, it seems a pretty clear command for Muslims to terrorise, behead and disfigure non-Muslims. However, it is also claimed by many Muslims that this verse needs to be seen in its textual and historical context.

Fair enough. I say the same thing often to those who quote Bible verses out of context, and it is an important principle in Biblical exegesis – and if fact in understanding any piece of literature. ‘A text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext’ (D.A. Carson). So, let’s look at the context.

Firstly, we need to see that what is quoted above is only part of the verse. The full verse reads:

‘Remember thy Lord inspired the angels (with the message): “I am with you: give firmness to the Believers: I will instil terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers…”

The word ‘remember’ should highlight to us that Muhammed is being reminded of something – an experience he has had in the past. If we look earlier in the Sura, we read:

Behold! Allah promised you one of the two (enemy) parties, that it should be yours: Ye wished that the one unarmed should be yours, but Allah willed to justify the Truth according to His words and to cut off the roots of the Unbelievers; (verse 7)

This is a reference to an event that happened early on in Muhammed’s time in Medina. The prophet, having been rejected in Mecca, had gone to Medina, where he had managed to gather a band of followers – at this point it was 313 men, called ‘Muslims’ because they had submitted to Muhammed and his religion. The future of Islam seemed tenuous – many surrounding people opposed them, including the leaders of Mecca, the Quraysh. One day in 624, after a year of conflicts with the Quraysh, news came that a caravan of gold belonging to the Quraysh would be passing by, guarded by 40 unarmed men. News also came that a Quraysh army was on the way from Mecca to defend this caravan, as the Muslims had a history of raiding caravans. Muhammed faced a choice of two options: Raid the caravan and get the 50000 pieces of gold it carried, or ride out against the Quraysh at great risk to his and his men’s lives, trusting that Allah would give victory. He chose the second option, and was successful in this battle, which took place at Badr. This was the key turning point in his battle to conquer Mecca, and it confirmed in the eyes of many that Muhammed was indeed the rightful leader and prophet of Islam.

This puts this verse into context. Muhammed is being reminded of Allah’s promise to him as he rode, outnumbered 3 to 1, to attack his enemies – those who had rejected his religion and so were ‘unbelievers’. It comes after another promise in verse 9:

“I will assist you with a thousand of the angels, ranks on ranks.”

…which Muslims believe actually happened, and was the reason for these first Muslims’ victory.

So, to be fair, it seems I should use the same principles that I myself use when I read about battles in the Old Testament and God’s commands to destroy all the people in a city (eg. Joshua 6:17) I say, ‘This command was given for that battle, in that time and place, and applied to the Israelites as they were conquering the promised land; it is not to be taken as a command for me today as a Christian, nor for any nation today that claims to be Christian.’ This is the approach taken by many Muslim scholars in understanding Sura 8:12

However, there are a few problems that I see with treating this verse in the same way as I do similar Old Testament passages.

Firstly, unlike the Bible, the Quran does not actually provide the historical context of this verse, or in fact the whole of Sura 8. The Quran does not contain lengthy sections of narrative equivalent to the Old Testament narratives; it’s as if the book assumes knowledge of the stories of both the Bible and of the events of Muhammed’s life. So, while the commands to Joshua about Jericho are firmly grounded in the story of the Israelites entering the land, these commands to Muhammed are not set against a backdrop of a Quranic account of the battle; all that extra information has to be gleaned from extra-Quranic sources.

Secondly, the Quran, unlike the Bible, does not have a two-testament structure of promise and fulfilment. The Old Testament dealt with national, ethnic Israel, as the people out of whom would flow His blessing to all nations. With the arrival of the Messiah Jesus, the season for national Israel was ended, as all the promises, types and shadows found their fulfilment in the reality of the Messiah. God now deals with people from every tribe, tongue and nation who relate to Him by faith in Jesus; the commands and principles that applied to national Israel either no longer apply, or are understood in the light of these spiritual realities. (For example, see 1 Peter 2, where Peter applies promises relating to the Temple and to the choosing of Israel directly to Christians who worship and testify to Jesus.)

The Quran does not have this structure, but instead has a uniformity of application across all Suras to all Muslims; one cannot draw an ‘old vs. new’ distinction.

This has meant that many Muslims have taken the sura to contain commands and principles that apply at all times to all Muslims:

‘This surah enunciates general principles of war (one aspect of Jihad) and peace while reviewing the Battle of Badr and uses them for the moral training of the Muslims.’ (Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi – Tafhim al-Qur’an – (The Meaning of the Qur’an) http://englishtafsir.com/Quran/8/index.html accessed Oct 11, 2014)

This interpretation seems, to me, to be supported by the verses that follow:

13 This because they contended against Allah and His Messenger: If any contend against Allah and His Messenger, Allah is strict in punishment.

14 Thus (will it be said): “Taste ye then of the (punishment): for those who resist Allah, is the penalty of the Fire.”

15 O ye who believe! when ye meet the Unbelievers in hostile array, never turn your backs to them.

16 If any do turn his back to them on such a day – unless it be in a stratagem of war, or to retreat to a troop (of his own)- he draws on himself the wrath of Allah, and his abode is Hell,- an evil refuge (indeed)!

17 It is not ye who slew them; it was Allah: when thou threwest (a handful of dust), it was not thy act, but Allah’s: in order that He might test the Believers by a gracious trial from Himself: for Allah is He Who heareth and knoweth (all things).

Verse 13 is a warning to anyone (not just the Quraysh) of the severity of Allah’s punishment for resisting Islam.

Verse 14 seems to use this incident as a precedent for future conflicts with unbelievers: their defeat in battle against the Muslims is a foretaste of the punishment of Hell that is to follow; Allah is using them to punish the unbelievers.

And verse 15-17 appears to be addressing not Muhammed at the battle of Badr, but those whom Muhammed is addressing and teaching in the principles of war: he tells them to never give up when fighting against unbelievers; if they do they themselves will end up in Hell with the unbelievers; and that their slaying of their enemies is ultimately Allah’s actions.

So, if my interpretation of Sura 8 is correct, this leads me to ask some sober, sincere and respectful questions of my Muslim friends; (and in asking I trust that we will be able to remain friends).

  1. Am I mistaken in any way in my interpretation of these verses? Or, am I right in saying that verses 15-17 are to be applied to all Muslim everywhere at all times?
  2. If the Quran truly is the pure, final message of Allah to humanity through Muhammed, why can this Sura only really be understood by accessing extra-Quranic documents? Does that not make this book insufficient and difficult to understand, and obscure to the common reader who has no access to this extra scholarship?
  3. Do the modern Jidadists who take verse 8 as a literal, binding command upon them today, actually have an interpretive case for doing so? And while you may differ in how you interpret this verse, can you at least acknowledge that they are simply seeking to be true to the revelation from Allah they have received through the words of his prophet, and so cannot be called ‘non-Islamic’?
  4. How, in light of this Sura, can we still strive to live alongside one another with peace, respect and friendship between Muslims and non-Muslims? Is this Sura a hindrance, or a help in achieving this goal?
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