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Understanding the "Sword Verse" | Dr. Shehzad Saleem

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Dr. Safiyyah: This is a verse that is often quoted by non-Muslims and also Muslims as well who wonder, you know, why would God command the prophet Muhammad to fight people who were non-Muslims? So how do you understand this verse, Dr. Shehzad?


Dr. Shehzad: I guess indeed, this is one of the most perplexing verses of the Quran. And I think if you read the Quran in the background of an Old Testament as well, you'll find out that there is a particular law of The Almighty, which through divine scriptures. And it's not just the Quran, you'll find in the Old Testament and partly the New Testament as well, describing that there is a practice of The Almighty which is in currency in the era of messengers of God, and which cannot be extended beyond that era. And that particular feature is that God creates lesser days of judgment on the face of the earth in the times of his messengers. Why? Because people living in the post-prophetic era, I mean era in which we are all living, era in which of course, which began with the departure of prophet Muhammad.


For us, our judgment has been deferred to the day of judgment. So in order to remind us that our judgment is going to take place on the Day of Judgment but not necessarily in this world, we have been shown through the Quran and the Old and the New Testaments that look in the times of messengers of God, people who intentionally deny the truth, they are punished by The Almighty just as they would be punished on the Day of Judgment.

On the Day of Judgment, The Almighty would punish people who associated partners with him. He will punish people who might not have associated partners with him, but they were sinners in other ways. So basically, what has happened is that that greater day of judgment which is to take place for all of us is deflected in a miniature way, in the era of every messenger of God, in which it is basically God who takes matters in his own hands and through his messengers, he punishes people who intentionally deny the truth. Now, this is very important to realize that this denial is not out of any confusion, not out of any misunderstanding, it's a deliberate denial.


The Almighty says that through his messengers and these messengers are given special signs, some miracles, some outstanding features like for example, we know what Jesus was given, we know how Moses was dealt with and the way he was able to speak to God or he tried to speak to God. And of course at the same time, he had the audience of the Pharaoh and he was given these signs so that he could talk to the Pharaoh in a particular way. And similarly, Muhammad (SAWS) was given the sign, which is the greatest sign perhaps, the Quran itself, which was to be the last Testament. So these messengers of God, they on behalf of The Almighty, they deliver the truth, they answer questions regarding God's monotheism regarding his attributes, regarding some of the questions that have risen in the minds of people, and this goes on for a particular period of time.


The Almighty says that once the truth is evident to these people, evident to these people in such a way that it is conclusive, they don't have any excuse. It's just arrogance or any other thing that is maybe impeding their acceptance. The Almighty says that now is a time that they should be taken to task and they should be punished because this is gonna take place in the same manner on that greater Day of Judgment.


What is happening is that these lesser Days of Judgment that are set up in the eras of these messengers of God, they are based on this fact that people are intentionally denying. And because of the fact that none of us can know whether a person is deliberately denying or not, because this is something which relates to our heart. It is The Almighty actually, who divulges this information. For example, we find Abraham in the Old Testament, when he saw that the angels were visiting the lots settlement and destroying them, and he said that "Lord, what of 50 people are there?" And he said, "There are not even 50 people." And so on and so forth until the count came to 10, and The Almighty said, "It's not even 10." So it's basically The Almighty who destroys people or punishes them because they had become adamant on arrogance, adamant on deliberate denial.


This deliberate denial is something which is unforgivable. And because of the fact that on the Day of Judgment, according to the Quran, people who associate partners with God deliberately, I mean not out of any confusion but deliberately, The Almighty says that they will be punished with the worst thing and that it's like an unforgivable punishment and that is they'll be put to death. Just as they were put to death, or they would be put to death on the day of judgment, similarly in the prophetic era, in which messengers they come on behalf of God and if after that conclusive communication, they persist on that denial, that they're still associate partners with God, the verdict of God is that they should be destroyed because this is a fate that's gonna take place for them on the Day of Judgment.


In order to make it a palpable reality, this is something which The Almighty arranged in the era of messengers of God. One by one, you see this happen, if you go on starting with Adam, and Noah for example is a very important personality. The deluge destroyed his people, and for 950 years he was there and delivering the message of God. And what we can say is that in most messages of God, this destruction or this punishment of denying the truth took place through these natural calamities, for example earthquakes, cyclones, tempestuous winds. In the era of prophet Muhammad, because of certain reasons, The Almighty actually empowered the believers that the task, which was to be carried out, or which was carried out in the previous nation's history throughout cyclones and other natural disasters would now take place through the source of the believers. So it's like thinking that it's not that The Almighty is been killing someone for any vengeance or maybe any anger. It is basically a punishment of arrogance in which a person is persistent in spite of being convinced of the truth.


In the terminology of the Quran, this persistence on denying in spite of being convinced about it is called or the fact that you know what the truth is but you say that I'm not going to accept it. The punishment that was the fate of these people on the day of judgment is actually shown to us in the era of messengers of God. Having said that, in prophet Muhammad's own era, this punishment actually was just muted out to a couple of people, because almost all of his nation accepted faith. So very few people who persisted on that denial, they became active adversaries, they were guilty of breach of contract as well. They were guilty of even plotting to kill prophet Muhammad and then you can count them on your fingers, four or five of them. Otherwise, it was just a potential directive which never took place.


Dr. Safiyyah: I've been reading some scholars on this subject, and many of them try to limit the prescription in the verse. They'll try to say that these weren't just polytheists, these weren't just people who disbelieved in God, but they had political motives, they were working against the prophet Muhammad, they were breaching the contracts that were already made. They were trying to drive out the Muslims from their home. They were trying to get people to align against the prophet Muhammad. Working politically against them.

It wasn't just that they were disbelieving or like they had access to the faith and they disbelieved in it. How would you respond to this?


Dr. Shehzad: I would say, this is actually the opposite. The basic sin or crime that they committed was that denial. And the Quran actually refers to it by word such as which means that and they denied after the truth became evident to them. They denied after they fully acknowledged what the truth was. In addition to that, they became active adversaries as well, they were guilty of breach of contract, but the basics crime that they committed was to deny a prophet of God, not out of any confusion.


When I say deny a prophet of God, I mean, denying his message. I was also trying to make this distinction that the Quran tells us that polytheist and people who are basically monotheists, there is a difference in the punishment which The Almighty made in that prophetic era. And that is that polytheists would deserve no lenience because they associate partners with God, and they would be not treated with any lenience on the day of judgment so a very similar fate would be heard, but as far as the people of the book are concerned, for them, because of the fact that they're primarily monotheists, they may be deviant monotheists but they're not polytheists.


That is why in the whole Corpus of the Quran, there is not a single place, and I say this with complete responsibility, that there's not a single place which tells us that Christians are polytheists, in spite of the fact that they indulge in polytheism. Why? Because they themselves do not conceit to polytheism, they say, "Well, this is monotheism." And the way they explain Trinity is in a way that they think that it's exactly what monotheism is. At best what they can be called is that they're deviant monotheist, or they're not proper monotheists.

For them, The Almighty's relented, and he said for them, the punishment is not going to be the same as the polytheist themselves. For them, the punishment would be that they would just be allowed to live on their own religion but they would be made to look subservient by actually paying the Jizya tax and living in subservience to the Muslim state.


One more thing that has to be realized is that this practice of The Almighty is specific to the prophetic era because only messengers of God have this prerogative and that too, because The Almighty is right behind them. He's using them as his own instruments of justice, just as he was using temptuous and cyclones and earthquakes as his instruments of justice to administer punishment.


Once prophet Muhammad passed away in 632 AD, this practice is no longer supposed to take place. So what has happened is that people thinking that because the prophet's life is the best example that you need to follow. So they thought that this aspect too is something that they need to follow without realizing that this practice was specific to God's messengers. So they ended up extrapolating and extending it to later era. For example, Mola Omar, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Osama bin Laden, all of them, without exception, they actually quoted, incited these verses of Quran. All which means that you have to put to task all these disbelievers without realizing that they are the prerogative of messengers of God. And they said, "Well, if they did it because of the fact that he's an example for all of us, we are also required to do the same." And so they were inadvertently, I would say, guilty of extrapolating a practice that was meant specifically for messengers of God. And I said, you can find these examples in the Old Testament, in the New Testament and in the Quran itself to be relating to this era only.


They extended it to later parts and to later periods, and they now have the same behavior. For example, verses like don't befriend disbelievers, or for example in these literature, we have that you should not pay salutations to non-Muslims, in short, not initiate. So all these sort of harsh directives in Ahadis and in the Quran, they all relate to the non-Muslims or the Christians and Jews of the era of prophet Muhammad.


Dr. Safiyyah: How can we tell that?


Dr. Shehzad: The Quran itself makes it very clear. It says , which means that this punishment is something which only God's messenger is allowed to take. For example, the primary verse in the Quran is in Surah Yunus which says that For every nation, there is a messenger. So once a messenger of that nation comes, it decides its fate and then there is no delay in that. So it is always the immediate messengers which are the ones who are actually addressed. And one thing that can make it even more palpable I would say, and absolutely clear is that deliberate denial of a nation or a people is not something that can be done by human judgment. So today, if someone is deliberately denying or not, I cannot be sure of, it's only God. And God, in the times of his messengers, he actually communicated this to these messengers.


Even the messengers themselves were not in a position to decide. It was he who said through him or divine revelation, "Yes, the time is up for these people. Yes, they are the ones who should actually now be taken to task." And you might be remembering that in the Quran also, and in the Old Testament, the prophet Jonah, he left his nation much earlier. He thought that he's done his duty and The Almighty actually punished him and said, "Well, not. This is the fact whether a nation has come to that point is the information which I'm gonna tell you. Why did you leave without my permission?" This is a prerogative which is only conveyed to God's Wahi I would say, and because of the institution of Wahi has ended, it's no longer takes place and no longer messengers have come. So we can clearly see that this is a practice that cannot be extended because I cannot claim that I've been given this message by God and I'm in a position like a messenger of God to convey the truth in this ultimate form. And I am receiving this message from God that yes, the time is up for such people.


Basically, what has happened is that a practice that was specific to God's messengers era because of the fact that God's messengers were in a position to disseminate the truth in that ultimate way, and because it was God who was telling them that the time had finished for such and such people, that it was actually made possible. In the post-prophetic era, of course neither we have messengers of God nor we have God's communication. So even if today, people are intentionally denying, we cannot pinpoint them out. So all that we need to do is have to make friends with them, we have to be very, very friendly, very courteous to them, and deal with them as if your own brethren.


I think after 9/11 has taken place, this is the greatest opportunity for us to actually tell them that we belong to the same fraternity. All of us belong to the same fraternity of being the nations of messengers of God. And the Quran is very explicit. It says that all the messengers of God, they brought the same message. Basic religion for all these messengers is exactly the same. If Moses or Noah or Jesus had a particular message, the Quran is absolutely not different from that. The only difference that we find in the Quran today is that it is preserved this original language. Otherwise, I do teach the Bible to my students almost every week. I make it a point to tell them that it is absolutely of paramount importance to start reading the Bible, start in the Old Testament and New Testament with the Psalms and read it in with the Quran together, because basically they are from the same source. And you'll find exactly what I've just discussed regarding this law, things being featured in the Old Testament as well, we find Moses being faced in the exactly the same situation in which he was required to punish people.


For example, when they took to idolatry. And similarly, we have other examples in which, as I said, natural disasters were responsible for destroying nations of God. So it's basically studying the scriptural history and you'll find this practice of God being described there, but it cannot be extended beyond the prophetic era, beyond that, and that is what has actually happened. So instead of realizing it that it was supposed to stop right after prophet Muhammad, so Jizya is something which is still being imposed or de facto, people still think that if you conquer non-Muslims, then you'll impose Jizya. Then again, we have this notion that the responsibility of every Muslim state is to basically conquer the globe.


It's like a global conquest and the rest to live in subservience without realizing that the Jihad, which took place by the Sahaba, which we know that they conquered Persia, they conquered Byzantium, it was all under the same law in which the prophet Muhammad Sallallahu alaihi wa sallam had done that initial work, the truth had been conveyed and convinced. I mean they were convinced of the truth and they're still denied it, and it was basically a punishment of not accepting the truth in spite of being convinced about it. So it was not that Islam was being spared by the sword, so to speak.


It was not like subjugating people in the name of Islam. It was basically a reflection of the day of judgment. I mean, this is of paramount importance to realize that the biggest thing that we people need to understand is that we are going to be held accountable on day of judgment. And because we tend to forget this more often, so God has made this arrangement in the Quran to tell us that, "Look what happened to these people. They were held accountable in this world. Don't forget your accountability is going to come, yet, it has been deferred." This is why the Quran has made it so such a palpable reality so that whenever we read the Quran, we revisit the Quran, we find out that this whole incident, or this whole anecdote has been preserved beautifully in the Quran. And this was something which took place without exception in the lives of every messenger of God.


Dr. Safiyyah: So you mentioned Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar, but ordinary Muslims can make this mistake too, right? They can look at a verse and say, "Okay, well, the Quran applies for all times." How can you say that certain verses are limited to a particular circumstance. Would you recommend that a person looked to scholars to see what they've said about specific verses?


Dr. Shehzad: Because of the fact that this particular law has been divulged, and I would say discovered I would say by Hammid Uddin Farahi. So, I mean, the rest of the Umma, the way they view this law is that it is still applicable. Therefore, today also, if you conquer other lands, we will enslave women similarly, we would not give them a chance. Yes, there is a distinction that they might not be killed, but they will be subjugated in the name of Islam and Jizya would be imposed on them.


Because the fact that almost everyone believes in this, so I would say this is something which the Farahi School or the Farahi scholars have brought to light in a very emphatic manner. But after understanding their stance, I have written a very short book which is called "Introducing the Quran, Insights from the Al-Farahi school" something like that. So basically, it builds the perspective that before you enter the Quran, because as soon as you'll enter, you'll find these verses from all sides, so you need to have a background. You need to have this preamble that this is the book, what it talks about, how it is read to the Old Testament.


When we study the Quran, every single one of us, the way we have been taught the Quran is that we have to read the Old and the New Testament in parallel. Because they are the same books. I mean, they are from the same source and they describe this law in a very similar way. We make it a point to not only equip ourselves with the Bible, which I of course refer to both the Old and New Testaments, but also to pass it on to our own students. So the book that I've written, which say is "Introducing the Quran" actually outlines this practice much before you enter the Quran. When a person is given a text of the Quran, he could be a non-Muslim, he could be even a Muslim he knows that what exactly is the background and how do we actually find out whether there's certain words is specific. Although it's, I mean, once Al-Farahi has pinpointed that it becomes very apparent, but it takes a person of his stature or people like him that it's something that is so simple at times that you tend to ignore it. So once the thing has been divulged, it becomes very easy.


You just pinpoint those verses which tell us that this is something which is solely related to messengers of God. And it is God's practice to demonstrate that last judgment in a miniature way on the face of this earth, so that we living in this post-prophetic era, we don't tend to forget that our response, our accountability is to come maybe not in this world but yes, on the Day of Judgment.


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