Surah 8: The Spoils of War

Surah al-Anfal, “The Spoils of War.” In name and content, this surah is about battle and victory. Although not named, multiple ayat indicated to me that this surah concerns the aftermath of the Battle of Badr, an event which we already heard some about in Surah al-‘Imran: there is a caravan in a valley, a surprise meeting of armed forces, and a stunning victory. Surah al-‘Imran, if you’ll remember, was about the battle lost at the foot of Mt. Uhud, and it referenced the first victory at Badr to indict the Muslims of their failure. Because of that, I wonder why al-Anfal is placed after and thus far away from al-‘Imran. For Muslims reading according to the traditional 30-day Juz’ schedule, the messages are separated by five days. If al-Anfal and al-‘Imran had been placed one after the other, historical order of events would have been preserved, and the cautionary messages here would have combined with the reprimands in al-‘Imran into a very poignant joint reading.

Despite being about a stunning victory, there are very few congratulations in Surah al-Anfal. Victory has brought loot, and loot has awakened divisions and a sense of entitlement amongst individuals. To employ an English turn of phrase, the spoils have spoiled things. Muslims are given permission to enjoy their victory, but always they are reminded that the victory belongs to God and to His Prophet. Authority is being reinforced, and the words “God” and “Messenger” appear in frequent parallel to drive home who has the authority.

Divine Providence

If you want a refresher on the historical events of Badr, you can read my two-paragraph summary within this post, or the much longer Wikipedia article that is expanded with traditional material. This surah describes things from the spiritual vantage point as God explains how He contrived the battle and its victory. Note that all evidence for God’s handiwork is established by denigrating the Muslims.

  • Ayah 5: God inspired Muhammad to venture from his home
    • A group of believers resisted the idea and argued with him Ayah
  • 42: Armies met by accident
    • If the battle had been made by appointment, they would’ve missed it
  • Ayah 43: God deceived Muhammad with visions of a smaller enemy army
    • They would’ve been doubtful and hesitant if He’d shown them the true size of their enemy
  • Ayah 7: God promised the men victory to whichever of the two groups (presumably the merchant caravan and the armed posse) they chose
    • The men were cowards and wanted to take the unarmed group
    • God superseded them and made their conflict with the armed group to validate Islam
  • Ayah 44: God made the two opposing groups look small in each others’ eyes
    • This was done to bring about the victory, implying that if the men had seen each other’s true numbers, the battle would’ve been lost (the Meccans might’ve strategized appropriately) or never happened at all (the Muslims might’ve run away)

Rather than praise battle maneuvers or individual contributions, every individual action is accredited to God (saying that if a man struck a blow, really it was God who struck the blow). The general battle was said to have been fought by a general force of 1,000 angels. Satan is said to have been egging on the unbelievers, but that he abandoned them out of fear for God. The spiritual warfare is real and interacts with the physical, as God rallies the angels by telling them to strike the necks and fingers of the enemy soldiers.

God’s manipulation of the Muslims is painted as a merciful action. He spared them from doubt and fear by tricking them into thinking they were going out on a light and easy skirmish. He blesses them with a good sleep and refreshing rain so that Satan has no room to influence their hearts. He promises to give victory to believers over enemies ten times their number in battle, but promises that since the men are weak He will lighten the hardship so that they will only face foes twice their number instead (ayat 65-66). How the Muslims could next go on to lose to an army four times their size at the Battle of Uhud was probably questioned in light of these promises.

Loot and Prisoners

The first ayah of the surah begins (by literal translation): “They ask you about the loot. Say, ‘The loot is for God and the Messenger, so fear God and reconcile that which is between you all, and obey God and His Messenger if you are believers.” Already we can tell that there is a fight going on between the victors and maybe have a clue as to why this surah has to be so stern and degrading to the believers. This ayat clears the field of discussion by renouncing anyone’s rights to ownership of the loot, except Muhammad and God, and demanding that the people get right with each other and shape themselves up for obedience. The surah does not actually teach that Muhammad gets all the loot. In fact, once the role of God in the battle has been driven home, it is clarified that only one fifth of each man’s spoils are obligated to be given away (to such recipients as Muhammad, God, family, orphans, travelers, the poor, etc.), with the rest implied to be used at the leisure of each recipient. We are never told who gets what amount, but it is clear that the men themselves are not going to be making those decisions.

Ayat 67-69 are both confusing and controversial. 67 starts off “It is not for a prophet to have captives…” as if God is reprimanding Muhammad, but as the verse goes on we find the “yous” are “y’alls” and thus know that it is the people under Muhammad’s leadership and representing him with their actions who are being chastised. The confusion continues in that the men are not punished for what they did wrong. 68-69 explains that the men are spared punishment because of a “decree from God prior.” The word translated “decree” is kitab, which really means anything that is written but often documents or books. This opens up two different interpretations, both of which raise questions. The first and most common interpretation is that God gave a prior scripture (which have at times been called kitab/kutub in the Quran in reference to their origins from a Divine Book) which made the taking of prisoners okay. Some scholars speculate the scripture is 47:4. The question this raises is why God should have made something previously punishable as sin to now be lawful and good, in fact something they are permitted to enjoy. Is God’s definition of sin arbitrary? The second interpretation is that kitab actually refers to the book in which God has written all human choices and events. This is a traditional image, not one that we have seen in the Quran yet, but it is part of the doctrine of Qadar/Predestination. So you can see how this understanding is problematic, as it would mean that God is not punishing the men for their sin because He had predetermined they would do it. Considering how many other men are punished for things God predestined of them, this would be inconsistent. Yet still, some translators have chosen wording that favors the latter idea, most notably Abdul Haleem.

The controversy of these ayat is not that the men are being chastised for taking prisoners, but for taking prisoners before “…[the Prophet] inflicts a massacre in the land.” I had a hard time finding any information about the etymology or history of the word translated as “he massacres,” yuthkhun. It means “he thickens,” but I guess classical Arabic carries other definitions. Hostile critics seize upon this ayah to claim that Islam advocates a “take no prisoners” position. This interpretation is unlikely, given that the men do take prisoners and a word search in the whole Quran for “captive” yielded two ayat (47:4, 9:5) prescribing the taking of captives. There are also no commands to punish, execute, or enslave prisoners of war. Muhammad is told to preach reward and repentance to them, but no earthly consequence is attributed to either acceptance or rejection. Going back to ayah 67, there’s also the question of the scope of “the land.” Al-arD is a fuzzy word that can mean “area, ground, dominion, world, Earth,” and so the scope of this scripture doesn’t directly mean world-wide massacre. It is open to that interpretation, but context favors that the scope is just the battlefield.

The reason prisoners are problematic to the Muslim cause at that point in time is that prisoners were ransomed for cash and goods. These days we think of taking prisoners as the (potentially) humane way of deflating enemy forces, but the Arab system was much more feudal: prisoners = ransom money. So it is not so much the value of life at stake as the cash value of life. This could be why ayah 67 continues on to lament the men’s desires for earthly things. There is a strong need to perceive these battles as divinely motivated, establishing a geographic territory where God’s justice organizes society into a peaceful and altruistic one. The ideal is that each battle should testify to this pious motivation and also to God’s favor upon the Muslim people. If the men start fighting for financial gain, that motivation and identity is betrayed.

Many other ayat in the surah describe the crimes of the Meccan pagans and the evil intentions of the unbelievers. Repentance is always offered to the unbelievers, but still hampered by the expectation that they will not take it. We have imagery of the angels collecting souls to pile in hell, beating them along the way and saying (literally) “take that!” These passages could be taken as an attempt to repaint the enemy armies as individuals or representatives of a group that need to be restrained and punished, not as pile of cash needing to be collected.

Not This

Taking enemies for ransom also has the problem in that ransoming a soldier automatically means that soldier can fight for your enemy yet again. Ayah 57 commands Muhammad to make every victory decisive in order to scatter those who backed the losers or who might come after them. “Fight so that you won’t have to fight” is a reasonable paraphrase. If the men start seeing their opponents as piles of potential ransom money, then they will be less inclined to kill, which will make them less likely to achieve a solid victory, which will make it more likely that they will have to fight again.

That is the problem with the moral quagmire of war. It makes you defend the darnedest things.

Growth and Identity

The final stretch of the surah shows signs of some exciting but stressful changes in the Muslim community: expanded numbers. Speaking in ideals, conversions are great! If you really believe that your beliefs are the only guide to happiness, then conversions mean that more people are going to be happy. There is also a self-validation in seeing many people think your beliefs are true and reasonable. Monetary rewards have a way of dampening that enthusiasm, however. More people means less spoils per individual, and suddenly people start questioning who is more deserving and how much they deserve. Consider how it might feel to be a very early convert, who had survived persecution alongside Muhammad from a very early point in his ministry. You go on multiple raids and risk your life multiple times. This is your first battle with any sizable reward. Then someone new, who maybe is only on his first raid and only converted once things started looking up for this Muhammad guy, collects an equal amount of loot as you. Does he really deserve it? Shouldn’t you be compensated for your previous effort?

Islam would have future identity crises as it spread across Arabia and into other non-Arab cultures and ethnicities. Its earliest questions, however, were often about how much preference should be given to the oldest converts. In this surah we find that there is a distinction understood between those converts who migrated to Medina with Muhammad versus those who are now coming after. There are also their hosts and allies in Medina, who didn’t have to risk migration or persecution at all.

In general, the surah pushes an egalitarian approach, eschewing the nuts and bolts of who deserves more bounty by trying to define the general identity of the believers. It is not money that brings the believers together, ayah 63 says, but God. Individual faith, loyalty, and obedience establish the rank of a believer in God’s eyes and determine what (heavenly and/or earthly) rewards God will bless the man with. The closing ayat of the surah are about believers, whether recent or new, immigrants or hosts, being all part of each other. The only scripturally sanctioned preferences within the community are blood ties, enabling the order of tribes, clans, and inheritance laws.

The surah encourages the Muslims to unite into one community by envisioning the unbelievers as one collaborative community. Ayah 73 says, “And those who disbelieve are allies of one another. If you do not do so, there will be persecution on earth and great corruption.” It sets up an “us versus them” sense of identity, and the believers are given the mission of removing all religions that do not worship The God from the land. (Again, there are questions about scope of this quest, and it should be noted that angst is particularly targeted at the pagans of Mecca, not the whole world.)


I’m not sure how to conclude this post. It obviously is very important to conversations about whether Islam is a violent religion, but it’s way too early to have that conversation. There is a call to violence here, and we can find all the principles and ingredients of a crusade. Yet the Muslims already are showing their inability to keep up a holy war. This surah spends most of its duration scolding them away from greed, mutiny, cowardice, and vainglory. Already it is predicted that the hypocrites and fallible will bring punishments upon themselves that collaterally affect the innocent. Muhammad stands as the only reliable man in their midst who can be trusted with authority, lacking any deputies to be equally trusted. Without Muhammad, it is easy to question whether a God-sanctioned war or government can be possible.

Post Script on Treaties

I’ve heard it told that Muslims, as part of their religion, do not believe they are bound by treaties with non-Muslims and that it is okay to lie for God’s sake. I have seen and mentioned multiple ayat in these first 9 suwar of the Quran that forbid Muslims from breaking treaties or contracts between them and unbelievers, as that is what the Christians/Jews/Pagans do and believers are not to be like them. Here in ayah 72 we find the sanctity of treaties upheld in what must be considered a pretty extreme case: Muslims are to fight any community that is persecuting or preventing Muslim converts from migrating to Medina unless they have already established a peaceful treaty with that community. Even the persecution of Muslims within a community does not invalidate a treaty that has been entered upon. So if anyone tells you that Muslims are encouraged to be dishonest and back-stabbing in the Quran, please correct them and mention the repetitiveness of this message.

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