Surah 9: The Repentance, Part 1

Surah at-tawba, “The Repentence,” is one of the last revealed chapters of the Quran. Tradition holds that this surah was revealed nine years after Muhammad’s relocation to Medina. At that point, the Muslims had successfully conquered Mecca, destroyed the pagan idols surrounding the Ka’ba, and had allied together most of the Arabian peninsula. Yet Muhammad’s state still looked more like a loose confederation than a nation. Members were unified around Muhammad, but did not have a group identity. Many allied tribes were still non-Muslim, perhaps following Muhammad out of fear for the Muslim military, or to ride on Muslim successes, or for access to the all-significant Ka’ba. With such a dynamic, members less beholden to Muhammad posed a considerable risk, as they were likely to take opportunity of any foreign invasions or internal conflicts in order to release themselves from taxes or the suppression of their historical (pagan) culture. And so to these less-beholden people Surah at-Tawba draws the line: repent, or else.

The main threats to Muhammad’s authority are the munafiquun and the mushrikuun. I already covered the etymology of the munafiquun, “ones who tunnel,” (hypocrites) within this post. The word mushrikuun is usually translated as “polytheists” or “pagans” in the Quran, though it literally translates as “ones who associate.” The key roots are sh-r-k, which are harmless enough roots in other Arabic words but are most critically used in the name of the sin shirk, which means to associate anything with God. Today’s post will focus on the call to people who shirk, a category extending from the pagans to the Jews and the Christians.


It is ironic that I ended my last post with a comment on the Quran’s attitude for treaties with unbelievers, because at-Tawba begins right away with a proclamation about those treaties: they are nulled. At first I was kicking myself, thinking that I had spoken too definitively too soon, but after a few more ayat the case for honoring treaties still stands. All treaties with polytheists are nulled, but they are done so by open proclamation. Historically, this proclamation took place in Mecca during the Hajj, in which both Muslims and polytheists would have been present for their rituals around the Ka’ba. This happened at the beginning of the four holy months, in which no fighting is allowed, giving the pagans head notice to convert, prepare themselves for war, or to flee from Muslim-held territory. Also, those pagans who have perfectly followed their treaties will still retain their full term of fulfillment (although one might expect from the language that those treaties are not going to be renewed).

Although the articulation here is blunt and distressing, what we have in total is not different from anything we have seen in the Quran before. The Muslims are still being told to keep promises to unbelievers whose fidelity is mutual. Outside of this surah, there have been ayat which teach that Muslims are not to be the first ones who strike, and that peace can only be broken reactively. Then again, there have been other ayat that only require the fear of treachery to nullify a treaty. Both of these categories are nebulous enough to give shelter to what could be flawed human judgments. For example, what constitutes an act of aggression? Last week we read that unbelievers persecuting believers within their own territory is not enough to invalidate a treaty, and so hopefully this guides Muslims towards only interpreting outright acts of war as measures leading to invalidation. More distressing is that the fear of treachery is enough reason to invalidate a treaty. Fear is subjective and can be manipulated. Although one needs evidence to justify fears, the nature of paranoia is that it can make fuel of anything. As such, there is a question as to how stable treaties founded with these exceptions might be, but breaking a treaty by an act of Muslim treason has no justification in what we have seen. Muslims are still accountable to their promises. Plus, this surah provides Muslims with a strong precedent of open renunciation with forward notice.

Simply the reputation of the pagans in the Quran is so loaded with mistrust that all reasons to null a treaty are already established. Their character is denounced as aggressive and wily. They break their treaties by striking the first blow, and they have no oaths they consider binding. The question is raised in ayah 7 as to how God/Muhammad could even be bound by oaths to such pagans. This awakens an awkward point that the ayah mentions but sidesteps, which is that Muhammad and the Muslims had indeed entered into an oath with the Meccan pagans over the Sacred Mosque. Tradition holds that this is the Treaty of Hudabiyyah. Read up on that treaty to get a sense of why it might be awkward to mention.

Much like treaties, family bonds are also nulled if one has an unbelieving family member. The example given is Abraham disowning his pagan father. He had requested that God forgive his father, but it became clear to him that his father was an enemy of God. As such, believers and Muhammad are not to pray for people who have proven themselves hell-bound.

Purifying Muslim Lands

While it is true that the breaking of these treaties is not substantially different than anything we have already seen in the Quran, the nature and language of this statement communicates a new status and goal of Muhammad’s reign: geographical purity. Once the treaties are broken, pagans are no longer allowed to be within sight of the Muslims. The orders are to kill, capture, siege, and ambush, signifying that wandering individuals and established communities are all within the scope of this violence. The cleansing is not an ethnic one, with no specific tribes marked for murder, and so repentance is capable of removing anyone from danger. Repentance is coupled with established prayer and tithe, so that the conversion is substantiated with action in order to prove belief.

“Kill them all” is not a fully just interpretation of these commands. Unbelievers who seek sanctuary within the Muslim community are to be granted it, on the principle that this exposes them to Muslim beliefs and perhaps will work towards their conversion. The pagan who retains disbelief is not executed, contrary to the “kill on sight” principle, but is instead escorted to a place that is safe for them (also an indication that this surah does not intend world conquest, or else there could be no such place).

The scope of the lands to be cleansed from the pagans is left unspecified, but one place definitely to be cleansed is the Sacred Mosque in Mecca. Pagans are no longer to be allowed to pilgrimage to the Ka’ba, which is a turn of fate considering that two years prior Muhammad had to negotiate to get in. Another element of irony is that the Polytheist Quraysh of Mecca are said to have persecuted Muhammad in his early ministry for fear that his preaching would drive away the pagan pilgrims and the commerce those pilgrims brought. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, with Muslims receiving the financial boons, the surah has to assuage Muslim fears that their finances will collapse without the pagan traffic. In the long term this proved true, and in today’s times the pilgrimage sites are Saudi Arabia’s #2 resource after oil.

Despite Mecca being under Muslim control and the Ka’ba’s idols having been destroyed, it seems that many of the old custodians are still trying to work as usual, maintaining the grounds and providing pilgrims with water. Thus it is ordered that only the rightly guided are allowed to take care of the mosques, with context specifically indicating the Sacred Mosque. Perhaps there was some thought going around believers that the non-Muslims could earn some good works by serving the mosques, because the surah makes sure to remind its readers that the works of unbelievers amount to nothing, and that good works are not equivalent to Muslim faith.

Tangent on language: That the unbelievers are to be told of their future in hell is old news, and I wouldn’t stop to comment on it except for a lingual oddity that caught my attention. Ayah 3 tells Muhammad to give the unbelievers “tidings” of their punishment, and I noticed that Abdul Haleem translated the word as “good tidings.” He wasn’t alone in this choice of words, so I investigated. Its roots are b-sh-r, and it is a cognate of the Hebrew word for “good news.” That is the same meaning as the Greek word euangelion, from which derives forward the word “gospel” in English (and injeel in Arabic). The form here, bushshir, means to bring good news and is used for “evangelize” amongst Arab Christians. Thus when Muhammad is told to announce the “good news” of the pagans’ fate in hell, there are more layers of irony than is instantly apparent.

Criticism of Christians and Jews

As far as I have noticed, People of the Book are never categorized as mushrikuun, a term that has usually been translated as “polytheists/pagans.” The line is blurry, however, as the Jews and Christians sin in a manner directly described as shirk, which is the same sin that defines mushrikuun. Thus in a literal sense “ones who shirk” could possibly extend to include Christians and Jews, a frightening thought in light of the orders to fight and kill mushrikuun in this surah and elsewhere. This is a moment where I want to stand up for the linguistic fact that just because two words share common roots doesn’t mean they can’t stand apart from each other. “Kind” and “kin” share the same etymology, but that doesn’t mean we’re thinking of family bonds when we say “kindness.” The meaning of “kin” informs the meaning of the word “kindness,” but doesn’t dictate it. As far as I’ve seen in the Quran, mushrikuun has always been translated as “pagans/polytheists” and they have been treated differently than the Jews and Christians.

The blurry status of Jews and Christians in the Qurans’ world can be seen in ayah 29. Just as Muslims wer commanded to fight/kill the polytheists, so they are also commanded to fight/kill people who were given the scriptures who do not convert. Within the ayah, there is a list of the beliefs or non-beliefs of the targeted people. Christians and Jews neither pass nor fail all items of this list.

List ItemJewsChristians
Believe in GodYesYes
Believe in the Final Judgment…dependsYes
Observe as unlawful what Muhammad calls unlawful
Mostly within bounds
Receive truth from ScriptureYesYes

Unlike the previous orders to war against and kill polytheists until they repent, this ayah says to fight the people who fail the above list until they pay taxes as subordinates. Sahih International leaves the word for “taxes” untranslated as jizyah, which is different from the zakkat, or “tithe/purifiers,” that Muslims are required to pay. Thus the threatened people of ayah 29 are neither being eradicated from nor assimilated into Muslim society.

When the surah goes on to condemn Christians and Jews of shirk, it gives examples. Christians call the Messiah the Son of God. We plead guilty, though perhaps not guilty of calling Jesus a “son” in the same sense that the Quran might think we do. The Jews are accused of calling Ezra the son of God. This passage causes outrage in Jewish hearts and literature, with some accusing the Quran of attempting to reshape the perceived nature of Judaism in Muslim history (à la history-is-told-by-the-victors). The fact is that we have no documented evidence of any Jewish community ever worshiping Ezra. The Quran is the only known source to suggest such a thing. There are some speculations about what the Quran is referring to, but no evidence to help us confirm or deny each theory. Without any worship of Ezra, the Quran has not explained what kind of shirk its contemporary Jews are supposed to be guilty of.

The surah’s other accusations are that they (Jews and Christians) take their scholars, monks, and Jesus (well maybe only Christians then) as lords, and moreover that the scholars and monks consume the money of their subjects. I can’t say I know much about what things looked like in Jewish society at that time. I know that they’ve enjoyed their seasons of wealth and misery and assume that has also fostered corruption at times. As to how Christians stand up to these accusations, I do not think there’s need or ability to contradict it. The nature of Christian teaching is that its best exemplars are usually its most anonymous. To make history one usually has to be a bit more powerful, wealthy, or aggressive than what Jesus permits within the Gospels. And let’s be honest, late antiquity is where we find the Church and State really struggle to define and supersede each other. By 600 AD, the Roman Emperor’s image shared space by the altar near Jesus’, bishops were given judicial authority and sought seats in wealthier cities, and writers had largely abandoned recording civil matters in favor of writing fanciful hagiographies.

Opulence, Eastern Rome has it.

Given the social structures and trends of that era, there’s no reason to doubt that Muhammad had seen gross abuses by the clergy. Alas for Islam that it would not be immune from these corruptions either.

unsplash-logoAdli Wahid
Image result for blue mosque istanbul
Opulence, Ottoman Empire has it too.

In the Quran’s Islamic society, the status of Jews and Christians is precarious, given their positive status as people of Scripture and negative status as people who shirk (although again it’s not clear what shirk the Jews are supposed to be guilty of). While at-Tawba regards them with disdain and demands they be put in a place of subservience, it mostly leaves them alone in its wrath for pagans and hypocrites. Historically speaking, Jews and Christians in various parts of Arabia had already taken military stances against the Muslims. The Jews of Medina had rebelled and been either expelled, slaughtered, or enslaved by this point. The Christians of Nazran had submitted to taxation. The Ghassanid Arabs (a Christian kingdom and client state of Rome) were hostile to Muhammad. Given those events, I’m surprised that this surah doesn’t actually have more to say about Jews and Christians. As it stands, it will take other chapters of the Quran to determine what to do with these semi-believers.

Purifying the Calendar

There is a need to remove pagan influence as well as pagan population from Muhammad’s State. One thing the Quran particularly takes offense to is the pagan practice of adjusting their calendar and choosing when to hold holy months. Like many semitic peoples, the Arabs used/use a lunar calendar to measure their years. Lunar calendars do not align to the solar span of a year, being short by roughly eleven days, and so the months drift backwards through the seasons. If your life is dictated by the patterns of agriculture, this means that festivals and pilgrimages will be convenient some years and inconvenient in others. It sounds as though the pagan Arabs were a little more fluid with their year structures, perhaps extending months or moving holidays to more convenient times. It is also said that warring factions took control of deciding the calendar, and thus picked and chose when the months of truce occurred. It could also be that Arabs took up doing what the Jews commonly do, periodically holding a “pregnant year” and inserting an extra month to realign the calendar to the seasons. Though we don’t quite know which form it took, the practice was called nasii. The surah comes down hard on nasii, declaring that God created twelve months (which we know are calculated by the moon cycles according to other suwar) and that four of those months are observed as holy through truce.

From my non-Muslim standpoint, fixing the length of a year by the lunar calendar seems impractical. I want the year to represent the cycle of seasons, which dictate what I’ll be wearing, eating, and doing and which are more related to solar patterns. A rigid lunar calendar divorces the religious cycles from the secular cycles. The Jewish system seems a good solution to align religious and secular rituals. But in the Quran’s view, enabling humans to determine when to hold religious ritual contradicts the principle of an absolute and universal God who dictates how He wants to be worshiped. The example of the pagans choosing months serves to illustrate their religion’s dependency upon human contrivance, whereas God and the natural world work regardless of human existence. Thus the only justification for the twelve-moon years is that God created it that way (and look in ayah 36, there’s the book of predestination!) without any concern for the solar season that God also made. Although it might look like God wrote a secularly impractical definition of year, the appeal to Muslims is in releasing oneself from human dictations and submitting to a higher, uniform principle of order.


Though this surah could certainly provide fuel for world-conquering crusades. Alliances have been terminated and a mandate given, allowing Muhammad’s State to purify its identity both religiously and geographically. However, this surah is far more concerned with the enemy within Muslim ranks than without. Most of the material is targeted towards the feared hypocrites and apostates hiding in the Muslims’ numbers, which is what I’ll cover next week.

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