This is the first line of the Quran: “In the name of God, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful.” It is so universal a phrase in the Muslim world that it has a name: the basmala. When slaughtering animals, recite the basmala. When addressing official documents, write the basmala. Muslims are encouraged to embark upon every endeavor with the words of the basmala. It even has its own unicode symbol: ﷽. Yes, that is all one character according to a computer. Do yourself a favor and look up “basmala calligraphy” to see just how many beautiful ways that Muslims tribute the phrase artistically. The basmala is so beloved because it invokes God’s sanctuary and benevolence. It is the preamble or first line to every surah of the Quran.
Excepting Surah at-Tawba.
This is the only surah of the Quran that does not begin with an invocation of God’s mercy. While there are several explanations as to why it does not happen here, the common answer is that Surah at-Tawba is a declaration of war and wrath, not mercy. I still hold that it is far too early to declare that the Quran is a violent book, but this is definitely a violent chapter. Last week we looked at the hostile attention and actions it targeted at the people who habitually sin through shirk. Despite there being plenty to say about those people, most of the surah is actually addressed to believers and hypocrites. Today we’re going to examine the surah’s call to repentance within the Muslim’s own ranks.
Fighting and Striving
We have read the Quran calling Muslims to fighting before, and by this Surah’s revelation they had already been fighting for some time. This surah is particularly insistent however, and calls for all the self, possessions, business, and family of the believer to be set aside for the cause. The last words of the surah set the example that, though Muhammad loves the believers and cares for their suffering, his faith in God must take priority. Much of the emphasis is on spending, with those who give possessions towards or who fight in the cause receiving lots of good attention and promises. The self-sacrifice is put in terms of a business transaction, with it sometimes being said that the people are purchasing their gardens in Paradise and other times being said that God has purchased the lives and possessions of believers with the promise of Paradise. The garden is repetitively pitched as a place where rivers flow and where pleasures endure forever.
There are two words here central to the call to action: qatal (“kill, fight”) and jahad (“struggle, labor”). These words are used in different ways. Qatal is used in the direct calls to battle and killing. “Fight” the leaders of disbelief. “Fight” the people of ayah 29. “Fight” the idolaters. “Fight” the disbelievers near you. Muslims “fight” in the way of God, thus they “kill” and are “killed.” Jahad is often used when talking about spending or effort, with the sentences usually mentioning the use of one’s wealth, life, or lifestyle. It is clearly not a word meaning battle, because women who jahad are specifically cited among those who are rewarded with gardens in paradise, and women would not have been included in warfare at that time. That being said, jahad does often appear in the service of fighting. Context leaves no doubt that Muhammad is going to war when the people are told to “strive” with the Prophet. Jahad also means conflict (though not necessarily battle) when Muslims are told to “struggle” with and be hard on hypocrites and unbelievers.
The call to violence is linked here intrinsically with God’s judgment. The Muslims are acting as agents of God’s punishment, but it is made very clear that God is not dependent on them. The Battle of Hunayn is mentioned in order to tell that God has angelic forces that can fight for Him when the believers fail. God also reminds them that He will simply let them fail and choose another people if they disobey. The moral of the story in ayah 118 is that there is no refuge from God but in God. The three men who learn this lesson are men who declined going to war, and so the message is that participating in God’s judgment is what it takes to save oneself from judgment. It is interesting the Quran is so explicit with this idea that God is saving us from Himself. That is a theological query that has made faith hard for many people.
The picture painted of hypocrites is substantially the same as material already seen, but the changed status of the Muslim community also deepened the levels of hypocrisy. When Muhammad’s State was weaker and smaller, the cowardice of the hypocrites was that they kept their pagan connections and refused to emigrate. Yet still, confessing Islam at all was risky and there were no incentives to do so. That is not the case now. The spoils of war have made many people very rich, and the tides of battle made Muslim dominance look ever more likely, thus this surah is aware that there are many members of its society who only profess Muslim faith in order to enjoy a secure status. There are also Muslims who seem to be satisfied with their current rewards and are showing resistance to investing further resources into the cause. This surah expresses contempt for those who have become distracted by their family, wealth, and social standing.
It is none other than Muhammad’s capital seat of Medina that attracts the particular ire of this Surah. Some of Medina’s occupants and its nearby Bedouin population declined going out to war with Muhammad. They are chastised for complacency and for valuing their own lives above Muhammad’s. People keep coming to Muhammad seeking excuse from going on expeditions with him now that the expeditions are harder and farther away. Moreover, when Muhammad returns, they keep making excuses to justify why they did not go. The repetitive focus on these excuses within the surah might indicate just how chronic a problem this is. The substance of the excuses is not given, but when someone adds in ayah 49 “excuse me and do not try me,” the ayah concludes wryly, “into The Trial they have fallen.”
Muhammad did give in to some people’s excuses to stay home. God reprimands Muhammad for this error, showing Muhammad to be fallible, although He says the error has already been forgiven. By permitting men to stay home, ayah 43 says, their hypocrisy cannot be fully judged. Perhaps the idea is that the most blatantly rebellious would’ve been revealed had Muhammad been firmer. This reprimand contradicts a later ayat saying that God willed the hypocrites to stay home so that they would not endanger the fighters with their impurity or seditious talk. Thus Muhammad’s action could be understood as an action that preserved the vitality of his fighting force. It is unclear why he needed God’s forgiveness when the presence of grudging or hesitant soldiers has been blamed for past failures, and is even here cited as an avoided danger.
Sedition and doubt are still at the forefront of the hypocrite’s sins. They not only dread the coming of new revelations, but they also scoff at the spirituality of the things Muhammad has been revealing. They often are said to mock God, the revelations, or Muhammad, but then feign joking when they are confronted. They still are holding hope that the Muslims will fail, making plans to preserve their own good fortune should the tides of war turn back again. The new presence of wealth has also made stinginess a big feature, with people resenting the mandatory tithe. Some of this is rooted to their love of worldly goods, but it is also connected to their doubt in the Muslim cause. The tithe is said to be used only for aiding the poor and needy, paying the salaries of the collectors, giving to those inclined in their hearts (traditionally understood as an incentive for new or potential converts), paying debts and freeing captives, helping travelers, and paying for God’s cause. This list exists in part to shame hypocrites for resenting the obligation of a benevolent tithe, and also to rebuke them for trying to receive money from Muslim charity when they do not fit those categories. Thus is it communicated that hypocrites are only professing Islam for worldly selfish reasons.
Just as the believers are reminded of their future gardens, hypocrites are reminded of their post-life consequences. At the least they will not optimize the amount of rewards they could earn for any expenditure, inconvenience, suffering, danger that affects themselves, or injury that they could have inflicted on an enemy. At the worst, they will go to Hell. Some of the people resent going to war in the hot months. Muhammad is told to remind them that if they think the desert is hot, Hell is hotter.
Bedouin come under strong fire in this Surah. Their lifestyle is worth mentioning since it is recognized as the original heart of Arab culture. Bedouin lived completely outside city life and settled agriculture. They were sustained by grazing animals, and thus had to constantly move around the arid peninsula to find food and water for their flocks. Despite this hard and minimal existence, the pride of the Bedouin was their independence. They had no obligations except to survive, and they were confident in their ability to survive on the barest of means. Sometimes they supplemented their resources by raiding other tribes or communities, and they were known for fierce fighting and sly tactics. Their only commitments were tribal codes of honor, and these are frequently interpreted as the source of Muslim and Jewish culture. Bedouin still exist, but the modern world is suffocating their lifestyle and space to live. It’s hard to document and tax nomads, and their wandering ways interfere with expanding infrastructure and property laws.
Despite the prevalence of Bedouin in Arabia at that time, notice that the Quran has featured only city folk. These city folk are accustomed to traveling for trade and some herding, but they are based in solid buildings and fixed communities. They enjoy the benefits of civilization, and the Quran is all about building up that civilization.
Converting to Islam might have been a hard step for the Bedouin. Muhammad is demanding use of their possessions and lives in fighting, which diminishes their command of self and their freedom to roam. They now owe things and are accountable to a larger society. They would also be banned from raiding fellow Muslims, which would be a blow to their habits of survival. Perhaps these cultural barriers are why the surah denounces them as being the most stubborn in disbelief and hypocrisy, and the most ignorant or resistant to God’s laws. Despite the categorical slur of ayah 97 it turns out the Bedouin are diverse groups of pagans, hypocrites, and Muslims. Those who spend money to buy their place in heaven or buy the prayers of Muhammad are recognized as true believers. Otherwise, those who resent spending money and count it as loss or who refrain from joining Muhammad in warfare are denounced as hypocrites. Most of the time that Bedouin are mentioned, it is in connection to hypocrisy.
Here’s a curiosity for you. The word “Bedouin” is just a transliteration of an Arabic word for “desert-folks,” but it’s not the word used in this surah. The (plural) word used here is a‘araab. Arabs? Indeed, the word is Arabs but with a longer second vowel. So why translate it as Bedouin? Well, one ayah in another surah uses this word to clearly refer to desert-dwelling Arabs in a way that contrasts with city dwelling Arabs. “Civilized” Arabs (like Muhammad and co.) are called instead a‘arab. This shortened term never appears in the Quran, and I wonder when this spelling first appeared in Arabic writing. There is a temptation to theorize that civilized Arabs took on a different spelling in order to separate themselves from these ayat (especially when they started having to compete with other ethnicities in the faith), but I don’t think the Quran’s tone supports this. If you look at the ayat that deal with a’araab, the Quran is essentially treating them as back-water rustics, too uneducated and disconnected to be rightly guided. Of the ten times I found a‘araab in the Quran, only ayah 99 of this surah speaks of any good ones, and they are good because they believe in God and judgment and try to buy their place in heaven. (Also, one other ayah just refers to their remoteness without commenting on their character.)
Excommunication and Schism
Punishing the hypocrites is largely left in God’s hands. They are warned of Hell, like everyone else, but are not subjected to earthly penalties or execution. The Muslims are told instead to treat them apathetically. “Let them laugh a little and [then] weep much,” is the given policy. Pray for their forgiveness or not if it suits you, God might forgive some but not others, it is His choice. In the case of those who did not go to war, however, the apathy expands into anathema. If once someone does not go to war with Muhammad, then they are not allowed to join ever again. Muhammad is not to pray over their funeral or stand by their graves. It is made clear that those who legitimately could not go to war, either for financial reasons (like not owning a mount) or health reasons, are not being called hypocrites. Rather, ayah 93 clarifies that it is only the rich who are blamed.
A schismatic mosque has also arisen in the Muslim community. It is described as a place for spreading disbelief and division, which leads me to think that it might be a place trying to divorce Islam from Muhammad (and perhaps a place for those who have been excommunicated to seek community). Amongst those who are said to attend this mosque are people who used to war against God and his Messenger. That suggests to me that the Muslims had a hard time applying the clean-slate and equal-footing conversion policy. Despite the Quran’s messages of equality among believers, the “first forerunners” are praised in ayah 100 and receive other exclusive praises in the Quran. By merit of historical context, those forerunners were an elite group with honors that no one else could achieve. Besides this, killing unbelievers is also said to assuage the anger of the believers in ayah 14, thus there is definitely a spirit of anger and revenge amongst the Muslims. Later converts might have felt estranged from the anger in their new community. Calling a man “brother” whose father you killed in war, and who desired to kill you in revenge had you not converted, is an awkward dynamic. Starting a mosque where former pagan soldiers could find equal community might have seemed like an agreeable option. The surah denounces their professed good intentions and says they have built their mosque and faith upon a collapsing precipice with Hell at its base. Despite all the contempt thrown their way, no violence is commanded towards these schismatics. Muhammad is told to anathematize them and let their consciences inflict their own torment.
Like all punishments we’ve yet seen, excommunication is reversible with repentance. Men who recognize their sin can turn back to God for mercy. Muhammad is told to take a portion of their wealth for charitable uses and to bless them. The charity is said to both purify their souls and to bring about their increase. From my protestant cynicism this sounds a little sketchy –paying for forgiveness and blessings– but it ties into the Muslim concept of tithe and justice. We have heard heavenly judgment described as scales before, in which good deeds and bad deeds are weighed against each other. Indeed, part of the Muslim conversion process seen here in ayah 5 and elsewhere is giving tithe, or zakaa. The word means “purifiers” and the act of giving is seen as a way to rid oneself of impurities and to outweigh one’s bad deeds. It also just adds practical consequences to discouraged actions. Court fines are comparable, so perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into this.
So what do we make of Surah at-Tawba? It commands violence, and its traditional placement as Muhammad’s second-last revelation is ominous (followed only by teeny Surah an-Nasr). Chronologically, there never comes another revelation ending the violence or declaring a boundary to Muhammad’s Islamic State. Yet this isn’t the last surah of the Quran, or the last thing the book has to say for itself and the religion it shapes. Try not to form a conclusion yet, but just document the points of this surah in your mind. Next week, I’m going to take a break from the Quran in order to explore the consequences of approaching Islam as a violent religion.
And also, hooray! We are now one third of the way through the Quran!
It caught me by surprise. We’re only at surah 9, after all, out of 114. But that doesn’t do justice to just how much material we’ve covered. There are thirty ‘juz divisions in the Quran, mostly equal in proportion, and by the end of at-Tawba we crossed into the beginning of the eleventh. We’ve covered some really hard suwar with unpleasant topics, but hopefully things will start getting easier and lighter from here. I’m waiting to see some chapters that are more introspective or positively oriented. Please hang with me!
And also, if this is enjoyable or helpful to you, please recommend it to a friend. Doing this has been hard work, and certainly it helps motivate me when I know people are reading along. I love all four of you very much 🙂