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Sword Verses

By:
Khalid Yahya Blankinship
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The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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Sword Verses

Muslim tradition describes several different verses of the Qurʿān as the “sword verse” (usually given in the Arabic singular āyat al-sayf    ). These include Qurʿān 9:5, the verse most commonly designated the sword verse par excellence, because it is believed to contain the command revealed by God and because it proclaimed at the pilgrimage of the year 631 CE that polytheism would henceforth be proscribed and that all Arabian polytheists, at least, would henceforth be required to embrace Islam. Verses 2:191, 193; 4:89, 91; 8:39; 9:29, 36, 73, 123; and 66:9 all likewise appear to mandate an unlimited military struggle until the superiority of Islam is acknowledged, either by submission to a tax in the case of followers of organized scriptural religions (9:29), or by adoption of Islam in the case of the Arabian polytheists.

Basing themselves partly on the sword verse and expanding the caliphate's claims, some Muslim religious scholars elaborated a doctrine of abrogation (naskh) which held that certain Qurʿānic verses had cancelled others in whole or in part. In particular, they asserted that the sword verse had cancelled many verses calling for negotiation, patience, peace, compassion, and mercy. Such verses could be seen as restraining the rulers’ claims to pursue universal dominion, and their negation could be viewed as freeing the rulers’ hands. The doctrine of naskh can be traced to the eighth century C.E., and it reached its zenith with Hibat Allāh ibn Salāmah (d. 1019) and Ibn Hazm (d. 1064), who each cited over two hundred abrogated verses, most of these allegedly nullified by the sword verse. This tradition continued in the Hanbalī school with al-Karmī (d. 1623) and others.

At the same time, a trend arose opposing the radical excision of verses from the sacred text through naskh. Because the possibility of abrogation exists in Qurʿān 2:106, the opponents of naskh sought simply to limit its use, instead of denying abrogation altogether. Abū Jaʿfar al-Naḥḥās (d. 949), Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 1201), and al-Suyūtī (d. 1505) all accepted only twenty or so cases of naskh, none involving the sword verse. Later, the naskh doctrine continued to retreat, with the abrogated verses declining to twelve for al-Zarqānī (d. 1688) and five for Shāh Walī Allāh al-Dihlawī (d. 1762). Many recent works deny abrogation altogether, as naskh is seen as compromising the integrity of the Qurʿān. The trend to minimized abrogation won over even the Hanbalīs eventually, and few Muslims today support massive abrogation of Qurʿānic verses.

Although the medieval and modern anti-abrogationists have not explicitly opposed the sword verse or the imperative to fight in God's path, they have certainly opened the door to a more irenic interpretation. Normally, they specify that the sword verses were directed only at the Arabian polytheists and that they have no general application beyond that. In practice, Muslims have tolerated polytheistic religions outside of Arabia and have completely given up the idea of gaining universal dominion by force.

See also QURʿāN, subentry onHISTORY OF THE TEXT.

Bibliography

  • Kamali, Mohammad Hashim. Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence. Rev. ed.Cambridge, U.K., 1991. See pp. 164–165.
  • Qadhi, Abu Ammaar Yasir. An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qurʿaan. Birmingham, U.K., 1999. See pp. 250–255.
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