The (Un)sanctioned Killing of Non-Believers in IS(lam)

A widely referenced passage from the Qur’an that's been used to justify killing Christians and Jews is found in chapter 9, al-Tawbah (Repentance), verse 29: “Fight those who believe not in God and in the Last Day, and who do not forbid what God and His Messenger have forbidden, and who follow not the Religion of Truth among those who were given the Book, till they pay the jizyah [tax] with a willing hand, being humbled.”

Extremist Interpretation

At first glance, the verse appears to be pretty straightforward, basically, attack non-Muslims. Read alone, this can be, and has been, a very dangerous verse if and when it’s applied. This is precisely how groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) have gotten their followers to believe that God has sanctioned the killing of non-Muslims. Both groups have referenced verse 9:29 in their propaganda. For instance, in the ninth edition of IS’s English-language magazine, Rumiayah, “The Ruling on the Belligerent Christians,” the group references verse 9:29 as a direct command from God to justify the 2017 Palm Sunday bombings in Egypt that targeted two Coptic Christian churches, killing 45 and injuring 126.

Historical Context

The verse was revealed in reference to the Battle of Tabuk, although (spoiler alert) it wasn’t actually a battle, so let’s just call it an expedition. The Prophet Muhammad was granted permission to launch a preemptive assault after hearing reports that the Roman Empire—the greatest military power at the time—was preparing to launch an offensive attack against the Muslims. Imagine, the United States preparing to attack the Dominican Republic for instance. Muhammad amassed an army of 30,000 men and headed to Tabuk, a town bordering Byzantine territory and located in modern-day Saudi Arabia. After waiting for 20 days, the Roman army never showed. While in Tabuk, Muhammad and his army encountered the Christian and Jewish tribes allied with the Romans and did the unthinkable. They didn't kill, slaughter or maim the allied tribes, but instead forged peace treaties and required them to pay a tax. 

The Qu'ran warns against indiscriminate killing

The Qu'ran warns against indiscriminate killing

The Breakdown

Contextual analysis is crucial. Verse 9:29 is unique in that it is one of the only verses in the Qur'an where the preceding and subsequent verses are unrelated and don't provide context or an explanation, underscoring the importance of historical context to understand the verse. So let's break it down: "Fight those who do not believe in Allah and the Last Day,” does not refer to the indiscriminate killing of Christians, Jews or any other non-Muslims, but is exclusively directed at the Byzantine Empire and its allied tribes who sought to harm the Muslim community. Second, "till they pay jizyah with a willing hand, being humbled.” Basically, non-Muslims were required to pay a tax in exchange for their protection and safety, for as long as they didn't harm the Muslim community. For some additional context, non-Muslims weren't the only ones who had to pay taxes. Muslims were required to pay a much heavier tax than non-Muslims and had to enlist in the military, which non-Muslims were exempt from. 

Final Thoughts

It's important to keep in mind that a fundamental principle of interpreting the Qu'ran is that verses must be understood in the context under which they were revealed. There are essentially two types of Qur'anic verses: general verses that discuss belief in God, good manners and worship and specific verses which were revealed to address particular situations. For verse 9:29, without understanding why this specific verse was revealed, the text can be, and has been, easily manipulated.