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Foreign Policy of Islam: Peace or War?

Does Islam enact enmity against non-Muslims?

Is the rule in Islam for any non-Muslim to either take up Islam or else the sword (war)?

This write-up discusses what the ground rules of Islam are on this topic. This writing is greatly influenced by the scholarly teachings of Dr. Adnan Ibrahim of Vienna, Austria.

Dr. Ibrahim denotes that the Muslim scholars are divided on the above stated issue. The majority of the early classical scholars maintained that the policy of Islam regarding non-Muslims is war: “Take up Islam or we will fight you.”

But there is a minority group who upheld that “peace is the foreign policy of Islam towards others, war is the exception, not the rule.” Dr. Ibrahim continued to say that for modern Muslim scholars, however, this case is reversed. The majority of them sided with peace over war as the basic policy of Islam, but a few stated the opposite.

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Dr. Ibrahim continued to state: The group of scholars who took war over peace as the standard policy of Islam regarding all other people, based their rule on what is known as the “Ayatu as Sayf” (Verse of the Sword).

There is controversy among the scholars as to which verse is the ‘Verse of the Sword.’ The majority of them said: Verse 9:5, while others said it is verse 9:29 or 9:36.

There is no unified opinion on which one is the ‘Verse of the Sword’. This verse as well as other verses and Prophetic traditions will be discussed after a little history and contextual substance. The ‘peace verses’ in which the majority of modern scholars base their study on are over 114 in number. In fact, Dr. Mustafa Zayd al Azhari stated in his work, “The Obsolete Verses of the Quran” that there are 140 of these ‘peace verses’ in the Quran. Samples of the ‘peace verses’ will be included later in this writing.

Historical Background

Before expounding on the verses of the Chapter 9, it is necessary to understand the events in history surrounding the subject matter of Chapter 9 verses and certain hostile acts by the Romans and their Arab Christian allies of Greater Syria that propagated fight between Muslims and Christians.

The subject of the first several verses in the Chapter of Declaration of Disassociation was to dissolve all treaty obligations between Muslims and Idolaters of any kind, with a few exceptions of the Idolaters of Quraysh, who did not break the Hudaybiyah Peace Treaty. The Declaration of Disassociation also discusses many issues of the battle of Tabook, which was revealed after the battle took place.

The reason for the Battle of Tabook, in which no fight was made, is the imminent threat from the Byzantine Empire and their Christian alliance in Greater Syria, who assembled an army of over 100,000 to attack Madinah and defeat the Muslims.

During this period of history, there were several Christian provocations against the Muslims, who were in actual fear of a pending attack by the Byzantine Empire and their Christian alliance: the Arab tribes of Ghassan, Lukhum, Aamilah and Jutham.

The Prophet learned that the Roman army had grown to 40,000 by the time they had reached al Balqa’ in Greater Syria. A sign for the fear of such an attack is in the hadith (Prophetic Tradition) that spoke about the troubling news of the Prophet regarding his wives.

Umar reported that his partner in guarding the Prophet, during this critical period, came knocking abruptly at his door late one night. Umar awoke disturbed and rushed to the door. Upon seeing his partner guard, his immediate words were: “Did the Ghassans attack?”

“No, the Prophet may be divorcing his wives,” said his counterpart (Al-Bukhari)

Another indication of an attack was reported by Ibn Abbass saying:

“The Romans were horseshoeing their horses in preparation for attacking us.” (Al-Bukhari)

The Muslim’s view on the war was not to wait for the Romans to attack, but to meet them and their Christian alliance with over 30,000 soldiers to combat them. However, when the Muslims arrived at Tabook, they found no army. The Romans, as well as their alliance, had dispersed.

Prior to Tabook was the battle of Mu’tah. The Mu’tah battle was declared by Prophet Muhammad against the Arab Christians in Greater Syria, upon learning about the killing of one of his messengers, Harith al Azdi.  Harith carried a letter from Prophet Muhammad to King Sharhabeel inviting him to Islam.

Amr al Ghassani, who was an Arab governor in lower Greater Syria, and was appointed by Hercules, intercepted the Prophet’s messenger, imprisoned him, ridiculed the Muslims, threatened to assemble a great army to destroy them, humiliated Prophet Muhammad, destroyed his letter, and then killed his messenger.

By the standards of all nations, mail messengers were protected and immune against all harm, never crucifying them. Amr al Ghassani’s killing of the mailman was considered criminal and uncivilized by all the known standards. The Prophet also sent a search team of 15 people, who were slain except for one, by the Romans.

The Prophet assembled 3,000 men and dispatched them to a place called Mu’tah at the borders of Greater Syria to punish the killers for such antagonistic acts against the Muslims. However, at Mu’tah, the Muslims were defeated and fled back to Madinah.

Two years before the Battle of Tabook, King Hercules of Rome committed provocations and contentious acts against the Muslims. He crucified Farwah bin Amr al Juthami, who was his governor of Mu’an in Greater Syria. Farwah embraced Islam and sent some gifts to the Prophet Muhammad. When Hercules learned about it, he imprisoned Farwah and then crucified him at the water of Afra’. He further issued legislation for the crucifixion of any person who embraces Islam in Byzantium.

Yet, there was another case of antagonism that was unknown until revealed to Prophet Muhammad. Hercules used an Arab priest known as Abu Aamer, to conspire against Islam and Muslims using the hypocrites of Madinah. Abu Aamer, the Priest, lived in Medina before, but left the city with disgust and headed to Rome when Prophet Muhammad immigrated to it. Hercules and Abu Aamer’s hate led them to communicate with the hypocrites of Madinah to establish a mosque called Masjid Dhirar.

The mosque was to be used as a base for their operation of dissention and corruption in the fabric of Muslims and Islam. After returning from the Battle of Tabook, Allah exposed and revealed to the Prophet the devilish work surrounding the Dhirar Mosque, and so the Prophet ordered the demolish of it.  


After the above quick historical recall of Christian-Muslim conflict, it is now prudent to discuss the reasons for revelations of the “Verses of the Sword,” and why they are taken out of context, along with a few other verses and traditions dealing with the same topic, starting with verse 9:5.

{And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the Idolaters (mushrikeen) wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give charity (zakah), let them go on their way. Indeed Allah is Forgiving Merciful.}

This verse is one of several verses dealing with the subject of the return of Makkah to its original sanctuary at the time of Prophet Abraham. There would be no more Idol worship in Makkah and Makkah was to be the sacred center of orientation for all Muslims. Makkah, in this case, would be like the Vatican City is for the Catholics.

The process of returning Makkah to its original sanctuary, in actuality, started two years earlier than the time of the revelation of these verses. That would be when the Muslims opened the city. The two years are seen as a grace period given to the Idolaters to observe and evaluate the Muslim faith to embrace it. The change of customs and habits takes time.

If this natural process was violated, problems and violence would likely occur. The Quran did not command Muhammad to begin this process of orientation until two years after the Muslims entered the city, when most of the Makkans had already entered Islam.

There remained a few Idol worshippers. The verses of Chapter 9 dealing with the process of reverting Makkah to its original sanctuary instructed the Prophet to do so in multiple steps. Among the steps were: no more Idol worship in Makkah, the giving of 4 months respite for those who insist to worship idols, in order to leave the Sacred City, and a severe warning in the above verse (9:5) of an actual war after the respite period, against those Idolaters who insisted on staying in Makkah and refusing to accept Islam.

This was the contextual background over the ‘Verse of the Sword’. See our article Misinterpreted Quranic Verses for more details on the subject of disassociation from the Idolaters and the reversion of Makkah to its original sanctuary.

Dr. Adnan Ibrahim asserted that this verse does not address the People of the Scripture or disbelievers in any way, other than the pagans of Makkah. The verse is in consistence with the verse preceding it and the one after it, all of which are dealing with the pagans of Makkah. Dr. Ibrahim argued how the phrase could not be “Either Islam or the Sword,” if Allah instructed Prophet Muhammad in Verse 9:6:  

{If any one of the pagans seeks your protection [while in the state of war,] then grant him protection so that they may hear the words of Allah. Then deliver him to his place of safety. That is because they are people who do not know.}

Allah commanded the delivery of Idolaters seeking protection to their place of safety, not forcing them to take up Islam, even during fighting. Then how could the previous Verse 9:5 be interpreted as “Either Islam or the Sword,” for “war not peace” as the policy of Islam for Non-Muslims?

Jizyah vs. Zakah

The second verse to be discussed is 9:29. It establishes that the People of the Book who are residents in an Islamic state, are exempted from defending the state, shall pay a defense-obligation exemption fee called jizyah. If they refuse to pay the jizyah, then the state is obligated to obtain it by force. The verse clearly states:

{And fight against those who – despite having the Scripture (aforetime) – do not (truly) believe either in God or in the Last Day, nor consider forbidden that which God and the Conveyor of His Message have forbidden, nor follow the religion of truth (which God has enjoined upon them) until they agree to the payment of the exemption tax (of defense-obligations, jizyah) by those who afford it, and acknowledge their subjection (to the state).} (9:29)

Dr. Ibrahim argues that this verse is totally political, it does not state fight the People of the Book because of their religion, but rather over monetary and regulatory issues within the state. He said, “The purpose of the fight is for not paying the Jizyah, not for the religion. In fact, the verse shows mercy to the People of the Book, as is the case always, God excused those (People of the Book) who could not afford it.”

Dr. Ibrahim further states the Quranic interpretation grand rule, “When the Holy Quran imposes a fight, God explains the purpose for that fight.” He said: “There are many objectives for a fight. For the People of the Book, the fight was for Jizyah, not for any other cause.” He stated that when Muslims had to go to war with Christians, it was for their aggressions.

“Muslims are ordered to fight only those who evoke hostility against them, not anyone because of their religion or for missionary work.” He quoted the Quran as saying:  

{And fight in the cause of God those who have (initially) waged war against you, but do not transgress (by exceeding their losses over yours).} (2:190)

Allah says if the Pagans did not commit aggression, then “as long as they are good to you, be good to them.” Verse 9:7 states:  

{How can there be for the Pagans a treaty in the sight of Allah and with His Messenger, except for those with whom you made a treaty at al-Masjid al-Haram? So as long as they are upright toward you, be upright toward them. Indeed, Allah loves the righteous [who fear Him].}

Dr. Ibrahim stated that the disbelievers of the People of the Book are closer to the Muslims than the Idolater disbelievers. The evidence of this is why Muslims are permitted to share their food and engage in marriages with Christians and Jews. Muslims are not allowed to do the same with the Idolaters. In Chapter 9:11, Allah says about the Makkan Idolaters:

{if they repent, establish prayers, and give Zakah, then they are your brothers in religion.}

He said in the same Verse of “the Sword”, 9:5, Allah states,

{If the Pagans repent, while in the battlefield, then spare their lives, and do not kill them.}

Then, Dr. Ibrahim further asked: “Why were the People of the Book not given this choice, as the Idolaters, of embracing Islam for sparing their lives?”

The answer is very simple. He said, “It is because the Qur’an does not enact fighting the People of the Book because of their religion, it only establishes fighting disbelievers in response to their aggressions.” A similar policy to Jizyah for the People of the Book is applicable to the Muslims themselves when they refuse to pay their dues to the state.

Muslims are obligated to pay to the state zakat. Zakat is a form of taxation similar to the tax that most people have to pay to their respective states. In a similar manner to the case of Jizyah, with respect to the People of the Book, if Muslims also refused to pay Zakat, then the state is obligated to obtain it by force.

An example of this was the case of the Murtadeen, several tribes who, during the rule of first Caliph Abu Bakr, refused to pay Zakat. A war was conducted against them until they paid it, and acknowledged their subjection to the state.

Fight All Disbelievers?

The third verse of the ‘Verses of the Sword’ to be considered is Verse 9:36. The correct translation of this verse is as follows:  

{And fight against the disbelievers collectively as they fight against you collectively.} (9:36)

But this verse was widely misinterpreted as to saying, ‘fight all disbelievers, whether they are at peace with or at war [with you], in the same manner as they fight you.’

This later interpretation is in error, since in Verse, 9:7, Islam proclaims that as long as non-Muslims or Idolaters are upright towards you, just being who they are, respecting covenants, and acting morally, then be upright towards them.

As if the verse is stating the rules that if they broke a covenant, do not break it, like they did; if they are colleagues to you, be friends to them; if they build social bridges with you, socialize with them with that which is permissible; otherwise if they transgress limits, then fight them, but do not be excessive in fighting, because then you are a transgressor, like them (2:190).

Another verse could be read as “war, not peace” as the policy of Islam. But, again, this is based on bad interpretation.

{Fight them until there is no more fitnah and [until] worship is [acknowledged to be] for Allah. But if they cease, then there is to be no aggression except against those who [willfully] do wrong.} (2:193)

Dr. Ibrahim explains “the word fitnah was interpreted differently by many Quranic interpreters.

Some say it means polytheism, others said oppression, but a more accurate meaning of fitnah comes from other Quranic contextual usages. The correct definition of the word fitnah is for ‘religious persecution and discrimination.’” Also, see 2:191. Today, most countries of the world have essentially banned religious persecution, and discriminations based on religious belief. In the Muslim faith, this has been the rule for over 14 centuries.

The last point to deliberate is the Prophetic tradition that said:

“I was ordered to fight people until they say there is no god but God.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)

Dr. Ibrahim elaborated on the above hadith saying: “The word ‘people’ did not mean all people. Indeed, he said, we are not ordered to force the People of the Scripture to embrace Islam.” Imam Malik of the Maliki School of thought said, “The term ‘people’ referred to the people of Quraysh of Makkah (the Idolaters).”

Samples of the Peace Quotations

Dr Ibrahim asserted:

“Islam does not enact hostility or discrimination. Islam’s noble and clear social and religious principles regarding people other than Muslims cannot be extinguished.”

The following are some verses of the 114 verses that enact the foreign policy of Islam is peace rather than war.

  • Allah instructs Muhammad to force no one to embrace Islam. {If it had been the Lord’s Will, they would all have believed, all who are on Earth: will you then (Muhammad) compel mankind, against their will, to believe?} (10: 99)
  • Allah commands no compulsion in religion. {Let there be no compulsion in religion, truth stands out clear from error.} (2: 256)  
  • Act righteously towards disbelievers. {Allah does not forbid you from those who do not fight you because of religion and do not expel you from your homes, from being righteous toward them, and acting justly toward them. Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly.} (60:8) 

This type of honorable treatment could never be anything other than peace as the policy of Islam towards nonbelievers. At this high level of compassion, Muslims are summoned to deal with unbelievers, even Idolaters who do not fight them for their faith and expel them from their homes.

Samples of honorable treatment of nonbelievers are:

  • Permission of intermarriages with the People of the Book. Allah Almighty permitted the male Muslim to marry a female Christian or Jew and described the marital relationship as intimate, with affection and mercy.
  • Some of the People of the Scripture will be rewarded twice as much by Allah. {Those to whom We sent the Book before this, they do believe in this (Revelation); and when it is recited to them, they say: We believe therein, for it is the truth from our Lord: Indeed we have been Muslims (bowing to God’s Will) from before this. Twice will they be given their rewards, for that they have preserved, that they avert evil with good and that they spend in charity out of what We have given them. And when they hear vain talk, they turn away there from and say: To us our deeds and to you yours.} (28: 52-55)
  • Islam warmly invites the People of the Book to Islam. {Say O people of the Book! Come to common terms as between us, and you that we worship none but God…} (3:64)
  • Muslims have special relationship with the People of the Book. {Say: We believe in God, and in what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and in (the Books) given to Moses, Jesus, and the Prophets from their Lord: We make no distinction between one and another.} (3:84)
  • The Quran allowed people to have their religion other than Islam. {Say, “O disbelievers, I do not worship what you worship. Nor are you worshippers of what I worship. Nor will I be a worshipper of what you worship. Nor will you be worshippers of what I worship. For you is your religion, and for me is my religion.} (109)
  • The Quran commands the freedom of religion.“Were it not that God repels some people by means of others” [all] monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques, in [all of] which Gods name is abundantly extolled – would surely have been destroyed.” (20:44)

The implication is that the defense of religious freedom is the foremost cause for which arms may – and, indeed, must – be taken up or corruption would surely overwhelm the earth.  

{And God will most certainly succor him who succors His cause: for, verily, God is most powerful, almighty.} (22:40)

  • Allah commands Muhammad to forgive the disbelievers. {And We have not created the heavens and earth and that between them except in truth. And indeed, the Hour is coming; so [Muhammad] forgive [all] with gracious forgiveness.} (15:85)
  • Islam instructs politeness in communication with the Jews and Christians. {And dispute not with People of the Book, except with means better (than mere disputation), unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong and injury.} (29:46)
  • Any Muslim who does injustice or insults a Jew or Christian must answer to Prophet Muhammad on the Day of Judgment. The Prophet Muhammad also said:
  • “Let it be known, if anyone (Muslim) commits injustice, insults, aggravates, mistreats or abuses a person of the People of the Book (protected, by the state or an agreement), he will have to answer to me (for his immoral action) on the Day of Judgment.” (Izzeddin Blaque, Minhaj Alsaliheen, 106)He also said:

    “Whoever kills a person of the People of Covenant (such as Jews and Christian or people of others creeds or philosophy) with whom there is a covenant between them and Muslims, he or she will not enter Paradise.” (Al-Bukhari)

    • The Quran commands Muslims to be merciful to people, animals, and even their enemies. {The recompense for an injury is an injury equal thereto (in degree): but if a person forgives and makes reconciliation, his reward is due from God, for (God) loves not those who do wrong.} (42:40; 41:34) 

     Prophet Muhammad said:

    “He who is not merciful to others, Allah will not be merciful to him.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)

    • Prophet Muhammad did not force the Christians of Najran to embrace Islam.

    Many Christian tribes accepted Islam; others however, did not and chose to remain Christian. The Prophet did not declare war against them for not accepting Islam. An example of this would be a delegation of the tribes of Najran (located between Yemen and Mecca) visited the Prophet in his mosque for two weeks.

    While the dialogue was taking place, Prophet Muhammad gave the Christian delegation the right to practice their faith freely in his own mosque during their stay. At the end of the dialogue, the Christian delegation chose to remain Christian. The Prophet accepted their decision and gave them a letter assuring their freedom of worship and the safety of their homes, churches and towns. Below is part of this letter:

    “Our covenant with Najran is that they are under the protection of God and his Prophet. Najran’s homes, churches, monks, priests, their present and absent and alliance shall be safe…”


    In pondering the above sample verses speaking about the acceptance of people of different religious, social and political standards, one wonders, how could it be, ‘Either Islam or the Sword?’

    It seems that the political structure of the world during the Middle Ages was based on war as the norm for answers of control, religious persecution, power and quarrel, as opposed to intellect, freedom of belief, reconciliation and diplomacy.

    The old Muslim scholars were possibly intimidated by this norm and saw Islam’s foreign policy no different than the policy dominated by the rest of the world: war, not peace. During the 20th century, the Grand Mufti of Syria, Sheik Ahmad Kuftaro, for over half century persistently taught:

    “Modern time is not the age of fights and wars for Islam. This is the age of intellect and the use of the pen. The usage of a pen can be far more effective than a missile.”


About Faysal Burhan
Faysal Burhan works for the Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the dual roles of bringing the true message of Islam to the public, as well as finding common ground between all Muslims, Christians, and Jews.