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Desert-Arabs and Self-Defense Fighting during Muhammad's Lifetime

 Desert-Arabs and Self-Defense Fighting during Muhammad's Lifetime

Published in January 11, 2018

Translated by: Ahmed Fathy


  We have received this question via email, and we have intended at first to answer it within our fatwas section, but the answer evolved into a full-fledged article to explain the topic further to all readers of our website. The sender of the question asks about the Quranic verse 48:16, and whether it urges fighting people to 'force' them to convert to Islam or not.


  God says in the Quran: "Say to the desert-Arabs who lagged behind, "You will be called against a people of great might; you will fight them, unless they submit. If you obey, God will give you a fine reward. But if you turn away, as you turned away before, He will punish you with a painful torment."" (48:16). We ponder and reflect on this Quranic verse in the points below.

Firstly: self-defense fighting, or jihad, within Islam is for God's sake to impose peace and absolute religious freedom:

1- All Quranic legislative commands of engaging into self-defense fighting or military endeavors submit to the Quranic legislative rule of making such endeavors for God's sake; i.e., never for the sake of aggression, but as deterrence and retribution against attackers/aggressors who assaulted believers/peaceful ones in the first place, and this is to what the pious believers adhere, because God does not love transgressors: "And fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not commit aggression; God does not love the aggressors." (2:190); "The sacred month for the sacred month; and sacrilege calls for retaliation. Whoever commits aggression against you, retaliate against him in the same measure as he has committed against you. And be conscious of God in piety, and know that God is with the pious ones." (2:194).  

2- The higher Quranic legislative purpose of self-defense fighting in Islam is to ensure absolute religious freedom, to stop religious persecution (or fitna, as per Quranic terminology), and to combat coercion/compulsion in religion (these sins/crimes are committed now by, e.g., the Sunnite Wahabis) so that religion is dedicated only to Almighty God Who will judge all human beings on the Last Day; within this freedom, human beings will be responsible for their religious choices without coercion or persecution imposed on them. God says in the Quran: "And fight them until there is no persecution/fitna, and religion becomes dedicated to God alone. But if they cease, then let there be no hostility except against the unjust ones." (2:193). When the oppressors/transgressors stop their violence/aggression (which is disbelief/polytheism in terms of behavior), self-defense fighting must stop, as the unjust ones are the only people to be fought as long as they do not stop their aggression. It is noteworthy that the Meccan Qorayish tribe continued its military attacks against the early believers in Yathreb within attempts to force them to return to their former polytheism; this has been an extreme form of fitna or religious persecution. God says in the Quran: "...And persecution/fitna is more serious than killing. They will not cease to fight you until they turn you back from your religion, if they can. Whoever among you turns back from his religion, and dies a disbeliever - those are they whose works will come to nothing, in this life, and in the Hereafter. Those are the dwellers of Hell, abiding therein forever." (2:217). Moreover, it is noteworthy that the very first Quranic command to fight includes the aim or purpose of self-defense fighting; i.e., to restore absolute religious freedom by protecting all types of houses of worship for everyone: "Permission is given to those who are fought against, and God is Able to give them victory. Those who were unjustly evicted from their homes, merely for saying, "Our Lord is God." Were it not that God repels people by means of others: monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques - where the name of God is mentioned much - would have been demolished. God supports whoever supports Him. God is Strong and Mighty. " (22:39-40).

3- Of course, imposing and restoring peace is among the higher legislative purposes of self-defense fighting in Islam and it is the main reason for having military preparations and defenses within a given Quran-based country, which is essentially a peaceful country or State that must have military might/power to deter potential enemies or aggressors who might desire to invade it; this ensures that no bloodshed would ever occur against any parties. This is the meaning of deterrence inferred from this verse: "And prepare against them all the power you can muster, and all the cavalry you can mobilize, to terrify thereby God's enemies and your enemies, and others besides them whom you do not know, but God knows them. Whatever you spend in God's Way will be repaid to you in full, and you will not be wronged." (8:60). The verb (terrify) here means to deter.

4- Therefore, we mean by restoring or imposing peace that Islam in terms of peaceful behavior (not in terms of faith/belief) is established/realized. In other words, when aggressors stop their aggression and become peaceful persons, they are Muslims in terms of overt peaceful behavior, and therefore, they are brethren in the religion of peace. God says the following about those polytheistic/disbelieving who break their pledges: "Towards a believer they respect neither kinship nor treaty. These are the transgressors. But if they repent, and perform the prayers, and give zakat then they are your brethren in faith. We detail the verses for a people who know." (9:10-11). This means that after they adhere to peace, they are brethren in faith; i.e., Islam in terms of behavior; namely, peace. This is why when the Qorayish tribe and other belligerent tribes and desert-Arabs stopped their aggression and embraces Islam (in terms of peaceful behavior, not necessarily in terms of faith/belief), God has said the following to Muhammad about this victory of their entering into God's religion of peace: "When there comes God's victory and triumph. And you see the people entering God's religion in multitudes. Then celebrate the praise of your Lord, and seek His forgiveness. He is the Accepter of Repentance." (110:1-3). This is the entire Quranic Chapter 100, significantly titled (Victory). Victory here is when peace reigns supreme in the land, and NOT imposing or coercing people to convert to, or adopt, Islam or any religion (in terms of faith/belief).   

Secondly: applying the above to the verse 48:16 to conclude certain points:

1- When we apply the above points to the verse 48:16, we understand that the phrase " will fight them, unless they submit..." (48:16) includes the command to fight aggressors of great might to make them stop their aggression. The source of confusion for the sender of the email message is the verb (submit) in 48:16, as it literally means (1) to convert to Islam, or (2) to adhere to peace. Thus, this verb here in this context does NOT mean to embrace Islam in terms of faith/belief; rather, it means to adhere to peace or the religion of peace (i.e., Islam [or submission to God] in terms of behavior). Hence, aggressors must be fought until they adhere to peace. This is explained further here: "But if they cease, then God is Forgiving and Merciful. And fight them until there is no persecution/fitna, and religion becomes dedicated to God alone. But if they cease, then let there be no hostility except against the unjust ones." (2:192-193). When aggressors stop their aggression or transgression, God will forgive them: "Say to those who disbelieve: if they desist, their past will be forgiven. But if they persist - the practice of the ancients has passed away." (8:38). If those aggressors continue their aggression, self-defense fighting against them must go on to stop fitna or religious persecution, so that one's religion is dedicated only to, and judged only by, Almighty God, Who is the Omniscient Lord and Who deals with the aggressors and accepts their repentance if they stop their aggression: "Fight them until there is no more fitna/persecution, and religion becomes exclusively for God. But if they desist - God is Seeing of what they do." (8:39).     

2- Those desert-Arabs mentioned in 48:16 have ''turned away before''; i.e., they distanced themselves away from self-defense endeavors without real excuses, and they have been told by God that they will be rewarded if they obey the Quranic command, and they have been warned also by God that if they turn away once more without real excuses, they will be tormented in Hell.

3- In fact, most desert-Arabs in the Yathreb city-state were reluctant regarding participating in the self-defense fighting, though they had no real excuses. At one time, this was their stance before a certain battle during scorching, hot weather. After this battle ended and victory was attained, they tried to apologize and offer their fake excuses: "Some of the desert-Arabs came to make excuses, asking to be granted exemption, while those who were untrue to God and His messenger stayed behind. A painful torment will afflict those among them who disbelieved." (9:90). In the very next verse, God mentions the real, acceptable excuses for not to participate in self-defense jihad: "There is no blame on the weak, nor on the sick, nor on those who have nothing to give, provided they are true to God and His messenger. In no way can the righteous be blamed. God is Forgiving and Merciful." (9:91). These excuses are mentioned again directly after the verse 48:16 as well: "There is no blame on the blind, nor any blame on the lame, nor any blame on the sick. Whoever obeys God and His Messenger - He will admit him into gardens beneath which rivers flow; but whoever turns away - He will punish him with a painful torment." (48:17). The term "Messenger" here refers only to the Quran and never to Muhammad. It is noteworthy that these excuses are for both men and women; participation in the self-defense endeavors is a duty imposed on both sexes, unless excused as we have read within 9:91 and 48:17.   

4- Those desert-Arabs offered a lame excuse so as not to participate in self-defense fighting, and God mentions their lame excuse and refutes their stance beforehand: "The desert-Arabs who remained behind will say to you, "Our belongings and our families have preoccupied us, so ask forgiveness for us." They say with their tongues what is not in their hearts. Say, "Who can avail you anything against God, if He desires loss for you, or desires gain for you?" In fact, God is Informed of what you do." (48:11). This is the worst excuse ever: to get busy with one's possessions/money and one's family so as not to defend the Yathreb city-state where they dwelled. The Omniscient Lord says in the Quran that they say with their tongues what is not in their hearts; i.e., they lied and deceived others to avoid being harmed.  

5- God has exposed their bad thoughts; they were reluctant to engage into the self-defense endeavors because they assumed – and hoped very much –  that the early believers led by Muhammad would be defeated and crushed and therefore would never return to Yathreb: "But you thought that the messenger and the believers will never return to their families, and this seemed fine to your hearts; and you harbored evil thoughts, and were wicked people." (48:12); God has warned them in this verse about those who choose to (dis)obey: "To God belongs the kingdom of the heavens and the earth. He forgives whomever is willing to be forgiven, and He torments whomever is willing to be tormented. God is Forgiving and Merciful." (48:14).

6- God has told believers beforehand about what those reluctant ones would say after victory would be achieved, aggressors defeated, and spoils collected; God also has told Muhammad and the believers about what to say to them in response: "Those who lagged behind will say when you depart to collect the spoils, "Let us follow you." They want to change the Word of God. Say, "You will not follow us; God has said so before." Then they will say, "But you are jealous of us." In fact, they understand only a little." (48:15).

7- Later on, they have been tested as we infer from this verse: "Say to the desert-Arabs who lagged behind, "You will be called against a people of great might; you will fight them, unless they submit. If you obey, God will give you a fine reward. But if you turn away, as you turned away before, He will punish you with a painful torment."" (48:16). 

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