First we would like to state that the word sword does not appear in the Quran, not a single time. When we refer to the sword verse in the Quran, we are designating a verse that is oftentimes adduced by orientalists and critics of Islam to argue that the Quran incites violence against polytheists.
When the [four] forbidden months are over, wherever you encounter the idolaters, kill them, seize them, besiege them, wait for them at every lookout post…
Indeed, reading the above verse in Isolation would send chills to one’s spine. But let us read the textual context of the verse:
A release by God and His Messenger from the treaty you [believers] made with the idolaters [is announced] – you [idolaters] may move freely about the land for four months, but you should bear in mind both that you will not escape God, and that God will disgrace those who defy [Him]. On the Day of the Great Pilgrimage [there will be] a proclamation from God and His Messenger to all people: ‘God and His Messenger are released for [treaty] obligations to the idolaters. It will be better for you [idolaters] if you repent, know that you cannot escape God if you turn away.’[Prophet], warn those who ignore [God] that will have a painful punishment. As for those who have honoured the treaty you made with them and who have not supported anyone against you: fulfil your agreement with them to the end of their term. God loves those who are mindful of Him.
When the [four] forbidden months are over, wherever you encounter the idolaters, kill them, seize them, besiege them, wait for them at every lookout post, but if they turn [to God], maintain the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms, let them go on their way, for God is most forgiving and merciful. If any of the idolaters should seek your protection [Prophet], grant it to him so that he may hear the word of God, then take him to a place safe from him, for they are people with no knowledge [of it]. How could they be a treaty with God and His Messenger for such idolaters? But as for those with whom you made a treaty at the Sacred Mosque, so long as they remain true to you, be true to them; God loves those who are mindful of Him. [How,] when, if they were to get the upper hand over you, they would not respect any tie with you, of kinship or of treaty? They please you with their tongues, but their hearts are against you and most of them are lawbreakers. They have sold God’s message for a trifling gain, and barred others from His path. How evil their actions are! Where believers are concerned, they respect no tie of kinship or treaty. They are the ones who are committing aggression.
If they turn to God, keep up the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms, then they are your brothers in faith: We make the messages clear for people who are willing to learn. But if they break their oath after having made an agreement with you, if they revile your religion, then fight the leaders of disbelief – oaths means nothing to them – so that they may stop. How could you not fight a people who have broken their oaths, who tried to drive the Messenger out, who attacked you first? Do you fear them? It is God you should fear if you are true believers. Fight them: God will punish them at your hands, He will disgrace them, He will help you to conquer them, He will heal the believers’ feelings and remove the rage from their hearts. God turns to whoever He will in his Mercy; God is all knowing and wise (Quran, 9:1-15)
Before Muslims were driven out from their hometown by their pagan tribesmen, they had endured 13 years of persecution without having and never once retaliated to violence and humiliations. Once they established a safe-haven in Medina, the threat never ceased and many within Arabia wanted to annihilate Muslims whom they saw as posing a social and economical threat to the status quo. Pagans wanted the adept of the new emerging religion to revert back to paganism. In this regard, the Quran sates that:
They will not stop fighting you [believers] until they make you revoke your faith, if they can” (Quran, 2:217)
Muslims were living under constant threat and had to fight for their very existence. The pagans incessantly broke their treaties and were no be trusted. To shun this existential threat and unite Arabs in the Arabian Peninsula, such measures were necessary.
An Islamic Scholar’s Comment on the Verse of the Sword:
Commenting on the sword verse in an introduction to his English translation of the Quran (2005), Professor M.A.S Abdel Haleem (London School of Oriental and African Studies) states that:
It was these hardened polytheists in Arabia, who would accept nothing other than the expulsion of the Muslims or their reversion to paganism, and who repeatedly broke their treaties, that the Muslims were ordered to treat in the same way – to fight them or expel them. Even with such an enemy Muslims were not simply ordered to pounce on them and reciprocate by breaking the treaty themselves; instead, an ultimatum was issued, giving the enemy notice, that after the four sacred months mentioned in 9:5 above, the Muslims would wage war on them. The main clause of the sentence ‘kill the polytheists’ is singled out by some Western scholars to represent the Islamic attitude to war; even some Muslims take this view and allege that this verse abrogated other verses on war. This is pure fantasy, isolating and decontextualising a small part of a sentence. The full picture is given in 9:1–15, which gives many reasons for the order to fight such polytheists. They continuously broke their agreements and aided others against the Muslims, they started hostilities against the Muslims, barred others from becoming Muslims, expelled Muslims from the Holy Mosque and even from their own homes. At least eight times the passage mentions their misdeeds against the Muslims. Consistent with restrictions on war elsewhere in the Qur’an, the immediate context of this ‘Sword Verse’ exempts such polytheists as do not break their agreements and who keep the peace with the Muslims (9:7). It orders that those enemies seeking safe conduct should be protected and delivered to the place of safety they seek (9:6). The whole of this context to v.5, with all its restrictions, is ignored by those who simply isolate one part of a sentence to build their theory of war in Islam on what is termed ‘The Sword Verse’ even when the word ‘sword’ does not occur anywhere in the Qur’an.
Conclusion: Fact of Ficton?
We could have included further opinion of prominent Muslim exegetes but will keep it at that for conciseness purposes.
We would like to add that apart from scriptural evidence that show that the sword verse was directed at a people who had themselves started hostilities against Muslims, and planned and plotted to eradicate Islam from Arabia, Islamic history attests to the fact that the verse was not understood as a carte blanche to kill anyone holding polytheistic beliefs.
Indeed, many were the countries such as India that were administered by Muslims. Is it enough for the skeptic to look at that fact that India (a Hindu majority country with a density of 1.324 people) exists today, with its countless temples dedicated to multiple deities still standing today?