Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

The Quran and the Sword

James M. Arlandson, Ph.D.

This article should be contrasted with the previous one about the Gospels and the sword, in our comparative study of the two religions.

In Mecca, Islam was nonviolent, and maybe tolerant, up to a degree. Muhammad did, after all, preach against polytheism (belief in many gods), which all monotheists (belief in one God) have a right to do. But in terms of forcing them to convert to his new religion, he told the Meccan pagans they could have their religion, while he could have his (Quran 109:6).

And in the very earliest stages of his new life in Medina, Islam issued a decree of religious freedom: “There is no compulsion in religion.” (Quran 2:256).

However, he decided that he needed to have access to the Kabah shrine, though he did not know when at that early stage. Rather than letting the black stone go and build his new religion in Medina, by his way of thinking the Meccans were unjust for driving him out. So he attempted to weaken them by sending out raids against their trading caravans. Eventually the skirmishes peaked into large-scale battles. He increased his fortune and resources by these armed conflicts.

Thus gradually he elevated raids to a jihad. As things evolved, he won these battles, so he needed to define the rules of jihad. These rules seem to have been developed as victories piled up. They favor him.

We can examine jihad in three sections: its goal, its rules, and its spoils.

For a more thorough and longer study of the goal, rules, and spoils of jihad and qital, see the article Jihad and Qital in the Quran, Traditions and Classical Law.

The Goal of Jihad

A complicated practice like jihad can have multiple goals or purposes, but this one can be said to best summarize them. Muhammad intends to make Islam prevail over every religion. Quran 9:33 says:

33 It is He who has sent His Messenger with guidance and the religion of truth, to show that it is above all [other] religions, however much the idolaters may hate this[1] (Quran 9:33).

This verse is repeated two more times, word for word, in Quran 61:9 and 48:28, and this repetition shows theologically and religiously how important it is that Islam must prevail. As noted, while in Mecca Muhammad had said, “You have your religion and I have mine” (Quran 109:6). Now, however, Islam must prevail over all religions. Muhammad and his community may use preaching and persuasion, but as we shall see below, the Medinan verses in the Quran permit them to fight and kill Jews, Christians, and pagans. The sword made all the difference.

Waging jihad and qital to make Islam prevail is a perfect description of a holy war.

Muhammad’s later followers, specifically the four so-called rightly guided caliphs, will use these three identical verses to justify attacking remote territories, like Persia (Iran) and Cyprus.[2] As for the monetary motive for jihad, this will be covered in the spoils of jihad, below.

The Rules of Jihad

The Quran provides guidance for Muhammad and his Muslim community in the rules of jihad, establishing what is permitted or prohibited as Islamic armies go out to war. In any warfare, people and resources (e.g. money or productive property) are important, so they are the main reason for selecting these rules. They are placed in chronological order, whenever this could be obtained, and sometimes in thematic order, not necessarily for priority.

1. Women captives are sometimes forced to marry their Muslim masters.

The next verse in its context finds Muhammad establishing rules for his community within two to five years after his hijrah or emigration in A.D. 622. He lays down laws for marriage. What happens to slave women who are captured during the raids that the Muslims went out on? Quran 4:24 says:

24 Also (prohibited are) women already married except those whom your right hands possess[3] . . . . (Quran 4:24)

The clause “your right hands possess” means those who are in one’s control (cf. “handmaid”), whether captured in war or bought at a slave sale, regardless of the immediate historical context when this verse was revealed.[4] The clause will be applied throughout Islam’s wars under the four caliphs.

Worse still, women captives were sometimes forced to have sex with their Muslim captors, without the benefit of marriage.[5] But that’s a topic for the series on shariah (see Part 5, Slavery, in that separate series).

2. Conquered women and children may be enslaved.

In AD 627 Muhammad and his followers and allies withstood a large army of Meccans and their allies, without a pitched battle. He had dug trenches in spots around Medina to diminish the advantage that the Meccans had with their cavalry. After about a month the Meccans withdrew because of a fair that was about to begin, and it brought in money for the Meccans.

But Muhammad was not finished. He besieged a large tribe of Jews in Medina, called the Qurayza tribe, in their fortress. After some negotiations and a trial that went against them, the men were beheaded and their bodies and heads dragged and tossed into the trenches, whereas the women and children were sold into slavery. These three verses, especially v. 26, in Quran 33 deal with this verdict:

25 Allah turned back the unbelievers [Meccans and their allies] in a state of rage, having not won any good, and Allah spared the believers battle [q-t-l]. Allah is, indeed, Strong and Mighty. 26 And He brought those of the People of the Book [Qurayza] who supported them from their fortresses and cast terror into their hearts, some of them you slew [q-t-l] and some you took captive. 27 And he bequeathed to you their lands, their homes and their possessions, together with land you have never trodden. Allah has power over everything.[6] (Quran 33:25-27)

Allah permits the enslavement of Qurayza women and children, and Muhammad sold them. Allah permits Muhammad to take the Jewish clan’s property on the basis of conquest and his possession of all things. Selling humans produced a lot of wealth.

See Part Five, Slavery, in a separate series on shariah.

3. A captured enemy may be killed, ransomed by money or an exchange, imprisoned, or released freely.

It is one of the great ironies of the Quran that Chapter 47 can be titled either “Muhammad” or “War” (Qital). It was written in the first year of his new life in Medina, when he had decided to wage war on the Meccans. Verse 4 says:

So, when you meet (in fight – Jihad in Allah’s cause) those who disbelieve, smite (their) necks till when you have killed or wounded many of them [th-kh-n], then bind a bond firmly (on them, i.e. take them as captives). Thereafter (is the time) either for generosity (i.e. free them without ransom), or ransom (according to what benefits Islam), until war lays down its burden[7] . . . . (Quran 47:4)

Imprisonment may be just, if the captured enemy can return to fight against the conquerors at a later time. But selling prisoners of war back to their clan was an Arab custom. Money could be made. It should be noted that the Quran offers release “by grace” or freely.[8]

The root th-kh-n in brackets means “subdue thoroughly, have a regular fighting, cause much slaughter, have a triumphant war . . . to do something great, make much slaughter, overcome, battle strenuously.”[9]

See Part Five, Slavery, in a separate series on shariah.

4. Property may be confiscated.

A conquering army at this time was permitted by custom and sheer power to take the wealth of the conquered. Recall that the historical context of Chapter 8 of the Quran concerns Muhammad’s and his militia’s surprise victory over the much-larger Meccan force at Badr in 624, in which over 300 Muslims won a surprise victory over about 1,000 Meccans. The Meccans had received word of this raid and sent their army up north to protect their caravan that was heading south back to Mecca.

Quran 8:7 says that the jihadists wanted the unarmed group (the caravan loaded with supplies), but Allah gave them that one, plus the Meccan army.

7 Remember how God promised you [believers] that one of the two enemy groups would fall to you: you wanted the unarmed group to be yours, but it was God's will to establish the truth according to His Word and to finish off the disbelievers.[10] (Quran 8:7)

Muhammad and his militia were able to take the property the caravan had gotten in Syria. Now he was wealthy, especially compared to his poverty before he won this battle. And recall that Quran 33:25-27 say the Muslim community was permitted to confiscate the property of the Qurayza Jews in 627.

Finally, it will be seen in Part Eight that the four caliphs indeed confiscated wealth, since Muhammad set the institutional genetic code for them, but they often allowed the conquered people to work the land because then the wealth flowed back to Medina, the early Islamic capital.

5. Fruit trees and homes may be destroyed.

In 625, Muhammad was strong enough to exile the Nadir tribe of Jews, besieging them in their strongholds for fifteen days until he started destroying their date palms.[11] Their livelihood undergoing destruction, they departed to the city of Khaybar, seventy miles to the north, where they had estates. This takeover helped relieve the ongoing poverty of many Muslims at that time, who took over their date orchards. This passage in the Quran says:

5 Whatever you [believers] may have done to [their] palm trees – cutting them down or leaving them standing on their roots – was done by God’s leave, so that He might disgrace those who defied Him.[12] (Quran 59:5)

It is not clear in later Islamic history whether all of the caliphs actually destroyed fruit trees, and if so how many. They probably did not do this very often since that destruction would lose money for Medina and Islam.[13] The trees that bore fruit, like dates, needed to be cultivated to profit from conquests.

In the same chapter of the Quran and during the same conflict, Muhammad destroys the homes of the Jewish tribe of Nadir who lived in Medina.

2 ... God came upon [the Jews of the Nadir tribe] from where they least expected and put panic into their hearts: they brought ruin to their own homes by their own hands, and the hands of the believers [Muslims].[14]... (Quran 59:2)

It is not known in precise terms how many homes the Muslim armies under the four caliphs destroyed, but surely some were torn down, just from the nature of warfare. But Medina wanted the money from taxes, so surely the armies could not be too destructive.

6. The conquered pagans are at first allowed to convert or go free, but later they are forced to convert or be killed.

As noted, Muhammad fought the Battle of Badr, against the Meccans. Their caravan was traveling south from Syria back to Mecca, and Muhammad intended to capture it. In Quran 8:70, Muhammad proposes these options to his captives.

70 Prophet, tell those you have taken captive, "If God knows of any good in your hearts, He will give you something better [Islam] than what has been taken from you [the caravan], and He will forgive you"... (Quran 8:70)[15]

So Muhammad tells the Meccans that they should realize that Allah had a divine plan: expose them to Islam. This is better than all the material riches they can trade in. A Muslim militia just defeated the Meccans and stood behind this message of conversion, so it is not clear how free they were to decide such weighty matters of conscience.

Quran 2:256 says: “There is no compulsion in religion.” This verse reflects the historical reality that he had just left persecution in Mecca. And even in Medina when this early verse was uttered, he needed to preach tolerance because he had not yet achieved military strength.

However, when Chapter 9 of the Quran was written about eight years later, Muhammad was very powerful militarily. Now pagans did not have the option to live under Islam, pay a tax, and keep their religion, as the People of the Book did. Quran 9:5 says:

5 . . . Then fight and slay [q-t-l] the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them.[16] (Quran 9:5)

If pagans accept Islam, they could live. If not, death.[17] Recall that Muhammad had said, back in Mecca, long ago, that the Meccan pagans could have their religion, while he could have his (Quran 109:6). Acceptance and tolerance had prevailed. Now, however, things have changed. He is militarily powerful. So he could hunt them down and kill them.

It will be seen in Part Eight that the earliest generations of Muslims, after Muhammad’s death, implemented this policy towards pagans, as the jihadists conquered the Arab peninsula and then many places north, west, and east. However, sometimes the caliphs let polytheists outside of the Arab peninsula live because Islamic leaders needed their tax money, like the jizyah.

This tax money in this verse is called the zakat, and it is the required charity tax, which is the third of the Five Pillars of Islam.[18]

Then Muhammad continues in his denunciations and requirements imposed on pagan Arabs, especially those around Mecca.

11 If they repent, keep up the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms [zakat], then they are your brothers in faith: We make the messages clear for people who understand . . . 14 Fight [q-t-l] 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. (Quran 9:11, 14)

In v. 11, these rituals are the signs of Islam, and pagans who follow them are essentially Muslims. However, if they do not keep their oaths and mock Muhammad’s religion (vv. 12-13), then v. 14 says to fight them, using the three-letter root q-t-l.[19] The last clause in that verse says God will heal the believers’ feelings, which corresponds to Muhammad’s hatred for the pagans (Quran 5:2).

7. Three options are imposed on Jews and Christians.

Quran 9:29 lays out some conditions for the People of the Book (Jews and Christians):

29 Fight [q-t-l] against those who (1) believe not in Allah, (2) nor in the Last Day, (3) nor forbid that which has been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger (Muhammad), (4) and those who acknowledge not the religion of truth (i.e. Islam) among the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians), until they pay the Jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.[20]

The options are as follows: Jews and Christians may (1) Fight and die; (2) convert; (3) keep their religion, but pay a tax, called the jizyah while living under Islam.[21] In this verse, Muhammad lifts his sight far beyond the Kabah in Mecca, but to other religions and resources. The first four caliphs were mainly consistent with this policy, though another tax may be imposed.

The Spoils of Jihad

Arab custom demanded that the raiders and warriors get a share of the spoils of raids and wars. The Meccan Muslims who originally immigrated to Medina worked with their hands in the craft trade, while Medina was more agricultural. So they were impoverished. Something had to be done. Getting the spoils of Meccan caravans would do nicely.

Chapter 8, celebrating their first major victory at Badr, is titled “the Spoils.” Muhammad says in v. 41:

"Know that one-fifth of your battle gains belongs to God and the Messenger [Muhammad]"[22] . . . . (Quran 8:41)

That is, Muhammad gets twenty percent for himself and for the needy in his community, as he distributes the newly acquired wealth. The implication is that the jihadists were to get eighty percent. This distribution was a strong motive or inducement to keep alive the Arab custom of raiding and warring. In fact, spoils may have been the main goal of early Islam.

The first four caliphs mostly maintained this policy of one-fifth going back to Medina or the generals or governors, while four-fifths went to the soldiers. Sometimes, however, the leaders put variations on this policy, depending on how generous they were at the moment.

But the conquests mentioned in Quran 9:6, 9:11-16 and 9:29, above, and the subsequent taxes that flowed into Medina were also strong inducements to keep on fighting and conquering.

For a longer and more thorough study of the goal, rules, and spoils of jihad and qital, see my article Jihad and Qital in the Quran, Traditions, and Classical Law.


In Mecca, early in Muhammad’s preaching career, he preached nonviolence (Quran 109:6 and 2:256). He was not strong militarily, and perhaps he really believed in tolerance. But in Medina he began his raids because he wanted to return to the pagan Kabah shrine in Mecca; it was unjust that the Meccans forced him out of his hometown.

After Muhammad transitioned from the path of peace to warfare, he had to establish the goal, rules, and results (or spoils) of jihad. He seems to have come up with them in an ad hoc manner. As he went out on a skirmish or battle and won, he sized up the situation, and decided on what to do, like how to divide the spoils of war. At these times he got revelations. They worked out in Islam’s favor.

From here on, Muhammad’s life and his Quran are consistent. He waged war, and the later Medinan verses in the Quran reflect this practice. Jihad and qital appear much more frequently in the Medinan chapters than in the Meccan ones. He set the institutional genetic code.

And now there is no ambiguity for his community after he died in A.D. 632. They may also wage war. Quran 9:33, 61:9, and 48:28 – all identical – say that Islam will prevail over all other religions, and these verses permitted Muhammad to wage war for at least one religious reason. Indeed, for many centuries later, the Muslim community, wherever it was strong, has implemented jihad.

Religion and the state were embodied in his one person, Muhammad, especially in his control of the military and taxes. Often he said that to obey Allah is to obey his messenger – Muhammad himself (Quran 8:1, 13, 20, 24, 46; 9:54, 62-63, 71, 84, 91; 47:33; 48:10, 17). All four chapters (8, 9, 47, and 48) were given in Medina and in the context of war and power politics.[23]

We can only speculate as to what might have been, if he had given up the pagan shrine, not devotionally kissed the black stone housed there, and begun his own sacred site in Medina and allowed the Meccans to have their religion, while he has his (Quran 109:6). He could have risen above his own culture; then surely the raids and wars would have never started in the first place, and surely peace would have won out, then and now.[24]

However, the tolerance of original Islam in Mecca all those years before his flight to Medina in 622 and the tolerance of Islam during his first year in his new city were now left behind.

In late A.D. 630, when Quran 9:11, 14 were revealed, Muhammad’s war on the pagans was going strong until they convert and pay the zakat tax. If not, they die. And Quran 9:29 gives jihadists permission to war against Christians and Jews, until they convert, die in battle, or pay a jizyah or poll (submission) tax.

So, if Christians and Jews fought and died, Islam could take over their resources. If they submitted and kept their religion, Islam could get their taxes. Either way, wealth flowed back to Medina and to the jihadists.

Why would Muhammad get a revelation that would dry up this money flow, for the benefit of peace and tolerance? He didn’t.


[First published: 1 May 2012]
[Last updated: 3 August 2012]

Articles in the Series:

1. Introduction

2. The Mission of Jesus and the Sword
3. The Mission of Muhammad and the Sword

4. The Gospels and the Sword
5. The Quran and the Sword

6. Two Kinds of Swords

7. The Early Church and the Sword
8. The Early Muslim Community and the Sword

9. The Sword and the Jews

10. Martyrdom and the Sword

11. Q & A on the Sword

12. Conclusion

[1] Abdel Haleem, The Quran, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford, 2010). The word in brackets is the translator’s. The three-letter Arabic root z-h-r can mean "to become distinct . . . ascend, be manifest, mount, get the better of, distinguish, be obvious, conspicuous . . . get the upper hand over." (Omar, Dictionary, 353-54). It can also mean "triumph" or "victorious" or "prevail," in this case over all religions. The last three words come from various translations of the verse. Cf. 9:8 “get the upper hand over you”; 61:14 “who came out on top”). If readers would like to see various translation of the Quran, they may go to the website and type in the references.

[2] The four caliphs were Abu Bakr (r. 632-634), Umar (r. 634-644), Uthman (r. 644-656), and Ali (r. 656-661). “Caliph” means “successor,” “deputy,” or “representative.” For the relevant use of the word “caliph” (kh-l-f) in the Quran, see, e.g., 2:30; 6:156; 7:69, 74, 142, 169; 10:14, 73; 19:59; 27:62; 35:39; and 38:26.

[3] Abdullah Yusuf Ali, the Meaning of the Holy Quran, 11th ed., (Belleville, Maryland: Amana, 2004). The parenthetical note is his. He says in a comment on the verse that the clause “whom your right hands possess” means “captives in a Jihad” (note 537). Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi, a respected Muslim commentator, agrees and says about the verse that is it lawful for Muslims to marry women prisoners of war even when their husbands are still alive (The Meaning of the Quran, 4th ed., vol. 1, trans. Ch. Muhammad Akbar, ed. A. A. Kamal, [Lahore, Pakistan: Islamic Publications, 2003] 319, note 44). His translation and commentary are available online at

[4] Khumus is one-fifth of the spoils of war, which goes to the commander or back to Medina. This hadith says:

The prophet sent Ali [soon to be the fourth caliph] to Khalid [a general] to bring the Khumus (of the booty) and . . . Ali had taken a bath (after a sexual act with a slave-girl from the Khumus). "Do you hate Ali for this? ...Don’t hate him, for he deserves more than that from Khumus” (Bukhari, Military Expeditions, 5.4350, in Sahih Bukari, 9 vols. trans. Muhammad Muhsin Khan (Riyadh: Darussalam, 1997), hereafter cited as Bukhari; the parenthetical comments are the translator’s; bracketed comments are added).

The hadith are searchable online at the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement, under the aegis of the University of Southern California.

[5] Bukhari, Marriage, 007.062.137; cf. idem Military Expeditions, 005.059.459 and 637, and Manumission 003.046.718. Muslim, Jihad and Expeditions, 19.4345.

[6] Yusuf Ali’s translation. The words in brackets are added and not those of the translator.

[7] Al-Hilali and Khan, The Noble Qur’an, (Riyadh: Darussalam), 2002; all insertions are theirs. Yusuf Ali goes says that this chapter was revealed early in Medina, and the fledgling Muslim community was “under threat of extinction by invasion from Makkah” (i.e. Mecca). However, the Muslim community conducted small but growing raids against Meccan caravans within a year of arriving in Medina, so the threat is exaggerated.

[8] Hadith collector and editor Abu Dawud (d. 870) in Sunan Abu Dawud, trans. Ahmed Hasan (Lahore, Pakistan: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1984, 2004), hereafter cited as Abu Dawud, says that a captured enemy combatant may be killed (Jihad, 2.2680); he may be tied with chains as a slave (ibid. 2.2671-2674); he is allowed to be beaten in order to extract information (ibid. 2 2675); he may be released freely (ibid. 2.2682-2683), or he may be ransomed; that is, he may purchase his freedom (ibid. 2.2684-2688).

[9] Omar, Dictionary, 80-81. It is used only twice in the Quran, here in 47:4 and 8:67.

[10] The word in brackets is added by Abdel Haleem.

[11] These hadiths refer to this historical event surrounding the Nadir tribe and approve of it: Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj, Sahih Muslim, 4 vols., trans. and ed. Abdul Hamid Siddiqi (Lahore, Pakistan: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1992), Jihad and Military Expeditions, 3.4324-4326, hereafter cited as Muslim; Abu Dawud Jihad, 2.2609.

[12] Abdel Haleem’s bracketed notes.

[13] Yusuf Ali in his translation notes to Quran 2:190 says that Islam may wage war, but under well-defined limits. “In any case, strict limits must not be transgressed: women, children, old and infirm men should not be molested, nor trees and crops cut down” . . . (note 204). However, rules 1-6 in this article, based squarely on the Quran, contradict Yusuf Ali’s claims. His commentary is helpful much more often than not, but he frequently “soft sells” the harsh aspects of Islam, so his footnoted commentary to his translation must be used with caution, and so does his translation. Balance it out with Al-Hilali and Khan’s translation.

[14] Ibid. The bracketed notes have been added.

[15] Ibid. The bracketed notes have been added.

[16] Yusuf Ali’s translation, and the parenthetical note is his. The note in the brackets was added. He goes on to say that verse 6 says that some pagans among them may seek asylum and Muslims should grant it (note 1253)

[17] In one tradition, women and children should not be killed (Bukhari, Jihad, 4.3014, 3105; Muslim, Jihad and Military Expeditions, 3.4319-4320; Abu Dawud, Jihad, 2. 2662). But this makes economic sense, because the victors could sell them into slavery or enjoy more sexual license with them. However, in another tradition, the women and children of polytheists are permitted to be killed during nighttime raids when visibility is low. A soldier asked Muhammad "about the polytheist whose settlement were attacked at night when some of their offspring and women were smitten [killed]. The Prophet . . . said: They are of them" (Abu Dawud, ibid. 2.2666; Bukhari, ibid. 4.3012; Muslim, ibid. 3.4321-4323). That is, they are all the same – they are polytheist, so they do not matter.

[18] The Five Pillars are as follows: (1) Profession of faith; (2) regular prayer five times a day; (3) zakat or required charity tax; (4) fasting during Ramadan; (5) pilgrimage or hajj.

[19] Bukhari says that Muhammad was ordered by Allah to call people to accept Islam (Jihad, 4.2946; cf. nos. 25 and 1399). If they convert, then their lives and property will be kept safe from him. These hadith from Bukhari make the same offer: ibid. 4.2937, 2940, 3010, 3058.

[20] Al-Hilali and Khan’s translation; the parenthetical notes are theirs; the note in the bracket has been added. Karen Armstrong, former nun and essayist-historian on religion, who favors Islam, writes the following about Jews and Christians submitting to Islam. “The Dhimmi system [policies governing Christians and Jews] was not perfect. Later Islamic law evolved some rather humiliating legislation: dhimmis were not allowed to build without permission; their places of worship must not tower over the mosque; they had to bow when the presented the jizyah tax were forbidden to ride on horseback, and had to wear distinctive clothing, although these rules were not rigidly enforced” (Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths, [NY: Ballantine, 1997], 231).

[21] Hadith editor Muslim says that Muhammad would exhort his jihadists to make three offers when their army surrounds a town or settlement: (1) the surrounded enemy may convert; (2) they may refuse to accept Islam and pay the jizyah or poll tax, which allows non-Muslims to live under the "protection" of Islam; or (3) they must be fought if they refuse the first two (Jihad and Military Expeditions, 3.4294; see Abu Dawud, Jihad, 2.2606).

[22] Abdel Haleem’s translation. The note in brackets is added by me.

[23] A religious leader or founder of a new movement can command obedience (Jn. 14:15), but Muhammad backed his call to obedience with the sword and combined political power with religion.

[24] Muslim apologists believe that the Meccans were bothering Muhammad all the way up in Medina 250 miles to the north. However, they were glad to get rid of him and went on conducting their trade. And if he was still afraid for his life, he could have formed a bodyguard until the heat cooled down. But he instead chose to send out or lead raids against their caravans. It is no wonder that the conflict never stopped during his lifetime.