The Basic Policy of Islam Regarding non-Muslims: Peace or War

The Basic Policy of Islam Regarding non-Muslims: Peace or War

Published: 2014

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 are the ground rules of Islam 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. A list of the scholars’ names is at the end of this article.

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 ‘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 Chapter 9, Declaration of Disassociation, it is necessary to understand the events in history surrounding the subject matter of Chapter 9 verses and specific 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, revealed after it took place. The reason for the Battle of Tabook, in which no fight 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 Medina and crush 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 of 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 accompanying 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, his immediate words were: “Have the Ghassans come?” “No, the Prophet may be divorcing his wives,” said his counterpart.” Al-Bukhari, 435
Another indication of an attack was reported by Ibn Abbass saying:

The Romans were horseshoeing their horses in preparation for attacking us. -Al-Bukhari, 2468

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.

Previous to Tabook was Mu’tah battle. 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 had 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 vast 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, nevertheless crucifixion. 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, but also 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 Medina.

Two years before the Battle of Tabook, King Hercules of Rome committed provocations and hostile 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.

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 Medina. 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 set as a base for their operation of dissension 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 demolishing 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 out of context usage, 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 Mecca to its original sanctuary at the time of Prophet Abraham. There would be no more Idol worship in Mecca and Mecca was to be the sacred center of orientation for all Muslims. Mecca, in this case, would be like the Vatican City is for the Catholics.

The process of returning Mecca 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 Meccans had already entered Islam.

The verses of Chapter 9 dealing with the process of reverting Mecca to its original sanctuary instructed the Prophet to do so in multiple steps. Among the measures were: 1. No more Idol worship in Mecca. 2. Four months respite for those who insist on worshiping idols to leave the Sacred City. 3. 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 Mecca, and refused to accept Islam. As a result of the “severe” warning, allowed no war and no one left the city.

Returning Mecca to its original sanctity, 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 Mecca 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 Mecca. The verse is in consistency with the verse preceding it and the one after it, all of which are dealing with the pagans of Mecca. Dr. Ibrahim argued how the phrase could not be “Either Islam or the Sword,” if Allah instructed Prophet Muhammad in Verse 9:6:

If anyone 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 the 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 country, 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 states:

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

Dr. Ibrahim argues that this verse is entirely 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 of 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 aggression.
“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). Qur’an 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].

People of the Book Closer to Muslims Than Idolaters

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 Meccan 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.”

The Qur’an does not enact fighting the People of the Book because of their religion
. Then, Dr. Ibrahim further stated: “Why were the People of the Book not given this choice ‘of sparing their lives, if they repent (above verse 9:29), as the Idolaters (9:5)?” The answer is straightforward. 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 aggression.”

A similar policy to Jizyah for the People of the Book applies 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 the same manner to the case of Jizyah, concerning 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. Some scholars believe that the Murtadeen war was conducted against the tribes 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. Qur’an 9:36

But this verse was widely misinterpreted as to say, ‘fight all disbelievers, whether they are at peace with or at war [with you], in the same manner as they fight you.’ This latter 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 if they broke a promise, do not break it, as they did. If they are colleagues to you, be friends with 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 fighting, because then you become a transgressor, like them, see Qur’an 2:190.

No Religious Persecution and Discrimination

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

And fight with them until there is no [fitnah] persecution, and religious belief should be only for Allah (as in the rule no compulsion in religion), but if they desist, then there should be no hostility except against the oppressors. Qur’an 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 ‘religious persecution and discrimination.’
Also, see 2:191, which says: “And slay them wherever you come upon them, and expel them from where they expelled you; [fitnah] persecution is more grievous than slaying.”

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.” -Bukhari and Muslim, 8

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.” On the same point, Imam Anas ibn Malik of the Maliki School of thought said, “The term ‘people’ referred to the people of Quraysh of Mecca (the Idolaters).”
Samples of the Peace Quotations

The following are some verses of the 114 verses, which enact the foreign policy of Islam is peace, not war. Dr. Ibrahim asserted: “Islam does not enact hostility or discrimination.” Islam’s noble and clear social and religious principles regarding people other than Muslims could not 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 humankind, against their will, to accept? Qur’an 10:99

Allah commands no compulsion in religion

Let there be no compulsion in religion; truth stands out clear from error. Qur’an 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 work impartially. Qur’an 60:8

This type of valuable 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

• Permitting intermarriages with the People of the Book and Muslims. Allah Almighty allowed Muslim to marry Christian or Jew and described the marital relationship as intimate, with affection and mercy.

And of His signs is that He created for you from yourselves mates that you may find tranquility in them; and He placed between you affection and mercy. Indeed in that are signs for a people who give thought.” Qur’an 30:21

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 therefrom and say: To us our deeds and to you yours. Qur’an 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… Qur’an 3:64

Even if People of the Book refused such an invitation, Allah addressed the Muslims to say: “say ‘as for us, we are [going to be] submitting.’”

The verse did not say, if they refuse, go and declare jihad against them.
Muslims have a 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. Qur’an 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. Qur’an 109:1-6

The Quran institutes 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. And God will most certainly succor him who succors His cause: for, verily, God is most powerful, almighty. Qur’an 22:40

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. 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. Qur’an 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. Qur’an 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. -Bukhari, 3166

The Quran commands Muslims to be merciful to people, animals, and even their enemies 

The recompense for an injury is an injury equal to it (in degree): but if a person forgives and makes reconciliation, his reward is due from God, for (God) loves not those who do wrong. Qur’an 42:40

And not equal are the good deed and the bad. Repel (evil) by that (act) which is better; and thereupon, the one whom between you and him is enmity (will become) as though he was a devoted friend. Qur’an, 41:34

Prophet Muhammad said:

He who is not merciful to others, Allah will not be merciful to him. -Bukhari and Muslim, 227

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 on them for not taking 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 mosque during their stay. At the end of the dialogue, the Christian commission 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 message:

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 system 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 an age of war for Islam, but rather it is the age of intellect. The use of the pen can be more effective than a missile.”

List of the Names for the Pro and Con Scholars Regarding the Foreign Policy of Islam Regarding non-Muslims

Dr. Ibrahim stated: Among the many modern Muslim scholars who saw Islam’s foreign policy as “peace is the rule and war is the exception,” are: Dr. al Qaradawi, Mustafa Zayd al Azhari, Mustafa al Sebaa’i, the past Grand Muftis of Egypt Mahmoud Shaltoot and Muhammad Abduh, Muhammad Ridha, Muhammad al Ghazali, Muhammad al Khider Husain, Dr. Muhammad Saeed al Bouti, and Dr. Wahbah al Zuhayki. Among those who saw Islam’s foreign policy as a war against all others until they accept Islam are: Muslim Brotherhood party prominent leader Sayd Qutub and Mawlana Mawdoudi of Pakistan.

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