Surah Al-Tawbah1 (1-5 )




The Background

Here is a shortened version of what Rashid Rida had to say as the background story of this chapter: Allah Most High raised a Messenger sending down through him Islam as the final and complete Religion. He revealed the Qur’an as an all-time miracle and proof of the authenticity of the Prophet. He directed that the call be made (to His Religion) on the basis of intellectual evidences and practical wisdom. He forbid coercion and any resort to force. But the pagans chose to oppose. They persecuted those that responded favorably preventing the common people from giving the call an ear. They reacted so violently that none that had embraced the truth could feel his life and property safe – unless shielded by one of them. Those who could flee, fled. In frustration the Quraysh turned their attention to the Prophet (asws), abusing him, hurting him, boycotting him and, finally, deciding to assassinate him. So Allah (swt) ordered him to move out of Makkah; which he did, along with everyone who could: seeking refuge in Madinah. There they found a people who helped them for Allah’s sake, giving them preference over their own selves. An extremely hostile situation came to exist between the Muslims at Madinah and the Quraysh at Makkah. On his part, the Prophet (saws) entered into a treaty of understanding and co-operation with the Jews of Madinah. But they proved to be dishonest and broke their treaty. At heart they were with the Makkans and aided them whenever war broke out.

(After several years of futile opposition) the pagans too entered into a treaty with the Prophet (saws) at Hudaybiyyah for a period of 10 years. The Prophet (saws) compromised a lot for the treaty to come through: not out of weakness but out of the desire to spread his mission through peaceful means supported by evidences. In this treaty, the Khuza`ah tribe sided with him while Banu Bakr sided with the Quraysh. But, later, Banu Bakr breached the treaty by attacking Banu Khuza`ah and the Quraysh helped Banu Bakr with arms. (In fact they fought on their side under cover of the darkness of night: Thanwi). That led to a situation of war between the Prophet (saws) and the Quraysh. It terminated with the fall of Makkah. That weakened the pagans and other class of disbeliever of the Peninsula. But, (although without the Quraysh on their side) whenever they could, they did not refrain from fighting against the Prophet. Some of them proved that they cared for no treaty and no word of promise. It was clear that the Muslims would never live in peace with them in the same piece of land, so long as they remained pagans. How could they be trusted for treaties when even those who were expected to be mindful of the treaties – the people of the Book – broke their words of promise so often? Hence the notices that they were served through this chapter. The objective was to cleanse the Arabian Peninsula of paganism in order to make it a haven for Islam and Muslims.

Quote from Rashid Rida ends here.

Thanwi points out that various parts of the surah were revealed at various times in keeping with the needs. Although a major part of it might have been revealed in one whole, some verses were revealed at the time of Makkan expedition, some after Hunayn battle, some before the Tabuk expedition, while others – such as the first few verses – after the Tabuk expedition in Shawwal 9 A.H.

1. Ibn `Abbas is reported to have said that this chapter, (also known as Bara`ah: Au.) has several other names. One of them is “The Debasing One.” That is because it took all classes of people, (believers, unbelievers, hypocrites, city-dwellers, Bedouins, Pagans, Jews, Christians, just about everyone: Au.) to severe questioning of their positions, censuring them (and exposing them: Au.) – Kashshaf, Razi, Qurtubi.

2. This is the last Surah to be revealed. Bukhari has recorded Bara’ b. `Azib as saying: The last verse to be revealed was (4: 176), “They ask you (O Prophet). Tell them Allah directs you thus in the matter of a person without an heir in the direct line.”  But as a chapter, this was the last one to be revealed (Ibn Kathir).

Absence of the Basmalah

The surah is not preceded by the customary “basmalah” (invocatory prayer) because that is how the Companions wrote the chapter in the their own copies of the Qur’an. They followed what `Uthman had done at the time of the first compilation. Tirmidhi has the full report. It says that Ibn `Abbas inquired `Uthman why surah Anfal had been placed among the long ones (although short) and why basmalah was not written between it and Bara’ah? `Uthman explained, “When verses and chapters were revealed, it was customary of the Prophet (saws) to get them written down, while also indicating the position they were to occupy. Anfal was one of the firsts to be revealed at Madinah and Bara’ah the last. But the Prophet (saws) did not have the opportunity to say where the latter was to be placed. Now, content-wise the two seem to be very close to each, so I put them together without a basmalah in between, and also, placed the two among the long ones” (Razi, Qurtubi, Ibn Kathir). The report is also in Ahmad, Abu Da’ud, and Ibn Hibban, with the last mentioned declaring the report sahih on the conditions laid by the Sheikhayn. It is also known, however, that the first few passages of this chapter were revealed immediately after the Tabuk campaign (Ibn Kathir).

In other words, Thanwi and Shafi` explain, `Uthman did not wish to take any risk with the Qur’an. All he knew was that al-Anfal and Tawbah were normally recited together. But he didn’t have a clear instruction from the Prophet (saws) to combine them as one. So he separated them in his compilation. However, since he was not sure if together the two constitute one single surah, he didn’t place the basmalah before it. Accordingly, if one recites al-Anfal and continues down the lines to recite Tawbah, he might not say the basmalah. But, if he happens to start his recitation with Tawbah, or anywhere in between, he could recite the basmalah.

Qurtubi adds that there seem to be a few other reasons why the basmalah was dropped out. One of them is that the chapter starts with a threat, whereas basmalah promises peace and mercy. (Alusi points out that there are other chapters that start with a threat, e.g., no. 83, but the whole surah is not full of such harsh measures and criticism as this one). Another reported reason is that the chapter used to be as long as surah al-Baqarah. But Allah (swt) made the Prophet forget a part of it, and basmalah went with the forgotten part. This report is in Malik’s Muwatta’. Further, the above leads us to another point viz., as Ibn al-`Arabiyy has pointed out, `Uthman’s action lends authenticity to the principle of analogy (qiyas).


[1] (This is) a (declaration of) disavowal of Allah and His Messenger to those of the pagans with whom you have made a treaty.3


3. Tabari writes: Ibn Is-haq has reported that the Prophet (saws) sent Abu Bakr in command of Hajj in the ninth year of hijrah so that he might lead the Muslims in the performance of Hajj following Islamic rules, while the polytheists observed their own Hajj rites. (The Prophet himself wished to perform the Hajj but held himself back because the pagans circumambulated the Ka`bah naked: Ibn Kathir and others). After Abu Bakr had left this chapter was revealed breaking the treaty between the Prophet (saws) and the pagans with the effect that no one intending the House thereafter could be prevented nor anyone threatened during the pilgrimage season. This became a special treaty between the Prophet (saws) and the Makkan pagans. As for the rest of the pagan tribes, there were several separate treaties between them and the Prophet (saws) to various specified terms. These verses were revealed concerning them as well as the disaffected ones who had remained behind the Tabuk expedition. Ibn `Abbas has said that the first few verses of this chapter prescribed a period of four months to those with whom the Prophet (saws) had entered into a treaty and specified a term. While, on the other hand, it gave time until the end of the Sacred Months – about 50 days from that day, the tenth of Dhu al-Hijjah – to those who had entered into a treaty with the Prophet (saws) but had not specified a term (such as Banu Khuza`ah, Banu Mudlaj and others: Mujahid). Qatadah added that upon revelation of these verses, the Prophet (saws) sent `Ali ibn Abi Talib (with 30-40 verses: Muhammad b. Ka`b) to make the announcements (at different places and on different occasions: Au.; and adding the words: no pagan will be allowed to perform Hajj after this year and no one will be allowed to circumambulate the Ka`bah naked after this: Muhammad b. Ka`b. This report is a sahih hasan one with Tirmidhi: Qurtubi). Abu Bakr remained leading the Muslims in Hajj. (According to a report in Ibn Hibban and Ibn Marduwayh, Abu Bakr returned to ask the Prophet whether a verse had been revealed against him. The Prophet (saws) assured him: “You are my brother, my Companion in the Cave and at the Pond. But I would like one of my kinsfolk to deliver this message”: Alusi. According to other reports, `Ali confirmed that Abu Bakr remained the leader of the Faithful in Hajj. When he joined Abu Bakr, he asked him, “As a leader or as a follower?” `Ali replied, “As a follower.” Accordingly, on the Day of `Arafah, it was Abu Bakr who delivered the sermon on topics concerning ways and methods of performing Hajj, followed by `Ali who read out the verses of Bara`ah: Qurtubi). Another thing “we said,” added Abu Hurayrah – who took over the announcements whenever `Ali’s voice failed out of shouting – “is that no one but a believer will enter Paradise.” However, Tabari adds his own remark, that there are differences in opinion over who exactly was allowed respite until what exact time.

Abu Hurayrah’s report is in Bukhari, while other parts are in Ahmad and other hadith collections. However, the report as found in some works that `Ali was sent later to take back the verses from Abu Bakr and make announcements instead of him, is weak (Ibn Kathir, Alusi).

Zamakhshari, Qurtubi and Alusi add that the reason why `Ali was sent, despite Abu Bakr’s presence, is that it was the practice of the Arabs of those times that when they had to break a treaty, either the one who had signed it did it himself, or he deputed someone of his household.

[2] Therefore, you may (O unbelievers) go about in the land freely for four months, but know that you will not be able to frustrate Allah, and that Allah will humiliate the unbelievers. 

[3] And (this is an) announcement from Allah and His Messenger to the people (in general) on the great day of Hajj4 that Allah is quit of the associators – and so is His Messenger. Therefore, if you repent, that would be better for you. But if you turn away (in rejection) then know that you will not be able to frustrate Allah. And give glad tidings to the unbelievers of a painful chastisement.



4. Which day is “the great day of Hajj”? There are two opinions. One comes from `Umar ibn al-Khattab, Sa`id ibn Musayyib, Ibn Zubayr, Mujahid and `Ikrimah and others that it is the 9th of Dhu al-Hijjah. But `Ali, `Abdullah (ibn Mas`ud), Ibn `Umar, Ibn Abi Awfa, Ibn `Abbas, Sa`id ibn Jubayr, `Ata’, Suddi and a great many others have said that it is the day of sacrifice (10th of Dhu al-Hijjah). There have been other opinions too. The message itself contained in this chapter was delivered on two days. When Abu Bakr had delivered his sermon on the 9th of Hajj in `Arafah, he said: “Now, `Ali. Rise up and deliver the message the Prophet sent you with.” `Ali got up and recited the first 40 verses of this chapter. However, `Ali thought that it was not enough since everyone could not have heard. So he went about on the 10th of Dhu al-Hijjah in Mina, visiting the tents and making the announcement (Ibn Jarir).

In fact, there are reports right from the Prophet (saws) in Abu Da’ud’s collection to the effect that the day of sacrifice is the Great Day of Hajj (Qurtubi). Ibn Abi Hatim and Ibn Marduwayh have similar reports (Ibn Kathir).

[4] Except for those of the pagans with whom you made a treaty,5 and then they did not fall short of it in anyway, nor did they support anyone against you, such, fulfill your treaty with them until (their) treaties have run their term.6 Surely, Allah approves of the pious.


5. There have been several opinions about the identity of these polytheists. One opinion is that they were the Quraysh, a few clans of Banu Khuza`ah and some of the Banu Kinanah. But the last mentioned seem to qualify the best (Ibn Jarir).

6. The only people that seem to fit this clause is a clan of the Banu Bakr tribe who did not participate with the main body of the tribe in their attack on Banu Khuza`ah, nor sided with the Quraysh. They remained aloof and true to their treaty of Hudaybiyyah. This is supported by the statements of Suddi and Mujahid. Further, this class of people, in fact many others, did not wait long – as Ibn al-Qayyim has pointed out – before entering into Islam (Sayyid).

The above is an opinion of Ibn `Abbas as in Zamakhshari who adds that 9 months were left for the treaty to expire and the Prophet (saws) completed the term of the treaty with them.

7. By relating the honoring of the treaties to piety, Allah (swt) tells us by implication that being true to a treaty is not simply a good Islamic principle, nor should it be attempted because it promises to be beneficial. Rather, in Islam it acquires the status of a devotional act. A Muslim observes this kind of thing hoping to win Allah’s approval. It is another thing that it saves the community from contradictions and inconsistencies. But, more importantly, it raises the human soul to a higher moral plain (Sayyid).

[5] So, when the Sacred Months8 pass away, slaughter the associators9 wherever you lay your hands on them, capture them, besiege them, and sit in wait for them at every point of ambush.10 But if they repent, offer Prayers11 and pay the Zakah, then let them go their way.12 Indeed Allah is All-forgiving, All-kind.13 


8. The Sacred months in this context are: Shawwal, Dhu al-Qa’idah, Dhu al-Hijjah and Muharram (Ibn Jarir).
Ibn Kathir however believes that what is to be understood from the statements of Ibn `Abbas, Mujahid and others is that the textual term “ash-huru `l-hurum” is not referring to the well-known Sacred Months, rather to the four months allotted to the pagans from the day of announcement. 

9. The allusion is to the pagan Arabs.

Rashid Rida questions the opinion of some commentators that this verse declares war on every pagan, in view of two reports coming down from the Prophet (saws). One of them is in Tabrani, but, as Ibn Hajr has said, well known by the Companions. It says, “Leave alone the Turks so long as they leave you alone.” (The allusion perhaps was to the Mongols: Au.). Abu Da’ud has the other report. It says, “Let me alone (to deal with) the Abyssinians so long as they leave you alone. For, Ka`bah’s treasure will not be seized but by a wide-legged man from Abyssinia.” A third report in Abu Da’ud and Nasa’i combines the two. It says, “Let alone the Abyssinians so long as they leave you alone and let alone the Turks so long as they leave you alone.” Khattabi has said that the verse herewith might be an unconditional open one, while the hadith is restricting its application. However, Rashid Rida thinks that the verse on hand cannot be used to declare war on every pagan of the world. (But of course, many scholars have held other opinions).

Qurtubi cautions on another aspect. He says that although the term is general, women, children and the priestly class were excluded from the command of slaughter. 

10. Yusuf Ali comments: “When war becomes inevitable, it must be prosecuted with vigour. According to the English phrase, you cannot fight with kid gloves.”

Hudhayfa used to say that having heard this verse Abu Sufyan (become so fearful of his life) that he had given up going into his wife (Ibn Jarir). 

11. Qurtubi writes: Imam Malik has been reported as saying that whoever believed in Allah, in His Messenger, but refused to Pray (despite being chided and warned: Au.), maybe killed. (This is the prescribed Shari`ah punishment for not Praying, and not because he has altogether become an unbeliever [haddan, la kufran]: Rashid Rida). Abu Thawr, Hammad b. Zayd, Mak-hul, Waki` and Imam Shafe`i’s students are with him in this opinion. (Imam Shafe`i has also expressed a similar opinion: Alusi). Abu Hanifah however says that the man may be imprisoned, beaten up, but not killed. This is also the opinion of Ibn Shihab and Da’ud ibn `Ali. (Also of Imam Muzani, Shafe`i’s famous pupil: Manar). They justify their stand by the hadith of the Prophet (saws) which reports him as saying: “A Muslim’s life is forbidden except in three cases. Either apostasy after belief, or adulteration although married, or killing another without cause.” Nevertheless, many of the Companions were of the opinion that a man who gave up a single Prayer, without a good cause, refusing to do it even after its time had passed, and said, “I won’t Pray,” is an unbeliever who should be killed. His dependents cannot inherit him.
But, adds Alusi, as against the opinion of certain scholars, one who doesn’t pray and does not pay out the Zakah, remains a Muslim, although a sinner.

Rashid Rida quotes those ahadith that support the above opinions. One of them is in several books. Bukhari’s version says: “I have been ordered to fight the people until they say that there is no god besides Allah. If they say that, Pray like we do, face our Qiblah and slaughter the way we slaughter, then their life and property are forbidden unto us save by right. (As for their other deeds), their reckoning is with Allah.” Another version, which reaches the Tawatur status says: “I have been ordered to fight the people until they say that there is no god besides Allah and that I am Allah’s Messenger. If they say that, their life and property is forbidden unto us save by right. And their (final) reckoning is with Allah.” In fact, a few versions mention only one testimony as the minimum acceptable from the people. Muslim, Abu Da’ud, Tirmidhi and Ahmad have a hadith which says: “Between a man and disbelief lie the Prayers.” Another version reported by all the authors of the Sunan except the Sheikhayn says: “The covenant between us and them is the Salah. He who gave it up, committed disbelief.”  As for the hadith reported in the Sahihayn, the one which includes Salah and Zakah apart from the testimonies as the minimum, Hafiz ibn al-Hajr has a note that the hadith has to be treated with some caution. Imam Ahmad, for instance, despite the vastness of his collection, has not chronicled it.

Rashid Rida also reproduces an argument between Imam Ibn Hanbal and Imam Shafe`i. Shafe`i asked: “Do you believe that one who did not Pray committed disbelief?” Ahmad said, “Yes.” Shafe`i asked, “If he has become an unbeliever, then how is he to become a believer?” Ahmed replied, “By beginning to Pray.” Shafe`i said, “But the Prayer of an unbeliever is invalid.” Imam Ahmed had no answer.

Nonetheless, there is no denying the extreme importance of the Prayers. Some of the Companions also believed in one’s disbelief if he gave up Praying. A report in Tirmidhi and Hakim says that the Companions didn’t consider any sin that was tantamount to kufr except abandoning of the Prayers. Prayers then, cannot be separated from the testimony.

Rashid Rida’s quote ends here.

To put it together, and following the Hanafiyy line: If it is a polytheist, then the minimum required of him is the testimony, “There is no god save one Allah.” If he testified to that, he shall be declared a Muslim. But, if he already believes in the Oneness of Allah, (such as a Jew: Manar), then both the testimonies (oneness of Allah and Messengership of Muhammad) will have to be pronounced before he is declared a Muslim. If he is a Christian, then apart from the two testimonies, he will be required to declare that Jesus Christ is no more than a Messenger of Allah, His Word and slave. Finally, after their declarations, only those will be treated as true Muslims who Pray. Those who don’t are of two kinds, (i) the ignorant ones: they will be taught, and (ii) those who refused despite the knowledge: they will be punished. On the negative side, only those will be treated as non-Muslims who nullify their testimonies by denying them, or denying the validity of any one of Islam’s well-known obligations, of the nature of beliefs or deeds, by word or act, overtly or covertly. On the community level, those who refuse to pay out the obligatory Zakah will be fought against by the Islamic State. Finally, those who embrace Islam are obliged to practice the whole of it at once, and not in gradual steps. However, on violation, (and of the non-criminal nature), factors affecting their denouncement – apart from others – will be their knowledge or ignorance, newly converted or old, etc. And, to allow fair play to people’s choice, no one will be spied on, nor would the authorities give ear to what the people do in private so long as the evil remains confined to the individuals (Au.). 

12. Ibn Zayd has said: Allah (swt) mentioned Salah and Zakah together as if to say that He will not accept one without the other. May Allah show mercy to Abu Bakr, how well he understood this verse (to have fought those who refused to pay the Zakah) – Ibn Jarir.

To strengthen the above, Ibn Kathir adds a hadith of the Sahihayn. It reports the Prophet (saws) as having said: “I have been commanded to fight the people until they testify to Allah’s Oneness, my Prophethood, Pray and pay the Zakah.” Bukhari has another version. It says, “I have been commanded to fight the people until they testify to Allah’s Oneness and my Prophethood. If they testify to these two, orient themselves to our Qiblah, eat of our slaughtered animals, Pray like we Pray, then their blood and their property are unlawful to us, except by right. They shall have what the general body of Muslims have, and they shall bear the responsibilities that the general body of Muslims bear.” 

13. Note the magnanimity of Islam. The pagans persecuted the Muslims, waylaid them, attacked and battled against them for the upwards of 20 years. But the Qur’an tells them that if they repent, they are still acceptable (as on par with those they persecuted, waylaid, attacked and battled against) and what’s more, their past deeds would be forgotten and forgiven; for “Allah is All-forgiving, All-kind” (Sayyid).

Ibn `Abbas and Dahhak have said that this verse revoked every treaty that the Prophet (saws) had entered into, with any kind of unbelievers, to any period. And `Ali ibn Abi Talib has said in a shortened report preserved by Ibn Abi Hatim: “Allah (swt) sent four swords for the unbelievers in Arabia. (As regards the first sword) Allah (swt) said: `Slaughter the associators wherever you lay your hands on them.‘ The report does not speak of the other three swords. So Ibn Kathir speculates them as follows. The second sword was the Prophet’s war against the people of the Book. Allah (swt) said (9: 29), “Fight those who do not believe in Allah or the Last Day and do not declare unlawful what Allah and His Messenger declared as unlawful, and do not accept the true religion, of those who were given the Book, until they pay tribute by their hands in humiliation.” The third sword was the war against the hypocrites. Allah (swt) said (9: 73): “O Prophet. Fight against the unbelievers and the hypocrites.” And, the fourth sword was against the rebellious Muslims. Allah (swt) said (49: 9), “And, if two Muslim groups fight each other, then make peace between them. But if one of them rebels against the other, then fight against the rebellion group until it complies with the commands of Allah.” However, Ibn Kathir goes on, there is difference of opinion over the present verse, whether it remains in force, or is it abrogated by the commandment in another verse (47: 4): “Then, either (show) favor or (seek) ransom.” Dahhak and Suddi have said that this present verse is abrogated. But Qatadah has said it is not, it remains “muhkam” (not abrogated).

(To be concluded)