Making Peace with the Sword Verse
Rabbi Ted Falcon, Pastor Don Mackenzie, and Sheikh Jamal Rahman, known collectively as the "Interfaith Amigos," have been learning and teaching together since 2001. They blog weekly for YES! Magazine.
The sacred texts of all religions contain many verses of exquisite beauty and wisdom that fully satisfy the universal longings of the human heart. But it is equally true that all our texts also contain painful and awkward verses that do not enrich the human spirit or support universal values. To those who may be offended by this second statement because they believe their scriptures are the inspired and irreproachable words of God, spiritual teachers explain that scriptures might be divine, but the human consciousness with which we approach our scriptures is less than perfect. In the wise words of Mahatma Gandhi, “God reveals His truth to instruments that are imperfect.”
Facing the difficult verses
For purposes of healing the wounds between people of faith, and understanding the scriptures that inform our beliefs and practices, it is helpful to acknowledge and embrace the difficult verses in our holy scriptures and spend time with them. Rather than avoiding them or going through mental gymnastics to justify them, we should consider them an invitation to allow a higher light from within to shine on them. As the Prophet Muhammad said, we need to move from “knowledge of the tongue” to “knowledge of the heart.”
This is a large part of the work that my Interfaith Amigos and I have been doing in the years since 9/11. Within the goodwill and safety of our trusted friendship, we are able to address the difficult passages in our scriptures and expand our understanding by bringing to bear the “knowledge of the heart” that has been developing steadily in the years of our friendship. The willingness to bare our vulnerabilities and share our feelings honestly about our own awkward verses and also about verses in each others’ scriptures that give us pain has greatly fostered authenticity in our relationships with ourselves, with each other, and with the sacred texts that we hold so dear.
For me as a Muslim, the Quran offers insights and wisdom for this endeavor. “Of knowledge We have given you but a little,” says the Holy Book (17:85), and every verse has many levels of meaning and “none understands except those who possess the inner heart” ( 3:7). Paradoxes exist, says the Quran, because, “Of everything We have created opposites so that you might know that only God is One” (51:49). When all else fails, the Quran also offers two ardent prayers: “O my Sustainer! Open for me my heart! (20:25), and “O my Sustainer, increase me in knowledge!” (20:114).
So what about the sword verses?
Among the most problematic verses in the Quran are the so-called “sword verses” exemplified by the verse commonly summarized as “Kill the unbeliever.” Sadly and tragically, this verse has been quoted countless times both by Islamic extremists in support of terrorism against the “ungodly” West and by misinformed Christians as proof that Islam was spread at the point of a sword. But neither side is correct in its understanding of this verse.
In the first place, the verse is seriously limited and defined by its historical context. This 7th century revelation came at a time when the Islamic community in Arabia was a tiny embryonic group in Medina under constant attack by the Quraiysh tribe and their allies in Mecca, who were overwhelmingly superior in arms and numbers. In the second place, the verse is even more seriously qualified by its textual context. Some of the qualifications appear in Chapter 2. The verse immediately preceding the sword verse says, “Fight in the way of God with those who fight you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors” (2:190), while the verses immediately following it say, “but if they cease, God is Oft-forgiving, most Merciful…. let there be no hostility….and know that God is with those who restrain themselves” (2:192-4).
Thus the verses that surround the sword verse soften its sharp edges. The verse refers to defensive fighting and if the attacker inclines to peace, the Muslim must cease fighting. However, even if I factor in those qualifications, I have to acknowledge that it is extremely uncomfortable and confusing to read “Kill the unbeliever” as a divine revelation. Why would the All-Merciful and All-Powerful God, who has infused every human with divine breath and holds every human heart between divine fingers, instruct anyone to kill? Why would the “Light of the Heavens and Earth” advise a Muslim engaged in battle against his attackers to “smite them at their necks” (47:4)? Some of my co-religionists may call me naive and unrealistic and refer me to other verses in the Quran, but when presented with such a puzzlement, I take refuge in Rumi’s utterance: “Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.” What else can one do with a verse like this?
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A general principle of Quranic interpretation is that if a verse does not seem to support the overall message of the Quran or reflect God’s divine attributes, we have to dig deeper to achieve a more enlightened understanding. So in addition to establishing the contextual limits on this particular revelation—allowing one to kill only in self-defense—it is critical to emphasize that this verse is not about a divine permission to kill non-believers simply because of their non-belief or to gain power or control. Such an interpretation would place the verse in direct conflict with the spirit and content of the universal verses in the Quran.
In an abundance of verses celebrating pluralism and diversity, the Quran explains that God could easily have made all of humanity “one single people” but instead, by divine design, chose to establish diversity so that you might “vie, then, with one another other in doing good works!”(5:48) and “get to know one another” (49:13). The Holy Book emphatically says, “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256) and makes it clear that the passage to heaven depends not on gender or religion but essentially on doing “righteous deeds” ( 4:124 and 5:69). Except when in mortal danger at the hands of an enemy, Muslims are commanded to repel evil with something which is better so that an enemy becomes a bosom friend (41:34).
A metaphorical understanding
In a continuing attempt to advance my understanding of this difficult sword verse, I have discussed it with both scholars and students. Some of the scholars, who happen to be Hindus who are fully conversant with the Quran, believe that the revelation in question is about God’s exhortation to humanity to be courageous and take action in the face of unavoidable attack by others. Indeed, this line of thought is consistent with another revelation in the Quran: “For if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques—in which God’s name is abundantly extolled—would surely have been destroyed” (22:40).
Reinforcing the need for courage when under attack, the scholars pointed to an epic conversation in the Bhagavat Gita between Krishna and the mortal Prince Arjuna on the eve of engaging in the battle of Kurukshetra. Viewing the multitude of soldiers on the opposing side, the prince hesitates and laments to Krishna about spilling the blood of “cousins.” Krishna berates the mortal for using false piety to cover up his fear and lack of courage and tells him that without action, the cosmos would fall out of order. Then, Krishna utters the immortal words, “If any man thinks he slays, and another thinks he is slain, neither knows the way of truth. The Eternal in man cannot kill; the Eternal in man cannot die.”
The students, who were young Muslims in high school, suggested that the verse should be interpreted metaphorically. After all, they pointed out, the Quran clearly states that some verses are literal and some are metaphorical (3:7) but it doesn’t say which ones are which! To these young, creative minds, the sword verse is about slaying the idols of arrogance and ignorance within ourselves.
And finally, I consulted my old friend, the 13th-century sage Rumi, who reminded me that any interpretation depends on our level of consciousness and our intention, on what we hope to learn. “A bee and wasp drink from the same flower,” says Rumi. “One produces nectar and the other, a sting.” When I’m troubled by the way the sword verse could be interpreted, I remember that the way of Islam is to produce nectar.
Sheikh Jamal Rahman wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Jamal is co-founder and Muslim Sufi Minister at Interfaith Community Church in Seattle. Originally from Bangladesh, he is a graduate of the University of Oregon and the University of California, Berkeley. His books include The Fragrance of Faith: The Enlightened Heart of Islam and Out of Darkness into Light: Spiritual Guidance in the Quran with Reflections from Jewish and Christian Sources.
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