THE BEHEADING SURA: Robert Spencer's Blogging the Qur’an: Sura 8, 'Booty'

As we all know, Islam is a Religion of Peace. Barack Obama and John Kerry and David Cameron and the New York Times and the Washington Post and CNN tell us that; political and media elites — left and right — take it as axiomatically true.


Now, we come to the Qur’an’s own evidence of that fact.

In Sura 8, “Al-Anfal” — “Booty,” or “The Spoils of War” — Allah speaks about Muhammad’s confrontation with the forces of the pagan Quraysh at Badr, during which the Muslim prophet … turns the other cheek! He exhorts his followers to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecute them! He begins a Gandhi-esque nonviolent protest!

Sura 8 dates from the second year of the Medinan period, the second part of Muhammad’s prophetic career. Islamic tradition holds that it was revealed not long after the Battle of Badr, the first great victory of the Muslims over their chief rivals of the time, the pagan Quraysh tribe.

The title of this sura is better known than most, since Saddam Hussein used Al-Anfal as the name for his genocidal 1988 campaigns against the Kurds, in which between 50,000 and 100,000 people were murdered.

At Badr, the Quraysh came out to meet Muhammad’s three hundred men with a force nearly a thousand strong. Muhammad had provoked the battle by sending his men out to raid a Quraysh caravan, telling them:

This is the caravan of Quraysh carrying their property, so march forth to intercept it, Allah might make it as war spoils for you.

As the battle loomed, according to Muhammad’s earliest biographer Ibn Ishaq, the Islamic prophet strode among his troops and issued a momentous promise, one that has given heart to Muslim warriors throughout the ages:

By Allah in whose hand is the soul of Muhammad, no man will be slain this day fighting against them with steadfast courage advancing not retreating but Allah will cause him to enter Paradise.

One of the Muslim warriors, Umayr bin al-Humam, exclaimed:

Fine, Fine! Is there nothing between me and my entering Paradise save to be killed by these men?

He flung away some dates that he had been eating, rushed into the thick of the battle, and fought until he was killed.

The Quraysh were routed. Some Muslim traditions say that Muhammad himself participated in the fighting; others that it was more likely that he exhorted his followers from the sidelines. In any event, it was an occasion for him to avenge years of frustration, resentment, and hatred toward his people who had rejected him.


One of his followers later recalled a curse Muhammad had pronounced on the leaders of the Quraysh:

The Prophet said, ‘O Allah! Destroy the chiefs of Quraish, O Allah! Destroy Abu Jahl bin Hisham, Utba bin Rabi’a, Shaiba bin Rabi’a, Uqba bin Abi Mu’ait, Umaiya bin Khalaf (or Ubai bin Kalaf).

All these men were captured or killed during the battle of Badr. Ibn Ishaq says that one Quraysh leader named in this curse, Uqba, pleaded for his life:

But who will look after my children, O Muhammad?

In the confrontation, Uqba had thrown camel dung, blood, and intestines on the Prophet of Islam, to the great merriment of the Quraysh chieftans, while Muhammad prostrated himself in prayer. Muhammad had pronounced a curse on them, and now it was being fulfilled. Who would care for Uqba’s children?

“Hell,” Muhammad declared, and ordered Uqba killed.

The victory at Badr was the turning point for the Muslims. It became the stuff of legend, a cornerstone of the new religion. And Allah rewarded those to whom he had granted victory. In verses 1-4 he praises the true believers, who follow the Islamic rules concerning prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and address for the first time the question of the spoils of war from Badr. There was great booty for the victors — so much, in fact, that it became a bone of contention.

Muhammad was receiving questions about the disposal of the booty, and Allah tells the Muslims that that is entirely up to Muhammad (v. 1). This was in accord with a special privilege that Allah had granted to Muhammad. Muhammad explained: “I have been given five (things) which were not given to any amongst the Prophets before me.” These included the fact that “Allah made me victorious by awe (by His frightening my enemies)” and “the booty has been made Halal (lawful) to me (and was not made so to anyone else).”

Victorious with “awe” is often translated in other hadiths as “victorious through terror.”

Allah then refers to various incidents that took place before and during the battle (vv. 5-17), emphasizing that he commands warfare and protects the believers in it. The true believers were willing to go out of their homes to wage jihad warfare, although some disliked doing so and disputed with Muhammad about having to do so (vv. 5-6). This echoes 2:216:


Fighting has been enjoined upon you while it is hateful to you. But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah Knows, while you know not.

Allah says that he “intended to establish the truth by His words and to eliminate the disbelievers” (v. 7).

Allah announced that a thousand angels joined the Muslims to smite the Quraysh (v. 9), and that he had:

 … inspired to the angels, “I am with you, so strengthen those who have believed. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieved, so strike [them] upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip.” (v. 12).

The Tafsir Al-Jalalayn explains:

That is, [smite] the extremities of their hands and feet: thus, when one of them went to strike an disbeliever’s head, it would roll off before his sword reached it.

This verse became one of the chief justifications for the Islamic practice — then and now — of beheading hostages and war captives.

At the beheading of American hostage Nick Berg in May 2004, for example, the now-dead Iraqi jihad leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi invoked the great battle:

Is it not time for you [Muslims] to take the path of jihad and carry the sword of the Prophet of prophets? … The Prophet, the most merciful, ordered [his army] to strike the necks of some prisoners in [the battle of] Badr and to kill them … And he set a good example for us.

Allah sent angels against the Quraysh “because they opposed Allah and His Messenger. And whoever opposes Allah and His Messenger — indeed, Allah is severe in penalty.” (v. 13). The Muslims must always advance, never turning their backs on the enemy, unless they do so as a stratagem of war (vv. 15-16). Allah tells Muhammad that the Muslims were merely passive instruments at Badr. At one point, according to Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad threw pebbles toward the Quraysh, exclaiming: “Foul be those faces!” But it was Allah who killed the Quraysh and even Allah who threw the pebbles:

And you did not kill them, but it was Allah who killed them. And you threw not, when you threw, but it was Allah who threw that He might test the believers with a good test. Indeed, Allah is Hearing and Knowing (v. 17).


Then Allah addresses the unbelievers (vv. 18-19), warning the Quraysh not to attempt another attack, telling them they will again be defeated no matter how much more numerous they are than the Muslims. He then addresses the Muslims again (vv. 20-30), exhorting them to faith and reminding them how Allah gave them victory at Badr despite the enemy’s superior numbers (v. 26). The unbelievers may plot and plan, but “Allah is the best of plotters” (v. 30).

Allah then discusses the perversity of the pagan Quraysh, whom the Muslims have just defeated in the Battle of Badr (vv. 31-40). They reject Muhammad’s preaching as “legends of the former peoples” (v. 31) and keep the Muslims out of the Sacred Mosque in Mecca (v. 34). In verses 38-40, Allah tells Muhammad to call them to accept Islam:

And fight them until there is no fitnah and the religion, all of it, is for Allah. And if they cease — then indeed, Allah is Seeing of what they do (v. 39).

According to Ibn Abbas, Abu Al-Aliyah, Mujahid, Al-Hasan, Qatadah, Ar-Rabi bin Anas, As-Suddi, Muqatil bin Hayyan and Zayd bin Aslam, the statement that Muslims must fight until there is no more fitnah means that they must fight “so that there is no more Shirk.”

Shirk is the association of partners with Allah — i.e., calling Jesus the Son of God.

So this verse, although it was revealed in the aftermath of a seventh-century battle between Muslims and pagans, has a universal application: the Tafsir al-Jalalayn glosses it this way:

And fight them until sedition, idolatry … exists no more and religion is all for Allah, alone, none other being worshipped.

Muhammad himself said:

I have been commanded to fight against people so long as they do not declare that there is no god but Allah, and he who professed it was guaranteed the protection of his property and life on my behalf except for the right affairs rest with Allah (Sahih Muslim 30).

Allah then speaks about the battle itself (vv. 41-44). After the Muslims’ victory, Allah directs the Muslims to give a fifth of the booty to Muhammad (v. 41). An Islamic tradition amplifies this with an account of Muhammad’s generosity: after one battle, Muhammad prayed “facing a camel from the war booty,” and then, holding some of the camel’s hair between his fingers, said to his men: “This is also a part of the war booty you earned. Verily, I have no share in it, except my own share, the fifth designated to me. Even that fifth will be given to you.”


Muhammad continued by exhorting the Muslims to turn over all the spoils of war to him for just distribution:

Therefore, surrender even the needle and the thread, and whatever is bigger or smaller than that (from the war spoils). Do not cheat with any of it, for stealing from the war booty before its distribution is Fire and a shame on its people in this life and the Hereafter. Perform Jihad against the people in Allah’s cause, whether they are near or far, and do not fear the blame of the blamers, as long as you are in Allah’s cause. Establish Allah’s rules while in your area and while traveling. Perform Jihad in Allah’s cause, for Jihad is a tremendous door leading to Paradise. Through it, Allah saves (one) from sadness and grief.

Then Allah reminds Muhammad of various events before and during the battle, emphasizing how Allah controlled events and saved the Muslims (vv. 42-44). After that, Allah addresses the believers (vv. 45-63), telling them not to imitate those who, like the “the people of Pharaoh and of those before them … disbelieved in the signs of Allah, so Allah seized them for their sins. Indeed, Allah is Powerful and severe in penalty.” (v. 52). (Here again, “signs” is ayat, the word used for the verses of the Qur’an.)

For “the worst of living creatures in the sight of Allah are those who have disbelieved, and they will not [ever] believe ” (v. 55) — another indication that unbelievers are worthy of no respect or consideration.

If the Muslims “fear treachery” from unbelievers with whom they have a treaty, they should simply break the treaty (v. 58).

Ibn Kathir says this means that Muslims should tell the unbelievers “that you are severing the treaty. This way, you will be on equal terms, in that, you and they will be aware that a state of war exists between you and that the bilateral peace treaty is null and void.” The Muslims should “make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into (the hearts of) the enemies, of Allah and your enemies” (v. 60), while being ready to make peace if the enemy wishes to do so (v. 61).


Some however, do not believe this truce should be indefinite in length. Qutb explains:

At the time when this surah was revealed, God instructed His Messenger to remain at peace with those groups who refrained from fighting him and the Muslims, whether they entered into a formal treaty with the Muslims or not. The Prophet continued to accept a peaceful relationship with unbelievers and people of earlier revelations until Surah 9 was revealed, when he could only accept one of two alternatives: either they embraced Islam or paid jizyah [a tax levied on non-Muslims, per Qur’an 9:29] which indicated a state of peace. Otherwise, the only alternative was war, whenever this was feasible for the Muslims to undertake, so that all people submit to God alone.

Allah then address Muhammad himself, giving him various instructions (vv. 62-75). Allah tells him that he will give pious Muslims more victories, even if they face odds even more prohibitive than those they had overcome at Badr, although this promise is almost immediately backtracked: originally a hundred would defeat a thousand unbelievers (v. 65), but this is then reduced to a hundred believers vanquishing two hundred unbelievers (v. 66).

These became recurring themes of jihad literature throughout the centuries, up to the present day: piety will bring military victory, and the Muslims will conquer even against overwhelming odds.

According to the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, verse 67 — “It is not for a prophet to have captives until he inflicts a massacre in the land” — was revealed when the Muslims “ransomed those taken captive at Badr.”

The Muslims had released some of the prisoners at Badr, but this was out of their base desire for material gain: the money they would receive in ransom.

The tafsir continues:

You, O believers, desire the transient things of this world, its ephemeral gains, by ransoming, while God desires, for you, the Hereafter, that is, its reward, through your killing them.

In other words, they should have killed the captives rather than ransoming them.


However, the Tafsir al-Jalalayn concludes by asserting that v. 67 was abrogated by 47:4, which allows for ransom. Ibn Kathir notes:

The majority of the scholars say that the matter of prisoners of war is up to the Imam. If he decides, he can have them killed, such as in the case of Bani Qurayzah. If he decides, he can accept a ransom for them, as in the case of the prisoners of Badr, or exchange them for Muslim prisoners.


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