Many people around the world, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, believe that Islam is a religion that accepts others and deals with them justly and kindly. Yet, some others promulgate the idea that Qur’anic verses on showing mercy and tolerance towards others were abrogated by the Verse Of the Sword in which, they claim, Allah orders Muslims to kill all polytheists whenever and wherever they find them. This paper addresses this point trying thereby to reach a sound conclusion on it.
The story begins with the revelation of the Quran down upon Prophet Muhammad over 23 years during which some portions were sent down before his Hijra to Medina while the others were revealed after settling therein. These passages revealed before Hijra are called the Meccan verses of the Quran, while those revealed after Hijra are the Medinian Quran, with each has specific characteristics and features. This start is yet very important to this paper because each of these two kinds has specific characteristics and issues to address.
In Mecca, the Quran mainly focuses on matters of creed, i.e. monotheism of Allah. Over 13 years, Muhammad’s (PBUH) main concern was to call the polytheists of Mecca to abandon the worship of idols and to offer their acts of worship to the only One God deserved to be worshipped, Allah. Also, one of the main functions of the Quran during that period was to challenge the Arabs to prove their inability to bring forth something like the Quran. The verses of the Quran tell clearly that Allah orders Muhammad to challenge the polytheists of Mecca to produce something similar to the Quran, yet they failed.
When Muhammad (PBUH) migrated to Medina, the verses of the Quran started to address new topics. They highlighted the matters of legislation, marital life, the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims. This actually makes sense, because Muslims, in Mecca, did not have an independent state wherein they could apply the acts of worship of their religion, a matter which was now available in Medina.
To narrow down the idea, we are going to highlight Muslim-non-Muslim relationship. Muslims are never prevented to deal kindly and justly with people of other cultures and religions by virtue of the explicit Divine Order recorded in (The Quran, 60:8). There is nothing at all to suspend or cancel this ruling but the commitment of aggression against Muslims by those people. Not only that, but Muslims are also allowed to get married to women from the People of the Book and to eat their lawful food, which clearly means that Islam calls for coexistence among the followers of different religions and cultures. If we carefully examine these Divine Ordinances in light of the Divine statement that “there shall be no compulsion in religion”, we believe that we might reach the conclusion that as long as Islam accepts the other and orders its followers not to force others to embrace it, it shall be a religion that wants to spread peace among humanity.
Yet, this point might be rejected by some who believe that these verses on tolerance and mercy were abrogated by others, the Verse of the Sword in particular. In other words, they claim that this particular verse has suspended and cancelled all the other verses calling for the spread of mercy, since it calls upon Muslims to kill Al-Mushrikin wherever and whenever they find them. It is thus necessary to know about and carefully examine "the Verse of the Sword," if any.
First of all, there is no one single verse in the Quran nor a Hadith from the Prophet (PBUH) that decisively tells that the Quran contains a verse called "the Verse of the Sword". In actuality, this word itself, sword or sayf, was not mentioned in the Quran in a way or another. Even though some Muslim scholars like Ibn Kathir, based on their own understanding and personal reasoning, are the ones who coined the term “The Verse of the Sword”, they differ over defining it into four opinions; some of them define the Saying of Allah, “So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captives and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush, then if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, leave their way free to them; surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful” (The Quran, 9:5) as the Verse of the Sword. Another group yet believes that it is the Saying of Allah, Glorified is He, “…and fight the polytheists all together as they fight you all together…” (The Quran, 9:6) A third group opines that it is but the Saying of Allah, “Go forth light and heavy, and strive hard in Allah's way with your property and your persons; this is better for you, if you know.” (The Quran, 9:41) Still yet a fourth group holds the position that it is the Saying of Allah, Most High, “Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Apostle have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection.” (The Quran, 9:29)
Amazingly enough, the four verses belong to the same chapter, i.e. Al-Tawbah (i.e. Repentance). These verses will be explained in detail later. Yet, a very important remark that attracts the reader’s attention is that none of them ever contains the word ‘sword” so that they would be depicted as such.
Regarding the first verse (The Quran, 9:5), does it truly call for killing polytheists, peaceful and aggressive alike? Had it been the case, this would have meant that it had suspended and abrogated the verse allowing Muslims to deal with non-Muslims as long as the latter do not commit any aggression against them (The Quran, 60:8), a point which is not reported by the Prophet (PBUH), nor any of his companions, the most knowledgeable of his Sunnah.
Amazingly, immediately after that so-called the Verse of the Sword, Allah, the Almighty, orders Prophet Muhammad to give protection to those idolaters who seek his (PBUH) protection, “And if one of the idolaters seek protection from you, grant him protection till he hears the word of Allah, then make him attain his place of safety; this is because they are a people who do not know.” (The Quran, 9:5), which imposes the following question: Is it conceivable that He, the Almighty, orders him (PBUH) in a verse to kill all polytheists, and then to give protection to those polytheists who seek his protection in the following? This actually does not make sense, and thus necessitates us to look for another explanation for this verse in light of the following point: who shall be fought against according to this verse?
In his Al-Naskh fi Al-Quran, Dr. Mustafa Zayd states that the verse in question refers to a particular group of polytheists who broke their promise with the Prophet. This point is supported by Imam Al-Tabari (d. 310 A.H.) in his encyclopedic Jame’ Al-Bayan 'an Ta’wil Ayi Al-Quran in which he clearly states: “This Divine Order (to wait for the passage of the four months) is pertaining to those polytheists who broke their promise with the Prophet and supported others against him (PBUH). As for those (polytheists) who did not break their promise with him (PBUH) nor supported any other parties against him (PBUH), Allah, Glorified is He, ordered him to keep their promise to the end of the due term.” Al-Tabari went on to state clearly that “had anyone understood the verse in another way, that is, Allah ordered believers to kill all polytheists after the passage of the sacred months, this would not be true, a point which is supported by the next verse, ‘How can there be an agreement for the idolaters with Allah and with His Apostle; except those with whom you made an agreement at the Sacred Mosque? So as long as they are true to you, be true to them; surely Allah loves those who are careful (of their duty),’ which instructs the Prophet to keep the promise with them as long as they, i.e. polytheists keep their promise with him (PBUH).”
As such, it becomes crystal clear now that the verse does not carry a general order to kill non-Muslims, but rather to fight against those who broke their promise with Muslims, which is conclusively proved by (The Quran, 9:7). Also, depicting this verse in question as the Verse of the Sword is a matter of personal reasoning of Muslim scholars which might be either rejected or accepted; that is to say that the Prophet did not appoint this verse to be as such. A third important point is that (The Quran 9:7) is in total agreement with (The Quran, 60:8), for the former orders Muslims to keep their promise with those non-Muslims who keep their promise with them, which is truly the same meaning conveyed by the former. Furthermore, had this verse carried an order to kill all the polytheists, how should we have understood the Saying of Allah, “And fight in the way of Allah with those who fight with you, and do not exceed the limits, surely Allah does not love those who exceed the limits.” (The Quran, 2:190) and “And if they incline to peace, then incline to it and trust in Allah; surely He is the Hearing, the Knowing.” (The Quran, 8:61)
 See Mustafa Zayd, Al-Naskh Fi Al-Quran Al-Karim: Dirasah Tashri’yyah Tariykhiyyah Naqdiyyah, Vol. 3 (Cairo: Dar Al-Wafa’, 3rd ed., 1987 C.E. – 1408 A.H.), vol. 2, p. 504.
 See Abu Ja’far Muhammad Ibn Jarir Al-Tabari, Tafsir Al-Tabari: Jame’ Al-Bayan A’n Ta’wil Ay Al-Qur’an, ed. Abd Allah Ibn Abd Al-Mohsen Al-Turki, Vols. 25 (Cairo: Dar Hajar, 1st ed., 2001 C.E. – 1422 A.H.), vol. 11, pp. 311-312.
 Sheikh Al-Taher Ibn A’shur (1879 – 1973) in his Al-Tahrir Wa Al-Tanwir believes that (The Quran, 9:5) carries an order to kill all the polytheists, yet when interpreting (The Quran, 9:7), he said that it restricts the ruling of the former one, adding that he (PBUH) should grant them, i.e. polytheists protection only if they wanted to know about Islam or if they were ambassadors, a matter that is not mentioned clearly in the verse. The theological maxim reads “Consideration is based on the generality of wording, not its specific cause of legislation.”
See Muhammad Al-Taher Ibn A’shur, Al-Tahrir Wa Al-Tanwir, Vols. 30 (Tunisia, Al-Dar Al-Tunisiyyah Li Al-Nashr, 1984), vol. 10, pp. 114-117.