While it’s not a translation, I did feel like adding some comment pieces on chapters in Quraish Shihab’s book, “Ayat-Ayat Fitna” which is a response to the youtube video ‘Fitna’ brought out by Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders. In this post I’m looking at Quraish Shihab’s take on the first verse used in the video.
“Against them 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, and others besides, whom ye may not know, but whom Allah doth know. Whatever ye shall spend in the cause of Allah, shall be repaid unto you, and ye shall not be treated unjustly” (translation from USC-MSA Compendium of Muslim Texts, Yusuf Ali)
Presentation of the Verse in “Fitna”: The above verse is read out with pictures of the 9/11 attacks and the Madrid and London bombings playing in the background.
Quraish Shihab’s Interpretation of the Verse itself:
On the verse itself, he says that the the word “turhibun” which has been translated as ‘terror’ originates from the base word rahiba which means ‘fear’. This term itself has come in recent times to be used as a word for terrorist, as in Arabic terrorists are referred to as irhab. Despite these recent developments however, the original term in the Qur’an was aimed, not at causing fear for ordinary people or innocents, but rather to generate fear amongst the enemies of God and the enemies of the community.
The verse itself can not be properly understood if it is separated from the preceding five verses which read:
“ For the worst of beasts in the sight of Allah are those who reject Him: They will not believe.  They are those with whom thou didst make a covenant, but they break their covenant every time, and they have not the fear (of Allah).  If ye gain the mastery over them in war, disperse, with them, those who follow them, that they may remember.  If thou fearest treachery from any group, throw back (their covenant) to them, (so as to be) on equal terms: for Allah loveth not the treacherous.  Let not the unbelievers think that they can get the better (of the godly): they will never frustrate (them).”
Here verse 55 describes the worst creatures in the sight of God as being those who reject him, and clarifying that these people are those who always break their promises or treaties. It is these kinds of people that if you meet them in battle (emphasis in Shihab’s book) they should be ‘broken up’ (diceraibelaikan in the Indonesian, and emphasized) along with whoever is behind them so that they learn their lesson. It is important to note here that the goal is not to kill, but to make them learn their lesson.
Verse 58 then clarifies further saying that treacherous parties are not to be attacked until after a treaty is cancelled and clarification of this end of the treaty is given. Attacking a party which has violated a treated before said treaty itself is cancelled is forbidden, even against enemies. Verse 59 then talks about how said treaty violators believe they can escape God’s punishment for their deeds. By linking verse 59 with verse 60, it calls on Muslims to follow the laws of cause and effect whereby if a treaty is violated and then officially cancelled, they must prepare themselves for war. The reason behind these preparations is to strike fear into the enemies of God. As part of these preparations, it is only natural that resources will be needed, and as a result Muslims are called on to provide whatever they can to assist the effort.
Quraish Shihab’s interpretation of the verse in relation to ‘Fitna’:
Firstly he points out that the main focus of lining up the images with this verse is the use of the word ‘terror’. The combination of the images and this particular verse are designed to give the impression that Islam by its very nature condones what we know today as modern terrorism.
As pointed out above the original Arabic does indeed have connotations of fear, however this is not at all related to modern terrorism. In fact the verse is intended to call on Muslims to set themselves up as a deterring force in a situation like this, whereby they are called on to provide a show of force to deter enemies from acting aggressively. The ‘show of force’ element here is related to the use of the word ‘power’ (Quwwah) which does not mean to use power to destroy, but as a display of strength to cause fear amongst enemies. An enemy by definition is someone who would do harm to those he has enmity for, and as a result, if someone is not classed as an enemy there is no need for this kind of tactic (deterrent force) to be used against them.
Finally it needs to be noted that the use of arms in self-defense of a region, religion and state is not the same as terrorism.
My own understanding:
I can see where he’s getting at, though at times the Indonesian can sound a bit worse than it actually is, especially when you’re talking about very non-secular-friendly terms such as ‘enemies of God’.
Firstly once again its all about context. Pulling a verse out of the hat and using it to prove something is pretty dodgy, considering our old friend Geert hasn’t told us anything about why said verse was revealed (does he even care?). When we get to reading the background behind verse 60 (particularly the five verses preceding it), we find that this is not just some random call to go out and kill people left right and center. Rather its in the very specific case of when treaties are broken, its only a natural flow on effect from that that preparations for war will be made.
As for this deterrent effect being directed at ‘enemies of God’, this is hardly a theological call to go out and kill followers of religion X which is not Islam. Instead it’s quite clearly explained that what is meant by ‘enemies of God’ in this case are those who have previously had a treaty with a community (in this case Muslims) but cancel it in preparation for an act of aggression.
We can look for example when Nazi Germany finally trampled on the last vestiges of the Versaille treaty that Allied European nations began preparing for war. If someone voluntarily ends a treaty on their own in this kind of way, it inevitably raises questions about what they’re up to and the distinct possibility (as was proven in the case of Nazi Germany) that they are gearing up for an attack.
Perhaps the next thing which might be asked somewhat incredulously by a skeptic is why go to all the trouble of preparing for war if in the end its only a show of power and you’re not going to crack any skulls? In actual fact, shows of power as a means of causing fear or a lack of desire to go to war are far more common than war itself. Though a lot of countries for example hate the United States, none dare to go to actual war with it due to the massive display of power it can put on, and puts, on constantly.
Ultimately the fact is that this is a verse about self-defense and treaties, rather than a verse sanctioning terrorism or terrorist acts. Once you delve into understandings of the essence of what is going on, its hardly calling on Muslims to attack non-Muslims, but rather explaining that those who are ‘the enemies of God’ are those who pull out of treaties they had originally signed on for in order to prepare for an attack on their former treaty partner. Furthermore Muslims are told to not just sit there and do nothing while a former friend turns to foe (let alone a religious community, no country does this either), but rather to prepare themselves for the worst, and with any luck create a situation where a sneak attack, and by extension conflict, can be avoided. People don’t like backstabbers nor does God in this respect.
Of course this is not something which just has to be explained to non-Muslims, but also to Muslims themselves.