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Sunday, April 24, 2011

On the Difficulty of Reading the Quran, Part B: Fighting and Killing

My previous post discussed the difficulty of reading the Qur'an.  This post addresses a very specific challenging issue in Quranic translation, namely the meaning of certain 'fighting' verses.


There are many verses in the Quran which refer to fighting and killing.  I would like to consider the difficulty inherent in reading verses which attempt to translate the verb qātilū, found, for example, in Sura 9:29 'Fight the People of the Book…'; Sura 2:190 'Fight in the path of Allah those who fight you' or Sura 2:193 'Fight them until there is no more temptation (fitna)'.


There is a difficulty with the English translation 'fight', as found in many published translations.  The problem is that 'fight' is a deficient translation.  To understand why this it is deficient, we need to 'slow down' our reading process to the extent of engaging with Arabic grammar.

To understand what the word qātilū means, one needs to recognize that it is based upon a root q-t-l which means 'kill'(See the note at the end of this post on Arabic roots). From this root several other Arabic words are form for example qatala 'kill, murder'; qatīl 'someone killed, a casualty'; qatl 'homicide'; maqtal 'vital spot on the body (injuring which brings death)'. 

The meaning of words for taking life are highly culture-specific.  The modern English distinction between 'murder' and 'kill' goes back to early Germanic cultural norms in which it was regarded as a heinous and disgraceful crime to kill someone secretly. for example when they were sleeping.  Such an act was 'murder' (Old English morðor).  In contrast, killing someone openly in broad daylight was not a disgrace, if it was not concealed or denied, but the killing nevertheless could be subject to vengeance and demands for blood-compensation.  Over time the meaning of murder evolved to reach its current meaning, which is intentional unlawful killing done with 'malice aforethought'. Throughout this evolution the very negative connotations of the word murder have endured.


In contrast to English, in Arabic there is no single distinct word for 'murder'.  If you look up 'murder' and 'kill' in an English-Arabic dictionary, most likely the first option in both cases will be q-t-l.  The semantic range of q-t-l covers both 'murder' and 'kill'.  There is a distinction in Islamic law between lawful and unlawful killing, but both types of killing are referred to under the semantic range of the root q-t-l. 

The form qātilū, which we are focusing on here, is known as a 'form III' verb.  A feature of many form III verbs is that they denote an intentional, sustained activity directed towards an object, which may be in the context of a counter-effort.  For example form I kataba means 'he wrote', but the form III verb kātaba means 'he kept up a correspondence with someone'.  Form I araba means 'he hit' but form III āraba means 'he fought against'.   The form I verb arada means 'he drove away, pushed away', but form III ṭārada means 'he assaulted, launched an attack, stalked, gave chase to.' Form I sāma means 'he offered for sale', but the form III verb sāwama means 'he haggled over a price'.  (For an essay on the meaning of 'form III' verbs, see here - a PDF).

The form I qatala means 'he killed', but the corresponding form III qātala is the normal word used in the Qur'an for doing battle, hence the standard translation 'fight'.  The fact that this is a form III verb would lead one to expect a meaning 'he engaged in intentional and sustained activity with the purpose of killing, in a context of a counter-effort to kill.' This is not the same meaning as English fight.  In English, fight means to engage in a physical struggle for supremacy (with various non-physical, metaphorical extensions).  Although fight could involve killing, it does not necessarily imply it.  A contest between boxers is a fight, as is a wrestling match between boys in a school yard.

In contrast the Arabic form III qātala (qātilū in the 2nd person plural imperative), which is translated as 'fight' in English versions of the Quran, includes the meaning of killing.

The idea that the form III verb involves killing is expressed in the following verse, which justifies 'fighting' in the sacred month on the grounds that although 'fighting' (q-t-l form III) is a great sin, seducing Muslims away from Islam is worse than 'killing' (q-t-l form I).  Therefore fighting (i.e. to kill) is justified because it is prevents a sin worse than such killing:
They ask you about fighting [q-t-l form III] in the sacred month. Say "Fighting [q-t-l form III] in it is a great (sin), ... but seduction is greater (worse) than killing [q-t-l form I]." (Sura 2:217)
Another verse in the Quran captures the meaning of form III of q-t-l as each side trying to kill the other:
Allah has purchased from the believers their lives and their wealth; for theirs (in return) is Paradise. They fight [q-t-l form III] in his path; they kill [q-t-l form I] and are killed [q-t-l form I].  (Sura 9:111).
Arabic has another root '-r-k which can be used to describe conflict ranging from an argument between neighbors through to military battle, without the meaning of killing, but the words formed from q-t-l all have meanings which involve killing.

The form III of q-t-l is very difficult to translate into English.  To simply translate qātilū as 'Fight!' is deficient, because the sense of 'killing' is lost in translation.  However no word in English means 'intentional sustained activity directed at another with the purpose of killing, in a context of a counter-effort to kill'. None of the English expressions with meanings similar to fight – such as combat, assault, wage war, do battle or duel – include killing as part of their core meaning.

In contrast the form III of q-t-l implies that killing is involved.  It suggests a kill-or-be-killed struggle, a 'fight' where death is in view, one way or another.

In English cultural understandings, the purpose of war is not to kill your opponents, but to defeat them (killing is merely a means of defeating the enemy).  In contrast, the form III of q-t-l reflects a different understanding of combat, one which is ultimately based upon pre-Islamic Arab culture, in which the point of battle is either to bring one's enemies down to the grave, or to subjugate them, after which the vanquished owe you their lives.

Of course people who speak English are quite capable of deliberate killing, and all kinds of atrocities (history gives plenty of examples), and there can be a good deal of hypocrisy in English-language discussions of warfare, but the fact is that there is no word in the English language which captures the idea of 'deadly combat' which appears to be part of the meaning of the form III of q-t-l.  In any case, to simply translate qātilū as 'fight' offers a watered-down reading which dilutes a core aspect of the meaning of the Arabic, and distances the text from its cultural context. It squeezes the Arabic text into the presuppositions of an English understanding of conflict.  

When Sura 9:29 is translated as 'Fight the People of the Book', without any qualification, this misleads English speaking readers.  Clearer might be 'Engage in a deadly fight with the People of the Book'.  And when Sura 9:123 says 'O you who believe, fight the disbelievers who are close to you', this could be better translated as 'Fight a deadly war against the disbelievers'.

It must be stressed once again that form III of q-t-l is the normal way to refer to military fighting in Qur'anic Arabic.  However this fact alone is not enough to make English fight an accurate translation, because the Arabic lexicon encodes a very different understanding of combat.

These observations have implications for understanding the Islamic sharia's rules of combat.  They align, for example, with the observation that the sharia law allows adult male captives of war to be killed, since killing is integral to the meaning of qitāl 'fighting', and when you vanquish someone, their lives are considered to be in your hand.  On the other hand, in English cultural understandings of 'fighting', killing unarmed captives is considered a criminal act.

This difference in understanding what 'fighting' actually is has a very practical impact on how battles are fought on the ground today.  Jihadis in Iraq understand that if they capture American soldiers, they are free to kill them, but if they throw down their arms and put their hands in the air, their American enemies are not supposed to kill them, but are expected by their superiors to take the jihadis prisoner.

These cultural differences create the conditions for an asymmetrical war.  American soldiers dislike the fact that if they are captured, they will most likely be killed, but if they capture and execute an enemy they could be found guilty of murder by a US military tribunal.

As another implication of these cultural differences, when in Sura 9:29 it says to 'fight [form III qātilū] the People of the Book' 'until they pay tribute out of hand and are humbled', the meaning conveyed by the use of qātala is that paying tribute and being humbled are what stops the deadly war, i.e. submission to the sharia rules for non-Muslims stops the killing.  

This simple observation about the dynamics of Islamic conquest of non-Muslim peoples is amply confirmed by a large corpus of opinions of Islamic scholars on this verse, dozens of which are referenced in my book The Third Choice.  The eminent commentator Al-Suyuti explained in relation to  Koran 29:46 (the very same verse cited at the head of the Amman letter to the Pope, which was discussed in my previous blog post) that when non-Muslims reject the arguments of Muslims and refuse to surrender to Islam, "by fighting you and refusing to pay the jizya, then argue with them by means of the sword until they become Muslim or pay the jizya." (the Arabic text is here).

This is also relevant for understanding the theological background of recent massacres of non-Muslims in Muslim countries, in the context of claims being made by some that the non-Muslims do not enjoy the benefit of a 'covenant of protection' which grants them their right to life.
 


What is in a word?  Quite a lot actually.  The act of reading requires strenuous efforts to unpack the meaning of even a single word.  I have described here some of the efforts needed to understand the word 'fight', as used in English translations of the Quran.  

All this highlights the difficulty of reading classical Islamic texts, not least of all in translation.  In part it also explains why Westerners, schooled in the linguistic norms of 'Standard Average European' languages, have so much difficulty understanding Islam, and why translations of the Quran into English are inadequate for comprehending its message. 

PS In releasing this post I note that I welcome comments and clarifications, as it is quite likely there are aspects to this complex and sublte issue which I have missed or not understood fully.


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NOTE: 
Arabic words are built up around consonantal roots.  Most of these roots consist of three consonants, which can be used in a wide variety of combinations with vowels and consonants. For example the root k-t-b has to do with writing, and from it can be derived kataba 'write'; kitab 'book'; kutubī bookseller' miktāb 'typewriter' kātib 'scribe' etc.  In Arabic script the root consonants stand out very clearly, and dictionaries are organized around them. For example maktaba 'library, bookstore' is listed in an Arabic dictionary under the entry for k-t-b.

20 comments:

  1. Thank you Mark; this is very enlightening. It seems that the layers are slowly being peeled away from Islam. Before the advent of the internet this was not possible since Taqqiya did a good job of concealing the dark (and most important) side of Islamic doctrines. These next few decades are going to be a very interesting time for our world.

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  2. Once again you have brought another dimension to our understanding of Islam. Unlike the previous Blogger, I am afraid that I do not believe we will have the time for intellectualising, especially the decades mentioned. I feel it may be a time of much fear and devolution of our Christian heritage and Israel's well being.

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  3. Indeed, translating 'qatilu' as 'fight' has contributed to the misunderstanding of the theology of Islam and its military institution by non-Arabic speakers.
    This poor translation of this one word 'qatilu' has caused prominent people like George Bush, Tony Blair, and Nicolas Sarkozy to talk confidently about the peaceful Islam, meanwhile Muslim scholars were wondering, where did they get their knowledge of Islam from.

    A groundbreaking post!

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  4. Dr. Durie,

    Re your above post, I'm wondering what your opinion is on a couple of verses.

    In verse 51:10, qutila is often translated as "cursed," though the q-t-l root would seem to suggest that "slain" (which is another translation of it for that verse) is more accurate. "Cursed" seems to me like a misleading softening of the verse, which says something like "[q-t-l] the conjecturers/liars."

    Another is 9:30, which has "curse," as in "Allah [q-t-l] them!", though some translations say fight, destroy, or annihilate. It also seems dubious that an all-powerful, all-knowing deity would need to engage in cursing.

    Is "curse" an inaccurate softening, or is there some legitimate basis for the choice of translation, in these cases?

    http://corpus.quran.com/qurandictionary.jsp?q=qtl

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  5. Hello Greenforest. Those two verses are examples of curses. The first says 'Killed be the liars'. I.e. May they be killed. The second says "Allah fight (to kill) them." I.e. May Allah fight and kill them. Hence the translation 'destroy'. The sentences are themselves curses. I would agree with you that the translations which replace 'kill' and 'fight to kill' with 'curse'are softenings. But this is probably due to the difficulty of translating the Arabic idiom into English, rather than any desire to be devious about the meaning. But yes, they are curses with using the verb meaning kill or fight to kill (Form III). It is like saying 'God damn them'.

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  6. Dr. Durie,

    Thanks for this, and for the informative article above.

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  7. Do u have evidence that q-t-l means ''kill'' ?

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    1. Hello Anonymous.
      I have added a link in the article above to a page at corpus.quran.com which lists all the instances of q-t-l in the Qur'an.
      The link is http://corpus.quran.com/qurandictionary.jsp?q=qtl
      You can also Google qtl Arabic to get to the Wiktionary entry.

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  8. Dear Mark, do you have any articles on the meaning of the word "Islam". Does it really mean "peace" or "submission"? Are the two words related, like islam and salaam? thank you

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    1. I haven't. The root s-l-m means 'safe' or 'free from evil or danger'. The Form IV verb derived from this means 'to surrender', 'become submissive'. Islam is a noun derived from this. It means 'submission' or 'surrender'. NOT 'peace'. Muhammad used to say 'aslim taslam': 'surrender and you will be safe'. That is the meaning of the word 'Islam': you are safe if you surrender.

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  9. "And fight in the way of Allah with those who fight with you" the root qaf-t-l means to kill. When used in this form as in 9:123 and elsewhere it immidiately becomes an interactive word that suggests killing opposite killing or killing against killing. To translate it as simply "kill" as some critics would like to, would therefore convey an unconditional injunction while the meaning and form of the Arabic verb do not allow it, let alone the Quranic rules of war that are solely restricted to fighting in self-defense. So when there is no will to kill from the one side there cannot be killing from another. That is why "fight" is the most appropriate, used by both Muslims and non muslim translators, in all instances where the same form is used, as it includes both the possibility of fighting without killing and fighting with killing, depending on the intention of the aggressor. The Jihad is therefore strictly limited to fighting in self-defense 4:75,8:26,3:167"fight in Allah's way, or defend yourselves", for the delivrance from spiritual and physical opression, while the oppressor is said to be fighting "in the way of the devil" 4:76.

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  10. Anonymous, I hope Dr Durie will have a much better answer than mine, but I can see some holes in your argument thus:
    1. Humans do not need to be told by a deity to defend themselves. Self-defence is instinctual and even snakes, even bacteria, know how to defend themselves. What humans need from God are higher virtues like altruism and forgiveness.
    2. Verse 9:123 literally says: ‘Kill the Kuffur’, directed at the unbelievers, not ‘those running at you with a sword about to kill you’. Even if the word was ‘fight’, you are still fighting with unbelievers not those who are running at you with a sword. Further verse 5:33 says that those who make war on Allah (a ghost) and Muhammad (dead) must be killed, tortured, banished. There is no self-defence in there, as you can’t fight a ghost or a dead man with a sword, therefore it is about killing and maiming people who disagree about Islam. Then there is also the verse 4:89 about he who turns his back on Islam: seize him and kill him. That’s not self-defence either.

    This approach, which is usually Ahmedeyya , is incredibly weak.
    I would highly recommend you read: Seeking Allah: Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi.

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  11. Do you mean that all throughout their history, the Israelites did not need to be told by "a deity" to fight for a wide range of reasons, including conquests, wars of liberation and self-defence, or else face terrible wordly punishments? Humans certainly need to be reminded that this is not only a duty but obligation, even when they are the weaker party. It also is a virtue and a selfless act, contributing to the well being ultimately of the entire community.

    The Quran always leaves the door open to a peaceful resolution in all types of conflicts, and magnanimity, however it never denies the basic human right of self-defense when unjustly opressed beyond the limits where peaceful diplomacy can still stop this harassement and eventually reform the opposite party, when such oppression goes as far as threatening one's life. But if such option is preferred to magnanimity, because this is surely beyond the capacity of most humans when they have been wrongly oppressed, the Quran explicitly forbids any retaliation above and beyond what a person has himself received 2:190-5,16:126-8,22:60,42:39-43.

    The very foundations of the divine law, as taught by all Prophets, is the establishment of justice and to argue a person has no right to seek his rights is an absolute wrong. In various types of social felonies, the Quran gives the right of having recourse to the law of "equal retribution"/qisas/lex talonis 2:178,5:45. The definition of the Arabic word itself stresses the importance of fairness and justice in the application of that system. As stated in 17:33, the retribution must never exceed the harm suffered. However it is stressed that in both cases (self-defense and social justice) the opressed or the victim may show magnanimity and forgiveness in order to grow spiritually, an issue the Torah, which also mentions the law of retaliation, does not contain.

    As to the verses you grossly misinterpreted, pretty much like every single argument presented on that blog, i could easily deal with and refute, however not in the form of comments like here.

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  12. Dear Anon, the Quran says of itself that it is ‘clear’. So, if you are right, that millions of people have twisted the Arabic language into meaning that verses such as ‘qatil the kuffur’ really mean: “don’t forget to defend yourself if someone is running at you with a sword”, then either the Quran is wrong by saying it is clear, or your interpretations are wrong. If the Quran is ‘clear’ then it should be immediately clear to me and other readers that it says what it means.

    As for the stories of the Old Testament, they are “stories” not commands. The main purpose is to tell its readers that the Jews own Israel because they conquered it in 1400BC. Nowhere is there an open-ended command to Christians to “defend themselves against someone running at them with a sword”, because there is no need to instruct people about what is instinctual. The NT teaches going ‘against’ our natural impulses and instincts: to turn the other cheek, to forgive the unforgivable, to give to a thief, to love your enemies, not to engage in ANY retribution, not to use physical weapons, not to divorce, … even give away ‘all’ your belongings to the poor! There are hundreds of such commands to Christians: in fact, the very essence of the New Testament is not to pander to one’s baser instincts but to do the very opposite. The idea that God loves sinners, that Grace is given equally to everyone: the pious and the undeserving, again go completely contrary to common instincts from the baser regions of our brains that want retribution, because it makes us feel good.

    The proof is in the pudding. Look at every country where Islam is the majority. There is misery, poverty, war, conflict, oppression, lack of human rights, inequality. Where has all this “peaceful self-defence” ever got them?

    I hope you will buy that book by Nabeel Qureshi or at least listen to some of his talks. The world needs more people like him. I hope you will join him 

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  13. There isnt anything ambiguous about the word qatilu/"kill opposite killing" and the only ones trying to enforce their prejudiced paradigm are your likes. Its use in 9:123 for instance is most appropriate as it mentions those who are "near" the Muslims, in the sense that they constitute an imminent death threat, and thus the interractive qaatilu is used. Another example to illustrate the point is in 9:111, explaining what the consequence of qaatilu/"engage in killing opposite killing" entails; it either results in killing the opposite party, or being killed and that is because there is a clear will to kill from the opposite side. If qatilu simply meant "to murder" as you and your likes would like it to be, then the outcome would not necessarily entail being killed in the process.

    These "stories" of the OT actually constitue laws of warfare, such as the obligation to destroy Amalek's seed Deut25:19 without showing any pity whenever the opportunity is there or else be subject to divine wrath as what happpenned to king Saul 1Sam28:18, or the binding obligation to exterminate six Canaanite nations from the land of Israel whenever any of them or their descendants is identified Deut20:16. All these regulations, and other 613 Law revealed at Horeb, are binding upon Jews of all times, including Jesus the Jew who never abrogated or declared a single letter of the OT obsolete, ie mere "stories" as you do now, and enjoined his followers to follow to the dot, as he did in his life.

    So how did Jesus "love his enemies" or "turned the other cheek" considering how he is portrayed as vilificating his enemies and those that rejected him to the extreme? That is not to mention some bizarre, unjust and violent incidents attributed to him such as causing the death by drowning of a herd of swine by allowing demons to purposely enter their bodies or destroying a fig tree for not having fruit out of season. Or how about mentionning the so called parable of the good samaritan which Christians like harping upon, where Jesus again is vilificating those "race of vipers"/Jews that rejected him by portraying them as inhumane, incapable of even a simple act of mercy.

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  14. Dear Anon, the rules for posting on this blog require contributors to avoid 'ad hominem' – i.e. personal – attacks. You have posted a few things which do indulge in personal attacks, e.g. a phrase like "trying to enforce their prejudiced paradigm like you or your likes". Do not do this or your posts will be deleted.

    With regard to your argument, there is absolutely no evidence that qātilū is used to refer to situations when Muslims engaging in fighting because they face a 'near death threat'. BTW the article clearly argues that this verb does NOT mean 'murder'.
    This is what Ibn Kathir has to say about 9:123 "Allah commands the believers to fight the disbelievers, the closest in area to the Islamic state, then the farthest. This is why the Messenger of Allah started fighting the idolators in the Arabian Peninsula. When he finished with them and Allah gave him control over Makkah, Al-Madinah, At-Ta'if, Yemen, Yamamah, Hajr, Khaybar, Hadramawt and other Arab provinces, and the various Arab tribes entered Islam in large crowds, he then started fighting the People of the Scriptures. He began preparations to fight the Romans who were the closest in area to the Arabian Peninsula, and as such, had the most right to be called to Islam, especially since they were from the People of the Scriptures." He is describing an aggressive war of expansion to establish Islam as dominant over unbelievers. Yes, it is expected that they will fight back, to defend themselves against Islam, but the reason why the Muslims started the fighting was to open the lands of unbelievers to Islam (as Ibn Kathir explains: http://www.qtafsir.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1578&Itemid=64

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  15. You are enforcing your own views into ibn Kathir, all the while ignoring the quote you brought fro the dictionaries, stating that qaatilu is used "in a context of a counter-effort to kill".
    Ibn Kathir speaks of early Muslims fighting or setting to fight certain disbelievers from closest to farthest, then proceeds to name them, without giving any historical context to these wars. A quick historical study will show that these conflicts were all in fact defensive in nature.

    My original argument was meant to demonstrate that qaatilu does not mean "to kill", rather "to kill opposite killing", and this is because the form qaatilu is an interactive form in nature, this is known to any Arabic speaking person and anyone who truly reads the Quran in context and in full. For example in 2:190 which you yourself quoted in that article's introduction, there are 2 important messages for those who are told to qaatilu:
    - do it against those who yuqaatilunakum
    - do not transgress the limits when applying the command to qaatilu

    What constitutes transgression in that context? To apply the command of qaatilu in a different way than prescribed in the verse, ie against people other than those who "yuqaatilunakum".

    This again, not only agrees with what was said about the verb being interractive in nature, as yourself brought to light when quoting the dictionaries stating that the word is used "in a context of a counter-effort to kill", but also with the Quran's overall message, which is to live at peace with anyone, Muslim or else, that does not agress the Muslims unjustly, and defend against those that engage in hostilities without any reason other than hatred for the religion.

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    1. Dear anon, I think Ibn Kathir makes very clear that the purpose of all those wars he referred to was to 'open' the lands to Islam. That is why there were called al-Futuh. Ibn Kathis is quite correct when he wrote that Muhammad 'starting fighting' the Byzantines - i.e. he started the fighting against them. This was because they had the 'most right' to be called into Islam. I don't believe for a moment that Ibn Kathir regarded this as an injustice or engaging in hostilities without any reason. It certain was not hatred for their religion that cause the Muslims to fight - it was to call the People of the Book into Islam. For Ibn Kathir that is not unjust: what could be more just than to call people into Islam? That is his point.

      You know it is very strange, this idea that the whole of the Middle East was conquered for Islam through wars that were defensive. No doubt Europe was invaded as an act of self-defense as well.

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  16. Once more, just read the historical background behind the prophet Muhammad's wars and campaigns to see for yourself that they were all defensive or to counter imminent threats. So it isnt a defensive move to "start fighting" one who clearly is making preparations to come at you?

    In those times as in the times of prophets of old as recounted in your own books, the result of divine victories almost always resulted in the defeated nations' coming to God, recognizing the superiority of that "new" God. Keeping this reality in mind, the people of the book being the closest to the straight spiritual path among the nations bent on destroying the early Muslims, they should be tackled in priority after all close and imminent threats are dealt with.

    That is exactly what ibn Kathir's statement means when put back in its proper historical context, and keeping in mind the Quranic rules of war already spoken of earlier.

    Islam did later on spread through wars of conquest, but not solely. There were also decisive defensive victories, and many other non military means, including comerce, migrations, education, social and spiritual appeal especially if one considers the dark age in which the rest of the known world was drowning at the time, etc.

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