The phrase “Kill the unbelievers wherever you find them” appears more than once in the Qu’ran. Many critics of Islam, and a few Muslim extremists, taking this phrase out of context, conclude that the Qu’ran encourages Muslim violence towards non-Muslims. The following explanation of the true interpretation of the phrase is taken from the introduction to the English translation of the Qu’ran by M.A.S Abdul Haleem.
It should be noted that Christians and Jews are not classed as ‘unbelievers’. Usually the word refers to the polytheistic religious leaders in Arabia who persecuted the Muslims.
In the following the extracts from the Qu’ran in block quotes are taken from Haleem’s translation, and include some of his footnotes.
An important feature of the Qur’anic style is that it alludes to events without giving their historical background. Those who heard the Qur’an at the time of its revelation were fully aware of the circumstances. Later generations of Muslims had to rely on the body of literature explaining the circumstances of the revelations (asbab al-nuzul), and on explanations and commentaries based on the written and oral records of statements by eyewitnesses. These oral testimonies were collected and later written down.
Interpretation is further complicated by the highly concise style of the Qur’an. A verse may contain several sentences in short, proverbial style, with pronominal references relating them to a wider context. Moreover, proverbial statements can be lifted from the text and used on their own, isolated from their context and unguided by other references in the Qur’an that might provide further explanation. Both non-Muslims eager to criticize Islam and some Islamic extremists have historically used this technique to justify their views.
Some examples will illustrate this feature, for instance the verse `Slay them wherever you find them’ (2: 191), thus translated by Dawood  and taken out of context, has been interpreted to mean that Muslims may kill non-Muslims wherever they find them.
(2:190-195) Fight in God’s cause against those who fight you, but do not overstep the limits: [c] God does not love those who overstep the limits. Kill them wherever you encounter them, [d] and drive them out from where they drove you out, for persecution is more serious than killing. [e] Do not fight them at the Sacred Mosque unless they fight you there. If they do fight you, kill them—this is what such disbelievers deserve-but if they stop, then God is most forgiving and merciful. Fight them until there is no more persecution, and worship is devoted to God. If they cease hostilities, there can be no [further] hostility, except towards aggressors. A sacred month for a sacred month: violation of sanctity [calls for] fair retribution. So if anyone commits aggression against you, attack him as he attacked you, but be mindful of God, and know that He is with those who are mindful of Him. Spend in God’s cause: do not contribute to your destruction with your own hands, but do good, for God loves those who do good.
c. The Arabic command la ta` tadu is so general that commentators have agreed that it includes prohibition of starting hostilities, fighting non-combatants, disproportionate response to aggression, etc.
d. The Muslims were concerned as to whether it was permitted to retaliate when attacked within the sacred precincts in Mecca when on pilgrimage (see 2: 196 and Razi’s Tafiir). They are here given permission to fight back wherever they encounter their attackers, in the precinct or outside it.
e. “Persecuting you unlawfully is worse than you killing them in the precincts in self-defence.”
In fact the only situations where the Qur’an allows Muslims to fight are in self-defence and to defend the oppressed who call for help:
(4: 75) Why should you not fight in God’s cause and for those oppressed men, women and children who cry out ‘Lord, rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors’.
The pronoun ‘them’ in 2:191 refers to the words ‘those who attack you’ at the beginning of the previous verse. Thus the Prophet and his followers are here being allowed to fight the Meccans who attack them. The Qur’an makes many general statements but it is abundantly clear from the grammar and the context of this statement that this is not one of them.
`Wherever you find them’ or ‘come up against them’ is similarly misunderstood. As exegetes and commentators explain, the Muslims were anxious that if their enemies attacked them in Mecca, which was and is a sanctuary (in which no Muslim is allowed to fight, or kill even an animal or plant), and they retaliated and killed, they would be breaking the law. The Qur’an simply reassured the Muslims that they could defend themselves when attacked, even if they killed their attackers, whether within the sanctuary or outside it. However, the six verses that concern war (quoted above) contain many restrictions and are couched in restraining language that appeals strongly to the Muslims’ conscience. In six verses we find four prohibitions; seven restrictions (one ‘until’, four ‘if’, two ‘who fight you’); as well as such cautions as ‘in God’s cause’, ‘be mindful of God’, ‘God does not love those who overstep the limits’, ‘He is with those who are mindful of Him’, loves ‘those who do good’, and ‘God is most forgiving and merciful’. The prevalent message of the Qur’an is one of peace and tolerance  but it allows self-defence.
Equally misinterpreted and taken out of context is what has become labeled as ‘the sword verse’ (9: 5) although the word ‘sword’ does not appear in the Qur’an.
(9:1) A release by God and His Messenger from the treaty you [believers] made with the idolaters [is announced] —(2) you [idolaters] may move freely about the land for four months, but you should bear in mind both that you will not escape God, and that God will disgrace those who defy [Him].[a] (3) On the Day of the Great Pilgrimage [there will be] a proclamation from God and His Messenger to all people: ‘God and His Messenger are released from [treaty] obligations to the idolaters. It will be better for you [idolaters] if you repent; know that you cannot escape God if you turn away.’ [Prophet], warn those who ignore [God] that they will have a painful punishment. (4) As for those who have honoured the treaty you made with them and who have not supported anyone against you: fulfil your agreement with them to the end of their term. God loves those who are mindful of Him.
(5) When the [four] forbidden months are over, wherever [b] you encounter the idolaters, [c] kill them, seize them, besiege them, wait for them at every lookout post; but if they turn [to God], maintain the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms, let them go on their way, for God is most forgiving and merciful. (6) If any one of the idolaters should seek your protection [Prophet], grant it to him so that he may hear the word of God, then take him to a place safe for him, for they are people with no knowledge [of it]. (7) How could there be a treaty with God and His Messenger for such idolaters? But as for those with whom you made a treaty at the Sacred Mosque, so long as they remain true to you, be true to them; God loves those who are mindful of Him. (8) [How,] when, if they were to get the upper hand over you, they would not respect any tie with you, of kinship or of treaty? They please you with their tongues, but their hearts are against you and most of them are lawbreakers. (9) They have sold God’s message for a trifling gain, and barred others from His path. How evil their actions are! (10) Where believers are concerned, they respect no tie of kinship or treaty. They are the ones who are committing aggression.
(11) If they turn to God, keep up the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms, then they are your brothers in faith: We make the messages clear for people who are willing to learn. (12) But if they break their oath after having made an agreement with you, if they revile your religion, then fight the leaders of disbelief—oaths mean nothing to them—so that they may stop. (13) How could you not fight a people who have broken their oaths, who tried to drive the Messenger out, who attacked you first? Do you fear them? It is God you should fear if you are true believers. (14) Fight them: God will punish them at your hands, He will disgrace them, He will help you to conquer them, He will heal the believers’ feelings (15) and remove the rage from their hearts. God turns to whoever He will in His mercy; God is all knowing and wise.
a. Kafara bi (something)’ in Arabic can mean ‘disown (something)’ (al-Mu jamal-Wasit), so kuffar here could also mean ‘those who disown [the treaty]‘.
b. Inside or outside the Sanctuary in Mecca.
c. In this context, this definitely refers to the ones who broke the treaty. The article here is andiya (specific) referring to what has already been stated.
The hostility and ‘bitter enmity’ of the polytheists and their fitna (persecution: 2: 193; 8: 39) of the Muslims during the time of the Prophet became so great that the disbelievers were determined to convert the Muslims back to paganism or finish them off: ‘They will not stop fighting you [believers] until they make you revoke your faith, if they can’ (2: 217). It was these hardened polytheists in Arabia, who would accept nothing other than the expulsion of the Muslims or their reversion to paganism, and who repeatedly broke their treaties, that the Muslims were ordered to treat in the same way—either to expel them or to accept nothing from them except Islam. But, even then, the Prophet and the Muslims were not simply to pounce on such enemies, reciprocating by breaking the treaty themselves: an ultimatum was issued, giving the enemy notice that, after the four sacred months mentioned in 9: 5 above, the Muslims would wage war on them
Yet the main clause of the sentence—kill the polytheists’ —is singled out by some non-Muslims as representing the Islamic attitude to war; even some Muslims take this view and allege that this verse abrogated many other verses, including ‘There is no compulsion in religion’ (2: 256) and even, according to one solitary extremist, ‘God is forgiving and merciful’. This far-fetched interpretation isolates and decontextualizes a small part of a sentence and of a passage, 9: 1-15, which gives many reasons for the order to fight such polytheists: they continually broke their agreements and aided others against the Muslims, they started hostilities against the Muslims, barred others from becoming Muslims, expelled them from the Holy Mosque and even from their own homes. At least eight times the passage mentions the misdeeds of these people against the Muslims. Moreover, ‘consistent with restrictions on war elsewhere in the Qur’an, the immediate context of this ‘sword verse’ exempts such polytheists as do not break their agreements and who keep the peace with the Muslims (9: 7); it orders that those enemies seeking safe conduct should be protected and delivered to the place of safety they seek (9: 6). The whole of this context to verse 5, with all its restrictions, is ignored by those who simply isolate one part of a sentence to build on it their theory of war and violence in Islam.
16. The asbab al-nuzul are found in Qur’an commentaries. They identify the circumstances of the revelations and refer to names and details of what actually happened.
17. N. J. Dawood’s translation, The Koran, Penguin Classics (Harmondsworth, 1990).
18. See Abdel Haleem, Understanding the Qur’an.
The comment below from Momo refers to the letter from Muslim scholars to Al-Bahgdadi, the ‘Caliph’ of the ‘Islamic State’ (IS). One of their many criticisms of IS is the incorrect way in which they interpret the Qu’ran:
With regards to Qur’anic exegesis, and the understanding of Hadith , and issue in legal theory in general, the methodology set forth by God in the Qur’an and the Prophet ﷺ in the Hadith is as follows: to consider everything that has been revealed relating to a particular question in its entirety, without depending on only parts of it, and then to judge—if one is qualified—based on all available scriptural sources.
God ﷻsays: ‘… What, do you believe in part of the Book, and disbelieve in part? …’ (Al-Baqarah , 2:85);‘… they pervert words from their contexts; and they have forgotten a portion of what they were reminded of… ’ (Al-Ma’idah , 5:13); ‘… those who have reduced the Recitation, to parts ’ (Al-Hijr , 15:91).
Once all relevant scriptural passages have been gathered, the ‘general’ has to be distinguished from the ‘specific’, and the ‘conditional’ from the ‘unconditional’. Also, the ‘unequivocal’ passages have to be distinguished from the allegorical ones.
Moreover, the reasons and circumstances for revelation (asbab al-nuzul ) for all the passages and verses, in addition to all the other hermeneutical conditions that the classical imams have specified, must be understood.
Therefore, it is not permissible to quote a verse, or part of a verse, without thoroughly considering and comprehending everything that the Qur’an and Hadith relate about that point.
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