Kill the unbelievers wherever you find them

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),[16] 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 [17] 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 [18] 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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About David Gerald Fincham

Retired academic scientist.
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  • gfmucci .

    Muslims kill other Muslims and non-Muslims in great numbers – in the name of Islam – and for the sake of Allah – every day. Jihad is Islam. No contrived “moral equivalency” please. There is none.

    • Walk Tall Hang Loose

      Mr. Abdul Haleem whose English translation of the Quran I quote above is a professor of Islamic studies at the University of London. He knows more about orthodox Islam than you do. I have lived in a Muslim country and have had many Muslim friends and colleagues. I know far more about what the great majority of Muslims favor than you do, and I assure you they are not thinking about ‘jihad against the infidel’. By the way, the ‘unbelievers’ in the Quran are the polytheistic religious leaders who persecuted Mohammad and his followers. Christians and Jews are not ‘infidels’.

      You have been confused by thinking that the Wahhabi sect of Saudi Arabia is ‘orthodox Islam’. It is not, it is an extreme intolerant and violent sect which is behind the 9/11 attacks, Alquaeda, the Taliban, Isis, the Saudi Arabian bombing of the Shia Muslims in Yemen, and the terrorist attacks in Europe by local Muslims who have been radicalized in mosques funded by Saudi Arabia and their Saudi Arabian Imams.

      • gfmucci .

        Point 1: Muslims try to follow the example of Muhammad. If Muhammad were alive today, he would be the perfect Wahhabi, or worse (or “better” from Islamic perspective.) Islamic doctrine teaches that Muhammad was the most perfect human.Go figure.

        Point 2: You’ve known “many Muslim friends and colleagues.” Great. Many “Muslim friends next door” or “at work” who were thought to be your “typical ‘moderate’ Muslims” have proven themselves to be anything but. Many atrocities, aka “jihad attacks” were carried out by the “nice Muslim next door” or “at work.”

        Point 3: A significant Islamic doctrine is taqiyya. Being as well versed as you claim, I’m sure you know all about that.

        Point 4: Islamic doctrine also promotes the idea of not making friends with the infidel. Be a friend outwardly but not inwardly. They avoid true assimilation. I’m sure you know all about that as well, but fail to acknowledge it to yourself.

        Point: 5: Of course there are apostate Muslims who disbelieve or do not practice the mainstream doctrines I mentioned above. But I must ask myself why they persist in identifying as “Muslim” if they 1) do not wish to emulate the life of Muhammad, or even believe in the actions he lived by and promoted, 2) why they don’t believe in the other widely believed in and practiced orthodox doctrines I described.

        Point 6: Zuhdi Jasser in the US is a perfect example of a self-proclaimed “devout Muslim” who interprets NONE of the Islamic trilogy as being anti-freedom, anti-jihad, anti-woman, anti-gay, or anti-infidel. But for some perhaps “strange to you” reasons, none of the mosques in the US endorse his apostate version of Islam.

        Point 7: The interpretation of Islamic scripture is manifest in the actions taught and promoted by the great preponderance of Islamic leaders and scholars, and faithfully carried out by untold numbers of devout Muslim believers. Today, those actions speak volumes of how Islamic scripture is interpreted.

        Point 8: True, the closer a non-Muslim is to practicing Muslims, the more he will be deceived ty them. You apparently are a case in point.

        • Walk Tall Hang Loose

          What is your source for ‘Islamic doctrine’? I can only think that it is a Wahhabi source. Mainstream Islamic scholars denounce Wahhabism in strong terms, as a ‘vile sect’, ‘Satanic faith’ and ‘a source of global terrorism’. Wahhabis denounce other Muslims as takfir (apostates) and justify killing them. A Wahhabi would never say Muhammad was a perfect human being, because that would make him equal to God.

          To find out what the preponderance of Islamic scholars say about the Wahhabi-inspired jihadi groups read their letter to Al-Baghdadi

          • gfmucci .

            Sources: Qur’an, Hadith, Sira, and most of all: ISLAMIC ACTIONS AROUND THE WORLD.

            “Wahhabi would never say…” It sounds like you are equating the Islamic interpretation of Muhammad with Christian doctrine.
            There is no “man-God” in Islam. Islam has no “perfect” human being. No chance of equating Muhammad with Allah. The closest they get is Muhammad – not “perfect”, but the “most perfect” human to be emulated in all ways. Not just the view of Wahhabi.

          • David Gerald Fincham

            You continue to make assertions without backing them up with evidence. If you want to cite the Qu’ran or the hadith you have to give the exact verse, or no-one can check what you say. Since I doubt you can read classical Arabic, you also need to say which English translation you are using.

            For example: you say that it is a Muslim doctrine that Muhammad is the most perfect human. I have never read or heard a Muslim saying that. What they do say is that all the prophets are of equal importance.

            You say that most Muslims favor jihad against the unbelievers. That is certainly incorrect since Islam is based on the Qu’ran and as I have have explained in my post the Qu’ran clearly permits only defensive war. The only Islamic actions around the world today which promote offensive jihad against non-Muslims or Muslims of other sects are those inspired by the Wahhabis.

            You say that if Muhammad were alive today he would be a Wahhabi. What do you mean by that, and how do you know?

            I suspect you have never talked to a Muslim about his faith, and that what you say is picked up from some Islamophobic website, which you believe because you want to believe it – why, I have no idea.

          • gfmucci .

            Why do you continue to be blind to what is going on in the Islamic world? Why are you basing your view of the Qur’an as a “wishful thinker” unless you, yourself desires to promote deception as well?

            Evidence of the truth of what I say is all around, with 10’s of thousands of victims of Islamic jihad – millions if you count all of Islamic history, yet you continue to deny the reality.

            I’m done here. A time waster.

          • David Gerald Fincham

            I do not deny that there have been tens of thousands of victims of Islamic jihad since 2001 – and all of them have been inspired by the Wahhabi distortion of orthodox Islam emanating from Saudi Arabia.

            It is not a waste of time to provide evidence for statements made: that is how human knowledge grows.

          • Johan Stavers

            Fuck your ‘classical Arabic’. The onus of proof is NOT on non-Muslims to proof the problem is not in the religion. ALL signs point in that direction…at the same time their are infinite ways to evade or distort the truth about this junk. Fuck your knowledge: IT IS WORTHLESS. it is knowledge about total hateful crap. Just like NAZIS had extensive knowledge about their crap you might be knowledgeable about the subtleness associated with worshiping the devil…we don’t care!

          • cantloginas_Momo

            Well, that meltdown came quickly. Thank you for expressing so clearly that you have neither knowledge nor arguments for this discussion.

          • Johan Stavers

            How is your response ‘knowledgeable’ or in any way an argument?

            Apparently you are in favor of Islamization.

          • David Gerald Fincham

            Hello Momo, welcome back.

          • cantloginas_Momo

            Thank you. I have never been far away.

      • Jimmy Smith

        You’re a fool, it says kill any body causing fitna and corruption in the land or world

        If the US army is in Muslim lands killing people and the western people join the military knowing that they will go to kill Muslims. Then they are required to kill the invaders and seek revenge too for their persecution and fitna.

        If you’re around wrong doers who drink and commit acts of usury, then you need to force them to stop. If they resist with violence then you get violent also

  • Johan Stavers

    You don’t even need to read this smokescreen article.
    People act on ‘Kill the unbelievers wherever you find them’ and whether that is a misinterpretation (which it is not) is irrelevant. The fact is that people do read it this way and that by itself is enough for Mohammedanism (yes, that is right, fuck your ‘submission’ ) to be poison. Religion is bullshit to begin with. People who believe in things that are not there are actually just insane and should not be treated with respect but like pariahs.
    You want to ‘kill the unbelievers where you find them’? That you believe that is enough justification for you to be a laughing atheist who is sure you won’t get your virgins because there is no afterlife.

    • David Gerald Fincham

      Every human being should be treated with respect, even the insane. Why do you disrespect the readers on this website by throwing swear words at them?

      • Johan Stavers

        If you want to focus on the swearwords instead of on the actual issue….I don’t know…have a nice day.

  • cantloginas_Momo

    Deutschlandfunk has a series of Islamic scholars explaining the Koran in daily portions (in German). Today they had “the so-called scandal-verses”. The author agrees perfectly with you, but had two things to add to your article 🙂

    The meaning of “fitna” switched from “oppression”, “torture”, “Ordeal” (you used “persecution”) in Mohammed’s lifetime to “upheaval”and “riot” in later centuries, which made it possible to interpret it as including unbelief, idolatry or heresy. This has nothing to do with what the verses are meant to express. They are not about what to do with people who don’t share one’s belief, but only about the principle to defend oneself against persecution, and insist on freedom of religion. Professor Özsoy sees the verses as equivalent with the UNESCO Declaration of Principles of Tolerance:

    “Consistent with respect for human rights, the practice of tolerance does not mean
    toleration of social injustice or the abandonment or weakening of one’s convictions.” (From Article 1.4)

    • Walk Tall Hang Loose

      Thank you.

  • cantloginas_Momo

    Thank you for debunking that particular claptrap so concisely. I always wonder if Islamophobes are aware that they argue in the same way as the worst terrorists. The open letter to Al Baghdadi details what rules must be applied when interpreting the Koran—something that both sorts of
    nasties disregard. I think Mohammed must have anticipated comment threads on the internet when he said: “Whoever speaks about the Qur’an without knowledge should await his seat in the Fire” 😉

    • Walk Tall Hang Loose

      Thanks for that. The Open Letter makes very informative reading. I was very intrigued in the ‘prophesy’ about IS from 1200 years ago.

      I have added the section about interpreting the Qu’ran at the end of the article above.

    • Johan Stavers

      hahaha..’a seat of fire’ for ‘Islamophobes’ brought to them by the holy curry-anus just proves them right…come on, don’t you see? ‘a great punishment awaits them’ hate speech!