Islamaphobes often like to promote the idea that ‘Islam was spread by the sword’. They proclaim that Islam advocates forced conversion. To support this position, they note that the Prophet Muhammad once said:
“I have been commanded to fight the people until they say there is no God but one God, and whoever says there is no God but one God, his wealth and his life are safe from me, except for a right that is due, and his reckoning will be with God, the Mighty and Sublime.”
This cherry picked saying has been likewise misused by radicals to justify committing attacks towards those who have not embraced Islam. Although there are numerous passages in the Quran which affirm the position that religious coercion is strictly prohibited, these groups rely upon this passage to validate their own counter position.
In Islamic scholarship the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad are symbiotic; with the Quran, however, being the primary authority. When a quote, such as this, seems to be in contradiction with the primary authority, scholars begin their analysis by verifying the source of the material and then contextualizing. According to scholars this narration has been received through an authentic source; however, the context is not what Islamaphobes and radicals claim. Not a single Islamic Scholar throughout history has supported the claim that this text is saying that Muslims are to fight people of other faiths until they submit to Islam.
The key point to understanding the above saying lies in the word “people”. Within the text, the word “people” refers to a specific group of people, the polytheists of Arabia. During this time, the Arabian polytheists abused and mistreated the Muslims. In fact, they made life for the Muslims so unbearable that the Muslims were forced from their homes to a new city. However, the Arabian polytheists persisted and followed that Muslims to their new home and continued to suppress them. In this context, the Prophet Muhammad received the following verse and made the above announcement:
“And kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out, and persecution is severer than slaughter, and do not fight with them at the Sacred Mosque until they fight with you in it, but if they do fight you, then slay them; such is the recompense of the unbelievers.” 2:191
The above verse, along with the historical context, shows that the quote from the Prophet Muhammad was not promoting forced conversions to Islam. It is clear that both the quote and the verse from the Quran are dealing with a specific group of people and a specific time in history. This was a particular dispensation to manage a dire situation for the Muslims; it allowed the Muslims to react in self-defense against a specific group of people, a group of people who were persecuting the Muslims, did not honor agreements and did not allow for the opportunity of co-existence.