Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
They ask you about the sacred month and fighting in it. Say, ‘Fighting during the month is a great offense, but to bar others from God’s path, to disbelieve in Him, prevent access to the Sacred Mosque, and expel its people, are still greater offenses in God’s eyes: persecution is worse than killing.’ They will not stop fighting you until they make you revoke your faith, if they can. If any of you revoke your faith and die as disbelievers, your deeds will come to nothing in this world and the Hereafter, and you will be inhabitants of the Fire, there to remain. (Chapter 2: Verse 217)
The verse starts with the phrase: ’They ask you about the sacred month and fighting in it.’ The question being asked is not about the sacred months because these months were well known even before Islam; rather the question is about fighting during these months. What is the point of the question? We answer that the question was meant to be a provocative one, and there is a story behind it.
We know that there are twelve months in a lunar year, and God made four of them sacred: Rajab (which is the 7th month), and then three consecutive months: Thul Qi'dah (which is the 11th month), Thul ?ijjah, and Mu?arram (which is the first month of the Hijri year.) They are called sacred months because fighting is forbidden in them. God knows that people, especially adversaries, have pride over each other; thus God made shields to protect people’s lives and pride. From amongst these shields is the ban on fighting during the sacred months and in sacred places. War may harm the warrior, but his pride and anger often prevent him from stopping the fight; so wars often rage for years at terrible costs to all parties. Allah –the All-Merciful- says to the warriors: stop fighting during these months because I have forbidden it. Leaders and soldiers may wish deeply that someone would intervene to stop the war, but their pride and anger prevents them from stepping back. They do not want to look weak or cowardly. But when the divine law intervenes, each side has a valid reason to back off while protecting its pride against shame. Similarly, God made some places sacred so people can say that God is the One who forbade fighting in their vicinity; such places also provide a path for peace while protecting everyone’s pride.
Our Lord wants to guard man against bloodshed. If waring countries abstain from fighting for three consecutive months, they will get a taste of peace, comfort, and tranquillity; people start to favor peace and would think twice before fighting again. On the other hand, if war raged throughout the year, the fire of anger would remain kindled in every soul.
The story behind this verse is one where Quraysh and the Jewish tribes of Medina tried to stir up divisions and foster doubt within the Muslims. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) used to routinely send a small number of fighters to scout enemy positions and movements. Once, the Prophet dispatched a unit consisting of nine individuals headed by his cousin Abdullah al-Asadi. He, peace be upon him- handed Abdullah a letter and instructed him not to open it until two days into the journey. This was a measure of precaution to assure that no one knew where the scouts were headed. After proceeding for two nights, Abdullah opened the letter. It instructed the group to go to Nakhla -a place between Mecca and Taif- to survey the caravans of Quraysh. The letter also instructed for this mission to be voluntary, so each person in the team had the freedom to go or not.
During travel, Saad bin Abi Waqas’ and Uqba bin Ghazwan’s camels wondered off, so they went looking for them leaving only six fighters with Abdullah. The six men proceeded to Nakhla where they found Amr ibn Hadrami along with three other men with the caravan of Quraysh. A skirmish started and turned into a full fight in which the son of Al-Hadrami was killed, and two of Quraysh’s fighters were captured.
The companions thought it was the last day of the month of Jumada, while in reality, it was the first day of Rajab which is a sacred month. When the companions found out, they realized that they had killed, captured and gathered spoils during a sacred month. In short, they had inadvertently acted contrary to Islamic teachings. This incident exposed the Muslims to the wrath of the Arabs who started to say that Muhammad claims to respect sanctities, yet his people fought in the holy month, shed our blood, took our money, and captured our men. So the Prophet (peace be upon him) abstained from taking the spoils and the prisoners until God sent His ruling in the following verse:
They ask you about the sacred month and fighting in it. Say, ‘Fighting during the month is a great offense, but to bar others from God’s path, to disbelieve in Him, prevent access to the Sacred Mosque, and expel its people, are still greater offenses in God’s eyes: persecution is worse than killing.’ They will not stop fighting you until they make you revoke your faith if they can. If any of you revoke your faith and die as disbelievers, your deeds will come to nothing in this world and the Hereafter, and you will be inhabitants of the Fire, there to remain. (2:217)
God explains: We acknowledge that fighting in the sacred month is a grave sin, but O Quraysh look at what you have done; compare your actions to ours. You claim that fighting in the sacred month is a great sin, while you disbelieve in God, prevent people from God’s path, deny the Muslims access to the Sacred Mosque, and force the Muslim residents of Mecca out of their homes. These sins are far greater in the sight of God than fighting in a sacred month. People who behave like you should not be morally outraged over one day of fighting during a sacred month that happened by error. Do not use one aspect of faith as an excuse to attack others when your behavior on a daily basis is a violation of faith as a whole. Yes, it is true that fighting in the Holy Month is a great sin; but working tirelessly to corrupt the believer’s faith and violating the sanctity of the Sacred House by worshipping idols in it is far worse.