Surah Muhammad or Al-Qital is one of the few Chapters in the Qur’an that has two names. Other examples of such chapters include chapters 9 (at-Tawbah or Bara’ah), no. 17 (Al-Isra’ or Bani Isra’il) and no. 40 (Ghafir or Al-Mu’min). Its first name (Muhammad) is derived from from verse 2, which implies that in it the Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) is mentioned by name (this occurs 5 times in total in the whole Qur’an). The name Al-Qital, which means ‘battle’, is derived from verse 20 “..and fighting is mentioned therein..” with ‘therein’ referring to the chapter itself.
This chapter was sent down after the Hijrah in Madinah. This was during the early years following the Hijrah, so active fighting was not undertaken yet.
This Chapter was sent down during a time when Muslims were the target of persecution – in Makkah as well as the Arabian Peninsula in general. The small settlement of Madinah was surrounded by enemy forces. Thus, there was a need to wage war, for it would be difficult for any new settlement to thrive in such a hostile environment otherwise.
The Muslims were first given permission to fight in Surah Al Hajj, verse 39 :
أُذِنَ لِلَّذِينَ يُقَـٰتَلُونَ بِأَنَّهُم ظُلِمُواْۚ وَإِنَّ ٱللَّهَ عَلَىٰ نَصرِهِم لَقَدِيرٌ (٣٩
“To those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight), because they are wronged – and verily, Allah is Most Powerful for their aid-”
and then fighting was further enjoined in Surah Al Baqarah, verse 190:
وَقَـٰتِلُواْ فِى سَبِيلِ ٱللَّهِ ٱلَّذِينَ يُقَـٰتِلُونَكُم وَلَا تَعتَدُوٓاْۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ لَا يُحِبُّ ٱلمُعتَدِينَ (١٩٠
“Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loves not transgressors”
Now, a platform has been given for the Muslims to properly establish themselves. Note that there were only a handful of Muslims in Madinah, and they had barely a thousand soldiers; and despite this they were urged to stand up against the pagan forces of the rest of Arabia. Also, being a mere group of emigrants, they were suffering economically and thus lacked the resources for basic needs, much less the resources for battle. It is at times like this that the beauty and majesty of faith is realized, as we will discover.
The theme of this chapter is to prepare the believers for war and to give them preliminary instructions in this regard. This is another reason why it has been titled al-Qital. The following is an outline of the topics addressed in this chapter:-
It begins by illustrating two groups of people, which will become a further topic of discussion later in the chapter. The first is described as those who reject Allah and prevent others from His path, and the second group is described as those who believe in Allah and the revelation sent to Muhammad (pbuh). He renders the deeds of the former group fruitless and in vain, and rectifies the affairs of the latter group.
This is followed by basic guidelines as to what should be employed in the battle against enemy forces. This includes instructions with regards to dealing with captives (as per the example of Badr). The merits of martyrdom are then mentioned. Afterwards, a warning is given to the people of Makkah who have driven out Muhammad (pbuh). This shows that victory is already in the hands of the believers, and that the consequences of incurring injustice (zulm) are dire.
Surah Muhammad is not the only chapter in which the tactics of battle are laid out. It is also mentioned in Surah at-Tawbah, verse 123:
يَـٰأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُواْ قَـٰتِلُواْ ٱلَّذِينَ يَلُونَكُم مِّنَ ٱلكُفَّارِ وَليَجِدُواْ فِيكُم غِلظَةًۚ
“o you who believe! Fight the disbelievers who are close to you, and let them find harshness in you”
(‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali translates ‘يَلُونَكُم ٱلَّذِينَ‘ as ‘those who gird you about’ instead of ‘those who are close to you’)
It is easy to misconstrue this verse without a proper guide. The ‘closeness’ referred to here is in terms of proximity. Thus why the Muslims began by fighting the enemies in the Arabian Peninsula, and afterwards advanced towards the Romans, and so on.
The Muslims did not only face enemies from the outside; there were also enemies within their community. Thus the chapter addresses the hypocrites, giving an accurate description of them (and an even more precise one later in chapter 63). Allah mentions their signs and then says that their secrets are not unknown to Him. This makes up almost half of the contents of this chapter. Put simply, the hypocrites were unwilling to go to war, and conspired with external forces to save themselves. This was definitely unfavourable to the Muslim army and must be dealt with before they can actually go to battle.
Afterwards, the chapter elaborates the differences between the believers and those who reject faith. Such differences only manifest when the Ummah is tried. Those who have faith will persevere and those who do not will flee, thinking that their lives are in their own hands. Those who persevere will be granted victory and those without faith have rendered their own deeds invalid. Thus a lesson in faith is taught in this scenario: one either worships Allah or himself. To have faith in Allah is to know that everything has already been taken care of, and such is the state of Sabr. This is reiterated in verse 35, when Allah says “…when you should be uppermost”, which means that these people have indeed been lifted in ranks.
And Allah knows.