By Abu Amina Elias
What is the meaning of the Hadith, “I have been commanded to fight people until they say there is no God but Allah”?
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
This tradition refers to fighting a specific group of idolaters who were waging a war of aggression against the Muslim community. It does not mean Muslims should force people to enter Islam or fight all people in general.
We should bring together all the narrations and verses that mention the context in which the Prophet made this statement and interpret them comprehensively and consistently, rather than taking a single narration out of context. Other narrations make clear that “fighting the people” here refers to the Arab tribes who rebelled against the authority of the Muslim community in Mecca after the city was liberated from the idolatrous aristocracy. The demand for them to accept Islam was not to compel individuals to practice Islam, but rather to compel them to accept that the holy city would no longer serve as a pilgrimage site for idols.
Jabir reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
أُمِرْتُ أَنْ أُقَاتِلَ النَّاسَ حَتَّى يَقُولُوا لَا إِلَهَ إِلَّا اللَّهُ فَإِذَا قَالُوا لَا إِلَهَ إِلَّا اللَّهُ عَصَمُوا مِنِّي دِمَاءَهُمْ وَأَمْوَالَهُمْ إِلَّا بِحَقِّهَا وَحِسَابُهُمْ عَلَى اللَّهِ
I have been commanded to fight the people until they say there is no God but Allah, so when they say there is no God but Allah then their lives and wealth are protected from me, except by right of justice, and their reckoning is with Allah.
Then the Prophet recited the verse:
إِنَّمَا أَنْتَ مُذَكِّرٌ لَسْتَ عَلَيْهِمْ بِمُصَيْطِرٍ
Verily, you are only a reminder. You are not over them as a dictator. (88:22)
Source: Sahih Muslim 21, Grade: Sahih
In another narration, the Prophet said:
أُمِرْتُ أَنْ أُقَاتِلَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ
I have been commanded to fight the idolaters…
Source: Sunan Abu Dawud 2642
After declaring the command to fight these specific idolaters, the Prophet recited verses affirming that his duty is only to deliver the message of Islam, which indicates that he was not sanctioning compulsion in religion.
Ibn Rajab comments on this tradition, saying:
وَالْمَعْنَى إِنَّمَا عَلَيْكَ تَذْكِيرُهُمْ بِاللَّهِ وَدَعْوَتُهُمْ إِلَيْهِ وَلَسْتَ مُسَلَّطًا عَلَى إِدْخَالِ الْإِيمَانِ فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ قَهْرًا وَلَا مُكَلَّفًا بِذَلِكَ
The meaning is that your duty is only to remind them about Allah and to preach to them. You do not have authority to enter faith into their hearts by force and you are not responsible for that.
Source: Jami’ Uloom wal-Hikam 8
The Prophet was commanded by Allah to fight the idolaters in order to defend his community from their aggression, but if they stopped waging war against Islam then there was no justification for fighting them.
وَقَاتِلُوهُمْ حَتَّىٰ لَا تَكُونَ فِتْنَةٌ وَيَكُونَ الدِّينُ لِلَّهِ ۖ فَإِنِ انتَهَوْا فَلَا عُدْوَانَ إِلَّا عَلَى الظَّالِمِينَ
Fight them until there is no more persecution and worship is for Allah. But if they cease, then there is to be no aggression except against the oppressors.
Surat Al-Baqarah 2:193
And Allah said:
فَإِنِ اعْتَزَلُوكُمْ فَلَمْ يُقَاتِلُوكُمْ وَأَلْقَوْا إِلَيْكُمُ السَّلَمَ فَمَا جَعَلَ اللَّهُ لَكُمْ عَلَيْهِمْ سَبِيلًا
So if they remove themselves from you and do not fight you and offer you peace, then Allah has not made for you a cause for fighting against them.
Surat An-Nisa 4:90
Hence, the people to be fought are only those who persist in aggression and hostility against Islam. On the contrary, Islam requires Muslims to make peace with whoever offers them terms of peace.
Ibn Taymiyyah comments on this tradition, saying:
مُرَادُهُ قِتَالُ الْمُحَارِبِينَ الَّذِينَ أَذِنَ اللَّهُ فِي قِتَالِهِمْ لَمْ يُرِدْ قِتَالَ الْمُعَاهَدِينَ الَّذِينَ أَمَرَ اللَّهُ بِوَفَاءِ عَهْدِهِمْ
The meaning of this tradition is to fight those who are waging war whom Allah has called us to fight, and it does not mean to fight those who have made peace with whom Allah has commanded us to fulfill their peace.
Source: Majmu’ Al-Fatawa 19/20
It was not necessary for these idolaters to accept Islam in order to make peace with Muslims. If they discontinued their hostilities against the Muslims and sought asylum, then the Muslims were required to grant them protection and safe passage even if they did not accept Islam.
وَإِنْ أَحَدٌ مِّنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ اسْتَجَارَكَ فَأَجِرْهُ حَتَّىٰ يَسْمَعَ كَلَامَ اللَّهِ ثُمَّ أَبْلِغْهُ مَأْمَنَهُ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ بِأَنَّهُمْ قَوْمٌ لَّا يَعْلَمُونَ
If any one of the idolaters seeks your protection, then grant him protection so that he may hear the words of Allah and then deliver him to his place of safety. That is because they are people who do not know.
Surat At-Tawbah 9:6
Moreover, numerous verses of the Quran prohibit compulsion in religion and affirm the freedom of people to practice their own religion.
لَا إِكْرَاهَ فِي الدِّينِ ۖ قَد تَّبَيَّنَ الرُّشْدُ مِنَ الْغَيِّ
There shall be no compulsion in the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong.
Surat Al-Baqarah 2:256
And Allah said:
وَلَوْ شَاءَ رَبُّكَ لَآمَنَ مَن فِي الْأَرْضِ كُلُّهُمْ جَمِيعًا ۚ أَفَأَنتَ تُكْرِهُ النَّاسَ حَتَّىٰ يَكُونُوا مُؤْمِنِينَ
Had your Lord willed, those on earth would have believed, all of them entirely. Then would you compel the people in order that they become believers?
Surat Yunus 10:99
And Allah said:
وَقُلِ الْحَقُّ مِن رَّبِّكُمْ ۖ فَمَن شَاءَ فَلْيُؤْمِن وَمَن شَاءَ فَلْيَكْفُرْ
Say: The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills let him believe, and whoever wills let him disbelieve.
Surat Al-Kahf 18:29
The Prophet never forced anyone to become a Muslim and he only fought to defend his community from aggression.
Ibn Al-Qayyim writes:
وَلَمْ يُكْرِهْ أَحَدًا قَطُّ عَلَى الدِّينِ وَإِنَّمَا كَانَ يُقَاتِلُ مَنْ يُحَارِبُهُ وَيُقَاتِلُهُ وَأَمَّا مَنْ سَالَمَهُ وَهَادَنَهُ فَلَمْ يُقَاتِلْهُ وَلَمْ يُكْرِهْهُ عَلَى الدُّخُولِ فِي دِينِهِ
The Prophet never forced the religion upon anyone, but rather he only fought those who waged war against him and fought him. As for those who made peace with him or conducted a truce, then he never fought them and he never compelled them to enter his religion
Source: Hidayat Al-Hayara 237
Therefore, the tradition under discussion refers to fighting a particular group of hostile idolaters who had been persecuting Muslims and waging a war of aggression. It does not mean Muslims are allowed to force anyone into Islam or to fight people just because they have another religion.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.