1. The critique of the battle opens with this unusual note. Some disagreements
had arisen among the Muslims with regard to sharing the spoils of war. As it
was their first experience of fighting under the banner of Islam, the Muslim
soldiers had scarcely any notion of the regulations they were required to follow
on the battlefield and for settling problems arising from warfare. Doubtlessly
some preliminary instructions had been laid down for them in
(Surah al-Baqarah 2 )and
(Surah Muhammad 47), (See 2: 190 ff. and 47: 4 ff. - Ed.) However the full
set of regulations that could contribute to civilizing the conduct of warfare
had yet to be laid down. Hence, when it came to war as with several other societal
matters, the Muslims were still under the influence of pre-Islamic ideas and
concepts. Going by the age-old Arab customs, those who had seized the spoils
of war considered themselves their sole and legitimate owners. On the other
hand, the Muslims who had concentrated on driving away the enemy rather than
on collecting the spoils, claimed that they deserved an equal share of the spoils.
They contended that had they slackened in their duty of pursuing the enemy,
the latter might have struck back, turning the Muslim victory into a defeat.
Similarly, another group of Muslims who had escorted the Prophet (peace he on
him) on the battlefield, also laid claim to an equal share, For, they believed,
it was they who had rendered an invaluable service insofar as neglect of duty
on their part might have resulted in endangering the precious life of the Prophet
(peace be on him), in which case the possibility of victory and its attendant
spoils and their distribution would all have been totally out of the question.
Nonetheless, the group of Muslims who already possessed the spoils saw no merit
in these claims. Arguments and counter-arguments gave rise to bitterness and
bad blood. (For disagreements among Muslims on the question of distribution
of spoils of war see Ibn Hisham, vol. 1. pp. 641-2; al-Waqadi, vol. 1, p. 78.
See also the comments on the verse in Qurtubi and Ibn Kathir - Ed.)
It was at this juncture that God revealed the present surah. The opening verse takes up this issue. 'They ask you concerning anfal' is the query with which the surah opens. The very use of the word anfal instead of ghana'im in the query implies the answer. For the word anfal, which is the plural of nafl, stands for that which is extra, that which is over and above what is obligatory. If this extra is from the servant, it denotes that additional service which he voluntarily renders over and above what is obligatory. On the other hand, when this extra is from the master, it denotes the additional reward which the master awards his servant over and above what he is entitled to. What is being conveyed here by using the word anfal is, in fact, that all wrangling about spoils is out of place since it concerns not their rights, but the additional rewards they might receive from God. Any and all heated discussion in which they engaged was irrelevant since it was entirely for God to decide whether He should grant any extra reward or not; and if He should grant it, then how much, and to whom. In short, it was not for men to say who should and who should not receive any party of the spoils.
This was a major conceptual reform. The war that a Muslim wages is not in order to accumulate worldly benefits. He resorts to it for the moral and social reform of the world and does so when the opposing forces make it impossible to bring about reform by means of persuasion and preaching. Being reformers, the Muslims should focus their attentions on their goal - the reform of the world - rather than on the material benefits which accrue to them incidental by way of God's additional reward in lieu of their strivings. If the attention of Muslims is not diverted from material benefits to their true mission, it is likely that material benefits would become an end in themselves.
Moreover, the concept introduced by the Qur'an (see the verse above) also brought about a major administrative reform pertaining to war and the spoils of war. Before the advent of Islam, a soldier used to appropriate all that he could lay his hands on, claiming to be its rightful owner, or else spoils were seized either by; the king or the commander of the army. In the former case, mutual conflicts ensued among soldiers of the victorious army, with the frequent result that their victory turned into defeat. On the other hand, if the spoils were seized by the commander of the army or the ruler, soldiers often concealed and stole the spoils. By declaring that the spoils belong to God and His Messenger, the Qur'an made it obligatory on all soldiers to commit all the spoils of war to the custody of the commander, concealing not even something as trivial as a sewing needle. Subsequently the Qur'an laid down an elaborate set of laws to distribute the spoils of war. According to it, one-fifth of the spoils is to be deposited in the public treasury for public welfare and to provide support for the poor, while four-fifths is to be distributed among the soldiers. (al-Anfal 8: 41 - Ed.)It thus put an end to the evils inherent in the old system.
A subtle point implicit in the above verse should not he overlooked. In the opening verse of the Surah nothing has been said beyond affirming the principle that the spoils belong to God and His Messenger. The problem as to how the spoils should be distributed was not touched upon. The Qur'an does however subsequently treat the question of distribution see (verse 41) below. It is significant that in this second instance the word used is a verbal derivative of ghanimah (spoils, booty) see (verse 41 )below whereas in the opening verse the word used is anfal.
2. A man's faith grows as he is able to confirm and submit to the command
of God which he comes across. This is especially so where he submits to commands
which go against his own personal predilections. A man's faith attains great
heights if instead of trying to twist and distort the commands of God and the
Prophet (peace he on him), he develops the habit of accepting and submitting
to all the commands of God and the Prophet (peace be on him); if he strives
to shape his conduct to the teachings which go against his personal opinions
and conceptions, which are contrary to his habits, interests and convenience,
which are not in consonance with his loyalties and friendships. For if he hesitates
to respond positively to God's command, his faith is diminished. One thus learns
that faith is not a static, immobile object. Nor is every, act of belief, or
unbelief, of the same quality. An act of belief may be better or worse than
another act of belief. Likewise, an act of unbelief may differ in quality from
another act of unbelief. For both belief and unbelief, are capable of growth
All this concerns the essence of belief and unbelief. However, when belief and unbelief are mentioned as a basis for membership of the Muslim community or in connection with legal rights and responsibilities as necessary corollaries of that membership, a clear line of demarcation has to be drawn between those who believe and those who do not. In this respect the determination of who is a believer and who is not will depend on the basic minimum of belief regardless of quality of belief. In an Islamic society all those who believe will be entitled to the same legal rights and will be required to fulfil the same duties regardless of the differences in the quality of their faith. Likewise, all unbelievers - regardless of the differences in the quality of their unbelief - will be placed in the category of unbelievers disregarding the question whether their unbelief is of an ordinary quality or an extremely serious one.
3. Even the best and the most devoted believers are liable to commit lapses. As long as man is man, it is impossible for his record to be filled exclusively with righteousness of the highest order and to be free from all lapses, shortcomings and weaknesses. Out of His infinite mercy, however, God overlooks man's shortcomings as long as he fulfils the basic duties incumbent upon him as God's servant, and favours him with a reward far greater than that warranted by his good works. Had it been a rule that man would be judged strictly on the basis of his deeds, that he would be punished for every evil deed and rewarded for every good deed, no man, howsoever righteous, would have escaped punishment.
4. When the people in question were required to fight, they were disinclined
to do so for they felt that they were being driven to death and destruction.
Their condition is somewhat similar for they are now required not to contend
about spoils of war and wait for God's command as to how the spoils of war should
This verse could also mean that if Muslims obeyed God and followed the Prophet (peace be on him) rather than their own desires, they would witness as good a result as they witnessed on the occasion of the Battle of Badr. On this occasion too many were reluctant to take on the Quraysh and considered it nothing short of suicide see( verse 6). But when they obeyed the command of God and His Prophet (peace be on him), it proved to be a source of life and survival.
Incidentally, this statement in the Qur'in implicitly negates reports usually mentioned in the works of Sirah and Maghazi and which suggest that the Prophet (peace be on him) and his Companions had initially set out from Madina in order to raid the trading caravan of the Quraysh, and that it was only when they came to know that the Quraysh army was advancing to provide protection to the trading caravan that the Muslims were faced with the option of either attacking the caravan or the Quraysh army. The Qur'anic version is quite contrary. Accordingly, from the moment when the Prophet (peace be on him) set out from his house, he was intent upon a decisive battlewith the Quraysh. In addition, the decision as to whether the Muslims should confront the trading caravan or the army was taken at the very beginning rather than later on. It is also evident that even though it was quite clear that it was essential to confront the Quraysh army, a group of Muslims tried to avoid it and kept pleading for their viewpoint. Even when a firm decision had been taken that the Muslims would attack the Quraysh army rather than the caravan, this group set out for the encounter with the view that they were being driven to death and destruction.See (verses 5-8). Cf. al-Waqidi. vol. 1, pp. 19-21; Ibn Sa'd, vol. 2. pp. 11-14 - Ed.)
5. God's promise was that the Muslims would be able to overcome whichever of the two parties they wished to attack - the trading caravan or the Quraysh army.
6. This refers to the trading caravan which had some 30 to 40 armed guards for protection.
7. This gives some idea of the prevalent situation at the time. As we have said earlier (see above, p. 128), the march of the Quraysh towards Madina meant that only one of the two would survive in Arabia - either Islam or the entrenched system of Jahiliyah (Ignorance). Had the Muslims not taken up the challenge, the very survival of Islam would have been imperilled. But since the Muslims took the initiative and dealt a severe blow to the military strength of the Quraysh it became possible for Islam to consolidate itself and subsequently the forces of Ignorance suffered a succession of humiliating reverses.