Dictionary and Thesaurus
The immediate conditions that led to Muhammad speaking the words recorded in surah 8 were that Muhammad's followers had defeated an army from Medina. The victory was so complete that the men from Medina had fled, leaving much of their shelter, supplies, and equipment behind. Muhammad's followers began to discuss how the things they had acquired as a result of their victory - the spoils of war - should be divided. One should realize that the spoils being discussed are actually the symbol of all of the things that an individual might acquire in this world, and so God's teaching in surah 8 reveals the principles upon which the riches of this world (and the next) are divided.
This was an important point for the Muslims of the time. The family or clan, rather than the individual, was the traditional owner of wealth in Arab society. The land on which they pastured their flocks and the wells at which they watered them were not the possession of a person, but of a group of people related by blood. Their chief led them in defending these possessions and regulated their use. The traditional families and clans of Arab society had disintegrated in the course of the spread of Islam. Some members of families had accepted Islam while others had refused to do so. It is important to remember that the battle that had just been fought had been between blood relatives and that, in "The Spoils", the booty with which the Muslim victors was the possessions of families, clans, and tribes of which some of them had been members before they had been expelled. How could a member of the Quraysh family allow a member of the Hammadi clan to claim possession of goods that belonged to the Quraysh? One element of surah 8 is the principle that unbelievers -- people who have refused to accept Islam -- have offended God, and have lost some of their rights of possession as punishment for rejecting Islam.
But there was more to the matter than that, of course. If God has willed that the Muslims should acquire wealth from unbelievers, upon what principle should this wealth be distributed among the victors? There is a Western saying that To the victors belong the spoils, but surah 8 clearly states that the victors are only victors because God has given the victory to them. So how should the favor of God be divided among the faithful?
Even more pressing a question is that of why God has divided the wealth of the world in the way in which the Muslims find it. Why are unbelievers rich, while the followers of God are barely scraping by?
This is not a pressing matter for people in modern western capitalist societies and economies. We tend to believe that individuals compete for wealth and that it should rightfully belong to whoever is able to win it. Although we say that the competition should as fair as possible, we tend to believe that any means of competing is all right as long as you can get away with it. Put a bit less baldly, we believe that the winning of wealth justifies the methods employed by the man or woman who wins it. I suppose that our admiration for swindlers and thieves (The Flim-Flam Man, The Sting, Reynard the Fox, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather, Robin Hood, and so forth) demonstrates our admiration for ability over righteousness or any other virtue.
The Qu'ran presents a far different point of view.
The key concept is expressed in verse 18:
[8:17] It was not you who killed them; GOD is the One who killed them. It was not you who threw when you threw; GOD is the One who threw. But He thus gives the believers a chance to earn a lot of credit. GOD is Hearer, Omniscient.God is also all-powerful, so one does not acquire anything by one's individual ability or merit. One wins battles, takes the spoils of war, prospers in this world, and gains Paradise in the next only by pleasing God. Everything one receives is a gift from God. But it is clear that a lot of people who are not pleasing to God are wealthy and prosperous, so why doesn't God allocate the riches of the world to those who serve him and deserve his favor?
This is essentially the same question as is asked in the Book of Job in the Bible. When Job asks why the rain falls equally on the just and the unjust, God tells him that human beings are incapable of understanding His plans and how he is accomplishing his aims. He appears to Job in a whirlwind and, in essence, says "WHERE WERE YOU WHEN I CREATED THE WHALE?" Job cowers in realization that God is so much more powerful than he that he can no more understand God's actions than a worm can understand the public works project that causes a steamroller to run over him.
Surah 8 is much more reasonable in that God explains that material goods are not at all as important as gaining Paradise, and that the unbelievers and unjust have wealth because they will use it badly and make it easy for His angels to identify them on the Day of Judgment and drag them off to eternal punishment. God says that he will care for the earthly needs of believers who do as they are supposed to do and will punish those who say that they are believers but do not accept their responsibilities and do what he expects of them.
On the specific matter of the disposition of the spoils, God tells them that they should divide them in a way that will cause no quarrels to arise between them, but that one-fifth of the total are to be turned over to Muhammad to be spent on behalf of Islam, the faith itself. One must remember that Islam has no professional priesthood and no hierarchy, so the part of the spoils given to Muhammad was intended to be spent to care for widows ad orphans, the old and infirm. Christianity specifies that one-tenth of one's gain should go to the Church, so it would seem that Islam had and has a greater concern for the needy than the western faith in this respect.
There is much more to surah 8, of course, but its basic message is to present God's explanation of the distribution of the world's wealth. That explanation, however, is founded on the concept that God is all-powerful and is therefore responsible for everything that happens. As you read sura 8, you might try considering "the Spoils of War" to be equivalent of the salvation that the individual Christian attempts to gain by overcoming the temptations of this world. How does the view of God that underlies sura 8 leave room for good works and individual piety? What is there about sura 8 that would significantly different from a Christian or Jewish view of the same question?
Now, in case your head is hurting from so much serious thought at once, here is a traditional ditty to restore your equilibrium"
The rain falls equally
Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of
The University of Kansas
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