Dictionary and Thesaurus
Bismillah ul rahman ul raheem
Sura - 8 The Spoils of War (Al-Anfaal)
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
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,
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
[8:18] Additionally, GOD thus nullifies the schemes of the
[8:19] You sought victory (O disbelievers), and victory did come; it
belonged to the believers. If you refrain (from aggression) it
would be better for you, but if you return, so will we. Your armies will
never help you, no matter how great. For GOD is on the
side of the believers.
[8:20] O you who believe, obey GOD and His messenger, and do not
disregard him while you hear.
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
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
upon the just and unjust fella,
but mainly on the Just because
the Unjust stole the Just's umbrella