Quranic Reflection No. 557. Ayat 9:123 – The Struggle against enemies

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا قَاتِلُوا الَّذِينَ يَلُونَكُمْ مِنَ الْكُفَّارِ وَلْيَجِدُوا فِيكُمْ غِلْظَةً وَاعْلَمُوا أَنَّ

اللَّهَ مَعَ الْمُتَّقِينَ

Yā ayyuhalladhīna āmanū qātilūl-ladhīna yalūnakum minal-kuffāri walyajidū fīkum

ghlizatan; wa ‘lamū annallāha ma‘al-muttaqīn

O you who believe! Fight the faithless who are near to you and let them find severity

in you; and know that Allah is with those who guard (against evil).

                                                                  (Sūrat al-Tawbah , No 9, Āyat 123)
This verse gives two principles about the struggle against enemies:
1. Start with those who are close to you.
2. Be firm against them.
Although the struggle against all enemies is necessary, the enemy that is nearer must
be targeted first. This is the enemy that is closer in spatial distance, as well as the one
close in relation. To pay attention to them first is a good strategy for success. The
same principle also applies when calling others to the truth. The Holy Prophet (s) was
commanded by Allah to begin his mission by inviting his near ones to Islam. Then, he
talked to the people of Makkah. After that the message was sent to others in the
Arabian Peninsula and to the emperors of various countries. It is interesting to note
that paying attention to the close ones is a consistent principle in Islam. It can be seen
in the emphasis on the rights of relatives when giving charity, the rights of neighbors,
the responsibilities of those close to the Imam in congregational prayer, the etiquette
of eating what is nearest to you on the table, etc. Human beings must start with their
close circles first.
Tafsīr-e Namūneh explains the following advantages of paying attention to the close
enemies first:
a) The danger from them is stronger than from the distant ones.
b) We have more information about the ones close to us and that itself helps in
making us successful.
c) Ignoring the near enemy and focusing on the distant one entails the danger that the
near one will attack from behind or from within as we become distracted with the
distant one
d) The resources needed to counter a close enemy are less than to counter the distant

Although this verse refers to a physical skirmish and spatial distance, the spirit of the
verse also applies to spiritual and philosophical attacks also. When believers face
attacks against religion, they must first focus on the enemies that are close and whose
danger is greater. At a time when doubts are being spread about the basic beliefs of
the Shī‘ī Islamic faith, for example, other attacks can be kept aside. Not forgotten, but
the focus must be on the immediate danger. 
Some ‘irfānī scholars have interpreted this verse to also refer to the enemy that is
closest to the human being – the nafs. Not paying attention to the enemy within the
self and focusing on others is an unwise strategy. It leads to failure on the path
towards Allah. 
The second command in this verse is to be firm, severe, and resistant. It does not
mean to be hard, ruthless, or nasty. Rather, it means to display strength and resolve.
This weakens the spirit of the enemy and instils fear in them. All forms of showing
strength; parades, slogans, clothing, etc. can be utilized. During the conquest of
Makkah, the Prophet sallal-lāhu ‘alayhi wa-ālihi wasallam told the Muslim army to light a
fire at night so the Quraysh of Makkah could see their numbers. He also ordered the
army to parade in front of Abū Sufyān after entering Makkah. He wanted the Muslims
to put up a display of their strength to the enemies. When countering attacks against
Islam, Muslims must display their strength – their abilities, skills, and knowledge.
Instead of being intimidated by the enemies, they must show the virtues and strengths
they possess. This is an important part of the quest to be victorious in the struggle.
Let this verse be a reminder to be alert about the enemies closest to us and the need
to be strong and resistant. Although we may not live at a time when there is a physical
struggle, ideological and ethical struggles are a constant in today’s world. We must rise
to these challenges and counter such enemies with firmness.
Sources: Shaykh Tabarsī, Tafsīr Majma ‘al-Bayān; Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī
(Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh; Agha Muhsin Qarā’atī, Tafsīr Nūr