One of the ways that people misunderstand the Qur’an is by taking things out of context. The verse instructing Muslims to fight until people pay the jizya is one of those. By neglecting its proper context its meaning has been largely lost and interpreted for the convenience of those Muslim leaders wanting to justify their aggressions.
On its own the verse(9:29) says:
“Fight those who neither believe in God nor the last day nor forbid what Allah and His messenger forbade, nor follow a true religion from those given the scripture, until they give due compensation with their hands and are subdued”
One key loss of context is to take the phrase “from those given the scripture” as a clause applying to the whole of the previous phrase. This allows the verse to be translated as:
“Fight those people of the book who do not [truly] believe in God and the last day, who do not forbid what God and His messenger have forbidden and do not obey the rule of justice until they pay the tax promptly and agree to submit” (M.A.S. Abdel Haleem)
By making the whole verse about “the people of the book”, these interpretations are falling into a historical categorisation which splits people into Muslims and non-Muslims and non-Muslims into either People of the Book or Pagans. It implies that this verse does not apply to Pagans and so causes further critical loss of context.
Putting this clause in its proper context, the meaning is quite clear: There are among those given “The Book”( i.e. followers of earlier revealed guidance, such as Jews, Christians, Sabians…) who follow a true religion. This is consistent with the Qur’an’s teachings in many other places. Such people are not included in this verse’s instruction to fight.
The following two verses describe how Christians and Jews typically put others as their lords instead of God and so are really pagans, that is “mushrikeen” – those commiting shirk. This context establishes firmly that this verse about jizya is continuing a long context about fighting the Pagans. It is not some new instruction about fighting the People of the Book, but rather declaring that the fighting of Pagans described beforehand and afterwards should also include those given the scripture that are actually mushrikeen.
Once we understand this aspect of context, we can see that the full context of this verse is about the notice of the end of treaties with the pagans who had violated their treaties with the Muslims at the start of the surah. In fact the general theme of the ongoing fighting goes back right through the previous surah including in particular similar verses like:
8:38-39 “Say to the disbelievers, if they stop (fighting), their past will be forgiven, but if they continue the fate of those before them is an example for them, and fight them on until there is no more rebellion and the religion for Allah is everywhere[*1], but if they stop Allah sees all they do.”
[*1] The pagans were banning people from the sacred mosque see 8:34
9:12 “…fight the leaders of disbelief – oaths mean nothing to them – so that they might stop”
The context of ongoing fighting against the disbelievers / pagans extends on for another 30 verses after the jizya verse. There are many arguments used, the general conclusion of which is that fighting should continue against those who break their peace agreements repeatedly and so cannot be trusted, until they stop fighting and pay the jizya.
Jizya means compensation, and put correctly in context it is compensation due to their aggressions and failure to stop fighting when they pledged to do so.
The jizya verse, defines the limit of fighting these mushrikeen with whom treaties cannot be made as per verses 9:7-8. It gives a permission to continue to fight them “until they stop”, setting out what must be done to demonstrate that they are indeed stopping. The logic of this is that there are some who simply cannot be trusted at all in their promises. They have broken commitments so brazenly that their promises cannot be trusted; their past cannot just be forgiven just when they say they will stop attacking. They must instead also give reparations for their past aggressions to prove their word.
The jizya verse serves as a definition of the aggressive mushrikeen of verses 9:7-8 with whom no treaty can be made. It excludes those who believe in God, and those who believe in the last day, and those who hold to the prohibitions made by God and His messenger – which includes in particular holding to their treaties – and those who follow a true religion from those given the scripture. Such followers of a true religion would not be placing priests and rabbis etc., as their lords besides God because if they did they would be commiting shirk and so they would become muskrikeen. People in any of these excluded groups have a reasonable claim not to pay the jizya. They can expect that their past should be forgiven as per verse 8:39 simply by stopping their attacks on the Muslims.
Interpreting the Qur’an by taking phrases or words out of context is a dangerous pattern. It is one of a number of ways scripture in the past has been misrepresented and causes huge injustices. Muslims who have fallen into the same errors need to retrace their interpretative steps and correct them.