And fight with them until there is no more persecution (fitnah) and religion should be only for Allah; but if they desist, then surely Allah sees what they do [Quran 8:39]
The verse is predicated on not one but two requirements: (1) the end of fitna and (2) that religion is only to Allah. The second requirement means one must fight on even if fitna has ceased, which essentially boils down to justified persecution of and waging war against the Mushrikeen and Mulhideen.
The way you are interpreting this is that Muslim should fight non-stop unless these two conditions are met, but almost all Muslims understand this verse to mean that they can fight to end oppression as well as to establish conditions where they can freely worship God. This is further explained by Hadith where it says that if you see evil, stop it by hand; if you cannot stop it by hand, stop it by your tongue; and if you cannot do that either, then consider that to be evil in your heart. And if you go back to verse 8:34 where kuffar are warned to stop preventing Muslims from performing pilgrimage, the latter part of the verse “and religion is for Allah alone,” makes perfect sense_ the idea being that in al-Masjid al-Haram only God is to be worshipped [the idea being explicitly stated in verse 2:191 which sets the stage for verse 2:193, which is identical to verse 8:39].
Verse 8:39 is a continuation of verse 8:38. That is obvious because verse 8:39 starts with “wa-” (And), and so do verses 8:40 and 8:41. You have to read these in conjunction with each other. It’s the brilliance of Quran that every single word is important, and you shouldn’t take each verse out of context. Allow me to reproduce these verses, for sake of this discussion:
[8.38] Say to those who disbelieve, if they desist, that which is past shall be forgiven to them; and if they return, then what happened to the ancients has already passed.
[8.39] And fight with them until there is no more persecution and religion should be only for Allah; but if they desist, then surely Allah sees what they do.
[8.40] And if they turn back, then know that Allah is your Patron; most excellent is the Patron and most excellent the Helper.
[8.41] And know that whatever thing you gain, a fifth of it is for Allah and for the Apostle and for the near of kin and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer, if you believe in Allah and in that which We revealed to Our servant, on the day of distinction, the day on which the two parties met; and Allah has power over all things.
What is being discussed is mischief of “wicked” or “bad” disbelievers (Verse 8:37) who are being asked to desist from their wickedness, for if they do so (it doesn’t say that they have to convert), their past wickedness would be forgiven. Verse 8:39 establishes two reasons by which Muslims can fight: 1) to end persecution 2) to fight for conditions by which religion would only be for God, and not for anything else. Part 2) may also mean that if somebody is fighting for religion but that struggle is not for God or for His commandments, and/or if it ends up violating God’s other commandments, that is unlawful. Verse 8:40 clarifies that if the mischief-makers turn away, Muslims shouldn’t worry about them (in other words, Muslims should leave them alone) for God is their Protector and Helper. Verse 8:41 is simply about the distribution of booty gained from these wars.
The idea is for kuffar (disbelievers) to cease ’fitnah’ (persecution). If you interpret this to mean that they should cease their “disbelief,” it doesn’t make any sense because numerous other verses of Quran would contradict that, such as:
[9.6] And if one of the idolaters seek protection from you, grant him protection till he hears the word of Allah, then make him attain his place of safety; this is because they are a people who do not know.
If your interpretation was correct, then God would have said that they should not be allowed to leave and they should be forced to believe. Actually, the discussion of these kuffar starts with verse 8:30, where it is said:
[8.30] And when those who disbelieved devised plans against you that they might confine you or slay you or drive you away; and they devised plans and Allah too had arranged a plan; and Allah is the best of planners.
That was the first indictment. The second indictment comes in verse 8:34 where it is said:
[8.34] And what (excuse) have they that Allah should not chastise them while they hinder (men) from the Sacred Mosque and they are not (fit to be) guardians of it; its guardians are only those who guard (against evil), but most of them do not know.
The third indictment is given in Verse 8:36:
[8.36] Surely those who disbelieve spend their wealth to hinder (people) from the way of Allah; so they shall spend it, then it shall be to them an intense regret, then they shall be overcome; and those who disbelieve shall be driven together to hell.
And because of these three indictments, God calls their acts “fitnah” or persecution.
Fitnah does not mean persecution. The Hillali-Musin Khan translation translates the word as “disbelief and polytheism, i.e. worshipping others besides Allah.” Their understanding is not entirely wrong – a literal reading of the text does seem to be calling for a global jihad against the ikhwaan al-Mushrikeen wa’l-Mulhideen. Fitna (from the verb fatana, for infatuation, charm, enticement, temptation, turning away) refers to temptation, fascinating, things that turn Muslims away from their deen, sedition, dissension, et cetera.
I think just about every translator, whether Muslim or not, has translated fitnah for this verse as “persecution:”
YUSUFALI: And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah altogether and everywhere; but if they cease, verily Allah doth see all that they do.
PICKTHAL: And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is all for Allah. But if they cease, then lo! Allah is Seer of what they do.
SHAKIR: And fight with them until there is no more persecution and religion should be only for Allah; but if they desist, then surely Allah sees what they do.
A.J.ARBERRY: Fight them, till there is no persecution and the religion is God’s entirely; then if they give over, surely God sees the things they do.
SHER ALI: And fight them until there is no persecution and religion is wholly to Allah. But if they desist, then surely Allah is Watchful of what they do.
MUHAMMAD ALI: 39. And fight with them until there is no more persecution, and all religions are for Allah. But if they desist, then surely Allah is Seer of what they do.
MUHAMMAD ASAD: And fight against them until there is no more oppression and all worship is devoted to God alone.
T.B. IRVING: Fight them off until there is no more persecution, and Religion belongs wholly to God: yet if they do stop, then God is Observant of anything they do.
RASHAD KHALIFA: You shall fight them to ward off oppression, and to practice your religion devoted to GOD alone. If they refrain from aggression, then GOD is fully Seer of everything they do.
E.H. PALMER: Fight them then that there should be no sedition, and that the religion may be wholly God’s; but if they desist, then God on what they do doth look.
J.M. RODWELL: Fight then against them till strife be at an end…
Hilalli-Khan translation is simply wrong. Within the same Surah, look up Verse 8:25. Here Hillali-Khan translation correctly translates fitnah as “affliction and trial.” I hope you know what “literal” means. The literal meaning would be simply a statement that “religion is for God alone.” What you or Hilali-Khan are suggesting is NOT literal meaning but an interpretation, which is not supported by the text itself. Secondly, you are implying that “fatana” is the root word which it is not. Usually, a verb is derived from a noun, not vice versa. Quran has used the term in a variety of other ways, and for a native speaker, it is not difficult to understand what is meant.
Additional information on the origin of word fitnah.
From an Islamic web site:
“Al-Azhari said: “The Arabic word fitnah includes meanings of testing and trial. The root is taken from the phrase fatantu al-fiddah wa’l-dhahab (I assayed (tested the quality of) the silver and gold), meaning I melted the metals to separate the bad from the good. Similarly, Allaah says in the Qur’aan (interpretation of the meaning): ‘(It will be) a Day when they will be tried [yuftanoona] (punished, i.e. burnt) over the Fire!’ [al-Dhaariyaat 51:13], meaning, burning them with fire.” (Tahdheeb al-Lughah, 14/196).
“Ibn Faaris said: “Fa-ta-na is a sound root which indicates testing or trial.” (Maqaayees al-Lughah, 4/472). This is the basic meaning of the word fitnah in Arabic.
“Ibn al-Atheer said: “Fitnah: trial or test… The word is often used to describe tests in which something disliked is eliminated. Later it was also often used in the sense of sin, kufr (disbelief), fighting, burning, removing and diverting.” (al-Nihaayah, 3/410. Ibn Hajar said something similar in al-Fath, 13/3).”
The word “fitnah” has been used in a variety of meanings. The meaning is usually derived from the context. Most translators have translated it as “persecution” though “mischief” would also be a good translation within this context. The same word “fitnah” appears in verse 2:217 where it is said that “fitnah is worse than murder.” Obviously, here “fitnah” would mean persecution. But again, Hilali/ Muhsen Khan got terribly confused and left the word “al-fitnah” in the English translation with a footnote so confusing that few can understand the meaning of the verse.
So what we see is that 8:38 simply states a message to be said to the disbelievers: they have a choice – either they can abandon their kufr, and be forgiven, or face the same wrath past believers have faced (and the Qur’an, as well as the Judeo-Christian, is replete with stories about harsh punishments – be they inflicted by God or his servants – meted out to disbelievers living in the times of other prophets). It is from there that we step into the next verse:
Usually, in the language of the Quran, when it is said “example of those before them,” it usually means nations that perished in the past. See 2:66, 3:137, 14:45, 15:13, 25:39. These people were not killed by Muslims but were destroyed by God.
Additional Explanatory Notes by Muslim Scholars
Agha Puya, a Shiah scholar, has given an excellent interpretation of this term: “Fitna means subversive activities to destroy peace and rule of law. With reference to other verses like this verse (Nisa 135; Ma-idah 2 and 8 ) it must be said that Islam advocates universal peace and harmony in the human society and teaches us to tolerate and accommodate other creeds so far as their followers do not hatch plots and generate ill-will to destroy the Muslims and ascribe falsehood to Allah and His religion. In verses 1, 8 and 9 of al Mumtahanah, the believers are advised to show kindness and do justice to the unbelievers who are not hostile to them, but at all events, friendship with the enemies of Allah has been discouraged. Islam avoids killing and destruction, but when public peace and safety is at stake, prompt and severe action is taken to bring order and eliminate lawlessness. Islam has no room for willful aggressors and cunning mischief-makers.”
Among Sunni scholars, Maududi thinks that there are two purposes to this verse: the “negative” is to eradicate mischief. The “positive purpose” is to establish a state of affairs where all obedience is to God. According to him, “fighting for any other purpose is not lawful.”