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From the Arberry English translation

Leave is given to those who fight because they were wronged...who were expelled from their habitations without right...

I have always understood this as permission to take revenge. But I've found a couple of authors who take it as a reference to self-defense, saying that it was revealed just as Muhammad fled Mecca, when he was in real danger of being attacked by the Quraysh, and applied only under similar circumstances. These authors don't mention anything about retribution.

Tafsir Ibn Kathir doesn't specify either option, referring to the topic only as jihad. Al-Tabari is in Arabic. Tafhim-ul-Quran is also not specific.

Do any Muslim scholars talk specifically about whether this allows self-defense, retribution, both, neither?

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    The problem with the verse you mentioned is that there are two different acknowledged readings in Arabic: yoqatilouna = active form and yoqatalouna = passive form. So from a fiqh perspective there are two opinions a permission for self-defense based fighting and a permission to fight disbelievers. – Medi1Saif Jul 2 '16 at 1:05
  • @Medi1Saif Thanks for this comment. Please help me to clarify. I understand what you mean by permission for self-defense-based fighting. But what do you mean by permission to fight disbelievers? Do you mean retribution, or something else? – SaganRitual Jul 2 '16 at 2:21
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    I'd say the 2nd reading allows what you may call retribution as it is a permission to fight disbelievers even if they didn't aggress you, just for the simple reason of them being disbelievers. Note that the verse you mentioned was AFAIK the first verse who allowed Muslims to fight their enemies and aggressors. There are many other Verses which may allow fighting for retribution ... And to get an answer you may need to take a look into a tafsir based on fiqh like the ones of al-Qurtobi or ibn al-'Arabi ... – Medi1Saif Jul 3 '16 at 1:02
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    @Medi1Saif Ah, ok, retribution as in punishment for apostasy. I see. I shouldn't have used *retribution then. What I really meant is vengeance, as in, permission to fight someone who has wronged you in the past, even if they're not currently attacking you. That's how I have always understood verses 39-40. Would the fiqh tafsirs you mentioned address that question? Also, feel free to convert your comments to a formal answer. I get very few answers here, so I would be pleased to honor you (in admittedly a small way) with an "accepted answer". – SaganRitual Jul 3 '16 at 1:55
  • Peace to you and your growing family, brother. – SaganRitual Jul 4 '16 at 1:01
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Note that my answer here could also be helpful to some extent as it refers to these verses.

Let's start with the Verse 22:39, :

أذن للذين يقاتلون بأنهم ظلموا وإن الله على نصرهم لقدير

Some of the accepted readings are:


I'm quoting them for this Verse only as I've already started with that in my comments, but now had the time to check reliable sources, instead of answering based on something I had in my mind, if necessary i would quote the different readings for the other verse too


أُذِنَ udhina (meaning: Permission has been given) which is the reading of Nafi', Abu 'Amr and 'Assim the others have read it أَذِنَ adhina (meaning: He gave permission).

يُقَاتَلُونَ yoqataluna (meaning: those who are being fought (by the non-Believers while -or because- they are believers) -> passive form) which is the reading of Nafi', ibn 'Amir, Abu Jaafar and Hafs 'an 'Asim. While the others have read it يُقَاتِلُونَ yoqatlinu (meaning: those who are fighting (their enemies) -> active form).

Note that this verse is referring to verse 22:38:

Indeed, Allah defends those who have believed. Indeed, Allah does not like everyone treacherous and ungrateful.

one could say it's a response or an implication explaining the way Allah defends the believers, by allowing them to fight the non-believers as an act of self-defense or for the justness of the cause.

This is the main meaning which we can extract from the related ahadith like this one from Jami' at-Tirmdihi which is explaining the circumstances of this revelation. The hadith is also quoted in sunan an-Nasa-i.

As stated in my comments the different readings imply different explanations, but Imam al-Qurtoby in his tafsir based on the first reading (I'm referring to يقاتلون as this is the word which has two more or less opposite meanings according the readings) say that the reason for fighting is that they have been wronged, so it refers to self defense in first place.

Verse 22:40 is explaining how they have been wronged:

They have been expelled from their homes -only because they believed-.

Ibn al-'Arabi said (according to al-Qurtoby) that before the bay'a of al-'Aqabah Muhammad (peace be upon him) was not allowed to fight the disbelievers, but asked to make du'a and bear the bane and pardon for ten years. So that a clear plea for there wrong doings even after sending a Messenger to them with a clear shari'a:

... And never would We punish until We sent a messenger. (17:15)

So the fighting -in this case- could also be understood as a divine punishment for Quraish.

In addition to that this verse says that only with a shari'a (allowing the fight of disbelievers) disbelievers would come over this world and demolish any place where Allah is worshiped. While if the believers follow the shari'a and they would rule this world the situation would be the total opposite.

Sheikh Taher Benachour added in his tafsir at-tahrir wa-tanwir that this verse certainly has been revealed in Medina.

Note that this verse clearly indicates that demolishing places of worship of Jews and Christians is haram!

Conclusion

Based on the given verses the tafsir al-Ahkam (tafsirs based on juridical rulings) are only speaking about self-defense. But of course one could also conclude that because of the wrong doings Muslims are allowed to fight and define this act as a revenge. But as said in my linked answer Muslims are allowed to fight disbelievers either for self-defense or to prevent an attack of the enemies or for the justness of the cause, but the major goal in all these fighting should be to preserve the Muslim nation!
On the other hand if we speak about retribution in the context of this verse we may mean a divine punishment for Quraish after they have been warned for 10 years by a Prophet!

Note that there are Verses about what we may call revenge, but even this revenge has rules so arbitrary law is not allowed!

And Allah knows best!

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