It is open season on Islam these days, with conservative critics making remark after remark that attack Islam, Muslims, the Qur'an, and the Prophet Muhammad as pervasively and inherently bad. An essential argument these conservatives and others have against Islam is that the Qur'an preaches violence.

The most popular verse quoted is the fabled Verse of the Sword: "Fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them: seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war)." (9:5) On the surface, this verse seems to confirm Islam's perceived intolerance of non-Muslims. It may even lead one to conclude that all the talk about Islam being a religion of "peace" is a ruse, and that the real Islam is the violent, repressive faith practiced by Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.

But hold on. The truth is quite different from what these Islam's attackers want us to believe.

I must address a few very important points here. For there to be any semblance of an intelligent and scholarly analysis of verses of the Qur'an, a full understanding of the Arabic language along with understanding of the context of the verses in question is an essential prerequisite. In fact, this must be the scholarly approach to the exegesis of any book of scripture, including the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. Volumes upon volumes have been written by numerous Islamic scholars, both classical and modern, that attempt to interpret the meaning of the over 6,000 verses of the Qur'an. Qur'anic exegesis is an academic discipline in itself, and it requires years of learning before a scholar is able to independently comment on Qur'anic scripture. Neither Islam's conservative critics, nor the "scholars" and "experts" they read and quote from in their writings, possess such knowledge. What they do is misquote, mistranslate, or quote Qur'anic verses out of context and use those misquotations as evidence for their claims. These tactics violate every rule of Scriptural Exegesis 101.

When the infamouse "Verse of the Sword" is studied in its proper context, it becomes quite clear that the claim the Qur'an is violent is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. From the very beginning of his mission, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was violently opposed by his people. At first, the Pagan Arabs simply ignored the Prophet's call and ridiculed his message. They quickly realized, however, that this tactic did not stop the flow of converts to Islam. The Meccans then turned to torture and repression of Muhammad and his companions to try to muffle his message, which was nothing more than the abadonment of the worship of idols for the worship of the One True God. Muhammad himself survived several assassination attempts. In one of these, a Meccan tried to crush the Prophet's head with a large boulder while he was praying at the Ka'abah, the holy shrine at Mecca. God, however, miraculously foiled the attempt and the Prophet was saved.

After 10 years of hardship, the Meccans finally expelled the Prophet to Medina, a city 200 miles to the north. Since they could not kill him, this was the only thing the Meccans could do to stop the Prophet's message. There, the inhabitants of Medina accepted Islam, and it became the first Islamic city-state with the Prophet Muhammad as its spiritual and political leader. While in Medina, the Meccan pagans did not relent in their hostilites against the Muslims. Now, however, many surrounding tribes also became hostile to Islam and joined in the Meccans' fight. Several battles were fought against the Muslims. These tribes also attempted to assassinate the Prophet on several occasions, as the Meccans tried a decade earlier.

It is in this violent context that verse 9:5 was revealed. The commandment to "slay the pagans wherever you find them" in verse 9:5 speaks of the hostile Arab tribes surrounding Medina. At every given chance, these tribes attacked the Muslims and killed as many of them as possible for no just cause.

Frequently, columnists and pundits who try to smear Islam quote verse 9:5 incompletely and out of context. The full verse reads as follows: "But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them: seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, establish regular prayers, and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for God is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful."

If one reads on in the ninth chapter, the reasons for "slaying the pagans" is clearly outlined: "Will ye not fight people who violated their oaths, plotted to expel the Messenger, and took the aggressive by being the first (to assault) you? Do ye fear them? Nay, it is God Whom ye should more justly fear, if ye believe!" (9:13) When sincere scholarship and exegesis is applied, it becomes quite clear that verse 9:5, and all others similar to it, is one of self-defense and not a carte blanche to kill all non-believers, as some would want us to believe.