Most Muslim commentators, or 'scholars' (in the Muslim/Islamic jargon), agree that this chapter ( or 'surah'/'sura') was 'revealed' to Muhammad during the four years after he 'migrated' (the Hijrah) from Mecca to Medina (Al-Madinah). That is, it is believed by Muslims to have been revealed to Muhammad in the four years after Muhammad was expelled, or left, Mecca due to his many attempts to subvert the ancient and not-so-ancient religions and traditions of Arabia with his own new religion, Islam.
This chapter has been described - by Muslims - as 'the Qur'an in little'. In other words, it contains many of the themes, stories and principles which can be found in the rest of the Koran. It is largely because of this that it became the second chapter (sura) of the Koran. (The opening chapter/surah, literally 'The Opening', is but a very short prayer of less than sixty words.)
Defensive-Attack in 'The Cow'
Let's get down to business and quote a passage from 'The Cow':
“Fight for the sake of Allah those of fight against you, but do not attack them first. Allah does not love the aggressors. Slay them wherever you find them.... Idolatry is more grievous than bloodshed.... Fight against them until idolatry is no more and Allah's religion reigns supreme.”
- 2:189, Sura 2, 'The Cow'
Here we have a typically self-contradictory paragraph in the Koran. Of course, ever since it was spoken or written, Muslims, or at least some Muslims, will have tried to erase - or justify - the obvious contradiction contained in the above. (Try to spot it yourself before I state it later.) Nonetheless, Muhammad, or the person who wrote this, wouldn't have been a logician or even a person who was overly concerned with being argumentatively consistent. Consequently, he may not have even noticed - or cared about - the blatant contradiction in the above. Future Muslims, on the other hand, would have been concerned.
Because Muslims see the Koran as being 'free of all contradiction', it is quite simply incumbent on them to iron out both this and the many other contradictions in the Koran.
Firstly, the passage above begins with this sentence:
“Fight for the sake of Allah those that fight against you, but do not attack them first.”
Clearly that seems like an argument – or, more correctly, a statement - against Muslim aggression towards non-Muslims. It therefore fits into the Muslim self-justification that literally all acts of Islamic or Muslim violence towards non-Muslims are 'defensive'.
Muslims, for example, still believed that their conquests were 'defensive' even after they had conquered almost one third of the world some 300 years after Muhammad’s death.
In 2001, to take another example, many – or most! - Muslims believed that the 9/11 attacks in the United States were defensive in nature. (That's when the weren't saying that 'the Jews done it' or that the American state did it to justify this and that. Sometimes Muslims – the very same ones! - would state all three theories depending on who was asking and when they were being asked.)
The blowing up Christian churches and Christians in Pakistan (as in Peshawar a few weeks ago), Iraq and Egypt, to take another example, is also deemed to be defensive by Muslims. (For example, Muslims may have believed that the Christians in Peshawar were in league with 'Zionists' or Americans; or, in the many Egyptian cases, that the Copts are in league with the Egyptian military... and probably with 'Zionists' too.)
In Saudi Arabia, the very existence of churches or Bibles, and even of Christian subjects, are all deemed to be aggressive - or acts of 'proselytism' - by the Saudi rulers. Hence the Islamically-defensive move of banning churches and Bibles and kicking out 'unbelievers' from Saudi Arabia.
In addition to all that. When Osama bin Laden frequently spoke against the presence of 'infidels' in Saudi Arabia, he wasn't talking about US or other non-Muslim military personnel; as many Western Leftists pretend to believe. He was talking about the presence of any kuffar in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques (Medina and Mecca). After all, Muhammad himself once said:
“I will expel the Jews and Christians from the Arabian peninsula [Jazirat at-'Arab] and will not leave any but Muslims.”
- Sahih Muslim (a hadith)
Now let's get back to the passage from the Koran which opened this piece.
Despite the fact that this passage says 'do not attack them ['unbelievers'] first', just seven sentences later, the Koran also says:
“Fight against them until idolatry is no more and Allah's religion reigns supreme.”
Now there is no mention of 'defence' or 'aggression' in that sentence. What is defensive, exactly, about fighting all non-Muslims and all other religions until Islam 'reigns supreme'? This is quite simply a statement of aggressive intent.
In order to achieve Islam's complete 'reign' (or to enable Islam to 'reign supreme'), Muslims will need to attack many 'unbelievers' who are being far from aggressive towards them. This means that the very existence of unbelievers, or other religions, is a threat and that they must therefore be fought against regardless of their aggression or Muslim defence.
All this ties into the point I mentioned earlier. That point being that the very existence of unbelievers, or faiths which aren't Islam, is deemed to be aggressive by Muslims! Thus, erasing all unbelievers - and all non-Islamic religions - is also deemed a defensive move by very many Muslims. Muslims, almost more than any other religious group, appear to believe - or they do believe – that, as the saying goes, 'attack is the best form of defence'.
In order to put more meat on this argument, take the passage (also from 'The Cow') which states:
'They [unbelievers] will not cease to fight against you until they force you to renounce your faith – if they are able.” - 2:216
In other words, according to Muslims, or at least hundreds of millions of Muslims, the very existence of unbelievers is a direct threat to them and to Islam itself. It is a threat because every non-Muslim - at least potentially - will try to 'force [Muslims] to renounce [their] faith'. That simply means that unbelievers, and their faiths, must be destroyed.
Here's another passage from the Koran which shows that the very existence of unbelievers is deemed to be a threat by Muslims:
“Believers, do not make friends with any but your own people. They will spare no pains to corrupt you. They desire nothing but your ruin. Their hatred is evident from what they utter with their mouths, but greater is the hatred which their breasts conceal.”
- Sura 3, 'The 'Imrans', 3:118
The relevant clause in that passage is 'greater is the hatred which their breasts conceal'. That means that even when non-Muslims aren't actively doing things against Muslims, or saying things against Islam, they nonetheless still hate both Islam and Muslims. The non-Muslims who don't act against Muslims, or speak out against Islam, simply 'conceal' their 'hatred' for Islam and Muslims. Again, this clearly shows that the very existence of non-Muslims – even those who don't speak out against Islam or Muslims – is seen as a clear and present danger to Muslims.
Once more, just a few paragraphs later in the same sura, you will find this statement:
“Believers, if you yield to the infidels they will drag you back to unbelief and you will return headlong to perdition.”
- Sura 3, 'The 'Imrans', 3:148
Finally, it can be said that according to millions - perhaps hundreds of millions - of Muslims, if infidels so much as exist, especially in close proximity to them (as in near a Muslim ghetto in the UK or within a Muslim country), this means that, at least potentially, such non-Muslims may or 'will drag [Muslims] back to unbelief'. And if that happens, Muslims in the UK, and in Muslim lands, will 'return headlong to perdition'. Not a happy prospect for Muslims, is it?
Other Similar Passages in 'The Cow'
1) “Fighting is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it. But you may hate a thing although it is good for you, and love a thing although it is bad for you.” - 2:216
2) “Idolatry is more grievous than bloodshed. They will not cease to fight you until they force you to renounce your faith – if they are able.” - 2:216
Christians, Jews, Sikhs and Hindus who openly worship are more dangerous than bloodshed. Christians, Jews, Sikhs and Hindus will not stop fighting Muslims – you! - until they force you to renounce Islam – if they are able to.
3) “Believers, retaliation is decreed for you in bloodshed: a free man for a free man, a slave for a slave, and a female for a female.” - 2:174
Muslims, retaliation is halal and allows the shedding of blood. A kuffar life for a Muslim life. A kuffar female for a Muslim female.
4) “Fight for the cause of Allah....” - 2:242
- “As for the unbelievers.... grievous
punishment awaits them.” - 2:1
The Koran, translated by Nessim J. Dawood, first published in 1956 (1990 edition), Penguin Books.