Rescuing the Oppressed Doesn't Just Spoil War
University of Western Ontario
and Christian lay audiences in the West often struggle with Islamic
discourse. They often downplay the
Abrahamic connection of Islam while attempting to over-emphasize supposed
borrowing from Jewish and Christian scriptures.
An examination of the verses selected by
Kelsey, 4:75 and 8:1, 41 can be useful in illustrating several themes within
the context of Scriptural Reasoning (SR).
First, it can demonstrate contemporary challenges with narratives that
perceive fighting as a measure of faithfulness in a pejorative sense.
Second, the issue of conflict can also
illustrate the role of SR in mediating relationships between faiths.
Finally, the "fifths" of war spoils can
briefly highlight some of the departures of Islamic just war theory from
Part I - First, the
Beginning that Justifies the Means
contemporary interfaith discussion of 4:75 should be prefaced with a discussion
of perceptions by other faiths of the role of war in Islam.
Bereshit (Genesis) 16 discusses the story
of Ishmael, progeny of Abraham and ancestor of the Quraish in Makkah and
of Muhammed. At verse 12 it provides a
description of Ishmael, often translated as saying he will be a wild ass of a
man, in constant conflict with his brothers.
The verse is frequently used today to provide a justification that
Ishmael, and by extension the Arabs and Islam, are inherently unruly, hostile,
and harbour a disposition towards war and conflict.
We find this use all the way from the earliest Byzantine reactions
to the spread of Islam,
to current discourse. The modern
political applications are that the Middle East is not a region that can be
dealt with using diplomacy, but requires military interventions (and even
pre-emptive regime changes) that would be inappropriate in other parts of the
world. It is also used to justify a
fatalist approach towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by saying that it is
biblically ordained. This conclusion
not only leads to stereotypical racism, it is historically and theologically
are a multitude of variant translations available for 16:22 that do not have
the same negative connotations, which alternatively can be interpreted as
indicating the wilderness of Paran where he dwelled, or that he was bountiful and
blessed, and lived to the east of his brothers (as opposed to against).
Carol Bakhos demonstrates how perceptions
and rabbinical writings of Ishmael shifted and changed from the pre-Islamic era
to the post to adopt a more confrontational position and interpretation.
She also indicates that unlike many of the
other tribes inhabiting the Levant, the Ishmaelites do not form one of the
traditional enemies of the Israelites during the temple periods.
But it is also presumptive and erroneous to
identify the descendants of Ishmael as synonymous with either Arabs or
Islam. Only 12 percent of Muslims are
Arabs, and there are over 15 million Arab Christians.
Most Sephardic Jews are also considered Arab
from an Islamic perspective, because Arab is a linguistic and not an ethnic
Ishmael actually learned the Arabic language
from the tribe of Jurham, of a pre-existing Arab population descended from
His descendants, through Ra'la bint Mudad, formed the 'Arab
al-Musta'reba, or assimilated Arabs, and the vast majority of Arabs today are
neighbouring peoples that adopted the Arabic language.
Any inferences made of Ishmael cannot
therefore be accurately placed upon Arabs as a whole, or the Islamic
Part II - SR as a
the potential for a pejorative reading as identified above, Ahmed's distinction
of 'qatilu fi sabilillah' takes
particular significance. And although Kavka correctly commends Kelsay for
providing context, a much broader context that includes SR is also
present. When Islam emerged in the Arabian
peninsula in the 7th century C.E., it was set in a unique
demographic landscape. The major
religion of the Arabs was a syncretistic form of polytheism that involved icons
and idols. There was also a small
minority that followed a unique and simplistic monotheistic faith called Hanifan they claimed was followed by
Abraham and both of his sons, Isaac and
Ishmael. Whereas the descendants of the
former eventually accepted the Mosaic Law at Sinai, the latter continued this
tradition until they adopted others.
For this reason, the Qur'an tells Muhammed in 3:95 to identify himself as a follower of the religion of
Abraham. In the earliest days of Islam,
Muslims characterized themselves as followers of this religion, the religion of
Abraham, and not a new faith. Their
group or identity (millah) was that
of Abraham, and it was their manner of judgment (deen) that was Islam.
The earliest identity of a Muslim ummah or collective was the Hanifan, found in 16:120, and
deliberately connected them to the other Abrahamic faiths.
peninsula also knew the other great Western faiths of Judaism and
Christianity. The presence of Judaism
in Arabia would have harkened back to at least the First Temple period, when
the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon, adopted his faith, and returned to her
The Queen at this time ruled parts of what
are now Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Yemen.
According to Ethiopian tradition, Solomon also sent an entourage of
first-borns and elders from among the Israelites to join his son.
Large Jewish communities are also supposed
to have moved to this region during the time of Ezra.
And pre-Islamic kings also converted to Judaism, starting with
Abu Karib Asad (c. 390-420 C.E.) and more notably the last Himyratie king Dhu
Nuwas in the 5-6th centuries C.E.
Dhu Nawas is renowned for his violent and
forced conversion of his subjects to Judaism, including substantial numbers of
Arab Christians in Najran (now southern Saudi Arabia). Dhu Nawas justified his actions as retaliation for oppression of Jews there by the local Christians.
He then invited regents in what is now
southern Iraq and Persia to do the same to their Christian minorities.
The Qur'an relates this story in 85:4-10,
condemning the persecution that culminated in throwing alive those who resisted
into a trench filled with fire.
with Arabian Christians brought into play the numerous Christian nations that
bordered and ruled parts of Arabia.
Although the Byzantine Emperor Flavius Iustinus vowed vengeance, it was
the Axumite kingdom of Ethiopia that destroyed Dhu Nawas.
They even threatened with an elephant army
the Ka'ba, the spiritual sanctuary established by Abraham himself, which had
since degenerated into idolatry. The
Qur'an also narrates this episode in 105:1-5.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, until recently a branch of the
Coptic Church, was established as early as the 4th c. by Frumentius (Abba
Selama, Kesaté Birhan), though Ethiopians trace the faith back even earlier to
But the Ethiopian Church differed from the
Byzantines in their belief in the one single unified Nature of Christ.
Others who rejected Byzantine Emperor
Marcian's Council of Chalcedon in 451 C.E. were Monophysite Christians among
the Berbers of North Africa. But the
Arabs themselves continued to have substantial Christian populations all the
way up to the time of Islam, including the Christian kingdoms of the Ghassanids
and Nabateans, Byzantine vassals situated in what are now Syria and Jordan, and
Nestorians and Assyrians among the Eastern Arabs.
Also notable is that the first Muslims in Makkah experiencing the
type of persecution described in 4:75 found refuge in the Christian Ethiopian
It was into
this already tumultuous scene of religious divisiveness and factionalism that
Religion was hotly debated, and frequently
fought over. The Qur'an provides a more
neutral third position between the various partisans:
And they say, 'Be Jews or Christians, then you
will be guided.'
'Nay, (We follow) only the religion of Abraham Hanifa, and he was not of
Al-Mushrikûn (those who worshipped others along with Allâh).' 
Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he was a true Muslim Hanifa and
he was not of Al-Mushrikûn (idol worshippers). 
For these early adherents to Islam,
the faith represented a return to the original principles of Abraham that had
divided Arabia since. It also harkened
a return to monotheism for polytheistic Ishmaelite Arabs who were largely removed
from these conflicts, but rejected Abraham's faith while acknowledging their
ancestral legacy from him. As the
message spread out to these various people, it could be expected that dialogue
characterized by similar conflict could easily ensue.
The Qur'an instructs otherwise,
And argue not
with the people of the Scripture, unless it be in (a way) that is better,
except with such of them as do wrong, and say (to them):
'We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you; our
God and your God is One, and to Him we have submitted.' 
This was to form the basis of
ecumenical thought in Islam, and the basis for SR that was embodied by mutual
respect and tolerance, what Kavka calls "the basis for healthy conflict."
The Qur'an under Ahmed’s universalist
interpretation is itself a form of SR, reflecting on not just the persecuted
people during the time of Islam, but also in pre-Islamic Arabia between Judaism
and Christianity, and a mediating force between the faiths.
The oppressed people referred to in 4:75
under this reading included the Christian "heresies" under Byzantine rule, but
more importantly the Christian
and Jewish minorities
under Persian rule that experienced extreme religious persecution, and
experienced a marked improvement in religious tolerance thereafter.
Some early Byzantines referred to Islam as a
Christian heresy, given its
similarities and advocacy on behalf of other Christian minority sects.
Rather than adopting Byzantine or Sassanid
laws, Islamic law transformed and modified these societies.
It was only in the name of this justice that
Muslims found themselves in conflict with the global superpowers that dominated
their world at that time, the equivalent of "just war" that Kavka describes as
a milhamot mitzvah.
Part III - The 5th
of 5th; 1 of 5 that None Could Claim
Islam's role of emancipator and bringer of religious tolerance through
mediating between Abrahamic faiths can be inferred from 4:75, the other verses
Kelsay cites in 8:1, 41 are entirely differentiated and distinguished from the
others. Islam makes the quite pointed
claim that five things were given to Muhammad that no one else before was
given, one of them which was the legality of booty.
One thing that Kavka does not address is the
position of spoils of war in Judaism.
It is true that in several places in the Tanakh the spoils of war are
More frequently, spoils of war are denounced
because the enemy people and their property are to be thoroughly destroyed, as
with the conquest of Jericho.
The motivation for this appears to be to
obliterate the name and identity of the enemy from existence and strike fear
into their neighbours,
and to avoid the impression that they were motivated by money rather than
However, there are several instances in the
Tanakh that do allow the spoils of war.
This booty was also divvied up, using a
slightly different formula.
Both Moses and David divided it equally
between the soldiers and the general community, with the Levites notably
But how can this be reconciled with the
Islamic claim of being the first? The
purpose of conflict under 4:75 would not allow the obliteration of an enemy.
Any financial motivations of enriching
themselves and their families was addressed in 59:7 by explaining that the real
purpose of khumswas the
redistribution of assets from wealth to the needy.
khums in this sense was the first unqualified policy towards the
permissibility of booty. Alternatively,
the share of the Prophet from the khums,
a fifth of a fifth, is also something that is unique, and this could be a
reference to his personal possession.
earlier preface to discussion of Islamic warfare is unfortunately necessary,
given the common misunderstandings that go back to the inception of Islam, but
still persist to this day. Warfare for
a reason--one of liberation and alleviation of oppression--is more often the
rule than the exception.
Similarly, the khums itself was oriented around social justice, and there are
recorded instances when it was foregone by leaders and instead allocated for
larger communal use.
Indiscriminate plunder is expressly
forbidden, and Islamic
just war theory does not allow murder of vulnerable people or wanton destruction
Further, reference to orphans and the needy
in 8:41 are not insignificant.
This emphasizes that the oppression
identified in 4:75 under the universalist interpretation is not just spiritual
or political, but also economic in disparities of wealth.
Fighting, therefore, is a measure of
faithfulness when fighting oppression, and specifically on behalf of the
marginalized and impoverished. But 8:41
also mentions the wayfarer or traveller, and this has been interpreted as the
was needed to equip and provide the provisions for the army.
A deeper and more intricate connection
between the verses Kelsay chooses is available than is immediately
apparent. War prizes are allowed as a
more tolerant form of warfare instead of total obliteration, as well as to
assist the needy. But spoils of war
themselves are needed to make the rescue of the oppressed possible in the first
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