Qur’an 4:75 and 8:1, 41 in the Context of Muslim Discussions of War

John Kelsay,
Florida State University

I want to discuss two texts. The first establishes a duty to fight, in connection with the order of the Prophet (and through the Prophet, of God). The second deals with the distribution of war prizes. Again, the context makes clear the importance of obedience to divine directives. In this sense, then, the two texts make clear the connection of fighting with the Islamic understanding of salvation history – that is, they point to fighting as a means by which God forms a faithful community, the members of which will “command right and forbid wrong” and thus bear witness to the divine purpose of “testing” and “judging” humanity.

We can begin with Qur’an 4:75: “Why should you not fight in God’s cause and for those oppressed men, women, and children who cry out, ‘Lord, rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors! By your grace, give us a protector and helper’.” If we read this verse as Muslims did (and do), viz., in connection with the biography of the Prophet, we understand that it constitutes a kind of mid-point in the struggle of the early Muslims. During the first period of Muhammad’s ministry (610-622), the small group associated with him suffers discrimination and persecution, as the Arabs of Mecca express resistance to his message. Some of those with Muhammad exhort him to authorize fighting, according to the tribal code of reciprocity. He consistently refuses to do so, arguing that God has only given him the order to preach; he has no command to fight. Shortly before the migration to Medina in 622, this changes, as we read in Ibn Ishaq’s account:

[until the year 622] the apostle had not been given permission to fight or allowed to shed blood…He had simply been ordered to call men to God and to endure insult and forgive the ignorant. The Quraysh had persecuted his followers, seducing some from their religion, and exiling others from their country. They had to choose whether to give up their religion, be maltreated at home, or to flee the country…
When Quraysh became insolent towards God and rejected His gracious purpose, accused His prophet of lying, and ill treated and exiled those who served Him and proclaimed His unity, believed in His prophet, and held fast to His religion, He gave permission to His apostle to fight and to protect himself against those who wronged them and treated them badly.
The first verse which was sent down on this subject…was: “Permission is given to those who fight because they have been wronged. God is well able to help them-those who have been driven out of their houses without right only because they said God is our Lord. Had not God used some men to keep back others, cloisters and churches and oratories and mosques wherein the name of God is constantly mentioned would have been destroyed. Assuredly God will help those who help Him.” [1]

These first verses on fighting are Qur’an 22:39-40. For our purposes, what is significant is the term “permission” ( i-d-n ). As we proceed through the verses dealing with fighting, the terminology intensifies, so that we move from the divine “no” to the “permission” of 22:39-40, to the “fighting is written [ k-t-b ] for you” of 2:215 and the “fight…those who are fighting you” of 2:190 to the query of 4:75: “And why should you not fight?”; finally, we reach the highpoint of 8:39 [“fight them until there is no more persecution, and worship is devoted to God alone”] and 9:5: “When the forbidden months are over, wherever you find the polytheists, kill them, seize them, besiege them, ambush them…” Throughout, the word for fighting is q-t-l , which may also be translated as “killing” or “slaughtering”. As noted above, 4:75 constitutes a kind of midpoint. One of the more important things to note is that this is one of the first, if not the first verse to speak of fighting as a duty or imperative. The question form of the verse is rhetorical, meaning that there can only be one response: “Why should you not fight?” can only be answered by “no reason; I should do so.”

Given this, it is interesting that, when commentators like Ibn Kathir (1301-1373) and Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) spoke about 4:75, they made it part of a longer pericope extending from 4:71-91; in turn, the verses of this pericope were tied to the whole of chapter four (that is, the sura of women). It may seem strange to note this, but particularly for premodern commentators, the relation of particular verses to occasions in the life of the Prophet often took precedence over what might be called the Qur’anic “context” in which these were embedded. For example, when such commentators discussed a complicated passage like 2:190-194, in which the believers are told to fight those who fight them, and then are told to fight the unbelievers where they encounter them, the typical exegete was interested in the way these two directives related to two distinct occasions in the prophetic biography. It was relatively uninteresting to such interpreters that the received text joined the verses so as to constitute a unit.

By contrast with the usual approach, Ibn Kathir’s comments on 4:75 do make the verse part of a textual unit. Similarly with Sayyid Qutb. This enables them, as well as their readers, to say that the issue of the text is obedience. Thus, verses 77-91 present a critique of “hypocrite” or “dissemblers” ( munafiqun ). These are people who say to God, “Lord, why have You ordained fighting for us? If only You would give us just a little more time” (77). Indeed, v. 77’s reference to “those who were told, `Restrain yourselves from fighting, perform the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms…'” provides the occasion for Ibn Kathir and Sayyid Qutb to connect the hypocrites of these verses with the group of people who exhorted the Prophet to authorize armed resistance back in Mecca. The point is that those who are hypocrites present themselves as believers, but do not want to obey. And obedience is, after all, the point. It is not fighting as such that is the measure of one who submits to God. Rather, it is obedience to the command of God, as this is mediated through the Prophet.

Thus, at v. 64 we read: “All the messengers were meant to be obeyed, by God’s leave.” At 58ff.: “God commands you to return things entrusted to you to their rightful owners, and, if you judge between people, to do so with justice: God’s instructions to you are excellent, for God hears and sees everything. You who believe, obey God and the Messenger…If you are in dispute over any matter, refer it to God and the Messenger…” At 69, “Whoever obeys God and the Messenger will be among those God has blessed…” The point, then, is not simply that the hypocrites are cowards, nor is it that they are insincere. The point is rather that they do not obey. These are people who argue with and resist the Prophet at every turn. 4:75 is thus a summons: it is time to put up or shut up. To be a Muslim is to submit to God, and the Prophet’s directives are a measure of that-here, one could say, the Prophet’s directives are the measure. 4:75 reflects a time of crisis, when those associated with Muhammad are weighed in the balance and found wanting, unless they are ready to go with him to fight-or, if it be his order, to abstain from fighting. God is interested in gathering a community of people who will follow divine guidance-nothing more, and nothing less.

Still thinking in terms of sura 4, we may extend the point. Sura 4 is the chapter of women. Vv. 7-14 set forth the shares women and men inherit upon the death of a relative. One may debate whether these rules of distribution are fair, or whether they are only intended for a specific context, and so on-Muslims certainly do so. For our purposes, the way they are presented reiterates the priority of obedience. Discerning God’s guidance is the point of jurisprudence or, as I prefer, Shari’a reasoning. But the attempt to discern is important because of the value of obedience. Ultimately, we must read Qur’an 4:75 in connection with God’s drive throughout history to form a people willing to walk the straight path. With Muhammad and his companions, God has found that people, or is in the process of finding it, as in Qur’an 3:103-110:

Hold fast to God’s rope all together; do not split into factions. Remember God’s favor to you: you were enemies and then God brought your hearts together and you became brothers by God’s grace; you were about to fall into a pit of Fire and God saved you from it-in this way God makes His revelations clear to you so that you may be rightly guided. Be a community that calls for what is good, urges what is right, and forbids what is wrong: those who do this are the successful ones. Do not be like those who, after they have been given clear revelation, split into factions and fall into disputes: a terrible punishment awaits such people. On the Day when some faces brighten and others darken, it will be said to those with darkened faces, ‘How could you reject your faith after believing? Taste the torment for doing so,’ but those with brightened faces will be in God’s grace, there to remain. These are God’s revelations: We recite them to you with the Truth. God does not will injustice for His creatures. Everything in the heavens and earth belongs to God; it is to God that all things return. Believers, you are the best community singled out for people; you order what is right, forbid what is wrong, and you believe in God. If the people of the Book had also believed, it would have been better for them. For although some of them do believe, most of them are lawbreakers…

As Michael Cook has reminded us, “commanding right and forbidding wrong” was and is a much-discussed notion; as well, Cook’s study does not indicate that “commanding” was typically tied to the kinds of fighting we would associate with the term “war.” Given Qur’an 4:75 and other texts, however, we should say that the experience of fighting is one means by which God tests and sorts the believers. To put it another way, war is a means of community formation. How do the people who “were enemies and then…became brothers by God’s grace” become “the best community singled out for people”? From the Qur’an’s perspective, war plays a part in this. We should be careful, though, to put this precisely: from the perspective of 4:75 and other verses, fighting in war only serves this purpose in connection with divine guidance. Ultimately, participation in war is only useful insofar as it is consistent with the order of God and God’s Prophet. Ascertaining the conditions under which war is “just” and thus becomes a means by which God forms the ideal community is the point of Shari’a reasoning, as Muslims through the ages deliberate about the judgments pertaining to armed struggle. Since I have recently discussed this at great length in Arguing the Just War in Islam, [2] I will not belabor the point here, but will conclude this portion of my paper by reiterating that, whenever fighting is authorized by the command of God, participation becomes a measure of faithfulness, and thereby serves as a means by which God forms a people able to call humanity to that submission to God’s will signified by the term Islam.

Now, to return for a moment to Shari’a reasoning-when one turns to some of the standard texts Muslims read as a way of ascertaining consensual precedents regarding the rules of war, it is striking that questions about the justification and conduct of war typically make up a relatively small portion of the material. Malik’s Muwatta , for example, is one of the earliest texts in the Shari’a corpus. According to received opinion, Malik Ibn Anas spent his life in the holy cities of the Arabian Peninsula, and died ca. 795 C.E. at a ripe old age. The authority of Muwatta rests largely on the idea that Malik learned from companions of the Prophet, and that Muwatta reflects the consensual practice of Muslims living in Mecca and Medina in the first century or so following the time of the Prophet. There is much we do not know about this claim, of course; scholars like Jon Brockopp have shown that the aura of antiquity surrounding Malik is largely a function of the interests of later generations, and Norman Calder indicates that we should regard the copy of Muwatta in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin as indicative of the earliest written version of the text (i.e., late ninth century C.E.) One could read Muwatta as a statement about the various disciplines that constitute Muslims as a community. In that case, the order of the chapters is significant. Muslims are first a praying or worshipping community. They are then a community that takes care in the burial of their dead. They are a community marked by the practice of fasting, and of worship in the mosque. They pay zakat , in the sense of contributing to the communal funds. They perform hajj . Only then does Muwatta present Muslims as a community formed by armed struggle. In the thirty-two “books” contained in the text, there are 1831 reports or judgments pertaining to Muslim practice. 48 of these deal with armed struggle. Of these, only 5 deal with what we would call war-conduct or “just war” issues. The rest deal with exhortations to armed struggle, martyrdom, and, most strikingly, with the disposition of war prizes. Of the 48 reports dealing with armed struggle collected in Muwatta , 11-nearly 25%–deal with war prizes. In the later treatise of al-Tabari (d. 923) describing the differences of opinion among jurists pertaining to armed struggle and the administration of conquered territories, the percentage is even more striking-18 out of 41 sections deal with war prizes, just less than 50%.

There are, no doubt, many reasons for the preponderance of discussions of war prizes in this material. Not least important would certainly be the interests of those fighting in enriching themselves and their families, though it must be noted that the military policies of various administrations moved more and more in the direction of professionalized fighting forces. In this, the juridical treatises are interesting, since they insist that war prizes must not be distributed until all material has been brought to a place of security, where it can be given out in terms of established procedures. Practically speaking, one does not want fighters who grab prizes and leave. Once we have the idea of restraint, however, we find the texts going much, much further-who deserves shares, and how much? (Mounted soldiers receive two shares, for example-one for themselves, and one for their horses). If human beings are included, what does one do about their pre-war relationships? (Mothers and children ought not be separated; with respect to husbands and fathers, things are different, though much depends on where they were captured, since a married couple captured within Islamic territory remain married, whereas a husband and wife brought into Islamic territory at different times are no longer legally united). And what about people captured who then profess Islam? This alters their status decisively.

The responsa on war prizes deserve a study in themselves. In this essay, I want to bring the issues back to the Qur’an, and to see the question of distribution as connected with the community-forming aspect of war. Chapter 8 of the Qur’an is sometimes called the “sura of the spoils” ( surat al-anfal ). This makes sense, given the opening lines: “They ask you [Muhammad] about war prizes. Say: ‘That is a matter for God and God’s Prophet, so be conscious of God and make things right between you. Obey God and God’s Messenger if you are true believers…'” As well, we have v. 41: “Know that one-fifth of your battle gains belongs to God and the Prophet, to close relatives and orphans, to the needy and travelers, if you believe in God and the revelation We sent down…God has power over all things.” The “fifth” ( al-khums ) is clearly a kind of community fund. Ibn Kathir transmits traditions indicating that the Prophet took something for himself and his family, used the rest for the support of those in need, and then insisted that the remaining four-fifths be distributed with rigorous adherence to the notion that those who fought should be equally rewarded. He does not tell us of any particular disputes that might present a particular occasion for the revelation of 8:1 or 41. [3] The point, as with 4:75, is that the faithful community is measured by adherence to God’s order, and that war presents an important, even a decisive test of faithfulness.

Qur’an 4:75 and 8:1, 41 remind us that talk about war must not be divorced from larger issues. 4:75 helps us to understand that, in the context of the Qur’an’s teaching on war, obedience is the key. In the older tradition of ancient Israel, we learn that “obedience is better than sacrifice” (I Sam. 15:22); in the gospel narratives, Jesus similarly makes obedience the measure of association with him (“Who are my mother and my brothers?…Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Mark 3:31-35 and parallels) For the Qur’an, obedience distinguishes believers from unbelievers and hypocrites; from another point of view, obedience is the primary quality of that community sought by God throughout salvation history.

One of the more widely quoted lines from Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life presents his view that religion is “an eminently social thing”. Whatever else one might say about Durkheim, this notion catches the drift of the Qur’an’s view of salvation history. God sends prophets who, in their diverse linguistic contexts, call people to the truth written on their hearts. The great prophets bring books and found communities, the members of which in turn extend the mission of calling human beings to submission. All this is well-known. With respect to our topic, however, we may take the opportunity to conclude with a mention of the way discussion of Qur’an 4:75 and 8:1, 41 correlates with the concerns of a commentator like Sayyid Qutb. For all the books making him the father of Islamism, Qutb was in fact insistent that the point of Muslim practice was the building of a group focused on “migration” or training in the virtues associated with submission. As Qutb put it, if armed struggle only serves to establish new forms of tyranny, then it is worthless. In this, Sayyid Qutb’s account focuses on the Qur’anic notion that God wants a people which will seek conformity with God’s guidance. 4:75 and 8:1, 41 remind us of this. Fighting is, and may be, a measure of faithfulness, when it is commanded by God.


[1] Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad , trans. A. Guillaume (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955), 212-213.

[2] (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).

[3] Though the distribution of the fifth, particularly with respect to the role of the Prophet’s family, did become a matter of dispute between Sunni and Shi`i Muslims.