Rescuing the Oppressed Doesn’t Just Spoil War

Omar Ha-Redeye,
University of Western Ontario


Jewish 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. [1] 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 previous traditions.

Part I – First, the Beginning that Justifies the Means

Any 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, [2] 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 flawed.

There 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). [3] 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. [4] 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. [5] Most Sephardic Jews are also considered Arab from an Islamic perspective, because Arab is a linguistic and not an ethnic term. [6] Ishmael actually learned the Arabic language from the tribe of Jurham, of a pre-existing Arab population descended from Qahtan. [7] 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. [8] Any inferences made of Ishmael cannot therefore be accurately placed upon Arabs as a whole, or the Islamic faith.

Part II – SR as a Conflict Mediator

Giving 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 7 th 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. [9] 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. [10]

The Arabian 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 lands. [11] 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. [12] 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 5-6 th centuries C.E. [13] 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. [14] 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.

The conflict 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 Queen Candace. [15] 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 kingdom.

It was into this already tumultuous scene of religious divisiveness and factionalism that Islam emerged. [16] 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.’
Say, ‘Nay, (We follow) only the religion of Abraham Hanifa, and he was not of Al-Mushrikûn (those who worshipped others along with Allâh).’ [17]

Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he was a true Muslim Hanifa and he was not of Al-Mushrikûn (idol worshippers). [18]

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.’ [19]

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 [20] and Jewish [21] 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. [22] Rather than adopting Byzantine or Sassanid laws, Islamic law transformed and modified these societies. [23] 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 5 th of 5 th ; 1 of 5 that None Could Claim

Although 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. [24] 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 forbidden. [25] 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. [26] The motivation for this appears to be to obliterate the name and identity of the enemy from existence and strike fear into their neighbours, [27] and to avoid the impression that they were motivated by money rather than wealth. [28] However, there are several instances in the Tanakh that do allow the spoils of war. [29] This booty was also divvied up, using a slightly different formula. [30] Both Moses and David divided it equally between the soldiers and the general community, with the Levites notably excluded. [31] 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. [32] Any financial motivations of enriching themselves and their families was addressed in 59:7 by explaining that the real purpose of khums was the redistribution of assets from wealth to the needy. [33] The 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.


The 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. [34] 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. [35] Indiscriminate plunder is expressly forbidden, [36] and Islamic just war theory does not allow murder of vulnerable people or wanton destruction of property. [37] Further, reference to orphans and the needy in 8:41 are not insignificant. [38] 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 warriors themselves. [39] The khums 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 place.


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[1] Douglass & Dunn at 63.

[2] Kaegi at 142-143.

[3] Nikaido at 238-40.

[4] Bakhos at 26.

[5] Shaheen at 174.

[6] Hamid at 125.

[7] Known as Joktan in the Tanakh (Gen. 10:25; 1 Chr. 1:19).

[8] al-Mubarkpuri at 24.

[9] Denny (1977) at 26-36.

[10] Denny (1975) at 38.

[11] 1 Kings 10, 2 Chronicles 9.

[12] Kebra Negast , Ch. 38.

[13] Smith at 456-62.

[14] Lecker at 636.

[15] Acts 8:27.

[16] Sahih Bukhari, Al-Janaa’iz (Funerals), Volume 2, Book 23, Number 441.

[17] Al-Baqarah, 2:135.

[18] Aali Imran, 3:67.

[19] Al-‘Ankabut 29:46.

[20] Taqizadeh at 619.

[21] Goode at 150, 152-54; Linfield at 48-49.

[22] Myendorff at 116, 119-120.

[23] Badr at 192.

[24] Sahih Bukhari, Tayammum (Rubbing hands and feet with dust), Volume 1, Book 7, Number 331 ; Sahih Bukhari, Salat (Prayers), Volume 1, Book 8, Number 429 .

[25] Genesis 14:22-23; Esther 8:11, 9:10, 16; 2 Chronicles 28:8, 13; 29:10, 30:8.

[26] Deut. 13:16-18; Joshua 6:18; 1 Samuel 15:3.

[27] Deut. 28:10.

[28] Genesis 34:30-31.

[29] Numbers 31:9; Deut. 3:7; Joshua 8:27; 2 Chronicles 14:12, 20:25.

[30] 1 Chronicles 26:27.

[31] Numbers 31:25: 1 Samuel 30:24; See also Deut. 18:1.

[32] Al-Anfal, 67-69; Sahih Muslim, Kitab Al-Jihad wa’l-Siyar (The Book of Jihad and Expedition), Book 019, Number 4360 .

[33] Al-Hashr, 59:7.

[34] Mohammad at 383, 395-97.

[35] Gil at 128-129.

[36] Sunan Abu-Dawud, Kitab Al-Jihad , Book 14, Number 2699 ; Sahih Muslim, Kitab Al-Hudud (The Book Pertaining to Punishments Prescribed by Islam), Book 017, Number 4238 .

[37] Malik’s Muwatta, Jihad, Book 21, Number 21.3.10 .

[38] Yazbak at 126.

[39] Gil at 144.