Rescuing the Wretched: Between Universal and Particular Readings of Q. 4:75

Rumee Ahmed,
Colgate University

The identification of the verse 4:75 of the Qur’an as an appeal for universal social justice is intriguing in its possibilities. The verse reads, “And what is wrong with you that you do not fight for the cause of Allah and the wretched men, women, and children whose cry is: ‘Our Lord! Rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from you one who will protect; and raise for us from you one who will help!'”. A surface, or, plain-sense reading of this verse appears to exhort believers to fight in the way of God in order to emancipate the weak and oppressed. Historically, this mode of reading has been rhetorically useful for political groups as a clear justification for diverse social agendas. A close reading reveals that the verse lends itself to multiple interpretations. I will discuss two historical interpretations of this verse in detail and will refer to them, for the purpose of this discussion, through the terms “universalist” and “particularist”. These are not meant to be reified categories, but helpful heuristic devices that describe different methods of reading. Based on the mode of reading that one chooses, the text takes on a discrete meaning for the reader that does not exhaust the possibilities of meaning, but provides a rubric for understanding and acting upon the text. Although I argue that a reading that transcends “universalist” and “particularist” labels is required, it is instructive to understand the two methods of reading and their approaches to the text.

Within the universalist and particularist paradigms of reading, there are three nouns in verse 4:75 that are ambiguous as to their immediate reference. As such, different interpretations of the reference result in discrete and disparate meanings for the verse as a whole. The first noun is the direct object plural pronoun suffix “you all ( kum )” that is utilized in the opening phrase, “What is [wrong] with you all that you do not fight in the cause of Allah?” The second is the verbal noun that connotes the “wretched ( musta ?” af ? n )” individuals from amongst men, women and children. In the context of this verse the wretched are only known pragmatically, through their cry to be saved from oppression. The third noun that demands denotation in this verse is the “this town ( h?dhi hi l-qariyah )” within which these wretched souls are trapped. The town is only known ontologically, through the presence of its oppressive citizens. The perceived reference of these nouns, the “you all”, the “wretched” and “this town”, determines particular readings of the passage and, thus, its application in various contexts.

The first of these nouns, the “you all ( m? lakum )”, engages an unnamed audience directly as a second-person address. Depending on the perspective of the reader, the addresser may be speaking to a third-party, whether past or present, or may be addressing the reader herself, or both. If one were to assume this last option – that of God addressing all believers in all times – then the other ambiguous nouns obtain a reference that gives a particular meaning to the verse. The “you all” becomes at the same time an intimate “you”, in that it addresses the potential reader directly, as well as a “you all” that encompasses the community that views itself as addressee. This reading suggests that the address exhorts all believers regardless of their context and the exhortation thus becomes unbound from hermeneutically limiting constraints, such as time and space.

Though viewing the “you all” as intimate and universal collapses any contextual limitations of the exhortation itself, the hortative content may still be open to interpretation. However, the passage threatens to lose meaning unless “the wretched” and “this town” are themselves understood as intimate and universal terms. Were the wretched peoples or the town historical entities divorced from the practical reality of the reader, then the verse would relinquish hortative immediacy for the reader. Thus, in order to preserve the verse as an intimate and universal exhortation, “the wretched” and “this town” must also be understood in intimately knowable and universal terms. Hence, the vernacular, universalist reading of the verse says to the reader, “Why are you not fighting when there currently exist (and have existed) wretched people who are crying out from their city of oppressors for a savior?”

In order for the reader reading in a universalist mode to maintain the integrity of Q. 4:75 as a meaningful address, she must find a contemporary reference for the remaining two ambiguous nouns contained in the verse. As a result, the verse applies to any and all places wherein the reader perceives individuals in a wretched state, and the verse questions the reader’s lack of physical action against the oppression that leads to such wretchedness. The reader, then, is forever under question until either the oppression that leads to the cry of the wretched has been eradicated or the reader has dedicated herself to the eradication of that oppression through physical means. That the means be physical and violent is unambiguous in this verse, given the use of the Arabic phrase ” tuq?til?na f? sab?l Allah “, which means “you fight for the cause of God” as opposed the phrase ” tuj?hid?na f? sab?l Allah “, which can mean “you struggle for the cause of God”. This reading sets up a worldview wherein to be right – or more accurately, to not have something “wrong with you” – requires one to constantly identify cities of oppression through the cries of their inhabitants and to fight against them. This action clears one of blame and also justifies one’s actions as dedicated for the cause of God.

Exegetes who proffer this reading do not deny that Q. 4:75 may have been understood in a particularist, and thereby contextually limited, manner by the Madinan community. However, they argue that the circumstances that obtained there were merely a conduit for the revelation of this verse that calls for a broader call to fight against the oppression of the wretched. [1] A universalist reading has found favor amongst many contemporary exegetes who argue for the transcendental import and holistic meaning of all Qur’anic verses. Amin Ahsan Islahi, for example, points out that this verse compels believers to be constantly fighting against oppression, and warns against particularizing any of the ambiguous nouns to a specific time and place, lest believers become complacent and not fight. [2] Syed Qutb makes a similar move, saying that even if the ambiguous nouns may have had particular references in the past, they should be understood as tropes symbolizing the eternal struggle between the “Abode of Islam” and the “Abode of War”. [3]

With regard to the universalized meaning that this reading imparts upon “the wretched”, the reading compels the reader to consider the standards by which wretchedness is measured. Within the confines of the passage, wretchedness is only known through its pragmatic result; that is, in the cry of a people to their Lord for deliverance. It would appear that the mere presence of a group of people who call to their Lord for a savior and decry the oppression of the people of the town in which they dwell would fulfill the minimum requirements of wretchedness. However, basic prudence requires the reader to determine whether every caller is, de facto, wretched. Certainly the reader would be wise to question the call of criminals or the insane, not to mention agent provocateurs or self-serving politicians. Such practical concerns would require the reader to limit the qualifications of “the wretched” through some devised rubric that is not provided in the verse itself. Perhaps the wretched are those who cannot help themselves and so must call for a savior. Perhaps they are those who no longer hope for the rectification of the townspeople and only want to be delivered from them. Or perhaps they are limited to those who begin their call with, “Our Lord”, and perhaps further limited to those who speak to their God in Arabic. The universalist reader is presented with options of interpretation that can expand or restrict their definition of “the wretched”. The pressing question that the universalist reader must answer is whether she is required to act only when it is her Lord being called to, or whether she is compelled to act when any divine being is invoked?

The final noun to be denoted in the universalist paradigm is “this city”. In every instance, “this city” is, for the reader reading in a universalist mode, always “that city”, meaning a city other than the one in which the reader resides. It cannot be the city within which the reader resides, or else she would either be from amongst “the wretched”, in which case she is not being addressed, or from the “oppressors”, in which case the reader is an object, rather than the subject, of the address. The reader is therefore constantly being sent out of her hometown to try to aid “the wretched”. If the reader resides in a town in which there is no oppression and no wretched, and is not at the same time fighting against another town where oppression is occurring, then the reader has something wrong with her. The reader may have a hometown where she lives, but until there are no more cries from the wretched, the reader’s energy is constantly directed outward. It is interesting to note that in a universalist reading, this verse does not appear to address the more likely scenario of the addressee living in a society wherein oppressors and the wretched coexist with such righteous believers as the reader, the latter of whom are incited to fight against the oppressors to help the wretched. Rather, the wretched in this passage are praying for deliverance from their city, to a city where they presume that they will not face similar oppression. That is the city of the addressee, which for the wretched is a seemingly utopian society containing neither oppression nor wretchedness. The city is the desire of the oppressed and its existence compels its inhabitants to liberate others in less fortunate locales. Though it has not been historically understood as such, it may be that the verse loses its hortative effect on the universalist reader if she lives in a society with even a hint of either oppression or wretchedness.

The universalist reading, though expansive and powerful in its exhortation, by no means exhausts the hermeneutical possibilities of Q. 4:75. It has been contended that the “you all” in the beginning of the passage is not, in fact, a universal reference. Rather, it may be read as particularly addressed to the prophet Muhammad and his early community in Madinah, in accordance with the “occasion of revelation” literature surrounding this verse. In this more particularist mode of reading, the contemporary reader removes herself to a degree from the address and understands the verse as inextricably tied to the historical context of its revelation. The reader may choose, like the 4 th century legal scholar Ab? Bakr al-Ja??a?, [4] to view the ethos she gleans from the verse as relevant to her personal life, or to simply approach the verse as a particular historical instantiation that does not transcend its time and place. In either case, the “you all” would seem to refer directly to the fledgling community of believers in Madinah who, having just emigrated from boycotts and persecution in Makkah, were struggling to set up a polity of their own. Many believers from Makkah were barred from making the journey to Madinah due to societal pressure, whether manifested through physical restraint or perceived threat. The “you all”, then, is read to be an appeal to the people of Madinah to help the wretched people who are still stuck in “this city”, which, according to this reading, most certainly referred to pagan Makkah.

This reading alleviates the reader from both immediate questioning and immediate action, but also leads one to question the ethos of the passage. Why are the early Madinan Muslims, themselves poor and suffering, asked to fight to aid “the wretched”? From a materialist standpoint, it would seem that the Madinans were themselves wretched, both in terms of financial stability and political clout. However, in light of verses 97 and 98 of Chapter 4 of the Qur’an, it would appear that “wretchedness” is measured neither by property nor political subjugation, but by mobility. “Surely,” reads the verse, “as for those whom the angels cause to die while they are unjust to their souls, [the angels] shall say: ‘In what state were you?’ They shall reply: ‘We were wretched in the earth.’ [The angels] will say: ‘Was not Allah’s earth spacious, so that you could have migrated therein?’ So these it is whose abode is hell, and it is an evil resort” (4:97). In this verse, the angels challenged the wretchedness of their interlocutors by citing their potential mobility and failure to capitalize on that potentiality. Wretchedness, in this conception, is not a title that is achieved by simply living in an oppressive environment. To the contrary, those who find themselves in an oppressed state are expected to journey to a place wherein they would no longer be wretched. Therefore, someone who is truly wretched would be unable to make this transition. This definition of wretchedness is further enforced by the next verse, “Except those who are (really) wretched from among men, women and children, who have not in their power the means nor can they find a way (to escape)” (4:98). The wretched, in the context of verses 97 and 98, are defined as those who cannot escape their surroundings and are forced to live amongst oppression.

Although a restriction of “the wretched” to individuals who cannot migrate from an oppressive environment is not exclusive to a particularist reading, particularism encourages such a reading given the previous identification of “this city” with Makkah. In the historical setting in which the verse was revealed, the Muslim community was settled in Madinah, which presumably was not self-identified as a city of oppression. Rather, Makkah, run by the opposition Qurayshite pagans, was the archetypal city of oppression highlighted by the Madinan verses of the Qur’an. Hence, it would appear that, reading in a particularist mode, “the wretched” would be most easily identified as Muslims living in Makkah without the means to migrate to Madinah.

Once “the wretched” have been understood as the unwilling Muslim residents of Makkah, the “oppressors” mentioned in the verse can also be positively identified beyond a vague notion of wrong-doers. Certainly, the Qur’an suggests that there was something special about the oppression present in the city of Makkah that required the migration of Muslims from its borders. Muslims were not similarly expected to migrate from Abyssinia or the Yemen, places where they were also marginalized–though not persecuted–communities. Amongst exegetes reading in a particularist mode, [5] however, persecution was not a significant factor in labeling Makkah as oppressive. Rather, the majority posited that the oppression being referenced in the verse was actually the polytheism that dominated the practice of Makkans at the time. Citing the sage Luqman’s claim that “polytheism is the greatest oppression,” [6] these exegetes suggest that the belief system propagated by the Makkans was, in fact, oppressive in and of itself, and therefore whoever could escape its influence must . In this light, the exhortation for the Madinans to fight becomes extremely specific. The verse as a whole is then understood in a particularist reading as follows: “What is wrong with all you Madinan Muslims that you do not fight for the cause of Allah and those Muslims who cannot escape Makkah, who cry out ‘Our Lord! Rescue us from this town of Makkah whose people practice polytheism’?”

The ethos of war derived from this verse in a particularist mode is one that justifies itself almost exclusively on theological grounds. The cry of a people who could not escape Makkan polytheism warranted physical confrontation to correct the problem – the problem here not being their marginalized or persecuted state, but their inability to migrate from a polytheistic society. The verse suggests that any Madinan who would say that fighting for that cause was unnecessary or unwarranted would have something wrong with them. Not only is the primary concern theological, but the sanction for fighting is dependent almost entirely upon divine decree. As Professor Kelsay points out, the Prophet was forbidden from fighting before the revelation of this verse. Instead, he was commanded to preach only and to try to change the minds of his oppressors. At that time, there would be something wrong with the Prophet and his community if they did fight, thus leaving the wretched to fend for themselves. A few years after the revelation of this verse, Muhammad signed the treaty of Hudaybiyah. At Hudaybiyah, he enacted an agreement with the Makkans that forced the Madinan Muslim community to return any fleeing Makkan Muslim back to Makkah. In the context of the verse under study, the treaty of Hudaybiyah would seem to have aided the oppression of these refugees, or at the very least, perpetuated their wretched state. A small time later, the Prophet was commanded to fight the Makkans again, after the Makkans were accused of breaching the treaty of Hudaybiyah, until oppression in its entirety was eradicated. Certainly, historical circumstance played a role in the changing decrees, but at each stage the action of the community was predicated on Divine sanction. God determined whether the wretched were to be fought for and when oppression warranted physical confrontation. The particularist reading defines a “just war” as one that is sanctioned by God, and defines the actors in the war – the just, the oppressors and the wretched – in almost exclusively theological terms.

We are presented, then, with two modes of reading Q 4:75. The universalist reading places the believer in constant question, sending her out to fight against wrongs where she sees them. The particularist reading looks in from without, onto a community that knows when to fight based on God’s decree and defines right and wrong theologically. While these poles of reading are heuristically helpful approaches to the verse, it is important to highlight a third method of reading that was employed by the vast majority of medieval exegetes, which is a sort of mixture of both methods. Many medieval scholars suggested that the exhortation at the beginning of the verse was universal, placing all believers in all times in question and encouraging them to fight. The second part of the verse, however, they read particularly. These exegetes posited that the wretched were the Muslims of Makkah who could not migrate and equated oppression with polytheism. [7] The equation of “oppression” with polytheism and the assertion that the hortative introduction is universal incites believers to identify theological excesses around them, to the exclusion of all other forms of oppression. However, the identification of “the wretched” with the Muslims of Makkah appears to limit the possibility of physical violence to correct that oppression to circumstances that precisely mirror those of the immobile Makkan Muslims. Depending on the rubric the reader devises in equating the circumstance of a contemporary people to the Makkan Muslims, the verse might be read as applicable only in the rarest of circumstances or wherever Muslims are unable to migrate from pagan-dominated societies.

Of these historically articulated options of reading, the universalist reading appears more palatable to modern conceptions of morality, whereby the reader is constantly called to work for social justice. At the same time, this reading allows for an interpretation of the text that justifies an exhortation to struggle against injustice broadly defined. The inherent vagueness of terms in a universalist reading allows for the text to be interpreted narrowly to justify the theological or political machinations of the reader. In any case, while the possibilities of the universalist reading concerning justice are appealing, the historical context of revelation constantly lurks in the background, threatening to collapse hermeneutic possibilities into a single particularist reading. Of course, most exegetical discourses on this verse are a mix of these approaches, moving from universalist to particularist with impunity. The holistic meaning derived from the text is predicated on the identification of the ambiguous nouns referenced in the verse, which exegetes are warranted to define as either universal or particular, based on their understanding of the text. No one scheme of definition is more intellectually honest or dishonest than another; the vagueness inherent in the text allows for multiple, valid readings.

What, then, can be said about the “correct” reading of the verse? If one reading cannot be justifiably privileged over another, how can meaning be confidently derived from the text? The very existence of multiple, valid readings suggests that the polar logic of “right and wrong”, or even “better or worse” may not apply to the reading of this verse. The most that can be said about a proffered interpretation is that it is “relatively better or worse for the particular reader interpreting in a particular context”. Such relativity is unsatisfying when the wretched are calling out for salvation and the reader is prescribed with liberating them through potentially violent means. Relativity, however, need not be a weakness of the text, but a strength that the vagueness imparts onto the text. If any one reading cannot be ontologically privileged over another, then no reading can claim exclusive legitimacy. Hence, the very existence of multiple, valid readings proscribes the reader from dogmatically adhering to or forwarding a singular thesis concerning the verse. In order to circumvent a situation wherein a plurality of readers see themselves as charged with a violent mandate to free those whom the reader views as oppressed, a complex logic must mediate the interpretation the verse. To avoid the dogmatism that accompanies either a universalist or particularist reading, this logic must be one that combines the various interpretations available, a community of interpreters, and a resistance to noumenal truth claims.

A detailed outline of such a logic of reading is beyond the scope of this paper, but acknowledging the need for such a reading complicates the relationship of war and the text, and may frustrate any attempt to articulate an overarching theory of just war that emanates from the text. But it may be that any attempt to pin down such an ethos is itself misguided, if not impossible. Perhaps the text subverts justifications for war that appeal to a desire to establish functioning and just societies without paying close attention to the excess and transgression that inevitably accompanies war. Or, in a more positive light, it may be that the discomfort generated by this verse is a reflection of the Qur’anic conception of war overall. It may be that the Qur’an recognizes that war is always ideologically, politically, economically and otherwise motivated by material gain; and so recognizing that reality, discusses the underlying theological aspects of that motivation. It may well be that this verse is not delineating a situation wherein war is acceptable, but is purposely referencing war in a manner that does not ease our conscience and calls our attention to the discomfort that should accompany any discussion of war.

[1] Zamakhshiri, al-Kashsh?f, 1:523.

[2] Islahi, Tadabbur-e-Qur’?n , vol.2, pg. 336.

[3] Qutb, Fi ? il ? l al-Qur’?n , from, 4:75, pg. 9.

[4] Ja????, A ? k ? m al-Qur an , vol. 2, pg. 241.

[5] See for example, Ibn Kath?r, Tafs?r al-‘A??m 1:641, Shawkani, Fat? al-Qad?r , 396.

[6] Qur’?n, 31:13.

[7] See for example, Tabar?, Tafs?r al-Tabar? 4:171, Qurtubi, al-J?mi‘ al-A?k?m al-Qur’?n 5:268, Razi, al-Tafs?r al-Kab?r , 4:141.

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