Scriptural Reasoning and War: A Response to Kelsay and Ahmed

Peter Dula,
Eastern Mennonite University

Kelsay’s basic argument is stated clearly at several points in his essay. ‘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’. The first half of the claim seems less interesting than the second if only because it is hard to imagine an interlocutor insisting that disobedience to divine command should be considered faithful. That obeying God’s commands is a measure of faithfulness is a tautology. Perhaps Kelsay means to emphasize that divine command is the only criterion of a just war. That is, a war could not be justified (or condemned) on the basis of human discernment about relative wretchedness, probability of success or other criteria. The Prophet and his community of exiles in Medina did not choose to turn to violence because they came to realize that they were at the point of last resort. They did so because they were commanded to do so in 4.75. The corollary, which presumably Kelsay wants us to see, is that fighting can and should be vigorously refused when it cannot be clearly and directly tied to divine command. The next, untaken, step in Kelsay’s argument would, presumably, be to let us know what that looks like.

But that reading of Kelsay probably won’t do given his claims about the nature of ‘Shari’a reasoning,’ which concerns the discernment of God’s command through the weighing of criteria. ‘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.’ It is curious then that Kelsay says so little about those conditions or about that mode of reasoning. In fact, the next section of the paper tells us that Shari’a reasoning is relatively unconcerned with the justice of war. Having written about this in more detail elsewhere, Kelsay perhaps has good reason for not wishing to repeat himself here. But, given the topic, shouldn’t he at least say a word or two about whether ‘wretchedness’ has anything to do with ascertaining the conditions of just war?

We are left with one other explicit criterion: community formation. War, when waged in response to divine command, is ‘a means by which God forms a people.’ But like Kelsay’s other central claim (obedience is a measure of faithfulness), ‘war is a means of community formation,’ tells us remarkably little. It only makes it worse to add that this is an illustration of Durkheim’s basic thesis. Reading scripture ought to move us away from cliché, not further embed us in them. To offer my own amateur sociological platitude, war always serves community formation (usually by simultaneously serving community division.) Those of us who are U.S. citizens in the years after September 11 are well aware of this. The important questions are how it does so, and what kind of community.

Platitudes are useful if they prepare us for difficult questions. Is it conceivable that God might forbid a war that serves community formation? Alternatively, why not simply ‘obedience’ regardless of the consequences for the community? What sort of prudential judgment lets us know when the survival and expansion of the community has displaced faithfulness to the command of God? Given that generally speaking, war has always been louder and more persuasive than God, won’t the demand for divine sanction produce more gods, not fewer wars? Not only doesn’t Kelsay help us with any of this, his formulation encourages the possibility. Asserting that ‘if armed struggle only serves to establish new forms of tyranny, then it is worthless’ only patronizes the reader. No one needs the Qur’an to tell them that. We need help acknowledging and negotiating the reality that, first, war does in fact tend toward tyranny, and second, all the more so when the rulers are given permission to exploit divine command in the name of ‘community formation.’

How would a scriptural reasoning approach differ from Kelsay’s? Instead of offering generalizations about SR ‘method’, I can simply refer us to Rumee Ahmed’s remarkable example of the SR approach. What does he do? In one verse, Ahmed locates several textual ambiguities and uses them to generate a lengthy proliferation first of questions and second of possibilities. By trusting the text to speak to him, that is, trusting that the text, even a snippet of it, is divine revelation, he generates several densely packed and deeply instructive pages of his own. To use a Christian analogy, in Ahmed’s hands, the five loaves and two fish of 4.75 become a banquet fit for 5000. How does that happen? In what follows I summarize what Ahmed says, but I am more interested in the how of his essay than the what.

Ahmed begins by noting that three of the central nouns in the verse are ambiguous. Who are the ‘you’ that do not fight? Who are ‘the wretched?’ And what or which is ‘this town’? Ahmed spends most of his time on what he calls the ‘universalist’ response to these questions. The ‘you’ is a universal ‘you’, directed toward all who hear the cry of the ‘wretched’. And if it is a universalist ‘you’, is it also a universalist ‘wretched’? Are we enjoined to constantly listen for the cry of the oppressed and dedicate our lives to fighting the causes of oppression? But how do we discern what constitutes wretchedness? Does the ‘you’ assume that the addressee is not also wretched? Since the verse identifies the wretched who cry out to the Lord, does it mean we are not responsible for those who do not cry out to the Lord or who cry out to Lords other than Allah? How do we know when those who cry out to the Lord for rescue are indeed in need of rescue and when they are, for example, ‘self-serving politicians with promises of oil revenue’? Finally, are ‘the wretched’ always elsewhere? ‘This city’ is for the reader in a universalist mode, always ‘that city’. It isn’t the reader’s hometown. Rather the reader is being sent from home to fight for the oppressed in other towns. The universalist reading, in sum, is ‘an exhortation to struggle against injustice broadly defined’.

Is there an advantage to reading the text in this universalist mode? Perhaps the more obvious reading would be the historical one. Here the ‘you’ is the community of early Muslims who went with Muhammad to Madinah. The wretched are those Muslims left behind in Makkah, ‘this city’, suffering under the Quraysh. ‘Wretchedness’ is not a material condition so much as it is the atmosphere of polytheism. The ragtag community gathered around Muhammad in Madinah is, at least on most definitions, also wretched, just insofar as they are poor, suffering and powerless. But they are not among ‘the wretched’ of this verse. Wretchedness, therefore, is not simply living in a situation of oppression; it is being surrounded by polytheists.

Finally, Ahmed points out, these two readings can be combined, as they were by many medieval scholars. Then the first half of the verse (the exhortation to fight) is universal. The second is particular. That is, believers are all called to struggle against polytheism around them.

So Ahmed presents three plausible readings of the verse at hand. That he is unable to decide between them may be because ‘there is no way to understand war in this verse as anything other than a disturbing course of action’. Ahmed prefers the universalist reading because of its call to struggle against injustice broadly defined. Yet he knows that his preference needs to come under the same scrutiny as those who use the vagueness of the text ‘to justify the theological or political machinations of the reader’.

So where does that leave us? For Kelsay, the brevity of the passage is an excuse to speed up and leave it behind in favor of the commentaries. For Ahmed, it is a reason to slow down and tarry longer, dig deeper. Kelsay ends up with platitudes that scarcely need the Qur’an. Ahmed ends up with precise and detailed questions that would have been impossible without patient and attentive reading. Both Kelsay and Ahmed find ways ‘to problematize the relationship between war and the text’. Kelsay tries to do so by subsuming war under the larger categories of obedience and community formation. Ahmed does so with a concluding paragraph consisting of series of destabilizing ‘it may be’ statements directed, subtly but surely, at Kelsay’s reading. Kelsay leaves us with a one-line solution tailor-made for the machinations of the reader-Fight if God commands it and if it forms a community. Ahmed leaves us wondering if that is just a way to ‘assuage our conscience regarding the horrors that war inflicts’.