War and Fighting: Response to Kelsay, Kavka and Ahmed

Randi Rashkover,
George Mason University

The three papers presented by John Kelsay, Martin Kavka and Rumee Ahmed dealing with Qur’anic passages 4:71-91, 8:1 & 41, and Deuteronomy 20 offer rich material for a Scriptural Reasoning consideration of the meaning of “war” or “fighting” within the Hebrew Scriptures and Qur’an. In what follows I intend to respond to each of the three readings of these texts and read and write along with them.

I. Qur’an 4:75, 8:1 and 41.

John Kelsay’s paper presents a reading of Qu’ran 4:75, 8:1 and 41, which (I will generalize here but not below) together paint a picture of war or fighting as a process of discerning and identifying who is and who is not part of a “found” community, and he says, “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. It is interesting to note that Kelsay suggests that for the Qur’an, war is a process and not simply an act of battle. Moreover, Kelsay’s paper suggests that there are two primary moments in the process of war: 1) the discernment of whether to fight or not according to divine guidance [e.g. 4:75] and 2) the proper discernment and distribution of war spoils [8.1]. Both aspects of the war process resonate with the over-arching interest of Sura 4, which, as Kelsay indicates, is concerned with matters of inheritance and/or rightful return. Seen from this perspective, war functions as part of a process of “return” to God. The person who fights or does not fight under the guidance of God is “returned to” or “found” by God so far as his obedience to God demonstrates divine possession, and persons who can properly offer up 5% of the war spoils for God and for the community also demonstrate their understanding of divine possession and thereby their own belonging to the “found” Islamic community. War and its processes disclose who persons really are. War is, as Kelsay refers to it, “a measure of faithfulness” and therefore contributes to the development of the “found” Islamic community. Consequently, in Kelsay’s account, war operates within and contributes to a logic that distinguishes firmly between those who are “found” and those who are “lost,” and among the lost are certainly those who hide their “lostness” or pretend to be found.

II. Deuteronomy 20:1-19

For the time being, I want to leave this preliminary account of Kelsay’s reading and look at some Hebrew Bible texts, both the Deuteronomy 20 text that Martin Kavka discusses and Deuteronomy 22:3, to suggest that in these biblical texts there is no correlative Jewish version of the above question of the “found” community. More specifically, I’d like to begin by reading Deut. 20 through the lens of Deut. 22:1-3, which says, “You shall not see the ox of your brother or his sheep or goat cast off, and hide yourself from them; you shall surely return them to your brother . . . So shall you do for his donkey, so shall you do for his garment, and so shall you do for any lost article of your brother that may become lost from him and you find it; you shall not hide yourself.” Deuteronomy 22:3 is an interesting text when in particular compared to both the Mishnaic and Talmudic discussions of it. According to this text, if a person has lost something and one’s brother finds it, then the brother must “return” the item found to his brother. Unlike the Mishnaic and Talmudic discussions around Deut. 22 in Bava Metzia, the brother who “finds” the object does not need to take an oath that he has really found the object because one has to take an oath only if one does not know who the original owner is and when there may be another claimant for that same “found” object. In the Deuteronomic text however, the question of the owner of the object is not in question. In effect, the object was never really “lost”, since we know to whom it belongs. Such a case might be read as symbolic of biblical laws regarding property generally speaking insofar as they expose exactly who owns what and under what conditions such ownership obtains. Of course, the cartography of property ownership within the biblical text derives from the fundamental owner-owned relationship between God and the Jewish people, and God says, “You will be my treasured possession” (Exodus 19:4). The Jewish people in other words are “found” by and not “lost to” God. They are found or “returned” to God when the live according to the law.

With this scriptural symbol in mind, we can now return to Deuteronomy 20, the text that Kavka discusses. Deuteronomy 20: 1-19 is noteworthy as a text about war since many of its verses outline either exemptions from war or processes of peace-making to avoid war. Kavka reads the exemptions as relating to persons who are “not fit” for battle. I read them differently. If we look at the first three exemptions, we see that they are not based on fitness but rather on possible confusions over property and rightful ownership. Deuteronomy 20:5-7, “Who is the man who has built a new house and has not inaugurated it? Let him go and return to this house, lest he die in the war and another man will inaugurate it. And who is the man who has planted a vineyard and not redeemed it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man will redeem it . . . And who is the man who has betrothed a woman and not married her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man will marry her.” In each of these instances, going to war could potentially compromise the rightful ownership-property relationship. Going to war could potentially compromise “who the fighter is” as owner and confuse him with another person. Unlike the reading of the Qur’anic account above which indicates that going to war names or labels a person as part of the Muslim community, it appears here that going to war should not be permitted to compromise an already established system of owner identification or what are the contours of the “found” Israelite community within the law.

The issue becomes even more noteworthy in the case of the “fearful man” who as Rabbi Yose HaGlili suggests is the “sinful man” (“Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, and let him not melt the heart of his fellows, like his heart.” (Deut. 20:8). It is because he is sinful that he is afraid that he will die in battle as punishment for his sins. Not only does the Torah indicate that this man need not fight, but, according to Rashi, it suggests that within the context of the other exemptions, the very reasons for his exemption may be disguised by the exemptions of the above property holders. He may, in other words, pretend to be a property holder of the above sort. Such pretending, I would like to suggest, can be construed as as an act of “return” (“teshuvah”). The sinful man is invited to sit under the comfort and protection of the law. One may, we could say, hide in the law, because hiding in the law returns one to God. If we take this further, we might say that persons who are covered by the law may not be really righteous, or that among those who live within the law there are both righteous and unrighteous but they are all offered protection insofar as the law returns them to God.

Of course this reading of Deuteronomy 20 stands in contrast to Kelsay’s reading of the Qur’an insofar as the Deuteronomic text does not indicate that war is a process of discerning who is and who is not Jew/Israelite. This does not mean, however, that war may not be a process whereby the Israelite discerns the identity of the non-Jew. In Deuteronomy 20:10, the Israelites are commanded to present a peaceful solution to the non-Jew as part of the process of war. There is a difference of opinion on this verse between Rashi and Maimonides as to whether the Israelites should always offer peace or only in the instances of an offensive war outside the land of Israel. The biblical text, however, is unclear on this point and therefore privileges Maimonides’ more expansive reading wherein the Israelites must always extend the possibility of peace to the non-Jew in the situation. With this offer of peace, the Israelite attempts to identify the character of the non-Jew and discern therefore what his/her relation to the Israelite/Jew actually is.

Before leaving the discussion of Deuteronomy 20, there is one more important question/consideration to add to this reading. What impact does a diasporic reality have on this account? First-order consideration of this question exposes two important elements to a diasporic consideration of this text. First, if there is no war to save the land because there is no land, then there is also a loss of property ownership conditions within the land and a significant loss of Jewish identity as much as Israelite identity is determined by property ownership within the land. In other words, diasporic Judaism poses a challenge to Jewish identity. Second, in the diaspora we are all like the sinful man. According to rabbinic Judaism, the Jews were exiled from the land on account of their collective sin. Consequently, like the sinful man, we too look for protection under the law. However, our quest for protection under the law is far more tenuous and potentially much less rewarding because much of the law whose protection we seek is suspended within the diasporic condition and to a large extent we look to be protected by a law that is not fully protecting. Such is the humble and precarious spiritual situation of post-exilic Judaism. Not only are the Jews within the law a mixture of the righteous and the unrighteous, but they dwell within a less than fully protective law. What a big difference the diaspora makes to the “foundness” and sense of return with God available to the pre-exilic Israelite community.

III. Back to the Qur’an

Thus far, I have earmarked a difference between a reading of Deuteronomy 20 on the meaning of the process of war and Kelsay’s Durkheimian account of war as a measure of an authentic Islamic community found by God. A closer reading of the Qur’anic texts, however, along with Kelsay and Ahmed’s reflections, indicates that there is more going on in this analysis of war than the identification of war as a measure of faithfulness. Ahmed’s paper helps to identify the problem. In the context of what Ahmed refers to as a universalist reading of Qur’an 4:75, he notes the logical implications operating within the text itself. There are, he reminds us, three fundamental nouns in the text ; 1) rescuer (you all), 2) wretched and 3) city (oppressors). Discussing the identity of the city in particular, Ahmed indicates the obvious – namely that the city housing the “wretched” cannot be one’s own city, since this would mean that the rescuer would be “either the wretched, in which case the reader is not being addressed, or an oppressor, in which case the reader is an object rather than the subject, of the address.” The reader, Ahmed says, is “constantly being sent out of her hometown to try to aid the wretched.” But Ahmed goes further with this interesting line of thought and notes that the text does not advocate fighting to aid the wretched in toppling an oppressive regime. Rather, the text indicates that the wretched are praying for deliverance out of the regime into the “city of the addressee, a seemingly utopian [emphasis mine] society without oppression or wretchedness”. In view of these factors it appears that the Qur’an advocates fighting by those who live without oppression in their midst for the purpose of emancipating and literally moving the wretched out of this environment. The rescuer is not the wretched and the wretched is not the rescuer and what distinguishes them is precisely whether they dwell amidst oppression and need removal from this or not. This version of Ahmed’s reading is further nuanced by what he refers to as his particularist reading. Read as a text about the historical community of Islam in the period of oppression within Mecca and migration to Medina, we learn not only that the wretched must be taken out of the oppressive society but that in fact the oppressive society is oppressive as polytheistic. What is it that makes them wretched? We learn that, as Ahmed shows us in verses 97-98, “wretchedness is not measured by property or subjugation, but by mobility.” That is, the people in Mecca were wretched because they could not leave Medina. Like the universalist reading, the wretched are those who must journey away from the place of their wretchedness but cannot. But what about the nature of the oppression suffered? Read historically, Ahmed suggests we learn that Muslims fleeing Mecca were by force of the treaty of Hudaybiyah, required to be sent back. According to the historical account however, the Meccans betrayed this treaty and with this betrayal of the treaty, Mohammed was a small time later commanded to fight them. The switch derives, Ahmed suggests, from the Meccans’ disregard for divine guidance. The oppressor is, in other words, the polytheist, and it is incumbent upon those who dwell in non-polytheistic environments to emancipate those who dwell within these environments.

The import of this review of Ahmed’s two readings rests in the question posed by them. If the text distinguishes between the rescuer and the wretched and if the wretched are those who dwell amidst non-believers, this would suggest that the rescuer may only dwell among pure believers. But, as Ahmed suggests, the rescuer is to lead the wretched out of the city of oppression into a “utopian” environment of pure belief. But is not such an environment, well, utopian? Does not Ahmed’s reading force us to wonder whether or not war can be justified in this context at all, given that the rescuer’s community is ideal at best? At the very least, Ahmed’s reading forces us to ask where this “ideal” community might be? With this we return to Kelsay’s original reading and recognize that this question looms within Kelsay’s account of war as a cultivating measure of faithfulness for a found community. More specifically, Ahmed’s paper helps to reveal a hidden polemic within Kelsay’s account. What do I mean?

IV. An Islamic-Jewish Polemic?

We begin to see this hidden polemic in Qur’an 3:103-110. Here we see two important points: 1) Believers can become unbelievers: “how could you reject your faith after believing”, and, 2) those who potentially reject their faith after believing may be in fact, the “people of the Book”: “Do not be like those who, after they have been give clear revelation, split into factions and fall into disputes . . . On the Day when some faces brighten and other darken, it will be said to those with darkened faces, ‘how could you reject your faith after believing?’.” Professor Kelsay does not read this text as an Islamic-Jewish polemic, but he does argue that the question concerning the hypocrite is one of the motivations for techniques like fighting and burial of the dead and fasting which are used for discerning the measure of faithfulness. If, however, we read Qur’an 3:103-110 in view of Ahmed’s analysis, we might ask whether or not the Qur’an is questioning 1) whether a believer is really a believer and/or 2) whether a Jew or a Christian can be a believer. Can one be a Muslim and still be lost? Can one be a Jew and/or a Christian and be “found”?

Let’s go further. Read in view of the above account of Deut. 20, it would appear that both the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an agree that the Jew can “hide” behind the law. The fundamental difference exposed, however, is that from a Jewish perspective the Jew rightfully hides behind the law since such hiding grafts her into the order of divine possession whereas according to a Qur’anic perspective, a Jewish hiding behind the law is inadequate if the believer is not fully exposed in this hiding. Said otherwise, the notion implicit in the above Jewish account that in fact, one may be a “sinner” and “protected by the law” seems to be called into question by Sura 3:103-110. We now recognize an Islamic-Jewish polemic regarding what kind of Jew can officially count as part of a “found” Muslim community.

Still, such a polemic between Jew and Muslim reflects the same confusion within the Muslim community over who is really a “believer” and who is not. Jews are not the only ones who can hide, it seems. Are there, in other words, any non-wretched Muslims, any Muslims who live free from polytheists in their midst? Aren’t Muslims always amidst polytheists (either from without or from within) and if so, does this mean that they are not “properly returned” to God?

Finally, we may now re-read Kelsay’s account of how war produces a process of discerning the “measure of faithfulness”. Recall, as I mentioned above, Kelsay earmarks two aspects of war that discern faithfulness: 1) fighting or not and 2) distribution of war spoils (i.e. returning to God and the Godly community what belongs to them.) But why are there two tests? Why not just one? Two tests, we might hypothesize, are required for a full discernment of who is or is not a “true believer”. It is conceivable that one might go to war at the right time and appear to be a “true believer” but not be willing to give 5% of the spoils to the God-community. But might the same not be said for the second test as well? Might one be willing to distribute the spoils properly but not follow through in another instance of divine command? Does not the presence of two tests suggest some doubt about how many tests one needs in order to demonstrate the “true believer”? Maybe, we might posit that this produces a sort of uncertainty regarding identity within the Islamic sensibility – an uncertainty that in fact appears rather similar to the uncertainty surrounding the identity of the diasporic Jew who does not know if she is protected and “found” in the law or not? If this is true, might this confusion and uncertainty about “being truly found in God” act as a provocative point of dialogue between Muslims and Jews?