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Just How Just

John Kelsay has been writing about Islam since the mid-1980s, when, as a grad student at the University of Virginia, he cinched a doctorate in ethics with a dissertation on moral and religious ethics in the Muslim world. Since then, he has become one of the world’s leading scholars on Islam and, in particular, Islamic traditions of waging war in the name of the Muslim religion. In 1999, Kelsay wrote an essay for a special turn-of-the-century issue of this magazine entitled “Fighting the ‘Good’ Fight: The Return to Religious War.” In the piece, he offered this chilling prediction that in only 18 months would tragically ring true:

"All religious traditions in some sense emphasize the hope that humanity can live in a peaceable kingdom, where, in the biblical phrase, "the wolf shall (lie down) with the lamb." The story of research in religion at century's close might well be focused on increased cooperation between religious groups in the service of peace. But, sadly, it is not so. What began as a time of so much promise for religion's contribution to global peace has become a time of revival for religious war. It’s an ironic commentary—but at century's end, we should prepare to see religion less in the service of peace; more in the service of a particularly bloody kind of war.”

Kelsay’s third and most recent book on Islam and war, Arguing the Just War in Islam (Harvard 2007), lays out a detailed analysis of Shariah reasoning, the fundamental—and decidedly convoluted—set of historic precedents that all Muslims claim as the God-ordained basis for how they are to live their lives.

As Kelsay explains in the book, Shariah is freely used by both the best and the worst elements of Islam to justify actions ranging from advocating human rights to the wholesale slaughter of innocent men, women and children, all in the name of Allah. Kelsay argues that despite their pious rants to the contrary, murderous thugs such as Osama bin Laden and his ilk—none of whom have any serious training in Islamic theology—not only are abusing Shariah traditions but in fact represent Islam’s own worst enemy. A reviewer of Kelsay’s book for the New York Times wrote: “By forensically dissecting the development of Shariah reasoning (Kelsay) illuminates the situation we now face, in which classical Islamic scholars are trumped by bloodthirsty bandits who pose as thinkers.”

Kelsay is Florida State’s Richard L. Rubenstein professor of religion, a title that honors his former FSU colleague who is perhaps best known for his books dealing with Holocaust theology. Kelsay served 10 years as chair of Florida State’s religion department before stepping down in 2006. He took time to sit down with the editor of Research in Review to talk about his latest book.—F.S.


RinR: In the introduction of your book, you have a sort of disclaimer in which you write: "Those who wish to argue that Islam has nothing to do with the attacks of 9-11 or with the tactics of Iraqi insurgents will find no comfort here. The facts are plain. Bin Laden, Zawahiri and other militants lay claim to some of the central practices and themes of Islamic tradition." Why did you find it necessary to include that?

KELSAY: Well, that statement is motivated in part by the fact that after 9-11, we witnessed a great outpouring of Muslim sentiment that wanted, rather understandably, to disassociate Islam and Muslims from the attacks. Basically, there were some who wanted to ignore the fact that those carrying out the 9/11 attacks as well as those behind them—bin Laden and those with him—presented themselves as devout Muslims. In my view, it doesn’t serve the cause of truth or the cause of Islam to deny the fact that bin Laden and those with him consider themselves to be good Muslims.

One of the major points of my book is that bin Laden and others offer arguments intended to justify their war with America and its allies, and that they do so in the framework of Muslim jurisprudence, or as I prefer to say, shariah reasoning. This framework is fundamental to any understanding of Muslim discourse about right and wrong. Once you read bin Laden's statements, you recognize that he is making a serious argument, and is engaging Islamic sources. Those Muslims who want to disassociate Islam from bin Laden need to respond in kind—that is, they need to formulate counter-arguments, using the framework of shariah reasoning. My book is dedicated in large part to showing how those counter-arguments are being made.

RinR: As someone with far more scholarly credentials in the study of Islamic traditions than bin Laden himself, who admits he’s no scholar, would you say his arguments are false

KELSAY: Well, “false” might be a bit stronger than I’d want to put it. I’d certainly say that bin Laden and others are stretching the (Islamic) texts and precedents they cite to the breaking point. And I try to show how other Muslims are participating in the task of convincing fellow Muslims that bin Laden and his followers stretch things too far. Still, I’m uncomfortable with any suggestion that these (militants) have nothing to do with Islam. I mean, if the Muslim community had a way to declare certain ideas or certain groups of people out of bounds the way that, say, Roman Catholicism has done at various times—if Islam had an authority structure that allowed Muslims to do that, which, as I point out in the book, they’ve never had—and that authority structure declared bin Laden and the others to be heretics or something like that, then I think WE would be in a position to say that the militants are outside the bounds, their arguments are fallacious, their error is so great that they can’t be identified with Islam in any way. But, with the possible exception of Shiism, Muslims don’t have that kind of structure. And so, before we can say than an argument like bin Laden's is false, there has to emerge a kind of broad and deep consensus among Muslims about where his arguments are wrong. At present, we can certainly say there is a broad and deep consensus that something’s wrong, but there’s widespread disagreement on exactly what that may be.

RinR: One also can read this statement as a notice to readers up front not to look for an apology from you for what militants are continuing to do around the world in the name of Islam.

KELSAY: Right. It’s my view that religions—this includes Islam but obviously it includes other religions—always contain within themselves potential for good and for bad. They always contain within themselves THE potential for violence that either is not justified or that goes beyond the bounds of standard norms that govern military conduct. All religions I think contain that. They all contain something else as well—the ability to counter groups that go beyond the pale. And I just don’t see any sense denying the fact that religions contain both of these possibilities. It will sound odd to some, but I think that we have to say that there is something fundamentally human about religions. By that I mean not only that religions appeal to certain kinds of needs and aspirations that human beings have but also that religions are in the hands of human beings. The study of religion is about, at least in large part, what human beings do in the name of religion. So that’s what I’m after here. I want to catch the sense that Islam, like other religions really is a human phenomenon. Of course, believers want to say that their faith is more than that; for example, they want to claim that their faith is based on a revelation from God or that it expresses something that God has implanted in human nature very deeply. And of course those claims may be true. But it is certainly also true that human beings interact with their religious texts and try to deal with and find guidance for particular situations. To put it another way, they interpret the texts and they do things with religion and in that sense religion is a human phenomenon.

RinR: You spent the first part of your book explaining the meaning of Shariah (sha-REE-ah), a phenomenon that you define as the central body of reasoning underlying the entire Islamic tradition. As I understand it, Shariah is the fundamental Islamic interpretation of how God orders us to conduct our lives—yet this tradition itself is open to interpretation, hence the factions we see among Muslims today. From your emphasis on Shariah-based ideas, I sense that you’re telling us that unless Westerners learn to appreciate what Shariah means in the Muslim faith then they’ll never be able to fully understand Islam, much less how Islamic militants can justify warfare that most of the West—and I daresay, most of us in the world—find repugnant.

RinR: I think that’s true. In the minds of Muslims, Shariah essentially stands for the conviction that there’s a right way to live, and Shariah reasoning is the key to discerning or ascertaining what that way is. Shariah reasoning is a system whereby over time, judgments have been made regarding questions about right and that have wide support among Muslims. These stand for precedents for subsequent generations of believers. As a contemporary Muslim, you must show deference to those precedents when you’re trying to determine how to live in the here and now. Of course, the question then becomes, do these precedents have to be followed absolutely or without exception? The militants say absolutely yes, they do. Muslim moderates, on the other hand, say that while the Shariah itself represents the ideal, particular precedents represent a prior generation’s best attempt to approximate the ideal. That means that new judgments are possible, that change is possible.

In one sense, Shariah reasoning is a kind of practice where a Muslim proves faithfulness simply by participating in a discussion about the right and wrong of particular practices. The old line was, if a Muslim searches conscientiously for God’s guidance in a given case, he gets merit. If he happens to get the right answer, he gets double merit. The important thing was the conscientious attempt. Now what’s happening in the contemporary world in a lot of cases is you find Muslims who are not interested in such conversation. They’re interested in going back to the guy in the 11th century and saying, “our eminent predecessor said this, so to be faithful, we’ve got to follow his lead.”

RinR: Dogma versus dialog?

KELSAY: Exactly. Let’s consider an analogy in Christianity for a moment. Every Protestant group worth its salt is going to have a special place of reverence for the Bible as the Word of God. Now we know that there are some people who take that reverence to mean that the Bible is very clear and that all that’s left is for Christians to apply it in their lives. But we know that there are other groups who are going to say that at least some of what the Bible says about very specific issues IS open to interpretation.

Let’s take the role of women in the church as an example. Some will argue that what the Bible says about this was meant for a particular place and time. They’re going to say that God can say fresh things in our day and time, or they’re going to have a way of playing one text off against another. For example, they’ll say something like, “Well, in First Corinthians, Paul says women shouldn’t speak in church but then in the Book of Acts it says that God’s going to pour out his spirit on all flesh and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.” They play the texts off each other. So you can have a range of Protestant opinion about what it is that God’s Word indicates that people should do as far as women’s place in church.

RinR: The fundamentalists against the moderates.

KELSAY: Yes. Now, just because some people have opinions that are more liberal than others doesn’t necessarily mean they’re any less serious about the Bible. Fundamentalists might well argue that, yes, it does mean that, but it's not necessarily so. This is the kind of dynamic I’m trying to depict with respect to Islam.

RinR: And this religious schism—how has it played out in Muslim countries?

KELSAY: Over the last 30 years we have this repeated phenomenon of people who either come to power or sustain themselves in power by claiming the mantle of the Shariah. And by that, they usually mean a very narrow piece of historic tradition. They sort of plop down judgments that often date to the 9th century onto modern societies. This is where we get the (popular) notion that what Shariah law really means is that you punish thieves by cutting off their hands or you punish adulterers by public whipping, stoning and so on. This was Afghanistan under the Taliban.

These are not governments that are interested in the practice of Shariah reasoning. They’re interested in the symbol of Shariah, but they’re not interested in the kind of argumentation and give-and-take that historically is built into the practice of Shariah reasoning. As I present it here, and I think it’s a pretty fair representation of what the practice is about, Shariah reasoning really is a framework within which Muslims can argue with one another about the rights and wrongs of certain political, economic, social practices. The whole system is set up in a way that allows for and even values differences of opinion.

RinR: When you have governments, or individual extremists, not interested in reasoning at any level, then it’s easy to see how most anything can be justified in the name of God.

KELSAY: That’s what we see in the Taliban. And to a large extent, that seems to be the case with bin Laden, Zawahiri and their followers. They claim to have a proper understanding of a particular textual or historical precedent far removed in space and time from the 21st century, and they are convinced that it’s their job to implement that precedent. If somebody points out to them that a lot has changed since the 9th century, their first thought is that this person lacks courage or conviction. Militants think all this debating back and forth—which to me is really the heart of traditional Islam—they think that’s just dillying and dallying, a big waste of time. They think religion isn’t supposed to be about arguing, it’s supposed to be about doing something—not talking, but doing. Bin Laden, Zawahiri and others see themselves that way, and they have little patience for discussions they consider overly scholastic.

RinR: In your book, you refer to Islam’s early expansion as “the opening up of territory” rather than “conquest,” a term Islamic apologists apparently object to.

KELSAY: Right. It’s liberation and regime change.

RinR: And Islam’s spread included measures for protecting nonbelievers, by making them pay special taxes and so forth, rather than exterminating them outright. Nonbelievers were offered choices, such as accepting an invitation to convert to Islam?

KELSAY: Well, yes, but you shouldn’t think of the invitation being extended to individuals—it is first and foremost directed to states. It worked this way: The head of the Muslim state—and according to tradition the Prophet Mohammed himself did this—would send a letter to the ruler of a non-Muslim country. It was strictly head-of-state to head-of-state. And in the letter, he would explain that you could become a Muslim, which in effect meant that you could accept Islam as the established religion in your territory. Or you could pay tribute as a power that wants to come under Islamic protection.

Or, if neither of these choices suited you, then you could go to the test of the sword. So think of the invitation as a political act. That’s why I talk about it as an ‘opening of the territory.’ Once you establish a Muslim government or if the other government is willing to pay tribute and come under your protection, one of the things you’re going to insist on is the right to send missionaries. And then you’re going to get directly to the people and change their view over time. You believe you’re justified in doing this because of what you believe is the overwhelming benefit you’re bringing to the people.

RinR: So, doing battle was the last resort?

KELSAY: Essentially, yes. Islam always had this notion that you weren’t supposed to try to convert people under threat of the sword. There is a very simple reason for that. Given human nature, we can pretty well bet that if someone holds a knife to your throat and tells you to say certain things, you're going to say them to save your life. But that doesn’t mean you believe what you say, and Mohammed’s followers knew that.

RinR: So, from the beginning, Muslims believed war was justified to expand their territory, to kill in the name of their religion if need be.

KELSAY: Yes, again in terms of liberation and regime change to establish Islamic governments throughout the world.

RinR: Given this, do modern Muslims regard Mohammed as a militant?

KELSAY: Well, that depends on what Muslims you’re talking about. Certainly, the Al Qaeda types believe they’re following in the path of the Prophet Mohammed. He’s one of them, or they’re with him, or whatever. But if you’re a Muslim democrat, or moderate, you’d say no, that the only way Mohammed the Prophet was militant was in that he was absolutely devoted to following the will of God. Obviously, the will of God is what’s in dispute. What does God tell you to do? Well, if you’re a Muslim democrat he tells you to work for constitutional democracy and international human rights. If you’re Osama bin Laden, God tells you something different. And if you’re one of the great mass of Muslims who are in between those two poles, God’s telling you something different still.

RinR: On the topic of Muslim democrats, or moderates, you devote the latter part of your book to championing their cause, chiefly, their view that Muslims everywhere should reject militancy and with it all forms of politics that rely on explicit or implicit forms of religious coercion. In fact you argue that they should align themselves with Jews, Christians and others in the promotion of democracy. Are you talking about Western style democracy here?

KELSAY: Constitutional democracy, yes.

RinR: So, these Muslim moderates, or democrats, don’t see—and perhaps you don’t see—an irreconcilable conflict between Western style constitutional democracy and Shariah law?

KELSAY: No, I don’t. Not with the way Shariah reasoning works. Muslim advocates of democracy are interested in reading the Islamic tradition in ways that suggest that one of the lessons you learn from history is that—for lack of a better way to put it—one who lives by the sword will die by the sword. They want to show how ultimately, the purpose of Islam in calling people to faith is actually best served by a free and open society in which Muslims and others can promulgate their views without threat of violence.

RinR: So you would argue that Muslim democrats aren’t any less serious about their religion than the militants.

KELSAY: Yes—both sides are very serious about their religion. But the Muslim militants are of the mind that says: “It’s not our part to interpret (tradition) but to apply it. It’s been said, or written, so this is what we are commanded by God to do, period.” Whereas the democrats are saying, “Shariah reasoning is a process of interpretation. We honor God in our effort to give an interpretation that is conscientious. And further, we can’t constrain God’s hand and say that what was said in the 9th century is the measure of all that came before and everything since. God is a living God, in other words.”

RinR: Well, we touched on the role of women earlier. I would guess that if you were looking for an example of a hide-bound interpretation that easily distinguishes moderates from militants, you’d have a hard time finding a better one than their views on the roles of women in Islamic society.

KELSAY: Yes, that’s a very serious item of contention between Muslim democrats and militant Muslims. Prominent democrats today like Abdulaziz Sachedina, Abdullahi an-Na‘im and Khaled Abou El Fadl, all of whom I write about, are all in favor of the equality of the sexes. They stand for a Muslim view that argues that in his day, in the 7th century, Mohammed was a reformer who lifted the status of women. And therefore, we should be on the progressive end of things, too.

On the other hand, the Al Qaeda types say that’s simply compromise with the world. The Prophet corrected injustices in his time, of course, but he did not do so in a way that threatened essential distinctions between male and female. The egalitarian motif that Muslim democrats like to promote threatens to undo the essential differences between men and women, and to undermine the family and so on. So for them, God has basically set up or decreed that a certain kind of social order is the best for human beings. And in that social order, Muslims superintend non-Muslims, men superintend women, and adults superintend children. There’s (a God-ordained) hierarchy, if you will, that needs to be observed in terms of social roles and duties. And when it’s not, militants say, you get the kind of (immoral, God-less) free-for-all that they see in the United States and Europe.

RinR: And this just adds grist to their campaign for a just war against the infidels.


RinR: Ok, if I’m a dedicated Muslim militant intent on keeping the true course of just war as it’s been presented to me, what books—other than the Quran—might be on my bookshelf?

KELSAY: Well, above all, you’re going to have the works of Sayyid Qutb, a man who was executed by the Nasser regime in Egypt in 1966, after a long period of imprisonment when he fell out of Nasser’s favor. You’re going to have a book of his called Milestones, which sets the agenda for the Islamic movement as Qutb saw it. You’re probably going to have some works by Hassan al-Banna, who was the founder of the Muslim Brothers in 1928, (an influential, popular, sort of back-to-the-basics movement.) You might have a copy of The Neglected Duty, which was a text by an Egyptian militant associated with a movement that focused on what they viewed as corrupt rulers in historically Muslim lands—they are the ones who assassinated (Egyptian president Anwar) Sadat in 1981. If you take that and if you take the World Islamic Front Declaration from 1998 as exemplary, you’re going to have some kind of compendium that has some of the opinions of scholars from the Hanbali school of Islam, especially Ibn Taymiyah, who died in 1328. And those compendia are probably going to be put together by one or another Wahhabi scholar—(these, of course, are followers of Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, an 18th century religious scholar who espoused a Puritan kind of reform in Islam. Bin Laden and others with him learned from the texts of Wahhabi teachers, then took these in the direction we see today.

RinR: You write about the World Islamic Front Declaration as the militants’ modern manifesto for jihad—or holy war—on the West, perhaps their clearest expression of what they see as Islam’s Number One problem and what they intend to do about it.

KELSAY: Yes, by 1998, with that World Islamic Front Declaration, we’ve got a group that says, “We’re never going to eliminate those corrupt so-called Muslim rulers in our midst until we get at the force that’s propping them up.” And that force, of course, is the United States. So the war must be carried abroad. This is a point of contention among various groups, militant, nonmilitant. But clearly, from the point of view expressed in that declaration you could well say that if you’re a Muslim living in the United States of America and you have a chance to fight and you don’t, that you are being slack.

RinR: Let’s go back to this discussion of Muslim democrats for a moment. Some prominent critics—such as Robert Spencer, a noted writer on the subject of jihad—argue that there’s no such thing as a Muslim democrat or moderate. People who say otherwise are themselves deluded. What’s your take on that?

KELSAY: Spencer is known for arguing something like this: “There are moderate Muslims but there’s no such thing as moderate Islam.” He’s arguing that the point of view of people like Abdullahi an-Na’im and Abdulaziz Sachedina really can’t stand up in terms of Islamic discourse. Spencer suggests that these scholars and others like them say what they do basically because they reflect their context: they want to show that Islam is consistent with American culture, and that it’s this desire, rather than their reading of Muslim texts that’s producing their (moderate) points of view.

You know, the way I would hear that is—if I’m one of these scholars, it seems to me that I’m being told I’m really not a Muslim. And my response would be, first of all, who has the right to judge that?
Beyond that, and for myself and other non-Muslims, I wonder: how can it possibly be in my interest to tell people like Sachedina or an-Na'im that they aren’t true Muslims? Do we really want to say that Muslims are incapable of developing points of view that change tradition? We don't say that to Protestants, we haven’t said that to Catholics, we wouldn’t say that to Eastern Orthodox Christians, we wouldn’t say that to Jews. What makes Muslims so different?

RinR: Well, an answer from the street might be because most religious traditions don’t produce zealots who fly planes filled with ordinary men, women and children into buildings full of other ordinary citizens.

KELSAY: True, although there have been cases where Christians and Jews have been involved in religious violence. Look, here’s the thing—I don’t think it's wrong for someone to say that the weight of tradition in Islam makes reform of the type that the Muslim democrats want very, very difficult. I don’t mind that at all. What I do think is problematic is for someone to say that reform, in principle, is impossible, and to imply that these people (moderates) must either be insincere or ignorant or something like that. Again, I fully admit that their case is difficult, the Muslim democrats. But let’s be clear why it’s difficult. It’s difficult because the tradition has a kind of conservative cast to it. That means that reformers in some sense bear the burden in an argument. But that doesn’t make change impossible. And I would strongly argue that it’s not in our interests to say that it’s impossible.