John Kelsay

John Kelsay

Fellow: Awarded 2002
Field of Study: Religion

Competition: US & Canada

Florida State University

John Kelsay earned a Ph.D. in the study of religion from the University of Virginia in 1985. In the process, he developed an interest in the comparative study of religious ethics, and that has been the focus of his research and teaching for the past twenty-five years.

In 1987, Mr. Kelsay began work as an assistant professor in the Department of Religion, Florida State University. His article, “Religion, Morality, and the Governance of War: The Case of Classical Islam” (Journal of Religious Ethics, 18/2 [Fall, 1990]: 123-139) constituted an early attempt to describe the Muslim tradition of “the judgments pertaining to armed struggle”—the specifically Islamic analogue of the just war tradition. With support from the United States Institute of Peace, he and James Turner Johnson organized a conference series exploring the relationships between the just war and jihad traditions. The results were published in two edited volumes: Cross, Crescent, and Sword (1990) and Just War and Jihad (1991). Mr. Kelsay’s 1993 book, Islam and War: A Study in Comparative Ethics, continued his work in this vein, as did a number of scholarly and popular articles and book chapters.

When John Kelsay received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2002-03, he had already begun the research leading to Arguing the Just War in Islam. Published in 2007 by Harvard University Press, this work described the Muslim argument occasioned by the tactics and claims of al-Qa`ida. In brief, he shows that the form in which Usama bin Ladin, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and others cast their statements justifying the 9/11 attacks and other, similar tactics invokes a standard set of practices by which Muslims adjudicate questions of right and wrong. In particular, these statements indicate that the leadership of al-Qa`ida wishes to claim the mantle of al-Shari`a. Usually translated as “Islamic religious law,” the term actually carries a much wider valence, indicating the “path” identified with the right way to live, or with the guidance of God. By invoking the symbol of Shari`a, bin Ladin and others wish to commend their judgment—that fighting against Americans and their allies, civilians and soldiers, is a duty for every Muslim able to fight, and in any country where fighting is possible—to the conscience of Muslims around the world. As well, they wish to show that this judgment is consistent with one of the most venerable set of normative practices developed in the history of Islam.

As Mr. Kelsay argues, the claims of al-Qa`ida leaders are deeply, but controversially related to the tradition of Shari`a reasoning. In part, this is demonstrated by an analysis of the historic texts and precedents that form the “material” for those inquiring about God’s path. Certain claims advanced by bin Ladin and others are prima facie inconsistent with these precedents.

At the same time, the controversial nature of al-Qa`ida’s claims is shown by an analysis of contemporary Muslim response. The most widespread forms of criticism, offered by many of those who share al-Qa`ida’s sense that a truly legitimate political order would involve an Islamic religious establishment, focuses on the group’s failure to distinguish between civilian and military targets. Other forms of critique suggest that the goal of establishing Islamic governments is wrong, and that the tradition of Shari`a reasoning actually requires Muslims to work for the establishment of democratic, constitutional regimes that respect international human rights conventions.

Currently serving as Associate Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences at Florida State, John Kelsay continues to teach and write in the area of comparative religious ethics, especially with respect to questions of politics and war.


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