When I travel places, I try very hard to avoid caravanning with other drivers.  I hardly like to follow people through town.  Give me a destination and I’ll met you there.  Why?  I am not going to like the way you drive, the speed you drive, the lane you drive in, how you ride the brake or wait until the last minute to brake, whatever.  I want to go my way, my speed, and the way I am used to driving.  I want my way.

Whether you are in a car or under someone’s leadership, following someone is hard.  Pretty soon we will doubt your judgment or competence.  You will say something we don’t like.  You will ask for something we are not ready to give.  I will have to surrender my way and, well, I don’t like that.

In today’s section it seems Muhammad is dealing with people who feel exactly the way I often do.  This is Muhammad, the Prophet of God, the Messenger.  He has been chosen by God to lead.  But this is also the same Muhammad with whom you grew up, with whom you use to trade, whose mother was a cousin to a cousin of yours.  Muhammad is just a human, right?  How do we know for sure we can trust him?  How do we know for sure that God really said that we needed to fight these people?  People make mistakes and maybe this risky situation Muhammad wants us to go walking into is one.  Why should we follow Muhammad?

I think Jesus knew something about this too (Mark 6:1-6).

The context of this section is battle, likely against the Meccans.  There are among the Muslims people who claim to be wholeheartedly devoted to God but then look for ways to avoid their duty to fight.  They drag their feet and show up late for battle (4:72).  They assume that if they avoid a defeat by dragging their feet that this was a reward from God.  They blame Muhammad for their misfortune (4:78).  God calls them hypocrites, people who want the glory and benefit of battle, who want to play the part of warrior but who are not actually willing to sacrifice for the cause.  God has little patience for them.  Where is their faith?  Do they really think they can avoid death anyway if it is their time (4:78)?  Do they not realize that if they are faithful there are only two outcomes to battle: victory or death (4:74)?  They will not be defeated.

Still, this is hard, and it is a wh0le lot easier to blame Muhammad for misfortune and go their own way at their own pace, conveniently missing anything that would actually demand a sacrifice of will.

Let those of you who are willing to trade the life of this world for the life to come, fight in God’s way.  To anyone who fights in God’s way, whether killed or victorious, We shall give a great reward. (4:74)

Can this passage be used to encourage Muslims to lay their lives down for Allah in exchange for an eternal reward?  Definitely.  Might this even get into the mind of an extremist and make the sacrifice of self in a crowded Moscow subway station or airport or on a plane bound for Detroit easier to do?  Probably so.  Notice, though, the context:

Why should you not fight in God’s cause and for those oppressed men, women, and children who cry out, “Lord, rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors!  By your grace, give us a protector and give us a helper!” (4:75)

These warriors were to fight in defense of the oppressed.  Commentator Abdullah Yusuf Ali opines that this is likely referring to the few persecuted Muslims still left in Mecca after the migration (hijra) to Medina.  As the Muslims wage war with the Meccans and slowly take Mecca for the Muslims, they are only defending and avenging the oppressed.  They are God’s answer to the cry for help in ayah 75.

Could Hezbollah import these verses into the strife in Palestine?  Maybe so.  But to use it to validate terrorist bombings in Moscow in support for Chechen independence or flying planes into American office buildings?  Seems like a stretch.

Moscow Subway Station bombed in 2010 by Chechen Rebels