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War-Time Rules

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There are certain rules of engagement when it comes to facing the enemy in Islam.
There are certain rules of engagement when it comes to facing the enemy in Islam.
Allah Almighty in the Quran describes Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), as "a mercy to the worlds." (Al-Anbiyaa' 21:107)

This means that to the whole of mankind — believers and non-believers, men, women and children, as well as to the whole of creation including birds and animals — Muhammad (peace be upon him) was a prophet of mercy. 

{Certainly a Messenger has come to you from among yourselves; grievous to him is your falling into distress, excessively solicitous respecting you; to the believers (he is) compassionate.} (At-Tawbah 9:128)

If so, how do we account for the battles fought by the Prophet?

Islam is a practical religion meant for humans who live on this planet; and the nature and psychology of man makes conflicts and battles unavoidable. As such, rules are necessary for military engagement, as they are required in other areas of life.

One of the positive aspects of Islam is that the Quran as well as the Prophet gave clear and valid rules to be followed not only in times of peace, but also in times of war.

Here is the actual command of God permitting fighting:

 

{Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loves not, aggressors.} (Al- Baqarah 2:190)

 

The above permission to fight lays down clearly the following conditions:

(1) Never commit aggression; fighting is allowed only for self-defense.

(2) Fighting must never be against non-combatants or non-fighting personnel.

In a situation where war is unavoidable, it is clearly taught that every effort must be made to limit its horror and scale of destruction, and to stop all hostilities at the earliest opportunity.

Savage practices like disfiguring the dead bodies of the enemies and torturing prisoners of war are prohibited altogether in Islam.

During the course of fighting, as well as after a victory is achieved, all the traditional restraints and limitations (like the Geneva Conventions, for instance) must be observed, and if the enemy desists from fighting, the Muslims should do likewise, for Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful ( Al- Baqarah 2:193).

 

When freedom from persecution is secured, fighting should be stopped, as Allah has ordered:


{Fight them until there is no persecution, and religion is freely professed for the sake of Allah alone". But even this is subject to the enemy continuing the fight, as is said: "If they desist, then remember that no hostility is permitted except against the aggressors.} (Al- Baqarah 2:194)

 

Rules of Engagement

The Prophet is reported to have directed his companions: "Do not be eager for confrontation with the enemy and seek peace and security from Allah. But when you happen to be confronted by the enemy, be steadfast." (Al-Bukhari)

The Prophet categorically prohibited pillaging or plundering even in war times.  He said:  "Plunder is no better than carrion." (At-Tirmidhi)

The Prophet was asked: "What about one who goes forth in the cause of Allah, but also thinks that he will derive some worldly benefit too?" 

He answered: "Such a one will earn no merit," and he repeated this thrice. (An-Nasai)

The Prophet admonished his followers: "Muslims, go forth in the name of Allah, and fight in the cause of Allah. Do not defraud in the matter of the spoils, nor cheat the enemy. Do not mutilate the enemy dead nor kill women or children or monks or priests, nor those who have arrived at extreme old age. Always try to improve people’s condition and behave benevolently towards them. Allah loves the benevolent." (Abu Dawood)

The Prophet also gave clear instructions to his followers that they should not march or camp in a manner that causes inconvenience to people.

Prisoners & Captives

And in the course of war, enemy soldiers are likely to be caught as prisoners. The Quran provides alternatives in dealing with the prisoners of war: Either free them ("generosity") or ransom them:

 

[Therefore, when you meet the Unbelievers (in fight), smite at their necks; At length, when you have thoroughly subdued them, bind a bond firmly (on them): thereafter (is the time for) either generosity or ransom: Until the war lays down its burdens. Thus (are you commanded)…] (Muhammad 47:4)

 

It is noteworthy that Allah does not give a third choice; and so there is no provision for keeping enemy fighters incarcerated in cells for abuse. And so Muslims cannot hold anybody (either soldiers or civilians) as "enemy combatants" in a legal limbo, to be chained or kept within cages.

 

The second option allowed in the case of prisoners of war is ransoming. This stands for a provision in the treaty following a war, for the release of the prisoners on certain conditions, such as the payment of compensation, exchange of prisoners, and so on. But undoubtedly, for fighting as an enemy soldier, no human should be put behind bars for an indefinite period.


Islam has given clear rulings for the kind treatment of captives. Whether a soldier is captured in battle or surrenders to the Muslims, he should be treated humanely; and the example of the Prophet in this regard is well-known, as he never enslaved a free man; never imprisoned anyone.

 

The later followers of the Prophet imprisoned enemy soldiers and kept them as captives to be exchanged for Muslim captives held by the enemies. This was in accordance with this Quranic verse:


[If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, transgress ye likewise against him. But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves.] (Al- Baqarah 2:194)

 

But the Prophet had given them clear instruction to treat the prisoners of war in a kind and humane manner. He said:

 

"Beware of the prayer of the oppressed; for there is no barrier between it and Allah." (Bukhari)

Relating how the Companions complied strictly with this order given by the Prophet, one of the prisoners of Badr, Huzayr ibn Humayr, stated: "Whenever they had lunch or dinner, they used to give me preference by providing me with bread while they’d eat only dates, in showing compliance with the Prophet's order of treating prisoners well."

Treaties & Covenants

As for treaties and covenants, Muslims were instructed to fulfill them strictly. The Prophet himself was most particular in this matter. 

Funeral prayer for martyrs was either held immediately after the battle, or if circumstances were unfavorable, at some later time.

It is noteworthy that the Prophet took care to arrange for the decent burial of the enemy dead too.

Treating Envoys & Messengers

The Prophet was very particular in treating envoys or messengers of the enemy with the utmost honor.  Once when he was provoked, he told them:  "You are emissaries, and I am, therefore, not permitted to make a harsh retort to you." 

And when a battle is over and the Prophet achieved victory, he did not stop for more than three days at the place of the fighting after he had achieved victory, so that the Muslim forces were prohibited from becoming "an occupying power" tormenting the local people.

The Prophet taught his Companions that anyone who went forth to battle for the sake of spoils, or for the display of his bravery, or for any other worldly motive, disentitled himself to any spiritual reward.

In short, the Prophet Muhammad stood for justice and mercy even in the battle fields. He abided by Allah's commandment in the Quran to do justice even to the enemies:

[O you who believe! stand out firmly for God, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety: and fear God. For God is well-acquainted with all that you do.] (Al-Ma'idah 5:8)

 

Professor Shahul Hameed is a consultant to the Reading Islam Website. He also held the position of the President of the Kerala Islamic Mission, Calicut, India. He is the author of three books on Islam published in the Malayalam language. His books are on comparative religion, the status of women, and science and human values.

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