War Ethics in Islam

History does present a few examples when, in the days of peace, a powerful nation treated its weak neighbors in a graceful manner. The real test of character for such a nation, however, lies in its attitude towards a vanquished nation. Islam has left indelible imprints of its magnanimity both in conditions of war and peace.

Swayed by the electrifying effects of the conquest, conquerors usually go berserk in their behavior with the conquered. Possessed with brute authority, they unleash all sorts of atrocities in the occupied territories. Emanating much before Halaku and continuing after Hitler, this is what the war literature of the world teaches and preaches.

The Islamic approach to war and its aftermath eliminates the unjust use of force. Islam does not favor the maxim of ‘might is right’ prevailing in the world since Cain took the life of his younger brother Abel.

The two were the sons of Prophet Adam (AS) and had offered sacrifice to God. It was accepted from Abel – the righteous one. Puffed up with power, arrogance and jealousy, Cain threatened to kill Abel and did exactly that. The Quran recalls this first ever brazen act of terror in human history thus:

“Recite to them the truth of the story of the two sons of Adam. Behold! they each presented a sacrifice (to Allah): It was accepted from one, but not from the other. Said the latter: “Be sure I will slay thee.” “Surely,” said the former, “Allah doth accept of the sacrifice of those who are righteous.” (Surah Al Ma’idah 5:27)

“The (selfish) soul of the other led him to the murder of his brother: he murdered him, and became (himself) one of the lost ones.” (Surah Al Ma’idah 5:30)

The self-abnegating phrase ‘war for peace’ is also against the temperament of Islam. Literally meaning peace and security, Islam believes that two evils do not make a good. It exhorts its followers not to do evil in return of evil done to them, but to do what will best repel the evil. This is because Islam acknowledges that there is no equality or comparison between good and evil. It requires that evil should be repelled or destroyed with something which is better, just as an antidote is better than poison.

The Quran ordains:

“Repel evil with that which is best: We are well acquainted with the things they say.” (Surah Al Mu’minun 23:96)

Before Islam, the whole world was plunged into intractable wars, bloodshed, ferocity and animosity. Fighting was endemic in society with no ethical limits, no rules of conduct whatsoever. Islam could not condone such tyrannical practices which had downgraded humanity to the level of beasts. On the contrary, it advocated that in mutual ties between nations, the basic issue was that of recognition and cooperation; not war or hatred.

Islam contends that all human beings are descended from a single pair of parents. Their tribes and nations are convenient labels by which we may know certain differing features. Before Allah, they are all one and he gets most honor who is most pious. Addressing the whole human race, Almighty Allah holds:

“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).” (Surah Al Hujurat 49:13)

Islam, as a practiced religion, does not rule out the possibility of war against a nation that is not willing to live in peace and has become a threat to the existence of the benign nation. When there is no option and in the face of persecution, the believers are permitted to fight with vigor and full preparation, but not ruthlessly. Modern war is always followed by pillage, looting, debauchery and general massacre.

Prophet Muhammad (SAW), on the other hand, issued strict orders to the commanders of Muslim armies not to kill women, children, old and infirm men, not to cut down fruit-bearing trees and crops, nor to slaughter animals whose flesh was eaten. Places of worship, not only mosques, but also churches, synagogues and cloisters were to be protected. Mutilate or disfigurement of the corpses of enemies was prohibited. The dwellings of unresisting citizens were to be left untouched so also the means of their sustenance.

To that extent, Islam is opposed to the callous, yet oft-spoken doctrine: ‘All is fair in love and war.’ The Quran repudiates the propaganda that Islam was preached by force. Conversion by compulsion is not allowed. Almighty Allah proclaims:

“Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out Clear from Error….” (Surah Al Baqarah 2:256)

The very first injunction about war (quoted below) provides that it should be waged in self-defense and that too within the permissible limits:

“Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors.” (Surah Al Baqarah 2:190)

Only a war regulated by the above moral restraints is approved by Islam to prevent horror and violence against the innocent, against their freedom of thought and action and to ensure their honorable existence. No distinction of religion and creed has to be observed with regard to the safety and security of the citizens.

The Quran differentiates between a war undertaken for a genuine cause and the one waged as a transgression to create mischief in the world:

“Those who believe fight in the cause of Allah, and those who reject Faith Fight in the cause of Evil: So fight ye against the friends of Satan: feeble in deed is the cunning of Satan.” (Surah Al Nisa 4:76)

Now, if an aggressive nation comes to terms and desists from its sinister designs, peace should be made with it and rapprochement arrived at. Rather the first nation should display categorically its desire for peace and friendship.

As such, while we must always be prepared for the just fight lest it be forced on us, even in the midst of an armed conflict, we must always be ready for peace if there is any indication for it from the other side. There is no merit merely in a fight by itself.

The Quran enjoins upon believers:

“But if the enemy incline towards peace, do thou (also) incline towards peace, and trust in Allah: for He is One that heareth and knoweth (all things).” (Surah Al Anfal 8:61)

If the war (waged for legitimate reasons) culminates into victory, the conquerors should mete out a compassionate treatment to the defeated. There are nations which raise lofty slogans of human rights and claim to be the upholders of sublime objectives of civilization, but their behavior towards the conquered nations has been found to be extremely disgraceful, and a far cry from the norms of justice and compassion.

There is no parallel in history to the dignified attitude displayed by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (SAW) on the occasion of the conquest of Makkah. His arch enemies of 11 excruciating years, who had crossed all limits in tormenting him and his companions, stood before him humiliated, heads down with shame, waiting for a befitting revenge. They deserved and expected the severest punishment. Yet, the Prophet (SAW) was clement to the core. He announced that he would behave with them the way Yusuf (AS) had behaved with his cruel brothers saying:

“He said: “This day let no reproach be (cast) on you: Allah will forgive you, and He is the Most Merciful of those who show mercy!” (Surah Yusuf 12:92)

Islam has a comprehensive set of rules to deal with the prisoners of war.

“It is not fitting for a prophet that he should have prisoners of war until he hath thoroughly subdued the land. Ye look for the temporal goods of this world; but Allah looketh to the Hereafter: And Allah is Exalted in might, Wise.” (Surah Al Anfal 8:67)

As to their subsequent treatment, the Quran offers two options:

“Therefore, when ye meet the Unbelievers (in fight), smite at their necks; At length, when ye 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 ye commanded): but if it had been Allah’s Will, He could certainly have exacted retribution from them (Himself); but (He lets you fight) in order to test you, some with others. But those who are slain in the Way of Allah — He will never let their deeds be lost.” (Surah Muhammad 47:4)

Seventy prisoners fell to the hands of the Muslims in the battle of Badr. Some of them were released without ransom by the clemency of the Prophet and some with ransom. Those who could not afford to pay the ransom money were required to teach 10 children each for their freedom.

History stands testimony to the bitter fact that the victorious nations let loose a reign of terror against the helpless prisoners of war. Islam strictly forbids such inhuman actions. During their captivity, the prisoners must be treated kindly. They have to be properly fed, clothed and looked after. The lesson learnt by the Muslims from the grand victory of Makkah was not of man’s glory but humility, not of power but of service, not an appeal to vanity but a realization of Allah’s mercy.

Any success man achieves in his endeavors should be attributed to the blessings of Allah. The Prophet had an additional duty to perform – to pray for the forgiveness of his people in case any of them had exulted in their victory or done anything unauthorized. Surah Al-Nasr provides complete guidance about our conduct in the wake of victory:

“When comes the Help of Allah (to you O Muhammad against your enemies), and Victory (of Makkah), And thou dost see the people enter Allah’s Religion in crowds, Celebrate the praises of thy Lord, and pray for His Forgiveness: For He is Oft-Returning (in Grace and Mercy).” (Surah Al Nasr 110:1-3)


Also Read : War Ethics in Islam : Prisoners of War

Print Friendly, PDF & Email