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War Ethics in Islam : Prisoners of War

In The Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.


All praise and thanks are due to Allah, and peace and blessings be upon His Messenger (SAW).


As Islam stands against waging war, especially against the innocents, it never overlooks the possibility that mankind may resort to war against each other. That’s why it shows keenness on regulating warfare, between Muslims and non-Muslims; it enumerates those that should not be killed or even targeted during the battles. Not only that. Islam also sets rules regarding those taken as prisoners of war; how they should be treated and dealt with. This is what is clarified by Sheikh Muhammad Abu Zahra, in his book Concept of War in Islam; it reads:


“Islam advocates clemency with captives. History has never known warriors so merciful to their captives as the early Muslims who followed the teachings of their religion. Numerous religious texts demand clemency with captives.”


War is decreed in Islam in self defense. This indicates that aim behind war is to ward off aggression not to impose Islam as a religion. Referring to this, Allah Almighty says:


“To those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight), because they are wronged;- and verily, Allah is most powerful for their aid;-” (Surah Al Hajj 22:39)



Islam never fought nations but fought only despotic authorities. Islamic war was one of liberation and not of compulsion. Muslims are prohibited from opening hostilities without properly declaring war against the enemy, unless the adversary has already started aggression against them.


It was long before the Magna Carta and Geneva resolutions came into being that Islam had set human rights in its teachings. Unmindful that Allah’s word will reach every corner in the world, media and false thinkers  tried to blur these ever-shining facts of the Islam with the aim of alienating people. Long ago the world suffered from violating human rights, a recently coined expression,  and still does.  The United Nations, dubbed as the divided nations by the persecuted every were, decreed a group of articles that have never been fully into action. Nothing  to help the wounded, nothing to help widows, nothing to help the fatherless children, nothing to bring a piece of bread to the hungry but strangled by a veto resolution. When these rights were revealed in the Holy Quran and detailed in the Prophet’s (PBUH) sayings, they were put into action. This is the difference between Allah’s laws and man-made laws that can be violated or changed or modified. The first and the foremost basic right in Islam is the right to live and the respect of human life. The holy Quran and the traditional sayings and acts of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) strictly impose the following injunctions during the time of peace and the time of war.


No one should be burned alive or tortured with fire.

Wounded soldiers who are neither unfit to fight, nor actually fighting, should not be attacked.

Prisoners of war should not be killed.

It is prohibited to kill anyone who is tied up or in captivity.

Residential areas should not be pillaged, plundered or destroyed, nor should the Muslims touch the property of anyone except those who are fighting against them.

Muslims must not take anything from the general public of the conquered country without paying for it.

The corpses of the enemy must not be disgraced or mutilated.

Corpses of the enemy should be returned.

Treaties must not be broken.

In Islam, taking one’s life is equal to taking the life of the whole of the mankind. Allah says in the holy Quran:


“If any one slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land - it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people…” (Surah  Al Ma’idah 5:32)

Prisoners are usually taken when a battle is at its height and there is danger that rage may lead the victorious warriors to harm those who have been defeated in order to take revenge. The Prophet, however urged his followers to treat their captives with clemency. He said to them “You are recommended to treat your captives kindly.” He also urged his Companions on the day of Badr to be kind to their captives. Accordingly the Companions of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, gave their captive preference over themselves in matters of food. This is the tolerance of Islam and its respect for human dignity.


What are the teachings of Islam as regard the prisoners of war? Does Islam grant them freedom, ransom or enslave them to the Muslims? Here, we should again refer to the religious texts and the example given by the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. The most direct of these texts is Allah’s saying:


“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…” (Surah Muhammad 47:4)

The Quranic verse thus provides alternatives: either the Muslim commander should free those captives who can not offer ransom either in the form of money or an equivalent number of Muslim captives, or he should ransom his captives for money or for a similar number of Muslim captives. This is what is now known as an exchange of prisoners. That kind of ransoming should be adopted, as it leads to the release of two big groups of people – Muslims and non-Muslims.


The religion of freedom, therefore, esteems the freedom of those who do not follow it as much as it does that regarding its followers, for if the advocate of freedom is himself free, he will not make any discrimination on regional, racial or religious grounds, because freedom is a natural right to every human being.


The Quranic verse does not mention a third choice, namely the enslavement of captives; the Quranic text explicitly forbids it by limiting the choice to only two alternatives – free dismissal or ransoming – without referring to enslavement. Thus enslavement is not involved in the choice.


Moving to the Prophetic Tradition, we shall again find that the Prophet never enslaved a free man throughout his reign. His Companions did take some captives among the spoils in the conquest of “Bani al-Mustaliq” and turned them into slaves. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, did not explicitly prohibit them from doing that, but his own action (of setting free a prisoner) prompted them to release their captives.


This implies prohibitions of enslavement although it is not explicit. The Prophet avoided the enslavement of any free man in his wars; his actions tended towards its denunciation. He urged the manumission of those who had been enslaved. The Quran refers to the permissibility of slavery only to urge the emancipation of the enslaved.

The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, urged Muslims to show good treatment to war captives; he said to his Companions: “Treat the prisoners of war kindly.” Relating how the Companions complied strictly with this order given by the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, one of the prisoners of Badr, Huzayr ibn Humayr, states: “I was with one of Ansari families, after being taken as captive. 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.”


In regards to War ethics in Islam, I would like to bring forth the following main points:


1) Personal Behavior of the Troops:


In war, as it is in peace, the instructions of Islam are to be observed. Worship does not cease in war. Islamic jurisprudence maintains that whatever is prohibited during peace is also prohibited during war. War is no excuse to be lenient with misbehaving troops. The Prophet Muhammad (SAW), peace and blessings be upon him, is reported to have said: “Beware of the prayer of the oppressed; for there is no barrier between it and Allah.” Here, the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, differentiates between the oppressed believers and non-believers.


2) Whom to Fight:


Fighting should be directed only against fighting troops, and not to non- fighting personnel, and this is in compliance with the Quranic verse that reads:


“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)

In one of the battles, a woman was found killed, and this was denounced by the Prophet saying “She did not fight”.


3) The Prophet’s instructions to Commanding Chiefs:


The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, used to instruct his commanding chiefs saying:


“Fight in the cause of Allah. Fight those who deny Allah; Do not be embittered. Do not be treacherous. Do not mutilate. Do not kill children or those (people) in convents.”


4) Abu-Bakr’s instructions to Usama’s Campaign on Syria:


“Do not betray or be treacherous or vindictive. Do not mutilate. Do not kill the children, the aged or the women. Do not cut or burn palm trees or fruitful trees. Don’t slay a sheep, a cow or camel except for your food. And you will come across people who confined themselves to worship in hermitages, leave them alone to what they devoted themselves for.”


5) Abu-Bakr’s Instructions to Yazid ibn-Abi Sufian:


“I give you ten commandments: don’t kill a woman or a child or an old person, and don’t cut trees or ruin dwellings or slay a sheep but for food. Dont burn palm trees or drown them. And don’t be spiteful or unjust.”


6) Maintaining Justice and Avoidance of Blind Retaliation:


None can be more illustrative in this respect than the words of the Quran. Allah Almighty says:


“O ye who believe! stand out firmly for Allah, 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 Allah. For Allah is well-acquainted with all that ye do.” (Surah Al Ma’idah 5:8)


7) Medical and Nursing Services:


From the early days of Islam the sanctity of the medical profession was recognized. Christian and Jewish doctors were employed by the Islamic state since the days of the Umayyads, and some of them were even court and personal physicians to caliphs. Under the tolerant attitude of Islam, some of them got the chance to unfold their full scientific potential and thus contributed to the progress of medical knowledge.


Medical help was a right to all men in spite of religion or creed. That this was also extended to those amongst enemy. An example well known in the West is that of Saladin securing medical help to his opponent, Richard Lion Heart of England who was seriously ill during the Crusades. Saladin sent him his own doctor and personally supervised Richard’s treatment until he became well.


In quoting this particular example, one dare say that such an attitude was quite different to the behavior characterizing the invading crusaders. When the crusaders entered Jerusalem on July 15th 1099, they slaughtered seventy thousand Muslims including women, children and old men. They broke children’s skulls by knocking against the wall, threw babies from roof tops, roasted men over fire and cut up women’s bellies to see if they had swallowed gold.


This description was given by Gibbon, a Christian writer, and commented on by Ludbig Who wondered how come after those horrible atrocities they prayed at the burial place of Christ for blessing and forgiveness (Draper/History of the Intellectual Development of Europe, Vol. 2, p. 77).


I do not mention this in bitterness or prejudice for every honest Muslim or Christian well knows that Christianity is something and many deeds of the crusaders are something else.


8) Prisoners of War:


For the first time in religious or sectarian history, Islam adopted an attitude of mercy and caring for the captured enemy. Unprecedented by previous legal systems, and long before the Geneva Convention, Islam set the rule that the captive is sheltered by his captivity and the wounded by his injury.


Previously, it was the custom for the captive to work for his food or get it through private means. The Quran made it a charity to feed the prisoners saying:


“As to the Righteous, they shall drink of a Cup (of Wine) mixed with Kafur,-  A Fountain where the Devotees of Allah do drink, making it flow in unstinted abundance. They perform (their) vows, and they fear a Day whose evil flies far and wide. And they feed, for the love of Allah, the indigent, the orphan, and the captive,- (Saying),”We feed you for the sake of Allah alone: no reward do we desire from you, nor thanks.” (Surah Al Insan 76:5-9)

The Prophet instructed his Companions to be good to the captives. In one of his traditions, the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, ordered his Companions saying: “You should be good to the captives.”


Abu Aziz-ibn Umair, one of the captives of Badr battle, recalls:


“Whenever I sat with my captors for lunch or dinner, they would offer me the bread and themselves the dates, in view of the Prophet’s recommendation in our favor (in that desert situation bread was the more luxurious item of food than dates). As soon as any of them held a piece of bread, he would offer it to me. Feeling shy, I would give it back to one of them but he would immediately return it to me.”


Another, Thumama ibn-Athal, was taken prisoner and brought to the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, who said: “Be good to him in his captivity.” When the Prophet went home he instructed to collect whatever food there, and ordered it sent to the prisoner.


When the Jewish tribe of Bani Qurayzah were captured, loads of dates were regularly carried to them, with the Prophet’s instructions to shelter them from the summer sun and to provide them with water to drink.


From the legal point of view, Muslim opinion is unanimous on the prohibition of subjecting the captives to ill treatment by withholding food, drink or clothing.


9) The Fate of War Prisoners:


This was based upon the teaching of the Quran:


“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…” (Surah Muhammad 47:4)

According to Islamic law, the captive belongs to the state and not to his captor. The ruler has the ultimate option, as he sees fit, of granting freedom or doing that after taking a ransom.


The Prophet’s companions used to remind each other of the injunction concerning the respect of the prisoners. Contrary to what is practiced against the prisoners in the prisons, Islam gives good treatment to the prisoners. The Messenger of Allah (SAW) has forbidden harming or doing any injustice to prisoners of war.


On the authority of Shihab he said,


“Accompanied by a prisoners of wars, Abu Bakr once passed by Sohaib while he was sitting in the mosque, on seeing him, Sohaib said “who is this with you ?” Abu Bakr replied; “He is a prisoner of war; I am going to ask the Prophet’s consent to set him free”. Sohaib said; “There seems to be what could be the effect of a sword in his neck !!” Abu Bakr got angry because of being accused of causing the prisoner some harm and as a result headed to the Prophet (SAW). On seeing him as so angry, the Prophet Muhammad said; “why are you angry ?” Abu Bakr replied; “I passed with my prisoner by Sohaib, who said when he saw the sign of a sword in my prisoner’s neck “what is that in his neck ?”" Prophet Muhammad asked “Mind you didn’t cause him any harm ?” Abu Bakr said “I swear by Allah, I didn’t.” To this Prophet Muhammad (SAW) said; “If you had harmed him, you would have disobeyed and displeased Allah and His Messenger.”


Among those whom the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, granted freedom was a poet called Abu-Azza who said to the Prophet: “I have five daughters who have no one to support them, so give me away to them as a charity and I promise never to fight you or help your enemies.”


Abul-As Ibn Al Rabiae was freed for a ransom, which the Prophet later returned back to him. Later, the man embraced Islam.


Umarna Ibn-Athal was set free upon his promise not to provide the enemy with food. This gentle treatment touched the man’s heart and he then converted to Islam saying to the Prophet: “There was a time when your face was the most hated face to me, and there comes a day when it is the most loved.”


Sometimes captives were exchanged for Muslim captives in enemy hands. An acceptable ransom that was quite often carried out was to teach ten Muslim children to read and write. It is noteworthy that modern international law allows for setting free a prisoner of war on equivalent lines.


Personnel were set free upon their word of honor not to fight again, and they should not be ordered by their governments to go to battle again. If they break their promise, they might be punishable by death if they are captured again.


10) Nonbelligerents


Islam never fought nations but fought only despotic authorities. Islamic war was one of liberation and not of compulsion. The freedom of the liberated people to decide their religion has already been mentioned, and it was to ensure this freedom that Muslims fought. It is interesting to mention that when Muslims fought the Romans in Egypt, the Egyptian Copts sided with and helped Muslims against the Romans who were Christians like them. This was because Christian Egypt was suffering religious oppression by the Christian Romans to compel them to adopt their religious beliefs.


One of the earliest actions of the Muslims in Egypt was the assurance of religious freedom and the reinstatement of Bejamin as Bishop of Alexandria after years of hiding from the Romans in the western desert.


But religious freedom was but one aspect that Islam gave. Whether Arab or Egyptian, Muslim or Christian, Islam built up that FELLOWSHIP that humanity aspires to, in equality and fraternity. The story is well known of the running contest held in Egypt and won by an Egyptian to the dismay of an Arab competitor who was the son of Hadhrat `Amru Ibn Al-`Aas (RA), governor of Egypt. The Arab hit the boy saying, “How dare you outrun me and I am the son of the nobility.” Upon which Hadhrat Umar (RA), the caliph, ordered the three all the way to Madinah, and ordered the Egyptian to avenge by hitting the offending Arab, saying: “Hit him back. Hit the son of nobility.” Addressing `Amru, he uttered his famous saying: “O `Amru, since when have you enslaved people while their mothers have born them free.” (SubhanAllah!)



11) International Law:


The process of active intervention to stop or remove aggression is a development that modern international law has recognized.


The second world war for example was sparked by Germany’s invasion of Poland, and drew into the fighting countries that were not direct parties to the conflict. One of the fruits of war was the creation of the United Nations in order to settle disputes between nations by peaceful means or indeed if necessary by a collective military force. No one should argue therefore that Egypt and the Roman Empire for example should have been left alone to solve their mutual problems. In modem times the rest of the family of nations consider it a duty to do something about it. Fourteen centuries prior to the establishment of the League of Nations and later the United Nations, Islam decreed such responsibility.


The legal principle of intervention to solve dispute was offered by the Quranic saying:


“If two parties of believers fall into a quarrel, make ye peace between them: But if one of them transgresses beyond bounds against the other, then fight ye (all) against the one that transgresses until it complies with the command of God; but if it complies, then make peace between them with justice, and be fair: for God loves those who are fair.” (Al-Hujurat: 9)


12) Respect of Treaties and Agreements:


One of the major shortcomings of modern international politics is its meager regard to moral obligation. Time and again, treaties and agreements proved unworthy of the price of paper they had been written on. The most splendid produce of the human intellect in the field of international law might instantly vanish upon the call of greed or creed at this age that we wish to think has brought us to the epic of civilization.


And what is worse is that the most sophisticated achievements of scientific progress are often used as tools in the hands of Godless or God-disregarding policies: instead of being exploited ‘in the cause of God.’


From the outset, Islam has emphatically prohibited treachery by taking the enemy by surprise attack. Recent examples of signing a pact or treaty with a nation as camouflage to hidden intent to attack it are quite contrary to Islam, as several quotations from the Quran reads:


“O ye who believe! fulfill (all) obligations.” (Surah Al Ma’idah 5:1)

“Fulfill the Covenant of Allah when ye have entered into it, and break not your oaths after ye have confirmed them; indeed ye have made Allah your surety; for Allah knoweth all that ye do.” (Surah Al Nahl 16:91)

If Muslims sense the treachery of any enemy with whom they had a treaty, they should declare to him the annulment of that treaty before embarking on war again.


“If thou fear treachery from any group, throw back (their covenant) to them, (so as to be) on equal terms: for Allah loveth not the treacherous.” (Surah Al Anfal 8:85)

Although Muslims are bound to go to the help of their Muslim brethren who are religiously persecuted in the land of an enemy; they are not allowed to fulfill this duty if there is a treaty between the Muslim community and this enemy. Priority goes to honouring the treaty.


“…but if they seek your aid in religion, it is your duty to help them, except against a people with whom ye have a treaty of mutual alliance. And (remember) Allah sees all that ye do.” (Surah Al Anfal 8:72)

Now, Can any law be more idealistic!?


It is crystal clear that Islam requires that prisoners of war, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, should be accorded with good treatment.  And above all, this is not a nicety to be taken or left by the state. It is a binding religious dictate overruling emotion and prejudice: otherwise it would be a grave violation of Islam.



May Allah guide you to the straight path, and guide you to that which pleases Him, Ameen.

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