Islam’s Stance on Killing Captives

When Muslims engage in battle with enemy troops, they should not give all their attention to capturing the enemy soldiers, their primary concern is to vanquish the enemy, after which comes the issue of capturing them. When the Muslims capture their enemies, they are required to treat them well. When deciding what to do with them afterwards, they are either to be released for free [if they are not expected to pose any threat to the Muslims’ safety in the future], or to set them free in return for a ransom.
Muslim jurists have differed over the option of killing them; some are for and others are against it. Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi is of the opinion that it is only the war criminals among the captives who are to be killed.
In this regard, the eminent Muslim scholar Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, states: “It is one of the results of war that there are captives on both sides. Our point of concentration here is on the Muslims’ stance when they hold their enemies in captivity as was the case following the battles of Badr, Banu Quraydhah, Banu Al-Mustaleq, etc.
The first point that sheds light in this regard is that Islam stipulates that captives should be treated well and that their human rights should be observed. Moreover, the Qur’an treats the captives on an equal footing with the weak categories of society that deserve sympathy and charity such as the orphans and the needy. Allah the Almighty describes the righteous who are worthy of His pleasure and entering Paradise: “Lo! The righteous shall drink of a cup whereof the mixture is of water of Kafur. A spring wherefrom the slaves of Allah drink, making it gush forth abundantly. Because they perform the vow and fear a day whereof the evil is wide spreading. And feed with food the needy wretch, the orphan and the prisoner, for love of Him. (Saying): We feed you, for the sake of Allah only. We wish for no reward nor thanks from you.” (Al-Insan: 5-9).
Allah the Almighty addressed His Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) regarding the captives that the Muslims had captured during the Great Battle of Badr, saying: “O Prophet! Say unto those captives who are in your hands: If Allah knows any good in your hearts He will give you better than that which has been taken from you, and will forgive you. Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” (Al-Anfal: 70).
Contemplating this verse, we find that Almighty Allah orders His Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to deal with the captives kindly so that they might be attracted to Islam.
No Enemy Captives are to Be Held before their Army is Vanquished
One of the strategic rules introduced by Islam is that no attention should be paid to capturing the enemy on the battlefield before vanquishing them altogether in a way that they will be subdued. Should the Muslims focus on holding the enemy soldiers in captivity, before achieving a concise victory over them, the enemy might think of launching another war against the Muslims in the future.
Allah the Almighty blamed His Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) following the Battle of Badr for being concerned during the battle, with capturing enemies before subduing the whole army of the enemy. Allah the Almighty says in this regard:
“It is not fitting for a Prophet that he should have prisoners of war until he has thoroughly subdued the land. You look for the temporal goods of this world; but Allah looks to the Hereafter: And Allah is Exalted in Might, Wise.” (Al-Anfal: 67).
In this verse, “temporal goods of this world” refers to the ransom the Muslims expected to take in return for setting the enemy captives free. Here, Allah the Almighty objects that the Muslims seek to have captives before vanquishing the enemy and subduing it altogether.
It is important to note that blame in this verse, is for taking captives before subduing the enemy altogether, not for taking the ransom instead of killing them as is usually mentioned in the biographies written about the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him).
This is supported by Almighty Allah’s words: “Now when you meet in battle those who disbelieve, then it is smiting of the necks until, when you have routed them, then making fast of bonds; and afterward either grace or ransom till the war lay down its burdens.” (Muhammad: 4)
This verse indicates that the primary concern of the Muslims on the battlefield is “smiting of the necks” of the enemy until they have been routed altogether, and then comes “making fast of bonds,” which refers to holding the remaining defeated enemies in captivity.
War in Islam is not fought for the sake of bloodshed, nor is there in Islam any instruction to the effect that after vanquishing the enemy, all its male members who are held in captivity are to be beheaded as is the case in the Torah. After completely subduing the enemy, the Muslims can capture its soldiers.
What is to Be Done after Capturing Enemies?
As mentioned in Surat Muhammad, verse 4 (quoted above), there are two choices regarding what is to be done regarding captives. These are, “either grace or ransom.” These are the only choices mentioned in this verse regarding captives.
“Grace” here refers to releasing the captives out of showing mercy for the sake of Almighty Allah. This will affect them positively and may attract them to Islam.
“Ransom,” in addition to its main meaning, i.e., setting the captives free in return for money, also refers to exchanging captives between the warring sides. Muslims can exchange the captives they hold for Muslim captives in the hands of the enemy. In such a process a captive from either side may be exchanged for one or more from the other side, depending on the importance and rank of the exchanged captive and the bargain made between both sides.
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) released the captives the Muslims had captured in the Battle of Badr for ransom, for the Muslims were, at that time, in need of money [to help them in the establishment of the emerging Islamic state]. He (peace and blessings be upon him) did so also because he knew the families of the captives in Makkah were financially able to pay the ransom.
It was reported that some men of the Ansar asked for permission to meet the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). When they met him (peace and blessings be upon him), they said: “Oh Allah’s Messenger! Allow us to give up the ransom demanded for our nephew `Abass ibn Abdul-Mutalib.” The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “Do not leave even a dirham for it.”
Concerning the captives whose FAMIlies could not afford the ransom, he (peace and blessings be upon him) released them on condition that each of them would do a service, within his capability, for the Muslim community, such as teaching ten Muslim children how to read and write. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) did not fear that those polytheists might fill the minds of the young Muslims with bad ideas about Islam, for the operation was done under the supervision of the Muslim community.
Zayd ibn Thabit Al-Ansari, one of the Muslims entrusted with the task of recording the Revelation in writing, had been one of those taught reading and writing at the hands of the captives of Badr.
Releasing captives in return for their teaching some Muslims is an indication that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was the first person to have combated illiteracy in a practical way, which was an unprecedented step at that time.
Can Captives Be Enslaved or Killed?
Jurists have two other additional options with regard to captives. These are either enslaving or killing them.
These two options are not mentioned in the Qur’an; they are,
rather, derived from the Sunnah and the actions of the companions and the rightly-guided Caliphs.
Al-Hasan Al-Basri, an eminent righteous scholar, was reported to have said: “It is not lawful to keep captives in shackles; they are either be set free out of grace or released for ransom.”
On the other hand, there are some jurists who say that there is no alternative in the case of polytheist captives other than killing them. Those jurists are of the opinion that the verse that mentions “grace” and “ransom” is abrogated by Allah’s words:
“So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find the
(At-Tawbah: 5).
A third point of view, mainly from At-Tabarani, an eminent scholar, is that both verses which mention “ransom” and “grace” and that which mentions slaying them are applicable in the case of captives. No verse abrogates the other. According to this view, verse 5, Surat At-Tawba means that killing them is an option too, for the rest of this verse includes “and take them captives…” in which case the Imam (ruler of the Muslims), reflecting on what is in the best interests of the Muslims, is to decide whether to kill them or release them either for free or for ransom. This is derived from the way the Prophet handled the cases of captives. For example, he (peace and blessings be upon him) ordered that `Uqbah ibn Abu Mu`ait and An-Nadhar ibn Al-Harith, who were captives at the Battle of Badr, be killed. And at the conquest of Makkah, it was said to him that Ibn Kattal, an evil enemy of Islam, had sought refuge at the Sacred House of Al-Ka`bah to prevent the Muslims from killing him. He (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “Kill him (any way)”. He (peace and blessings be upon him) also released some captives for free and some others for ransom.
At-Tabarani denied that the verse of Surat Muhammad concerning captives is abrogated by the verse in Surat At-Tawbah, for both verses can be reconciled with one another (as clarified above). Abrogation is not to be regarded unless there is no way to reconcile the verse (or the hadith) said to have been abrogated.
Contemplating the Qur’anic texts and hadiths concerning the issue at hand, I agree with Imam Al-Hassan Al-Basri that the basic ruling to be applied to captives is either to set them free out of grace or for ransom [which also implies exchange of captives] according to Allah’s words: ‘and afterward either grace or ransom till the war lay down its burdens’ (Muhammad: 4)
But there is an exception to be followed with criminals of war who are held in captivity. They are to be killed as a punishment for the atrocities they have committed against the Muslims- as was the case with `Uqbah ibn Abu Mu`ait, Ibn Khattal, the Jews of Banu Quraydhah, and the like. Such criminals are to be killed according to (the first option mentioned) in verse 5, Surat At-Tawbah.”