Islamic Shari`ah respects private ownership and does not encourage interfering in people’s private affairs. It also respects international agreements and prohibits aggression of all kinds whether on land or at sea. Muslim jurists have tackled the subject of maritime piracy (in detail), and there are many examples set by Muslim leaders to combat piracy, whether practiced by individuals or countries. International Law agreements regarding prohibiting piracy are in accordance with the laws stipulated by the Islamic Shari`ah.
Islamic Shari`ah combats maritime piracy
Islam prohibits maritime piracy, for it involves blackmailing, threatening the lives of innocent people, and forming a serious obstacle in the way of international navigation. That is why Ibn `Abdein calls pirates highway robbers.
Islam prohibits aggression and violating others’ rights in general and this also implies that piracy is forbidden. The Glorious Qur’an tackles [in a criticizing tone] the issue of taking ships by force on the part of a state authority. Allah Almighty says in the story of Prophet Moses (peace and blessings be upon him) with Al-Khidr (may Allah be pleased with him):
“As for the boat, it belonged to certain men in dire want: they plied on the water: I but wished to render it unserviceable, for there was after them a certain king who seized on every boat by force.” (Al-Kahf : 79)
In this verse, taking ships by force is not described as an act of piracy, being practiced by the king of a state, yet it indicates an act of aggression or unlawful confiscation that hinders the freedom of peaceful (international) navigation. Since the verse criticizes taking ships by force on the part of an authoritative state, robbing ships by individual pirates is, with all the more reason, to be more condemned.
Maritime piracy was practiced in ancient times
More than eighty centuries ago, Ibn jubayr, an eminent scholar, narrated that the king of Sicily sent lifeboats to a ship in distress to save its passengers. If he hadn’t done this, all that was on the ship would have been robbed by the pirates and its Muslim passengers would have been enslaved.
Muslim jurists prohibit robbing ships even if they belong to the enemy against whom Muslims are at war
1. Imam Ahmad said: “If it happened that some Muslims on board a ship encountered some non-Muslims from an enemy country on another ship who wanted to enter a Muslim state for trade, the Muslims should not attack them, nor should they prevent them from entering the Muslim state. In a word, all non-Muslim individuals from the enemy who want to enter a Muslim state for trade are to be allowed without being questioned [about their relation to the enemy].”
2. It happened during the caliphate of `Uthman ibn `Affan (may Allah be pleased with him) that some people from Abyssinia assaulted the coasts of some Muslim countries and robbed and enslaved many Muslims. Being informed of this, Caliph `Uthman was deeply upset and sent for some Companions to consult them about conquering Abyssinia. They advised him not to do so unless he first sent word to the Abyssinian king and asked him about what had happened. If the Abyssinian people had done this act in compliance with their king’s order, the Muslims could then conquer Abyssinia. However, if it was proved that the Abyssinian king knew nothing about what had happened, there would be no need to conquer Abyssinia, and all that would be required would be to equip the Muslim seacoasts with (further) protective garrisons. Caliph `Uthman followed this advice. He sent Muhammad ibn Muslimah Al-Ansari with a message to the Abyssinian king. When he received the message, the Abyssinian king completely denied ha
ving known anything about the event. Moreover, he sent his men to bring him the Muslims who had been enslaved and gave them to the messenger [as a further sign of denouncing the hostile act that some of his people had done]. Upon that, Caliph `Uthman provided the Muslim seacoasts with protective garrisons.
There are many lessons to be derived from this story:
First, those in authority should make sure of the occurrence of an act (especially if it is a hostile one) before reacting against it on the international arena.
Second, a state is only responsible for actions that are committed by it or by one of its members. A state is not to be regarded as responsible for the hostile acts committed by individuals, as long as it does not neglect its duties [of deterring hostile actions as much as it can].
Third, Muslims should send messengers and negotiators to solve international disputes even with regard to maritime laws, [which shows how civilized the Muslims were a long time ago.]
Fourth, Muslims, from the early eras of the Muslim state, have combated piracy in all possible ways.
3. According to At-Tanbih wal-Ishraf by Al-Mas`udi, an eminent scholar, during the era of Caliph Al-Mu`tasim, many (enemy) Indian ships, including pirates, were seized by the Muslims. Those pirates used to kill Muslims and rob them in the area located between Waset, Al-Basrah, Oman and the coast of Persia.
4.According to Al-Bladhari, an eminent scholar, the direct cause of conquering Sind [the historical region of southern Pakistan along the lower Indus River] is the following story: When some of the Muslim merchants died who had settled in the island of Cilan because of their trading in that place, the king of Cilan wanted to send the daughters of those
merchants back to their homeland. So he sent a message to Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf Athaqafi telling him he would send those daughters back by sea but Indian pirates attacked the ship carrying those girls and took them captive. When he came to know this, Al-Hajjaj was very angry and sent for the leader of the pirates demanding him to set the girls free immediately. The pirates simply mocked Al-Hajjaj’s demand and did not release the girls. Upon that, Al-Hajjaj sent Muslim troops under the leadership of Muhammad ibn Al-Qassem Athaqafi to Sind and dispatched a strong fleet to conquer Sind and [defeat those arrogant pirates.]
5. Ibn Hayan, a great historian, also related that Prince Abdul-Rahman sent a huge fleet composed of three hundred warships to the islands of Murekah and Munerekah in Spain because they had breached their covenant with the Muslims and had assaulted Muslim ships that used to pass by. Allah Almighty bestowed victory upon the Muslims and helped them conquer these islands.
6. It is known in history that Harun Ar-Rashid subdued the Muslim pirates and prevented them from assaulting Italian and other foreign ships. But after his death, the Muslim pirates began to assault foreign ships again. That is why Pope St. Leo III wrote a letter to Charlemagne [King of the Franks and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire] to the effect that the Muslim pirates no longer let the foreign ships pass safely because the influence of the Islamic caliphate had diminished following the death of Harun Ar-Rashid.
7. Sultan Qaitby issued a decree ordering his representative governors to abide by the conditions agreed upon in the agreement held with Florence. He said in that decree: “It was usual that if the Christians assaulted Muslim ships, the Muslim merchants and governors would compel the Christian ships that passed by their ports to pay a tribute as compensation for the damages that Christian pirates had caused to the Muslims. From now on, you, governor (s), are to stop this. Do not collect any tributes from Christian merchants. They are not to be held accountable for what Christian pirates have committed. This is to be carried out from this time forward.” Furthermore, Sultan Qaitby ordered the governors under his rule to help any Christian ship that was attacked by pirates in any place that was in his jurisdiction.
Piracy in International Law
There are many articles in International Law that stipulate the freedom of navigation and the need to combat acts of piracy. Articles 101-107 clarify how to combat acts of piracy, that is, the use of violence at sea, hijacking ships and kidnapping seafarers, and any related act of armed robbery against ships.