Mutilation refers to disfiguring the bodies of the dead as a means of exacting revenge. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) forbade mutilating the enemy corpses in war time, and his Companions (may Allah be pleased with all of them) followed his example in this.
However, some jurists hold that there is an exception, which is that Muslims are permitted to mutilate the dead only in retaliation for what was done to their dead.
The eminent Muslim scholar Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi states: “Throughout human history, many transgressions have been practiced in war time. Mutilating the dead is one of these transgressions. Mutilation refers to taking revenge on an enemy by disfiguring his body, especially by violently removing a part of it. It may even involve removing from the corpse an organ such as the heart or the liver as a means of further satisfying one’s thirst for revenge.
During the Battle of Uhud, the polytheists killed about 70 Muslims and mutilated some of their corpses. It was even said that Hind bint `Utbah, Abu Sufyan’s wife, cut the abdomen of the Prophet’s uncle Hamzah after he was killed, took out his liver, and tried to eat it to take revenge on him for killing her father earlier at the Battle of Badr. Abu Sufyan, who was the leader of the polytheists at the Battle of Uhud, shouted to the Muslims after the end of the battle, “You will find that some of your dead have been mutilated. I would like you to know that this has been done without my knowledge, yet it does not cause me harm.” (Reported by Al-Bukhari)
As for the attitude of Islam towards the issue of mutilation, it absolutely forbids mutilating the dead, [even if they are non-Muslims]. This is proved by many hadiths to that effect.
For example, it was reported on the authority of Buraydah (may Allah be pleased with him) that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) would say to the leaders of the Muslim army: “Fight in Allah’s cause. Do not misappropriate (the booty), do not breach the covenants(s) [that you hold with others], and do not mutilate the dead.” (Reported by Muslim)
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was also reported to have said: “The noblest in the field of war are the people of faith.” (Reported by Abu Dawud) Nobility in the field of war here refers mainly to disinclining from mutilating the corpses of the enemy. This means that mutilation is against the dictates of faith in Islam.
Al-Hajaj ibn `Umran, a righteous successor, reported: A slave belonging to my father ran away, and he swore that if he found the slave, he would cut his hand off. He wanted me to ask for him about the lawfulness of his oath. I went to Samurah ibn Jundab [a companion of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him)] and asked him about that. He (Samurah) said, “The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) would encourage us to give in charity and forbid us to distort others’ bodies.” (Reported by Abu Dawud). Bearing in mind this Islamic teaching, Muslims in general believe that the corpses of the dead are inviolable. Hence, throughout the battles the Muslims fought, they did not mutilate the corpses of their enemies.
During the wars that broke out against the enemies of Islam after the Prophet’s death, the Rightly-Guided Caliphs expressed utter opposition to being sent the heads of the enemy leaders whom the Muslims had beheaded in the course of the battles as a proof of the Muslims’ having achieved victory in the war.
In this regard, it was reported that during the caliphate of Abu Bakr As-Siddiq (may Allah be pleased with him), `Abdullah ibn `Amir brought the head of one of the Roman leaders to Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) [to show him that the Muslims had achieved overwhelming victory over the Ro
mans]. Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) denounced such an act. Upon that Ibn `Amir said, “O Caliph, they (that is, the Romans) do the same with us.” Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) replied angrily, “Do you follow in the footsteps of the Romans and Persians?” Then, Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him), giving a general order to the Muslims, said, “From now on, no head of an enemy is to be sent to me. It is sufficient to write me a message [to inform me of victory].”
Let’s contemplate this noble attitude of Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him). He denounced Ibn `Amir’s act and regarded it an imitation of a Roman and Persian tradition. This is to say, Muslims, by virtue of the noble teachings of their religion, are supposed to be followed by others, not to be followers of them.
It was also reported that some other time Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) was sent an enemy head. He said about the Muslims who had sent him the head that they had transgressed.
Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) was also reported to have said about such an act, “Do not bring filth to the city of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him).”
However, some jurists said that Muslims are permitted to mutilate the dead in war time only in case of retaliation, that is, as a means of taking vengeance for their mutilated dead. They cite as evidence of this the Prophet’s doing so to the tribe of `Uraynah as an act of retaliation.
But this can be argued against, for the Prophet’s act then was not in war time; it was the punishment he (peace and blessings be upon him) saw most appropriate to inflict upon the tribe of `Uraynah, for they were the people who committed theft and murder and reverted to disbelief after being believers (Muslims) and fought against Allah and His Messenger.”