First of all, we would like to tell you that 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 God is most powerful for their aid.” (Al-Hajj:39)
Turning to the main topic here concerning war ethics in Islam, we would like to develop the whole issue while dealing with 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, 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 Qur’anic verse that reads: “ Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not, aggressors.” (Al-Baqarah: 190)
In one of the battles, a woman was found killed, and this was denounced by the Prophet saying “She did not fight” This will be further detailed under the instructions given to the armies and their commanding chiefs by the Prophet and his Caliphs.
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 bum 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 Qurt’an. Allah Almighty says: “ O ye who believe! Be steadfast witnesses for Allah in equity, and let not hatred of any people seduce you that ye deal not justly. Deal justly, that is nearer to your duty. Observe your duty to Allah. Lo! Allah is Informed of what ye do.” (Al-Maidah: 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 Wbo 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).
We 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 Qur’an made it a charity to feed the prisoners saying:
“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)
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 Qur’an:
“Now when ye meet in battle those who disbelieve, then it is smiting of the necks until, when ye have routed them, then making fast of bonds; and afterward either grace or ransom till the war lay down its burdens. That (is the ordinance). And if Allah willed He could have punished them (without you) but (thus it is ordained) that He may try some of you by means of others. And those who are slain in the way of Allah, He rendereth not their actions vain.” (Muhammad: 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.
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 was 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.
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 `Amru Ibn Al-`Aas, governor of Egypt. The Arab hit the boy saying ‘how dare you outrun me and I am the son of the nobility.” Upon which Umar, 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.”
10- International Law:
The process of active intervention to stop or remove aggression is a development that modem 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 Qur’anic saying:
“If two parties of believers fall into a quarrel, make ye peace between them: But if one of them transg
resses 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)
11- 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 Qur’an reads:
“ O ye who believe! Fulfil your undertakings…”(Al-Maidah:1)
“Fulfill the convenant of God when you have entered into it, and break not your oaths after you have confirmed them; indeed you have made God your surety, for God knoweth an that you do.” (An-Nahl: 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.
“Thou fearest treachery from any group, throw back (their covenant) to them, (so as to be) on equal terms: for God loveth not the treacherous.” (Al-Anfal: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 you have a treaty of mutual alliance. And (remember) God seeth an that you do.” (Al-Anfal:72)
Now, Can any law be more idealistic!?
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.”