The Ethics of War in Islamic Teaching

War ethics in islamic teaching

The Prophet’s philosophy of fighting was ground-breaking. So were the ways in which fighting, whenever unavoidable, was carried out. They heralded the most comprehensive and most benevolent and humane code of conduct in war. By way of illustration, the Qur’an commands: “Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress. Indeed. Allah does not like transgressors” (al-Baqarah, 190).

“And if you punish (an enemy, O believers), punish with an equivalent of that with which you were harmed. But if you are patient – it is better for those who are patient” (al-Nahl, 126).

“And if any one of the polytheists seeks your protection, then grant him protection so that he may hear the words of Allah. Then deliver him to his place of safety. That is because they are a people who do not know” (al-Tawbah, 6).

“And if they incline to peace, then incline to it (also) and rely upon Allah. Indeed, it is He who is the Hearing, the Knowing” (al-Anfal, 61).

When the Prophet appointed anyone as leader of an army or detachment he would especially exhort him to fear Allah and to be good to the Muslims who were with him. He would then say: “Fight in the name of Allah and in the way of Allah. Fight against those who disbelieve in Allah. Make a holy war, do not embezzle the spoils; do not break your pledge; and do not mutilate (the dead) bodies; do not kill the children.

When you meet your enemies who are polytheists, invite them to three courses of action. If they respond to any one of these, you also accept it and withhold yourself from doing them any harm. Invite them to (accept) Islam; if they respond to you, accept it from them and desist from fighting against them…If they refuse to accept Islam, demand from them the Jizya. If they agree to pay, accept it from them and hold off your hands. If they refuse to pay the tax, seek Allah’s help and fight them” (Sahih Muslim).

Abu Bakr, the first Muslim Caliph, gave an address while sending his army on the expedition to the Syrian borders: “Stop, O people, that I may give you ten rules for your guidance in the battlefield. Do not commit treachery or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead bodies.

Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy’s flock, save for your food. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them alone.”

Conquest and colonization are not part of Islam

The Prophet only intended to deliver the last heavenly message to the world, as much as he could. He was mankind’s saviour par excellence. Regulated fighting was an option merely if his, people’s and the truth’s freedom, safety and other fundamental rights were endangered. The Prophet’s foremost adversaries were suppressive falsehood, injustice, oppression, despotism and tyranny.

The Prophet furthermore wanted the truth to be heard and understood, regardless of how people might have reacted afterwards. He wanted good and reciprocal communication. He was ready to listen, too. Everybody was free to present his case with him, from rulers to Bedouins. He was accessible to all and he treated everybody equally. He knew that the truth could be asserted either by actively preaching it, or by methodically dismantling its opposites. Either way, it was bound to come out on top.

It was grossly unjust if people by devious and enforced means were kept away from freely hearing the truth and freely making their choices. Such denoted the utmost form of injustice and repression, for people are what they believe and how much ethics sound, or otherwise, their life patterns are, sealing thereby their existential destinies in this world and in the Hereafter.

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This is the meaning of the Qur’anic injunctions to wisely communicate, debate and argue with people concerning primarily their beliefs and values. All paths leading both to the truth and falsehood must be cleared. Both of them had to be clearly visible, freely accessible and freely dealt with, causing the best model to “win” and survive.

The Prophet was renowned for his affability, fairness and consistency. Which makes sense because if the truth could be accepted only in free and conducive milieus, falsehood too could be exposed and repudiated only under the same circumstances.

The Prophet feared nothing and nobody, for the truth which he was wielding was the mightiest of weapons. He was ready and willing to stride towards any lair of falsehood, confronting it head-on, knowing how weak and inconsequential non-belief is and how quickly it withers away in view of the commanding presence of the truth.

However, the agents of falsehood, discrimination and tyranny were also in the know as regards this verity, causing all sorts of hullabaloo concerning the notions of prophet-hood and its truth. They knew that, as the active embodiments of falsehood (the absence of truth), they could not unworriedly coexist with the truth and its backers.

With the inevitable gradual waning of falsehood, they were set to wane as well, correspondingly with the former, for “falsehood is by its nature ever bound to perish” (al-Isra’, 81). Thus, maintaining the status quo and subduing the voices of freedom and the truth was their best bet.

The Prophet’s viewpoint was democratic in the extreme. He was ready to do to people only that which he would like them to do to him. He walked his talk. He lived up to the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

That is why in Islam, there is no “conquest” in the established sense of the term. There is only “fath or opening”, which means “victory as a result of opening something, like a territory, a city, a village, etc., to Islam”. Only with this type of victory, moreover, there can be victories over people’s hearts and minds by opening them to the light and surge of the truth.

Undeniably, Islam, above all, targets hearts and minds, which can be accomplished only by means of compassionate hearts and sensible minds. Threats and compulsion play no role whatsoever in the equation, while force and fighting are desirable only to preserve that very blessing and to defend people’s right to it.

So important is this subject in Islam that a Qur’anic chapter is called “Fath”, implying the Prophet’s moral victory achieved by the Truce of Hudaybiyyah. This victory was a precursor to opening Makkah (fath Makkah) and the entire Arabian Peninsula to Islam.

Muhammad Husayn Haykal beautifully elaborates in his book “the Life of Muhammad”: “As for the early Muslims, during the time of the Prophet and of his immediate successors, they did not conquer for the purpose of conquest and colonization but in defence of their faith when it was threatened by Quraysh, Arab tribes, Byzantines, and Persians.

Throughout their conquests, they never imposed their religion on anyone, for it was a cardinal principal of their faith that ‘there shall be no coercion in religion’ (al-Baqarah, 256).”

“Forced by the needs of defence against persistent attack, the Muslims’ conquests were never motivated by the will to colonize. The Prophet left the kings of Arabia and her princes on their thrones with their territories, economies, and political structures virtually untouched. In conquering, the Muslims sought the freedom to preach the faith.

If the Islamic faith spread, it was simply because it of itself was strong by virtue of the truth which it proclaimed, the universalist non-discrimination between Arab and non-Arab which it commanded and its adherents practiced, and the strict monotheism by which Islam enabled man to have no master except the one true God.”

“It was because of these innate strengths of the Islamic faith that it spread throughout the earth, just as any genuine truth would spread. When the Tatar latecomers to Islam fought only for the purpose of conquest and took men by the sword, they, too, were soon taken by the sword.

But Islam never took anything or anyone by the sword, and no one will take it by the sword. On the contrary, Islam conquered the minds, hearts, and consciences of the people by its innate strength. Consequently, the Muslim people have seen many governments, dictators, and tyrants, none of which has changed their faith and religion in the least” (Haykal).

Islamic war ethics as a standard-setter

It was in consequence of this humane notion of fighting and this exemplary war ethics that in all confrontations between Muslims and non-Muslims during the Prophet’s era only 1018 people died on both sides: 259 Muslims and 759 non-Muslims (Sahih Muslim, Book 19; Introduction).

Compare this, for example, to more than 10,000 men, women and children massacred by the Christian crusaders only inside the area of al-Aqsa mosque (between 40,000 and 70,000 in total) after the city of Jerusalem had been captured “in the name of God”. According to eyewitness accounts, “the streets of Jerusalem were filled with blood”.

French atrocities against Algerians only within the first three decades of the conquest resulted in between 500,000 and 1,000,000 deaths. About 80,000 Libyans died as a result of the Italian pacification of Libya. Between 15,000 and 30,000 Palestinians have died since the illegal formation of Israel in 1948.

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British colonization likewise caused many millions of deaths. While according to a research, “European colonization of the Americas resulted in the killing of so many native people that it transformed the environment and caused the Earth’s climate to cool down.” Apart from mass killings, the European colonizers also brought diseases, caused large-scale depopulation, upset agriculture patterns, and generally introduced new and unknown ways for doing everything (The Guardian).

And then there were World War I and World War II in which tens of millions of people perished (WW1 18-23 million, WW2 60-80 million). They were followed by the Cold (World) War, globalization (neo-colonialism, capitalism and cultural imperialism), and of late, the hypocrisy of the War on Terror and democratization of the Middle East, starving the world of authentic peace, security and, every so often, even sanity.

The list with more details can go on and on, so much so that – all things considered – the foundations of the modern West-driven civilization are all soaked in blood. Its main pillars are colonization, bias, prejudice, cruelty, double standards and exploitation of the weak and powerless.

Because of the prevalent tenets to the effect that “might is right” and that “man is a wolf to man”, it is not seldom that so much power is deposited in wrong hands, and that butchers and downright idiots rule and determine the fates of multitudes. The most alienated concerns worldwide are the truth, virtue, morality, egalitarianism and impartial justice.

It must be stressed, as a matter of affirming objectivity, that the fighting patterns of subsequent Muslim generations throughout history were generally guided by the spirit of this Islamic war ethics. But since people are not perfect, nor infallible – some more and others less – it is fair to say that there were instances where Muslims, to various degrees, contravened their orthodox principles.

However, those instances need to be grasped as no more than isolated cases and exceptions. As such, they are not to be generalized, nor are they in a position to invalidate the well-known rules. They furthermore ought to be gauged solely against the background of Islamic values and ethics in general, and Islamic war ethics in particular.

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