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Ethics of Wars in Islam

Article translated to : العربية Español

islam’ uniqueness in the ethics of wars

“good manners, flexibility, mercy with the weak, and tolerance with neighbors are all characteristics of any nation at times of peace no matter how savage such a nation may be. however, good treatment at time of war, flexibility with enemies, mercy with women, children and the aged, tolerance with the defeated are all characteristics that cannot be done by each nation and military commander. seeing blood provokes bloodshed; animosity arouses the feelings of grudge and wrath; the ecstasy of victory makes conquerors intoxicated with that victory, so it pushes them into the most heinous kinds of revenge. this is both the old and modern history of countries. rather, it is the history of man since cain killed his brother abel: {behold! they each presented a sacrifice (to allah.: it was accepted from one, but not from the other. said the latter: "be sure i will slay thee." "surely," said the former, "(allah) doth accept of the sacrifice of those who are righteous.}[al-maeda:27]. here, history honors the leaders of our civilization; military and civilians, conquerors and rulers, as from among great leaders of other civilizations, they were alone characterized by merciful, fair humanity in the fiercest battles and the darkest times that incite revenge and shedding blood. i swear that if it had not been for the fact that history speaks about such a unique miracle in the history of war ethics in a truthful manner without any doubt, i would have said it is a myth like other myths that have no place on earth[1].”



if peace is the origin in islam and if war was legalized in islam for the aforementioned causes and objectives, islam put rules and laws for war in order to limit anything accompanying it. in this way, wars are controlled by ethics rather than personal desires. islam allowed wars against tyrants and aggressors not innocent and peaceful people. such ethical controls include the following:


1- don’t kill women, children and the aged: the messenger of allah advised the commanders to be pious and fear allah in order to push them to observe the ethics of wars. the prophet ordered them to avoid killing children; buraidah (may allah be pleased with him) narrated that whenever the prophet ordained anybody as a commander in an army or a brigade, he advised him exclusively to be pious and fear allah. the prophet also advised such a commander and other muslims to have good manners, saying: “… and don’t kill a newborn…”[2]. abu dawud narrated that the prophet said: “don’t kill an elder or a child or a woman…”[3].



2- don’t kill worshippers: whenever the prophet sent his armies, he said to them: “don’t kill people confined themselves to worship in hermitages”[4]. his advice to the army heading for “muatah” battle was: “march in the name of allah and in his cause, fight the unbelievers. attack, but you shall not be filled with hatred, nor act treacherously, mutilate or slay a newborn, a woman, an elder or a person confined himself in a hermitage.”[5]



3- don’t act treacherously: the prophet saw off companies, advising them: “… don’t act treacherously…”.[6]such a piece of advice was not aimed at muslims’ dealings with their muslim brothers, but rather with archenemies they are going to fight. the matter was so important that the messenger of allah distanced himself from the traitors even if they are muslims and even if the victim is infidel. the prophet said: “if anybody provided a man with security and then killed him, i disavow the killer even if the killed person is an infidel.”[7]the value of faithfulness was so well-established in the manners of the prophet’s companions that umar ibn al-khattab was told during his rule that one of the mujahideen said to a persian combatant: “don’t fear” then killed him. al-khattab wrote to the army commander, saying: “i was told that a man from among you call the infidel and if that infidel sought protection in the mountain the man said to him: ‘don’t fear.’ and when the man caught the infidel, killed him. by the one who controls my soul, if i was told that anybody did so i would behead him.”[8]



4- don’t make mischief on earth: muslims’ wars were not aimed at sabotage like contemporary wars, in which non-muslim combatants are keen on devastating all aspects of life of their opponents. furthermore, muslims were highly keen on preserving development in every place even if in their enemies’ countries. this was clear in the first caliph’s (abu bakr) words when he advised the armies heading for the levant. he said: “… and don’t make mischief on earth…”.this includes every good act. the advice also said: “don’t inundate or burn palm trees, slaughter cattle, cut fruitful tree or pull down synagogues…”[9].

such details show the goal behind the advice of not making mischief on earth so that the army commander could not think that the animosity with any people does not allow some forms of mischief, which are all rejected in islam.



5- spending on prisoners of war: muslim is rewarded for helping and spending on prisoners of war, because they are weak, their links with relatives and people were cut and in dire need of help. the holy quran mentioned benevolence with the prisoners of war together with benevolence with the orphans and the indigents. in the description of believers, allah, exalted be he, says: “and they feed, for the love of allah, the indigent, the orphan, and the captive.”[al-insan:8].



6- don’t mutilate the dead: the messenger of allah prohibited mutilation. abdullah ibn zayd narrated: “the prophet prohibited plunder and mutilation.”[10]emran ibn al-husayn said: “the prophet used to urge us to alms and prohibiting us from committing mutilation.”[11]although the pagans mutilated the prophet’s uncle hamza, the prophet did not abandon that principle. rather, he prohibited the muslims from mutilating dead bodies of the enemy, saying: “the people who will face the severest punishment on the day of resurrection are: a man killed by prophet; a man who killed a prophet; a misleading imam; a mutilator.”[12]there had never been even a single incident in the history of the prophet that a muslim mutilated any of the enemies.


these are the muslims’ ethics of wars. these ethics do not cancel honor in animosity, justice in treatment or humanity during fighting or after fighting.




[1]mustafa al-sibai: min rawa’i hadaratena [from among feats of our civilization], p73.

[2]muslim: book of jihad, chapter of imam ordaining emirs and his advice to them to observe ethics of invasion, (1731).

[3]abu dawud: book of jihad, chapter of calling the enemy (2614), ibn abi shaibah, 6/483. al-baihaqy: al-sunnan al-kubra, (17932)


[5] imam muslim made the reference of the hadeeth without mentioning the story of the people of mu’atah, book of jihad and marching, chapter of installing emirs and advice of ethics of wars (1731), abu dawud (2613), termidhi (1408), al-baihaqy (17935),

[6]muslim: book of jihad, chapter of installing emirs on missions (1731), abu dawud (2613), termidhi (1408), ibn majah (2857) .

[7]al-bukhary: al-tarikh al-kabir [great history], 3/322, the phrasing is his. ibn hibban (5982). al-bazzar (2308). al-tabarany in al-muagam al-kabir [great lexicon] (64) and in al-muagam al-saghir [small lexicon] (38).

[8]al-muwatta’: narration of yahya al-leithi (967). al-baihaqy: ma’refat al-sunnan wal-athar [knowledge of sunnah and traditions]. (5652)

[9]al-baihaqy: al-sunan al-kubra (17904). al-tahawy: sharh mushakkal la-athar, 3/144. ibn asaker: tarikh demeshq [history of damascus], 2/75.

[10]al-bukhary: book of grievances, chapter of plunder (2342). musnad al-tialsy (1070). al-baihaqy: al-sunan al-kubra (14452).

[11]abu dawud: book of jihad, chapter of prohibiting mutilation (2667). musnad ahmad (20010). ibn habban (5616). abdul-razzaq (15819). al-abany: authentic. see: erwaa al-ghalil (2230).

[12]ahmed (3868), the phrasing is his. shuayb al-arna’ut said it is good. al-tabarani: al-kabir (10497). al-bazzar (1728). al-albany: authentic; see: al-silsila al-sahiha (281).

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