Islam, and the Ethics of War


January 22, 2009 at 3:54 pm

The following two comments were written in response to my article, Looking Into the Abyss. They raise questions that deserve a detailed response. In responding to the two individuals who posted these comments, I want to acknowledge that they were merely asking questions that stimulated my responses. Their queries were merely seeking information and were not antagonistic in any way. I have taken these questions as an opportunity to respond to bigger issues that I feel are implied by the questions. Allah’s help is sought in all of our affairs. The original comments and this response are posted in the comments after that article.

Comment One: Dear Imam, can you please shed some light on why Islam forbids fighting those who have wrongfully occupied Muslim territory, and fully support acts of aggression and terrorism against the innocent people of that land? Are “non-combatant civilians” who willingly continue to occupy the land of Muslims and/or show moral and financial support for those committing oppression on their behalf considered innocent by the Divine Law?

As-Salaam ‘Alaikum,

I did not nor have not said that Islam forbids fighting occupiers. I have said that it forbids fighting innocent civilians and non-combatants. This is a great contribution that Islam has made to human civilization.

As for the nuances as to whether “non-combatant civilians who willingly continue to occupy the land of Muslims and/or show moral and financial support for those committing oppression on their behalf” are innocent, this is a big legal and ethical issue that defies a simplistic answer.

Insight into an answer for this issue is given by the the fact that the divine law generally forbids the killing of support personnel, called ‘Usafa’, who are not directly fighting the Muslim forces. If those who are providing direct logistical support to the enemy are not to be killed, unless it is unavoidable, what does that imply to those who are indirectly supporting the fighters?

Also, among our scholars there are those who opine that the descendants of those who have occupied a Muslim land are not responsible for the deeds of their fathers. Hence, they cannot be indiscriminately killed with the justification that they are occupiers. If they are killed in combat that is another issue. Our law has been instituted to preserve and protect innocent life even in warfare.

Islam is a universal religion and all of humanity after the coming of our Prophet Muhammad, peace upon him, are members of his Ummah. The laws he advanced concerning general human relations, are universal laws. They apply to Muslims as well as they apply to non-Muslims. Hence, as our jurists have made clear, all laws relating to the protection of innocent human life, and all laws relating to minorities in Muslim realms are reciprocal. Hence, we do not kill non-Muslim civilians in war, and our enemies are not to kill our civilians. We protect the lives of non-Muslim minorities in our lands, and non-Muslims are to protect the lives of Muslim minorities in their lands. We afford security to non-Muslim ambassadors in our lands, and non-Muslims are to afford security to Muslim ambassadors in their lands.

What you seem to be implying is a different set of universal laws and principles to govern the conduct of war. I could be wrong, but what you seem to be alluding to is that since the Israelis are occupying land that was once Muslim, they can all be justifiably killed, indiscriminately. If this argument is taken at face value it applies to Spain, Portugal, India, Sicily, Malta, Greece, and Cyprus as well as it applies to Israel. The implications of this should be quite clear for Muslims in terms of the type of irrational bloodshed it implies. Bloodshed that would unleash against Muslims a holocaust of unimaginable dimensions.

On the other hand, if this is a universal principle of war, what would prevent the people of those lands from evoking it as the basis for slaughtering Muslim civilians, as certain nationalistic elements in these societies are in fact attempting to do?

The idea that the complexity of modern societies and the nature of a modern army supported by a large bureaucratic logistical and administrative network implicates every member of a society in the conduct of the military’s activities is one of the rationales for the idea of total war. Hence, the practice of attempting to destroy an enemy’s civilian infrastructure. I am arguing that Islam does not support this idea, and I believe most of the jurists support my argument. If the advocates of total war win this debate, rather they be Muslims or others, Muslims will be the biggest losers. Allah knows best.

Comment Two: I agree with you 100% regarding the need to exemplify the character of the Prophet, pbuh, even in times of war. Perhaps this is what Salat-ul-Khawf teaches us.
But what is your understanding of the verse (Wa al-hurumaatu qisaass) “violation of sacred prohibitions are repaid in kind”? Is there a moral equivalence between “collateral damage” and attacks on civilians? What are the considerations involved?

As-Salaam ‘Alaikum,

As for your question concerning killing civilians and collateral damage, they are one and the same by Islamic standards, because they both knowingly result in innocent lives being wasted. When a bomb is dropped on a city full of civilians, they are the target, even if their deaths are justified by the claim that they were necessary to destroy a certain military target. When there is no declared military target then the civilians themselves are a military target because they are being killed to effect a desired political outcome. War, after all, to paraphrase Von Clausewitz, is the pursuit of politics by violent means. One could argue that there are instances where some Islamic jurists allow a form of collateral damage when the death of noncombatants are unavoidable. All of those instances occur in a battlefield, and not in the confines of a civilian environment, such as a crowded city. Hence, the scale of civilian deaths, compared to those of military personnel, would be limited. Now, when common practice is to bomb civilian-populated areas for military objectives, there is no analogy between what Muslim jurists may mention and modern warfare tactics.

You ask what does the Qur’anic expression, Wa’l Hurumatu Qisas, (...and sanctities are to be treated with reciprocity.) [Qur’an 2:194] mean. To answer that question we have to connect this expression with the beginning of the verse containing it, namely: Ash-Shahrul Haram bish-Shahril Haram (Sacred months are to be treated equally. Hence, the meaning is that since the Prophet, peace upon him, was prevented from making ‘Umrah during a sacred month, Dhul Qa’dah, during the year of al-Hudaybiyya, then he would be allowed to make ‘Umrah the following year during Dhul Qa’dah, a sacred month. All of the major commentators agree on this meaning.

The following passage in the same verse, faman ‘Itada ‘Alaikum fa’tadu ‘Alaihi bi Mithli ma’tada ‘Alaikum (...and whoever transgresses against you, transgress against him in a manner that he has transgressed against you...) would be closer to the meaning you seem to be implying, namely, if non-Muslims kill our women and children, then we can rightfully kill their women and children. Again, this is not the basic meaning of this passage, which is interpreted as qualifying the basis for Qisas (retribution) for personal injuries and affronts, or in the case of retribution for murder. Most of the discussion of the jurists of this passage center on the response to murder by punishment in kind, i.e. if someone is killed by a sword or a knife then the murderer is to be killed by a sword or the knife. However, even, in the discussion of this particular ruling, higher principles come into play. For the jurists make clear that if someone is killed by something that it is forbidden to kill with, such as fire, then the murderer in this case cannot be killed by fire. Similarly, if someone is sodomized and dies in the process, the murderer is not to be sodomized until he dies.

Hence, in retaliating for a breech of a sanctity, we have to avoid things that are forbidden. In retaliating for the unjust aggression against us we have to avoid what is forbidden, such as killing non-combatants, women and children.

If one argues that the killing of women and children is the sanctity that has been violated, the verse in question, or similar verses, such as, al-Juruh Qisas (Harmful things can be reciprocated in kind...) [Qur’an 16:126] does not necessitate retaliation, as the original sanctity can still be maintained and the transgression pardoned, which is described as the best course of action.

As we humans advance in our ability to kill each other, we will have to advance morally and ethically. Otherwise, we are heading down a path to mutually assured destruction. Israel is sitting on an arsenal of at least 300 nuclear warheads. As Muslims, are we saying that as soon as we possess 400 nuclear warheads with the necessary delivery systems we will annihilate the Zionist state? What will they do, sit back and allow that to happen? Or will they will attempt to annihilate those who they believe are intent on annihilating them?

In the old days of the US-USSR confrontation such a policy was called MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). Is that the best we can do as Muslims. Do we lack the ability to contribute to a higher moral and ethical standards even as we work within the parameters defined by our religion to address our grievances and right the wrongs that have been perpetrated against us? Are the only weapons we possess to challenge ideas such as nationalism, Zionism, materialism, etc. military ones? Have we no appealing ideas, no culture, no tradition of spirituality, no higher principles to offer the world? Can we only participate in a dialogue of war?

Either we are going to work to advance the highest prophetic ideals, to govern our conduct in war and peace, or we are going to aid a MAD end for us all. That is all I am arguing. I am not denying war as a reality defining the human condition. I am not denying the right to resist oppression and occupation. I am not justifying Israeli atrocities. I am not trying to wittingly or unwittingly advance the RAND project of dividing the Muslims. Nor I presupposing that the weakness of military weakness of the Muslims is permanent. Allah tells us that He alternates strength and weakness between nations to test them (Qur’an 3:140). I am merely trying to advance one of the highest objectives of the Qur’an, Sunnah, and the Shar’iah, the preservation and protection of innocent human life. Only by observing the limits set by Allah, which I mentioned in the original article, will we know true victory. Allah knows best and His help is sought in all things.