Warfare and War Ethics: An Islamic Perspective

Man, since creation, has had to kill and pillage in his quest for security and survival. Our complex characteristics such as greed, ambition, and lust have led us through generations to bear the teeth and spear against our kind in order to keep land, power, and wealth. War and the art of it has therefore been a handy tool for man to either destroy or rebuild.

Moreover, the kind of perspective and legitimacy that religion of all forms gives to war, and the justification it also purports for bloodshed in the name of God all to a large extent, solidifies the relevance of war in the history of mankind. From the scriptures we read epic tales of gallantry, loyalty, allegiance, and retribution from personalities acting under heavenly sanctions of divine decrees. These narrations have emboldened mortal men to claim the moral authority and the religious audacity to wage war in times both past and present.

...narrations have emboldened mortal men to claim the moral authority and the religious audacity to wage war in times both past and present...

The Islamic religion, for instance, not only has a substantial repertoire of literature and essays on the art of war and warfare, but also boasts of a long history of military campaigns and conquests from its humble beginnings in the Bedouin city of Medina, to its expansionist and imperatorial ambitions from the 8th century till late 19th century.

Regrettably, Islam has also fallen victim to misconceptions and stereotypes synonymous to violence, terrorism, and bloodshed in modern times due largely to misrepresentation and misappropriation of its texts and teachings on matters related to war by a few extremist groups. These groups kill and destroy in the name of Islam without recourse to the established rules, etiquettes, and principles that the religion has laid down. They take the verses out of context to suit their political or criminal inclinations to create havoc and insecurity in the populace.

Today, we are witnessing a considerable number of Jihadi franchises such as Boko Haram, the so called Islamic State, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, Al Qaeda, Taliban, and Hezbollah, to mention only a few. Their rivalry among each other for dominance and relevance calls into question their claim for fighting on behalf of God, or Islam for that matter. It only stands to reason that these groups are mere fanatics twisting the teachings of the religion to propagate their selfish unholy agendas. It is for this reason that this article seeks to dispel those erroneous notions by discussing war agendas and their ethics and principles according to Islam.

The Concept of Jihad

The word ‘jihad’ comes from the verb ‘to struggle’ and in a literal sense from the teachings of the Quran means exerting an effort to deny the self lustful temptations –– thus an individual struggle for self-denial and self-restraint.

It only assumed a military dimension after the oppressive and offensive practices of the Meccan Quraish tribe against the newly settled Muslims in Medina. This newly formed Muslim community came together to defend themselves, their land, and their creed.[1]

Subsequent revelations therefore interpreted the word Jihad as a struggle in God’s cause against oppression and persecution, and as such as a justification for war.

Justification for War

According to the Qur’an, fighting in self-defense is not only legitimate but also mandatory for Muslims. War is restricted to resist aggression and persecution and that should the enemy’s hostile behavior cease, the reason for engaging the enemy must also lapse. In view of this, Islam only sanctions defensive conflict based on legitimate reasons to defend freedom to worship, dignity, honor, lives, and property.[2]

...there is no concept in Islam obligating Muslims to wage war for the propagation or implementation of Islam...

Offensive conflict on the other hand is greatly discouraged as there is no basis to fight people of other religions or cultures on religious or moral grounds, except when they, in turn, are hostile and belligerent. Therefore, there is no concept in Islam obligating Muslims to wage war for the propagation or implementation of Islam. Jihad is only valid when all other means of ending oppression have failed.[3]

Moreover, no individual or group of individuals can justifiably wage war in the name of Islam against any perceived enemy except through a legitimate central authority or government. This authority must also make a proper declaration of war prior to the commencement of any military operations. Thus, surprise attacks are illegal under Islamic jurisprudence.[4]

Conduct of War

The basic principle of fighting in the Qur'an is that other communities should be treated as one's own. Fighting is justified for legitimate self-defense, to aid other Muslims, and/or after a violation in the terms of a treaty, but should be stopped if these circumstances cease to exist. The principle of forgiveness is reiterated between the assertions of the right to self-defense.[5]

During his life, prophet Muhammad (SAW) gave various injunctions to his forces and adopted practices toward the conduct of war. The most important of these were summarized by Caliph, Abu Bakr, in the form of ten rules for the Muslim army:

O people! I charge you with ten rules; learn them well!
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 that 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.[6]

Because Islam views war as only legitimate in defense, on several occasions the Qur’an explicitly commands Muslims to fight only the enemy. This means that only combatants are to be fought; noncombatants such as women, children, clergy, the aged, the insane, farmers, serfs, the blind, and so on are not to be killed in war.

Additionally, enemy combatants must not be subjected to torture, burning alive, maiming and mutilation, nor should fighters deploy weapons that cause unnecessary injury and destruction. Islam therefore not only draws a clear distinction between combatants and noncombatants, but also strictly prohibits any forms of ungodly treatment to the enemy themselves.

As far as civilians are concerned, harming civilian areas and pillaging residential areas are also forbidden, as is the destruction of trees, crops, livestock and farmlands. Muslim forces may not loot travelers, as doing so is contrary to the spirit of Jihad. Nor do they have the right to use local facilities of native people without their consent. If such consent is obtained, the Muslim army is still under obligation to compensate them financially for the use of such facilities.[7]

It is worth noting at this juncture that these principles and commandments were followed to the letter by early Muslim generals during their historic campaigns and conquests. For instance, a Christian contemporary in the 7th century, John of Nikiû,[8] stated the following regarding the conquest of Alexandria by Amr ibn al-'As:

On the twentieth of Maskaram, Theodore and all his troops and officers set out and proceeded to the island of Cyprus, and abandoned the city of Alexandria. And thereupon 'Amr the chief of the Moslem made his entry without effort into the city of Alexandria. And the inhabitants received him with respect, for they were in great tribulation and affliction. And Abba Benjamin, the patriarch of the Egyptians, returned to the city of Alexandria in the thirteenth year after his flight from the Romans, and he went to the Churches, and inspected all of them. And every one said: “This expulsion (of the Romans) and victory of the Moslem is due to the wickedness of the emperor Heraclius and his persecution of the Orthodox through the patriarch Cyrus.”
This was the cause of the ruin of the Romans and the subjugation of Egypt by the Moslem. And 'Amr became stronger every day in every field of his activity. And he exacted the taxes that had been determined upon, but he took none of the property of the Churches, and he committed no act of spoliation or plunder, and he preserved them throughout all his days.[9]

The principles were also honored during the Crusades, as exemplified by sultans such as Saladin and Al-Kamil. For example, after Al-Kamil defeated the Franks during the Crusades, Oliverus Scholasticus praised the Islamic laws of war, commenting on how Al-Kamil supplied the defeated Frankish army with food:

Who could doubt that such goodness, friendship and charity come from God? Men whose parents, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, had died in agony at our hands, whose lands we took, whom we drove naked from their homes, revived us with their own food when we were dying of hunger and showered us with kindness even when we were in their power.[10]

Prisoners of War and Negotiations

Prisoners of war are generally under the discretion of the military leader according to traditional interpretations of Islamic law and they may include men, women, and children. The options available range from execution to freedom, ransom to exchange for Muslim prisoners. Enslavement was also an option that was kept in earlier times. Women and children prisoners of war cannot, however, be killed under any circumstances, regardless of their religious convictions, but they may have to be either freed or ransomed.[11]

Islam does not permit Muslims to reject peace and continue bloodshed...

Islamic commentators of the Qur’an agree that Muslims should always be willing and ready to negotiate peace with the other party without any hesitation. According to Maududi, Islam does not permit Muslims to reject peace and continue bloodshed.[12]

Islamic rules on jurisprudence call for third party interventions as another means of ending conflicts. Such interventions are to establish mediation between the two parties to achieve a just resolution to the dispute.

Rebellion and Insurrection

Sometimes chaos and insecurity do not come about as a result of external aggression or from a distant foe. The integrity and cohesion of a society can equally crumble from within due to banditry, rebellion and insurrection.

The concept of waging war against one’s own in internal conflicts, or civil wars for that matter, has attracted different views from medieval and modern Islamic jurists alike. The first to set the precedent for war against other Muslims was Caliph Ali during what arguably was Islam’s first civil war, the battle of Bassorah, also infamously referred to as the battle of the Camel.[13]

According to Ali's rules, wounded or captured enemies should not be killed, those throwing away their arms should not be fought, and those fleeing from the battleground should not be pursued. Only captured weapons and animals, horses and camels that have been used in the war, are to be considered war booty. No war prisoners, women, or children are to be enslaved and the property of the slain enemies is to go to their legal Muslim heirs.

Different views regarding armed rebellion have prevailed in the Muslim world at different times.

Different views regarding armed rebellion have prevailed in the Muslim world at different times. During the first three centuries of Muslim history, jurists held that a political rebel may not be executed, nor his/her property confiscated.[14]

Classical jurists, however, have laid down severe penalties for rebels who use "stealth attacks" and "spread terror." In this category, Muslim jurists included abductions, poisoning of water wells, arson, attacks against wayfarers and travellers, assaults under the cover of night, and rape.[15]

Terrorism and violent extremism are just the latest additions to this long list of acts that modern Muslim jurists consider as acts of rebellion. The punishments for such crimes are severe, including death, regardless of the political convictions and religion of the perpetration.[16]

As can be deduced from the above, Islam as a religion abhors rebellion and banditry against authority in any shape or form, as well as acts of terror against the populace. Likewise, it also prescribes measures to suppress and neutralize such insurrection.


Islam, like most religions, teaches its adherents self-purification and redemption, morality, and ethics to live as God’s vicegerents on Earth. Its scriptures contain injunctions for Muslims as a community to fight against oppression and aggression in defense of their creed, dignity, and lives. Furthermore, these articles have strict conditional clauses and compelling codes of conduct. Picking and choosing those texts at will to suit political and personal inclinations without recourse to their contexts and provisions are as ungodly and criminal as holding God Himself at ransom.

Shamsudeen Salifu has a BA of Islamic Law from Islamic University of Madinah, Saudi Arabia. He is currently serving as a Muslim Chaplain (Imam) in the Ghana Armed Forces, stationed at 4th Infantry Battalion, Uaddara Barracks, Kumasi, Ghana.

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[1] F.E. Peters, Mecca: A Literary History of the Muslim Holy Land (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 70-71.

[2] Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur'an: Text, Translation and Commentary, Surah Al Hajj 22:39-40.

[3] Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, Mizan, Dar-ul-Ishraq, 2001.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Patricia Crone, “War,” Encyclopedia of the Qur'an, 456, http://islamicblessings.com/upload/Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an, Vol. 5...pdf

[6] Aboul-Enein, H. Yousuf and Zuhur, Sherifa, Islamic Rulings on Warfare, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, 22.

[7] Maududi, Sayyid Abul Ala, Human Rights in Islam (Islamabad: Da'wah Academy, 1998), 35.

[8] John of Nikiû was an Egyptian Coptic bishop of Nikiû (Pashati) in the Nile Delta and general administrator of the monasteries of Upper Egypt in 696. He is the author of a Chronicle extending from Adam to the end of the Muslim conquest of Egypt. John of Nikiû's Chronicle contains important historical details otherwise unknown.

[9] John of Nikiû (7th century). "CXX.72-CXXI.3". (Chronicle, Retrieved 2010-03-31).

[10] Christopher G. Weeramantry, Justice Without Frontiers (Brill Publishers, 1997), 136-7.

[11] Patricia Crone, God's Rule: Government and Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 371-2.

[12] Maududi, The Meaning of the Quran, Vol II (Lahore: Islamic publications, 1967), 151–4.

[13] The Battle of the Camel, sometimes called the Battle of Jamal or the Battle of Bassorah, took place at Basra, Iraq on 7 November 656.

[14] Khaled Abou El Fadl, “Commentary: Terrorism Is at Odds With Islamic Tradition,” http://articles.latimes.com/2001/aug/22/local/me-36804.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid