Prisoners of war in Islam

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The rules and regulations concerning prisoners of war in Islam are covered in manuals of Islamic jurisprudence, based upon Islamic teachings, in both the Qur'an and hadith.

The historical legal principles governing the treatment of prisoners of war, in shar'iah, Islamic law, (in the traditional madhabs schools of Islamic jurisprudence), was then a significant improvement[citation needed] over the pre-existing norms of society during Muhammad's time (see Early reforms under Islam). Men, women, and children may all be taken as prisoners of war under traditional interpretations of Islamic law. Generally, a prisoner of war could be, at the discretion of the military leader, freed, ransomed, exchanged for Muslim prisoners, or kept in bondage.[1][2] In earlier times, the ransom sometimes took an educational dimension, where a literate prisoner of war could secure his or her freedom by teaching ten Muslims to read and write.[3] Some Muslim scholars hold that a prisoner may not be ransomed for gold or silver, but may be exchanged for Muslim prisoners.[4]


During his life, Muhammad made it the responsibility of the Islamic government to provide food and clothing, on a reasonable basis, to captives, regardless of their religion.[additional citation(s) needed] If the prisoners were in the custody of a person, then the responsibility was on the individual.[5][additional citation(s) needed]

Historically, Muslims routinely captured large number of prisoners. Aside from those who converted to Islam, most were ransomed or enslaved.[6] Pasquier writes,

It was the custom to enslave prisoners of war and the Islamic state would have put itself at a grave disadvantage vis-a-vis its enemies had it not reciprocated to some extent. By guaranteeing them [male POWs] humane treatment, and various possibilities of subsequently releasing themselves, it ensured that a good number of combatants in the opposing armies preferred captivity at the hands of Muslims to death on the field of battle.[7]

According to accounts written by Muhammad's followers, after the Battle of Badr, some prisoners were executed for their earlier crimes in Mecca,[additional citation(s) needed] but the rest were given options: They could convert to Islam and thus win their freedom; they could pay ransom and win their freedom; they could teach 10 Muslims to read and write[additional citation(s) needed] and thus win their freedom.[8]

During his rule, Caliph Umar made it illegal to separate related prisoners of war from each other, after a captive complained to him for being separated from her daughter.[9][additional citation(s) needed]

These principles were also honoured during the Crusades, as exemplified by sultans such as Saladin[additional citation(s) needed] 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:[10][additional citation(s) needed]

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."[11]

Treatment of prisoners[edit]

Upon capture, the prisoners must be guarded and not ill-treated.[12] Islamic law holds that the prisoners must be fed and clothed, either by the Islamic government or by the individual who has custody of the prisoner. This position is supported by the verse [Quran 76:8] of the Quran. The prisoners must be fed in a dignified manner, and must not be forced to beg for their subsistence.[13] Muhammad's early followers also considered it a principle to not separate prisoners from their relatives.[9]

After the fighting is over, prisoners are to be released, with some prospect of survival, or ransomed. The freeing or ransoming of prisoners by Muslims themselves is highly recommended as a charitable act.[12] The Qur'an also urges kindness to captives[14] and recommends, their liberation by purchase or manumission. The freeing of captives is recommended both for the expiation of sins[15] and as an act of simple benevolence.[16][17]

Women and children[edit]

Some Muslim scholars claim that women and children prisoners of war cannot be killed under any circumstances, regardless of their faith,[18] but that they may be enslaved, freed or ransomed. Women who are neither freed nor ransomed by their people were to be kept in bondage and referred to as ma malakat aymanukum (slaves).


One traditional opinion holds that executing prisoners of war is strictly forbidden; this is the most-widely accepted view, and one upheld by the Hanafi madhab.[19][better source needed]

However, the opinion of the Maliki, Shafi'i, Hanbali and Jafari madhabs is that adult male prisoners of war may be executed.[20] The decision for an execution is to be made by the Muslim leader. This opinion was also upheld by the Muslim judge, Sa'id bin Jubair (665-714 AD) and Abu Yusuf, a classical jurist from the Hanafi school of jurisprudence.[4] El Fadl argues the reason Muslim jurists adopted this position was largely because it was consistent with the war practices of the Middle Ages.[19] Muhammad Hamidullah, while reminding that execution in such cases was exceptional and depending on many factors, further precises that beheading was discouraged: "unanimity was reached among the Companions of the Prophet not to behead prisoners of war. In short, capital punishment for prisoners of war is only permissible in extreme cases of necessity and in the higher interests of the State."[21]

Most contemporary Muslim scholars prohibit altogether the killing of prisoners and hold that this was the policy practiced by Muhammad.[22][better source needed] The 20th-century Muslim scholar, Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi states that no prisoner should be "put to the sword" in accordance with a saying[which?] of Muhammad.[23]

Yusuf Ali, another 20th-century Muslim scholar, while commenting on verse [Quran 9:6], writes,

Even those the enemies of Islam, actively fighting against Islam, there may be individuals who may be in a position to require protection. Full asylum is to be given to them, and opportunities provided for hearing the Word of Allah...If they do not see their way to accept Islam, they will require double protection: (1) from the Islamic forces openly fighting against their people, and (2) from their own people, as they detached themselves from them. Both kinds of protection should be ensured for them, and they should be safely escorted to a place where they can be safe.[24]

Maududi further states that Islam forbids torturing, especially by fire, and quotes Muhammad as saying, "Punishment by fire does not behoove anyone except the Master of the Fire [God]."[23]

Quoting from the sources, Muhammad Munir, from the Department of Law of the International Islamic University, Pakistan, says that early religious authorities standing against the execution of POWs at all include 'All b. Abi Tãlib, Al-Hasan b. al-Hasan al-Basrl (d. 110/728), Hammãd b. Abi Sulaymän (d. 120/737), Muhammad b. Sirin (d. 110/728), Mujãhid b. Jabr (d. 103/721), 'Abd al-Mãlik b. 'Abd al-'Azïz b. Jurayj (d. 150/767), 'Atâ' b. Abi Rabãh (d. 114/732) and Abû 'Ubayd ibn Sallãm,[25] while later scholars favouring the same opinion include Muhammad b. Ahmad al-Qurtubl (d. 671/1272), who shares [Quran 47:4] to vindicate the sheer impossibility of execution if we follow the letter of the Qur'an.[26] Ibn Rushd (d. 594/1198) is also quoted: "[A] number of jurists did not permit executing the prisoners of war. Al-Hasan b. Muhammad al-Tamïmï (d. 656/1258) stated consensus (ijma) of the Companions on this view."[27] He further shows that the rare executions were more due to the crimes they committed before the captivity than their status of POW itself, a famous case being 'Abd Allah b. Khatal, one of the few persons who weren't granted immunity at the conquest of Mecca, a group of peoples which "could have been punished by a tribunal should there have been one at the time", but he was the only one executed for what we would today call high treason (he collected tax money from Muslims before defecting and fighting them).[28] More generically, he also shows that "in the first one hundred years of Islamic military history, that is, from the time of the Prophet (peace be on him) till the time of Caliph 'Umar b. 'Abdul 'Aziz, there were only six or seven even if we were to accept the spurious, reports of such executions."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tafsir of the Qur'an by Ibn Kathir [1]
  2. ^ Ahkaam al-Sijn wa’l-Sujana’ wa Mu’aamalat al-Sujana’ fi’l-Islam of the Hadith by Hasan Abi’l-Ghuddah [2]
  3. ^ Shirazi, Imam Muhammad. The Prophet Muhammad - A Mercy to the World. Createspace Independent Pub, 2013, p. 74.[self-published source?]
  4. ^ a b 'Abu Yusuf Ya'qub Le Livre de l'impot foncier,' translated from Arabic and annotated by Edmond Fagnan, Paris, Paul Geuthner, 1991, pages 301-302) Abu Yusuf (d. 798 CE)
  5. ^ Maududi (1967), Introduction of Ad-Dahr, "Period of revelation", p. 159.
  6. ^ (Crone (2004), pp. 371-72)
  7. ^ Roger DuPasquier. Unveiling Islam. Islamic Texts Society, 1992, p. 104
  8. ^ The Life of Muhammad The Prophet
  9. ^ a b Naqvi (2000), pg. 456
  10. ^ Judge Weeramantry, Christopher G. (1997). Justice Without Frontiers. Brill Publishers. p. 136. ISBN 90-411-0241-8. 
  11. ^ Judge Weeramantry, Christopher G. (1997). Justice Without Frontiers. Brill Publishers. pp. 136–7. ISBN 90-411-0241-8. 
  12. ^ a b Nigosian, S. A. (2004). Islam. Its History, Teaching, and Practices. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p. 115. 
  13. ^ Maududi (1967), introduction of Ad-Dahr, "Period of revelation", pg. 159
  14. ^ ([Quran 4:36], [Quran 9:60], [Quran 24:58])
  15. ^ ([Quran 4:92], [Quran 5:92], [Quran 58:3])
  16. ^ ([Quran 2:177], [Quran 24:33], [Quran 90:13])
  17. ^ Lewis 1990, page 6. All Qur'anic citations are his.
  18. ^ (Patricia Crone. God’s Rule: Government and Islam. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004, pp. 371-72)
  19. ^ a b El Fadl (2003), pg. 115
  20. ^ El Fadl (2003), pg. 116
  21. ^ Muhammad Hamidullah, Muslim Conduct of State, Muhammad Ashraf (1945), pp. 208-209
  22. ^ Hashmi (2003), pg. 145
  23. ^ a b Maududi (1998), p. 34
  24. ^ Ali (1991), p. 498
  25. ^ Muhammad Munir, "Debates on the Rights of Prisoners of War in Islamic Law" in Islamic Studies, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Winter 2010), p. 469
  26. ^ Muhammad Munir, "Debates on the Rights of Prisoners of War in Islamic Law" in Islamic Studies, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Winter 2010), p. 473
  27. ^ Muhammad Munir, "Debates on the Rights of Prisoners of War in Islamic Law" in Islamic Studies, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Winter 2010), p. 470
  28. ^ Muhammad Munir, "Debates on the Rights of Prisoners of War in Islamic Law" in Islamic Studies, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Winter 2010), p. 472


  • Ali, Abdullah Yusuf (1991). The Holy Quran. Medina: King Fahd Holy Qur-an Printing Complex. 
  • Brockopp, Jonathan E.; Hashmi, Sohail; El Fadl (2003). Islamic Ethics of Life. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press. ISBN 1-57003-471-0. 
  • Lewis, Bernard (1990). Race and Slavery in the Middle East. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505326-5. 
  • Maududi, Sayyid Abul Ala (1967). The Meaning of the Quran. Lahore: Islamic publications. 
  • Maududi, Sayyid Abul Ala (1998). Human Rights in Islam. Islamabad: Da'wah Academy. 

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