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Islamic Rulings on Warfare

Authored by Dr. Sherifa D. Zuhur, LTCDR Youssef H Aboul-Enein. | November 2004

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The authors of this monograph share their respective connections with the topic.

Lieutenant Commander Aboul-Enein: In 2000, I encountered Dr. Bernard Lewis, a famous Princeton scholar of Islamic history and author of many books on Islam, delivering a speech on Capitol Hill. He stressed the importance of classic Arabic and Islamic texts. Later, when confronting extremist interpretations of Islam, I saw the importance of these texts, especially the Quran (the Islamic book of divine revelation), the hadith (Propht?s Muhammad?s sayings and deeds), and the 1,400 plus years of commentary, which essentially run counter to current jihadist ideology.

Dr. Zuhur: For 20 years, I have interviewed Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian, Palestinian, Saudi, and other Islamists who cite verses from the Quran to support their worldview of necessary and continuous conflict between Islam and the West. Yet, throughout my own education, I was exposed to liberal and humanistic interpretations of Islamic doctrine and law. Now we ask: Which Islamic vision is to prevail?

Muslim education in many schools has been reduced to the memorization of slogans and parroting of particular interpretations, and lacks deep inquiry and debate. The main perpetrator of the September 11, 2001 (9/11), attacks, Mohammed Atta, left a last will and testament in which he declared a desire for paradise, virgins, and self-gratification through martyrdom. It is doubtful that he spent a considerable time studying Islamic classic texts that reveal the history and methodology of warfare, or exploring the intricacies of the debate over morality in war in which early Muslims engaged. His version of Islam is one of misguided faith and misplaced loyalty to those who hide Islam?s rich 14 centuries of discussion, debate, and intellectual exploration. To Atta and the others who perpetrated the 9/11 atrocities, intellectual inquisitiveness is considered troublesome, for it produces a powerful alternative to the radical vision of the Islamic mission. In fact, radicals deem liberal Islamic readings of scripture and teachings ?heretical.?

Since 9/11, the United States has grappled with how to counter the abuse of Islam by militants who inspire indiscriminate mass murder and suicide. Some studies argue that solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute or addressing poverty would offer immediate relief from Islamic militancy. Certainly, programs addressing the political and economic crises in the area should be undertaken. But these alone will not solve the expansion of Islamic radicalism.

Islamic radicalism does not stem solely from desperation, nor from a sense of inferiority, as some theorists maintain. Instead, in the 3 1/2 decades of this recent period of Islamic revival and militancy, we have seen that radicals come from a variety of social and educational backgrounds and political circumstances.

Hence, we also need a long-term strategy that involves discrediting Islamic militant thought, such as that propagated by alQaeda?s strategist Ayman al-Zawahiri in several books that draw upon a combination of the Quran, the hadith, and radical Islamic texts written from the 13th to the late 20th century.

The al-Azhar University in Egypt is an intellectual center of Sunni Islam. The leading scholars of al-Azhar, along with many other Islamic scholars in other countries, have produced more liberal interpretations of Islamic rulings. They have issued opinions that promote rethinking and reform of many social issues, and have condemned beheadings and suicide attacks. Unfortunately, the liberal and establishment clerics attract less attention and media coverage on the world stage than the radical voices. They may not be as popular with the Muslim public due to their identification with undemocratic states, or their previous efforts to legitimize the actions of certain governments. Modern nation-states, such as Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, incorporated long-standing religious institutions and clerics into their states and official apparatuses. The muftis(person responsible for interpreting Muslim law) of cities or entire countries became subject to governmental policy, as did the control over religious endowments (awqaf).

Some rulers or political leaders expected their clerical appointees or other sympathetic clerics to issue rulings that sanctioned unpopular positions or bolstered the power of said political leaders. Other clerics and many Muslims felt that this new modern entanglement of state and religion contravened the special intellectual freedom and political independence that religious scholars had guarded. Radical Islamists then claimed, with some justification, that other,often esteemed clerics were tools of corrupt or secular governments. However, radical interpretations of Islamic scripture fail to present the full range of opinion on important issues and mislead their admirers.

This monograph reviews Islamic scripture and the complexity of Islamic rules of war. It notes that classical Islamic scholars wrote about truces, types of combat, prisoners of war, division of spoils, and debated and developed principles that are very similar to St. Thomas Aquinas? precepts of just war. A glossary of Islamic terms, personalities, and organizations is provided at the end of this monograph for readers less familiar with Islamic terminology.

The monograph encourages moderate Muslims to mount a major ideological campaign to counter those who have hijacked Islam with their destructive interpretation of Islamic scripture. Comprehending this endeavor will be vital to any strategy that seeks to dissuade young Muslims from the nihilism of Islamic militancy.


Islamic rules of warfare are complex, appear to be contradictory and require careful analysis. The simplistic visions of paradise for suicide bombers preached by militant jihadistclerics defy over 1,400 years of Islamic history and wisdom. Yet those like Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are not ignorant of Islamic law and use it selectively to pursue their agenda of mass murder and hatred. This monograph will introduce readers to Islamic principles of warfare and its conduct.

These principles are contained within a body of Islamic legal rulings that has grown over the centuries. They reflect the pre-Islamic war practices of the Arab tribes, early and more recent periods of Muslim expansion, and confrontations with Western and Eastern powers, such as the Mongols and the Crusaders. The two most important sources for Islamic law known as shari`ah are first, the sacred text, the Quran (the Muslim book of divine revelation) and second, the prophetic tradition. This tradition consists of short anecdotal accounts of the Prophet Muhammad?s actions or opinions preceded by a list of transmitters, termed the hadith. References to this tradition will be limited to seven collections of hadith, and these will be identified by the names of their authors: al-Bukhari, al-Tirmidhi, Muslim, Abu Dawud, al-Nisa?i, al-Nawawi, and Ibn Majah.

Readers will gain an understanding of the complexities of Islamic rulings on warfare and obtain some insight into the Muslim vocabulary of war that extends well beyond the words ?martyr? (shahid), and ?holy war? (jihad). They will learn that Islamic rules of war evolved from the 27 battles in which Prophet Muhammad played a direct or indirect role. The commentaries of the Prophet?s political successors, the first caliph, Abu Bakr, and second caliph, `Umar, on warfare are also mentioned, as are modern revisions of these rules of war.

The concept of suicide is missing from earlier religious commentaries on war. This is, no doubt, because suicide is not permissible in Islam. Although fighting with apparent suicidal intent at times has been a historical characteristic as chronicled in battle epics and popular literature, the recent suicide bombings are a product of contemporary politics. If a would-be suicide bomber of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or al-Qaeda were properly introduced to the richness of Islamic thought on warfare, he or she would realize that suicide bombings are not part of this heritage. Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hizbullah, and other groups purposefully suppress this fact because it does not fit their agenda. They fear Islamic legacies, turath, that do not conform to their radical ideology.

Islamic texts on warfare actually focus on the concepts of just war, typologies of conflicts, treatment of the vanquished, division of spoils, and the upholding of Islamic law, given the travel and exchange between Muslim and non-Muslim territories. One such classic of the 14th century, The Dispelling of Fears in the Management of Wars (Tafrij al-qurub fi tadbir al-hurub by `Umar ibn Ibrahim alAwasi al-Ansari), deals with cavalry tactics, infantry deployments, espionage and selection of encampments.1 The 1961 edition, edited/ translated by George Scanlon, mentions over 40 classical Arabic texts on warfare written between the 8th and 15th century, and addresses such topics as the Persian use of cavalry, 72 basic uses of the lance, battle formations, and the Greek, Persian, Mesopotamian, and Maghribi (North African) styles of cavalry training.2 Another volume important to scholars which focuses on the Islamic ?law of nations? is The Book of the Law of Nations compiled by Shaybani. It is a precursor to international law that provides many details on the legality, typology, and rules of military engagement, truces, and relations between Muslims and the enemy groups or states that surrounded them in the earliest period of Muslim expansion.3

Some Western readers will probably find the Islamic rulings on war to be contradictory. It may not be clear whether they promote war or peace. Muslims believe the Quran to be divinely revealed, and Quran experts hold that the text must be understood in the spirit of its entirety, and not simply reduced to selected verses or phrases. Surah 3, al-Imran, verse 7 reads:

And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: ?We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord:? and none will grasp the Message except men of understanding.

As the Quran is not always linear in format nor explicit, it requires interpretation, not least because it is read as a living text, for its contemporary, as well as historic significance. Muslims, who have no central authority like the Roman Catholic Pope, seek the guidance of religious scholars, or clerics.

Similarly, there is no single interpretation of religious law. Instead, four legal schools survive in Sunni Islam, the larger of the two branches of Islam, the second being Shi`a Islam. Shi`a Islam, which represents about 10 percent of the world?s Muslims, has its own legal schools. The fundamental division between Sunni and Shi`a Islam goes back to the Prophet Muhammad?s demise. Muslims disagreed as to who should be his successor (Caliph, or khalifa, literally, the one who follows). Some believed that the Caliph should be of the Prophet?s ?house,? and preferred his son-in-law and cousin, `Ali.

Believers generally follow the legal school of their family, and may resort to a cleric of that school in requesting legal guidance, or a specific opinion, or responsa (fatwa). While they usually accept that opinion, they have the freedom to accept or disregard rulings, or even to request a fatwa from a different jurist.4 Also, in many Muslim nations where Islamic law courts are no longer operating or no longer the single form of justice, civil legislation often involved clerics? consultations or contestations. Aspects of civil law, for instance, family law, may be based upon Islamic law. In some cases, scholars and lawmakers drew on more than one school of law to modernize legal codes. Unfortunately, this very spirit of intellectual freedom and flexibility can enhance the power of radical interpretations of war, since Muslims may also choose to follow the teachings or opinions of militants.


1. Umar Ibn Ibrahim Al-Awasi al-Ansari, Tafrij al-qurub fi tadbir al-hurub (A Muslim Manual of War), George T. Scanlon, ed. and trans., Cairo: American University at Cairo Press, 1961, pp. 1-4.

2. Ibid.,pp. 7-19.

3. See The Islamic Law of Nations: Shaybani?s Siyar (Kitab al-siyar al-kabir), Majid Khadduri, trans., Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1966. Also see Majid Khadduri, War and Peace in the Law of Islam, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1955.

4. The finer points of a fatwa rest upon language, but also, in our times, on politics. Simply put, fatwas state whether something is approved, disapproved, or neutral in Islam. Often fairly brief, the jurist may explain the principles foremost in his mind, or divide the question into sub-points, each with a particular response. See, for instance, Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, ?Operation Desert Storm and the War of Fatwas,? in Muhammad Khalid Masud, Brinkley Messick, and David S. Power, eds., Islamic Legal Interpretation and Their Fatwas, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996, pp. 297-309.