Intermezzo – War and international law in the Qur’an

War and international law in the Qur’an
Intermezzo by Marlies ter Borg

The roots of international law, now laid down in the United Nations charter, can be traced to Roman thinkers as Cicero. Elements leading to a theory of just and limited war are mainly associated with Christian philosophers such as: Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Hugo Grotius. From this tradition stems such concepts as:

  • jus ad bellum, which identifies legitimate reasons for going to war, such as self-defense or aiding others against aggression and oppression,


  • jus in bello, which establishes what is forbidden during war, such as the killing of civilians and prisoners of war.

A lesser known but equally respectable tradition of thought on international law is present in Islam, beginning with the Introduction to the Law of Nations by Muhammad al-Shaybani at the end of the 8th century. These theories of limited and defensive war are based on the basic Qur’anic rules, which determine under which conditions people may take up arms, and what is permissible and what forbidden during war.

Thus, the concept that ‘all is fair, all is permissible in war’ is rejected in the Qur’an and by Muslim thinkers as it is by Christian and Jewish philosophers. Both traditions can be seen as forerunners of the laws set down in the Geneva Convention and the United Nations Charter.

Of course, in Islam, as among nations with a Christian or Jewish background, these principles are often violated. An unjust war is experienced as a terrible ordeal, or fitna. In the Muslim tradition, fitna means overwhelming wanton destruction, by foreign forces or in civil war. The word is derived from fatana, meaning to grind, to tear apart in order to test. It refers to a situation of grave imbalance, generated internally, or by friction from the surroundings.

A similar image is found in the Bible. People can be tested and even purified by extreme circumstances, like precious metals in the crucible of life.

For He is like a refiner’s fire …a purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver. Malachi 3:2-3

Being the victim of war is everywhere considered a terrible ordeal, (fitna)

Rules of war in the Qur’an

In the Qur’an, war is a destructive process in which men participate reluctantly. It is never holy, sometimes just, but often unjust. Only in a just war fought with limited means are those who lose their life martyrs.

A Muslim is not allowed to take up arms, even against unbelievers, without legitimate cause. He should not respond aggressively to every insult. He must exercise patience, trusting God to punish the unbeliever, if not during his life, then after his death.

The initial response to aggression is diplomacy-allowing the enemy time to think and then deterring him from violence by a show of arms.

One must have a very good reason to ultimately take up arms. Even against unbelievers, armed conflict is only permitted if they behave aggressively – if it is they who initiate the violence. Imperialist ambitions or terrorist actions are not sanctified by God. Self defense on the other hand is a legitimate goal of war. Other legitimate goals are helping the oppressed or those who have been driven from their homes; and protecting mosques, synagogues, and churches.

The Lesser Jihad, Jihad bis Saif (striving with arms), a defensive war with limited goals, must be fought with limited means.

According to the Hadith, destruction of the landscape and setting fires to towns and villages are strictly forbidden.

War is not directed at a people, but only at those who actually take up arms. Muhammad is said to have laid down rules to protect civilians in times of war.

“Do not kill any man far advanced in years, nor a child, a baby, or a woman.” Abu Dawud 202 – 275

In this context, suicide terrorism in which innocent civilians are killed is expressly forbidden, because it piles crime upon crime, murder upon suicide.

…nor kill yourselves…If any do that in rancor and injustice – soon shall We cast them into the Fire: 4 The Women, 29-30

According to the Qur’an, God grants immunity to members of the enemy-group, who refrain from fighting. Only on the battlefield is killing allowed. Massacre of the enemy is forbidden. As soon as one gains the upper hand on the battlefield, one must take and treat the adversary as a prisoner for the duration of the war.

The Qur’an stipulates rules not only for the start of war, but also for its termination. The enemy’s request for peace must be complied with.

Who is the enemy?
It is often believed – on both sides – that an inevitable and unending enmity exists between Muslims on the one hand and Christians and Jews on the other.

In the Bible, no explicit statements can be found concerning Muslims, for the simple reason that Muslims did not exist at the time of writing. There are, however, several harsh passages in the Hebrew Bible on how to deal with people of another faith. In The New Testament, disdainful words are spoken about the followers of the anti-Christ, people who deny that Jesus is the Son of God. In the last book of the Bible, the false prophet is destroyed. Throughout history, this evil false prophet and the antichrist have been identified with Muhammad.

On the other hand Jesus himself is very mild and tolerant towards people of another faith, holding up the Good Samaritan as an example. He shows that it is not as much the professed faith as the good deed that counts.

Pagans and unbelievers

The Qur’an speaks of pagans, of those who praise many gods, of unbelievers as the prime enemy. At this point, it is useful to discuss the term ‘unbeliever’ in more detail. At first glance, it can be taken to mean simply anyone who is not a Muslim, anyone who does not believe that ‘There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet’; a sentence not found in the Qur’an.

The term ‘Muslim’ also has a wider meaning, referring not to followers of a particular faith, but to men and women who follow the right way. It points to the natural moral intuition all men are in principle endowed with. In that sense, all people are or can be Muslim. On the other hand, some people who are Muslim in name stray from God’s guidance. They become unbelievers. For the term ‘unbeliever’ has an ethical dimension. The pre-eminent unbeliever is Satan. He does not deny the existence of God – he even talks to Him – but he is disobedient. He acts contrary to God’s just rules. Satan is, therefore, the enemy of man. He leads people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, into temptation, into behavior that runs counter to their moral intuition.

The People of the Book

Historically speaking, the term ‘unbeliever’ refers to the polytheists from Mecca, not to the Israelites or Christians. They are called the ‘People of the Book’, those to whom We had already given Scripture, because they received the message of the one God even before Muhammad did. This implies that there is a basic affinity that makes it worthwhile for Muslims to enter into peaceful dialogue with Christians and Jews.

(Believers), argue only in the best way with the People of the Book, except with those who act unjustly. Say. “We believe in what was revealed to us and what was revealed to you; our God and your God are One. Haleem 29 The Spider,46

According to the Qur’an, the Israelites are God’s chosen people.

‘O Children of Israel! Call to mind the favor which I bestowed upon you, and that I preferred you to all others for My Message.’ 2 The Heifer,47

According to the Qur’an Christians also have a special relationship with God.

From those, too, who call themselves Christians, We did take a covenant… 5 The Table Spread,14

Christians are closest to Muslims, for they both admire Jesus Christ.

… nearest among them in love to the Believers (the Muslims ed.) will you find those who say: “We are Christians” because amongst these are men devoted to learning and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant. And when they listen to the Revelation received by the Messenger (Muhammad ed.), you will see their eyes overflowing with tears, for they recognize the truth… 5 The Table Spread,82

But, the People of the Book can also depart from their own monotheistic path and become unbelievers. The Qur’an joins the great Jewish prophets in their criticism of the Jewish people.

Curses were pronounced on those among the Children of Israel who rejected Faith, by the tongue of David and of Jesus the son of Mary, because they disobeyed and persisted in excesses.5 The Table Spread,78

However, their rejection of pure monotheism as defined in the Qur’an is no legitimate reason to go to war against the People of the Book. It is only in extreme cases, when Jews or Christians actually start aggression against Muslims that armed resistance against them is allowed. Even then, the Laws limiting war laid down in the Qur’an must be followed.

Comments Off on Intermezzo – War and international law in the Qur’an