Just War Theory And Practice In Islam
Islam, as we explained earlier, is a divine religion of submission to Allah and His revealed guidance for man, which teaches peace and mercy. Although Islam calls for peaceful interactions with all peoples of all countries, engagement in war may become necessary at times as a final remedy. Allah has limited the application of the times to go to war to five situations. “Jihad” according to Islamic terminology, means to strive and exert one’s utmost effort in the cause of Allah; it can apply to combat, but is by no means limited to this action. The objective of Jihad, when referring to combat, is to defend the Muslims and allow their right to deliver the invitation to Islam. It may also be waged in defense against aggression, a legitimate reason within certain conditions.
The wars of mankind historically have most often been waged as an act of aggression and for unjust personal and national vendettas; for imperial, colonial and corporate expansion and hegemony; for the control, exploitation, plunder and theft of material and human resources; or for mere fame, glory and arrogance. Islam does not condone any of these war objectives and considers them all illegitimate and worthy of just retribution. There are only five legitimate reasons for Jihad, as follows:
Defense against attack upon life, property, and wealth of the Muslim nation and national borders.
This is based on the verse revealed in the Qurán: “Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah does not love the transgressors.”
This is also based on the tradition of the Messenger of Allah ( s) who said: “Whoever is killed while attempting to protect his belongings is a martyr, whoever is killed while attempting to protect himself is a martyr, whoever is killed while attempting to protect his religion is a martyr, and whoever is killed while attempting to protect his family is a martyr.”
(Tirmidhi, Abu Da`ood, Nisaa’I & Ibn Majah)
Defense against oppression or those assisting in the oppression of the weak and defenseless
Jihad of this type has a clear and obligatory humanitarian objective. Allah, Most Majestic, states in His Qur’an: “And what is [the matter] with you that you fight not in the cause of Allah and [for] the oppressed among men, women, and children who say, ‘Our Lord, take us out of this city of oppressive people and appoint for us from Yourself a protector and appoint for us from Yourself a helper.’”
This command to resist aggression and persecution is also based on the verse revealed in the Qur’an: “Those who believed, immigrated, and fought for the Faith, with their property and their persons, in the cause of Allah, as well as those who gave them asylum and aid, these are all friends and protectors, one of another. As to those who believed, but did not immigrate; you do not owe them the duty of protection until they come into exile. But. if they seek your aid in religion, it is your duty to help them, except against a people with whom you have a treaty of mutual alliance. And remember that Allah sees all that you do.”
In retaliation to the breach and violation of solemnly concluded covenants, pacts and treaties
This is based on the verse revealed in the Qur’an that states: “And if they break their oaths after their treaty and defame your religion, then fight the leaders of disbelief, for indeed, there are no oaths [sacred] to them; [fight them that] they might cease. Would you not fight a people who broke their oaths and determined to expel the Messenger, and they had begun [the attack upon] you the first time? Do you fear them? But Allah has more right that you should fear Him, if you are [truly] believers.”
Disciplinary actions against those Muslims who aggress and start hostilities without any just cause, and continue obstinately on the path of aggression
as Allah the Almighty states: “If two parties among the Believers fall into a quarrel, make peace between them. But, if one of the parties transgresses beyond bounds against the other, then fight against the one that transgresses until it complies with the Command of Allah. If it complies, make peace between them with justice, and be just and fair, for Allah loves those who are just and fair.”
This type of jihad proves that the purpose of jihad is always for law and justice since it is waged even against Muslim criminals.
For the invitation to the religion of Islam when peaceful means are impossible
This type is only a last resort after a series of efforts proves to the Muslim ruler that peaceful means have become impossible.
The first step is an invitation to allow the peaceful preaching of Islam, following the practice (sunnah) of the Prophet ( s) when, as mentioned above, he had sent letters to the surrounding rulers inviting them to Islam. If the ruler refused this invitation, he and his people are offered the option of becoming dhimmees, that is, people of the protected nonMuslim community governed by its own religious laws, but obliged to abide by the general Islamic laws to maintain law, order and security, and to pay the Jizya tax in lieu of performing military service1. Only when the non-Muslims refused these conditions did the Muslim ruler have grounds for the commencement of open battle for the fact that they oppose the peaceful propagation of Islam.
Islam is the universal faith and religion of Allah, the Creator and Lord - Sustainer of mankind, and therefore is not for any specific people, but for all. Acceptance of Islam and conversion is not the mission or objective that Muslims seek because guidance is only in the Hands of Allah, Most Wise and Sublime. All people must have a chance to hear about the goodness, justice, brotherhood, love, equality and peace that Islam teaches. The Benevolent and Almighty Lord of Man states in His Qur’an: “And fight them until there is no more temptation, strife or oppression, and there prevails justice and faith in Allah altogether and everywhere. But if they cease, verily, Allah sees all that they do.”
If at any time the enemies of Islam and the Muslims cease their hostilities and aggressions and sue for, or accept, just terms of peace, Muslims are obliged to stop the state of war, start negotiations, and it becomes unlawful for them to pursue any course of warfare against them. Allah, the Wise and Omniscient said: “Except for those who take refuge with a people between yourselves and whom is a treaty or those who come to you, their hearts strained at [the prospect of] fighting you or fighting their own people. And if Allah had willed, He could have given them power over you, and they would have fought you. So if they remove themselves from you and do not fight you and offer you peace, then Allah has not made for you a cause [for fighting] against them.”
The causes of legitimate warfare are thus identified above, and other verses in this context are as follows:
Allah, the Great, said: “They ask you concerning fighting in the Sacred Months. Say, ‘Fighting therein is a great [transgression] but a greater [transgression] in the sight of Allah is to prevent mankind from following the Way of Allah, to disbelieve in Him, to prevent access to the Holy Mosque [in Makkah], and to drive out its inhabitants and [trying to force Muslims to revert from their religion] is worse than killing.’”
Allah, the Great, says: “And fight them until there is no more [idol worship] and worship is for Allah. But if they cease, let there be no transgression except against the tyrants.”
Allah, the Exalted, says: “Those who believe, they fight in the Way of Allah, and those who disbelieve, they fight in for their false gods. So fight you against the followers of Satan. Indeed, the plot of Satan is feeble.”
All other types of wars, as mentioned above, resulting in destruction and great loss of life and property, are banned and declared unlawful in Islam. Wars waged to arrogantly demonstrate force and supposed superiority are also prohibited in Islam. As Allah, the Exalted, says: “And do not be like those who came forth from their homes insolently and to be seen by people and avert [them] from the way of Allah. And Allah is encompassing of what they do.”
Although Islam permits fighting for the necessary reasons mentioned above, it lays down strict rules and regulations for the conduct of warfare on both the leaders and the soldiers, and directs all to observe the noble Islamic manners and ethics even in this most difficult of times. The Muslim fighters are permitted to target and kill only those who fight against them or assist and support other fighters in the battlefield. As for elderly people, minors, women, the sick, wounded, or those who isolate and seclude themselves in worship by belief in non-violence; all these categories of people who are non-combatants are not to be targeted, killed or even bothered in any manner by Muslim fighters. It is prohibited to kill an enemy soldier who is wounded and fallen on a battlefield as well. Islam bans mutilation of the bodies and cadavers of all killed enemies.
Furthermore, Islam bans the killing of the enemies’ animals, and the destruction of their agriculture and dwellings and infrastructure, except in very specific circumstances necessary for the immediate battle.
Additionally, Islam prohibits intentional pollution of the water sources of the enemies and their wells. Islam considers all the aforementioned activities as acts leading to the disruption of the society and unnecessary hardship on the common people. As Allah states in His Qur’an, the intention of this life for a Muslim is to seek the life of the Hereafter through good deeds: “But seek with that which Allah has bestowed upon you, the Home of the Hereafter, and do not forget your due portion in this World. Do good as Allah has been good to you, and do not seek occasions for mischief in the land. Indeed Allah does not love those who do mischief.”
From among the many teachings and guidance from Allah's Messenger, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, to the fighters, are the following:
The Messenger of Allah (
s) stated that there is only one legitimate intention for combat, when he
“He who strives and fights in order to make the Word of Allah, the Most Supreme,
is the one who strives and fights for the cause of Allah.”
(Bukhari & Muslim)
When a woman was found killed in one of these battles,
the Messenger of Allah mentioned that this one was not fighting and forbade the killing of women
He also gave the following instructions:
“Begin your fight with the Name of Allah against those who declare the state of disbelief in
Allah. Fight against them, but do not breach your contracts or covenants. Do not mutilate
the bodies of the fighters killed. Do not kill a newly born baby.”
And he said:
“Go forward in the name of God. Do not kill an elderly person, nor a child, nor a woman, and
do not exceed the bounds.”
(Malik & Abu Dawood)
The eminent companion, Abu Bakr as-Siddeeq the first Muslim Caliph of the Muslim State, gave the
following advice to the Muslim army he deployed, saying,
“Wait before you leave. I would like to give you the following advice. Do not betray or act treacherously.
Do not steal from the war booty before its proper and lawful distribution. Do not breach
your pledges and covenants with your enemies. Do not mutilate the bodies of the killed fighters.
Do not kill a child, a woman, or an elderly person. Do not cut or burn a palm tree [or any
other tree for any reason]. Do not cut a fruit-bearing tree. Do not slaughter a sheep, a
cow or a camel, except for your food. You may come across people who seclude themselves for
the worship of God, leave them alone. Do not bother them or cause any disruption to their
[Reported by at-Tabari, Vol.3, p.226, and others]
Similarly, Muslims must declare war prior to the beginning of the fight. This is because Muslims are neither betrayers, nor dishonest fighters. Islam imposes some of the best of war ethics and morals onto the Muslim fighters. Islam requires full adherence to justice and no oppression to the fighting enemies
Omar bin Abdul-Aziz, may Allah have mercy on him, one of the early Umayyad Muslim Caliphs, was approached
by a delegation of fighters of the city of Samarqand who complained about the Muslim leader,
Qutaibah, who had taken them by a surprise attack. The Caliph sent a letter to the governor of
the concerned area commanding him to assign a judge to investigate this matter, and if the judge
deemed that Muslims should get out of the city and leave it as a result of any breach of trust,
they must comply with the judgment. The governor of Samarqand assigned a judge named Jomai’ bin
Hader al-Baji who passed his verdict that the Muslims should leave the city which they had conquered.
The Muslim army commander must first declare war openly and with a proper proclamation, prior
to invading the land and launching their attack upon the people of Samarqand, give them a chance
to prepare themselves for the fight and to know the reasons for the attack. The people of Samarqand,
seeing the just dealing of the Muslims, decided against restarting hostilities and accepted the
terms of Islamic rule.
[see: Countries of the Conquests, by Balathuri, p.428]
As with reference to captives and prisoners, always a sensitive and divisive subject between warring
parties, Islam strictly forbids intimidation, torture, mutilation, or starving them to death.
Indeed, feeding them is a virtue and worthy of the reward of Allah as he says:
“And they feed, for the love of Allah, the indigent, the orphan, and the captive; saying, ‘We
feed you for the sake of Allah alone. We do not desire from you reward nor thanks.’”
The Islamic leader reserves the full freedom to release the prisoners of war free without ransom,
set terms for their ransom, or release them in exchange for the release of Muslim prisoners of
war. This is based on the verse revealed in the Qur’an:
“At length, when you have thoroughly subdued them, then secure their bonds, and either [confer]
favor afterward or ransom [them] until the war lays down its burdens. That [is the command].
And if Allah had willed, He could have taken vengeance upon them [Himself], but [He ordered
armed struggle] to test some of you by means of others....”
As for the defeated non-Muslim residents of the conquered countries, the People of the Book like
the Christians and Jews, were treated with respect, and their security, dignity and honor was
maintained. Even their wealth and properties were secured from aggression and unjust confiscation.
They and their women were never molested or unduly humiliated in any manner. The homes and dwellings
for their families were left unharmed. In summary, they were dealt with fairly and justly. Their
originally divine faith was honored and dignified, and if they chose to remain upon it, they
were responsible to respect and obey the Islamic tenants and religion, and maintain obedience
to the public good, security and rule of equitable law. This is based on many verses and teachings,
including what Allah said as follows:
“[They are] those who, if We give them authority in the land, establish prayer and give zakah
and enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong. And to Allah belongs the outcome of all
One of the best evidences reflecting these teachings is the example set by Omar bin al-Khattab, the
second Muslim Caliph, and the conqueror of the Roman and Persian empires, to the inhabitants
of Jerusalem upon entering it as a victor. Tabari reported that he wrote to them as follows:
“In the Name of Allah, the Most Compassionate and Most Gracious.
This is the assurance of safety which the servant of God, Omar, the Commander of the Faithful, has given to the people of Jerusalem. He has given them an assurance of safety for themselves, for their property, their churches, their crosses, the sick and healthy of the city and for all the rituals which belong to their religion. Their churches will not be inhabited by Muslims and will not be destroyed. Neither they, nor the land on which they stand, nor their cross, nor their property will be damaged. They will not be forcibly converted. No Jew will live with them in Jerusalem.
The people of Jerusalem must pay the taxes like the people of other cities and must expel the Byzantines and the robbers. Those of the people of Jerusalem who want to leave with the Byzantines, take their property and abandon their churches and crosses will be safe until they reach their place of refuge. The villagers may remain in the city if they wish but must pay taxes like the citizens. Those who wish may go with the Byzantines and those who wish may return to their families. Nothing is to be taken from them before their harvest is reaped.
If they pay their taxes according to their obligations, then the conditions laid out in this letter are under the covenant of God, are the responsibility of His Prophet, of the caliphs and of the faithful. This is witnessed by Khalid Ibn Al-Walid, ‘Amr Ibn Al-’Aas, AbdurRahman Ibn Al-’Awf and Mu’awiyah Ibn Abi Sufyan. Executed in the year 15 Hijri.”
Surely, there is nothing comparable in the recorded history of mankind. We believe that this is the best form of nobility, justice and tolerance from the conqueror’s side towards the vanquished. Most conquerors strip the defeated people from all rights, freedoms and honor, including the right to a decent life, subjugating them to labor as slaves or secondclass citizens and to serve the conquerors’ interests. Omar bin al-Khattab could have easily dictated harsh terms and conditions against the defeated Christians at the time, but instead he followed the lead of the Prophet Muhammad ( s) in his generosity and magnanimity when he conquered Makkah after years of dealing with their treacherous warfare and bitter persecution. This justice was aimed at the noble goal of propagating the word of Allah and not gaining personal or national advantage. These examples, among others, illustrate the justice, tolerance, and beauty of Islam, the divinely revealed religion of Allah for universal and just peace. The laws of Allah, the Almighty, must apply to all people without any exception or favoritism.
Non-Muslims living under the Islamic rule are obligated to pay the Jizyah (sometimes referred to
as head tax) which is a minimal, symbolic amount imposed on the nonMuslim residents who willingly
choose to maintain their previous faith and live under the government of the Muslim State. The
basis of this is found in the verse of Allah:
“Fight against those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the Last Day, nor forbid that which
has been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of truth, from
among the people of the Scripture, until they pay the jizya willingly while they are humbled.”
This tax is of three types as calculated by the currency of the time:
- The head tax of the rich and the affluent people. This is estimated as forty-eight dirhams of silver taken from each individual annually.
- The head tax of the middle-class individuals such as merchants, businessmen, and farmers. This is estimated as twenty-four dirhams of silver taken from each individual annually.
- The head tax taken from the laborers and craftsmen who are in business. This is estimated as twelve dirhams of silver taken from each individual annually.
The Jizya tax is imposed on the non-Muslims living in the Muslim territory as a symbolic payment for the guarantee that their honor, integrity, wealth and life will be protected by the Muslim government against external enemies and internal violations, and because they are exempted from serving in the military. This protection includes all rights and obligations as specified and agreed upon contractually. In comparison, Muslims have additional duties, including the obligation to serve in the military when required, and to pay the Zakah (obligatory alms) and other forms of sadaqah (charity).
Khalid bin al-Waleed, one of the most renowned Muslim war generals, in one of his contractual pledges
to the non-Muslims living in the Islamic State said,
“I have given you my pledge of trust to accept your head tax and in return, to protect you against all possible odds (that we protect ourselves against). If we succeed in offering you the protection we would take the head tax. If not, then you would not have to pay it until we can provide you such protection.”
L. Veccia Vaglieri, in her book entitled, Defending Islam, says,
“Conquered people by Islamic governments were given full freedom to maintain and preserve their faith and traditions provided that individuals who elected this option and did not accept Islam as a way of life, would pay a fair head tax to the Islamic government. Head tax was less than what Muslims paid to their government. Non Muslims, residing under Islamic ruled state, paid such tax in exchange for the general blanket protection offered by the Islamic government extended for its own people.”
One must remember that the three types of the jizya tax calculated above were for the earning members, whereas other classes of the non-Muslims - namely the poor, needy, minors, women, the monks, priests, rabbis, the permanently disabled, and the blind - were exempted entirely from the payment of this head tax, and their protection, needs and general welfare was undertaken free of cost by the Islamic Treasury.
For example, Omar bin al-Khattab was sitting once when an old Jew passed by asking people to give
him charity. Omar asked about the welfare of the individual and was informed that the man was
living as a non-Muslim under the rule of the Muslim state and protection, paying head tax. Omar
declared, “We have not been fair to you! We have imposed head tax on you and charged you such
tax when you were young and able, and now we are not providing you with the proper social care
and welfare (when you are old and disabled).”
As a result, Omar took the man to his own home, fed him and offered him proper clothing. Thereafter he commanded the Muslim Treasurer, “Look into the case of this man, and those of similar situation, and give them a sufficient income from the Islamic Treasury, along with their families.”
Allah, the Almighty, stated in His Qur’an:
“Zakah expenditures are only for the poor and for the needy and for those employed to collect
[zakah] and for bringing hearts together [for Islam] and for freeing captives [or slaves]
and for those in debt and for the cause of Allah and for the [stranded] traveler - an obligation
[imposed] by Allah. And Allah is Knowing and Wise.”
The poor are the Muslims. The needy are the People of the Book. This is one interpretation of this
command of Allah.
[Abu Yousef, al-Kharaj, p.126]
In Khalid bin al-Waleed’s pledge, may Allah be pleased with him, to the non-Muslims of alHeerah,
in Iraq, the following was written, “Any non-Muslim living under the protection of the Muslim
empire who grows old and becomes unable to work, or becomes a terminal patient, or becomes bankrupt
in such a manner that he would be entitled for charity by his own people’s faith, will no longer
be required to pay the head tax. Such individuals will be provided their essential needs from
the Islamic Treasury, along with their families.”
[Abu Yousef, Al-Kharaj, p.144]
Lis Lictenstadter, a German scholar, in her book titled, Islam and the Modern Age, states, “The option
given to the people of Persia and Rome or the West, during the time of the spread of Islam, was
not to be killed by the sword or accept Islam. In fact, the option was either to accept Islam
as a way of life, or else to pay the head tax (in exchange for protection). This is a praiseworthy
plan which was applied later on in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth.”
[Islam and Modern Age, p. 67. See also, Ahmad Shalabi, Comparative Religious Studies, vol. 3, p.174]
Non-Muslims living under the rule of the Islamic state are fully entitled for full protection and
respect for their rights. Allah the Almighty states in the Qur’an:
“It may be that God will grant love and friendship between you and those whom you hold as enemies.
For God has power over all things; And God is Most Forgiving, Most Merciful. God forbids
you not, with regard to those who do not fight you for your Faith nor drive you out of your
homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them, for God loves those who are just. God only
forbids you, with regard to those who fight you for your Faith, and drive you out of your
homes, and support others in driving you out, from turning to them for friendship and protection.
Those who turn to them (in these circumstances) do wrong.”
The Messenger of Allah (
“The one who wrongs a person protected by a treaty or impairs his right or overworks him or forcibly
takes something from him, I will be his prosecutor on the Day of Judgment.”
(Abu Dawood & Nasa’ee)
The Messenger of Allah (
“The one who kills a person protected by a treaty will never smell the scent of heaven though
its scent is found at the distance of forty years.”