The essence of Islam is accord, that is, peace. War is an exceptional situation. The term Islam means peace and salvation. However, it is meaningless for a state to wish for peace unilaterally. One must be prepared if one’s enemy is preparing to attack and looking for the right opportunity. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) commanded:
“O! People do not wish to encounter the enemy; from Allah wish for good health and when you encounter them, be patient. Know that heaven is under the shadow of the swords.”
With this hadith (saying of the Prophet), the Prophet discouraged the believers from seeking war while at the same time stating that they should have faith in success if war is inevitable.
In Islam war is not waged to shed blood, gain land or for booty. All of these goals are forbidden. War is just one part of the great and sacred movement, jihad, a word meaning struggle, which encompasses every struggle from the personal to the national. That is jihad is the struggle to make the laws of Allah prevalent in accordance with His will. It is a movement that will continue until the Day of Judgment; it is incessant. Yet, sometimes in the sources the term jihad is used to denote war, implying that jihad can include war; but we must remember that the words battle and war do not contain the complete meaning of jihad. The struggle held against the enemies of Islam who prevent jihad is war.
In the orders given to the battle commanders Prophet Muhammad commanded:
“When you encounter your enemies who are idolaters, invite them to Islam; should they accept, they are your brothers. If they do not accept, ask them to submit to the state of Islam; should they not accept that either, ask help from Allah and make war on them.”
It is understood from this hadith that the true purpose of Muslims is not to destroy people, but to teach them about and help them towards accepting Islam. The true goal of Islam is to make people prosperous in this world and the next.
The religion of Islam bears no resemblance to any other religion or system; the leadership of Prophet Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, cannot be compared to that of any other commanders in the history of the world. There is one reason for this; he was the Prophet of Mercy. He proved that he was the Prophet of Mercy even when leading battles, as he aimed not for the death and destruction of the enemy but for the prosperity of the Muslims and all the generations to come until the Day of Judgment; it was for this purpose alone that he exhibited a superior skill in war.
Since the actual goal of Prophet Muhammad in battles was not to destroy the enemy troops, he never attempted to do so. He always attached great importance to peace. The Treaty of Hudaybiyah was a great victory accomplished during his lifetime. The Prophet conquered Mecca without shedding even one drop of blood. If he had wished to do so, he could have put the people of Mecca to the sword; however, he chose not to, as he was the Prophet of Mercy. In order to prevent the people of Mecca from making the mistake of attacking the Islamic army and shedding blood, he ensured that they had accepted defeat in advance and sent the following information to them:
- He who takes shelter in the Kaaba is secure,
- Whoever takes shelter in Abu Sufyan’s house is secure,
- Whoever locks the door of his house and stays in his own house will not be touched, he will be secure.”
With this superior tactic the Prophet dispersed the forces of Mecca and prevented blood shed. Then he forgave the people of Mecca, and they were brought to Islam by this example of extraordinary forgiveness and mercy.
The principle of “protecting civilians and the environment during wars”, which has become a major problem in our modern world, was achieved under the leadership of Prophet Muhammad. He held the battles of Badr and Uhud outside the city and during the Battle of the Trench he surrounded the city with trenches and protected innocent civilians.
As we have mentioned above, Prophet Muhammad applied a different tactic during the conquest of Mecca; he took into consideration the safety of the civilians on the enemy side and he was able to ensure the same.
THE PROTECTION OF CIVILIANS
In one hadith the Prophet used the terms mercy and war together and commanded:
“I am the Prophet of Mercy; I am the Prophet of War”
The fact that Prophet Muhammad used these two terms together is an indication that any war that he would embark on would be of a merciful nature.
The Prophet attached new meanings to war, as he did with many other concepts. He proved that wars could be held without people being killed, without destroying fertile lands or scorching the earth. The mercy he showed to the enemy side and the limited casualties among the enemy in the aftermath of the war are unparalleled. The fact that the people who fought against him accepted Islam immediately after the war and the fact that the soldiers struggling against him later became members of his army was one of his greatest victories.
During the ten years that Prophet Muhammad was a head of state, he participated in more than twenty battles; the total number of casualties on the enemy side in these battles was approximately 250 with the number of casualties in the Islamic army being around 150.
IMMUNITY OF NON-PARTICIPANTS
Prophet Muhammad never sought to attack civilians during battles. He showed great care that their lives and property were protected. During battles he prohibited his soldiers from killing members of certain groups, which will be discussed in detail below.
Women and Children
Prophet Muhammad prohibited the killing of women and children during battles.
As reported by Abdullah ibn Umar:
“In one of Prophet Muhammad’s battles, a woman was found dead. Upon this, the Prophet prohibited killing women and children in battles.” (Buharî, "Jihad" 146; Muslim, "Jihad" 24-25).
The Mentally Ill
People who are mentally ill or senile are not held to be responsible during war, and therefore they are not to be killed.
Reported from Ali, the Holy Prophet commanded:
“Three kinds of people are not responsible for what they do: A sleeping person until he wakes; a senile or insane person until they regain their mental health; and children until they grow up.”
It is forbidden to kill very elderly people; they are regarded to be like children.
Reported by Anas ibn Malik, Prophet Muhammad would say the following words whenever he sent off a military unit or an army:
“Set out in the name of Allah. Fight for the religion of Allah and in the name of Allah. Do not kill the elderly.”
The reason why Prophet Muhammad forbade killing elderly idolaters was that they were of no harm to the Muslims and they were of no help to the idolaters. Elderly people who are actively opposed to the Muslims were killed; this is the reason why the old man Durayd ibn Simma was killed in the Battle of Hunayn.
Reported by Abdullah ibn Abbas, Prophet Muhammad would give the following command when he sent off his army:
“…do not kill the children or the members of the monasteries” (Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Musnad, I/300). The phrase ‘members of the monastery’ means those people residing in religious places; these people are not to be killed as long as they are practicing their religion and not fighting against the Muslims.
Workers and Servants
These two groups are people who usually do not go to war. The fact that they live among the enemy does not require that their lives be taken.
Prophet Muhammad commanded his troops as follows when he sent them off: “Do not kill the workers or the servants.”
The lives of the people mentioned above are protected in Islam as long as they do not participate in a war. However, if they fight against the Islamic army and join a battle, they can be killed.
TREATMENT OF PRISONERS
Prophet Muhammad treated prisoners well. Except for those who were violently opposed to Islam or those who had tortured Muslims in the past, nearly all prisoners benefited from the mercy and forgiveness of Prophet Muhammad.
“Before Islam, there was no particular or definite manner of treatment for prisoners of war in the Arabian Peninsula. They were sometimes killed; sometimes were enslaved (especially women and children); sometimes they were freed for a ransom or for nothing; some were exchanged with prisoners of war held by the other side.” (Hamidullah, Wars of the Holy Prophet, 66).
The Holy Prophet acted with mercy towards prisoners of war, particularly in the Battle of Badr. "To ensure that the prisoners were kept in custody safely, the Prophet placed them among his troops and told his troops to treat them well. This order was carried out accordingly. They were given clothes. They were given the same food as the Muslims. Some Muslims gave them their bread rations and only ate dates. Their sole purpose was to obey the order given.” (Hamidullah, Wars of the Holy Prophet, 65-66).
Prophet Muhammad’s treatment of prisoners of war can be discussed under the following headings:
Release in exchange for Ransom
This practice occurred in the Battle of Badr. The idolaters left the battleground having had seventy soldiers killed and seventy taken prisoner; this was the first victory for the Muslims. The prisoners of war were taken to Medina and they were treated well. Prophet Muhammad ordered: “Treat the prisoners well.” The wealthy prisoners were released in exchange for ransom. Prisoners who were not well off were released for no payment. Prisoners who were educated were released on the condition that they taught Muslim children how to read and write.
The Prophet would sometimes release prisoners of war in exchange for the release of his own people who were being held by the idolaters.
Release in Exchange for Nothing
The most striking and often-practiced treatment of prisoners of war in the period of Prophet Muhammad was the release of prisoners in exchange for nothing. This treatment was practiced in the Battle of Muraysi, the Conquest of Mecca and the Battle of Hunayn. Nearly all the prisoners of war who were released became Muslim over time.
There is one account of prisoners being killed during a battle in the Prophet’s lifetime. This happened in the aftermath of the Battle of Badr. Among the captured prisoners in the Battle of Badr, Nadr ibn Haris and Ukba ibn Abu Muayt were killed. The reason for this is the fact that they had severely tortured Muslims during the Meccan period. These people paid the price for what they had done before.
TREATMENT OF THE DEAD AND CASUALTIES
Prophet Muhammad ordered that the dead left by the enemy on the battleground should be decently treated. He prevented the dead bodies from rotting in the open air by having them buried in pits.
Muslims not only treated prisoners of war well, but they also treated idolaters who had been wounded well, giving them the same medical treatment as the Muslim casualties.
The aim of the Prophet as a commander of the army was to perpetuate the principles of Islam and to provide and retain the necessary conditions for peace. The property and lives of civilians were not harmed during the wars that he led. Prisoners of war were treated in the best manner. Necessary treatment was given to casualties and the ill, and the dead were buried. No raids or looting was practiced before or after the war. Ignorant emotions, such as lust for personal or material gain, racism, revenge or exploitation were not seen in the battles that he led.
As a military commander Prophet Muhammad would ensure the spiritual world of his soldiers by leading them to a higher spirituality before capturing cities and castles. In the wars led by this commander there was no cruelty and his soldiers fought to eradicate such practices.