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Posted on: 06-Sep-2009
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Ethical Limits


The third thing that becomes evident from these verses is that war cannot be waged in the way of Allah by disregarding ethical limits. Moral values have to be given priority over everything in all circumstances, and, even in circumstances of war, the Almighty has not given any person the permission to breach ethical principles. The verses assert that Muslims can fight the enemy and can displace them from the city from which they themselves were displaced and that they should be killed wherever found. Muslims were allowed to take this step because of the reign of oppression and injustice let lose by the enemy and because the truth of Muhammad’s (sws) message had been made manifest to them and they deliberately denied it. However, two things must still remain in their consideration:
Firstly, Muslims should not initiate proceedings to violate anything sacred. Consequently, war is permitted near the Baytullāh and in sacred months only if the enemy takes the initiative. Muslims can in no case commence such proceedings.
Secondly, any excess committed by the enemy can be answered by the Muslims by inflicting equal damage only. They have no right to go beyond this. They can wage war, but, in no case, are they allowed to exceed the limits and commit any excesses – for the Almighty is greatly displeased by such an attitude. He only helps those who never cross the limits set by Him in any circumstances.
In the verse under discussion, both these stipulations are discussed by the Qur’an in its sublime style:
الشَّهْرُ الْحَرَامُ بِالشَّهْرِ الْحَرَامِ وَالْحُرُمَاتُ قِصَاصٌ فَمَنْ اعْتَدَى عَلَيْكُمْ فَاعْتَدُوا عَلَيْهِ بِمِثْلِ مَا اعْتَدَى عَلَيْكُمْ وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ وَاعْلَمُوا أَنَّ اللَّهَ مَعَ الْمُتَّقِينَ
A sacred month for a sacred month; [similarly] other sacred things too are subject to retaliation. Therefore, if anyone transgresses against you, you should also pay back in equal terms. Have fear of Allah and [keep in mind that] Allah is with those who remain within the bounds [stipulated by religion]. (2:194)
While explaining this verse, Amīn Ahsan Islāhī, writes:
This verse implies that fighting in the forbidden months or fighting within the boundaries of the Haram is a major sin. However, if the disbelievers disregard their sanctity, Muslims on account of qisās also have the right to strip them off the protection that these sacred entities afford them. The life of every person carries great sanctity in the eyes of the shari‘ah. However, when a person violates this sanctity and kills someone, he himself shall be deprived of the right of sanctity for his own life to avenge his own deed. Similarly, the sanctity of the forbidden months and of the Haram itself shall be upheld in all circumstances on the condition that the disbelievers also uphold it and do not oppress and tyrannize people in them. However, if they unsheathe their swords in the forbidden months and in the sacred land of Makkah, then on account of qisās, they themselves deserve to be divested of the protection these months and this land hold for them. The verse goes on to say that just as taking of qisās for the forbidden months is necessary, the qisās of other sacred entities must also be taken. In other words, if the disbelievers deprive Muslims of the right of protection that certain sacred things hold for them, Muslims too have the right as a result of qisās to pay them back in the same coin or measure. Consequently, whatever measures the disbelievers adopt in violation of the sanctity of the Haram and the forbidden months, Muslim too can retaliate – but they must fear God and retaliate on equal footings: they should neither initiate such violations nor exceed the limits while retaliating against any aggression in this regard. Only those people become worthy of Divine Help who are fearful of the Almighty in all circumstances.[1]
The most important directive that has been spelled out in the sphere of ethical limits is the fulfilment of promises. Breaking a promise is a great sin in the eyes of the Almighty. He has made it amply clear to the Muslims that in both forms of qitāl (armed warfare) – that is against injustice and oppression and against the rejecters of truth after the truth has become evident to them – Muslims must not break any treaty contracted with a nation. Sūrah Tawbahis the sūrah that announced punishment for those who deliberately rejected Muhammad (sws) and his message. In this sūrah, the Prophet (sws) has been directed to declare null and void all pacts and treaties and embark upon a final assault against the disbelievers; however, it is explicitly stated in the sūrah (9:4) that all treaties that have been concluded with a time frame must continue till the time period is over. Similarly, in Sūrah Anfāl, Muslims are emphatically told that even if a nation, with which Muslims are under obligation of a contract, is guilty of oppressing the Muslims in matters of their religion, the Islamic state does not have the right to help these Muslims if this amounts to a breach of contract made with that nation:
وَالَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَلَمْ يُهَاجَرُوا مَا لَكُمْ مِنْ وَلَايَتِهِمْ مِنْ شَيْءٍ حَتَّى يُهَاجِرُوا وَإِنْ اسْتَنصَرُوكُمْ فِي الدِّينِ فَعَلَيْكُمْ النَّصْرُ إِلَّا عَلَى قَوْمٍ بَيْنَكُمْ وَبَيْنَهُمْ مِيثَاقٌ وَاللَّهُ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ بَصِيرٌ
And to those who accepted faith but did not migrate [to Madīnah], you owe no duty of protection to them until they migrate; but if they seek your help in religion, it is your duty to help them except against a people with whom you have a treaty of mutual alliance; and Allah sees what you do. (8:72)
On a number of occasions, the Prophet (sws) stressed how dreadful a sin breach of promise is:
Abū Sa‘īd (rta) narrates from the Prophet (sws): “On the Day of Judgement, to proclaim the traitorship of a traitor and the betrayal of a person who betrayed his words, a flag shall be hoisted which would be as high as [the extent of his] traitorship”, and [the Prophet (sws) also said]: “Remember that no traitor or betrayer of promises is greater than the traitor who is the leader and ruler of people.”[2]
‘Abdullāh Ibn ‘Umar (rta) narrates that the Prophet (sws) [once] said: “A person who kills a mu‘āhid will not be able to smell [the fragrance] of Paradise, even though its fragrance can be smelt from a place as far off as forty years from it in distance.”[3]
However, if Muslims fear any foul play and breach of contract from the opposite side, they, in the words of the Qur’an, can also terminate the treaty and throw the promise on their faces on equal footings:
وَإِمَّا تَخَافَنَّ مِنْ قَوْمٍ خِيَانَةً فَانْبِذْ إِلَيْهِمْ عَلَى سَوَاءٍ إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يُحِبُّ الْخَائِنِينَ
And if you fear any treachery from a people, throw back [their covenant] to them on equal terms. Certainly, Allah does not like the treacherous. (8:58)
While commenting on this verse, Amīn Ahsan Islāhī, writes:
The words عَلَى سَوَاءٍ (‘alā sawā) mean that Muslims are authorized to pay back their enemy in the same coin. This means that the retaliation from their side must not exceed the harm inflicted upon them. Some people have deduced from these words that the nullification of a treaty should necessarily be declared openly before the other party. I do not find this deduction to be very sound as these words do not support it; however, this much can be inferred that mere speculation should not impel a party to revoke it. This should only be done after some manifest proof of its violation from the other side. The use of the intensive verb تَخَافَنَّ (takhāfanna) in the verse lays credence to this claim. Moreover, the condition of عَلَى سَوَاءٍ(‘alā sawā) also highlights this aspect.[4]
The Prophet (sws) is reported to have explained this aspect in the following words:
مَنْ كَانَ بَيْنَهُ وَبَيْنَ قَوْمٍ عَهْدٌ فَلَا يَحُلَّنَّ عَهْدًا وَلَا يَشُدَّنَّهُ حَتَّى يَمْضِيَ أَمَدُهُ أَوْ يَنْبِذَ إِلَيْهِمْ عَلَى سَوَاءٍ
If a nation concludes a treaty with some other, it should not change it in any sense until the time period of the treaty expires or if it fears some treachery from the other side. In these cases, it should throw the treaty before it by an open declaration on equal footings. (Tirmadhī, No: 1580)
Other directives which are mentioned in the Qur’an and the Hadīth in this regard are the following:
1. A display of pomp and pride should be avoided when an army sets out for a battle. In Sūrah Anfāl, where the Qur’an has asked the Muslims to spend more time in the remembrance of God when a war is at hand, it has also asked them to abstain from show and pomposity – something that is the way of people who are inebriated with the pride of their number and the resources and the arsenal they have. Such vanity and conceit are not befitting for the believers. Whether in the battlefield or outside it, the humility of servitude to the Almighty should always be their hallmark. The reason for this is that their war is not mere war – it is serving and worshipping the Almighty, and, at all instances, this fundamental aspect should be taken into account by them:
وَلَا تَكُونُوا كَالَّذِينَ خَرَجُوا مِنْ دِيَارِهِمْ بَطَرًا وَرِئَاءَ النَّاسِ وَيَصُدُّونَ عَنْ سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ وَاللَّهُ بِمَا يَعْمَلُونَ مُحِيطٌ
And be not like those who came out of their homes boastfully and displaying their grandeur and those who stopped [people] from the way of Allah even though Allah fully encompasses what they do. (8:47)
2. People who want to remain neutral in war should be left alone and not be troubled in any way. In Sūrah Nisā, the behavior of certain Muslims is referred to who, because of their timidity and frailty, were neither willing to fight the Muslims by joining hands with their own nation nor ready to join the Muslims and fight their own nation. The Almighty bade the Muslims to abstain from any action against them:
أَوْ جَاءُوكُمْ حَصِرَتْ صُدُورُهُمْ أَنْ يُقَاتِلُوكُمْ أَوْ يُقَاتِلُوا قَوْمَهُمْ وَلَوْ شَاءَ اللَّهُ لَسَلَّطَهُمْ عَلَيْكُمْ فَلَقَاتَلُوكُمْ فَإِنْ اعْتَزَلُوكُمْ فَلَمْ يُقَاتِلُوكُمْ وَأَلْقَوْا إِلَيْكُمْ السَّلَمَ فَمَا جَعَلَ اللَّهُ لَكُمْ عَلَيْهِمْ سَبِيلًا
Or those who approach you such that they neither have the courage to fight you nor their own people [and are such that] had Allah willed, indeed He would have given them power over you, and they would have fought you. So if they withdraw from you, and fight not against you, and offer you peace, then Allah does not give you permission to take any action against them. (4:90)
3. People who neither take part in a battle nor are able to take part in it – as per the dictates of custom as well as sense and reason – should not be killed. ‘Abdullāh Ibn ‘Umar (rta) reports from the Prophet (sws) that once in a battle when it became known that a woman had been killed, the Prophet (sws) emphatically forbade the killing of women and children.[5]
4. People among the enemy should not be killed by setting them ablaze. Abū Hurayrah (rta) narrates that once when the Prophet (sws) bade the Muslims to set out for a battle he named two persons and directed the Muslims to burn them if they encountered them. However, when the Muslim army was about to set out, he said: “I had asked you to set two people ablaze; the truth of the matter is that it is only Allah Who can punish someone in this manner; so if you find these two, just kill them.”[6]
5. Plundering and looting should be abstained from. ‘Abdullāh Ibn Yazīd (rta) narrates that the Prophet (sws) stopped the Muslims from snatching anything from the common people while the Muslim army marches into the enemy territory.[7] A person from the Ansār narrates that once while traveling for a Jihad, because of great compulsion, some people of the Muslim army snatched some goats to appease their hunger. When the Prophet (sws) came to know about this, he overturned all the utensils and remarked: “plundered [food] is no good than dead meat.”[8]
6. Dead bodies should not be mutilated. Barīdah narrates that among the directives the Prophet (sws) would give while sending a Muslim army would be an emphatic assertion to abstain from mutilating dead bodies and from disfiguring them.[9]
7. Setting up obstructions and robbing travelers is forbidden. Muā‘adh Ibn Anas narrates that once when he and others in the company of the Prophet (sws) embarked upon a campaign of Jihad it was observed that people had been obstructing the place where the army was to disembark and were busy robbing the passersby. When this complaint reached the Prophet (sws), he publicly announced at once that any person who obstructs the place of disembarkment and loots the passersby is in fact not doing Jihad.[10]
(Translated by Shehzad Saleem)

[1]. Amīn Ahsan Islāhī, Tadabbur-i Qur’an, 2nd ed., vol. 3 (Lahore: Faran Foundation, 1986), 479.
[2]. Muslim, No: 1738.
[3]. Bukhārī, No: 2995.
[4]. Amīn Ahsan Islāhī, Tadabbur-i Qur’an, 2nd ed., vol. 3 (Lahore: Faran Foundation, 1986), 499.
[5]. Bukhārī, No: 2852.
[6]. Bukhārī, No: 2853.
[7]. Bukhārī, No: 2342.
[8]. Abū Dā’ūd, No: 2705.
[9]. Abū Dā’ūd, No: 2613.
[10]. Abū Dā’ūd, No:2629.

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