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ISIL & Islamic Ethics of War

Editor’s Note: This article is taken, with minor modifications, from the Open Letter addressed by more than 100 scholars, intellectuals and activists to the leader and fighters of the so-called “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant”.



The rules of conduct of jihad are summarized in the words of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him): “Wage war but… do not be treacherous, do not mutilate or kill children …[1]

The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) also said on the day of the Conquest of Makkah:

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Those retreating are not to be killed, nor are the injured to be killed, and whoever shuts his door is safe”[2].

Similarly, when Abu Bakr Al-Siddiq (may Allah be pleased with him) prepared an army and sent it to the Levant, he said:

You will find people who have devoted themselves to monasteries, leave them to their devotions.

You will also find others whose heads are seats for devils (i.e. armed deacons[3]), so strike their necks.

However, do not kill the old and decrepit, women or children; do not destroy buildings; do not cut down trees or harm livestock without good cause; do not burn or drown palms; do not be treacherous; do not mutilate; do not be cowardly…

And truly God will support those who support Him and His Messengers while not seeing Him. Truly, God is Strong, Mighty[4].

As for killing prisoners, it is forbidden in Islamic Law. Yet you have killed many prisoners including the 1700 captives at Camp Speicher in Tikrit in June, 2014; the 200 captives at the Sha’er gas field in July, 2014; the 700 captives of the Sha’etat tribe in Deir el-Zor (600 of whom were unarmed civilians); the 250 captives at the Tabqah air base in Al-Raqqah in August, 2014; Kurdish and Lebanese soldiers, and many untold others whom God knows. These are heinous war crimes.

If you claim that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) killed some captives in some battles, then the answer is that he only ordered that two captives be killed at the Battle of Badr: `Uqbah ibn Abi Mu’ayt and Nadr ibn Al-Harith. They were leaders of war and war criminals, and the execution of war criminals is permissible if the ruler orders it. This is also what Saladin did upon conquering Jerusalem, and what the Allies did during the Nuremberg trials after World War II. As for the tens of thousands of captives that fell under the jurisdiction of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) over a span of ten years and 29 battles, he did not execute a single regular soldier; rather, he entrusted that they be treated with kindness[5].

The Divine Decree regarding captives and prisoners of war is in God’s words: {…Thereafter either [set them free] by grace or by ransom …} (Muhammad, 47: 4). God Almighty commanded that captives and prisoners of war be treated with dignity and respect: {And they give food, despite [their] love of it to the needy, and the orphan, and the prisoner.} (Al-Insan 76: 8).

Indeed, the true Sunnah of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) regarding captives is pardon and amnesty, as was demonstrated during the Conquest of Makkah when the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “I say as my brother Joseph said: “There shall be no reproach on you this day”. Go, for you are free![6]

Finally, one of the most important principles when it comes to the manner of jihad is that only combatants may be killed; their families and non-combatants may not be killed intentionally. If you ask about the instance when the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was asked about bystanders and women being killed with idolaters and he said: “They are from them[7], this Hadith refers to the killing of innocents by accident and in no way indicates that the intentional killing of innocents—such as in bombings—is permitted. As for God’s words: {… and be harsh with them …} (At-Tawbah 9: 73); and: {… and let them find harshness in you …} (At-Tawbah 9: 123), this is during war, not after it.


[1] Narrated by Muslim in Kitab al-Jihad, no. 1731, and by Al-Tirmidhi in Kitab al-Diyyat, no. 1408.

[2] Narrated by Ibn Abi Shayba in Al-Musannaf (Vol. 6, p. 498).

[3] The deacons were armed, combatant priests.

[4] Narrated by Al-Bayhaqi in Al-Sunan Al-Kubra, (Vol. 9, p. 90), and by Al-Marwazi in Musnad Abi Bakr, no. 21.

[5] Narrated by Ibn Abdullah in Al-Isti’ab (Vol. 2, p. 812), and by Al-Qurtubi in his Tafsir (Vol. 19, p. 129): ‘Qatada said: “God ordered that prisoners be treated well.”’

[6] Narrated by Al-Bayhaqi in Al-Sunan Al-Kubra, (Vol. 9, p. 118); Cf Fayd Al-Qadeer Sharh al-Jami’ al-Sagheer, (Vol. 5, p. 171).

[7] Narrated by Muslim in Kitab al-Jihad, no. 1745.