The Rights of Prisoners of War in Islam
by Shaykh Salman Al-Oadah
1. A prisoner of war has the right to remain on his religion and cannot be compelled to give it up. Today this principle is referred to as freedom of religion. He should merely be called to Islam without any pressure being placed upon him. Allah says: “O Prophet! Say to those who are captives in your hands: ‘If Allah finds any good in your hearts, He will give you something better than what has been taken from you and He will forgive you. For Allah is Oft Forgiving, Most Merciful.” [Sûrah al-Anfâl: 70]
We can see in this verse how prisoners of war are to be endeared to Islam and how they should be invited to accept the faith. The verse opens to them the doors of repentance. It entices them with a promise of rewards far greater than the ransom that they have had to spend on themselves. It promises them that if they embrace Islam willingly, Allah will bless them from His bounty in this world and the next and grant them forgiveness for all the wrong they had committed in the past. This verse is clear proof that they are not to be compelled to accept Islam. The Prophet (peace be upon him) and those who followed him never once forced a prisoner of war to embrace Islam.
This can clearly be seen in the story of Thamâmah b. Athâl al-Hanafi, an idolater who was captured by the Muslim army in battle and then brought to the mosque where he was restrained. The Prophet approached him respectfully and said: “What have you, O Thamâmah?”
Thamâmah replied: “Actually I have a lot going for me. If you kill me, you kill a man whose blood will surely be avenged. If you are generous, then you are generous to a man who knows how to be grateful. If you are after money, then ask of me whatever amount you like.”
The Prophet (peace be upon him) left him at this point. On the second day when he approached him, Thamâmah said basically the same thing. On the third day, the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Let Thamâmah go.” [Al-Bukhârî (4372) and Muslim (1764)]
They unbound him and let him go. He went on his way, quickly took a bath, and returned, declaring: “I bear witness that there is no God but Allah and I bear witness that you are the Messenger of Allah. O Muhammad! I swear to Allah that there was no man on the face of the Earth who I hated more than you. Now you have become to me the dearest of men. And I swear by Allah that there was no religion on Earth more loathsome to me than your religion, but now it is the most beloved to me of all religions. There was no country on Earth more despised by me than your country, yet now I love it more than any other country in the world.”
This is the effect that kindness and good conduct can have. Look at the effect it had on this man who was far from being a simpleton. He was a man of distinction, the leader of his people. Moreover, his acceptance of Islam was not an act of deception, nor did it take place under any pressure or compulsion.
2. He has the right to nourishment, enough to maintain his health. Allah says in the Qur’ân: “And they feed from what they love for themselves the indigent, the orphan, and the prisoner of war, saying: ‘We feed you for the sake of Allah. No reward do we desire from you nor thanks.” [Sûrah al-Insân: 8-9] Allah has made taking care of enemy prisoners of war an act of worship that can bring the believer closer to Allah. When Allah says: “from what they love for themselves”, He is showing us that it is not sufficient just to give them our surplus food, but to prefer them over ourselves and give them the best, even if we have a need for it ourselves.
Conversely, denying nourishment to the prisoners of war is counted as a major sin in Islam. The Prophet (peace be upon him) alluded to this when he said: “A woman was punished on account of a cat. She kept it in confinement until it died, and on account of it entered the Fire. She confined it without feeding it or giving it anything to drink. She did not let it out to eat on its own.” [Al-Bukhârî (3482) and Muslim (2242)]
Since a prisoner is unable to provide for himself, it is incumbent upon his captor to provide for him. If the punishment for abusing a cat is so great, then imagine what the punishment must be when a human being is concerned. Allah has vested the human being with a special honor. He says: “We have honored the children of Adam.” [Sûrah al-Isrâ’: 70] It is enough for us that Allah has placed the needs of enemy prisoners of war on the same level as the needs of the poor and the orphans when He says: “…the indigent, the orphan, and the prisoner of war…”, encouraging us to spend on them and treat them kindly. Such good conduct can be the cause of their being guided, as was the case with Thamâmah.
3. He has a right to be clothed in dignity in a manner that is appropriate to his social status. Jâbir relates: “After the Battle of Badr, prisoners of war were brought. Among them was al-`Abbâs. He did not have a shirt on, so the Prophet (peace be upon him) looked for a shirt for him. It turned out that a shirt of `Abd Allah b. `Ubayy was the right size, so the Prophet gave it to al-`Abbâs to wear and compensated `Abdullah with his own shirt.” [Al-Bukhârî (3008)] From this, we can see how Islam guarantees prisoners of war the right to decent clothes.
4. He has a right to decent lodgings, whether they are in a prison cell, a mosque, or even a private home. During the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him) there were no formal prisons. Sometimes a prisoner would be kept in the mosque, and sometimes they would be distributed among the believers to be kept in their homes.
Once the Prophet (peace be upon him) brought a prisoner of war to his own home and left that prisoner under the supervision of `Â’ishah. There were women with her who distracted her attention and the prisoner got up and left. When the Prophet (peace be upon him) returned home and asked her where the prisoner was, she replied that the women who were with her kept her distracted. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said to her: “May Allah smite your hand!” and left to dispatch someone to pursue the prisoner.
When the prisoner was apprehended, the Prophet (peace be upon him) returned home with him and saw `Â’ishah sitting with her hands out. He asked her why she was doing that, and she said: “You invoked Allah to smite my hands, so I am waiting for it to happen.”
The Prophet said: “Have you gone mad?” Then he raised his hand and prayed to Allah, saying: “Turn my invocation against this one into a form of expiation for her and a purification.” [Sunan al-Bayhaqî: 9/89; al-Dhahabî declared its chain of transmission to be good.]
Ibn Kathir, in his historical work al-Bidâyah wa al-Nihâyah, mentions that the Prophet (peace be upon him) distributed the prisoners from the Battle of Badr between his Companions (5/191).
The Prophet (peace be upon him) would free the prisoners of war who knew how to read and write in exchange for their teaching the children of Madinah how to do so. Such a prisoner would obviously have to be free to move about and not tied up. The only reason for restraining a prisoner is to keep him from running away. If preventing him from fleeing can be achieved without tying him up, then there is no need to bind him.
5. When families are taken together as prisoners of war, they have a right not to be separated. A mother should not be separated from her child, nor should that child be separated from its father. Brothers should not be separated either. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said regarding captives: “Whoever separates a mother from her child will be separated from his own loved ones on the Day of Judgment.” [Ahmad (23499), al-Tirmidhî (1283), Ibn Mâjah (2250) and Abû Dâwûd (2696). Al-Tirmidhî declares it good but unusual.] For this reason, the Companions and the people of knowledge who came after them loathed separating parents from children among the war captives.
Al-Dârimî relates that Abû Ayyûb al-Ansârî was in an army and inadvertently separated a mother from her two children. When he saw them crying, he quickly returned them to their mother, declaring: “The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: ‘Whoever separates a mother from her child will be separated from his own loved ones on the Day of Judgment.'” Look at how much mercy, compassion, and justice was employed by the Muslims during war in keeping family members together whom they taken captive.
6. Prisoners of war have a right not to be subjected to any abuse or torture. They cannot be abused on account of the fact that they were fighting against us. Islamic Law does not command us to punish them for this reason. Prisoners of war were never subjected to punishments by the Muslims during the early generations of Muslims when Islam was strong and put into practice.
This follows logically from the fact that Muslims are commanded to treat prisoners of war kindly and hospitably. They must feed them, clothe them, and keep their family members together. Abuse is diametrically opposed to what is demanded of us.
An exception is made where it is known that a prisoner is hiding something. Then it is permissible to punish him in a restrained matter to extract information from him. Such punishment, however, should never reach the level of outright torture and must not have any affect on his health.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) fought against the people of Khaybar until they were forced to retreat to their castle. The Muslims had total control of their land and their farms, and their plantations. The Muslims arrived at a settlement with the people of Khaybar that they would be allowed to depart from their land taking with them whatever they could carry but leaving behind all their gold and silver for Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him). A condition was placed upon them that they could not hide anything or try to smuggle out any gold or silver. If they did so, then their covenant would be broken.
They concealed a purse containing wealth and jewelry belonging to Hayy b. Akhtab which he had brought to Khaybar when the tribe of al-Nadîr was driven out. The Prophet (peace be upon him) asked Hayy’s uncle what happened to Hayy’s purse that he brought with him from al-Nadîr. His uncle replied that all the wealth was used up in personal expenses and the war effort. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “The time was too short and the money was much more than that.”
The Prophet then handed him over to al-Zubayr who began to inflict punishment upon him in a non-serious manner until he said: “I saw Hayy going about in the ruins.” They searched through the ruins and found the purse. [Sunan al-Bayhaqî (9/137). Ibn Hajar, in Fath al-Bârî, says that its narrators are reliable.]
The only prisoners of war who were ever executed by the Prophet (peace be upon him) were people who already had a sentence of death passed upon them for crimes they had previously committed against the Muslims.
When the great jurist, Mâlik, was asked whether it was permissible to torture a prisoner of war to extract from him information about the enemy’s weaknesses, he said that he had never heard of such a thing.
Many of the scholars of the past loathed the idea of killing prisoners of war. Throughout all of the wars and battles that the Prophet (peace be upon him) waged, he killed very few prisoners of war. These were all among the worst criminals among the enemy who had previously engaged in atrocities against the Muslims. Many of them would today be called war criminals.
When word of the advance of Abû Sufyân’s forces reached Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him), his Companions captured a slave belonging to the enemy. They asked him the whereabouts of Abû Sufyân and his forces. The slave replied: “I know nothing about Abu Sufyân, but Abu Jahl, `Utbah, Shayibah, and Umayyah b. Khalaf are there.” When he said this, they beat him until he said: ” I will tell you about Abu Sufyan.” However, when they stopped beating him, he again said: ” I know nothing about Abu Sufyân, but Abu Jahl, `Utbah, Shayibah, and Umayyah b. Khalaf are there.” When he said this, they beat to beat him again. The Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) had been praying. When he saw what they were doing, he stopped praying and said: “I swear by Allah in whose hand is my soul! You beat him when he tells you the truth and let him go when he lies to you!”
This is clear proof that it is wrong to aggress against prisoners of war. They should not be punished except for crimes that they commit.
In consideration of the rights that we have mentioned, it follows that they should have appropriate medical care and have all their needs taken care of that falls under the idea of good treatment. None of them should ever be treated unjustly with respect to his person, his family, or his wealth.
By Shaykh Salman Al-Oadah
see related articles:
- How are prisoners of war treated in Islam?
- The Rights of Prisoners of War in Islam
- Islam’s Stance on Prisoners of War