Prisoners of war in Islam

Prisoners of war in Islam

The rules and regulations concerning prisoners of war in Islam are covered in manuals of Islamic jurisprudence, based upon Islamic teachings, in both the Qur'an and hadith.

The historical legal principles governing the treatment of prisoners of war, in shar'iah, Islamic law, (in the traditional madhabs schools of Islamic jurisprudence), was then a significant improvement over the pre-existing norms of society during Muhammad's time (see Early reforms under Islam). Men, women, and children may all be taken as prisoners of war under traditional interpretations of Islamic law. Generally, a prisoner of war could be, at the discretion of the military leader, freed, ransomed, exchanged for Muslim prisoners, or kept in bondage. [Tafsir of the Qur'an by Ibn Kathir [] ] In earlier times, the ransom sometimes took an educational dimension, where a literate prisoner of war could secure his or her freedom by teaching ten Muslims to read and write. [Ibrahim Syed, " [ Education of Muslims in Kentucky Prisons] ". Louisville: Islamic Research Foundation International] Some Muslim scholars hold that a prisoner may not be ransomed for gold or silver, but may be exchanged for Muslim prisoners. ['Abu Yusuf Ya'qub Le Livre de l'impot foncier,' translated from Arabic and annotated by Edmond Fagnan, Paris, Paul Geuthner, 1991, pages 301-302) Abu Yusuf (d. 798 CE)]


In pre-Islamic Arabia, upon capture, those captives not executed, were made to beg for their subsistence.Fact|date=May 2008 During his life, Muhammad changed this custom and made it the responsibility of the Islamic government to provide food and clothing, on a reasonable basis, to captives, regardless of their religion. If the prisoners were in the custody of a person, then the responsibility was on the individual. [Maududi (1967), "Introduction of Ad-Dahr", "Period of revelation", p. 159.]

Historically, Muslims routinely captured large number of prisoners. Aside from those who converted, most were ransomed or enslaved. [(Crone (2004), pp. 371-72)] Pasquier writes,

It was the custom to enslave prisoners of war and the Islamic state would have put itself at a grave disadvantage vis-a-vis its enemies had it not reciprocated to some extent. By guaranteeing them [male POWs] humane treatment, and various possibilities of subsequently releasing themselves, it ensured that a good number of combatants in the opposing armies preferred captivity at the hands of Muslims to death on the field of battle. [Roger DuPasquier. Unveiling Islam. Islamic Texts Society, 1992, p. 104]

According to accounts written by Muhammad's followers, after the Battle of Badr, some prisoners were executed for their earlier crimes in Mecca, but the rest were given options: They could convert to Islam and thus win their freedom; they could pay ransom and win their freedom; they could teach 10 Muslims to read and write and thus win their freedom. [Ibrahim B. Syed, " [ Education of Muslims in Kentucky Prisons] ". Louisville: Islamic Research Foundation International] William Muir wrote of this period:

:"In pursuance of Mahomet's commands the citizens of Medina and such of the refugees as possessed houses received the prisoners and treated them with much consideration. 'Blessings be on the men of Medina', said one of these prisoners in later days, 'they made us ride while they themselves walked; they gave us wheaten bread to eat when there was little of it, contenting themselves with dates." [ [ The Life of Muhammad The Prophet ] ] Verify source|date=July 2007

During his rule, Caliph Umar made it illegal to separate related prisoners of war from each other, after a captive complained to him for being separated from her daughter. [Naqvi (2000), pg. 456]

These principles were also honoured during the Crusades, as exemplified by sultans such as Saladin and al-Kamil. For example, after al-Kamil defeated the Franks during the Crusades, Oliverus Scholasticus praised the Islamic laws of war, commenting on how al-Kamil supplied the defeated Frankish army with food:citation|title=Justice Without Frontiers|first=Christopher G.|last=Judge Weeramantry|year=1997|publisher=Brill Publishers|isbn=9041102418|pages=136]

Treatment of prisoners

Upon capture, the prisoners must be guarded and not ill-treated.cite book
last = Nigosian
first = S. A.
title = Islam. Its History, Teaching, and Practices
publisher = Indiana University Press
date = 2004
location = Bloomington
pages = 115
] Islamic law holds that the prisoners must be fed and clothed, either by the Islamic government or by the individual who has custody of the prisoner. This position is supported by the verse quran-usc-range|76|8 of the Quran. The prisoners must be fed in a dignified manner, and must not be forced to beg for their subsistence. [Maududi (1967), introduction of Ad-Dahr, "Period of revelation", pg. 159] Muhammad's early followers also considered it a principle to not separate prisoners from their relatives. [Naqvi (2000), pg. 456]

After the fighting is over, prisoners are to be released, with some prospect of survival, or ransomed. The freeing or ransoming of prisoners by Muslims themselves is highly recommended as a charitable act. The Qur'an also urges kindness to captives [(Quran-usc|4|36, Quran-usc|9|60, Quran-usc|24|58)] and recommends, their liberation by purchase or manumission. The freeing of captives is recommended both for the expiation of sins [(Quran-usc|4|92, Quran-usc|5|92, Quran-usc|58|3)] and as an act of simple benevolence. [(Quran-usc|2|177, Quran-usc|24|33, Quran-usc|90|13)] [Lewis 1990, page 6. All Qur'anic citations are his.]

Women and children

Muslim scholars hold that women and children prisoners of war cannot be killed under any circumstances, regardless of their faith, [(Patricia Crone. God’s Rule: Government and Islam. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004, pp. 371-72)] but that they may be enslaved, freed or ransomed. Women who are neither freed nor ransomed by their people were to be kept in bondage and referred to as "ma malakat aymanukum" (slaves).


There has been disagreement whether adult male prisoners of war may be executed. One traditional opinion holds that executing prisoners of war is strictly forbidden; this is the most-widely accepted view, and one upheld by the Hanafi madhab. [El Fadl (2003), pg. 115]

However, the opinion of the Maliki, Shafi'i, Hanbali and Jafari madhabs is that adult male prisoners of war may be executed. [El Fadl (2003), pg. 116] Conventionally, execution was conditional on the reasonable belief that male prisoners would pose a genuine and immediate threat to the Muslim community if allowed to live. The decision for an execution is to be made by the Muslim leader. This opinion was also upheld by the Muslim judge, Sa'id bin Jubair (665-714 AD) and 'Abu Yusuf Ya'qub a classical jurist from the Hanafi school of jurispudence. ['Abu Yusuf Ya'qub Le Livre de l'impot foncier,' translated from Arabic and annotated by Edmond Fagnan, Paris, Paul Geuthner, 1991, pages 301-302) Abu Yusuf (d. 798 CE)] El Fadl argues the reason Muslim jurists adopted this position was largely because it was consistent with the war practices of the Middle Ages. [El Fadl (2003), pg. 115]

Most contemporary Muslim scholars prohibit altogether the killing of prisoners and hold that this was the policy practiced by Prophet Muhammad. [Hashmi (2003), pg. 145] The 20th century Muslim scholar, Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi states that no prisoner should be "put to the sword" in accordance with a saying of Muhammad. [Maududi (1998), p. 34 ]

Yusuf Ali, another 20th century Muslim scholar, while commenting on verse Quran-usc|9|6, writes,

Even those the enemies of Islam, actively fighting against Islam, there may be individuals who may be in a position to require protection. Full asylum is to be given to them, and opportunities provided for hearing the Word of Allah...If they do not see their way to accept Islam, they will require double protection: (1) from the Islamic forces openly fighting against their people, and (2) from their own people, as they detached themselves from them. Both kinds of protection should be ensured for them, and they should be safely escorted to a place where they can be safe. [Ali (1991), p. 498 ]

Maududi further states that Islam forbids torturing, especially by fire, and quotes Muhamad as saying, "Punishment by fire does not behoove anyone except the Master of the Fire [God] ." [Maududi (1998), p. 34 ]

ee also

*Islam and slavery
*Islamic military jurisprudence



*cite book|first=Abdullah Yusuf|last=Ali|title=The Holy Quran| publisher=King Fahd Holy Qur-an Printing Complex|location= Medina|year=1991
*cite book
last = Brockopp
first = Jonathan E.
coauthors = Hashmi, Sohail; El Fadl;
title = Islamic Ethics of Life
publisher = University of South California Press
date = 2003
location = Columbia
isbn = 1-57003-471-0


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