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Still Standing for Islam - and against Terrorism (Continued) By: Mustafa Akyol
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, October 08, 2004

Muslim Jurists on POWs and Non-Combatants

Mr. Bostom quotes several Islamic jurists to show that killing of non-combatants and POWs are justified in Islam. We should be wary of the fact that the Muslim jurists, who gave permission for the killing of POWs, and some of whom are quoted by Mr. Bostom, always referred to the Bani Qurayza incident. Ibn Kathir, the author of one of most respected tafsirs (Koranic commentaries) explain that,

The majority of the scholars say that the matter of prisoners of war is up to the Imam. If he decides, he can have them killed, such as in the case of Bani Qurayzah. If he decides, he can accept a ransom for them, as in the case of the prisoners of Badr, or exchange them for Muslim prisoners.[i]

However, as I explained above, while the sparing of POWs in Badr is evident in the Koran, the killing of Bani Qurayza is not, and its authenticity is highly suspect. Thus, from a purely Koranic — one could say, Sola Scriptura — point of view, there is no justification for killing POWs. That is what I have been arguing in my recent articles on the issue, and what I still maintain.


Moreover, even if one takes the Bani Qurayza at face value, still it doesn't justify indiscriminate killing, because this Jewish tribe in question was much different from ordinary prisoners of war. They were living in Medina and had an alliance with the Muslims there. When the pagan army from Mecca besieged the city, however, they secretly collaborated with them--an act of treason that could well lead to the annihilation of all Muslims. One can reason that their attack against Islam was crueler than the pagans.


This unique situation is why some Muslim jurists, who allowed the killing of POWs by referring to the Qurayza incident, emphasized that only such cruel foes deserve that punishment. For example, Abu Yusuf, as quoted by Mr. Bostom, writes "one can kill prisoners who might prove dangerous to the Muslims." (Such as Saladin's execution of Reynauld de Chatillon and Templars, while sparing many other ordinary POWs.) It is evident that such considerations can not legitimize the killing of women, children, and recently kidnapped individuals in Iraq who would not even dream of "being dangerous to Muslims."


Mr. Bostom also quotes jurists who opined on issues like the usage of catapults against fortresses that include civilians. That was actually a debate on "collateral damage," and with our recent memories of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that should not seem so unusual even to modern minds. In fact, the very existence of such debates on catapults indicate the concern for non-combatants in traditional Islamic law. Bernard Lewis confirms this and explains that,

Fighters in jihad are enjoined not to kill women, children, and the aged unless they attack first, not to torture of mutilate prisoners, to give fair warning of the resumption of hostilities after a truce, and to honor agreements. The medieval jurists and theologians discuss at some length the rules of warfare, including questions such as which weapons are permitted and which are not. There is even some discussion in medieval texts of the lawfulness of missile and chemical warfare, the one relating to mangonels and catapults, the other to poison-tipped arrows and the poisoning of enemy water supplies. Some jurists permit, some restrict, some disapprove of the use of these weapons. The stated reason for concern is the indiscriminate casualties that they inflict. At no point do the basic texts of Islam enjoin terrorism and murder. At no point — as far as I am aware — do they even consider the random slaughter of uninvolved bystanders.[ii]

There is also a much neglected truth about classic Muslim jurists: in some cases, they were forced by the secular authorities to give religious permission to their planned conquests or attacks. It is well known that 11th century Shafi jurist al-Mawardi was imprisoned because he did not condone the plan of the Abbasid leader to break a truce with the Byzantines, without prior notice. The political leadership and army would often press the jurists to give laxer rulings on the laws of combat — a fact that raises questions about the legitimacy of those rulings. According to UCLA professor Khaled Abou el Fadl: "The army would tell the jurists 'Give us this or that ruling, or the enemy will come for you and all your dear books will go up in flames.' "[iii]


As a result, as pointed out by Rashid Rida, a reformist Muslim of the early 20th century, "men of learning (ulama), who were charged with the responsibility for maintaining the sharia, became corrupted through compromise with temporal authority (sulta) and consequently often lent themselves to the support of tyrants"[iv]


Still, many jurists stood against the exploitation of Islamic principles for tyranny or worldly profits. Bernard Lewis tells that a common concern among Muslim jurists was the corrupt Muslims who tried to justify their plunders by exploiting the concept of jihad:

The jihad, to have any validity, must be waged "in the path of God" and not for the sake of material gain. There are, however, frequent complaints of the misuse of the honorable name of jihad for dishonorable purposes. African jurists in particular lament the use of the term jihad by slave raiders to justify their depredations and establish legal ownership of their victims.[v]

Actually, Bernard Lewis points to a crucial fact. Many "Muslims" indeed carried out quite secular campaigns on non-Muslims and labeled them as jihads simply for fake legitimacy in the eyes of other Muslims.


And most of the horrible episodes that Mr. Bostom presents us as the proofs of the supposed violence of Islam would fall into that category.


To see how, let's take a closer look at history.


The Early Expansion of Islam


Mr. Bostom and other critics of the Islamic faith continually tell us about how "Islam" spread around the world and conquered territories extending from Spain into India. Yet, the historical reality was not that monolithic. Instead of a single "Islam" spreading all around, we find a very diverse history of Islamic civilization, made up of many different states, empires, emirates, dynasties, renegades and sects who strived to expand their territories sometimes for the sake of Islam, but most of the time for the sake of their worldly interests. The internal bloody conflicts and wars among them also testify to this complex historical reality.


Thus, to judge the Islamic faith within these diverse historical events, we should first of all consider the conquests which were really driven by a passion to serve Islam. The most prominent examples would be, of course, the wars of Prophet Muhammad and, after those, the conquests of the four "rightly guided" caliphs.


The conquests of these four "rightly guided" caliphs, especially of Caliph Omar, were directed to the Byzantine and Persian ruled Middle East.


Most of these conquests were not bloody excursions, they were more like liberation wars. The peoples of both empires were hardly happy with their sovereigns. That's why most of them welcomed the advent of Islam. Franco Cardini, Professor of Medieval History at the University of Florence and one of the most prominent historians of Italy, in his book Europe and Islam, confirms the above view:

The expansion of Islam never resembled an inexorable military conquest, much less a Völkerwanderung [migration of peoples]. It was in fact a continuous, not always consistent process of conversion, imposed although seldom provoked, of groups belonging to exhausted or crisis-ridden societies — for example the Monophysite Christians of Syria and Egypt, harshly treated by the basileus of Byzantium, or the subjects of the Sassanian emperor; these people were eager to shake off aged, ossified forms of authority and to find a new identity with a new catalysing agent, in this case submission to the Word of God, as propagated by his rasul, Mohammed. Many nevertheless preferred to remain loyal to their own faith . . . They thereby demonstrated, incidentally, their opinion of government by the infidel as being preferable to government by their co-religionists.

Thomas Brown, historian at the University of Edinburgh, agrees: "Coptic- and Aramaic-speaking Monophysites in Egypt and Syria saw their Arab fellow Semites as deliverers from Greek tax-gatherers and orthodox persecutors" and the early Islamic Empire under Umayyads (661-750) was for them "a regime which resembled a benign protectorate rather than an empire."[vi]


Francis E. Peters, in his article on "The Early Muslim Empires," writes, "The conquests destroyed little: what they did suppress were imperial rivalries and sectarian bloodletting among the newly subjected population."[vii]


Franco Cardini writes that this pattern holds in further conquests of Islam, such as the ones over North Africa and Spain:

All those who were dissatisfied with the heavy yoke of Byzantine rule, from Jews to heterodox Christians, joined forces with the Arabs. This time, an element of passionate religious enthusiasm had found its way into the attacking armies, and many Christians converted to Islam. The inexorable driving force, therefore, behind the Islamic conquests in Syria, Anatolia, North Africa and Spain could be said to have been conversion.[viii]

In contrast, Mr. Bostom's article presents us a history of Islam from which blood is dripping through every spot. He manages this by picking exclusively the many different bloody episodes in the history of Islamic civilization. The fair thing to do, however, is not to collect episodes of violence and neglect others, but to see the whole picture. And Norman Cantor, professor of history, sociology and comparative literature at New York University, tells us about the general picture of Islam:

The old myth that the Arabs burst forth with the sword in one hand and the Koran in the other, offering the Mediterranean peoples either conversion or death, has long been discredited. In fact, the Arabs tolerated the religious practices of the Christians and Jews they conquered, only placing a head tax and limitation of political rights on those who would not recognize Mohammed as the Prophet of Allah . . . [ix]

That very issue of Islamic tolerance, however, is under attack by Mr. Bostom and especially by his colleague, Bat Ye'or. Mrs. Ye'or is famous for her strong criticisms of the status of non-Muslims in classic Muslim states. But in most of her writings, Mrs. Ye-or uses an anachronistic method. She compares the dhimmi ("protected peoples") status of Jews and Christians in medieval Islamic empires with the human rights of the modern world.


A fairer approach would be to compare each historical episode with its contemporaries and when we do that, the Islamic civilization has a better record than that of the West. "By medieval standards," says Hugh Goddard, historian and theologian at Nottingham University:

 . . . the Muslim treatment of Jews and Christians was relatively tolerant and liberal, though it was clearly, by modern standards, still discriminatory to some extent. Comparisons can only fairly be made with other medieval societies, and on this basis the Muslim world scores extremely well."[x]

Of course, trying to establish dhimmitude in today's world would be a gross error that would deserve some of the criticisms of Mrs. Ye'or. But she should not compromise her objectivity as a historian for such a political concern.


Corsair Plunders or Jihad Campaigns?


If it is a myth that Muslims "burst forth with the sword in one hand and the Koran in the other", then what about all the bloody "jihad campaigns" that Mr. Bostom devotedly tells us about?


Before examining each case, we must get a general picture of what we are dealing with. Mr. Bostom's favorite method is to find some horrible massacre committed by some Muslims of any kind and then to label it as "jihad capture" or "jihad campaign." However, to define an action as jihad, we must be confident that it was carried out for religious motives. On the other hand, there of course were many kinds of "Muslims" who looted and pillaged simply for profit and other worldly gains.


For example, Mr. Bostom writes about "the jihad capture and pillage of Thessaloniki in 904" and quotes an account of the horrible massacre perpetrated on the city which deserves every kind of denouncement. There is a little catch, however: Mr. Bostom fails to tell us that the city was sacked not by a regular Muslim army leading a jihad, but by Muslim corsairs! It is well known that Thessaloniki was plundered by a group of pirates led by Leo of Tripoli, who was a Greek convert to Islam, but whose full-time job was pirating ships all over the Mediterranean. 


In his book, Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination, historian John V. Tolan tells that neither the sacking of Thessaloniki nor other attacks and  plunders around the Mediterranean, had any religious motive:

In the 720s and 730s Arab and Berber forces fought and raided north of the Pyrenees, well into what is now France. Over the course of the next several centuries, Arab navies based in Spain and North Africa conquered most of the major islands of the Western Mediterranean... These incursions were not a unified effort to conquer Europe. The Muslim world was increasingly fragmented, both politically and religiously, and these raids by pirates and fortune-seekers were the fruits of individual ambition and greed, not of a coordinated Muslim expansion.[xi]

We will see how other wars of individual ambition and greed are labeled as "jihad campaigns" by Mr. Bostom.


The Conquests Against Byzantium


But before that, we should deal with the very early Islamic conquests in Syria, Iraq and Egypt which were carried out during the reign of the four "rightly guided caliphs" and were very much linked with the doctrine of jihad.


And that doctrine was humane according to the norms of the day, both in theory and practice. As I noted before, Muslim conquest into the Middle East was somewhat a liberation for unorthodox Christians and Jews, who had been persecuted by Byzantium. That is why some of these communities welcomed and even helped Muslim armies. For example, in Damascus, as historian Martin Sicker writes,  "with the help of a disgruntled Christian bishop who was probably a persecuted Monophysite, the gates of the city were opened and the Byzantine governor soon surrendered on the basis of the following rather generous terms offered by Khalid"[xii] the Muslim commander. Khalid's terms were as follows:

“In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful. This is what Khalid ibn-al-Walid would grant to the inhabitants of Damascus if he enters therein: he promises to give them security for their lives, property and churches. Their city wall shall not be demolished, neither shall any Moslem be quartered in their houses. Thereunto we give to them the pact of Allah and the protection of His Prophet, the caliphs and the believers. So long as they pay the poll tax, nothing but good shall befall them.”[xiii]

Khalid kept his word. So, some fifteen years after the taking of Damascus, we find the great church at Damascus being used both by Christians and by Muslims at the same time.  That is why a Nestorian bishop wrote, "These Arabs, to whom God has given in our time the dominion. . . fight not against the Christian religion; nay, rather they defend our faith, they revere our priests and saints, and they make gifts to our churches and monasteries."[xiv]


The Islamic war was against Byzantium, not against Christianity. Muslims were stern in this war, but also careful not to "transgress limits" (Koran, 2:190) such as killing non-combatants. Walter E. Kaegi, professor of history from the University of Chicago, in his meticulous work, Byzantium and the Early Islamic Conquests, gives us a fair picture of Islamic wars while discussing the conquest of Gaza by the Muslim army:

Gaza did not finally surrender to the Muslims until August or September of 637. At that time 'Amr gave security to its civilian inhabitants, but not to its soldiers. They were removed to Eleutheropolis and then to Jerusalem, where they were executed after refusing to abjure Christianity. At least some of them had wives and children, all of whom were spared...  Their execution appears to have been exceptional. It is possible that the severity of their fate, although not inconsistent with Islamic law, which was then only in the process of developing, may have been exacerbated by their prolonged resistance at Gaza. But in particular... they may have been executed because of the continuing anger of 'Amr at Gaza ant its officers because of their leader's attempt to murder him and other Muslim envoys during a parley early in the conquests.[xv]

Kaegi also notes that "The unsuccessful tricky negotiations between the commander of the Byzantine troops at Gaza and 'Amr... may have led to the execution of these Byzantine soldiers in 637." This points out to the fact that killings of POWs was not the Islamic norm, but was done in exceptional cases. It was also linked with also military considerations. In the battle of Yarmuk, the greatest encounter between Byzantium and Islam in the 7th century, Byzantine soldiers were killed on the battlefield to secure the Islamic victory, but soldiers who escaped from the battlefield were later captured, but not killed.[xvi]


When we look at the conquest of Egypt and North Africa, however, the picture changes. The historical record tells us about Muslim armies that killed indiscriminately, sparing neither women nor children. A curious fact, however, is that these accounts of horrible Muslim violence is based on the writings of a single historian, John of Nikiu. The violent episodes of killing innocents that Mr. Bostom mentions, such as the campaigns against Fayyum and Nikiu (a.k.a. Nikiou) in the mid-7th century are based on the writings of John of Nikiu.


However, some historians doubt the accuracy of this man. In a work that deals with Egyptian resistance to invaders, historian Samuel K. Eddy describes John of Nikiu's writings about the horrific episodes of the Persian conquest as "the realm of pure phantasy." According to Eddy, the "horror tales" such as the ones told by John of Nikiu, "show how neurotic and unrealistic Egyptian hatred of alien conquest was. Foreigners, as Ipuwer had said, were not even people."[xvii]

One might suspect that the same attitude could have influenced John of Nikiu's accounts on the Islamic conquest of Egypt.


Even if we take those accounts at face value, we should note that killings of non-combatants have no explanation but being deviations from the Islamic norm. On the killing of enemy soldiers, we should recognize that the Byzantine — thus Christian — behavior was not different. When Alexandria was retaken by the Byzantine navy, "The Arabian garrison of 1000 men was slaughtered." Then Muslims regained the city and, this time, "the Byzantines suffered a heavy slaughter." Violence was a bitter reality of the day, not necessarily a jihadist practice.[xviii]




To continue reading this article, click here.

[i] Tafsir Ibn Kathir. Available online.

[ii] Bernard Lewis, Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2003 p. 30

[iii] Erik Schechter, "In the name of the Koran", The Jerusalem Post, Sep. 11, 2003

[iv] Dale F. Eickelman & James Piscatori, Muslim Politics, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1996, p. 31

[v] [v] Bernard Lewis, Crisis of Islam, p. 31

[vi] Thomas Brown, "The Transformation of The Roman Mediterranean", in The Oxford History of Medieval Europe, George Holmes, ed. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1988, pp. 11, 12

[vii] Francis E. Peters, "The Early Muslim Empires: Umayyads, Abbasids, Fatimids," in Islam: The Religious and Political Life of a World Community, Marjorie Kelly, ed. Prager Books, New York, 1984, p. 79

[viii] Franco Cardini, Europe and Islam (translated by Caroline Beamish), Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 2001 p. 52

[ix] Norman Cantor, Civilization of the Middle Ages, HarperCollins, New York, 1994, p. 133

[x] Hugh Goddard, A History of Christian-Muslim Relations, Chicago: New Amsterdam Books, Ivan R. Dee, 2001,, p. 68

[xi] John V. Tolan, Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination, Columbia University Press, New York, 2002. p. 71

[xii] Martin Sicker, The Islamic World in Ascendancy: From the Arab Conquests to the Siege of Vienna, Praeger, Westport, CT., 2000, p. 12

[xiii] Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs, p. 130, quoted in Martin Sicker, The Islamic World in Ascendancy: From the Arab Conquests to the Siege of Vienna, Praeger, Westport, CT., 2000, p. 12

[xiv] De Goeje's Conquête de la Syrie, p. 84, in P.M. Fraser (ed), The Arab Conquest of Egypt And the Last Thirty Years of the Roman Dominion, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, New York, 1978, p. 159

[xv] Walter E. Kaegi, Byzantium and the Early Islamic Conquests, Cambrigde University Press, Cambrigde, 1992,  p. 95-96

[xvi] Walter E. Kaegi, Byzantium and the Early Islamic Conquests,  p. 136

[xvii] Samuel K. Eddy, The King Is Dead: Studies in the Near Eastern Resistance to Hellenism, 334-31 B. C., University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 1961, p. 263.

[xviii] Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs: From the Earliest Times to the Present, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1951, p. 166

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