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Jihad Killings of POWs and Non-Combatants By: Andrew G. Bostom
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, September 09, 2004

The spectacle of jihad terrorism on display in Beslan, Russia, culminating September 3, 2004, with  the murder of at least 350 innocent Russian non-combatants, including 156 children - highlights an ongoing debate about the links between such bestial acts, and the core theological and juridical teachings of Islamic jihad. 


In two recent articles, the latter responding to a rebuttal by Andrew McCarthy, based largely on an earlier essay of my own, Mustafa Akyol has attempted to demonstrate that the killing of prisoners of war and non-combatants violates “Islamic principles”. Despite Mr. Akyol’s interesting discussion and noble intentions, his omission of voluminous evidence amounts to yet more stifling apologetics. Akyol’s arguments, which ignore a vast array of writings, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, regarding Islamic sacred texts, law, and history, undermine his own stated goal of reform.  The crux of Mr. Akyol’s thesis, is reiterated at the outset:  

…my position — that killing noncombatants or captives is against Islamic principles — still holds.”  

Robert Spencer has posted a very lucid summary analysis of the flaws in Akyol’s essays, focusing on sacred texts from the Koran and hadith. I will review some of the enormous amount of evidence indicating that Akyol’s thesis is untenable when one studies the uniquely Islamic institution of  jihad war from an historical perspective, based on both primary and secondary sources.  

Akyol begins with a novel example of jihad, as “…an intellectual endeavor against atheism…”, before acknowledging that there is “also [emphasis added] military jihad in the Koran”, which we nevertheless need to  “redefine”. A specific Koranic source for this non-military campaign against atheism is not provided, nor, importantly, does Akyol discuss what follows if the non-military jihad fails to persuade the atheist. Regardless, Akyol should not have ignored an unequivocal Koranic verse-Q.9:5, which states that all infidels (“atheists” certainly included), other than “People of the Book” (the latter, i.e, Jews and Christians, are referred to in Q.9:29, a verse also omitted by Akyol), must accept the call to Islam, or face the sword. Indeed, Akyol omits any discussion of Sura (chapter) 9, which Richard Bell, in his authoritative1937 translation and exegesis of the Koran,  demonstrates “…is a chapter of war proclamations…”, verses Q.9.29 to Q.9-35, for example, being


“…in effect a proclamation of war against Jews and Christians, and probably belong to the year IX [9-years after the Hijra] when an expedition was designed for the North which would involve war with Christians and possibly also with Jews.” 1


Moreover in classical exegesis, sura 9, both its individual verses, and as an overall chapter, abrogates the pacific Koranic verses like those Akyol cites in his article section subtitled, Discovering the Good Unbelievers. Ibn Warraq summarizes the Muslim concept of abrogation:


Contradictions do abound in the Koran, and the early Muslims were perfectly well aware of them;  indeed they devised the science of abrogation to deal with them. It is a very convenient doctrine that, as one Christian unkindly put it, ‘fell in with that law of expediency which appears to be the salient feature in Muhammad’s prophetic career’. According to this doctrine, certain passages of the Koran are abrogated by verses revealed afterward, with a different or contrary meaning. This was supposedly taught by Muhammad himself, at Sura 2, verse 105: 'Whatever verses we cancel or cause you to forget, we bring a better or its like.' …Now we can see how useful and convenient the doctrine of abrogation is in bailing scholars out of difficulties- though, of course, it does pose problems for apologists of Islam, since all the passages preaching tolerance are found in Meccan (i.e., early suras), and all the passages recommending killing, decapitating and maiming, the so-called Sword Verses are Medinan (i.e., later); ‘tolerance’ has been abrogated by ‘intolerance’.  For , the famous Sword verse, Sura 9, verse 5, 'Slay the idolators wherever you find them,' is claimed to have canceled 124 verses that promote tolerance and patience.” 2


Writing over six decades ago, Arthur Jeffery belittled as “the sheerest sophistry” attempts


“..made in some circles in modern days to explain away all the Prophet’s warlike expeditions as defensive wars or to interpret the doctrine of Jihad as merely a bloodless striving in missionary zeal for the spread of Islam…The early Arabic sources quite plainly and frankly describe the expeditions as military expeditions, and it would never have occurred to anyone at that day to interpret them as anything else…To the folk of his day there would thus be nothing strange in Muhammad, as the head of the community of those who served Allah, taking the sword to extend the kingdom of Allah, and taking measures to insure the subjection of all who lived within the borders of what he made the kingdom of Allah...[Muhammad] did at least propose that all Arabia should be the land of Allah and planned vigorous measures to insure that within its borders the religion of Allah should be supreme. Communities of the People of the Book [Book= Bible; thus referring primarily to Jews and Christians] might remain within the land, but they must be in subjection….deriving their rights from the supreme Muslim community, not from any recognized rights of their own. As the Arabs did not accept this without struggle, it had to be forced on them, and that meant war. But war in the cause of Allah is Holy War, and so even in the Prophet’s lifetime we have the question of Jihad…” 3

Within several centuries of Muhammad’s death, Muslim theologians and jurists, Sunni (including all four main schools of jurisprudence), Shi’ite, and Sufi (both Sunni and Shi’ite), constructed from Koranic verses, the hadith collections, and the sacralized biographies (sira) of Muhammad,  a remarkably consistent body of law describing jihad war as a permanent institution to Islamize the known world. Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), jurist (Maliki), renowned philosopher, historian, and sociologist, summarized these consensus opinions from five centuries of prior Muslim jurisprudence with regard to the uniquely Islamic institution of jihad war:

“In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the [Muslim] mission and [the obligation to] convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force... The other religious groups did not have a universal mission, and the holy war was not a religious duty for them, save only for purposes of defense... Islam is under obligation to gain power over other nations.” 4

Acknowledging the existence of jihad war, although minimizing its centrality to Islam, past and present [as discussed at length here, and here], Akyol then proceeds to offer his own exegesis of two verses that address jihad captives, Q.8:67/68 and Q.47:4.

[The verses in the respected English translation of British Muslim Marmeduke Pickthal, read as follows- Q.47:4: “Now when ye meet in battle those who disbelieve, then it is smiting of the necks until, when ye have routed them, then making fast of bonds; and afterward either grace or ransom till the war lay down its burdens. That (is the ordinance). And if Allah willed He could have punished them (without you) but (thus it is ordained) that He may try some of you by means of others. And those who are slain in the way of Allah, He rendereth not their actions vain.” Q.8:67: “It is not for any prophet to have captives until he hath made slaughter in the land. Ye desire the lure of this world and Allah desireth (for you) the Hereafter, and Allah is Mighty, Wise.”]

Akyol limits the interpretation of these verses to the following:

“…the Koranic principle of not taking prisoners in the middle of a battle is all about assuring victory… Once that military target is achieved, there need be no further killing.”

He then maintains, based on a highly selective analysis, 

“What was the case? As I explained in my original article, Muslims were ordered by the Koran to treat POWs well, and historical accounts about the Prophet Muhammad show that this command was honored.”

However, W.H.T. Gairdner, the renowned early 20th century scholar of Islam, wrote the following discussion of Muhammad’s treatment of POWs, based exclusively on Muslim sources, including the same sura (Q.8:67/68) cited by Akyol:


“After Badr, especially, the greatest vindictiveness and bloodthirstiness were manifested. Many prisoners were slaughtered in cold blood, at least two of them at the personal insistence of Muhammad who had a special grudge against them. The most famous Companions (except Abu Bakr) were then the most truculent. One of them was for burning the prisoners en masse ! [Gairdner’s emphasis] The Prophet checked these excesses. But the very words in which he did so, the very limits set up, show clearly that defenseless prisoners might always be slaughtered in cold blood if they could not get anyone to redeem them. The Sura produced after the event (Q.8:67-68) explicitly commands the slaughter of prisoners on occasions when it is advisable to make an impression by ‘frightfulness’: on such occasions the sin would be to grow rich by accepting ransoms! And there is a whole series of traditions which make out that the ‘leniency’ shown at Badr was a sin, that Mohammed had been against that sin, humane Abu Bakr was the chief offender, and that had that sin been punished, only the whole-hoggers who had urged the slaughter of all the prisoners (‘Umar and Sa’d) would have escaped…the Koran itself recommended the ransoming of war-captives as a form of charity suitable for rich Muslims. But the Badr alternative is always there in the background, and on suitable occasions may always be brought into the foreground. The prisoner of war is mubah damuhu: his life’s essentially forfeit.” 5


And a review of Egyptian high school textbooks in 2002 reveals the classical exegesis on these Qur’anic verses is still being taught to students in non-Azharite (i.e., “non-religious”) as well as Azharite schools.

"Studies in Theology: Tradition and Morals, Grade 11, (2001) pp. 291-92 ...This noble [Qur'anic] Surah [Surat Muhammad]... deals with questions of which the most important are as follows: 'Encouraging the faithful to perform jihad in God's cause, to behead the infidels, take them prisoner, break their power, and make their souls humble - all that in a style which contains the highest examples of urging to fight. You see that in His words: "When you meet the unbelievers in the battlefield strike off their heads and, when you have laid them low, bind your captives firmly. Then grant them their freedom or take a ransom from them, until war shall lay down its burdens.'"

"Commentary on the Surahs of Muhammad, Al-Fath, Al-Hujurat and Qaf, Grade 11, (2002) p. 9 …When you meet them in order to fight [them], do not be seized by compassion [towards them] but strike the[ir] necks powerfully.... Striking the neck means fighting, because killing a person is often done by striking off his head. Thus, it has become an expression for killing even if the fighter strikes him elsewhere. This expression contains a harshness and emphasis that are not found in the word "kill", because it describes killing in the ugliest manner, i.e., cutting the neck and making the organ - the head of the body - fly off [the body].' "

Although chilling to our modern sensibilities, particularly when being taught to children, these are merely normative interpretations of the rules for jihad war, based on over a millennium of Muslim theology and jurisprudence. And the context of these teachings is unambiguous, as the translator makes clear:


"[the] concept of jihad is interpreted in the Egyptian school curriculum almost exclusively as a military endeavor… it is war against God's enemies, i.e., the infidels… it is war against the homeland's enemies and a means to strengthening the Muslim states in the world. In both cases, jihad is encouraged, and those who refrain from participating in it are denounced."

Akyol objects to the discussion of Muhammad’s sanctioning of the mass beheading of the vanquished Banu Qurayza tribe, because,

“There is no reference to such a dramatic event in the Koran and it only appears in the biography of the Prophet written by Ibn Ishaq, a man who died 145 years after the event. In a detailed article that questions the accuracy of this story, scholar W. N. Arafat explains why it was probably a ‘later invention.’ Ibn Hajar, an Islamic authority, denounced it and other related stories as "odd tales." A contemporary of Ibn Ishaq, Malik the jurist, denounced Ibn Ishaq outright as "a liar" and "an impostor" just for telling such fables. Moreover, as Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership says, the "massacre... hardly shows up in Jewish literature.’ ”

But as Robert Spencer notes even W.N. Arafat, himself, believes that Q.33:26 refers to the massacre of the Banu Qurayza prisoners. This modern view is consistent with the opinions of classical Muslim scholars (for eg., all the seminal Muslim Koranic commentators, including Tabari [d. 923], Zamakshary [d.1144 ], Beidawi [d. 1286], Ibn Kathir [d.1373], and Suyuti [d. 1505]). Spencer reminds us that one of the canonical hadith collections (Sahih Bukhari, vol. 5, book 64, no. 4028) also attests to this massacre. Moreover, once you start questioning the sacralized Muslim sources and texts- Koran, hadith, sira (sacred biographies of Muhammad)- this cannot be done selectively, since formal scholarship (by pre-eminent scholars such as Ignaz Goldziher, Arthur Jeffery, Joseph Schacht, and John Wansborough, as reviewed and compiled here, here, and here ) has raised fundamental questions about the authenticity and historical accuracy of all these sources.  

Akyol digresses briefly, attempting to demonstrate that what he defines as “indiscriminate violence”, illustrated by the 9/11/01 attacks, “is alien to Islamic tradition”. He argues by affirmation, however, simply citing a contemporary doyen’s claim, and linking this to his own contention about beheadings:

“As Bernard Lewis confirms about September 11, those attacks had "no justification in Islamic doctrine or law and no precedent in Islamic history" (I>The Crisis of Islam, p. 119). The same is true for the recent beheadings in Iraq."                               

To continue reading this article, click here.

Andrew G. Bostom is a frequent contributor to Frontpage Magazine.com, and the author of The Legacy of Jihad, and the forthcoming The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism.

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