Rules of war and treatment of captives

Surah 47 (Muhammad): 4

When you meet those who disbelieve, strike at their necks.

Then when you have overwhelmed them, tighten the bonds.

Then free them graciously or hold them for ransom till war lays down its burden.

Thus (shall it be). And if God willed, He would take vengeance upon them, but that He may test some of you by means of others.

And for those who are slain in the way of God he will not make their deeds go astray.


{2.190} 〈36.〉, instructs:

{2.190} And fight in the way of God against those who fight against you but do not transgress.

Truly, God loves not the transgressors.


The Qur’an itself contains no rules of war, but concerning the ‘transgressions’ that {2.190} instructs Muslims to avoid, the Al-Muwatta of Malik bin Anas recalls two accounts of Abu Bakr, the first caliph, instructing his commanders prior to the invasion of Syria. One of these contains the following:

You will find a people who claimed that they devoted themselves totally for Allah’s sake. So leave them with their claim.

Further you will find a people who shaved the middle of their heads, therein strike with the sword what they have shaved of the middle of their heads.

And I entrust you with (the hereinafter):

You should not kill a woman, a child or an old person, you should not cut down fruitful trees. Neither should you devastate a flourishing area, slaughter a sheep or a camel except for food, burn bees or scatter them, misappropriate war booty or be a coward.


The second account adds an additional prohibition, namely the mutilation of the bodies of their slain enemies. Summaries of these rules are frequently cited in Islamic sources, including The Reliance of the Traveller.

In addition, a hadith of Abu Dawood records Muhammad stating ‘It is not proper to punish with fire, except the Lord of Fire’ which is sometimes suggested as a rule prohibiting the use of fire as a weapon (although such a rule would conflict with Ibn Ishaq’s account that Muhammad himself tortured Kinana with fire, after his capture of Kaybar 〈46.〉)


It should be noted that none of the above lists of war crimes prohibits, and consequently implicitly must be taken as permitting, the killing of male adult prisoners after a battle, see 〈40.〉 and 〈44.〉 above, nor the enslavement of captives and, in the case of females, their rape by their captors, see 〈48.〉, 〈64.〉 and 〈65.〉


The spoils of war

{8.1} declares that ‘The spoils (of war) belong to God and His Messenger.{8.41} amends this blanket claim to: ‘Whatsoever you take as spoils, a fifth is for God and His messenger, and for kinsfolk, orphans the indigent and the traveller’ suggesting a transition from the religiously justified dispossession of infidels to a formalised economy of plunder.