Permission of War
By Ali Unal
Some of the first converts to Islam were subjected to the severest persecutions in Makka. They bore them patiently and never thought of retaliation, as the Qur’an ordered the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, to call unbelievers to the way of God with wisdom and fair preaching and advised him to repel the evil with what was better and to respond to the sins and faults of his enemies with forbearance and forgiveness. Eventually the intolerance of the Makkan polytheists compelled the Muslims to abandon their homes and property in Makka and emigrate to Madina where they could live according to their beliefs, and where the full social and legal dimensions of Islam could evolve in peace. But the hostility of the Makkans continued and in Madina itself, the Muslims became the target of Jewish conspiracies. Also, since the Helpers, the native believers of Madina, had to share, although willingly, everything they had with their emigrant brothers, all the Muslims suffered privations.
In such strained circumstances, God Almighty permitted them, because they had been wronged and driven from their homes unjustly, to fight against their enemies.
The Battle of Badr was the first major confrontation of the Muslims with the enemy forces. Although outnumbered, the believers won a great victory. Until then—if we do not accept the opinions of some interpreters of the Qur’an that sura Muhammad, which contains regulations about how to treat prisoners of war, was revealed before sura al-Anfal—no Divine commandment had been revealed about how the captives should be treated. The Muslims did not even know whether they were to kill the enemy on the battlefield or take them as prisoners. After the battle the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, consulted, as he always did where there was no specific Divine commandment, with his Companions on this question. Abu Bakr said:
O God’s Messenger! They are your people. Even though they did you and the believers great wrong, you will win their hearts and cause their guidance if you forgive them and please them.
However, ‘Umar gave this opinion:
O God’s Messenger! The prisoners of war are the leading figures of Makka. If we kill them, unbelief will no longer be able to recover to encounter us. So, hand over to each of the Muslims his kin among them. Hand over to ‘Ali his brother ‘Aqil to kill. Let Abu Bakr kill his son, ‘Abd al-Rahman, and ....[so on].
God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, turned to Abu Bakr and said:
You are, O Abu Bakr, like the Prophet Abraham, upon him be peace, who said: ‘He who follows me is of me, and he who disobeys me—but You are indeed Oft-Forgiving, Most Compassionate’ (Qur’an, 14.36). You are also like Jesus, who said: ‘If You punish them, they are Your servants. If You forgive them, You are the All-Mighty, the All-Wise’ (Qur’an, 5.118).
Then he turned to ‘Umar and said:
O ‘Umar! You are like Noah, who said: ‘O my Lord! Leave not even a single unbeliever on earth!’ (Qur’an, 71.26). You are also like Moses, who said (of Pharaoh and his chieftains]: ‘Our Lord, destroy their riches and harden their hearts so that they will not believe until they see the painful chastisement.’ (Qur’an, 10. 88).