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Sacred Texts Addressing Wanton Destruction and Indiscriminate Killing


By Suheil I Laher


Islamic rulings are derived from the Qur'an (the words of God revealed word-for-word by the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ - also his greatest miracle) and the Sunnah (teachings of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ which are also of divine origin or approval, but were not necessarily transmitted word-for-word).

A. From the Qur'an

1.      "...We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul - unless for a soul[1] or for corruption [done] in the land[2] - it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And, whoever saves one, it is as if he had saved mankind entirely." [Qur'an, 5:32]

This verse establishes the sanctity of life.

2.      "...And do not kill the soul[3] which Allah has forbidden except by right..." [Qur'an, 6:151]

3.      "And do not kill the soul which Allah has forbidden except by right. And whoever is killed unjustly, We have given his heir authority[4] but let him not exceed limits in [the matter of] taking life. Indeed, he has been supported [by the law]. "  [Qur'an, 17:33].

4.      "And [the believers are] those who do not invoke any deity with Allah, nor kill the soul which Allah has forbidden except by right, nor commit zina[5]." [Qur'an, 25:68]

This verse conveys the heinousness of unjustifiably taking a human life, and indicates that wrongful murder is close in enormity to shirk[6] and zina.

5.      "And fight, in the path of Allah, those who fight you..." [Qur'an, 2:190]

This verse indicates that only those involved in combat are to be fought, which excludes non-combatants such as women, children and civilians; a regulation detailed further by narrations from the Sunnah, as mentioned in the following section.

6.      "Among mankind is he whose speech impresses you in worldly life, and he calls Allah to witness as to what is in his heart, yet he is the fiercest of opponents. And, when he goes away, he strives throughout the land to cause corruption therein, and to destroy crops[7] and lives[8]. And Allah does not love corruption." [Qur'an, 2:204-5]

These verses indicate that wanton destruction and indiscriminate killing are tantamount to working mischief /corruption upon earth.

B. From the Sunnah

Warning Against Causing Suffering Even To Animals

1.      "A woman entered the Fire on account of a cat, which she tied up, neither feeding it, nor letting it eat [for itself] from the vermin of the earth, until it died, and as a result she entered the Fire [of Hell]."[9]

2.      "Do not take something with a soul as a target."[10]

Another version says, "Ibn `Umar passed by some youths of Quraysh who had set up a bird and were shooting at it, giving any arrows which missed to the owner of the bird.  Thereupon, Ibn `Umar said, "Allah curses the one who does this. Verily, the Messenger of Allah cursed the one who takes something with a soul as a target."[11]

Another version says, "The Messenger of Allah forbade taking something with a soul as a target."[12]

Another version says, "Allah curses the one who takes something with a soul as a target."[13]

Warning Against Wrongfully Taking Life

3.      "A Muslim remains in latitude concerning his religion as long as he does not take a life."[14]

4.      "Avoid the seven ruinous [sins] ... associating partners with Allah, sorcery, unrightfully taking life which Allah has prohibited, consuming riba, consuming the property of an orphan, fleeing on the day of marching [in battle], and accusing a chaste, oblivious believing woman of adultery."[15]

Specific Narrations Regulating Killing During War

5.      Ribah ibn al-Rabi` al-Tamimi says, "We were with the Messenger of Allah in a battle. He saw people gathered, and then he saw a slain woman, whereupon he said, "This [woman] was not fighting!""[16]

Another version adds, "Thereupon, the Prophet ﷺ objected to the killing of women and children."[17]

Another adds, "Catch up with Khalid and tell him: The Messenger of Allah commands you not to kill [women and] children, nor hired workers."[18]

6.      Ibn `Abbas says: The Messenger of Allah, when dispatching his troops, would tell them, "....Do not behave treacherously, nor misappropriate war-booty, nor mutilate [those whom you kill], nor kill children, nor the people in cloisters."[19]

Another version contains, "...Do not kill a decrepit old man, nor a child, nor a youngster, nor a woman..."[20]

Another contains, "...Do not kill a woman, nor a child, nor an old, aged man..."[21]

Another contains, "Do not kill a child, nor a woman, nor an old man, nor obliterate a stream, nor cut a tree..."[22]


7.      The words of anyone after the Prophet ﷺ do not carry independent religious authority, but the above teachings of the Prophet ﷺ are clearly reflected in the practice of his immediate successor, the first Caliph, Abu Bakr. Abu Bakr gave 10 directions to Yazid ibn Abi Sufyan, one of his commanders, when dispatching him at the head of an army to the Levant:

"Do not kill a woman,
nor a child,
nor a decrepit aged person,
Do not cut down a fruit-bearing tree,
Do not destroy a dwelling,
Do not kill a sheep or camel, unless [you need to kill it] for food,
Do not set bees on fire, nor drown them,
Do not misappropriate war-booty, and
Do not be cowardly."

[1] i.e. in legal retribution for murder, through the requisite channels of justice.

[2] i.e. that requiring the death penalty, again through the requisite legal channels.

[3] i.e. person.

[4] grounds for legal action.

[5] illicit sexual intercourse. The Arabic word encompasses both fornication and adultery.

[6] polytheism: associating partners with Allah, a sin which is never forgiven to one who dies insistent upon it, as declared in Qur'an, 4:116.

[7] The Arabic word used here, al-harth, is generally understood, based on its common lexical meaning, to refer to crops, but see the next footnote for other explanations. Al-Mu`jam al-Wasit also mentions one of the meanings as 'earnings.'

[8] The Arabic word I have translated here as 'lives' is al-nasl, which a number of English translations of the Qur'an have translated as 'cattle' - an inaccurate translation as we proceed to explain. Al-Mu`jam al-Wasit, an authoritative dictionary of classical Arabic, explains al-nasl to be created beings, or offspring. Renowned exegetes have mentioned similar explanations. Qurtubi says, "al-nasl is the child which emanates from any [type of] female." [Al-Jami` li-Ahkam al-Qur'an, 3/19] Alusi says, "al-nasl is every being with a soul... Al-Azhari [an authority in Arabic] said: al-harth here is women [as in Qur'an, 2:223] and al-nasl is children. [And it is reported] from [Imam] al-Sadiq that al-harth here is the religion, and al-nasl is people." [Ruh al-Ma`ani, 2/144] Shaykh Zadah Rumi says, in his marginal annotations on Baydawi's exegesis, "al-nasl is the noun of yansilu, used when something emerges distinct from something else,  ... and so the child is the nasl of his parents." [Hashiyat Shaykh Zadah `ala Tafsir al-Baydawi, 1/514] This selection of quotes establishes clearly that the meaning of al-nasl encompasses life in general, and is not restricted to cattle. Perhaps the reason why some translators selected the word cattle here is that the verse, when revealed, was first referred to a man at that time named al-Akhnas ibn Shurayq al-Thaqafi, who matched the description of the verses, and destroyed crops and cattle [details of the incident can be perused in most books of Qur'anic exegesis], which in turn led some briefer exegeses to explain al-nasl as cattle. However, there is unanimity among scholars - indeed among all rational people - that the import and significance of Qur'anic verses derives from the general implication of their wording, and is not restricted to the specifics of the circumstances or situation in which they were revealed. [See Suyuti's Al-Itqan fi `Ulum al-Qur'an ("The Perfection in the Sciences of the Qur'an"), 1/39-40]. Hence, there appear no grounds for departing from the literal and general implication of al-nasl as 'life', and replacing it with 'cattle'.

[9] Narrated by Bukhari, Muslim.

[10] Narrated by Muslim, Nasa'i, Ibn Majah, Ahmad.

[11] Narrated by Muslim via Ibn `Umar as quoted, and by Nasa'i via 2 routes (Ibn `Umar and Ibn `Abbas) but without mention of the incident of the bird.

[12] Narrated by Tirmidhi (who graded it hasan sahih).and Ahmad, via Ibn `Abbas. Both of them included mention of Ibn `Abbas witnessing an incident involving a pigeon, similar to that witnessed by Ibn `Umar as in the preceding narration..

[13] Narrated by Ahmad, through a sound, contiguous chain of transmitters (Hushaym-Abu Bishr-Sa`id ibn Jubayr-Ibn `Umar).

[14] Narrated by Bukhari and al-Hakim.

[15] Narrated by Bukhari, Muslim, Nasa'i, Abu Dawud.

[16] Narrated by Abu Dawud, Nasa'i, Ibn Hibban.

[17] Narrated by Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmidhi (who graded it hasan sahih), Abu Dawud, Ibn Majah.

[18] Narrated by Ahmad, Ibn Majah, Tahawi and others.

[19] Narrated by Ahmad, Tirmidhi (who graded it hasan sahih). Shawkani says, "Its isnad contains Ibrahim ibn Isma`il ibn Abi Habibah, who is weak, but Ahmad regarded him as reliable." Muhaddith Zafar Ahmad `Usmani adds, "`Ijli also said, "he is a reliable Hijazi," as in al-Tahdhib (1/104), and the disagreement is of no detriment, and so the hadith is hasan." [I`la al-Sunan, 12/31]

[20] Narrated by Abu Dawud. Shawkani says, "Its isnad contains Khalid ibn al-Firz, and he is not that." `Usmani graded it as hasan, observing that Khalid ibn al-Firz is rated as "acceptable" in al-Taqrib (p. 51), "a shaykh" by Abu Hatim as in al-Tahdhib, and accredited by Ibn Hibban. [I`la al-Sunan, 12/31]

[21] Narrated by Baghawi, through his isnad [Sharh al-Sunnah, 11/11]. He said, "This is an authentic hadith, narrated by Muslim." It may be observed that Baghawi's wording is more detailed than Muslim's, the latter mentioning only children.

[22] Narrated by Bayhaqi, who said, "Its isnad is weak, but it is strengthened by attesting narrations." [vide I`la al-Sunan, 12/31] Among the supporting narrations is that which Ahmad has narrated - through a chain containing mediocrity (on account of Ibn Lahi`ah, who is upright but weak in memory) as well as an unnamed narrator - : "Whoever kills a youngster or an old person, or burns a date-palm, or cuts down a fruit-bearing tree, or kills a sheep for its skin, will not return sufficed."

[23] Narrated by Malik. Qadi Shawkani said, "It is discontiguous." However, it is known that the discontiguous narrations of Malik's Muwatta' can all be found contiguously narrated elsewhere, and are regarded as reliable by Malik, as pointed out by `Usmani [I`la al-Sunan, 12/25]

with permission from the author, URL: - expired link (before 2023-02-06) http://webpages.marshall.edu/~laher1/Terrorism.html







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