Islamic History Israel-Palestine War Wars and Battles

What does Islam say about Prisoners of War?

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Zafir Malik, UK

“All is fair in love and war”, is a saying you may be familiar with. The phrase seems to insinuate that one can behave as they please in times of war without any accountability. But Islam disagrees with this statement. Even in times of war, Muslims and all those who are forced to engage in conflict have to be wary of their conduct. There are stringent rules of war which a Muslim army must follow, and these guidelines are an exceptional example for other nations as well. 

Inevitably, one consequence of war are prisoners who are captured. What does Islam say about them? The first thing that should be remembered is that the Qur’an categorically rejects capturing an opposing army unless there is an all-out war.

مَا كَانَ لِنَبِيٍّ أَن يَكُونَ لَهُۥٓ أَسۡرٰى حَتّٰى يُثۡخِنَ فِي ٱلۡأَرۡضِ

It does not behove a Prophet that he should have captives until he engages in regular fighting in the land…’[1]

According to the earliest reports, Hamas was guilty of unjustly taking hostages. Later reports revealed that the government of Israel was also guilty of taking prisoners, most of whom were youth and teenagers that had not been convicted of any crime. If this society that consists of people from different faiths adopted the peaceful and just teachings of Islam, then such cruelties could be avoided and innocent people would not have to endure injustices. Any injustice and cruelty that is perpetrated is categorically against the teachings of Islam.

The teachings of the Holy Qur’an are not just for Muslims to abide by, but are addressed to all of mankind. Islam seeks to improve all those people who follow its teachings and safeguards the peace and harmony of the greater society.

The verse above is categorical that no prisoners of war can be taken unless two parties are engaged in battle, let alone attack civilians which Islam has strictly prohibited. Anyone perpetrating such acts was acting contrary to the teachings of God found in the Qur’an, So, what was the practice of Prophet Muhammad (sa)?

Prior to the advent of Islam, tribes in the Hejaz would readily capture people even outside of war and permanently make them into slaves. The treatment of prisoners of war in our modern world by some nations is not something to be proud of either. The nations who captured them would torture them, keep them in subhuman conditions or simply execute them. But what the Holy Prophet (sa) and Islam ordered is unprecedented in human history. His example shines above all armies of the past and the nations of today.

The first time in the history of Islam prisoners were taken captive was after the first all-out war between the Muslims and the Makkans, known as the Battle of Badr. 70 prisoners were taken into captivity by the Muslims. As there was no prison system in Arabia at the time, the Prophet divided the prisoners amongst the companions but also gave strict orders to treat the prisoners kindly and to ensure that they were looked after. 

Abu Aziz bin Umair was one of these 70 captives. These are his own words describing his treatment in Muslim custody: 

‘Due to the orders of the Holy Prophet (sa), the Ansar [Muslims native to Madinah] would give me baked bread, but they themselves would eat dates, etc. Many a time, it would so happen that even if they managed to get a small piece of bread, they would give it to me, and would not eat it themselves. If I would ever return it to them in embarrassment, they would insist that I have it.’ [2]

Even Sir William Muir, an orientalist and staunch critic of Islam, who would otherwise not let any opportunity slide to raise an allegation, could not help but praise the actions of these Muslims. In his biography, “The Life of Mohammad”, he writes about the conditions of the prisoners of Badr: 

‘In pursuance of Mohammad’s [sic] command…the Citizens [of Madinah], and such of; the Refugees as had houses of their own, received the prisoners with kindness and consideration. “Blessings on the men of Medina [sic]!’ said one of these in later days: “They made us ride, while they themselves walked afoot; they gave us wheaten bread to eat when there was little of it, contenting themselves with dates.” It is not surprising, therefore, that some of the captives, yielding to these influences, declared themselves Believers, and to such their liberty was at once granted. The rest were kept for ransom. But it was long before Koreish [sic] could humble themselves to visit Medina for the purpose. The kindly treatment was thus prolonged, and left a favourable impression on the minds even of those who did not at once go over to Islam…The captives were redeemed according to their several means some paying a thousand, and others as much as four thousand pieces. Such as had nothing to give were liberated without payment…To each were allotted ten boys, to be taught the art of writing; and the teaching was accepted as a ransom.’ [3]

Let’s pause for one second and think about what Muir has just mentioned. The Muslims, who were the victors in the Battle of Badr, walked back to Madinah – that’s approximately 80 miles – while the prisoners who had been defeated in war rode their mounts; there was not enough bread for the Muslims to eat, so they gave preference to the prisoners over themselves and instead sufficed on dates. Can anyone point to an example like this in the entire known history of warfare? 

Upon arriving in Madinah, the prisoners were tied to the pillars in the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah. Among these prisoners included some who were very closely related to the Prophet (sa), such as Abbas (uncle), Aqil (nephew) and Abul ‘Aas (son-in-law). It is stated that the Holy Prophet (sa) could not sleep one night because of Abbas (ra) groaning on account of the ropes he was tied up with. When the Ansar learnt of this, they loosened his ropes and he stopped groaning. The Holy Prophet (sa) immediately came out to see what had happened, fearing the worst. When he discovered what the companions did, he ordered: ‘If you choose to loosen his bonds, then do so for everyone else as well. There should be no preferential treatment for Abbas.’ [4]

This was the same Abbas who not only was the uncle and dear friend of the Holy Prophet (sa), but he had greatly supported the Muslims during their perilous boycott in Makkah, providing them food and water secretly. He had only come out with the Makkan army owing to pressure from the chieftains of the Quraish. Surely, if anyone was worthy of release or respite, then it was Abbas! The Ansar even asked the Prophet (sa) if Abbas could be released without ransom, but the Prophet (sa) refused. [5] This is because the Prophet Muhammad (sa) preached and followed the law of Islam to uphold absolute justice, which is a cornerstone of establishing peace in the world. 

Despite giving teachings about what to do in war, Islam strictly prohibits starting one. The Muslims had to fight in the Battle of Badr because the Makkan army had set out to attack the Muslims. [6] The outcomes – both short and long term – of any war are horrific. As we witnessed in both World Wars, countless innocent civilians died through no fault of their own. With the devastating warfare technology of today, this death toll increases exponentially. That is why Islam forbids warfare in the first place and stresses that the international community must work together to stop the aggressor, whoever it may be. And since Islam is a universal religion, it not only aims to benefit Muslims, but it shows humanity at large the principles of how to establish lasting peace. Seeing as the major powers have tried and tested their own methods to establish peace and failed, how about looking to see what Islam has to offer, that is if they are serious about establishing peace in the world.

About the AuthorZafir Malik serves as the Associate Editor of The Review of Religions, having graduated from Jamia Ahmadiyya UK – Institute of Modern Languages and Theology. He is also an Imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and regularly appears as a panellist on MTA International and Voice of Islam radio station answering questions on Islam.


[1] The Holy Qur’an, 8:68

[2] Abu Ja‘far Muḥammad bin Jarir Al-Ṭabari, Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk, Vol 3 (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Fikr, 2002) 40

[3] Sir William Muir, Life of Mohammad, (Edinburgh, UK: Oliver and Boyd, 1923) 233-234

[4] Hazrat Mirza Bashir Ahmad, The Life & Character of the Seal of the Prophets, Vol 2 (Tilford, UK: Islam International Publications Ltd, 2013) 161

[5] Sahih al-Buhari, Kitab al-Jihad wa al-Siyar, Hadith No. 3048

[6] The Holy Qur’an, 22:40-41 – “Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is made, because they have been wronged — and Allah indeed has power to help them. Those who have been driven out from their homes unjustly only because they said, ‘Our Lord is Allah’ — And if Allah did not repel some men by means of others, there would surely have been pulled down cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft commemorated. And Allah will surely help one who helps Him. Allah is indeed Powerful, Mighty