In Defense of Defensive War Permitted in the Holy Quran

Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

When the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, claimed Monotheism in the polytheistic society of Mecca they turned against him and he and his followers had to face persecution for 13 long years.  He migrated to Medina but the Meccans did not leave him alone there and attacked Medina, it was in these circumstances that the following verses were revealed:

“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.” (Al Quran 22:40-41)

By mentioning Churches and Synagogues before Mosques, the revelation was laying the foundation of genuine religious freedom for the whole of humanity.

There was no room for Preemptive strike in Islam. Any motive other than the safeguarding of the faith and putting down any mischief against it was regarded as inconsistent with the purpose of Jihad. The Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him had announced that anyone who went forth to battle for the sake of spoils, or for the display of his bravery, or for any other worldly motive, disentitled himself to any spiritual reward.

The verses of Sura Hajj mentioned above are the fundamental teachings in regards to defensive warfare that is allowed in Islam. The other verses that should be considered fundamental on this issue are the verses 191-194 of the second chapter of the Holy Quran.  Fighting is permissible only to repel or halt aggression; but even in the course of such fighting; Muslims are not permitted to adopt unduly aggressive measures. “Fight in the cause of Allah against those who fight against you, but do not transgress. Surely, Allah loves not the transgressors.” (2: 191) ‘Persecution is worse than killing’, for it seeks to destroy the soul. (2:192) Therefore, “fight them until there is no persecution, and religion is freely professed for the sake of Allah; but if they desist, then remember that no hostility is allowed except against the aggressors.” (2: 194) The phrase ‘but if they desist’ is mentioned not only in verse 193 but also in 194 clearly sealing the interpretation that the warfare is only defensive.  Pertaining to these set of verses, Sir Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, who was perhaps one of the best legal minds of the last century has written, “These are basic and fundamental directives. There is a host of other directions in the Quran with regard to the prosecution of war, but they are all subject to the conditions here laid down, and must be so construed.”[1] Once one understands the guiding principles on the issue of war and peace the details become self evident to the well read. These principles also help us defend any criticism, leveled by the non-believers against the peaceful teachings of Islam.

Even when hostilities break out, the Holy Quran wants to capitalize on every opportunity to peace and advises the Muslims, ‘if they (enemy) incline towards peace, incline thou also towards it, and put thy trust in Allah.’  The Holy Quran says :

And make ready for them whatever you can of armed force and of mounted pickets at the frontier, whereby you may frighten the enemy of Allah and your enemy and others besides them whom you know not, but Allah knows them. And whatever you spend in the way of Allah, it shall be repaid to you in full and you shall not be wronged.  And if they incline towards peace, incline thou also towards it, and put thy trust in Allah. Surely, it is He Who is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.  And if they intend to deceive thee, then surely Allah is sufficient for thee. He it is Who has strengthened thee with His help and with the believers.  (Al Quran 8:61-63)

The instruction that if enemy inclines to peace, the Muslims should also incline towards the same, is mentioned more than once in the Holy Quran.  Whereas, many a secular military teachings will suggest crushing the weakened enemy, but, the Holy Quran suggests, ‘So, if they keep aloof from you and fight you not, and make you an offer of peace, then remember that Allah has allowed you no way of aggression against them.’  Here is the whole context:

They wish that you should disbelieve as they have disbelieved, so that you may become all alike. Take not, therefore, (intimate) friends from among them, until they emigrate in the way of Allah. And if they turn away, then seize them and kill them wherever you find them; and take no friend nor helper from among them; Except those who are connected with a people between whom and you there is a pact, or those who come to you, while their hearts shrink from fighting you or fighting their own people. And if Allah had so pleased, He would have given them power over you, then they would have surely fought you. So, if they keep aloof from you and fight you not, and make you an offer of peace, then remember that Allah has allowed you no way of aggression against them. (Al Quran 4:90-91)

Similar teachings are mentioned in 8:39-40 also.  Even when the enemy is treacherous, the Quran directs the Muslims to be reasonable and announces that Allah does not love the treacherous:

And if thou fearest treachery from a people, throw back to them their covenant with equity. Surely, Allah loves not the treacherous. (Al 8:59)

The Holy Quran declares every human life sacred and of infinite value and equates killing of a person to a holocaust or a genocide:

We (Allah) prescribed for the children of Israel that whosoever killed a person — unless it be for killing a person or for creating disorder in the land — it shall be as if he had killed all mankind; and whoso gave life to one, it shall be as if he had given life to all mankind. And Our Messengers came to them with clear Signs, yet even after that, many of them commit excesses in the land. (Al Quran 5:33)

It is not that only a Muslim’s life is deemed sacred, in the eyes of the Creator, who created mankind and loves everyone of us more than a mother, every human life is precious.  The Holy Quran says:

It does not become a believer to kill a believer unless it be by mistake. And he who kills a believer by mistake shall free a believing slave, and pay blood money to be handed over to his heirs, unless they remit it as charity. But if the person slain be of a people hostile to you, and be a believer, then the offender shall free a believing slave; and if he be of a people between whom and you is a pact, then the offender shall pay blood money to be handed over to his heirs, and free a believing slave. But whoso finds not one, then he shall fast for two consecutive months — a mercy from Allah. And Allah is All-Knowing, Wise. (Al Quran 4:93)

According to the above verse blood money is applicable, in case of a murder, whether the victim is a Muslim or a non-Muslim, as is clear by the above clause, ‘if he be of a people between whom and you is a pact, then the offender shall pay blood money to be handed over to his heirs, and free a believing slave.’ Even when the parties are at war and a Muslim kills one of the enemy combatants, who turns out to be a Muslim, the one who has killed by mistake has to free a believing slave.  This opens up another door of peace at the eleventh hour, in the heat of battle and fighting.  If the enemy declares to be believers in Islam, in the final moments before their ultimate defeat, the Muslim army cannot go on a rampage and has to take their word, regarding their belief.  The Holy Quran explains:

And whoso kills a believer intentionally, his reward shall be Hell wherein he shall abide. And Allah will be wroth with him and will curse him and will prepare for him a great punishment.  O ye who believe! when you go forth in the cause of Allah, make proper investigation and say not to anyone who greets you with the greeting of peace, ‘Thou art not a believer.’ You seek the goods of this life, but with Allah are good things in plenty. Such were you before this, but Allah conferred His special favor on you; so do make proper investigation. Surely, Allah is well aware of what you do. (Al Quran 4:94-95)

Even in the midst of fighting, Allah ordained four sacred months, during which fighting was prohibited, so peace could be secured and cooler heads prevail:

They ask thee about fighting in the Sacred Month. Say: ‘Fighting therein is a great transgression, but to hinder men from the way of Allah, and to be ungrateful to Him and to hinder men from the Sacred Mosque, and to turn out its people therefrom, is a greater sin with Allah; and persecution is worse than killing.’ And they will not cease fighting you until they turn you back from your faith, if they can. And whoso from among you turns back from his faith and dies while he is a disbeliever, it is they whose works shall be vain in this world and the next. These are the inmates of the Fire and therein shall they abide. (Al Quran 2:218)

The reckoning of months with Allah has been twelve months by Allah’s ordinance since the day when He created the heavens and the earth. Of these, four are sacred. That is the right creed. So wrong not yourselves therein. And fight the idolaters all together as they fight you all together; and know that Allah is with the righteous. (Al Quran 9:36)

The fifth verse of Sura Taubah of the Holy Quran has been criticized by critics of Islam and has been labeled as sword verse:

And when the forbidden months have passed, kill the idolaters wherever you find them and take them prisoners, and beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent and observe Prayer and pay the Zakat, then leave their way free. Surely, Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful. (Al Quran 9:5)

The Holy Quran describes that the root cause of hostilities belongs to the non-believers, as it states: “How can it be when, if they prevail against you, they would not observe any tie of relationship or covenant in respect of you?” (Al Quran 9:8)  The Holy Quran emphasizes that the idolators have taken the lead in aggression and the Muslim stance is only defensive, as Allah says: They observe not any tie of relationship or covenant in respect of anyone who trusts them. And it is they who are transgressors. (Al Quran 9:10) Additionally, if we read the verse before and after the so called sword verse criticism disappears in thin air, as the teaching is placed in the proper context:

Excepting those of the idolaters with whom you have entered into a treaty and who have not subsequently failed you in anything nor aided anyone against you. So fulfill to these the treaty you have made with them till their term. Surely, Allah loves those who are righteous. And when the forbidden months have passed, kill the idolaters wherever you find them and take them prisoners, and beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent and observe Prayer and pay the Zakat, then leave their way free. Surely, Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful.  And if anyone of the idolaters ask protection of thee, grant him protection so that he may hear the word of Allah; then convey him to his place of security. That is because they are a people who have no knowledge. (Al Quran 9:4-6)

The polytheists were not to be forced to accept Islam.  They had lost the war after more than 20 years of persecuting and warring against the Muslims.  The Muslims had succeeded with God’s help and this was time of political capitulation.  Nevertheless, there was no religious coercion.  They were only prohibited to enter the sacred Mosque or Kaaba the first house ever built for the worship of One God. (Al Quran 3:97) The Holy Quran stated in the same Sura Taubah under discussion:

O ye who believe! surely, the idolaters are unclean. So they shall not approach the Sacred Mosque after this year of theirs. And if you fear poverty, Allah will enrich you out of His bounty, if He pleases. Surely, Allah is All-Knowing, Wise.  Fight those from among the People of the Book who believe not in Allah, nor in the Last Day, nor hold as unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have declared to be unlawful, nor follow the true religion, until they pay the tax with their own hand and acknowledge their subjection.  (Al Quran 9:28-29)

The taxation was a form of Federal security tax, as they were being provided security by the Muslim Government.  However, if the polytheists were to accept Islam, they were not to be discriminated against in any way and they immediately become brothers and equals of all the Muslims:

But if they repent and observe Prayer and pay the Zakat, then they are your brethren in faith. And We explain the Signs for a people who have knowledge.  (Al Quran 9:28-11)

In summary, each and every human life is sacred and not to be trifled with, so only hostility permitted to a believer is one in defense and never preemptive or to loot and pillage, in any disguise!  The purpose of defensive wars allowed by God to the Holy Prophet Muhammad and prior prophets has always been to restore order and justice.  The Holy Quran talks about the Jewish Prophet David in the following verse and highlights, ‘had it not been for Allah’s repelling men, some of them by the others, the earth would have become filled with disorder.’  Read the whole verse, as it talks about Munificence of Allah to not only the Jews and the Muslims, but to all peoples:

So they routed them by the command of Allah; and David slew Jalut, and Allah gave him sovereignty and wisdom, and taught him of what He pleased. And had it not been for Allah’s repelling men, some of them by the others, the earth would have become filled with disorder. But Allah is Munificent to all peoples. (Al Quran 2:252)

Sir Zafrulla Khan, in his biography of the Holy Prophet, Muhammad: Seal of the Prophets, has outlined fifty different practices of the Holy Prophet, pertaining to the battles that he participated in:

We are now approaching the time when the first pitched battle between the Muslims and Quraish was fought at Badr. Before entering upon an account of that famous battle, it might be helpful to set out briefly the policies, principles and tactics that the Holy Prophet followed in respect of his military and paramilitary activities, and which he directed the Muslims to observe:-

1. Where he had a choice, he preferred to set out on a Thursday, in the morning hours.

2. Before setting out, it was his practice to make suitable supplications to the Divine, along with the whole of his company.

3. He had established a fairly effective system of intelligence concerning the movements of the enemy. Those entrusted with this duty were instructed that they should not report to him when he was among company. If he received some intelligence, which occasioned anxiety, he did not make it public, and communicated it to only selected individuals.

4. When he set out on an expedition he did not normally announce his goal. On some occasions he would proceed for a few miles in a direction different from the direction of his goal and would then veer round to the direction of his goal.

5. At a short distance from Medina, he would make a halt and check up on everything. He set out finally after being satisfied that everything was in order.

6. On the occasion of important campaigns, the Holy Prophet called for volunteers and those who were prepared to accompany him arranged their own equipment and mounts. Anyone who was himself well-off might help another less favoured one in this respect. The Holy Prophet urged such aid and assistance and rendered it himself when he was able to do so.

7. Boys below fifteen years of age were not permitted to go to battle. Those who, out of their eagerness, sometimes slipped into the ranks of the volunteers were, if detected at the time of checking up, sent back.

8. A number of women generally accompanied the volunteers to help in arranging for food and to nurse the wounded and to take care of them. They also distributed water among the fighting men in the course of the battle. On certain occasions, women are known to have taken part in the fighting also.

9. The Holy Prophet took one or more of his wives with him on such journeys. They were selected by lot.

10. When the Holy Prophet received intimation that an enemy tribe was preparing to attack the Muslims, he forestalled their design in order to frustrate it. On such occasions he so contrived that the Muslim force should arrive unexpectedly at the enemy encampment or settlement. This method safeguarded the Muslims to a large degree, and, in many cases, it rendered fighting unnecessary and thus safeguarded the enemy also.

11. Whenever he dispatched a force on such a campaign, he directed the commander that when the enemy were encountered, they should be invited to embrace Islam, and if they agreed they should be urged to migrate to Medina. If they became Muslims, but could not migrate, they were permitted to stay at home in peace. If the enemy rejected the invitation to accept Islam, they were invited to stop fighting the Muslims and to submit to the Islamic state. If they rejected all these offers, they should be fought.

12. When he dispatched a force on a campaign, he admonished them: ‘Muslims, go forth in the name of Allah, and fight in the cause of Allah. Do not defraud in the matter of the spoils, nor cheat the enemy. Do not mutilate the enemy dead nor kill women or children or monks or priests, nor those who have arrived at extreme old age. Always try to improve people’s condition and behave benevolently towards them. Allah loves the benevolent.’ In his time, Hazrat Abu Bakr used to add: ‘Leave alone those who have dedicated their lives to the service of God and also that to which they are dedicated; do not cut down fruit trees, nor ruin an inhabited place.’ All this was designed towards making war humane and to put an end to the inhuman practices that were current in Arabia before the advent of Islam.

13. Whenever the Holy Prophet dispatched a party or a force, he appointed an emir (commander, or leader) over them. He directed that even if as few as three persons should set out on an errand, they should appoint one of themselves as their leader. He insisted on the rendering of full obedience to the emir. He said, ‘Even if a stupid Negro slave is appointed emir over you, render him full obedience,’ though he added that if the emir should require something to be done which was clearly opposed to a divine command or to a direction of his own, he should not be obeyed in that respect, but his authority must be upheld at all times.

14. In the course of a journey, when the Holy Prophet and his Companions had to ascend a height they glorified Allah in the words ‘Allah is Most Great’ and when they had to descend from a height, they glorified Allah in the words ‘Holy is Allah’.

15. The Muslims were directed that during the course of a march, they should not make camp in a manner that might prove inconvenient for other people, nor should they march in a manner so as to block the way. He said in the course of a journey: He who does not safeguard the comfort of others in marching or camping would be deprived of his reward in respect of his jihad.

16. When the Holy Prophet encountered the enemy in the field of battle, he always supplicated the Divine before the commencement of the fighting.

17. He preferred fighting during the forenoon, and stopped fighting during the heat of the day and resumed it in the late afternoon.

18. Before a battle, he himself arranged his forces in battle order and resented any kind of irregularity or confusion.

19. An Islamic force generally carried two standards, one white which was rolled around a staff and was called Liwa; the second was generally black which floated from a staff and was called Raya. In battle, these standards were committed to the care of selected individuals.

20. The Holy Prophet appointed a password for his forces before a battle, which helped to distinguish between friend and foe.

21. He disliked noise or confusion among the ranks and called for silent and diligent performance of duty.

22. Before a battle the Holy Prophet appointed emirs over different groups of his forces who were clearly instructed in their duties. In selecting these company commanders he kept in mind the consideration that the person selected for the command should be one esteemed among his group or company.

23. On special occasions, the Holy Prophet invited his Companions to take a special oath of allegiance and loyalty, as was done at Hudaibiyya, of which mention is made in the Holy Quran (48:19).

24. When the Holy Prophet was himself present, battle was not joined till he gave permission.

25. During the course of battle he issued special directions from time to time and announced them himself or directed someone with a powerful voice to go on announcing them.

26. Muslims were not permitted to run away from battle or to lay down their arms. They were commanded to prevail or to become martyrs. There was, however, permission to retreat as a manoeuvre (8:16,17). If due to some weakness anyone contravened this injunction the Holy Prophet was not wroth with any such, and gave them the benefit of the doubt that they might have retreated as a manoeuvre and encouraged them to be steadfast in future.

27. Muslims were forbidden to inflict an injury upon anyone’s face. The Holy Prophet, peace be on him, observed that a Muslim should be most careful in inflicting an injury.

28. Muslims were under a strict injunction to take no prisoners, except in the course of regular fighting (8:28).

29. Prisoners of war were either released after the battle as an act of benevolence, or in return for ransom (47:5). Or else, they could ask for their ransom to be fixed which they could pay out of their earnings, in which case they were set at liberty so that they could earn their wages freely. Indeed, those to whom they were allotted were themselves urged to contribute towards the payment of their ransom, as an act of benevolence, as is said: ‘Write out a deed of manumission for such of those under your control as desire it, if you see some good in them, and help them to secure their freedom with a portion of the wealth of Allah which He has bestowed upon you’ (24:34).

30. Prisoners of war must be dealt with compassionately. Those taken prisoners in the battle of Badr testified to the extreme kindness with which their captors treated them.

31. Ransom was not insisted upon to be paid in cash. For instance, those of the prisoners taken in the battle of Badr who were literate were told that their ransom would be to teach a certain number of Muslim children to read and write.

32. Muslims were forbidden to pillage or plunder.

33. If anyone of the enemy declared his acceptance of Islam, even in the course of fighting, he was to be spared as no danger was apprehended any longer from him. In the course of fighting on one occasion an enemy combatant, when confronted with Usama bin Zaid, who was about to kill him, declared that he embraced Islam, but Usama killed him nevertheless. When this was reported to the Holy Prophet, he was greatly displeased and inquired from Usama, ‘Why did you kill him after he had declared his acceptance of Islam?’ Usama submitted, ‘Messenger of Allah, he merely said so out of fear. He was not sincere.’ The Holy Prophet retorted, ‘Had you cut open his heart to make sure whether he was sincere or not?’ The Holy Prophet went on repeating, ‘How will you justify your action before Allah on the Day of Judgment?’ Usama was so unhappy over the Holy Prophet’s severe displeasure, that in relating the incident afterwards, he said, ‘I wished that I had not been a Muslim before this event and had embraced Islam only after it, so that I should not have been the cause of such severe displeasure on the part of the Holy Prophet.’ On the other hand, there are also instances in which the Holy Prophet himself did not accept the declaration of a person’s embracing Islam if he was satisfied that he was making it only out of fear or temptation. A case is mentioned in Muslim that in a battle a prisoner was taken who belonged to a tribe who were allies of Banu Thaqeef. When the Holy Prophet passed near him he sought release by addressing him in the words, ‘Muhammad, why am I being kept a prisoner? I accept Islam.’ The Holy Prophet responded to him, ‘Had you embraced Islam before you were taken captive, God would have accepted it of you and you would have achieved salvation, but not now.’ In the end, he was exchanged in return for two Muslims who had been taken prisoners by Banu Thaqeef. There is not a single instance that any one was converted to Islam by being put in fear of death.

34. Muslims were enjoined strict fulfilment of their covenants and pledges. The Holy Prophet himself was most particular in this regard. On the occasion of the battle of Badr, Hudhaifah bin Yaman, having migrated from Mecca, joined the Holy Prophet and the Muslims just at the time when fighting was about to start. He submitted to the Holy Prophet that when he was about to leave Mecca, Quraish had made him promise that he would not take part in fighting against them. On learning this, the Holy Prophet directed him to fulfil his promise and to refrain from joining in the battle. This is an illustration of the extreme strictness of the Holy Prophet in such matters, for a promise given under coercion would not legally be construed as binding. Hazrat Umar was so strict in these matters that in his time he announced that if a Muslim were guilty of cheating the enemy or of failing to carry out his pledged word to the enemy, he would be executed.

35. The bodies of those Muslims who became martyrs in battle were neither washed nor wrapped in a shroud. They were buried just as they had fallen.

36. In case of an emergency a number of martyrs were interred in a single grave. On such occasions, their bodies were lowered into the grave in the order of their degree of knowledge of the Holy Quran. Martyrs were buried on the field of battle.

37. The funeral service for martyrs was either held immediately after the battle, or if circumstances were not propitious, at some later time.

38. The Holy Prophet generally arranged that the enemy dead should be given decent burial by the Muslims.

39. In the time of the Holy Prophet, Muslim fighters were paid no salary.

40. On the occasion of the division of spoils, the commander first selected some article for himself as a memento, and thereafter, one fifth of the spoils was set aside as the share of Allah and His Messenger. The rest was divided equally between the fighters, those who were mounted receiving three times as much as those on foot. The personal belongings of an enemy who had been killed went to the Muslim fighter who killed him.

41. The one-filth that was set-aside for Allah and the Holy Prophet was administered at the discretion of the Holy Prophet. Part of it he distributed among his family and kindred, but the greater part was devoted towards fulfilling the collective needs of the community. The Holy Prophet observed on one occasion, ‘I am forbidden to take even the equivalent of a single hair of a camel in excess of the one-fifth; the greater part of the one-fifth is also returned to you.’

42. In the field of battle the order of Salat was modified so that while the Imam led the service throughout, part of the fighting force joined in the service and then withdrew to make room for other parts, one after the other. In this manner, the greater part of the battle force continued to confront the enemy during the service (4:103).

43. After fasting had been prescribed, some of the Muslims observed the fast when they were on a journey and some did not. Eventually, the Holy Prophet forbade the observing of the fast in the course of a journey.

44. By ancient custom among the Arabs, a spy was liable to be executed. The Holy Prophet maintained the penalty.

45. The Holy Prophet, peace be on him, forbade severely any interference with the emissary of the enemy or doing him any harm or inflicting any injury upon him. On one occasion, some emissaries of disbelievers came to him and spoke very impertinently to him. He was provoked, but observed, ‘You are emissaries, and I am, therefore, not permitted to make a harsh retort to you.’ On another occasion, an emissary came to him and after talking to him, he embraced Islam and submitted that he did not now wish to return to his people. The Holy Prophet observed, ‘You are an emissary and must return to your people. I will be no party to any disloyalty. After you return to your people, you can come back if you so wish.’ So he went back and after some time found the opportunity of coming back.

46. After the Hedjaz had been purified of all paganism, the Holy Prophet announced that if a pagan should wish to come to Medina as a seeker after truth, he would guarantee his security and safe return (9:6).

47. The Holy Prophet, peace be on him, was most particular with regard to the security and the rights of the pagans who established treaty relations with the Muslims. He observed, ‘A Muslim who kills any covenanting pagan will not be permitted to perceive the breeze of paradise.’ He also directed that a Muslim who should be guilty of killing a covenanting pagan by mistake must, in addition to paying his blood money to his heirs, also arrange to procure the freedom of a slave.

48. He also observed, ‘I shall on the Day of Judgment seek justice on behalf of a covenanting pagan who is wronged or harmed in any way or is burdened beyond his capacity, or is deprived of something against his will.’

49 When the Holy Prophet went forth to battle, he did not stop for more than three days at the place of the fighting after he had achieved victory, so that the presence of the Muslim forces should not become a source of inconvenience or a burden for the local people.

50. Any motive other than the safeguarding of the faith and putting down any mischief against it was regarded as inconsistent with the purpose of jihad The Holy Prophet, peace be on him, had announced that anyone who went forth to battle for the sake of spoils, or for the display of his bravery, or for any other worldly motive, disentitled himself to any spiritual reward.

Further reading: Violence in the Bible and Jihad in the Quran


Muhammad Zafrulla Khan. Islam and Human Rights. Islam International Publication Limited, 1999. Page 69.

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