The word ‘hostage’ conveys criminal activity undertaken by kidnappers for personal gains, an illegal act that usually falls under the jurisdiction of domestic laws. In contrast, the taking of prisoners in war is viewed as a ‘legitimate’ act that is normally subjected to international law. For propaganda reason, the pro-Zionist media usually describes the Palestinians as kidnappers holding Israeli hostages, and similar description given to those holding American or western hostages in conflict zones, conversely the captives held by Israel and the US are described as prisoners of war, implying they are being held lawfully whereas the former are held unlawfully. Therefore, in the context of war, the term hostage is inappropriate and misleading. For this reason, I have added ‘prisoner of war’ in brackets to the title of the article, which originally published in 2004, in the context of the Iraq war and has been modified to some degree.
The Islamic Verdict on Hostages (Prisoners of War)
Only in times of war, Islamic law permits the taking of prisoners from the enemy camp and they can be: released, ransomed or punished appropriately. Ideally, the choice exercised should be taken in the interest of Islam and the immediate community concerned. The first two options are not disputed. Only the latter category of punishing the prisoners has caused some level of controversy, due to the abduction of foreigners by the Iraqi resistance. Feeling the pressure from the biased media, some have condemned the Iraqi resistance, whilst remaining mute on the hundreds of innocent civilians taken from their homes, and subjected to abuse and torture, in some cases resulting death; they are non-combatants, it would be correct to call them hostages rather than prisoners of war.
Before we delve into the evidences regarding the permissibility to punish and execute prisoners of war, one should bear in mind that in Islamic law, there are the two boundaries of mandatory obligations and prohibitions concerning actions - and within the two parameters are the permitted actions, which is a matter of choice.
The Muslims are generally encouraged to treat prisoners of war well; there are sayings (Hadiths) of the Prophet (SAW) on this matter. And he said, treat the prisoners well. The companions (Sahabas) of the Prophet (SAW) used to feed the prisoners with better food, before feeding themselves. There are numerous incidences of where Muslims have released captives unharmed or for a very small price. No torture or humiliation was exercised over them.
Indeed, the Taliban treated the prisoners far better than the US forces reciprocated. They murdered prisoners with their hands tied behind their backs, reported by Robert Fisk of the Independent. Prior to the gruesome revelation of Abu-Ghraib, the Iraqi resistance did not behead prisoners; they treated them well, given that the Iraqis are the real victims, defending their land. The two Italian women released from captivity, confirmed the good treatment by their open support for the Iraqi resistance.
However, the issue of treating the prisoners well is not an absolute decisive command but a recommended advice that one should try to pursue. There are other evidences that show the permissibility to execute prisoners of war, under certain circumstances; they are elaborated by the following points.
Battle of Badr
In the battle of Badr, the Muslims acquired prisoners of war. Some of the companions were inclined to ransom them for money and others took a more stern view demanding their execution. The Prophet (SAW) opted for the lenient option. Subsequent divine revelation supported that latter point of view, meaning execution of prisoners was permitted, and in this instance the preferred thing to do.
“It is not fitting for an Apostle (Muhammad) that he should have prisoners of war, until he has thoroughly subdued the land. You look on the temporal goods of this world but Allah (SWT) looks to the hereafter” (8:67)
Another incidence after Badr was the capture of the notorious Umayah ibn Khalaf and his son; they were the owners and torturers of Bilal (RA). When Bilal (RA) spotted him as a prisoner of Abdul Rahman bin Auf (RA), he with the help of the residents of Medina (Ansars) cut the two prisoners to pieces for their earlier belligerent activity. The Prophet (SAW) did not rebuke the action of Bilal, therefore, consented to the execution of these prisoners of war. The Prophet also ordered the execution of three prisoners: Ruqba bin Abi Muwayed, Nadr bin Harith, Tuima bin Adiee.
The incident with the Jewish tribe of Banu-Quraiza
The tribe of Banu-Quraiza committed serious treachery against the Islamic State; they were taken captives and all the adult men of around 600 were put to death. Note, all the adult male captives were slain, and not just those who committed the breach; because, they were engaged collectively as a nation with the Islamic state, hence punished as a nation for breaching the terms of the treaty.
Apart from the abovementioned verse (8:67), the chapter of Muhammad (47:4) also alludes to the permissibility or in this case recommendation to execute prisoners of war. It states:
“Therefore, when you meet (battlefields) the unbelievers smite their necks; till when you have killed and wounded many of them, then bind a bond firmly (on them, i.e. take them as captives). Thereafter (is the time) either for generosity (i.e. free them without ransom), or ransom (according to what benefits Islâm), until the war lays down its burden” (47:4)
The above verse recommends resorting to harsher measures of executing prisoners of war until the Muslims have the upper hand. Then, they are encouraged to take captives with the option of setting them free or ransoming them, and the process stops when the war ends. The use of the word “smite their necks” (Darab ar-Riqab) refers to execution as oppose to the general killing in the battlefields mentioned in the other verse, where it uses the word “Qatil”
There are additional evidences to corroborate the point that Muslims have the three options in dealing with prisoners of war. The default position is that they should treat the prisoners well, and strive to set a higher example. However, in certain circumstances, harsher measures may be more suitable and necessary, which usually occurs in two types of cases a) if the enemy is maltreating the Muslim prisoners b) the military capabilities of the Muslims are inferior and their survival is at stake.
Moazzam Begg, the British captive held at Guantanamo Bay, stated in his letter about the use of torture, abuse, and other forms of violations. He also witnessed the torturing of prisoners to death by the US authority. The Iraqi prisoners have been subjected to inhuman brutality by the US soldiers in Abu-Ghraib; young boys and girls were subjected to rape, sodomy, torture and other forms of sexual perversion. Seymour Hersh revealed that young Iraqi boys were sodomised and shrieking whilst they were being filmed as souvenirs for the friends and relatives back at home. When the Pentagon showed the pictures and videos, implicit references were made to executions and Necrophilia committed by the US soldiers. American legal investigators  have found that torture and rape is rampant throughout the U.S.-run prison system in Iraq.
Therefore, the Iraqi resistance are entitled to inflict equivalent punishment on the prisoners in retaliation, as a means to deter the enemy from abusing the Iraqi prisoners. Here too, they have excelled. Beheading a handful of captives is far less painful than being tortured to death, as acknowledged by Nick Berg’s father. Even the prolonging of degrading sexual torture can be classed worse than beheading.
Note, even if the US forces treated the Muslim prisoners well, the Iraqi resistance would still be entitled to execute their prisoners, as they have been invaded in the first place and their military capabilities are far inferior to the US firepower, hence their options are limited.
Issue of non-Combatants
According to international consensus, non-combatants should not be taken hostage as they are not involved in military operations. Thus, abduction of innocent civilians (non-combatants) qualifies as hostage according to international protocol. It is the US that has violated this by imprisoning innocent civilians as hostage, and subjecting them to abuse and torture in order to apply pressure on the Iraqi resistance. In addition, the US has been lax in deploying bombing raids over populated areas, as opposed to engage combat troops on the grounds reducing the chances of civilian casualties. Since war is based on reciprocity, the Iraqi resistance are entitled to respond by targeting foreign non-combatants. However, this should be exercised cautiously, so it aids the resistance.
It could be argued in an asymmetrical war, the weaker party lacking substantial military capability in relation to their opponent, would be entitled to take non-combatants as captive for ransom.
Many of these non-combatants have entered Iraq without any covenant with the Iraqi people, as there is no legitimate Iraqi authority present. Hence, they have come as part of the war brigade, and have entered the country illegally; therefore, they are liable to be seized.
The Prophet (SAW) took hostage a man from the tribe of Uqail because of his alliance with the belligerent tribe of Thaqeef, even though Uqail was not a combatant. This evidence show that allied nations or those assisting the combatants, even if it is indirectly are treated the same way.
At present, many are exhibiting double standards fostered by the mass media. They can’t stomach the beheadings of a few hostages done in retaliation, yet they are ready to tolerate the beheadings, incineration and much more of thousands of Iraqis using high-tech equipments. Even the deliberate torturing to death of prisoners in US custody is somehow appears to be more palatable than beheadings!
Originally Published in October 2004