Ghamidi / Quran & Sunnah

Quran on Prisoners of War (POWs) – Sensing the tone!

فَإِذا لَقِيتُمُ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا فَضَرْبَ الرِّقَابِ حَتَّى إِذَا أَثْخَنْتُمُوهُمْ فَشُدُّوا الْوَثَاقَ فَإِمَّا مَنًّا بَعْدُ وَإِمَّا فِدَاءً حَتَّى تَضَعَ الْحَرْبُ أَوْزَارَهَا ذَلِكَ وَلَوْ يَشَاءُ اللَّهُ لَانْتَصَرَ مِنْهُمْ وَلَكِنْ لِيَبْلُوَ بَعْضَكُمْ بِبَعْض…(سورة محمد)

Thus, when ye encounter the Unbelievers (in battle), then (focus entirely on) smiting down their necks; till when ye have slaughtered them extensively, (only) then tighten their bonds: then whether (ye wish to stipulate) generosity afterwards, or whether ransom (, ye may do so!): (follow this prescribed way) until this war lays down its burdens. There! (No ambiguity should now remain in War, so now gird up your loins): for had Allah desired, He could certainly have exacted retribution from them (Himself); but instead (He chose you to exact it) so that He may test you (by pitching you) against one another. (Composition 47 | Muhammad, Sign 4)

Short Version

After divulging my submissions in regards to the Sign cited above in detail, I realized that the article has perhaps become a tad too copious. Thereafter, I divided it into two sections: Short Version and Long Version. Those willing to endure through my detailed ramblings on the subject, please skip to the Long Version below. For those, short on time and inclination, I am inscribing herein the crux of my opinion.

The Sign quoted above has been taken to act as a standalone law for ‘POWs’ in Islam. The advocates believe that this Sign delimits prisoner-dispensation only to the two options mentioned explicitly in the Sign: i.e. captives have to be released – either as an act of generosity; or in exchange for prisoners/wealth/services. The clause in red above has been the reason for this deduction.

I believe that this is not a standalone or generic law for POWs; it was specific to the polytheists of – ‘أُمَّ الْقُرَى وَمَنْ حَوْلَهَا’ – the chief town (i.e. Mecca) and its environs. It was a specific injunction given for a divine war that went on between the Holy Prophet and his direct addressees i.e. Qureish. The instruction to ‘massacre them thoroughly’, the mentioning of ’till war lays down its burdens’ as an end-state, and labeling it as ‘divine vengeance’ are the indicators corroborating my claim.

Just like permission has been given to ‘make prisoners’ after the prescript of the Sign has been fulfilled, I also believe that the two options mentioned explicitly for prisoner-handling – i.e. generosity and ransom – are also a permission only. Neither are they obligatory, nor delimiting. They have been mentioned expressly so that the ambit of lawful sentences for these specific captives could be aggrandized to include these two options as well. Other options, such as killing etc. were asserted by religion, logic and the de facto practice, in fact even inclined towards, hence there was no need to mention them explicitly. The manner adopted to utter these options, i.e. the reduction of verbs from the clause and use of verbal nouns only, the use of the expression whether this or whether that without any exhortation or compulsion, and the final fate of these polytheists according to divine law, are indicative of condonation and not delimitation.

Long Version

This was the first Sign to have been revealed to the Holy Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) that codified the modus operandi for an eminent war with the disbelievers of Mecca. Although, war had been sanctioned in principle by one-odd Signs revealed earlier – but this was the first complete Composition that spelled out the policy statement for this war against the belligerent polytheists of Mecca; who had persecuted the Muslims for several years thereby compelling them to go into exile from their homeland, and had endeavored to assassinate the Holy Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم). The whole Composition is centered around this ‘War’: wherein Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) built the premise for this war, labeling it as inevitable after the conscious decision of the disbelievers to remain infidels, and who had now gone into overdrive to try and extinguish this ‘Light’ of God with all their might and may; that too after a span of over 13 years of excruciating labor by the Holy Prophet and the believers to try and convince them of the truth of Islam. This Composition can therefore be divided into two halves: the first one is a motivational speech to entice the believers to fight; while the second comprises of remarks uttered by God to dispel weaknesses cropping up in speech and actions of the faint-hearted among these believers who wanted to refrain from this war. Sign 4 quoted above is the only statement uttered in legislative style and is tantamount to the Rules of Engagement for this war; revealed rightly at the dawn of a new phase in this campaign between good and evil.

The method prescribed in the Sign is that whenever the Muslims encounter these infidels in an open battle, they should concentrate on decimating them: this should be the only thing on their minds. Only after they reckon that they have grossly vanquished these enemies of God, should they divert their attention towards making any prisoners. If the prisoners were taken after fulfilling this prescript, then God wouldn’t care what fate these prisoners were subjected to. The divine-retribution status of this war and the existing divine law (Mosaic Law) were overly leaning towards harsh ends for any combatant captives; But herein, Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) being most benevolent that He always is, became considerate of the situation; wherein almost all the captives were the kith and kin of the Muslims, and even of the Holy Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم). Empathizing with His beloved Prophet and the true believers, He gave permission of the thing that was most desired by these tender-hearted souls: thus, those seeking compassion were allowed to exhibit generosity, and those hoping to get some material benefits out of this service were allowed to seek ransom – but provisioned strictly with the proviso that such ventures of prisoner-taking should only be undertaken after Allah’s law had been fulfilled, i.e. the enemy had been massacred thoroughly: because this wasn’t just any war; this was Allah’s divine retribution that these hostiles had demanded incessantly and had deserved since long in accordance with His Sunnah (i.e. established practice); the only difference was that it would be delivered through the swords of Muslims. This modus operandi was declared to be followed in all such encounters with these specific hostiles from Mecca, right through to the end, till war has run its course.

This is the generic meaning of this Sign – plain and simple; and is largely undisputed. But speaking strictly technically, this is one of those Signs that has been the source of much discomfort for almost all Quranic exegetes, to date. In my humble opinion, this discomfort, or confusion, has only resulted from a failure to sense the tone of our Lord. People normally become so consumed with their research into the isolated meanings of words and expressions and individual Signs, that they scoot too close to the construction to see it in perspective. What I would advise them is to take a few steps back so that they may visualize the true purpose of a building by viewing it as part of an entire locality.

To be specific, the Sign has been taken to act as a generic and standalone ‘Law’ in regards to POWs in Islam: i.e. because of the blue and red parts of the Sign. These colored parts, therefore, are going to be the centerpiece of my discussion here.

Before I delve into the clause-by-clause analysis of this Sign, let me just recap the fundamental opinions of our revered Scholars about this Sign. But for comparing these with mine afterwards, please keep in mind that there are basically two Conclusions drawn from this Sign that can be contended: One is that whether this is a generic law for POWs or not; and second, that whether the post-capture options for POWs are limited to only these two (i.e. freedom as a result of generosity, or ransom) or not.

Most of our traditionalist scholars opine in the positive for the 1st conclusion and negative for the 2nd one. This is pretty much the majority view and therefore, orthodox. For the 1st conclusion their argument would have been that the words of the Sign are not much different from all the other Signs legislating generic laws for Muslims, therefore there’s no need to restrict its ambit to the belligerent polytheists of that time. I said ‘would have been’, because more often than not, it is quite difficult to discover their underlying arguments, and sometimes there aren’t any. For the 2nd conclusion, their arguments are further bifurcated: One group believes that though the words of the Sign are ‘delimiting’ in the sense that killing the prisoners as an option has been revoked – as the choice is only between free-freedom or paid-freedom – but maintain ‘Enslaving’ these prisoners as being implied by the word ‘مَنًّا’ (generosity). The respected neo-traditionalist contemporary scholar Maudoodi Sahab favors this opinion too. While the other sub-group does not consider these words to be ‘limiting’ but still believes in both of the above mentioned results. Islahi Sahab, my Mufassir 2.0, also falls into this category, I think!

As opposed to our traditional scholars, then there is Javed Ahmad Ghamidi Sahab, who in my perception is one of the least affected by the ‘Observer Bias’ among our scholars. His opinions are usually well-founded in Quran and his commentary on Quranic Signs appears to be gushing faithfully forth from its words. That is the reason why his opinions hold much sway with our western-educated religious junta, and all the more reason why they should be analyzed and rebutted for any other opinion to stand its ground. On the Sign under discussion, he has a different angle on things: In regards to the 2nd conclusion he believes that the options for prisoners are ‘strictly limited’ to only these two, owing to the obvious meaning of the clause in red: which he translates as either generosity has to be done or ransom has to be taken. And as per this interpretation since no other option has remained lawful even for these bitter enemies of Allah and His messenger, then he logically deduces that the answer to the 1st conclusion is in the positive. But again logically, he sustains enslaving and killing; but only under exceptional circumstances, where the prisoner being judged has committed other offences that might merit an exceptional sentence: hence, removing such sentences from the ambit of this Sign, in effect.

Just to summarize, orthodox opinion though largely believes the options to be limited to the mentioned two only, but maintains enslaving as implied within them, and considers killing as an exception to the rule; and therefore practicable selectively. Whereas Ghamidi Sahab believes options to be strictly limited to these two, but maintains both enslaving and killing as exceptions to the rule, that a ruler may adopt under extraordinary situations. But both these groups consider the ordinance in this Sign to be generic: at least in effect, if not ipso facto.

I have reasons to believe that the guidance given in this Sign was meant specifically for the campaign against polytheists of that time and space; and that the options mentioned were/are not there to serve as delimiters of any kind. Before I go over to my reasoning, let me first dilate this Sign in a structured manner and dissect it’s individual clauses separately, so that if I’m making an error in judgement somewhere, it can be spotted vividly; and traced back to its source readily:


1. فَإِذا لَقِيتُمُ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا فَضَرْبَ الرِّقَابِ – If we were to remove the implied phrases from its translation, it could be condensed to “Thus, when ye encounter the Unbelievers, then smiting down of necks“. Let’s take it phrase by phrase:

  • Thus: It is the resumption particle, brought here to weave this Sign together with the preceding ones. If you look at the preceding Signs you’ll notice that therein Allah has handed down His verdict that the Unbelievers who had deliberately and consistently denied the Holy Prophet were now doomed; and the believers were now destined for salvation. After this premise, the Thus means that the unbelievers being sentenced here are the aforementioned ones.
  • when ye encounter the Unbelievers: Pretty self-explanatory, but the words ‘in battle’ or the like are implied after this phrase: Since they could readily be inferred from the context, they were prudently reduced by the Speaker from this clause. Avoiding repetition and exploiting the law of implication is a common sight in eloquent linguistics. Therefore, the meaning this far is that when you, i.e. Muslims, meet the aforementioned disbelievers in the battlefield…
  • then smiting down of necks: Using the expression smiting down necks in place of fighting or killing is a purposeful move to show that the speaker possesses no vestige of mercy for these subjects, so neither should the addressee. And then, instead of saying ‘smite down their necks’ – with the verb smite in imperative form – it has been brought here as smiting, as a gerund, i.e. in its substantive form. Such a change is a trademark move in eloquent Arabic speech when the action purported by the verb is to be emphasized to a drastic level. Furthermore, owing to the next clause (serial 2 below), words similar to ‘focus entirely on‘ or ‘concentrate solely on‘, are implied and have to be increased while translating to convey the exact intensity. Apropos, smiting of necks has been declared as the prime motive of this battle. The overall meaning of the clause therefore, is that when o’ believers you shall encounter these disbelievers in active battle; who have outlived their moratorium, and are now destined for the guillotine; then the only thing you have to fixate on is smiting them down. Any roads to mercy or reconciliation must be considered as severed, while in battle, for these condemned offenders.

2. حَتَّى إِذَا أَثْخَنْتُمُوهُمْ فَشُدُّوا الْوَثَاقَ – “till when you have slaughtered them thoroughly, then tighten their bonds“.

  • till when: The ‘till‘ is followed by a ‘when‘ which is then followed by a perfect tense. When this manner is adopted in Informational clauses, it means that the activity governed by these temporal particles has been completed assuredly; similarly, when it is done in Imperative clauses, it exhorts the listener to exercise caution in deciding whether the condition purported by the verb has in fact completed and therefore the time has in fact reached or not. In order to radiate this heightened sensitivity, that is why, while translating, ‘only’ needs to be added before ‘then’.
  • you have slaughtered them thoroughly: the verb used comes from the root form ‘ثخن’, which basically expresses vehemence or thoroughness in killing, or exceeding the usual or just bounds in doing something. Here it has been used in its literal sense i.e. slaughter or butcher them thoroughly or excessively. Although, it can be translated in its metaphorical sense, i.e. subdue them or vanquish them, but this would create confusion. Plus the word was explained further by another Sign from Composition 8: wherein it was expanded to mean ‘يُثْخِنَ فِي الْأَرْضِ’ (much blood has been shed in the land). Thus the correct translation would be as done above. The meaning therefore, would be that you have to keep smiting down their necks till when you have done a massacre among them; not just till you are sure of your victory; but rather to a point where you are certain that you have vanquished a major part of their army; rout them; chase them and kill as many as you can; breaking their spirit in totality.
  • then tighten their bonds: As highlighted above, ‘only’ has to be increased to justly translate the ‘حَتَّى إِذَا’. This would safely convey the correct sense: that making prisoners should not be perceived as a motive of this battle; it should only be perceived as an eventuality. The expression ‘tighten their bonds’ is the eloquent equivalent of ‘make prisoners’. However, the expression used carries a ‘harsher’ sense than saying ‘make prisoners’. Thus it exudes the ‘unsympathetic’ vibe that the Muslims were supposed to exhibit. The other thing to note is that the verb ‘شُدُّوا’, is in its imperative form, rather than substantive form, different from the case with ‘ضَرْبَ الرِّقَابِ’ above; the imperative form is used for various intensities ranging from command, exhortation, plea, advice to mere permission. Herein, owing to the previous phrase it is definitely in the permission sense. This therefore, further accentuates the eventuality not motive sense of the instruction. Hence the meaning would be that only when you are done slaughtering most of them are you allowed to switch your attention towards seeking any captives; but strictness and humiliation should still be exhibited while chaining them; so that they would fearfully remain ambivalent about their fate; searching, but not able to find any smidgen of mercy from their ex-brethren.

3. فَإِمَّا مَنًّا بَعْدُ وَإِمَّا فِدَاءً – condensed translation could be “then whether generosity afterwards or whether ransom“.

  • إِمَّا۔۔۔وَإِمَّا۔۔۔: It is the Arabic equivalent of Either…or…: and just like English, depending on the context, it may be used for a number of purposes; for e.g: in the sentence “Either you study regularly, or you’ll fail“, it is used to depict cause and effect, or condition and result. Similarly, it may be used to limit the choices available like in this sentence, “My memory is a bit hazy, but I’m sure that it was either Ahmad or Bilal!“; or like in the Sign “وَآَخَرُونَ مُرْجَوْنَ لِأَمْرِ اللَّهِ إِمَّا يُعَذِّبُهُمْ وَإِمَّا يَتُوبُ عَلَيْهِمْ وَاللَّهُ عَلِيمٌ حَكِيمٌ” which means “and there are (yet) others, held in suspense for the sentence of God: either He will punish them, or turn in mercy to them: for God is All-Knowing, Wise”. On other occasions this style becomes the equivalent of whether….or whether….; This manner is usually adopted when the speaker wishes to express his nonchalance about a situation. It is often employed to allude to the addressee that the matter has been relinquished to his sweet will and wish; whatsoever he decides, he’s free to act on it. In such a case, any explicit choices mentioned are chosen to reflect the situation and do not serve to preclude other options. Like for e.g, Sign 3|Composition 76: ‘إِنَّا هَدَيْنَاهُ السَّبِيلَ إِمَّا شَاكِرًا وَإِمَّا كَفُورًا’ ‘We showed him the Way: whether he be grateful, or whether ungrateful (rests on his will)‘ – or like Sign 86|Composition 18: “قُلْنَا يَا ذَا الْقَرْنَيْنِ إِمَّا أَنْ تُعَذِّبَ وَإِمَّا أَنْ تَتَّخِذَ فِيهِمْ حُسْنًا” which means “We said: O Zul-qarnain! (thou hast authority) whether you (choose to) punish them, or whether you treat them with benevolence (is entirely up to you!)“. Thus,  this ‘either/or’ construction in itself is not delimiting per se: it is the context that may or may not make it so. Herein, the context clearly puts it in this latter sense. Therefore, words similar to ‘you may do so’, or ‘thou art authorized’ etc. are implied.
  • ‘مَنًّا’ means grace, generosity etc.; while ‘فِدَاءً’ means ransom. Both are in the form of Indefinite Verbal Nouns. Verbal nouns are usually used when an abstract idea or concept of the action purported by the verb is to be referred, and are kept Indefinite to refer to the broader concept of the verb. Hence, ‘مَنًّا’ would mean generosity of any kind, while ‘فِدَاءً’ would imply ransom in any form. To complete the sentence, any appropriate verb may be assumed to be implied before these verbal nouns. Like for example, in Sign 86|Composition 18 quoted above, ‘تَتَّخِذَ فِيهِمْ’ has been used before the verbal noun ‘حُسْنًا’. Herein we can assume stipulate, decide… or the like. These two options have been selectively mentioned because the overall harshness of the tone and ‘divine retribution’ facet of this war would have rendered these options out-of-bound. Hence they have been mentioned explicitly so that they may be considered as permissible.
  • ‘بَعْدُ’ means after, afterwards. It implies that any acts of generosity or ransom be exhibited only after the battle is over and prisoners have been made according to the method prescribed.
  • Thus the overall meaning of this clause is that, if any prisoners were made, then after the battle is over muslims are allowed to exhibit whatever form of kindness or exchange-payment they see fit for these prisoners. God is not concerned about them and is not going to hold the muslims in contravention of His Divine Law.

4. حَتَّى تَضَعَ الْحَرْبُ أَوْزَارَهَا – ‘till war lays down its burdens‘:

  • The ‘till‘ here implies the phrase that this ordinance shall remain in force until such a state is reached….
  • The state is ‘war lays down its burdens‘. It again is a literary depiction signifying the end of hostilities between these two entities, i.e. between the believers and the polytheists of Mecca. At another place this state has been further elaborated by saying ‘وَقَاتِلُوهُمْ حَتَّى لَا تَكُونَ فِتْنَةٌ وَيَكُونَ الدِّينُ كُلُّهُ لِلَّهِ’ meaning ‘and keep combating them (i.e. Quraysh) until persecution no longer remains and religion (herein), all of it, becomes for Allah‘. Hence, this clause clearly ordains that the prescribed manner is to be followed until this war with Quraysh has culminated. In computing lingo, we can term it as the ordinance’s Time to Live, i.e. after which time this ordinance shall be no longer required.

5. ذَلِكَ – ‘There!

  • It literally means ‘That!‘, but is a placeholder for an entire sentence. The sentence it stands for is usually readily calculable through its antecedents. Especially, the very next clause that starts with the conjunction ‘وَ’ usually provides definitive details of this implied sentence. It has been translated by scholars in the sense that ‘This is what you need to do‘ or ‘This is the command‘. Although, this sense is quite plausible, and fits in with the ethos of the Composition, but I prefer my version: because first of all such like exclamations are usually not literally equated between languages; words better suited to convey their sense in the other language are adopted. Here it has been used in the sense of ‘There!‘. The sense is that when someone gives a detailed sought after instruction and then says, There! – it means: there! the matter has been decided; or take it and follow it! etc. Therefore, herein it means that you now have an unequivocal and concise instruction regarding the purpose, method and end-state of this ordained war: so now get on with it!

6. وَلَوْ يَشَاءُ اللَّهُ لَانْتَصَرَ مِنْهُمْ وَلَكِنْ لِيَبْلُوَ بَعْضَكُمْ بِبَعْض – ‘for had Allah desired, He could certainly have exacted retribution from them; but instead so that He may test some of you through others

  • for had Allah desired, He could certainly have exacted retribution from them;‘ – Allah is in habit of clarifying any misperceptions that might arise from His commands there and then. Because of all this persuasion and exhortation for war God might have come off as ‘needy’ to some fragile minds. Hence it was clarified that it is no ‘biggie’ for God to handle them Himself; in fact He’s been doing so since time immemorial, as is rife throughout the scripture. But it was only because of certain other things that He has chosen this way. Though, this clause has been uttered to quell this doubt, but with the same words God has also declared the status of this war: which was that it was a divine vengeance. This divine vengeance status of this war was then further corroborated by Signs like in Composition 9: ‘قَاتِلُوهُمْ يُعَذِّبْهُمُ اللَّهُ بِأَيْدِيكُمْ وَيُخْزِهِمْ وَيَنْصُرْكُمْ عَلَيْهِمْ وَيَشْفِ صُدُورَ قَوْمٍ مُؤْمِنِينَ وَيُذْهِبْ غَيْظَ قُلُوبِهِمْ’ which means fight them! Allah will punish them by your hands, and will humiliate them, and will give you victory over them, and will soothe the breasts of a group among the believers, and will release the anger of their hearts. Thus, words similar to ‘but He chose you to exact it‘ are implied.
  • but instead so that He may test some of you through others‘ – While uttering the ordinance God had adopted more of a General’s role; but with this clause He has gone back to His Godly mode. Thus after clarifying that the believers should not think of themselves as indispensable but rather privileged, He mentions one of the reasons that falls within the ambit of His grand scheme for this world: and that is that He tests His loyal subjects by placing them in trials and tribulations and by pitching them against their enemies. Through this test, the true believers are separated from the fake ones, while the enemies are disgraced and subdued through it.
  • Hence, the overall meaning of this clause is that, nemesis of these disbelievers is now a fait accompli. It ought to have come through an act of God, such as a natural disaster; but instead He’s chosen His believers to deliver it; hence His loyal subjects should feel privileged rather than fearful, lazy or proud; and that this is only because it is Allah’s habit to craft tests out of all situations for His believers; but unlike others, this one is a test that comes with an immediate and sweet recompense within this world.

With this analysis in mind, let’s move over to my conclusions, their derivation, and their credence in juxtaposition to alternative reasoning.

Conclusions, Rebuttal and Reasoning

As highlighted earlier, my conclusions are as follows:

1. This ordinance is not generic: it was both time-bound and entity-specific. Even when the Holy Prophet was alive and engaging in battles, this ordinance was meant strictly for the polytheists of Mecca. It cannot thus be applied ‘as is’ to any other entity or era.

2. The two options given for prisoner-handling are not delimiting: they were only declared ‘allowed’. They have been mentioned explicitly only because they would not have been thought as permissible unless declared so, and because God wanted to appease the believers and the Holy Prophet.

Conclusion 1: Not Generic!

This conclusion can be/has been objected to, in two different ways:

  • Our traditional scholars usually haven’t mentioned any reasons why they do so, but it is evident from their commentaries that they take it to be a generic ‘Law’ for deciding fate of any and all prisoners due to the alleged ‘generic’ outlook of the Sign.
  • Ghamidi Sahab’s acceptance of it being generic, however rests on the 2nd conclusion. He says that whence even for these divinely condemned offenders options were only limited to these two, thus by extension, any other offenders cannot be subjected to any harsher fate.

Therefore, I shall only offer my reasons against our traditional scholars, since Ghamidi Sahab’s opinion shall be dealt with under Conclusion 2. Hence, here are my arguments…

There’s no doubt that the Holy Quran contains guidance for all eternity. Orders, code of ethics, procedural law and instructions in general – despite the fact that they are often revealed as a result of some specific incident in the Holy Prophet’s era, and despite the fact that they are often addressed to specific entities – are in fact generic in nature. But similarly, the existence of many laws in the Scripture – limited by time, space and entities – is also undisputed. How scholars can tell one from the other, is because God marks both with discrete markers, that are easily discernable. The Sign in question not only does not have a generic outlook, but contains explicit pointers within it, and peculiar contextual predicates about it, that confirm its exclusivity. I’ll explain these markers further below:

a. Most notable is the use of the expression ‘حَتَّى إِذَا أَثْخَنْتُمُوهُمْ’. Saying that keep smiting down their necks till you have massacred them cannot be an instruction for all kinds of battles / wars. Wars are fought till victory only. The moment the adversary accepts defeat and raises hands, it is not only moral but also prudent to end the battle: the moral part is universally acceptable; whereas it is prudent because so many of enemy’s men and weapons fall into the victor’s hands undamaged that they can aid the victor’s overall campaign. But herein, the instruction is to keep going on till much blood has been shed in the land (يُثْخِنَ فِي الْأَرْضِ, Sign 67|Composition 8). This unequivocally implies that even if some soldiers surrender themselves in the heat of the battle, they shall not be taken captive but instead will be subjected to the sword. Only after the army is done with killing enough of the enemy would it be allowed to divert its manpower towards other secondary tasks, such as to take any prisoners. Therefore, this instruction to keep smiting down necks till enough blood has been shed is unique and specific to the polytheists of Mecca and its surroundings. It was because any nation in which an Apostle is raised does not have any option other than accepting his call; and if they don’t, it is Allah’s unswerving practice to annihilate them. The only difference in this case, as highlighted earlier also, was that their annihilation was destined through the hands of the believers.

b. Then the ordinance’s time to live has clearly been mentioned as ‘until war lays down its burdens’. This is a clear indicator that this is only a timed instruction, and the moment war with these polytheists ends, the instruction would have outlived its utility. It can particularly be contrasted with the instruction that was given when war with the Romans had broken out. God said (Sign 29|Composition 9):

قَاتِلُوا الَّذِينَ لَا يُؤْمِنُونَ بِاللَّهِ وَلَا بِالْيَوْمِ الْآَخِرِ وَلَا يُحَرِّمُونَ مَا حَرَّمَ اللَّهُ وَرَسُولُهُ وَلَا يَدِينُونَ دِينَ الْحَقِّ مِنَ الَّذِينَ أُوتُوا الْكِتَابَ حَتَّى يُعْطُوا الْجِزْيَةَ عَنْ يَدٍ وَهُمْ صَاغِرُونَ

Fight those People of the Book: who believe not in God nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by God and His Apostle, nor abide by the religion of Truth: until they readily pay the Jizya out of willing submission and stay as minions.

See how in this instruction fight is ordained till the Jews and Christians give up fighting and are ready to pay obligatory tax and willing to live as minions of the Muslim state. Saying that “till war lays down its burdens”, in comparison, clearly signifies a specific and time-bound instruction. People familiar with the style of the Holy Quran know that such like ‘end-states’ are not mentioned for permanent and open-ended injunctions.

c. Then there is the remark towards the end of the Sign where Allah says: ‘Had Allah desired He would have avenged them Himself (but He chose to exact His retribution through you)’; calling this war as revenge and exaction of retribution is definitive for declaring this ordinance as a divine sentence: issued only for those polytheists who had been duly informed, all of their queries answered, and whose moratorium had now run out. Any other adversary would not fit the criterion and any other wars that Muslims would have to fight in any other era cannot be called as divine vengeance.

d. And finally, have a bird’s eye view of the entire Composition housing the Sign under discussion. Whether it is the statement with which the Composition kicks off, that ‘verily those who have disbelieved and halted (themselves and others) from the way of Allah, He has wasted all their deeds‘; or whether ‘Those who have disbelieved and halted (themselves and others) from the way of Allah, and have opposed the Apostle after Guidance has been utterly elucidated for them, can never injure God in the least; and He will shortly annul their deeds‘; or whether when He says ‘Thus do not slouch or call to truce, for you will come out on top; Allah is with you and He will never cheat you of your rightful reward‘, and many others: all of them can only fit the description of those polytheists for whom Guidance had been incontrovertibly elucidated and who had already been indicted and were now sentenced.

Conclusion 2: Not Delimiting!

I think the refutation of Ghamidi Sahab’s reasoning would be sufficient to sate all other dissentient arguments. He says:

  • The Sign clearly delimits prisoner-handling to only two options. Thus no other avenue remains lawful: i.e. prisoners must be released as an act of benevolence, or for ransom;
  • and since compassion remained the only permissible demeanor for these divinely sentenced offenders, hence any other offenders, who can’t surely exceed in wrath of God than these, have to be dealt with the same two options.

I shall not delve into disproving the 2nd bullet, since it hinges solely on the 1st one. Debunking the 1st bullet would automatically raze the 2nd. But before I do so, just a word of caution: that Ghamidi Sahab isn’t alone in this deduction – Almost all of our scholars accede to it; Other’s who do not agree to it totally, actually agree to the most part of it; but for some inexplicable reason believe that enslaving is implied within them. I know it is because of a weird balance they believe exists between Sunnah and Quran, but I am intentionally sidestepping it for now. The point I intend to make is that my arguments should be considered a response to all of them, and not just Ghamidi Sahab; because though our orthodox scholars might’ve reached a destination really close to the one that I’m campaigning for here, but that doesn’t mean that the path they took must be right too. If they believe the way they believe the Signs to be, then Ghamidi Sahab’s destination is inevitable! So here goes…

I have already endeavored to debunk this conclusion earlier in the article. IMHO, this clause is merely a ‘permission’: just like it’s preceding clause. When Allah said that only after you’re certain that you have massacred the enemy thoroughly can you make any prisoners: it is undoubtedly a ‘permission’ to make prisoners; not an obligation. Ghamidi Sahab too agrees to this extent. But when he comes over to this next clause, then instead of translating it as ‘then you may do so and so’, he translates it as ‘you must do so and so’. Why this sudden change of tone? No reason has been given for this abrupt halt to the previous momentum of the sentence. Surely there aren’t any explicit words that say ‘you must’ or ‘you have to’ in this clause. All the more reason that this clause should be perceived in line with the previous tone. But there are some peculiarities in this clause that might be claimed to be insinuating that the sense has now changed from permissive to imperative. Let’s have a look at them…

One peculiarity is that the options, i.e. generosity and ransom, have both been brought here as verbal nouns, rather than plain verbs; and because of this it might be said, as if it is the only allowable usage, that perhaps they should be perceived as Cognate Accusatives: wherein a verbal noun is brought after the verb to emphasize the verb – like in the expression ‘ضرب ضرباً’ (he struck a solid blow); therefore the advocates of this opinion posit that matching verbs should be assumed to be implied in the clause. These people, therefore, expand this clause as “فاما تمنون منًا، و اما تفدون فداء” wanting it to mean, “you have to either exhibit generosity and release them, or you have to take ransom and release them”. I said wanting it to mean, because of a number of reasons that will transpire shortly.

Literally, this expanded expression would mean “either you be generous with sheer generosity, or you ransom with utter ransom”. If it is in fact a case of Cognate Accusatives, then the verbal nouns are brought only to accentuate the meaning of their matching verbs; not to express compulsion. The words ‘you have to‘ or any other ‘compelling’ phrase cannot be assumed to be implied just because of a Cognate Accusative. The verbal nouns only intensify the meaning of the verbs; they do not serve any purpose of changing the optional or mandatory nature of the statement. If it in fact is a case of Cognate Accusatives, then, ‘تمنون منًا’ would mean ‘exhibit immense generosity’ rather than ‘release as an act of generosity’. Exhorting people to exhibit, not simple generosity, but ‘immense generosity’ makes no sense for prisoners. Generosity is used in comparison with ransom: then this would imply that generosity means releasing without ransom; but then, what would immense generosity mean? What immediately comes to mind with these words is that perhaps muslims were to give these captives some kind of reward too, apart from freedom. The futility of this usage is further amplified in case of ‘تفدون فداء’: which aspect of ransom was to be emphasized by this usage is a mystery to me.

The words ‘you have to‘ can be alleged to have come from the usage of ‘إِمَّا۔۔۔وَإِمَّا۔۔۔’. As already explained in the clause-by-clause analysis, though it can mean either…or…, it doesn’t mean that it must result in delimitation or compulsion. It, quite regularly, is used to express nonchalance by the speaker, wherein, the options mentioned are selected in view of arbitrary purposes and delimitation is nowhere in sight: For e.g, 18:86, 76:3 mentioned earlier also. Language is not Mathematics, where 2+2 always equals 4. In linguistics, the same words and expressions when used in different contexts, render a variety of meanings. If the meaning of ‘compulsion’ or ‘delimitation’ was to be manifested, explicit words ought to have been brought. People familiar with Quranic-Style of conversation would testify that when delimiting any matter to a select number of options, Quran uses the style of exception: i.e. using ‘الّا’. Words similar to ‘فما لكم إلا مناً أو فداءً’ or ‘فعليكم مناً أو فداءً’ should have come expressly. To be more precise, owing to the momentum of the preceding clauses, Mosaic Law in vogue and the de facto practices in the Arabian culture, explicit revocation of killing and enslaving should have been mentioned, such as ‘فما لكم أن تقتلوهم بعد أو ترقوهم’ (then it is not lawful for you to kill them afterwards or enslave them) or the like.

In fact, when proscription/revocation of common and widespread malpractices is desired, Allah always clarifies it in both positive as well as negative manners. For example, after clarifying the select number of female relatives with whom marriage is not allowed, which did not contain wives of adopted sons, Allah had to contrive a whole incident of compelling the Holy Prophet to marry his adopted son’s ex-wife, and included several Signs narrating the incident in the Holy Quran. To think that Allah would abolish an option more pervasive than the issue of ex-wives of adopted sons, and against His established divine practice over the ages, with this short clause, could only be done by people grossly unfamiliar with the style of the Quran.

Having said all that, there is no reason here to believe that it is a case of Cognate Accusatives. They are plain verbal nouns that are used when the broader concept of their root verbs is to be referred to; like in ‘تَتَّخِذَ فِيهِمْ حُسْنًا’ quoted above. The simple and straightforward expansion of the clause is ‘فَإِمَّا تريدون مَنًّا بَعْدُ وَإِمَّا تقضون فِدَاءً’ (then whether you intend generosity afterwards or whether you decide ransom) or the like, where any verb meaning exhibit, decide, choose, stipulate etc. can be readily assumed as implied without adding or subtracting to the visible sense of the clause. In reality, the very fact that verbs were intentionally left out is evidence itself that this is also a mere permission; because, whenever words or phrases are intentionally left out by any speaker who considers them to be readily calculable by the listener, it is always in line with the prevailing sense of the sentence.

What also is a fact is that the intended fate of the prisoners as dictated by the tone of our Lord in the Sign, was so unambiguously death or humiliation, that it didn’t need any explicit mention. That is exactly why, ultimately, these polytheists were forced to choose between Islam or Execution. Thus considering them as directly implied, God only went for those two options that though desired by the muslims, could not have been considered as implied.

Actually this explanation that the fate of prisoners is now limited to one of these two options only, is kind of a conundrum for me. I’ve been unable to comprehend how someone after such strict and discrete instructions can expect such unprecedented and mandatory compassion for these condemned enemies of Allah. Consider the following instructions, let’s assume were issued to soldiers:

“Our enemy has now been explicitly declared as divinely damned owing to their deliberate and continuous animosity with our Lord and His Messenger; and has now been ordained for divine retribution. We have heard that they have amassed a huge army and are coming to annihilate us, once and for all. So when you find them in the battlefield, strike down their necks with vehemence and fixation. Don’t let them run, don’t let them hide, but seek them out, chase them and kill as many of them as you can. Allah is with you, so no slackening, no mercy! If you find some soldier – who after killing many of our soldiers realizes that he’s outnumbered and overwhelmed and would soon be killed and deep enough to know that he cannot outrun us – gives himself up: show utmost compassion to him! You can do nothing to him except treat him nicely and release him so that he may recharge and replenish and come back for another attack on us…..”

Do these instructions seem logical? Apart from being illogical, there are certain endings that are not only unexpected, but rather unthinkable to a listener after certain beginnings. After whole premise of this war and such stringent instructions about slaughtering this condemned enemy, how could one possibly think that after capture God is insisting that they must be left, conditionally or unconditionally? If this seems logical or even sane to somebody, I for one am unable to understand it!

Because of the nature of this war, that had been ordained between believers and the disbelievers under the Holy Prophet’s command, and the choice of words done by Allah, it is incontrovertible to me at least, that it was merely a permission; a relaxation of sorts. A hard one for God as it was. To me, it is also clear that it was only granted to appease the Holy Prophet and the believers. The use of the word ‘مَنًّا’ is utterly out-of-sync with the rest of this violent ordinance. The choice of words and the promotion of generosity over ransom in the sequence of choices, is a vivid indicator that the options mentioned are in the sequence the addressees preferred.

Then it is common knowledge that whenever, any combatant from among the enemy throws down his weapon during battle and surrenders himself: he knowingly chooses humiliation over certain death. And it is perfectly understandable. What this combatant ought to have done was to keep fighting till he embraces death, but instead he chooses the easy way out; and almost always because he wants to escape death and live. Now, because he made this ‘safe’ decision for his ownself, unilaterally, and for own benefits, should we feel compelled morally to release him after capture? Slavery was a form of humiliation back then. Removing even this humiliation from the result of fighting against someone, not to mention that that someone was God, is incomprehensible. In fact, owing to the nature of this war with the polytheists, and the convert-or-be-killed injunctions revealed later, even slavery was never considered an option for them. Express words to every nuance of Allah’s tone suggested that any and all of these belligerent infidels ought to have been killed with extreme prejudice.

Then it is also pertinent to note that war works on a principle of reciprocation. If one side unilaterally decides to release all prisoners compulsarily, it would be idiotic. In fact, it would be tantamount to issuing an invitation to attack. I mean, why wouldn’t it embolden the enemy to persistently launch offensives against the other party, once they know that if their attack fails, their soldiers not only can’t be harmed, but rather have to be released? All this, while they retain the right to subject the other party’s captives to whatever fate they feel like!

Then, even if one side wishes to show compassion, there is no reason to announce it beforehand. It would be considered much more indebting if prisoners did not know in advance what their fate is going to be.

Consequent to these semantic and logical arguments above, it is a historical fact that enslaving always remained a widespread and common practice throughout the Holy Prophet’s and the 4 x rightly guided caliphs’ eras; all historians testify to it. The sheer magnitude of slaves pervasive throughout the Muslim states in the time of the Companions, precludes the possibility of it being an exception to the rule. Had this Sign been taken to mean what scholars today want it to mean, can one comprehend that the activity throve on the way it throve on?

Hence, semantically, logically and historically, this Sign does not put any limits on the number of options lawful for prisoner-handling. It was merely a permission, and was specifically meant for a particular war!

Generic Laws for POWs in Islam

As mentioned earlier, wars work on a principle of reciprocation. What the enemy considers practicable, should not and cannot be declared unlawful unilaterally; unless of course, something is outrightly unethical or inhumane. And just like God did not burden Himself with defining what all modes of warfare are lawful or unlawful, He needn’t declare what should or could be done with POWs. And if He did so, He should have followed a consistent policy throughout the ages. Anyhow, laws for POWs can readily be derived from the ethos of Islam. The option chosen for implementation would depend more on the circumstance than pre-meditation. These may include:

  • Prisoner-exchange should be sought as the foremost option. If some of own soldiers are present as captives with the enemy, their release will be secured in exchange for enemy soldiers in own captivity. Any and all other options of prisoner-handling would be considered as debarred till the time an agreement with the enemy about fate of own soldiers held captive has not been rendered unreachable.
  • Killing is, and always has been, an exceptional option for prisoners of war. When a combatant gives up his arms, he does it to save his life. It is only logical and moral then to spare his life; but on our terms, not his. That is why, it is a universally accepted principle that POWs shall not be killed. Therefore, any war that Muslims undergo with any other nation, has to be governed by this principle. Wars of divine nature, like the ones our Holy Prophet underwent, are an exception. If due to some divine principles POWs are sentenced to execution, it is a whole other ball game, and inimitable.
  • Enslaving was one of the most ‘ethical’ forms of prisoner-handling. Instead of keeping prisoners chained in captivity, away from normal life, that too for ages, captives were devolved to natives of the land as slaves. This entailed many benefits:
    • One, the citizens of the state could benefit from their services, which could be thought of as a reward for the state’s faithful subjects, and an enticement for soldiers.
    • Two, the state was rendered ‘burden-less’ – no longer being responsible for security and sustenance of these prisoners as ‘state-guests’; Piles of unending expenses taken out of tax-payers’ donations, could then be put to better uses.
    • Owing to the ‘good-treatment’ ordained on Muslims in regard to their slaves, numerous avenues for their ‘conversion’ were opened; Treatment, that the westerners subjected the slaves to in the medieval ages, was unthinkable in Islam.
    • Finally, the prisoner is meted out a reasonable punishment, while deterring others to indulge in war.
  • Any other form of ransom may be resorted to; If the state is in need of money, or any other services, that individual prisoners can provide, they may be released in return for a finite amount of such recompense.
  • Muslims may decide to exhibit generosity, selectively; If it seems prudent and might aid in the conversion of a released prisoner, an act of benevolence should not be thought of as out of bound; But very careful and discrete thought should be given before this option is exercised for some select candidates, as it might end up harming the state.

Having said that, any of these options if rendered ‘revoked’, due to mutual agreements or international treaties, must not be resorted to; despite being permissible in essence. The foremost principle of Islam is fulfillment of ‘Contractual Obligations’. If however, the enemy breaks the contract, the Muslim state should no longer consider itself obliged to be dangled by it either. And Slavery… has ended; there’s no foreseeable reason to revive it.

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