The Prophet Muhammad, the Messenger of Mercy, did not prescribe war as a natural state of affairs, and at the same time, war cannot simply be abolished. What any reformer or spiritual leader can do is minimize its brutality. The Messenger of Mercy, at God’s direction, attempted to establish rules of warfare that would make war as humane as possible, to encourage peace and to minimize the priceless cost of human lives.
The Prophetic approach to war can be better appreciated by looking at some figures. The Messenger of Mercy was forced to defend himself militarily on many occasions, yet the amount of human loss that resulted is surprisingly low given similar battles and wars in human history. From a total of 28 battles and 38 campaigns, the total casualties from those wars, including both sides, amounted to approximately 1 284 lives.
Someone can argue that the reason for the decreased numbers of causalities is because of the smaller number of combatants that participated in the various campaigns. But a careful examination shows that the percentage of people killed in these wars relative to the number of the people who participated in them amounted to about 1.5 percent. Since the Messenger of Mercy was victorious in most of these battles, the numbers of casualties indicate that he is not to be counted among the ruthless and barbaric warlords, conquerors, and military generals of human history – and in fact, far from it.
Compare the above numbers to other wars in human history. For example, in the Second World War alone, the relationship between the amount of people killed (including civilians) to the amount of combatants who were involved in that war was 351%. That is, 10 600 000 participated in that war yet the amount of human deaths were as high as 54 800 000.
Contrary to promoting barbaric warfare, the Messenger of Mercy brought sweeping changes to the conduct of war, radically limiting the means and use of violence against others. Much like today, the Messenger of Mercy lived in a world in which brutal warfare was rampant. Like the Roman and Persian empires of that time, and the empires of today, the Arab tribes primarily engaged in battle for material gains rather than for any higher, moral purpose. The Messenger of Mercy, however, would change that radically.
The Messenger of Mercy stressed the observance of several important moral principles even during the tumult of warfare. First, he fundamentally redefined the basic understanding and concept of war. By introducing an entirely new term – jihad fee sabil Allah – he purified warfare from its purely material or vested interests and self-serving motives. Jihad means “struggle” and for one to carry a concerted effort to remove the injustices and oppression imposed by others. By adding “in the way of Allah” (fee sabil Allah), he taught that war must not be waged for the sake of the self, of spoils, pride, prestige, subjugation, or oppressing other people. This belief served as the glue holding the principles of warfare together and reining in all potential injustices inherent within it.
Under this new conception of war, the Messenger of Mercy introduced a comprehensive set of laws that encompassed the conduct of war: its moral boundaries, components, rights, and obligations; the difference between combatants and non-combatants and their rights; and the right of envoys, prisoners of war, and conquered people. All of these principles were expressed clearly and unequivocally by the Messenger of Mercy.
The Messenger of Mercy also underscored the sanctity and inviolability of human life, be it Muslim or non-Muslim. He embodied the Qur’anic verse: “If anyone slays a human being – unless it be [in punishment] for murder or for spreading corruption on earth – it shall be as though he had slain all humanity” (5:32). Through this divine instruction, the Messenger of Mercy purified war from all selfish motives and inferior objectives. His followers, although they certainly were – and still are – prone to great errors, were remarkable exemplars of these principles in general.
The Messenger of Mercy prohibited the robbery, banditry, and vandalism that had been commonplace in wars before his time. For example, after the Khaybar peace treaty had been signed, some of the new, young Muslims started looting Jewish property. The Jewish leader came to the Messenger of Mercy and asked: “Is it appropriate for your people to slaughter our donkeys, devour our crops, and beat our women?” Suddenly, the Messenger of Mercy ordered the entire army into the mosque for prayer and told them: “Allah did not permit you to enter the People of the Book’s houses without permission and to beat their women and eat their crops”. If a milking animal is found on the way and soldiers want to take its milk, they cannot do so unless permission is granted. Therefore, even in warfare, the Messenger of Mercy stressed the importance of the rule of law and respect for the property and rights of others, which is far more than we can see in modern wars.
In the past, armies destroyed crops, farmland and property, and even entire villages. But the Messenger of Mercy prohibited killing all non-combatants, such as women, children, the old, the sick, the wounded, the blind, the disabled, the mentally unwell, travelers, monks, and worshippers. In fact, he only permitted killing those in the front lines; everyone behind them was protected from attack. Remarkably, the Messenger of Mercy here grants far more than what is stated in theories of just war today. Once the Messenger of Mercy saw a woman’s corpse on the battlefield and became very upset. He therefore ordered his commander, Khalid ibn al-Walid: “Do not kill women or labourers…” Moreover, the Messenger of Mercy specifically commanded Muslims not to kill monks or worshippers, and not to destroy places of worship.
Before Islam, both Arabs and non-Arabs, in the heat of vengeance, habitually burned their enemies alive. The Messenger of Mercy categorically prohibited this: “Nobody should punish with fire except the Lord of Fire (God)”. He also forbade desecrating and mutilating the enemies’ corpses by cutting off their limbs.
The Messenger of Mercy prohibited the killing of prisoners of war, declaring that: “No wounded person will be killed, no one who flees will be followed…”
The Messenger of Mercy also stated that one cannot breach one’s trust and kill those with whom peace has been made. No peace treaty should be violated: “If you have made a treaty with a people, you cannot make any changes or alterations until it expires…”
Today, in a time of constant war under pretexts of pre-emptive strikes, these teachings demonstrate his just personality – a Messenger for our time.
The Messenger of Mercy tried his utmost to reduce human casualties to marginal amounts. Anyone who studies the Messenger of Mercy’s wars objectively and compares that with other wars in human history including the wars of our modern times (such as the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the War on Terror) can easily conclude that his wars were the least bloody – and most humane.
Many portray the Messenger of Mercy as a war monger and blood thirsty as if fighting battles was his main occupation. But in reality, out of the ten years of his life in Medina, only 795 days were spent on battles and expeditions. The rest of the ten years (that is approximately 2865 days) he spent on bringing revolutionary changes to people’s lives and totally reforming a pagan society. This historical fact is overlooked by most of his biographers and almost all Western writers who depict him as a war-monger.