The delegation of 60 Byzantine Christian diplomats had come to meet Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, from Najran in Yemen, which was a small Christian state. Led by their bishop, they negotiated a treaty of understanding between themselves and the nascent Muslim city-state of Madinah. They also discussed core beliefs relating to Prophet Jesus in Christianity and Islam.
During their visit they wanted to celebrate their mass. The Christian diplomats asked the Prophet for a place to worship. He answered, "Conduct your service here in the mosque. It is a place consecrated to God." The Prophet pitched a tent within his Masjid for their ceremony. Scholars are not sure if it was Christmas, Easter, or some other holiday.
In the end, a treaty was agreed upon by both parties. This is how the Prophet described its terms:
"Najran has the protection of God and the pledges of Muhammad, the Prophet, to protect their lives, faith, land, property, those who are absent and those who are present, and their clan and allies. They need not change anything of their past customs. No right of theirs or their religion shall be altered. No church leader, monk or church guard shall be removed from his position."
Many times when Muslims are outraged legitimately or based on some perceptions, embassies of certain countries come under attack by a small number of extremists. This then creates an ill image of Islam and Muslims, perpetuating the stereotypical image of the faith and its followers as violent people, although survey after survey has proven that Muslims are more peaceful than their neighbors. While the peaceful expression of outrage is absolutely legitimate whether one agrees with it or not, attacks on embassies and diplomats are against the path of the Prophet and Islamic law.
In Islam, the safety, security, and respect for ambassadors and diplomats is of utmost importance, and violating these rules carries serious penalties. This is why the spiraling violence directed at Western embassies in a number of Muslim countries, which started with the murder of American ambassador Christopher Stevens in Libya, is absolutely opposed to Sharia.
These ordinances are part of Islamic international law, which is the earliest example of international law in the world. It is neither bilateral, nor multilateral. Muslims are duty-bound to follow it, regardless of if the other party agrees with it or not, abides by it or not. Muslims must not violate it. This body of law, called ilmus seer, was developed at a time where there was no United Nations, there were no Geneva Conventions, and contact between countries was limited.
Islamic international law specifies the following vis-à-vis ambassadors, diplomats:
- Once any person entering Muslim territory declares himself to be an ambassador, this person is granted full diplomatic immunity. Their life, safety, security, family, servants, animals, property, including the arms they carry, are inviolable and not only the Muslim state, but all Muslims are duty-bound to protect them.
- A number of Hanafi scholars have even said that if a diplomat or ambassador commits a capital crime during his stay in a Muslim state, he will not be punished.
An example of this can be found during the lifetime of the Prophet in an instance relating to the Musaylimah rebellion. This man rebelled against the Prophet and the Muslim state. He fought and eventually killed many Muslims. Musaylimah sent an ambassador to Madinah named Ubada ibn al Harith with an extremely offensive message directed at Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. Yet, the Prophet forbade killing this person since he was an ambassador, although only from a rebel group. It was based on this incident that Muslims developed laws protecting ambassadors and diplomats.
The late ambassador Christopher Stevens was protected under three provisions:
- He was protected under Sharia law as stated above, which is an obligation for all Muslims to follow and is sinful to violate.
- Islamic law requires all treaties must be followed. Libya has signed the Geneva Convention which requires the same protections for ambassadors and diplomats.
- The late ambassador was also protected under the Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Tripoli, signed between Libya and America in 1797. Article nine of this treaty states:
“The commerce between the United States and Tripoli, — the protection to be given to merchants, masters of vessels and seamen, — the reciprocal right of establishing consuls in each country, and the privileges, immunities and jurisdictions to be enjoyed by such consuls, are declared to be on the same footing with those of the most favoured nations respectively.”
It is a major sin in Islam to break a treaty or attack those covered under the treaty. Abdullah ibn Umar reported that the Prophet said whoever killed a person covered under a treaty will not be able to even smell the pleasing aroma of Heaven, even though the aroma of Heaven could be smelled from the distance of 40 years of travel.
As well, the Prophet said four characteristics, if they are found in someone, indicate hypocrisy: when he speaks he lies, when he promises he breaks it, when he agrees to a treaty he breaks the treaty, and when he quarrels he uses foul language.
International Islamic Law During Warfare
Al-Qaeda has given such a bad name to Islam and Muslims in violating the sanctity of non-combatants that it has become critical for Muslims to continue to remind and reassert the Islamic position on this matter.
While the devastating impact of the last ten years of war, terrorism, and Islamophobia on human life in the Muslim world has not yet been properly documented, colonialism and neo-colonialism have given rise to something which I describe as “the Street Theology of Anger” among Muslims.
This “theology” goes against well-established Islamic principles that emphasize the mutual humanity of all religious and ethnic groups:
- It is against the Prophet’s life-long struggle to establish order, justice and peace in society
- It disregards the Islamic principle that chaos (Fitna) is worse than murder
- It defies classical Islamic law on war, peace, diplomacy, and treaties
- It justifies the killing of non-combatants
Very few Muslims subscribe to this “theology of anger” despite the fact that its ideologues try to align themselves with the common Muslim feelings of solidarity with Iraqis, Afghans, Palestinians, and 15 million-plus Muslim refugees in the world today.
While reasons for this anger might be legitimate, their “theology of anger” is neither a theology nor it is Islamic.
In a situation of war, Muslims are required to follow international Islamic law in their dealings with the enemy, regardless of if the opposing army adheres to these strictures or not. Here is a list of some of them:
- Killing any non-combatants is forbidden.
- There is a special provision not to kill, in particular, women, children, and the elderly even in the battlefield.
- Any Muslim or non-Muslim seeking refuge or asylum must be given asylum, and their safety ensured.
- If the other party breaks a treaty, Muslims are required to openly declare that the treaty is no longer valid because the other party broke it. They cannot secretly cancel it or violate it.
- Surprise night raids and attacks on the sleeping enemy are forbidden. There must be an open declaration of war before any further action is taken.
- Cutting trees, particularly those that bear fruit, is forbidden.
- Poisoning water sources or blocking water of the enemy is forbidden.
- Looting or destroying property is forbidden.
- Those injured, fleeing war, surrendering, or seeking asylum cannot be hurt.
- Burning, mutilating, and torturing individuals before or after death is forbidden.
There are also Islamic laws governing the rights of individuals representing neutral parties in situations of war or conflict similar to the above. Once again, Muslims are duty-bound to abide by these rules, regardless of if the other party violates them.
Where are these rules found
These rules are found in the Quran (see the references below) as well as in Hadith, the rulings of the first four caliphs, as well as in the book Kitab al Khiraj written by Imam Abu Yusuf (d.798), the eminent student of Imam Abu Hanifa. He served as the first Chief Justice in human history during the reign of Khalifa Harun al-Rashid. Since then, many scholars have written on this topic. The best modern book in my view is written by Muhammad Hamidullah. He asserts that Muslims actually invented the first international law and made it obligatory on themselves to follow it, whether any nation agrees with its principles or not.
While I don’t believe the Al-Qaeda types will ever read or care for what Islam has to say on this topic, I believe it is the duty of Muslims to continue to reiterate Islamic positions, remind Muslims of what is the right, and reassert it whenever Islamic law is violated.
War, terrorism, and Islamophobia are conjoined evil triplets. This set has harmed Muslims throughout the world as well as human relations. Hatemongers in the U.S. and hatemongers abroad thrive on each other’s initiatives.
Islamic law does not require perceived or real enemies to abide by the international law of Islam. But it does ask Muslims to do so. We are required to be just even in hate:
“O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm for God , witnesses in justice, and do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness. And fear God; indeed, God is Acquainted with what you do” (Quran 5:8).
From the Quran:
Surah An Nahl: 91-92
Surah Ra’d: 21-22
Surah Ale Imran: 76-77
Surah al-Baqarah: 177
Surah Bani Israil: 34
Kitab al Khiraj, by Imam Abu Yusuf, a student of Imam Abu Hanifa. This book was published during the second century of Islam.
Muhammad Hamidullah, Muslim conduct of state: Being a treatise on Siyar (Siyar), general introduction (1953).