The Quran says very clearly “And do not kill any one whom Allah has forbidden, except for a just cause, and whoever is slain unjustly, We have indeed given to his heir authority, so let him not exceed the just limits in slaying; surely he is aided (Quran 17:33).” In other words, killing is permitted only when it is justified, such as in a war to end persecution, or to seek retribution as long as it does not exceed the limits prescribed by God. Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w) also forbade the killing of women and children (Bukhari V. 4, Book 52, 257 & 258). And these are the instructions that were given to Muslim armies by Caliph Abu Bakr who succeeded Prophet Muhammad: “When you gain victory over your enemies do not kill their children, old people nor women. Do not go even closer to their date palms nor burn the harvest nor cut the trees bearing fruits. Do not break the promise once you have made it and do not break the terms of a treaty once you have entered into it. You will find some people in the monasteries, monks engaged in the worship of God, leave them alone with what they are pleased with. Do not destroy their monasteries and do not kill them.” A detailed treatise on this subject was also written by Abul Hasan al-Mawardi in the 11th century in his book “al-Ahkam as-Sultaniyyah” (The Laws of Islamic Governance). According to him, “It is not permitted to kill women and children in battle, nor elsewhere, as long as they are not fighting because of the prohibition of the Messenger of Allah, may the peace and blessing of Allah be upon him, against killing them. The Prophet, may the peace and blessing of Allah be upon him, forbade the killing of those employed as servants and mamlouks, that is young slaves. If women and children fight, then they are fought and killed, but only face to face, not from behind while fleeing. If they use their women and children as shields in battle, then one must avoid killing them and aim only at killing the men; if, however, it is impossible to kill them except by killing the women and children, then it is permitted. If they are shielding themselves with Muslim captives, and it is not possible to kill them except by killing these captives, it is not permitted to kill them. If desisting them from attacking them leads to the Muslims being encircled, then the latter must attempt to free themselves as best they can, but while taking care not to kill any Muslim deliberately by their hands. If one is killed, then the killer must pay blood money and make expiation if he knew that he was a Muslim; he becomes liable for expiation alone if he did not know.” It is noteworthy that even if women and children are to be killed in a war, when they are combatants or are being used as a shield by the enemy to launch an attack, they are to be facing a Muslim army and not retreating or turning away to protect themselves. Furthermore, it is hoped that facing women and children would put sympathy in the mind of a soldier and who would desist from taking such a drastic action. Such rules and respect for non-combatants were recognized in Western countries not until the Geneva Convention of 1949. Even so, most of the countries, including Islamic ones, continue to bomb civilians. Even the United States allow some “collateral damage” to occur in its wars. Therefore, one can argue that the Islamic rules of war were way ahead of their times almost 1400 years ago, and in many respects they still are.
Killing of Non-Combatants