Islam Online (thanks to A. El Haji) has a lengthy statement from the International Association of Muslim Scholars (IAS) condemning hostage taking. At first glance it looks great: a carefully reasoned argument from Islamic sources showing that the behavior of the Iraqi jihadists is wrong. Just what we need. However, once again there is somewhat less than meets the eye.
The first reason for that is that the Chairman of the IAMS is none other than Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who has said of suicide bombing: “It’s not suicide, it is martyrdom in the name of God, Islamic theologians and jurisprudents have debated this issue. Referring to it as a form of jihad, under the title of jeopardising the life of the mujahideen. It is allowed to jeopardise your soul and cross the path of the enemy and be killed.” So evidently it is OK to blow up civilians on a bus, just not to take them hostage.
Another is that the reasoning itself is unlikely to convince educated jihadist Muslims (and if you don’t think the jihadists are educated, read this). The argumentation is likely to convince non-Muslims who are largely unfamiliar with the Islamic sources, but not Muslims who are steeped in those sources. For example, the article says:
Similarly the Prophet did not sanction what one of his companions, Salamah ibn al-Akwa”, did when he kidnapped four unbelievers after the signing of the peace treaty at al-Hudaybiyah. Salamah did so thinking that the unbelievers had already violated the peace treaty. The Prophet, however, said: “Leave them so that they will be the ones who initiate evil and repeat it.”(1)
This means that initiating evil is characteristic of unbelievers. It must never be characteristic of Muslims. Muslims may repel evil with a similar measure, but their purpose in doing so is not to retaliate; rather, it is to prevent a repeat of the evil committed against them, and to remove it totally from the domain of human relations.
This is an account from Sahih Muslim, a hadith collection that is generally accepted as authentic. It seems to be used here as evidence that Muhammad himself was against kidnapping and hostage-taking. Note, however, that Salamah thought they had violated a peace treaty. This leaves open the question of whether hostage-taking is acceptable if a peace treaty has, in fact, been violated. Also, consider another account from the same source, involving the same companion of the Prophet, Salamah ibn al-Akwa”:
It has been narrated on the authority of Salama (b. al-Akwa’) who said: We fought against the Fazara and Abu Bakr was the commander over us. He had been appointed by the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him). When we were onlv at an hour’s distance from the water of the enemy, Abu Bakr ordered us to attack. We made a halt during the last part of the night to rest and then we attacked from all sides and reached their watering-place where a battle was fought. Some of the enemies were killed and some were taken prisoners. I saw a group of persons that consisted of women and children. I was afraid lest they should reach the mountain before me, so I shot an arrow between them and the mountain. When they saw the arrow, they stopped. So I brought them, driving them along. Among them was a woman from Banu Fazara. She was wearing a leather coat. With her was her daughter who was one of the prettiest girls in Arabia. I drove them along until I brought them to Abu Bakr who bestowed that girl upon me as a prize. So we arrived in Medina. I had not yet disrobed her when the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) met me in the street and said: Give me that girl, O Salama. I said: Messenger of Allah, she has fascinated me. I had not yet disrobed her. When on the next day. the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) again met me in the street, he said: O Salama, give me that girl, may God bless your father. I said: She is for you. Messenger of Allah! By Allah. I have not yet disrobed her. The Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) sent her to the people of Mecca, and surrendered her as ransom for a number of Muslims who had been kept as prisoners at Mecca. (Sahih Muslim, book 19, no. 4345)
Quite aside from the rape elements of the story (“I had not yet disrobed her,” but it would have been inconceivable for him to have said, “I had not yet asked her consent”), this indicates that when Muhammad ordered the other hostages freed, he may have done it for many reasons, but not because of a general prohibition of hostage-taking. For in this case he uses the girl precisely as a hostage, winning the freedom of Muslim captives as her ransom.
Now once again: why am I taking issue with moderate Muslim arguments, instead of supporting them? Because I want the moderate Muslim arguments to be strong enough to refute the radical Muslim arguments. When I, who am not even a Muslim, can easily find fault with them, how much easier will it be for a hardened mujahid, who has given his whole life to the study and practice of Islam, to do so? That leads me to believe that fatawa such as this one are intended more for non-Muslims than for Muslims: to reassure non-Muslims that Islam is cleaning its own house. But I need to see a fatwa that is strong enough to convince radical Muslims to lay down their arms. I’m still waiting.