By Abu Amina Elias
Some people claim Islam has no punishment for a Muslim who kills an unbeliever. Is it true?
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
Islam prescribes equal punishment for a Muslim who murders a peaceful non-Muslim citizen. The general rule in the Quran is that of “equality in punishment,” meaning that the punishment should fit the crime. In the case of murder, a Muslim would be executed for murdering any person regardless of their religion unless the victim’s family waives their right of retaliation as an act of charity
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الْقِصَاصُ فِي الْقَتْلَى ۖ الْحُرُّ بِالْحُرِّ وَالْعَبْدُ بِالْعَبْدِ وَالْأُنثَىٰ بِالْأُنثَىٰ ۚ فَمَنْ عُفِيَ لَهُ مِنْ أَخِيهِ شَيْءٌ فَاتِّبَاعٌ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَأَدَاءٌ إِلَيْهِ بِإِحْسَانٍ ۗ ذَٰلِكَ تَخْفِيفٌ مِّن رَّبِّكُمْ وَرَحْمَةٌ ۗ فَمَنِ اعْتَدَىٰ بَعْدَ ذَٰلِكَ فَلَهُ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ
O you who believe, prescribed for you is legal retribution for those murdered – the free for the free, the slave for the slave, and the female for the female. Whoever forgives anything from his brother, then there should be a suitable follow-up and payment to him with good conduct. This is an alleviation from your Lord and a mercy, but whoever transgresses after that will have a painful punishment.
Surat Al-Baqarah 2:178
This was the policy of the Umar ibn Abdul Aziz, one of the early Caliphs notable for his piety and wisdom.
Amr ibn Maymun reported: Umar ibn Abdul Aziz was asked about the case of a Muslim man killing a man among the non-Muslim citizens, and Umar replied:
أَنِ ادْفَعْهُ إِلَى وَلِيِّهِ فَإِنْ شَاءَ قَتَلَهُ وَإِنْ شَاءَ عَفَا عَنْهُ
He must pay compensation to his guardian. If he wishes, he may request execution in retaliation. And if he wishes, he may pardon him.
Source: Musannaf Abdur Razzaq 17904
Those who claim a Muslim is not punished for killing a non-Muslim cite the following narration out of context:
Abu Juhaifa reported:
أَنَّ النَّبِيَّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ قَضَى أَنْ لَا يُقْتَلَ مُسْلِمٌ بِكَافِرٍ
The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, judged that a believer should not be killed for killing a disbeliever.
Source: Sahih Bukhari 6517, Grade: Sahih
Some Muslims have interpreted this tradition as if it were a general rule, but this statement was made in the context of those who independently kill the soldiers of a hostile army in a declared war.
Al-Mawsalai Al-Hanafi comments on this tradition, saying:
وَالْمُرَادُ بِقَوْلِهِ عَلَيْهِ الصَّلَاةُ وَالسَّلَامُ لَا يُقْتَلُ مُسْلِمٌ بِكَافِرٍ الْحَرْبِيُّ
The meaning is of this tradition is that a Muslim is not executed in retaliation for killing a combatant in war.
Source: Al-Ikhtiyar li Ta’leel 506
And Abu Bakr Al-Jassas writes:
كَانَ قَوْلُهُ لَا يُقْتَلُ مُؤْمِنٌ بِكَافِرٍ بِمَنْزِلَةِ قَوْلِهِ لَا يُقْتَلُ مُؤْمِنٌ بِكَافِرٍ حَرْبِيٍّ فَلَمْ يَثْبُتْ عَنِ النَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ نَفْيُ قَتْلِ الْمُؤْمِنِ بِالذِّمِّيِّ
The tradition means that a believer is not killed in retaliation for an unbelieving combatant, for it has not been established that the Prophet nullified the punishment of execution for a believer who kills a non-Muslim citizen.
Source: Ahkam Al-Quran 1/176
And Ibn Hajar writes:
فَلَيْسَ لَهُ قَتْلُ كُلِّ كَافِرٍ بَلْ يَحْرُمُ عَلَيْهِ قَتْلُ الذِّمِّيِّ وَالْمُعَاهَدِ بِغَيْرِ اسْتِحْقَاقٍ
It is not the right of a Muslim to kill every unbeliever. Rather, it is forbidden for him to kill a citizen or protected person without a just cause.
Source: Fath ul-Bari 6517
Hence, a Muslim is not executed for killing a “combatant” (harbi), meaning an enemy soldier of a hostile nation. Even so, this only applies specifically during a state of declared war. Muslims are strictly prohibited from committing treachery against the enemy and legal punishment was prescribed for those who violated covenants of security and peace treaties.
Ibn Umar reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
إِذَا جَمَعَ اللَّهُ الأَوَّلِينَ وَالآخِرِينَ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ يُرْفَعُ لِكُلِّ غَادِرٍ لِوَاءٌ فَقِيلَ هَذِهِ غَدْرَةُ فُلاَنِ بْنِ فُلاَنٍ
When Allah gathers together the earlier and later generations on the Day of Resurrection, He will raise a banner for every treacherous person and it will be announced that this is the treachery of this person, the son of this person.
Source: Sahih Bukhari 5823, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi
Malik ibn Anas, may Allah have mercy on him, said:
الْأَمْرُ عِنْدَنَا أَنْ لَا يُقْتَلَ مُسْلِمٌ بِكَافِرٍ إِلَّا أَنْ يَقْتُلَهُ مُسْلِمٌ قَتْلَ غِيلَةٍ فَيُقْتَلُ بِهِ
What is done in our community is that the Muslim is not killed for killing an unbeliever, unless the Muslim has killed him in an act of treachery, in which case he is executed for murder.
Source: al-Muwatta 1617
According to the Kuwaiti Encyclopedia of Islam:
وَعِنْدَ الْحَنَفِيَّةِ يُقْتَصُّ مِنْ الْمُسْلِمِ لِلذِّمِّيِّ وَهَذَا قَوْلُ الْمَالِكِيَّةِ أَيْضًا إذَا قَتَلَهُ الْمُسْلِمُ غِيلَةً خَدِيعَةً أَوْ لِأَجْلِ الْمَالِ
According to the Hanafi school, legal retaliation is taken from the Muslim who kills a non-Muslim citizen, and this is the also the opinion of the Maliki school if the Muslim had killed him in treachery and betrayal or due to money.
Source: al-Mawsū’at al-Fiqhīyah 8/164
It was the practice of the Muslim armies to strictly uphold all of their peace treaties and verbal agreements with the enemy. The righteous Caliphs did not tolerate betrayal among their soldiers.
Malik reported: A man from the people of Kufa said that Umar ibn Al-Khattab wrote to a commander of an army he had dispatched, saying:
إِنَّهُ بَلَغَنِي أَنَّ رِجَالًا مِنْكُمْ يَطْلُبُونَ الْعِلْجَ حَتَّى إِذَا أَسْنَدَ فِي الْجَبَلِ وَامْتَنَعَ قَالَ رَجُلٌ مَطْرَسْ يَقُولُ لَا تَخَفْ فَإِذَا أَدْرَكَهُ قَتَلَهُ وَإِنِّي وَالَّذِي نَفْسِي بِيَدِهِ لَا أَعْلَمُ مَكَانَ وَاحِدٍ فَعَلَ ذَلِكَ إِلَّا ضَرَبْتُ عُنُقَهُ
I have heard that it is the habit of some of your men to chase an unbeliever until he takes refuge in a high place. Then a man tells him in Persian not to be afraid and when he comes down they kill him. By him in whose hand is my soul, if I knew a man had done that once I would strike his neck.
Source: Al-Muwatta 951
In another narration, Umar ibn Al-Khattab said:
وَاللَّهِ لَوْ أَنَّ أَحَدَكُمْ أَشَارَ بِأُصْبُعِهِ إِلَى السَّمَاءِ إِلَى مُشْرِكٍ فَنَزَلَ إِلَيْهِ عَلَى ذَلِكَ فَقَتَلَهُ لَقَتَلْتُهُ بِهِ
By Allah, if one of you were to give a gesture of safety to an idolater and he came trusting you and you killed him, then I would execute you for it.
Source: Sunan Sa’eed ibn Mansur 2439
Thus, the general rule is that all murders should be prosecuted and punished equally regardless of the victim’s religion, but there is no punishment for a Muslim who kills an enemy combatant in a declared war. Despite this, Muslims must firmly adhere to their peace treaties and covenants, and it is forbidden to harm an enemy who has been granted security or diplomatic immunity.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.