Muhammad said, “War is deceit.” Does this mean Muslims can lie to advance Islam?
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
The statement “war is deceit” was said by the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, in the context of misdirecting enemy troops as he fought in defense of his community.
Abdur Rahman ibn Ka’b reported:
كَانَ إِذَا أَرَادَ غَزْوَةً وَرَّى غَيْرَهَا وَكَانَ يَقُولُ الْحَرْبُ خَدْعَةٌ
When the Prophet intended to go on an expedition, he would pretend to go somewhere else and he would say, “War is deception.”
Source: Sunan Abu Dawud 2637, Grade: Sahih
This is not lying to advance an Islamic cause, rather it is employing classical military tactics used by armies for centuries. Dr. Joseph Caddell, professor of military history at North Carolina State University, acknowledges that warfare has always involved tactics of deception. Dr. Caddell writes:
Deception in warfare is probably as old as armed conflict itself. The logic of confusing an adversary is obvious, and the rewards can be realized very quickly.
However, this is only during a declared state of war. In contrast, it is a major sin for a Muslim to act treacherously or deceptively regarding covenants, treaties, and agreements.
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 Muslim 1735, Grade: Sahih
The general rule is that a Muslim is required to tell the truth. Deception and lies are among the major sins.
Abdullah ibn Mas’ud reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
إِنَّ الصِّدْقَ يَهْدِي إِلَى الْبِرِّ وَإِنَّ الْبِرَّ يَهْدِي إِلَى الْجَنَّةِ وَإِنَّ الرَّجُلَ لَيَصْدُقُ حَتَّى يُكْتَبَ صِدِّيقًا وَإِنَّ الْكَذِبَ يَهْدِي إِلَى الْفُجُورِ وَإِنَّ الْفُجُورَ يَهْدِي إِلَى النَّارِ وَإِنَّ الرَّجُلَ لَيَكْذِبُ حَتَّى يُكْتَبَ كَذَّابًا
Verily, truthfulness leads to righteousness and righteousness leads to Paradise. A man may speak the truth until he is recorded with Allah as truthful. Verily, lying leads to wickedness and wickedness leads to the Hellfire. A man may tell lies until he is recorded with Allah as a liar.
Source: Sahih Muslim 2607, Grade: Sahih
مَا كَانَ خُلُقٌ أَبْغَضَ إِلَى رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ مِنْ الْكَذِبِ وَلَقَدْ كَانَ الرَّجُلُ يُحَدِّثُ عِنْدَ النَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ بِالْكِذْبَةِ فَمَا يَزَالُ فِي نَفْسِهِ حَتَّى يَعْلَمَ أَنَّهُ قَدْ أَحْدَثَ مِنْهَا تَوْبَةً
There was no behavior more hateful to the Messenger of Allah than lying. A man would lie when narrating something in the presence of the Prophet and he would not be satisfied until he knew that he had repented.
Source: Sunan At-Tirmidhi 1973, Grade: Hasan
This applies to non-Muslims as well, as the Prophet informed us that he would testify on the Day of Judgment on behalf of any peaceful non-Muslim against any Muslim who oppressed them.
Sufwan ibn Saleem reported: A number of the companions said the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
أَلَا مَنْ ظَلَمَ مُعَاهِدًا أَوْ انْتَقَصَهُ أَوْ كَلَّفَهُ فَوْقَ طَاقَتِهِ أَوْ أَخَذَ مِنْهُ شَيْئًا بِغَيْرِ طِيبِ نَفْسٍ فَأَنَا حَجِيجُهُ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ
If anyone wrongs a person protected by a covenant, violates his rights, burdens him with more work than he is able to do, or takes something from him without his consent, then I will plead for him on the Day of Resurrection.
Source: Sunan Abu Dawud 3052, Grade: Sahih
This even applies when treachery would result in a military advantage for the Muslims. The companions of the Prophet would strictly uphold their peace treaties and they held their leaders accountable for breaking them.
Sulaym ibn Amir reported: There was a peace treaty between Muawiya and the Byzantines. He was marching towards their country and when the covenant came to an end, he would attack them. A man came on a horse, saying, “Allah is Most Great! Allah is Most Great! Let there be faithfulness and not treachery!” Muawiya sent for him and questioned him about that. He said: I heard the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, say:
مَنْ كَانَ بَيْنَهُ وَبَيْنَ قَوْمٍ عَهْدٌ فَلَا يَحُلَّنَّ عَهْدًا وَلَا يَشُدَّنَّهُ حَتَّى يَمْضِيَ أَمَدُهُ أَوْ يَنْبِذَ إِلَيْهِمْ عَلَى سَوَاءٍ
When one has a covenant with people he must not strengthen or loosen it until its term comes to an end or he brings it to an end in agreement with them.
Source: Sunan At-Tirmidhi 1580, Grade: Sahih
In this example, the companions prevented the Caliph Mu’awiya from marching his army toward the Romans in an attempt to surprise attack them when the peace treaty expired. Marching for war was considered an act of war that was initiated before the expiration of the treaty. Therefore, Mu’awiya returned with his armies.
Therefore, it is not permissible for a Muslim to lie in order to advance an Islamic or political cause. Rather, truthfulness is an Islamic virtue that leads to Paradise and we are called upon to be truthful with all people.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.