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When is the killing of non-combatants
permitted?  The principle of Tattarrus.

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Amir Taheri, an Iranian author and journalist based in Europe, wrote an article in the New York Post in mid-2005 about a controversy within Islam. It involves the precise meaning and application of the principle of "tattarrus." The basic meaning of the word is "dressing up. " Its initial use in a religious sense was in a 12th century book by Abu-Hamed al-Ghazali (1058-1127 CE) called "Al-Mustasfa" (The Place of Purification). He used the term to refer to the practice of "using ordinary Muslims as human shields by Islamic combatants against infidel fighters." Later, in the 13th century, theologian Ibn Tayimiah further developed a tattarrus doctrine to justify the killing of non-combatant Muslims during battles with Mongol invaders. The doctrine had subsequently been generally repudiated within Islam.

The term is experiencing a new prominence as a result of the hundreds of fellow Muslim non-combatants -- men, women and children -- currently being killed each month in attacks by insurgents in Iraq and elsewhere in the world.

Opinion appears to be divided among Muslim commentators and theologians. Fatwas (religious rulings by qualified Muslim clerics) differ.

Supporters of the tattarrus doctrine:

bulletIn 1995, Ayman al-Zawahiri argued in his book "The Rule for Suicide-Martyr Operations" that it was not immoral to kill Muslim non-combatants as long as the combatants were engaged in a conflict against "the enemies of Islam."

bulletSeveral Saudi theologians have agreed. The Qur'an calls for the expulsion of any non-Muslim invaders. This presumably includes the mainly U.S. and British forces in Iraq. The deaths of non-combatants are an inevitable byproduct of this action. The latter might even benefit from being killed. The rationale is that the non-combatant who has led a sinful life might be headed towards Hell after death. But if they died during the defense of Islam, their place in Paradise would be certain.

bulletOther Saudi theologians expand tattarrus to a situation where no non-Muslim troops are involved. They feel that it is acceptable that innocent Muslims in Saudi Arabia be killed, because their deaths could eventually lead to a "truly Islamic regime" being installed in the country.

bulletAbu-Musaab al-Zarqawi, an Al Qaeda operative in Iraq who has allegedly coordinated many attacks by insurgents, has written: "Islam establishes a hierarchy of values in all domains. In [that hierarchy], protecting the faith is more important than protecting the self. Killing the mutumarresoun [civilian Muslims who live under the control of the infidel] is necessary to prevent the faith of the infidel from striking root" in Muslim countries.

bulletYussuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian sheik working in Qatar ruled that it is morally acceptable to kill unarmed Muslims if they are:

bulletApostates -- former Muslims who have abandoned Islam.

bulletHomosexuals who he felt "dirty" a pure society.

bulletIsraelis, including adults, children, infants, fetuses, and embryos, who could, as adults, join the Jewish army.

He has since ruled that Muslim non-combatants in Iraq can be killed if necessary in order to reach the political and religious goals of the Muslim community.

Sheik Muhammad Hussein Fadhlallah, the spiritual leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah believes that combatants should refer each case to an authorized mujtahid (qualified religious guide) before implementing an action that would result in the killing of Muslim non-combatants. However, most of the leading supporters of the principle of tattarrus suggest that insurgents can proceed on their own authority.

Opposition to the tattarrus doctrine:

bullet Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani, a leading Shi'ite theologian rejects tattarrus, as it is currently being applied, because it is an bid'aah (innovation). He has asked Shi'ites in Iraq to avoid taking revenge against Sunni insurgents.

bulletSheikh Mohammad Sayyed Tantawi, dean of Cairo's al-Azhar University, states that Islamic law "rejects all attempts on human life and all attacks on civilians." He may have based this belief on the passage in the Qur'an which states that if one murders another human being, it is as if one has murdered the entire human race. He has said: "Nothing in Islam justifies the deliberate killing of non-combatants. Tattarrus applies to collateral damage in a war between two regular armies, and not to action perpetrated by self-styled combatants."

bulletNajih al-Ibrahim, another Egyptian theologian, criticizes what he calls "...the abuse of tattarrus....No one can use tattarrus to justify the shedding of innocent blood. The only time that tattarrus is allowed is when Muslim combatants have to kill a fellow Muslim who is captured by the infidel and may, under torture, reveal secrets that could help the infidel against the true believers. Apart from that, shedding Muslim blood is the gravest of sins in Islam."

bulletHisham Abdul-Zahir, also an Egyptian theologian, has said that the killing of civilians in Iraq is "...totally unjustifiable under any circumstances....Tattarrus is relevant only in the case of Muslim women and children who are captured in a war by the infidel. In such a situation, it would be permissible to kill them to prevent them from being converted into other faiths by the infidel or abused by infidel soldiers."

Sheikh Abdul-Muhsin al-Ubaikan, a Saudi theologian, has suggested that Muslim clerics hold "a theological summit" to discuss tattarrus and related issues. He asked: "Is it enough for an individual to say he is fighting for Islam in order to claim a license to kill anyone, anywhere and anytime?"

Fatwas concerning terrorism:

Perhaps in response to major terrorist attacks in London, England and Sharm el-Sheikh Egypt during 2005-JUL, Muslim leaders in the U.S., England and the rest of the world issued numerous condemnations against random acts of terrorists. More info.

References used:

  1. Amr Taheri, "To kill or not to kill," New York Post, 2005-JUN-10. Online at:

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Home page > World religions > Islam > here

Copyright © 2005 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2005-JUN-12
Latest update: 2010-NOV-10
Author: B.A. Robinson

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