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

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. 1 He said:

"An obscure Arabic word is making a comeback from centuries of oblivion to dominate the debate about whom Muslims are allowed to kill in the service of political goals.

The debate has been triggered by the killing of large numbers of Muslims, including women and children, by Islamist insurgents in Iraq. Are such acts permissible? Judging by fatwas (religious opinions) and articles by Muslim theologians and commentators, the Islamic ummah (community) is divided on the issue.

Those who believe that killing innocent people, including Muslims, is justified in certain cases, base their opinion on the principle of tattarrus. The word, which originally meant "dressing up," was first used as a religious term in the book "Al-Mustasfa" ("The Place of Purification") by Abu-Hamed al-Ghazali (d.1127), to mean 'using ordinary Muslims as human shields for 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.

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Supporters of the tattarrus doctrine:

bullet In 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 involving "the enemies of Islam." That is, collateral damage is sometimes unavoidable.
bullet Several Saudi theologians have agreed. The Qur'an calls for the expulsion of any non-Muslim invaders. This presumably includes the mainly U.S., Russian, and European forces in the Middle East. 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.

bullet Other 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. That is, the ends justify the means.


Abu-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:

bullet Apostates -- former Muslims who have abandoned Islam. For an adult Muslim to abandon their religion is a capital offense in many predominately Muslim countries.

bulletHomosexuals who he felt "dirty" a pure society.

bullet Israelis, including adults, children, infants, fetuses, and embryos, who might, as adults, join the Jewish army in the future.

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. Again, the ends justify the means.

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 a "bid'aah" (innovation). He has asked Shi'ítes in Iraq to avoid taking revenge against Sunni insurgents.


Sheikh 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 (5:32) which states:

"Whoever kills a[n innocent] person ... it is as though he has killed all mankind. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved all mankind.

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."

Unfortunately, the missing words in the quotation, identified as "..." above contains a loophole that is sometimes not mentioned. It is often translated as:

"unless it be for manslaughter or for mischief in the land," or

"unless it be for manslaughter or for mischief in the land,"

"except [as punishment] for murder or for spreading corruption in the land, " 2

Depending upon an individual's interpretation of the Qur'an, their experiences, and many other factors, the meaning assigned to "mischief" or "corruption" can vary widely from person to person.


Najih 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."


Hisham 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?" 1

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Webmaster's comments:

The great Islamic scholar Yahya bin Sharaf Ul-Deen An-Nawawi compiled a collection of 43 sayings of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Number 13 states:

"None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself." 3

This closely parallels many other statements by leaders of other religions, and passages from their Holy Books which are collectively referred to as the "Golden Rule. Treating others as one would wish to be treated by others is the fundamental rule of behavior found throughout all major religions. Killing people or allowing people to die, except in very unusual circumstances, is, IMHO, the most egregious violation of this rule. It is to be avoided at all costs.

However, such killing forms the essence of terrorist attacks where the goal is to kill as many innocent, uninvolved civilians as possible in random places in the most dramatic way possible. My belief is that it deserves the highest level of condemnation.

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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. They have continued to do so in recent times. More info.

References used:

  1. Amr Taheri, "To kill or not to kill," New York Post, 2005-JUN-10. It is no longer on line there. However it is still available as of 2015-FEB at:
  2. "...Whoever kills a person (unjustly)," Investigating Philosophies, Culture, History, Myths," 2012-JAN-03, at:
  3. Thë collection of 43 sayings by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is now known as "Al-Nawawi's Forty Hadiths" See:

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Copyright © 2005 to 2016 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2005-JUN-12
Latest update: 2016-FEB-09
Author: B.A. Robinson

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