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
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:
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.
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.
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 ..."
Yussuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian sheik working in Qatar ruled that it is
morally acceptable to kill unarmed Muslims if they are:
Apostates -- former Muslims who have
For an adult Muslim to abandon their religion is a capital offense in many predominately Muslim countries.
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:
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
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
"... 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
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.
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.
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: