Answered by Shaykh Jamir Meah
Question: Assalamu alaykum
Could you provide me with an explanation of the following hadith?
During a night raid, some of the women and children of the polytheists were the killed. The prophet (PBUH) was asked about this and responded “they are from them.”
Collateral damage makes me deeply uncomfortable because it is used by militaries to justify the murder of civilians and it shows their callous disregard of the sanctity of life of the enemy civilians.
Answer: Wa’alaykum assalam. Thank you for your question.
The first thing to do when we come across texts which seem problematic is to first put our own initial understanding aside, and find out about the context of the text by referring to what the scholars have discussed in regards to it.
The hadith ‘They are from them’
The narration you have mentioned is found in different hadith books, including the two Sahih collections.
‘It is reported on the authority of Sa’b bin Jaththama that the Prophet ﷺ, when asked about the women and children of the polytheists being killed during the night raid, said, ‘They are from them’. [Sahih Muslim]
Prohibition of killing women, children and old people
The first thing we should mention is that the Prophet explicitly forbade deliberately killing women and children, saying to the commanders of the Muslim army, ‘Do not kill children or women or old men.’ [Sunan al Bayhaqi].
There are a number of other hadiths which mention similar commands not to harm non-combatant women and children, and the prohibition is something scholars agree upon.
The context of the hadith in question is in a specific situation of warfare, where it is necessary to attack a group at night. The night would have been pitch black, as of course there was not the electricity or light pollution we have around us today.
During these night raids, it would have been impossible to distinguish one person from another. The Muslim soldiers found it impossible to know who they were attacking, and in the attack some women and children may have got killed unintentionally. It may also have been that some of these women and children were involved in the fighting themselves.
It is in this context that the Sahaba consulted the Prophet and the answer was given. If the Muslim soldiers were able to distinguish the women and the children from the men, or the attack was not necessary, they would not have been permitted to kill them, unless the women and children were attacking the Muslims.
Al Hafidh Ibn Hajr, explains, ‘The words ‘They are of them’ is in regard to the ruling in that [specific] situation. It does not mean that it is permissible to kill them deliberately.’
[Fath al Bari, Sharh Muslim, Sharh Muhammad Fu’ad Abdul Baqi]
Imam al Nawawi states in his commentary of Sahih Muslim, ‘The scholars are unanimously agreed … that it is prohibited to kill women and children if they are not involved in the fighting. But if they are involved in the fighting, then the majority of scholars said that they may be killed.’ And later he goes onto say, ‘Those children [unintentionally slain] who have not reached puberty will be in Paradise.’
It would be a wrong to apply what we understand now as the coined expression in modern military parlance as ‘collateral damage’.
While it is true that the basic meaning of ‘collateral damage’ may apply here, in that non-combatants are incidentally killed during an attack, we should remember that this is a very different situation to the type of indiscriminate and avoidable collateral damage on a huge scale we see in modern warfare. The most the armies would have had to fight with were swords and arrows, not machine guns and jet bombs.
War is never agreeable, and the Shariah commands us to seek peaceful measures of resolving conflicts first. Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, war a part of this life, and because of this, tragedies will necessary take place at times even if incidental. However, at all times, God-fearing armies must only act in accordance to the law of God, and to minimise the risks and unnecessary fatalities in these times as much as possible.
Islam recognises that people prosper at times of peace and social order, and war should always be a last resort, and if necessary to enter into, it only lasts as long is necessary. This is why Muslim armies traditionally always took the quickest route to ending combat, always sought to minimise fatalities, and swiftly re-establish peace and order.
I pray this answer has shed some light on the hadith and your concerns.
[Shaykh] Jamir Meah
Shaykh Jamir Meah grew up in Hampstead, London. In 2007, he traveled to Tarim, Yemen, where he spent nine years studying the Islamic sciences on a one-to-one basis under the foremost scholars of the Ribaat, Tarim, with a main specialization and focus on Shafi’i fiqh. In early 2016, he moved to Amman, Jordan, where he continues advanced studies in a range of Islamic sciences, as well as teaching. Jamir is a qualified homeopath.