Kidnapping foreign visitors: an Islamic perspective

Anyone who is familiar with the Koran and the traditions of the prophet Muhammad knows that kidnapping civilians and harming them is absolutely prohibited. Those who do kidnap civilians defy the Islamic code of ethics. This ethos applies to every kidnapped civilian, including Jill Carroll, the freelance journalist on assignment for The Christian Science Monitor, who worked in Iraq until she was kidnapped early last month. I appeal to her kidnappers to immediately release her and to stop kidnapping civilians altogether.

Every now and then, we hear about the kidnapping of "foreign" nationals in Islamic countries. Recently the family of a former German minister was kidnapped in Yemen. In Gaza, Kate Burton, a British human rights activist, and her parents were kidnapped. By the time I had a chance to write about this topic, the news came that both captured families had been released. This was a happy ending that I had really hoped for.

It is well known that the kidnappers' demands, in cases like these, usually have nothing to do directly with the kidnapped persons or their countries. This does not mean, however, that it is permissible to kidnap innocent civilians should conflicts exist. The two European families were kidnapped because they were easy targets. The same applies to Ms. Carroll.

I could have based the arguments in this article on the laws, treaties, and covenants that prohibit such deeds. I could have also brought up notions of Arab magnanimity, nobility, and honor that require us to be generous and kind to our guests. Many of those captured foreigners carried the burden of working for our causes and, for that, they endured hardships and paid a high price.

I have chosen, because of the cultural background of this nation, to present the Islamic position regarding kidnapping, which opposes it. We must get rid of this negative phenomenon that does not serve us in any way.

From the perspective of the Islamic sharia, the al-Mustamin is "the foreign person whose safety is guaranteed." Such a person is protected, even if his or her native country is in a state of animosity with Muslims. Animosity is a temporary state, and, further, not all Western citizens necessarily support the foreign policies of their governments.

The Muslim must understand that the person who obtains a visitor's visa enters into a contract with the country that grants him the visa. The state, as an institution, does that on behalf of its people. Despite those who look with suspicion at the state, especially if the ruler lacks legitimacy, the visa should be recognized as a legitimate agreement for guests of our countries to move freely about without harm.

We have seen foreign visitors support our political rights and defend Islam. Indeed, despite being non- Muslims themselves, they have come to the defense of Muslims in their own countries when the need arose.

The International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) declared its position on kidnapping and the taking of hostages in their communiqué which was published in September 2004. In what follows, I paraphrase and summarize their statement, which draws on verses and examples in the Koran prohibiting kidnapping. The full text is available in Arabic on

1. Kidnapping is an assault on another, whether a Muslim or non-Muslim. It is an unjust act that God forbids and prohibits: "Allah commands justice, the doing of good and giving to kith and kin, and He forbids all shameful deeds, and injustice and rebellion: He instructs you, that ye may receive admonition" (Koran, 16:90). God stressed that the mere differences in religion, even if in the context of a conflict, do not justify assaulting another.

2. Kidnapping is considered an act of war. [In any case, it is prohibited to kill a prisoner of war], he is absolutely destined to be released: "... afterward either grace or ransom...." (Koran, 47:4).

3. It is prohibited, in the case of actual war, to kidnap innocent people or civilians, who are [technically speaking] of the enemy. No act of war could be aimed at them. The civilians, from an Islamic perspective, are noncombatant women, children, and the elderly who have nothing to do with war, and monks and those who live in monasteries.

4. If kidnapping takes place during actual fighting, the kidnapped become prisoners of war, and should be treated according to the teachings of Islamic sharia regarding captives, which we summarize as follows: (a) Prisoners of wars should be turned over to the authorities to decide what to do with them. The person who caught the prisoner of war has no right or authority over him. (b) It is a religious obligation to be kind to the prisoners of war, to treat them well, to be generous to them, to provide them with food and clothing, and not to torture them: "And they feed, for the love of Allah, the indigent, the orphan, and the captive" (Koran, 76:8). (c) The prisoners of war should be ultimately released.

5. It is prohibited to hold civilians from among the enemy as hostages and threaten to kill them because of an action that is performed, or not, by others, while they are not responsible for it, and they cannot stop it: (a) One of the most important rules of justice among people is that no one should be responsible for the actions of others, and no one should be held accountable for crimes done by others. This law of sharia was confirmed by the Koran in many verses: "No bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another" (Koran, 17:15).

It is clear that the message of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, headed by Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, calls for the prohibition of harming civilians in any way, including kidnapping, even in a state of war.

We should not allow frustration to drive us to the use of violence, or to solve problems, regarding issues of internal change, through the use of arms. And we have to give nonviolent resistance a general chance to prove whether it is a valid or invalid method. This is only possible through experimentation.

We should see in every foreigner a potential friend whom we can bring to actuality through kindness and benevolence. This is a path strewn with the thorns of ignorance; it can be cleared with tools of knowledge and patience, without getting bored or tired. The Koran says:

"Nor can goodness and evil be equal. Repel [evil] with what is better: Then will he, between whom and thee was hatred, become as it were thy friend and intimate.

"And no one will be granted such goodness except those who exercise patience and self-restraint, none but persons of the greatest good fortune." (Koran, 41: 34-35).

Mustafa Abu Sway is a professor of philosophy and Islamic studies at Al Quds University in East Jerusalem. A longer version of this article was originally published by the Palestinian daily, Al-Quds.

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