The Prohibition against Kidnapping and Hostage-Taking
In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, Most Merciful
The phenomenon of kidnapping and taking hostages is not something particular to this day and age; rather, it is something mankind has known throughout history. In this day and age, however, it has become more prevalent and because some Muslims have resorted to these methods also, and violated Islamic Law by doing so, we desire to summarise the Islamic legal ruling on these crimes in the following points:
Firstly, kidnapping is an act of aggression against another person and, whether that person is Muslim or non-Muslim, it is one of the forms of oppression which Allah forbade with His statement:
Verily, Allah enjoins justice and goodness, and giving (help) to kith and kin; and He forbids wickedness, evil deeds and all kinds of oppression.
This command for justice, patience and perfection in performing duties to Allah, and giving help to kith and kin is not restricted to doing so merely with Muslims; rather it encompasses all of humankind. Likewise, the prohibition of all kinds of oppression encompasses all of humankind.
It is human nature to want to seek revenge when one is oppressed, and Allah permits reciprocating harm in a fashion like that done to one.
As Allah, the Almighty, says:
Then whoever transgresses the prohibition against you, you transgress likewise against him. And fear Allah, and know that Allah is with the pious.
And He says:
And fight in the way of Allah those who fight you, but transgress not the limits.
Allah the Almighty also emphasises the fact that, even if war is to break out, differences of religion do not justify transgressing against others. He says:
And let not the hatred of some people (who were once) stopping you from the sacred mosque (at Mecca), lead you to transgression (against them).
At-Tabari recorded in his Tafsīr  on the authority of Mujāhid, who said:
Allah’s Prophet (pbuh) approached (Mecca) performing ‘Umra and his Companions took some people of the Sacred (City) captive. So Allah’s Prophet (pbuh) set them free.
This is because he traveled for the purpose of performing ‘Umra and did not consider himself at war with the polytheists.
Likewise, Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) did not approve of his Companion Salāma ibn al-Akwā’ taking four people captive after the Treaty of al-Hudaybiyya, thinking that the polytheists had broken their covenant, and he said:
Let them be the ones to initiate the iniquity (and he repeated this twice).
This is because initiating iniquity is in contradiction with the values of Muslims.
The permissibility of a Muslim reciprocating an act of iniquity committed against him with an act equal to it is not a mere license to take revenge; rather, it is a measure to prevent iniquity altogether and remove it from the sphere of human interaction. The Quran guides us to the ideal way of preventing repeated iniquity and clarifies that forgiveness and pardoning are the real way to do away with evil and prevent its reoccurrence:
Repel (the evil) with one which is better (i.e. Allah orders the faithful believers to be patient at the time of anger, and to excuse those who treat them badly) then verily he, between whom and you there was enmity, (will become) as though he was a close friend.
Repel evil with that which is better.
The Quran also describes the Muslims in two different passages (Sura ar-Ra‘ad :22 and Sura al-Qasas :54) as those who “repel evil with good.”
Thus, Islamic law does not permit kidnapping any person at any time except during an actual war, in which case prisoners of war may be taken but not killed;rather, they must be set free at a later time either as an act of sheer philanthropy or in exchange for ransom as the Quran teaches.
Secondly, in the case of an actual war, it is not permissible to kidnap innocent people or civilians from amongst the enemy, as Islamic law does not permit soldiers to engage in war with civilians. In Islam, women, children, the elderly, and those devoted to religious rites such as monks, are all considered civilians and it is impermissible to attack them during times of war. In an authentic hadīth, Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) forbade killing women and children. And he (pbuh) said: “Do not kill any child.”  And he commanded Khalid bin al-Walīd saying: “You shall not kill any child or any worker.” The “worker” mentioned here refers to any person hired to perform services not related to fighting, such as employees in factories and hospitals, doctors, etc.
Likewise, the Prophet (pbuh) forbade killing the elderly  as well as the monks and those living in monasteries who have devoted themselves to Allah.
Abu Bakr also authentically reported the prohibition of killing monks. And the overwhelming majority of scholars from the Hanafi, Maliki, and Hanbali schools of fiqh deduced by analogy that other types of people fall under the same category as the abovementioned people insofar as the prohibition of killing them; from amongst them are the crippled, blind, insane, and people secluded in churches and the likes for the purpose of worship. Farmers and factory workers are also included.
Thirdly, if any members of an opposing army happen to be captured during a war, they must be given the rights Islamic law guarantees to prisoners of war, which we shall summarise as follows:
A. They must be surrendered to the leader of the Muslim nation to judge as he sees appropriate. The captor, on the other hand, has absolutely no right to use his own judgment in dealing with them.
B. It is also an Islamic obligation to be gentle to prisoners of war, to be kind to them, to honour them, to provide them with food and clothing, and to refrain from torturing them. Allah the Exalted says, describing the pious:
And they give food, in spite of their love for it (or for Him), to the needy, the orphan and the captive.
And the Prophet (pbuh) said:
“Treat the captives well.”
And it was narrated that the Prophet (pbuh) said:
“Treat your captives well and give them water to drink.”
He also said:
“Don’t make them bear the heat of this day along with the heat of the weapon.”
During the Battle of Badr, the Prophet (pbuh) ordered his companions to honour the captives, and they did so by feeding them before they themselves ate!
C. The final outcome of prisoners of war in Islam is setting them free, either as an act of kindness toward them or in exchange for ransom. The ransom can be money, or it can be arranged for an equal number of Muslims captured by the enemy to be set free, or it can be a service the captives provide to the Muslims. In fact, the Prophet (pbuh) set some of the captives from the Battle of Badr free in exchange for them teaching a group of Muslims how to write. Allah says:
So when you meet (in combat) those who disbelieve, smite (their) necks till when you have killed and wounded many of them, then bind a bond firmly (as captives). Thereafter (is the time) either for generosity (i.e. free them unconditionally), or ransom, until the war lays down its burden.
And Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) acted upon this verse until the end of his life.
Many scholars hold that it is impermissible to kill captives under any circumstances. Ibn Rush said in his book, Bidāyat al-Mujtahid:
Some have said that it is impermissible to kill captives, and Al-Hassan bin Muhammad at-Tamimi related that this was the mutual consensus of the Companions.
And Ibn Kathīr said in his Tafsīr:
Some have said that the Muslim leader has the choice either to set prisoners of war fee or to ransom them, but that killing them is not permissible.
What is apparent from this verse is the impermissibility of killing someone after capturing them, and this is the opinion of Al-Hasan.
Fourthly, it is not permissible to detain civilians from the enemy’s side and threaten to kill them due to some measures that others have taken or refused to take, as they are not responsible for these things, nor can they prevent them. This is for two reasons:
1. The first is that one of the most important principles of justice among people is that no person is responsible for the actions of anyone other than his/herself, and no one may be punished for a crime he/she did not commit.
This is an Islamic principle stressed time and again in the Noble Quran in a number of different verses:
No person earns any (sin) except against himself (only)…
No one laden with burdens can bear another’s burden.
Whosoever does righteous good deeds, it is for (the benefit of) his own self; and whosoever does evil, it is against his own self.
Whosoever works evil, will have the recompense thereof…
The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) also stressed this Islamic principle in a number of hadīth, such as his sayings:
“No doer of wrong does so except against his self” and “No soul does wrong on the account of another.”
Also, some hadīth explicitly prohibit killing non-Mulims with whom the Muslims have a truce. From amongst these, the statement of Allah’s Messenger (pbuh):
“Whoever unlawfully kills someone with whom we have a truce, Allah will prevent him from even smelling the scent of Paradise.”
2. The second reason for the impermissibility of this is that, even during an actual war, when civilians may be in danger of being killed due to the fighting, such as when an army invades an enemy base and there are civilians near it, Islamic jurists agree that it is not permissible to intentionally kill them. But, if it is impermissible to intentionally kill civilians during an actual battle, how could it ever be possible to kill them in cold blood while they are captives?
What is mandatory upon every Muslim is to fully comply with the Islamic laws we have summarised and clarified here. And Allah the Most High knows best.
1 The Quran, Sura an-Nahl :90.
2 The Quran, Sura al-Baqara :194.
3 The Quran, Sura al-Baqara :190.
4 The Quran, Sura l-Mā’ida :2.
5 Tafsīr at-Tabari (26/59).
6 Sahih Muslim.
7 The Quran, Sura Fussilat :34.
8 The Quran, Sura al-Mu’minūn :96.
9 See the Quran, Sura Muhammad :4.
10 Reported by Abu Dāwūd.
11 Sahih Ibn Majah.
12 As recorded in Sunan Abi Dāwūd.
13 As recorded in Al-Mudawwana by Mālik, Jām‘i al-Usūl, and Musannaf Ibn Abi Shayba.
14 Badā’i as-Sanā’i by al-Kisā’I and Al-Mughni by Ibn Qudāma.
15 Hāshiya ad-Dasūqi ‘ala as-Sharh al-Kabīr.
16 The Quran, Sura al-Insān :8.
17 Related by at-Tabarāni with a good chain of narration.
18 Imtā’ al-Asmā’ by al-Maqrīzi.
19 Fath al-Bāri.
20 Tafsīr Ibn Kathīr.
21 Zād al-Ma‘ād by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya.
22 The Quran, Sura Muhammad :4.
23 The Quran, Sura al-An‘am :164.
24 The Quran, Sura al-Isrā’ :15.
25 The Quran, Sura Fussilat :46.
26 The Quran, Sura an-Nisā’ :123.
27 Recorded by Ibn Māja.
28 Recorded by an-Nisā’i and Ibn Māja.
29 Recorded by an-Nisā’i. 9