Killing, punishing, and mistreating captives (prisoners of war) have been prevailing in human civilization for ages, irrespective of race, culture, society, religion, belief, ethnicity, etc. The civilized nations adopted and ratified the “Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War,” and are the promoters of Human Rights. Article 13 of Geneva Convention states: “Prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated. Any unlawful act or omission by the Detaining Power causing death or seriously endangering the health of a prisoner of war in its custody is prohibited, and will be regarded as a serious breach of the present Convention.” However, mistreatment of captives (prisoners of war) has not been stopped.

Islam teaches us to be merciful to the entire creation, even towards those who oppose Islam and worship idols. Islam only allows war in self-defense and to prevent injustice. However, one of the unfortunate circumstances of war is that prisoners will be taken from the enemy’s forces. Even so, Islam calls us to treat such prisoners with mercy and dignity.

Some interpreters, in commenting on the verse-57 of Sura Al-Anfal [8:57], opted for the punishment of captives so that the other unbelievers, who have not participated in war, get warned or take lessons for not being involved in war with the Muslims or in any evil-doing in future.

These interpretations may convey wrong messages to the non-Muslims and may generate misunderstandings among some Muslims. In this article, the context of these interpretations is explained, for getting rid of any misunderstanding regarding these interpretations. Moreover, the directives of Allah (SWT) and the Sunnah of the Prophet (PBUH) about dealing with captives are clearly presented in this article.

Context of Interpretations of Verse 8:57

Allah (SWT) stated [8:57]:

{فَإِمَّا تَثْقَفَنَّهُمْ فِى ٱلْحَرْبِ فَشَرِّدْ بِهِم مَّنْ خَلْفَهُمْ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَذَّكَّرُونَ}

“So if you, [O Muhammad], gain dominance over them in war, disperse by [means of] them those behind them that perhaps they will be reminded.” [Sahih International]

“If ye gain the mastery over them in war, disperse, with them, those who follow them, that they may remember.” [Yusuf Ali]

“So if you gain the mastery over them in war, punish them severely in order to disperse those who are behind them, so that they may learn a lesson.” [Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din al-Hilali & Muhammad Muhsin Khan]

“The textual word “sharrid” literally stands for dispersal. But, some of the earliest commentators have said that it means, “hand down an exemplary punishment.”

Ibn `Abbas, Qatadah, Sa`id ibn Jubayr, Hasan al-Busri and others have said that the Prophet was commanded to punish those he overpowered of his opponents – who broke their pledges every now and then – in an exemplary manner so as to discourage others who were watching the events and waiting for their own chance to strike at the Muslims.” [Ishraq al-Ma’ani]

“(So if you gain the mastery over them in war), if you defeat them and have victory over them in war, (then disperse those who are behind them,) by severely punishing the captured people according to Ibn `Abbas, Al-Hasan Al-Basri, Ad-Dahhak, As-Suddi, `Ata’ Al-Khurasani and Ibn `Uyaynah. This Ayah commands punishing them harshly and inflicting casualties on them. This way, other enemies, Arabs and non-Arabs, will be afraid and take a lesson from their end.” [Ibn Kathir]

 “So, the verse means: ‘If you overpower such people in a war, give them a drastic punishment which becomes an instant lesson for others – so that those who are busy bashing Islam behind the cover of such people serving as their agent provocateurs should understand clearly that there remains no alternative for them but to run for their lives. The drive of the instruction is that these people should be punished in a manner which makes an impression on the disbelievers of Makkah and other hostile tribes and sucks away any courage they may have to come back and confront Muslims in the future.” [Maariful Quran] 

It seems that the above interpretations of the verse [8:57] imply the punishing of the captives, possessed by the Muslims, after defeating the unbelievers in a war. However, this is not a general directive of dealing with the captives in every case, rather applicable to a particular group of unbelievers who broke their pledges every time, conspired with others, and were involved in evil-doings against the Muslims. They claimed to be at peace with Muslims while, on the other hand, they used to conspire with the disbelievers of Makkah against Muslims.

This group of unbelievers have been mentioned in the verse [8:56]:

 {ٱلَّذِينَ عَـٰهَدتَّ مِنْهُمْ ثُمَّ يَنقُضُونَ عَهْدَهُمْ فِى كُلِّ مَرَّةٍۢ وَهُمْ لَا يَتَّقُونَ}  

“The ones with whom you made a treaty but then they break their pledge every time, and they do not fear Allah.” [Sahih International]

Allah (SWT) has given clear directives to the Prophet (PBUH) and the believers in many verses of Al-Qur’an about dealing with captives/slaves. In addition to that, there have been practices and instructions of the Prophet (PBUH) regarding this issue.

Directives of Allah (SWT) about Dealing with Captives

Generally, a prisoner of war could be, at the discretion of the military leader, freed, ransomed, exchanged for Muslim prisoners, or kept in bondage. In earlier times, the ransom sometimes took an educational dimension, where a literate prisoner of war could secure his or her freedom by teaching ten Muslims to read and write.

[Quran 47:4]

{فَإِذَا لَقِيتُمُ ٱلَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا۟ فَضَرْبَ ٱلرِّقَابِ حَتَّىٰٓ إِذَآ أَثْخَنتُمُوهُمْ فَشُدُّوا۟ ٱلْوَثَاقَ فَإِمَّا مَنًّۢا بَعْدُ وَإِمَّا فِدَآءً حَتَّىٰ تَضَعَ ٱلْحَرْبُ أَوْزَارَهَا ۚ ذَٰلِكَ وَلَوْ يَشَآءُ ٱللَّهُ لَٱنتَصَرَ مِنْهُمْ وَلَـٰكِن لِّيَبْلُوَا۟ بَعْضَكُم بِبَعْضٍۢ ۗ}

“So when you meet the disbelievers (in battle), strike (their) necks until you have thoroughly subdued them, then bind them firmly. Later (free them either as) an act of grace or by ransom until the war comes to an end. So will it be. Had Allah willed, He (Himself) could have inflicted punishment on them. But He does (this only to) test some of you by means of others.” [Sahih International]

[Quran 76:8]

{وَيُطْعِمُونَ ٱلطَّعَامَ عَلَىٰ حُبِّهِۦ مِسْكِينًۭا وَيَتِيمًۭا وَأَسِيرًا}

“And they give food in spite of love for it to the needy, the orphan, and the captive,” [Sahih International]

[Quran 8:70]

{يَـٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلنَّبِىُّ قُل لِّمَن فِىٓ أَيْدِيكُم مِّنَ ٱلْأَسْرَىٰٓ إِن يَعْلَمِ ٱللَّهُ فِى قُلُوبِكُمْ خَيْرًۭا يُؤْتِكُمْ خَيْرًۭا مِّمَّآ أُخِذَ مِنكُمْ وَيَغْفِرْ لَكُمْ ۗ وَٱللَّهُ غَفُورٌۭ رَّحِيمٌۭ}

“O Prophet! Tell the captives in your custody, If Allah finds goodness in your hearts, He will give you better than what has been taken from you, and forgive you. For Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” [Sahih International]

Sunnah of the Prophet (PBUH) about Dealing with Captives

Abu Musa Al-Ashari reported: “The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

أَطْعِمُوا الْجَائِعَ وَعُودُوا الْمَرِيضَ وَفُكُّوا الْعَانِيَ

“Feed the hungry, visit the sick, and set the captives free.” [Bukhari 5649]

The prophet never punished prisoners because they just had participated in battles against Muslims and prohibited their execution on this account. It is narrated that the prophet has when his military commander Khalid Ibn al-Walid killed some captives from the tribe of Jadhimah, said “O Allaah! I am free from what Khalid has done” [Bukhari 4339].

In the battle of Badr, Muslims captured 70 warriors from the Meccan pagan tribe of Quraysh. After the battle, the Prophet (PBUH) consulted with his close companions Abu Bakr al-Sddiq (RA) and Umar Ibn al-Khattab (RA) as to the fate of the prisoners.

“The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said to Abu Bakr (RA) and Umar (RA) on the day of Badr: What is your opinion about these captives?

Abu Bakr (RA) said, “They are our kith and kin. I think you should release them after getting for a ransom. This will be a source of strength to us against the unbelievers and Allah might guide them to Islam.”

Then, the Prophet said to me: What is your opinion, son of Khattab?

He said, “O Messenger of Allah, I do not hold the same opinion as Abu Bakr (RA). I think you should hand them over to us so that we may strike their necks. Hand over Aqeel to Ali that he may strike his neck, and hand over another to me that I may strike his neck. They are leaders of the unbelievers and their veterans.”

The Prophet (PBUH) approved the opinion of Abu Bakr (RA) and did not approve what Umar (RA) said.” [Sahih Muslim 1763]

The Prophet (PBUH) later ransomed the prisoners for their freedom. He directed the rich prisoners to pay an amount of money based on their financial situation. He directed the poor but literate prisoners to teach ten Muslim children to read and write. He released the ones who were neither rich nor literate unconditionally. However, among the Badr prisoners, Muslims executed two for persecuting the Muslims in Makkah.


According to Islamic practices & customs, based upon Islamic teachings, in both the Qur’an and hadith, the prisoners must be dealt with in a dignified manner. The Prophet’s (PBUH) early followers also considered it a principle to not separate prisoners from their relatives. After the fighting is over, prisoners are to be released freely, with some prospect of survival or exchange.

The verse 8:57 of Al-Qur’an belongs to Sura Al-Anfal which was revealed after the Battle of Badr. The Muslims, during the period of Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) lifetime, participated in about 80 encounters. There was no example of punishing the captives because they just fought against the Muslims. The Prophet (PBUH) didn’t allow punishing/mistreating the captives. A few exceptions of punishment towards the leaders of the unbelievers and their veterans were because they were war criminals who persecuted the Muslims.

Therefore, the general attitude of Islam towards captives (prisoners of war) is that they should be treated with mercy and dignity, fed and clothed properly, and set free if their freedom would not lead to further insecurity.

By Prof. Mhd. Mamunur Rashid