November 7, 2001 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 75

Terror In America (23) Muslim Soldiers In The U.S. Armed Forces In Afghanistan: To Fight Or Not To Fight?

November 7, 2001
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 75

As soon as the U.S. geared up for the war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Muslim military personnel in the American armed forces began to deal with the question of the religious permissibility of their participation in battle. Army Chaplain Capt. Abd Al-Rasheed Muhammad, the Imam of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. sent an inquiry on the matter to the North American Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence) Council, which in turn referred the matter to clerics in the Arab world. The clerics issued a Fatwa permitting Muslim soldiers to take part in the fighting if there was no alternative, and the council delivered the ruling to Capt. Muhammad. But on October 30, the editor of the Arabic London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported that the clerics who signed this Fatwa had changed their minds and abrogated their previous Fatwa with a new one prohibiting participation of Muslim soldiers in the war in Afghanistan.

The Unfolding of Events

Following the attacks of September 11 and the subsequent preparations for war, Capt. Muhammad sent his inquiry to the council. Seven years earlier, when he was asked by the Arab weekly Al-Majalah following his appointment in 1994 about his opinion on American forces fighting in Islamic countries, he said, "We are soldiers, not politicians. Obeying orders is a fundamental part of the work of the military, but I hope that America's relations with Islamic countries and with other countries will be always good, and if we are forced to intervene, the intervention will be positive. I pray to Allah every day that we will not be forced to fight our Muslim brothers, although Muslims kill each other in their civil wars here and there, which saddens me."[1]

Nevertheless, in 2001 Capt. Muhammad felt that on such a momentous matter, it was best to consult with external Islamic authorities. In his letter to the council, he outlined the goals of the prospective war and concluded that more than 15,000 Muslim military personnel serve in all three branches of the U.S. armed forces, and that if they refuse to participate in the fighting, they would have to resign, which might have other consequences. Finally, he asked whether it is permissible for those able to transfer to serve in capacities other than direct fighting.[2]

Capt. Muhammad first sent his inquiry to Dr. Taha Jaber Al-'Alwani, president of North American Fiqh Council. Al-'Alwani passed it on to several well-known clerics in the Arab world. He told Al-Sharq Al-Awsat why he did this: "When a question is referred to us, we often consult with our brothers, colleagues, and teachers in the Islamic world. We send the question to several experts among the clerics, and when we receive their answers, we [usually] adopt their Fatwas as they are written, and back them up with proof and explanations – because the Western mind, as you know, cannot accept anything if it is not proven and explained. Sometimes, we introduce changes in the Fatwa..."

"Many Fatwas [on the matter] were issued at the time of the Gulf War," said Al-'Alwani, "and we tried to gather and study them. At the same time, we sent [Capt. Muhammad's inquiry] on to a group of clerics in the Muslim world, asking that they advise us about the new catastrophe."

"[There were] instances during the Gulf War when many Muslim military personnel were advised to [transfer] to auxiliary corps such as supplies and transportation. It appeared that several Muslim military personnel's refusal to serve in the war against a Muslim nation led to Muslim American soldiers being looked at askance... Therefore, we made sure that the matter did not reach the Arab or Western media, and that it would remain between us and the Muslim chaplains in the U.S. Department of Defense. But to our surprise, some Arab and European media, and afterwards American media, addressed this matter, and we found ourselves facing a fait accompli. So we issued an announcement in which we declared that we respect the Fatwas of all clerics, and primarily the position of Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi and his colleagues, but we stress to all Muslim American military personnel that they must not relinquish the rights granted them by the American constitution and legislation. The American constitution defends anyone who is uneasy about participating in [military] activities with the concept of 'conscientious objection.' Anyone who is not uneasy can fight like the others. Within the U.S., if it is attacked from its seas or its skies, Muslims in the U.S. armed forces must defend them, because this is self defense and defense of their home."[3]

Dr. Al-'Alwani himself had doubts as to whether Osama bin Laden is responsible for the attacks on the U.S. In an article that appeared in the Saudi daily Al-Watan, Al-'Alwani implied that Israel is behind the attacks, with the aim of "bringing about a merger between Israeli and American security theory [strategies]." He wrote, "Britain has released many documents on World War II; some of them indicate how the British fox Churchill dragged America into WWII by, among other things, arranging an Axis attack on the American Navy in the middle of the ocean. This operation [i.e. Pearl Harbor] is considered the most dangerous intelligence operation of that generation. America swallowed the bait and the cowboy entered the area and tipped the scales… in favor of the Allies… The events of Black September 11 are nothing more than the beginning of the merger between two security theories [strategies], the Israeli and the American."[4]

Three Arab clerics received the inquiry: Dr. Yussuf Al-Qaradhawi, one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, UNESCO representative Dr. Haytham Al-Khayyat, who was presented in the Fatwa as an Islamic scholar from Syria, and Dr. Muhammad Salim Al-'Awa. These three also brought in Judge Tareq Al-Bishri and known Islamist columnist Fahmi Huweidi.

Al-Qaradhawi's stance on this question is surprising, because only two weeks earlier, on his television program on the Qatar channel Al-Jazeera, he issued a call to Arab and Islamic countries not to assist the U.S. in its war in Afghanistan, and stated that should the Taliban declare a Jihad against the U.S., "Muslims must help as best they can." Al-Qaradhawi also said that although he condemns the attacks against civilians in the U.S., "we must fight the American army if we can."[5]

Another key figure behind the Fatwa is Dr. Muhammad Salim Al-'Awa, who drafted it for the others. In 1998, Al-'Awa stated in an interview with Al-Istiqlal, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad mouthpiece in Gaza, "I believe that it is the duty of the Muslims to act in all possible ways in order to obtain weapons of mass destruction, beginning with nuclear weapons and including biological and chemical weapons… We want the State of Israel to cease to exist, and the State of Palestine to arise in its place…" In the same interview, Al-'Awa expressed support for Palestinian suicide bombers, calling them "the most sublime martyrs in our generation, who should be a model for our boys and girls."[6]

The Fatwa

The Fatwa Al-'Awa now drafted was quite different than his past statements. Following are excerpts of the official English translation:

"All Muslims ought to be united against all those who terrorize the innocents, and those who permit the killing of non-combatants without a justifiable reason. Islam has declared the spilling of blood and the destruction of property as absolute prohibitions until the Day of Judgment. Allah said: 'Because of that We ordained unto the Children of Israel that if anyone killed a human being – unless it be in punishment for murder or for spreading evil on earth – it would be as though he killed all of humanity; whereas if anyone saved a life, it would be as though he saved all humanity… (Koran 5:32)'"

"Hence, whoever violates these pointed Islamic texts is an offender deserving of the appropriate punishment according to their offence and according to its consequences for destruction and mischief."

"It is incumbent upon our military brothers in the American armed forces to make this stand and its religious reasoning well-known to all their superiors, as well as to their peers, and to voice it and not to be silent. Conveying this is part of the true nature of the Islamic teachings that have often been distorted or smeared by the media."

"If the terrorist acts that took place in the U.S. were considered by Islamic Law (Shari'ah) or the rules of Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh), the ruling for the crime of Hiraba (waging war against society) would be applied to their doers. Allah said: 'The recompense of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and do mischief on Earth is only that they shall be killed or crucified or their hands and their feet be cut off from opposite sides, or be exiled from the land. That is their disgrace in this world, and a great torment [awaits them] in the Hereafter.'"

"Therefore, we find it necessary to apprehend the true perpetrators of these crimes, as well as those who aid and abet them through incitement, financing or other support. They must be brought to justice in an impartial court of law and be punished appropriately, so that it serves as a deterrent to them and to others like them who easily slay the lives of innocents, destroy properties and terrorize people. Hence, it's a duty on Muslims to participate in this effort with all possible means… (Koran 5.2)"

"On the other hand, the source of the uneasiness that American Muslim military men and women may have in fighting other Muslims, is because it's often difficult – if not impossible – to differentiate between the real perpetrators who are being pursued and the innocents who have committed no crime at all. The authentic saying by the Prophet states: 'When two Muslims face each other in fighting and one kills the other, then both the killer and the killed will end up in the hell-fire.' Someone said [to the Prophet]: 'We understand that the killer is in hell; why then the one who's being killed? The Prophet said: Because he wanted to kill the other person…'"

"The noble Hadith mentioned above only refers to the situation where the Muslim is in charge of his affairs. He is capable of fighting as well as capable of not fighting. This Hadith does not address the situation where a Muslim is a citizen of a state and a member of a regular army. In this case, he has no choice but to follow orders, otherwise his allegiance and loyalty to his country could be in doubt. This would subject him to much harm…"

"The Muslim [soldier] must perform [his] duty in this fight despite the feeling of uneasiness of 'fighting without discriminating [between criminals and innocents].' His intention (niyya) must be to fight for enjoining of the truth and defeating falsehood. It is to prevent aggression on the innocents, or to apprehend the perpetrators and bring them to justice. It is not his concern what other consequences of the fighting might result to his personal discomfort, since he alone can neither control it nor prevent it. Furthermore, all deeds are accounted (by Allah) according to [their] intentions. Allah does not burden any soul except what it can bear. In addition, Muslim jurists have ruled that what a Muslim cannot control, he cannot be held accountable for, as Allah says: 'And keep your duty to God as much as you can (Koran 64:16).'"

"The Prophet said: 'When I ask of you to do something, do it as much as you can.' The Muslim here is part of a whole; if he absconds, his departure will result in a greater harm, not only for him but also for the Muslim community in his country – and here there are many millions of them. Moreover, even if fighting causes him discomfort spiritually or psychologically, this personal hardship must be endured for the greater public good, as the jurisprudence (Fiqh) rule states."

"Furthermore, the questioner inquires about the possibility of the Muslim military personnel in the American armed forces to serve in the back lines – such as in the relief services sector and similar works. If such requests are granted by the authorities, without reservation or harm to the soldiers, or to other American Muslim citizens, then they should request that. Otherwise, if such request raises doubts about their allegiance or loyalty, cast suspicions, present them with false accusations, harm their future careers, shed misgivings on their patriotism, or similar sentiments, then it is not permissible to ask for that."

"To sum up, it is acceptable – Allah willing – for the Muslim American military personnel to partake in the fighting in the upcoming battles, against whomever their country decides has perpetrated terrorism against them. Keeping in mind to have the proper intention as explained earlier, so no doubts would be cast about their loyalty to their country, or to prevent harm from befalling them as might be expected. This is in accordance with the Islamic jurisprudence rules, which state that necessities dictate exceptions, as well as the rule that says one may endure a small harm to avoid a much greater harm."[7]

The Opposition

As might be expected, the Fatwa prompted opposition: Sheikh Muhammad Al-Hanooti, a member of the North American Fiqh Council (headed by Al-'Alwani), stated at an October 12, 2001 press conference of the American Muslim Council: "Muslims can fight provided that they get legitimacy [by religious ruling] for what they are going to do, if a certain people… or country are judicially indicted."

"Up to this moment, I don't see any evidence or proof [against the Taliban or bin Laden]… We cannot take action without judicial indictment [of bin Laden]. I know there is a crime done. The people who did it are criminals, but who should decide about their indictment? A judge. I disagree with anyone who gives support to the action taken by the President of the United States without this kind of indictment."[8]

"Therefore, we cannot participate as American soldiers in a war whose legitimacy in Islamic religious law has not been established, regardless of whom we fight against, Muslims or non-Muslims."[9]

Dr. Ahmad Al-Raysouni, professor of Shari'ah at the University of Morocco, said: "It is not permissible to launch any attacks against Muslims, to fight them or to carry out any transgression against them. In a show of respect to Muslim creed and [the Muslim American soldiers'] feelings, the American administration I think, will appreciate the attitude of Muslims and will avoid pushing Muslims forward to kill their fellow brothers. The U.S. administration may also consider the issue through strategic perspectives with the aim of preserving discipline and stability in the American army. However, if Muslim American soldiers are called upon to participate in a war launched against their fellow Muslim brothers, then they should decline and apologize."[10]

Dr. Ali Jum'ah, professor of the Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University, saw Muslim American soldiers' refusal to participate in the American offensive as a form of Jihad: "Fighting in the Cause of Allah is an obligation upon Muslims. It's worth stressing here that Jihad has a wider meaning, which is related to man's role on earth, rather than being confined to defending one's country, honor, property, and worldly riches. A Muslim is a brother of another Muslim. So he should neither oppress him nor hand him over to an oppressor…"

"Now, it is not allowed for a Muslim who is currently recruited in the American army to fight against Muslims, either in Afghanistan nor anywhere else… If a Muslim is forced to participate in the military campaign, then he should take care not to kill [another] Muslim, under any circumstances. [He must not offer] help or [give] clues that might help capture his fellow Muslim brothers or ease killing them…"

"The Prophet [Muhammad]… deemed that the demolition of the sacred Ka'bah [in Mecca]… is less [serious] in Allah's sight than killing a Muslim. Now what do we think of killing tens and hundreds of Muslims?…"[11]

A Hamas leader, Bassam Jarar, called Al-Qaradhawi to ask for a copy of the ruling, and then sent his response to the Palestinian daily Al-Quds. Jarar addressed the claim that "necessity permits things that are prohibited," a phrase appearing in the Arabic version of the Fatwa but missing from the English version. "It is known that the necessity does not permit murder," he said. According to Jarar, since Al-Qaradhawi sees participation in the fighting as a "necessity," such fighting is clearly forbidden by Islamic religious law. Jarar also said that the penalty for soldiers in the American army who refuse to fight is in any event only a few months in jail. He concluded by saying that a Muslim soldier who refuses to participate in the war in Afghanistan for the reason that it is forbidden by Islamic religious law is actually in a very strong position when he faces the American judicial system.[12]

However, the most important opposition seems to have come from the same clerics who issued the Fatwa. On October 30, 2001, the editor of the Arabic London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported that the clerics have abrogated their position with a new Fatwa which invalidated the former one and prohibited the participation of Muslim soldiers in the U.S. armed forces in the war in Afghanistan. The text of the Fatwa has not been made public yet.[13]


[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 6, 2001.

[2] Authorized English translation of the Fatwa issued September 27, 2001, by Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, Judge Tareq Al-Bishri, Dr. Muhammad Salim Al-'Awa, Dr. Haytham Al-Khayyat, and Fahmi Huweidi.

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 14, 2001.

[4] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), September 22, 2001.

[5] Al-Jazeera Television (Qatar), September 16, 2001.

[6] Al-Istiqklal (Palestinian Authority), October 28, 1998.

[7] Authorized English translation of the Fatwa issued September 27, 2001.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Al-Sha'ab (Egypt), October 19, 2001.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Al-Quds (Palestinian Authority), October 15, 2001.

[13] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 30, 2001.

Share this Report: