Tafsir Zone - Surah 8: al-Anfal (The Spoils Of War )

Tafsir Zone

Surah al-Anfal 8:15

Overview (Verses 15 - 16)

Except for Tactical Reasons

Now that the decisive victory has been attributed to its true factors: God’s planning, support, the believers’ reliance on Him alone and acceptance of whatever eventuality He determines — now with all minds visualizing the whole event, and all hearts ready for the best response, the believers are given an order to remain steady whenever they meet unbelievers in battle. They must never run away, since victory or defeat are determined by God’s will and the factors contributing to either of them are different from the factors people may see. The whole battle and all its events are of God’s own making and planning: “Believers, when you meet in battle those who disbelieve, do not turn your backs to them in flight. Anyone who turns his back to them on that day, except when manoeuvring for battle or in an endeavour to join another troop, shall incur God’s wrath, and hell shall be his abode: how vile a journey’s end.” (Verses 15-16)
These verses begin with a strong warning, a fearsome threat. Should the believers face their enemies who may in essence present themselves in a great show of power, they must not, under any circumstances, turn away, except for tactical reasons. These may include choosing a better position, carrying out a more effective plan, joining another group of believers, or moving to another Muslim stronghold in order to resume the fight. Deserters and people who turn away in flight deserve the most terrible double punishment of incurring God’s wrath and being thrown into hell.
Some scholars have expressed the view that this ruling applies only to the people of Badr, or to a battle in which the Prophet himself took part. But the overwhelming majority of scholars have emphasized its general application. They consider fleeing from battle as one of the gravest sins. In the two Şahīh, the most authentic collections of the Prophet’s ĥadīth, al-Bukhārī and Muslim relate, on the authority of Abū Hurayrah, that God’s Messenger says: “Steer away from the seven ruining sins.” When he was asked which these were, the Prophet answered: “Associating partners with God, black magic, killing a human being except for a legitimate cause, devouring usury, pilfering an orphan’s property, running away from battle and falsely accusing chaste believing women of adultery.”
In his scholarly work, Aĥkām al-Qur’ān or Qur’ānic Rulings, al-Jaşşāş, a leading Ĥanafī scholar, explains in detail the different views on this point. It is useful to quote here what he says:
God says: “Anyone who turns his back to them on that day, except when manoeuvring for battle or in an endeavour to join another troop...” (Verse 16) Abū Nađrah mentions that this statement applies only to the Battle of Badr. Abū Nađrah argues that had they turned away on that day, they could only have joined the unbelievers, because there were no other Muslims on that day. But this statement is not particularly accurate, because there were numerous Muslims in Madinah who were not ordered by the Prophet to join the army. They had not gone out with the Prophet because they believed that no battle was imminent and the whole affair would merely be a case of intercepting a trade caravan. The Prophet was joined by those who were ready and quick to move out with him in the circumstances. Hence, Abū Nađrah’s view that there were no other Muslims at that time and that they would have only joined the unbelievers is wrong.
It has also been said that they were not permitted to join any other group on that day because the Prophet was with them and they were not allowed to leave him, as God says in the Qur’ān: “It is not open for the people of Madinah and those Bedouins living nearby to hold back from following God’s Messenger or to care for their own selves more than for him.” (9: 120) This shows that they could not let God’s Messenger down or abandon him, even though God had taken it upon Himself to protect him as He clearly states in the Qur’ān: “God will protect you from all men.” (5: 67) That was imperative on them, whether their enemies were small or large in number. Moreover, the Prophet himself was the rallying force for the Muslims on that day. Anyone turning away could only do so for tactical reasons, in an endeavour to join a company of believers. On the day of Badr, they could only join the Prophet. Ibn `Umar reports: “I was with an army when we had a quick round before returning to Madinah. People accused us of fleeing, but the Prophet said: `I am your group.’ This means that a person who is in a position away from the Prophet and wants to turn away from the unbelievers could only do so in order to join the Prophet. If the Prophet was in the army, then there was no group other than his. In such a case, no turning away was possible. Al-Ĥasan says that this verse, beginning with “Anyone who turns his back to them”, defined the situation for the people of Badr. God says in the Qur’ān: “Those of you who turned away on the day when the two hosts met in battle, Satan caused them to slip only in consequence of something that they themselves had done.” (3: 155) This is due to the fact that they turned away leaving the Prophet in battle. Similarly, on the day of Ĥunayn, they deserved God’s punishment for leaving the Prophet and turning away: “On the Day of Ĥunayn, when you took pride in your great numbers and they proved of no avail whatever to you. The earth, despite its vastness, became too narrow for you and you turned back, retreating.” (9: 25) This was then the ruling applicable when they were with the Prophet fighting any enemy that mustered small or large forces. In another verse, God says: “Prophet, urge the believers to fight. If there are twenty steadfast men among you, they will overcome two hundred, and if there are a hundred of you, they will defeat a thousand of those who disbelieve, for those are devoid of understanding.” (Verse 65) This applied perhaps — and God knows best — to a situation when the Prophet was with them. A company of twenty had to fight two hundred, remaining steadfast. If the hostile force was greater than that, then they were allowed to try to join another group in order to resume the fight. But this was later abrogated by the Qur’ānic statement: “Now God has lightened your burden, for He knows that you are weak. So, if there are a hundred steadfast men among you, they will overcome two hundred, and if there are a thousand of you they will, by God’s will, defeat two thousand.” (Verse 66)
According to Ibn `Abbās: It was a commandment that one man must not turn away in flight if he was facing ten enemy soldiers. This was then reduced by the Qur’ānic verse, “God has lightened your burden, for He knows that you are weak.” You are now commanded that one hundred may not flee from two hundred unbelievers. Ibn `Abbās states: “If one man runs away from two enemy soldiers, then he is a deserter. If he flees when he faces three, he is not.” Desertion refers to turning away in flight as mentioned in the Qur’ānic verse.
The verse makes it compulsory for a Muslim soldier to fight when he faces two unbelievers. If they are more than two, then it is permissible for a single soldier to try to join a company of Muslims that may give him support. If he wants to join a group of Muslims who will not support him in the fight, he is under the threat mentioned in the Qur’ānic verse: “Anyone who turns his back to them on that day, except when manoeuvering for battle or in an endeavour to join another troop, shall incur God’s wrath.” (Verse 16) For this reason the Prophet says: “I am company to every Muslim.” When `Umar ibn al-Khaţţāb heard that Abū `Ubayd ibn Mas‘ūd fought hard without thinking of retreat until he was killed, `Umar said: “May God have mercy on Abū `Ubayd. Had he joined me, I would have been company for him.” When Abū `Ubayd’s fellow soldiers arrived, `Umar said to them: “I am your company.” He did not take issue with them over their retreat. This ruling is confirmed in our school of law, [i.e. the Ĥanafī school], and it remains in force unless the Muslim army is 12,000 in number, in which case they may not flee from a force which is more than double their size, except for tactical reasons. They may move to a position where they can engage their enemy better, or may take a different step that does not constitute fleeing from battle, or join a group of Muslims who will fight with them. Muĥammad ibn al-Ĥasan (a leading Ĥanafī scholar) mentions that if a Muslim army is 12,000 in number, they may not turn away in flight, although their enemy may be much greater. There is no difference among our scholars (i.e. Ĥanafī scholars) on this point. In support of this view, a ĥadīth reported by Ibn `Abbās is cited in which the Prophet is quoted as saying: “The best group of friends is four, and the best expedition is 400, and the best host is 4,000. An army of 12,000 shall not suffer on account of inferior numbers, and shall not be defeated.” In another version: “An army of 12,000 shall not be defeated if they are truly united.” Mālik was asked: “Is it open for us not to join a battle against those abandoning God’s law in favour of a different law?” Mālik answered: “If you have 12,000 with you, you may not stay behind. Otherwise, staying behind is permissible.” The person who put the question to him was `Abdullāh ibn `Umar ibn `Abd al-`Azīz ibn Abdullāh ibn `Umar. This confirms what is stated by Muĥammad ibn al-Ĥasan. The authentic reports attributed to the Prophet with regard to an army of 12,000 constitute a basic principle in this respect. An army of such numbers may not turn away in flight from any enemy, even though that enemy may be several times their number, because the Prophet says: “If they are truly united.” God has commanded believers to be always truly united.

Ibn al-‘Arabī also comments on this difference of views. He writes in his book bearing the same title, Aĥkām al-Qur’ān or Qur’ānic Rulings: People have disputed whether the turning away in flight applies only to the Battle of Badr or to all battles Muslims may fight at any time until the Day of Judgement. Abū Sa‘īd al-Khudrī reports that this order applies only to the Battle of Badr, when the Muslims had no other company or troop other than God’s Messenger. This view is supported by Nāfi`, al-Ĥasan, Qatādah, Yazīd ibn Ĥabīb and al-Đaĥĥāk. Ibn Abbās and all other scholars are of the view that this Qur’ānic verse applies at all times until the Day of Judgement. Those who have taken a different view, saying that it applies to Badr only have misinterpreted the statement, “Anyone who turns his back to them on that day,” making the phrase ‘on that day’ a reference to the Day of Badr only. But this is not so. It refers to the day of battle whenever a battle takes place. In evidence we take the fact that this Qur’ānic verse was revealed after the Battle of Badr was over with all that it involved. The Prophet is authentically quoted to list fleeing from battle as one of the worst cardinal sins. In itself, this ĥadīth should settle all disputes and make the ruling absolutely clear. We have clarified how the confusion arose that led some scholars to think that it applied to Badr only.
For our part, we support Ibn `Abbās’s view and all other scholars as reported by Ibn al-`Arabī. To flee from battle deserves such condemnation because of the magnitude of its serious consequences on the one hand, and because it has a bearing on the very question of having faith. A believer should be firm and resolute, able to resist any force on earth, since he believes that God’s power can overcome all powers. If a believer’s heart experiences a tremor at a moment of danger, such a tremor should not go as far as making him flee from battle. The moment of anyone’s death is determined by God alone. Hence, no believer may flee from battle fearing for his life. This should not constitute too much of a burden for anyone. A believer is a human being who encounters an enemy, who, in turn, is a human being. Hence, they are of the same nature. The believer, however, has the advantage of relying on the overpowering might of God Himself. Moreover, he is under God’s care while he is alive, and he entrusts himself to God’s care if he attains martyrdom. This means that in all situations he is stronger than his enemy who defies God and His Messenger. Hence this absolute ruling: “Anyone who turns his back to them on that day, except when manoeuvering for battle or in an endeavour to join another troop, shall incur God’s wrath, and hell shall be his abode: how vile a journey’s end.” (Verse 16)
We should reflect a little here on the mode of expression and its remarkable connotations. The statements, “Do not turn your backs to them in flight”, and, “Anyone who turns his back to them on that day”, portray a sense of defeat as it manifests itself physically. They also add a strong condemnation as the whole action is shown to be repugnant, particularly the image of turning one’s back to one’s enemies. Then we have the expression, “shall incur God’s wrath.” In the Arabic text, there is a connotation that a defeated person is carrying with him God’s wrath right to his abode in hell, which is an awful end to his journey. Thus these connotations add to the sense and effectiveness of the statement. Together they spread a feeling of abhorrence of the very act of fleeing from battle.