In Islam, is it ever acceptable to kill civilians? A conversation with the Homs Sharia Court’s chief justice 

Last month, the Homs Sharia Court presided over a closed-door meeting with the local rebel leaders. The message from the seven sheikhs on the court was clear: Fighters should aggressively attack regime military targets in civilian areas.

The court, which is the leading religious authority and governing body in the province’s rebel-held northern countryside, is a creation of the rebel factions. Justices hand down rulings based on Islamic jurisprudence on anything from intra-rebel disputes to local trade regulations.

The court also sets military policy in its jurisdiction, and at that meeting on August 20, one of the justices tells Syria Direct he unequivocally ordered the local armed groups to target “the regime’s areas of popular support.”

 Logo of the Homs Sharia Court.

Homs Sharia Court Chief Justice Firas Abu Obeid’s comments to the rebels follow more than two weeks of near-daily land and aerial bombardment of the northern countryside, killing dozens of civilians while also temporarily shutting down the area’s only humanitarian corridor.

Beginning in mid-May, the Homs Sharia Court, and by extension, the rebels entered into a truce with the regime under Russian supervision. Rebels agreed not to attack regime forces—specifically troops moving along the Misyaf road, which connects Homs province to Tartus. In exchange, the regime agreed to a ceasefire that would cover parts of the northern countryside while allowing the uninhibited flow of goods and people to and from the entirety of the formerly blockaded region.

 Missile destroys a rural north Homs kindergarten last month. Photo courtesy of the Homs Media Center.

It remains unclear what sparked the return of hostilities and bombardment in north Homs. Abu Obeid, a Damascus graduate of Sharia studies and former Homs-based imam, says he has had enough.

“If a regime civilian is injured in the process of our targeting of their military personnel, then we are still in the right in the eyes of Islam,” says Abu Obeid, 35, who is currently serving his one-month rotation as chief justice of the court

The chief justice’s conversation with Syria Direct’s Mahran Mohammed ignited a debate in the Syria Direct newsroom.

Two Syrian journalists defended the notion of armed self-defense. “When your family is under attack, you have the right to do whatever it takes to protect them,” one said. The majority of Syrian reporters vehemently rejected this argument. “Under no circumstances can you ever justify a plan that would knowingly result in civilian casualties,” said another.  

Simply put, the Syria Direct newsroom—which comprises Syrians and Americans, men and women alike, former teachers, lawyers and computer scientists—was torn. What does Islam say about the morality of war? How is one to responsibly, ethically and religiously fight?

And so, the question remains: When does self-defense go too far?

The in-house debate prompted a follow-up conversation with Chief Justice Firas Abu Obeid, presented below. 

Q: How do you justify the killing of innocent civilians when Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, told his armies, “Do not kill women, children, the old or the infirm; do not cut down fruit-bearing trees; do not destroy any town…?”

In responding to aggression, we do not deliberately target women and children. We would never intentionally put them in the crosshairs of a sniper. When we fight to deter the regime, we target their fighters. The regime hasn’t left us with any other option.

Q: Is it ever permissible to kill civilians in the process of trying to protect your own people? What does Islam have to say?

It’s important to have a foundational understanding of what Islamic law and the religion have to say about morality. The prophet determined what is right and what is wrong. He said, “I was sent to perfect our moral code.” And so what he said is to be respected; it is never to be deviated from, whether you are Muslim or even if you are ignorant of the religion and its teachings.

Civilizations before have developed a moral code, crafted over generations. Islam, however, came to perfect these teachings once and for all. It lifted up the oppressed, and it showed what it means to be an oppressor.

This revolution has been going on for five years. When the people took to the streets to protest peacefully, not a single bullet was ever fired. But what did the regime do? They responded with tanks on the ground and warplanes in the air, all to kill peaceful civilians in an attempt to deter this revolution.

And so it was only natural for these people—those who had been dealt with unjustly and persecuted—to take up arms in order to defend themselves, their land and their honor. 

Islam talks about fighting injustice. It says that you must use the minimal possible force in order to do what is right. For example, if somebody came to rob your house, Islam tells me that I have the right to push back, but, again, only with the minimal possible force to do so. And so if I can defend my house simply by raising my voice, then that is what I should do. I must not strike the man. However, if I can only defend my home by striking the man, then I am permitted to do so, but I must not use a knife, and so forth.

When it comes to defending one’s land and honor, Islam tells us that we should fight injustice in such a manner.  

The regime—with Russia by their side—waged this war against our nation. They don’t bomb military targets. They deliberately hit civilian areas where women and children congregate. They target schools. They target hospitals. They target homes.

And so how is one to respond in the face of such injustice?

Islam does not say that we as Muslims must abstain from violence, but rather that we may only do so as the Quran commands:

O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm for Allah, witnesses in justice, and do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness. And fear Allah; indeed, Allah is acquainted with what you do.

(The Quran, Al-Ma’idah 5.8)

When dealing with those who have caused hatred in our hearts because of their injustices, the Quran tells us that we must be just in dealing with them and that we should rise above them. We should never stoop to their level:

That no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another.

(The Quran, An-Najm 53:38)

However, the regime’s soldiers operate among civilians. And so if I am to incidentally injure a civilian in the process of targeting a regime soldier, then I bear no guilt, so long as I do not intentionally target civilians.

This is the core of the Sharia Court’s recent announcement responding to the regime’s aggression against our people.

Q: What does the rebel Homs Sharia Court mean when it calls for a “campaign of deterrence?”

Our announcement comes on the heels of an indiscriminate regime bombing campaign that has left dozens of civilians dead in its wake, most recently killing 20 people in an attack.

Yes, the timing of this announcement was deliberate, and, yes, the regime must stop this senseless violence. Just as we have civilians, so too do they have civilians that they need to protect. If the regime’s actions don’t come to an end soon, then their civilians will be killed just as ours have.

 An alleged phosphorus attack in a rural north Homs town last month. Photo courtesy of the Homs Media Center.

Q: Calling for a campaign of deterrence is no small undertaking. How does a Sharia Court hope to execute such an announcement?

The Sharia Court initially emerged because the citizens and rebel groups called for its creation to administer the affairs of the countryside. While the local elders lead the council, the rebel groups are the ones that implement the court’s decisions.

Every faction across the north Homs countryside—except for Jabhat Fatah a-Sham—has joined the Sharia Court: Ahrar a-Sham, a-Tawhid and Harakat Tahrir al-Watan, just to name a few.

Q: Why hasn’t Jabhat Fatah a-Sham joined the Sharia Court?

Just because Jabhat Fatah a-Sham hasn’t pledged their allegiance to the Sharia Court doesn’t mean that there’s a total absence of cooperation. In areas where the Sharia Court and Jabhat Fatah a-Sham are both present, the two sides come together to reach a mutual understanding on certain issues related to public administration.

That’s the extent of the partnership. Jabhat Fatah a-Sham is not a committed member of the Sharia Court, and they don’t intervene in civilian affairs in territory that the Sharia Court administers.

The majority of those who fight for Jabhat Fatah a-Sham come from Homs city and the countryside. While they may not have joined the Sharia Court, they aren’t foreigners. They come from other brigades that joined Jabhat a-Nusra because they were out of funding with no other options to keep fighting.

Q: When rebel factions are the very groups that implement the court’s decisions, how can the Sharia Court maintain its judicial integrity and independence?

The Sharia Court is an independent judicial entity. Rebel factions carry out the rulings; they do not make them.

However, for most civilian affairs, the Sharia Court never even needs an enforcement entity. Matters are resolved and carried out simply through the issuance of a decision. In this domain, the court only needs a small team to deliver rulings and ensure that they are carried out.

Q: You say that you do not deliberately target civilians, but at the same time you note that their military personnel are embedded in civilian areas. How is it possible for these rebel factions to minimize the loss of innocent civilian life in these situations?

We worship Allah, and we abstain from what the prophet prohibited. We really don’t mean to kill any civilians, and we seek forgiveness from Allah if that happens outside of our will. It very well may happen.

Q: The regime says that it’s fighting terrorism. What do you think? Aren’t the regime’s ideas and your statement similar? 

The problem isn’t just agreeing on an idea, it’s about agreeing on how we put it into practice. What exactly does the regime mean by “terrorism?” If I said that I want to protect myself from injustice, it means I want to defend my people from planes that bomb hospitals and sleeping families with napalm at night. The regime is using terrorism as an excuse to do this. What terrorism is the regime talking about?

Does the regime really believe that that a little boy in Aleppo will be wearing an explosive belt in 20 years? The regime will use any excuse to kill women and children. Now you tell me if this is fighting terrorism?

In theory, we, like everyone, agree that terrorism is evil. Killing civilians is unacceptable. It’s repulsive and illegal by sharia and international law.

We all agree on that, but let’s re-evaluate: who is really the one targeting civilians and violating international law?

Mahran Mohammed

Mahran holds a degree in Arabic literature from Damascus university. Originally from Daraa province, he was involved in the earliest peaceful demonstrations of the Syrian revolt revolt. In 2013, Mahran was injured in a regime attack and moved to Jordan. Mahran previously volunteered with Save the Children.

Justin Schuster

Justin was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from Yale University with a double major in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. While at Yale, he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the political journal, The Politic. His previous work and research in the Middle East includes time spent in Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, and the West Bank.