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A Theological Examination of the Hadith, “War is Deception”

Recently, a hadith which can be translated as: “War is deception [or strategy],” has been circulated among some political Islamist groups as a justification for lying, stealing, or not fulfilling agreements. This hadith is generally understood literally without reference to its historical use by Muslim jurists, theologians, and other scholarly personalities. Therefore the way that it is most often used today is problematic and misleading. Thus, it is necessary that this hadith should be examined and elaborated upon based on the principles of Islamic theology. In this article, my goal is to examine the hadith, what is meant by the hadith, and the meaning of the hadith in the overall theological teachings of Islam.

To begin with, it is important to look at the grammar of the hadith itself. The word that is used in this hadith is ambiguous. In Arabic, there are two words that have the same consonants, but two different vowellings which leads to two distinct pronunciations. One is khud’a and the other khad’a. These have similar meanings, but the later has a connotation of a only being a onetime situation. Most hadith scholars believe that khad’a is the more accurate pronunciation. It is definitely not unending permission for lying, breaking promises or agreements, or stealing people’s money. Thus using this hadith for these purposes is a distortion of the hadith.

Prohibition of misuse of trust and lying in Islam

In the history of Islam, there are many stories which prohibit the misuse of trust or of lying. One example comes from the time of Umar, the second caliph. Umar said that “I have heard that some men among you look for [the enemies’] champions and while the enemies run to hide in the mountains, they [the men] say to the enemy, ‘Don’t be afraid.’” By this, Umar was saying that the men of his army were saying to the enemy that they would not be harmed and because of this the enemy troops gave themselves up only to be killed by the men of Umar’s army. Umar considers this a treachery and he says: “By the One in whose hands is my soul, if I hear that anyone has done this, I will chop off his head.” In another narration, found under the subtitle of fulfilling agreements, Umar says: “By the One in whose hands is my soul, if one of you points with his finger to the sky [a gesture of trust] for a nonbeliever, then the non-believer comes to him based on this gesture, then the man kills the non-believer, I will kill him for that,” i.e. the penalty in this case for misusing someone’s trust is death.

Instead, what is to be understood from the hadith, “war is deception,” is that during times of war, a Muslim army or the community more broadly, even if they are weak, they can pretend that they are strong. This should be done so that they do not encourage the enemy to attack them. By describing war as deception or trickery, the Prophet referred to such a strategy. This is part of the wisdom of the Prophet because the wise person should know how to deal with the enemy to reduce casualties as much as possible and therefore in fact prevent war, which is considered a noble deed in Islam. Though a certain level of trickery is allowed as a means of self-defense, out-and-out treachery is prohibited in Islam. For example, in application of this hadith, in order to discourage an attack from an enemy, a country could pretend to be more powerful or technologically advanced than they are in reality.

The prohibition of treachery is a very important principle of Islam

The prohibition of treachery is a very important principle of Islam. There is a famous hadith found in al-Bukhari which clearly states that treachery, breaking promises, lying, and deviating from justice for the purpose of arguing are considered among the behaviors of hypocrites. In it, the Prophet says: “Anyone who has these four characteristics, this person is a pure hypocrite. Anyone who has one of these characteristics has a characteristic of hypocrisy until he abandons that characteristic. When he is entrusted, he betrays; when he speaks, he lies; when he promises an agreement, he breaches [it]; when he argues, he deviates from the truth.” It should be noted here that theologically speaking, hypocrisy is worse than disbelief because disbelief is apparent whereas hypocrisy is not.

The Prophet spoke the truth

The Prophet spoke the truth, always. As al-Tirmidhi narrates under the subtitle, “On Joking,” the Prophet himself said, “I do not speak except the truth.” It is further believed that the Prophet never even betrayed any agreement unless it had been broken by the other party first. As a leader though, there were circumstances when it behooved him to choose his words carefully. In such instances, he would use something called tawriyya. Tawriyya means to say something in a way that could have multiple meanings. The story of Abraham is given as an example of this. When Abraham went to Egypt with his wife Sarah, the pharaoh asked who was with him. Abraham said it was his sister meaning was his sister in religion, i.e. all believers are brothers and sisters in religion, rather than giving him the direct answer. Such ways of speaking are tawriyya.

There are several hadith narrations that show the Prophet himself using tawriyya. For instance, during his preparations for the Battle of Badr, some pagans saw him and his companions. The pagans asked the Prophet from where they came and the Prophet responded, “we are from water.” The people who asked them looked at each other and said: “There are so many tribes in Yemen, perhaps this is one of them.” These pagans had understood that the Prophet and his companions were from a tribe called water, but the Prophet, meant that they were created from water as it says in the Qur’an: “let human beings look at what they are created from, they are created from gushing water” (86:5-6). The Prophet used this language because if the people who asked them knew they were of the Quraysh tribe, they might have been killed.

Similarly, Abu Bakr, the closest friend of the Prophet and the first caliph, used tawriyya. When a group of caravans saw the Prophet and Abu Bakr during their migration to Medina, they recognized Abu Bakr, but they did not recognize the Prophet. They asked Abu Bakr who he was with and he responded: “He is my guide.” Abu Bakr meant that the Prophet was guiding him to the truth and to the path or righteousness, but he used language in such a way that the caravans thought that he meant a guide to guide him through the desert. He did this as, if the caravan drivers reported their location to the Meccans, they could be harmed. All these examples show that even in a time of great vulnerability, neither the Prophet nor his companions attempted to distort the truth.

Circumstances where lying is allowed

There is a hadith that suggests that in three situations, a form of lying is allowed. This is called “lying for maslaha.” Maslaha is a technical word that can be used to indicate that something is done for the welfare of something else. The first situation in which lying for maslaha is allowed is to reconcile two individuals by, for instance, saying to one that the other is speaking kindly of the other even if this is not the case. This is done to make the two people closer to reconciliation. The second situation is to please one’s spouse with words that might not be true. It is permissible for a husband to tell his wife that she is the most beautiful person to him, even if it is not objectively true. Forms of flattery like this are allowed. The third instance is during war. For example, if the enemy asks, “Where is the location of the armory?” and an individual says that he or she does not know even if he or she does know, it is permissible. While the hadith gives permission for this type of lying, the majority of Islamic scholars have said that even in such situations, individuals should use tawriyya and not direct lying. In lying there is always disgrace and shame and these should not be the behaviors of believers. In his commentary on this hadith under the subtitle “Protection of the Tongue,” al-Bayhaqi after narrating several opinions, he references al-Hulaymi, who is known as the head of the theologians, who says: “even this permission is not for a direct lying because direct lying is not permissible under any conditions. The permissible one is when it is used in the way of tawriyya.”

There have been a few Muslim theologians and jurists, such as al-Nawawi, who have said that the apparent meaning of the hadith shows that direct lying in these three situations is allowed. However, even al-Nawawi says that tawriyya is still better and preferable. Thus, while lying in these three occasions is religiously allowed, because of the weakness of human beings lying even in these permitted circumstance could lead to a greater casualness regarding lying, the majority of Islamic scholars have favored using tawriyya even in these situation because lying is strictly prohibited. The Qur’an says: “Cursed are those who lie” (51:10). Similarly a hadith strongly prohibits lying. The Prophet says: “Truthfulness leads to goodness and goodness leads to Paradise. A person continues to be true until he is written in the sight of God, as al-siddiq [the truthful]. And lying leads to evil and evil leads to hell. A person continues to lie until he is written in the sight of God as a real liar.”

Tawriyya can also be action oriented. A hadith narrated by Abu Huraira demonstrates this. There was a man who was being treated very badly by his neighbor and this man went to the Prophet and complained about his neighbor. The Prophet said: “Go [home] and be patient.” He came again and again and on the third time the Prophet said: “Go and take out your property and put them on the road.” He did as the Prophet recommended and people started asking him why he was doing this. He informed them that his neighbor was treating him badly. The people started to criticize the neighbor. Eventually the man’s neighbor came to him and said to him: “Go and put your property back, you will never see any bad treatment from me after this.” In doing this, the man was practicing tawriyya. Actions that are considered tawriyya also can take place in war such as deceiving the enemy into thinking one’s army is traveling in one direction when in reality it is going in another direction.

Lying is evil in its nature. It cannot be the behavior of a Muslim there are many hadith that demonstrate this. For instance, ‘Aisha, the wife of the Prophet narrates: “There was no behavior more disgusting to the companions of the Prophet than lying.” ‘Aisha also narrates that the most disgusting behavior to the Prophet was lying. Further in another narration the Prophet says: “I guarantee a palace in the middle of Paradise for the one who abandons lying even in jest. And I guarantee a palace in the highest of Paradise for those who have beautiful ethics.”

Because of the importance of truth in the Islamic community and the Qur’an’s constant insistence on truthfulness, modern scholars, such as Bediüzzaman Said Nursi, when asked what a person needs more than anything else, have responded truthfulness. In fact, Nursi said when asked what was next he said, “not to lie” and then he said: “The essence of faith [iman] is truthfulness.” He argues that the reasons for the stagnation of the Islamic community vis-à-vis the West are several diseases, one of the most significant of which is the death of truthfulness in the social and political lives of Muslims, alongside a love for animosity. He goes even further saying:

‘Throughout my life experience and the ups and downs of the social life, the essence and the summation of social life has taught me that truthfulness is the essential foundation of Islam. It is the bond of all high moral qualities and it is the disposition of high level feelings. Therefore, we must revive truthfulness and honesty which are the essential foundations of our social life among us to cure our spiritual diseases. Yes, truthfulness and honesty are the knot of life in the social life of Islam. Pretentiousness is a kind of lying through actions. Adulation and pretension are a shameful level of lying. Hypocrisy and deceit are harmful lying and lying itself is slandering the power of the Most-Majestic Creator.’

Because of this, Nursi says that even if historically there were some permissions for lying for maslaha, time has nullified that permission and what Muslims need most today is truthfulness because this is the essence of Islam.
In sum, it is clear that the hadith, “War is deception,” is not the blanket justification for treachery, deceit, lying, theft, and other un-Islamic acts in times of war or conflict. Deception in this case is a very specific set of words or actions that are done which do not violate the spirit of the prohibition of lying in Islam. It is a strategy and tactic that may be used in war when there are no other good options. The ways that many political Islamist use this idea are in violation of the meaning of the hadith and as such go against the basic teachings of the faith and run counter to the spirit of honesty and trustworthiness that are core principles of Islam.

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Zeki Saritoprak
Zeki Saritoprak
Zeki Saritoprak, Ph.D., has held the Nursi Chair in Islamic Studies at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio, since 2003. He is the author of the books ‘Islam’s Jesus’ and ‘Islamic Spirituality’.


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