[A+] [A-]

The Islamic Ruling Regarding Spying on Muslims

In the Name of Allâh, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful

Muhammed Sa'eed Wahf al-Qahtaani

A number of scholars have seen it fit to address the question of espionage in the course of their discussions of Jihad. Because espionage is the most obvious form of treachery against the Muslims, especially in times of war. Their consideration of it within this context is a revealing point in itself. Therefore I have followed their footsteps and discussed the issue of espionage in the chapter of Jihad.

Spying is the ultimate form of treason, and for a Muslim it is a major sin. While it is a form of alliance with the disbelievers, the ruling on it may range from a declaration of disbelief and apostasy to a state of major sinfulness. If its motivation is a longing for the victory of the disbelievers, and a hope for their subjugation of the Muslims, then this is the act of a disbeliever, however if a person was motivated by a desire for some personal or worldly gain or something similar, then it is a major sin.

The story of the Prophet's (sallallahu `alayhi wasallam) companion Haatib ibn Abu Baltaa is often related in this context. He was a veteran of Badr and of Hudaybiyyah, and was sent on the embassy to the Muqawqis, Patriarch of Alexandria and Master of Egypt, who returned him to Madeenah together with Maryam, the Copt. He died in the year 30 after the Hijrah at the age of 65. Allah (subhanahu wa ta`aala) warned us against espionage in the first verse of Surat al-Mumtahinah:

  • O you who believe! Do not take My enemies and your enemies as friends, showing affection towards them, while they have disbelieved in the truth that has come to you. They have driven the Messenger and yourselves out because you believe in Allah, your Lord. If indeed you had gone out to fight in My Cause and to seek My Good Pleasure, then do not confide your affections to them, I am All-Aware of what you conceal and of what you reveal. Whoever among you does this has surely strayed far from the Straight Path.

At-Tabari remarked that you must not put yourself in league with your kith and kin, sons or daughters, if they are outside Islam; allying yourself to them and taking them into your hearts, since they could benefit you in no way on the Day of Resurrection, even if they were your closest relations. Those who are mindful of their duty shall enter Paradise and those who deny their obligations and are disobedient shall enter the Fire. [3]

Imaam al-Bukhaari informs us in the words of `Ali ibn Abu Taalib: Allah's Messenger sent me, az-Zubayr and al-Miqdad somewhere saying: "Proceed till you reach the garden of Khakh. There you will find a lady with a letter. Take that letter from her." So, we set out and our horses ran at full pace till we found the lady and said (to her): "Hand over the letter." She replied: "I have no letter with me." We said: "Either you hand over the letter or else we shall remove your clothes." So, she removed it from her braid. We brought the letter to Allah's Messenger; it contained a statement from Haatib ibn Abu Baltaa to some of the Makkan pagans, informing them of some of the intentions of Allah's Messenger. Then Allah's Messenger said: "O Haatib! What is this?" Haatib replied: "O Allah's Messenger! Don't hasten to give your judgment about me. I was a man closely connected with the Quraysh, but I do not belong to this tribe, while the other emigrants with you have their relatives in Makkah who could protect their dependents and property. So, I wanted to recompense for my lacking any blood relation to them by doing them a favor so that they might protect my dependents. I did this neither out of disbelief, nor apostasy, nor out of preferring Kufr (disbelief) to Islam." Allah's Messenger said: "Haatib has told you the truth." `Umar said: "O Allah's Messenger! Allow me to chop off the head of this hypocrite!' Allah's Messenger said: "Haatib participated in the Battle of Badr, and who knows, perhaps Allah has already looked at the Badr warriors and said: 'Do whatever you like, for I have forgiven you.'" Thus, Allah revealed the above verses. [4]

Ibn al-Qayyim says that the tale of Haatim illustrates the permissibility of killing spies even when they are Muslims, since when `Umar wanted to kill Haatib the Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wasallam) did not say: "You can't kill a Muslim," rather, he said: "Who knows, perhaps Allah has already looked at the Badr warriors and said: 'Do whatever you like.'" So his response indicates that Haatib was spared only because he was a veteran of Badr. This leads us to conclude that it is permitted to kill a spy who is not protected by such a circumstance. This is the position of Imaam Maalik, Imaam ash-Shaafi`ee and Abu Haneefah say that a Muslim spy should not be killed. The Hanbalees are divided, though the opinion of Imaam Ahmad appears to be against killing a Muslim spy. Both sides found their arguments in the story of Haatib.

In the final analysis, the decision must be that of the Imaam. If the interests of the Muslims are best served by his death then he should be killed, but if these interests are better served by sparing his life then this is what should be done. Allah is best informed of the correct course. [5]

Ibn al-Qayyim added that there is another point raised by the story of Haatib. No matter how great the sin, so long as it is not Shirk, the blessings of some other great deed may wipe it away. This is what happened with Haatib whose crime of espionage was forgiven because of his earlier service at Bdr, since he had earned the Love of Allah and His Pleasure by his action at Badr. Allah was so pleased with him and proud of them that even a crime like espionage would not diminish this and shielded them from the anger of Allah; so the greater merit had overcome the lesser sin. This is a part of Divine Wisdom, He (subhanahu wa ta`aala) determines what is wholesome and what is not, He decrees reward and punishment, He makes the pure heart and the stricken one. And He (subhanahu wa ta`aala) said:
  • Surely good deeds wipe out evil ones.

And Allah (subhanahu wa ta`aala) also said:
  • If you avoid the evil deeds that have been forbidden to you We will forgive you your transgressions.

Ibn al-Qayyim continues by saying: Perhaps we should consider the depth of faith which lead Haatib to Badr, to put himself in the charge of the Messenger of Allah out of love for Allah and for His Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wasallam), over and above his affection for his family and his tribe, while they had remained in their homes amidst the enemy; his resolve never slackened and his faith never weakened even though it brought him face to face on the field of battle with those who still live with his own kith and kin. But when he was corrupted by the act of spying, the strength of his faith was enough to overcome it, and as his condition worsened he rose to meet it. Thus, when the Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wasallam) saw the strength of his faith overcame his illness (spying), he said: "Who knows, perhaps Allah has already looked at the Badr warriors and said: 'Do whatever you like, for I have forgiven you.'"

This is the opposite of the case of Dhul-Khuwaysirah at-Tameemee who challenged the Messenger of Allah and those who followed his example; those from among the Khawaarij, whose strict observance of their ritual obligation was the envy even of the Companions of the Messenger (sallallahu `alayhi wasallam), but of whom the Messenger said: "If I shall meet them, I will destroy them as the people of `Aad were destroyed," and also: "Slay them for certainly there is great merit, with Allah, in killing them." [8]

My own thoughts are that Imaam Maalik, Ibn Aqeel and others from among Imaam Ahmad's circle are correct in saying that the Muslim spy should be killed, since the pardon in the case of Haatib was of a kind that could not be applied to anyone else. If it was Islam which had protected him, then it would not have been necessary to grant him any special pardon; because if a ruling is justified by the general, the particular will be of no effect. This seems the more reasonable analysis, although Allah is Most Knowledgeable of the correct course.

This particular revelation begins with the words: ŤO You who believe! Do not take My enemies and your enemies as friendsť, referring to Haatib, as a believer. But his example demonstrates the general prohibition, while at the same time the verse seems to suggest that what he did was to ally himself to the disbelievers in some way, and that in doing this he had strayed far from the path. Then the Prophet's response to this: "Haatib has told you the truth, let him go," also clearly indicates that he had not disbelieved, that he was a believer beyond any shadow of doubt, but that he had acted out of some worldly desire. If he had disbelieved, the Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wasallam) would not have said: "Let him go." [10]

As for the disbeliever who is also a spy, such a person must be killed since this is what the Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wasallam) did in the case of a spy from among the disbelievers. Ayas ibn Salamah ibn al-Akwa` stated that his father told him: "A spy from among the Pagans came to the Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wasallam) and say speaking to his companions for some time, then went on his way. The Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wasallam) said: 'Go find that man and kill him.' So I killed him and stripped him of what he had." [11]


[1] Al-Wala' wa'l-Bara' According to the `Aqeedah of the Salaf (3/57-63) by Shaykh Muhammad Sa`eed al-Qahtaani (hafidhahullah).
[2] Surat al-Mumtahinah (60):1.
[3] Tafseer at-Tabari (28/61).
[4] Saheeh al-Bukhaari (8/633, no. 4890).
[5] Zaad al-Ma`ad (3/422) by Ibn al-Qayyim, with little alteration.
[6] Surat Hood (11):114.
[7] Surat an-Nisaa' (4):31.
[8] Saheeh al-Bukhaari (6/618, no. 3611), Saheeh Muslim (2/746, no. 1066).
[9] Zaad al-Ma`ad (3/114).
[10] Irshaad at-Taalib (p. 15) by Salmaan ibn Sahmaan.
[11] Saheeh al-Bukhaari (6/168, no. 3051), Abu Daawood (3/112, no. 2653).

print this page bookmark this page
preloaded image preloaded image preloaded image preloaded image preloaded image