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Muhammad Never Tortured Prisoners of War

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Message Faheem Younus, MD
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Thanks to my friend, Farid, for sending this joke: Wikileaks released the following taped conversation between President Obama and Pakistan's President Zardari, who is well known for taking kickbacks.

President Obama: Mr. President, I am going to make the announcement of Osama bin Laden's death to the world. Would you like to take any credit for this operation?

President Zardari: No, sir. No credit. I take cash only.

Jokes aside, bin Laden's death has ignited the "who gets the credit" debate. Who gets the credit for his death, who gets the credit for extracting actionable intelligence and who gets the credit (or blame) for sanctioning torture?

While some ascribe the critical discovery of bin Laden's courier to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times, many reject this notion. Senator John McCain, someone belonging to the latter group, recently remarked in an Op-Ed, "I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners sometimes produces good intelligence but often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear -- true or false -- if he believes it will relieve his suffering."

Yes, I admire the Senator for publically rejecting the use of torture. But his statement also leaves me perplexed. Why have politicians and talking heads refrained from giving credit to one specific person? Someone whose denunciation of torture is unprecedented and predates the Geneva Convention by centuries: Prophet Muhammad.

Not only did Muhammad categorically reject torture, but he espoused equal treatment -- both physically and emotionally -- for prisoners of war in an era plagued with enslavement, limb severance and mutilation of corpses.

Take the Battle of Badr for example. The Prophet encountered an attack three times the number of all his adult male followers. Early in the battle, Muslims captured a water carrier from the enemy side. They enquired from him about the whereabouts of Abu Sufyan, a lead enemy general. The water carrier confessed to knowing the location of four other generals but maintained that he did not know about Abu Sufyan's location. The Muslims started beating him. In turn, the water carrier would fake cooperation to avoid beating. But as the beating stopped, he would reiterate his ignorance about Abu-Sufyan's location, and a new round of beating would commence. The Prophet, praying nearby, concluded his prayers due to the commotion and said, "You beat him when he is telling you the truth, and you let him go when he tells you a lie."

Wait, wait. That sounds familiar, doesn't it?

But Muhammad went on to prohibit inflicting even emotional pain on the prisoners by declaring, "When prisoners of war are put under guard, those closely related should be placed together" and by mandating the return of enemy corpses instead of mutilation.

Why would Muhammad employ such a policy?

Policies have to be aligned with goals. If our goal is to get into the minds of terrorists, we must do that by "going to school on each captive," says Colonel Stuart Herrington, a retired army intelligence officer who advised teams at Guantà namo Bay. He and his teams "collected mountains of excellent, verified information" in Vietnam, Panama and the first Gulf War, he said, "by learning the prisoner's beliefs and fears, his hatreds and his loyalties, his family details and his core vulnerability."

Muhammad's goal was not to get into the minds of his prisoners; his goal was to get into their hearts. And he achieved this goal by preaching equal -- not just fair -- treatment between the captor and the captive.

In his farewell address the Prophet reminded all who were present, "O men, you still have in your possession some prisoners of war. I advise you, therefore, to feed them and to clothe them in the same way and style as you feed and clothe yourselves " To give them pain or trouble can never be tolerated."

Muslims were expected to free the prisoners, if they could not meet these standards.

Such equality, not war, allowed many prisoners to embrace Islam. As one of them related in later days, "They made us ride while they themselves walked; they gave us wheaten bread to eat when there was little of it, contenting themselves with dates."

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Dr. Faheem Younus serves as the Adjunct Faculty for Religion and History at the Community Colleges of Baltimore County and a Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Maryland. He is a recipient of the prestigious Presidential (more...)
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