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Islamic law and the
Geneva Conventions


What is the relationship between Islamic law and international humanitarian law? The question has assumed even greater pertinence since the attacks of 11 September 2001, giving rise to a fruitful dialogue involving experts in both disciplines, as was the case recently in the Iranian city of Qom.


ALL it takes is a stroll in the streets of Qom, 15 kilometres from Tehran, to grasp the importance of this city to Shia Muslims. A place of pilgrimage, Qom attracts thousands of worshippers from Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan to the mausoleum of Fatimah Ma’sumeh, sister of Ali ar-Reza, eighth Imam of the Shiites. Day and night, throngs of weary travellers, among them many sick and infirm, visit the shrine to give praise to Allah. In the adjoining rooms, strewn with Persian rugs, turbaned men pray and recite passages from the Koran in small groups, in accordance with a long-standing Islamic ritual. For Qom is also an eminent theological research centre, where more than 30,000 students analyse the key texts of Islam and Islamic law or Sharia, which literally means “the path leading to the watering place”.

This Shiite holy city was the venue in November 2006 for the first symposium of its kind in the Islamic Republic of Iran, bringing together 300 participants in the vast setting of Howzeh-ye Elmieh, Iran’s largest religious university. The conference was organized jointly by the ICRC, the Red Crescent Society of the Islamic Republic of Iran and several key institutions in Iran, including the Ahl-e Beit World Assembly, the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s Institute for Political and International Studies, Imam Sadiq University, the International Centre for Islamic Studies, the Islamic Culture and Communications Organization, the Islamic Science and Culture Research

Centre, Mofid University, the Qom Hawza and the World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought. The participants consisted mainly of ulema (members of the Muslim clergy) and scholars comprising ayatollahs and representatives of Koranic centres and schools. “This is not just one meeting, this is a process involving various religious research centres reflecting different trends in Qom, in Tehran and in Mashhad,” explains Mohammed Reza Dast Gheib, ICRC consultant based in Qom.

During the two-day proceedings, punctuated by pauses for prayers, discussions centred on the relationship between Islam and international humanitarian law. Around this highly topical theme, participants exchanged views on the protection of victims of armed conflict through the prism of intrinsic Islamic values and the provisions of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) on the one hand, and of the Law of Geneva on the other.

“Exploring and extracting material of a humanitarian dimension from sources pertaining to Islam is a colossal task we have to continue,” stresses Ayatollah Amid Zanjani, director of Tehran University. From this perspective, what does the Koran, primary source of Islamic law, have to say about the protection of prisoners of war, the wounded and civilians? What norms and legal principles apply in the face of a concept such as terrorism? And what are the main points of convergence between Islamic law and international humanitarian law? These questions have given rise to varied responses, steeped in Islam’s rich heritage and customs dating back to the seventh century; at 150 years old, contemporary secular humanitarian law is a relative newcomer, especially if you disregard its Judaeo-Christian roots.

Finding common ground

As a counterpoint to the historical references, the debates also turned to current events in Iraq and Afghanistan — two Muslim countries bordering Iran characterized by the presence of Western states and non-Muslims fighting against Muslim groups. The violence against civilians that is a daily feature of both these conflicts attests to the magnitude of the gulf that exists between legal humanitarian norms and their application.

This sad fact aside, the conference participants, speaking under a banner printed with excerpts from both the Koran and the Geneva Conventions (see photo p. 22), came to the conclusion that Islamic law and humanitarian law share a common base and have more similarities than differences. In sum, the two doctrines agree on the sanctity of life, the preservation of human dignity and compassion towards enemy captives.

“We want to discuss religious, ethical and legal matters in a language that has to be understandable to all cultures,” says Sheik Sanad from Bahrain. His words are echoed by Olivier Vodoz, head of the ICRC delegation to the conference and for whom the Qom meeting “contributes to making the ICRC’s neutral and independent action more accessible”. For his part, Shirvani Mohammed, a former prisoner disabled during the Iran–Iraq war and whose attendance was sponsored by the Iranian Red Crescent, expressed his hope that “this dialogue will inspire real progress in the implementation of the Geneva Conventions”.

Clearly, the Qom meeting constitutes an important milestone for the ICRC and for experts in Islamic jurisprudence, and as such received extensive coverage in the Iranian media. “It is a dynamic start, but there is still a long way to go,” says Andreas Wigger, ICRC deputy director of operations, who was instrumental in setting this dialogue in motion in the Muslim world two years ago (see box). At a time when relations between the Muslim world and the West are strained, this dialogue is both crucial and an indication that it is possible to listen to one another in a spirit of mutual respect, without resorting to the oversimplification and distorted clichés that only lead to further misunderstanding and conflict.





The importance of dialogue

In the two years leading up to the Qom conference, the ICRC organized similar events in Islamabad, Aden, Fez, Dar es Salaam and Kabul as part of its ongoing dialogue with scholars and experts in Islamic jurisprudence aimed at broadening and deepening mutual understanding. On each occasion, the participants publicly reaffirmed their common positions based on Islamic tradition and international humanitarian law. The initiative has forged a sense of shared purpose that can only help to improve the protection of human dignity in armed conflict.




Opening session at the religious university of Howzeh-ye Elmieh, Qom.


Olivier Vodoz, ICRC vice-president.


Ayatollah Amid Zanjani, president of Tehran University.


Dr Khatami, president of the Iranian Red Crescent Society.

Jean-François Berger
Jean-François Berger is ICRC editor of Red Cross Red Crescent.



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