Ghanîmah or Plunder in the Koran

To round off the theoretical discussion of jihãd I must pass on to the doctrine of ghanîmah as explained in the Koran and the Hadis. We have seen that the reward of a mujãhid in the hereafter is the highest heaven. What is his reward on earth? It is ‘plunder’, or ‘spoils of war’, or ‘war booty’, as the Arabic expression ghanîmah is variously translated. Not many are prepared to believe that plunder can be considered a meritorious or even desirable outcome of the highest duty enjoined upon the followers of a religion. To remove their incredulity a somewhat detailed discussion of the matter is necessary. It has to be admitted that both the Koran and the Hadis declare this outcome of jihãd as much inferior to the propagation of Islam as also to the pleasures of Paradise to be earned by fighting with the infidels. But at the same time these works have given detailed instructions on the mode of distribution of plunder as also the laws regulating the distribution. The legislation relating to this is first mentioned in the Koran itself. The Hadis elaborates it and narrates the Prophet’s own plundering activities. Last but not the least, the various schools of Islamic jurisprudence codify the regulations in a systematic manner. I shall come to the schools of jurisprudence in their proper place. Here I refer to the relevant Koranic verses which will be supported by the relevant ahãdîs in the next chapter. But first of all I must explain the word ghanîmah.

As stated above, the technical meaning of ghanîmah is plunder or war booty, and it includes all types of booty wrested from the unbeliever - his goods, his land, his gold and silver, as also his wife and children. But the literal meaning of the word seems to be ‘anything that enriches’ (the victor). Etymologically the word is derived from ‘ghanîm’, enemy, and means that which has been got from him. But in the technical terminology of Islam, it has come to connote ‘loot’. The Hadis mentions 99 alternative names of Allah, Al-Mughnî being one of them. That name in English means ‘Enricher’. Mughnî is a word obviously related to ghanîmah. But it is doubtful if Allah is supposed to enrich his devotees by loot alone. In other words, it is quite possible that ghanîmah might well be an euphemism in its literal sense just as jihãd (=effort, striving) is one. Islam has a large stock of such euphemisms, including the world ‘Islam’ itself which is supposed to mean ‘peace’.1 But whatever euphemism lies hidden in the word ghanîmah, technically it means ‘plunder in jihãd’, arid nothing else.2

It should not surprise the reader to learn that quite a few Muslim translators feel a sort of delicacy or diffidence in rendering the word ghanîmah as ‘plunder’. Some of them use the expression ‘wealth gained in war’, or some such circumlocution. But the more faithful English versions everywhere render it as ‘plunder’, or use an equivalent expression – ‘spoils’ being the most usual rendering. All such expressions, however, mean ‘loot’, pure and simple. ‘Wealth gained in war’ is a euphemism which conceals the real import of ghanîmah.

What are the injunctions regarding ghanîmah in the Koran? The eighth chapter of the Koran is entitled Anfãl, meaning ‘surplus earning’ or ‘bonus’. The whole of this chapter relates to war booty which is the ‘bonus’ in question. The idea seems to be that the chief objective of jihãd is Islamic expansion and the pleasures of the Paradise. Earning of spoils is merely a surplus earning - an incidental incentive to the mujãhid’s religious zeal, so to say.

(a) The first verse of Sûrah Anfãl says:

“They ask thee of the spoils of war. Say: The spoils of war belong to Allah and the Messenger. So keep your duty to Allah.”

The obvious meaning of this verse is that plunder is an act of charity issuing from Allah and his Prophet - no mujãhid should look upon it as his own earning.

But verse forty-one of the same chapter says:

“And know that whatever ye take as spoils of war, lo! a fifth thereof is for Allah and His Messenger and for the kinsmen and orphans and the needy and the wayfarer.”

This verse raises a question as to the allotting of shares from the plunder; as such, it indirectly recognises some share (i.e. four-fifths) for the mujãhids as well.

The important thing about this one-fifth of the plunder is that Islamic scholars call it the ‘holy one-fifth’. The technical expression for it is Khums, otherwise spelt as Khams. According to the schools of jurisprudence, this one-fifth is to proceed to the Muslim king’s treasury when the Prophet is no more. A similar word is Fai which stands for the whole plunder going to the Prophet (or the Sultan) if it is obtained without regular warfare. Jizyah itself is a sort of Fai - the Prophet or the Sultan being the sole owner of that gain.

(b) Who then is to own the remaining four-fifths of the plunder obtained by a regular campaign? Should that be given away to the whole body of Muslims? The Koran says: No Mussalman except the mujãhid is entitled to any share of the four-fifths. Allah says clearly:

“Those who were left behind will say: When ye set forth to capture booty, let us go with you. Say: Ye shall not go with us” (K 48/15).

Historically this verse refers to certain Arab tribes around Medina, who had been called by the Prophet to join his expedition to Hudaibiyah (628 AD) but who chose to stay behind. They were to get no share of the booty, enjoined Allah.

(c) Whether it be a bonus or Allah’s bounty to the believers who engaged in jihãd, Allah’s pledge to lead the believers to adequate plunder is also available in the Koran:

“Allah was well pleased with the believers when they swore allegiance unto thee (i.e. the Prophet) beneath the tree, and He knew what was in their hearts and He sent down peace of reassurance on them, and hath rewarded them with a near victory; and much booty they will capture” (K 48/18-19).

Historically this verse refers to the famous Pledge of the Tree which the followers of the Prophet took at Hudaibiyah, when a rumour was circulated that the Prophet’s emissary to the Meccans, his son-in-law Othman (the future Caliph), had been killed by the latter. Allah’s ‘peace of reassurance’ was accompanied with intimation regarding adequate plunder awaiting the faithful in near future.

(d) Such reward was not promised to Mussalmans of the Prophet’s time alone. His followers for all time to come would continue to receive booty:

“And other (gain) which ye have not been able to achieve, Allah will compass it” (K 48/21).

In other words, plunder is every mujãhid’s birthright - it is a never ceasing dispensation.

(e) Supposing that a mujãhid of tender conscience refuses to acquire booty? Says Allah:

“Eat ye the spoils of war. They are lawful and pure” (K 8/69).3

This verse shows that Allah exonerates the plundering Mussalmans from all misgivings arising from the prickings of conscience.

(f) The Koran is not given to circumstantial references to historical events. But the plundering of the Jewish clan of Kuraizah supposed to have been in league with the Meecans in the Battle of Ahzãb (627 AD) is mentioned there in some detail:

“And (Allah) brought those of the people of Scripture who supported (the Meccans) from their strongholds, and cast panic into their hearts. Some ye slew and ye made captive some. And he caused you to inherit their land and their houses and their wealth” (K 33/26-27).

Land, houses, wealth, captives! The nature of ghanîmah is made explicit in this verse.

Of such plunder, the male population (chiefly children) are enslaved, and the females inducted into the mujãhids’ harems when not sold out in the slave market. The Koran elaborates the right of the mujãhid over captured kafir women.

“And all married women are (forbidden unto you) save those (captives) whom your right hands possess” (K 4/24).

In this verse, the character of ghanîmah is explained with brutal frankness. The captured kafir women, snatched from their husbands, can be enjoyed with absolute impunity by the mujãhids. True, the Koran does not spell out the nature of the indulgence. But its decree regarding kafir women possessed by the mujãhid’s right hand is obviously not one of honourable remarriage. It is nothing but forcible concubinage. Lest there should be any doubt regarding the nature of the indulgence, the Hadis adds its own tell-tale gloss upon this very verse. I shall take up this gloss in the next chapter. Here a summary of the contents of this chapter is in order.

In brief, the property of the infidel - his wealth, his women and children -, all without exception, is lawful plunder for the mujãhid. The merit of such plunder is indeed less than that of spreading Islam and looking up to the pleasures of the other world, but the Koran has given it due recognition. Not only that. It has explained the mode of its disposal as between mujãhid and mujãhid, and also as between the mujãhid and his commander. Not only that. It has, in unmistakable language, pronounced the plunder ‘lawful’ and ‘pure’.


1 This meaning is wrong. ‘Islam’ means ‘surrender’ to Allah by his followers so that Allah could settle his score with non-Muslims, vide Koran 3/19.

2 In everyday Muslim parlance, the word ‘ghanîmat’ stands for ‘good fortune’, and sounds farthest from ‘plunder obtained in a blood-thirsty war’. Even so, it retains the sense of ‘bounty’ or gain in the normal course.

3 This rendering is by Abdul Hamid Siddiqi.

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