Quranic justification for cutting trees during war...

In the name of Allah, the most Gracious the most Merciful

I wrote this article in response to the question posed by an atheist friend of mine who quoted the following aayah of the Qur’an:

Whatever you have cut down of [their] palm trees or left standing on their trunks - it was by permission of Allah and so He would disgrace the defiantly disobedient.
(Quran 59;5)

His argument has been that, "I have been told hundreds of times that Islamic ethics of war even prohibit chopping of trees unnecessarily, let alone killing of innocent civilians, women and children. Yet the above verse of Quran justifies not only the way Jews of Medina were treated but the chopping of tender palm trees."


In order to understand the reasoning behind Prophet Muhammad’s (SAW) dealing with the Jews of Medina and ordering the cutting of ‘tender’ palm trees, it is important to understand the historical background of that particular incident.

In 70 A.D when the Romans massacred the Jews in Palestine, and then in 132 A.D expelled them from that land, many of the Jewish tribes fled to find asylum in the Hejaz, a territory that was close to Palestine in the south. There, they settled wherever they found water springs and greenery, and then by intrigue and through money lending business gradually occupied the fertile lands.

Among the tribes that settled in Yathrib the Bani al Nadir and the Bani Quraizah were more prominent for they belonged to the Cohen or priest class. They were looked upon as of noble descent and enjoyed religious leadership among their co- religionists. When they came to settle in Medina there were some other tribes living there before, whom they subdued and became practically the owners of this green and fertile land. About three centuries later the great flood of Yemen occurred which forced many Arab tribes to disperse in different parts of Arabia and the Aus and the Khazraj went to settle in Yathrib.

Economically the Jews were much stronger than the Arabs. Since they had emigrated from more civilized and culturally advanced countries of Palestine and Syria, they knew many such arts as were unknown to the Arabs; they also enjoyed trade relations with the outside world. But their chief occupation was trading in money lending in which they had trapped the Arabs of the surrounding areas. More particularly the chiefs and elders of the Arab tribes who were given to a life of pomp, bragging and boasting on the strength of borrowed money were deeply indebted to them. They lent money on high rates of interest and then would charge compound interest, which one could hardly clear off once one was involved in it. Thus, they had rendered the Arabs economically hollow, but it had naturally induced a deep rooted hatred among the common Arabs against the Jews.

Such were the conditions when Islam came to Medina, and ultimately an Islamic State came into existence after the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) arrival there. One of the first things that Muhammad (SAW) accomplished soon after establishing this state was unification of the Aus and the Khazraj (Arab tribes) and the Emigrants into a brotherhood, and the second was that he made a treaty between the Muslims and the Jews on definite conditions, in which it was pledged that neither party would encroach on the rights of the other, and both would unite in a joint defence against the external enemies. Some important clauses of this treaty are as follows, which clearly show what the Jews and the Muslims had pledged to adhere to in their mutual relationship:

"The Jews must bear their expenses and the Muslims their expenses. Each must help the other against anyone who attacks the people of this document. They must seek mutual advice and consultation, and loyalty is a protection against treachery. They shall sincerely wish one another well. Their relations will be governed by piety and recognition of the rights of others, and not by sin and wrongdoing. The wronged must be helped. The Jews must pay with the believers so long as the war lasts. Yathrib shall be a sanctuary for the people of this document. If any dispute or controversy likely to cause trouble should arise, it must be referred to God and to Muhammad the Apostle of God; Quraish and their helpers shall not be given protection. The contracting parties are bound to help one another against any attack on Yathrib; every one shall be responsible for the defence of the portion to which he belongs" (lbn Hisham, vol. ii, pp. 147 to 150).

This was on absolute and definitive agreement to the conditions of which the Jews themselves had agreed. But not very long after this they began to show hostility towards Muhammad (SAW), Islam and the Muslims, and their hostility and perverseness went on increasing day by day for three main reasons:

First, they envisaged Prophet Muhammad (SAW) merely as a chief of his people, who should be content to have concluded a political agreement with them and should only concern himself with the worldly interests of his group. But they found that he was extending an invitation to belief in Allah and the Apostleship and the Book (which also included belief in their own Prophets and scriptures), and was urging the people to give up disobedience of Allah and adopt obedience to the Divine Commands and abide by the moral laws of their own prophets. This they could not put up with. They feared that if this universal ideological movement gained momentum it would destroy their rigid religious beliefs and wipe out their racial nationhood.

Second, when they saw that the Aus and the Khazraj and the Emigrants were uniting into a brotherhood and the people from the Arab tribes of the surrounding areas, who entered Islam, were also joining this Islamic Brotherhood of Medina and forming a religious community, they feared that the selfish policy that they had been following of sowing discord between the Arab tribes for the promotion of their own well being and interests for centuries, would not work in the new system, but they would face a united front of the Arabs against which their intrigues and plotting would not succeed.

Third, the work that Muhammad (SAW) was carrying out of reforming the society and civilization included putting an end to all unlawful methods" in business and mutual dealings. More than that; he had declared taking and giving of interest also as impure and unlawful earning. This caused them the fear that if his rule became established in Arabia, he would declare interest legally forbidden, and in this they saw their own economic disaster and death.

For these reasons they would never hesitate to employ any trick and means to harm him. They spread every kind of falsehood so as to cause distrust against him in the people's minds. They created every kind of doubt, suspicion and misgiving in the hearts of the new converts to turn them back from Islam. They would resort to every kind of deceit and fraud in order to harm the Muslims economically. Whenever one of those with whom that had business dealings, would accept Islam, they would do whatever they could to cause them financial loss.

They had adopted this hostile attitude against the covenant even before the Battle of Badr. But when Muhammad (SAW) and the Muslims won a decisive victory over the Quraish at Badr, they were filled with grief, anguish, malice and anger. They were in fact anticipating that in that war the powerful Quraish would deal a death blow to the Muslims. That is why even before the news of the Islamic victory reached Medina they had begun to spread the rumours that Muhammad (SAW) had fallen a martyr and the Muslims had retreated. But when the battle was decided against their hopes and wishes, they burst with anger and grief. (Ibn Sad, Ibn Hisham, Tabari).

At the victory of Badr, Jews became so provoked that they began to trouble and harass the Muslims and their women in particular, who visited their shops. Day by day the things got so worse that one day a Muslim woman was stripped naked publicly in their bazaar. This led to a brawl in which a Muslim and a Jew were killed. Thereupon Muhammad (SAW) himself visited their locality, got them together and counselled them on decent conduct. But the reply that they gave was; "O Muhammad, you perhaps think we are like the Quraish; they did not know fighting; therefore, you overpowered them. But when you come in contact with us, you will see how men fight."This was in clear words a declaration of war. Consequently, Muhammad (SAW) laid siege to their quarters towards the end of Shawwal (and according to some others, of Dhi Qa'dah) 2 A.H. The siege had hardly lasted for a fortnight when they surrendered and all their fighting men were tied and taken prisoners. Now Abdullah bin Ubayy came up in support of them and insisted that they should be pardoned. The Holy Prophet conceded his request and decided that the Bani Qainuqa would be exiled from Medina leaving their properties, armour and tools of trade behind.
(Ibn Sa'd, Ibn Hisham, Tarikh Tabari).

For some time after these punitive measures (i.e. the banishment of the Qainuqa and killing of Ka'b bin Ashraf the Jews remained so terror stricken that they did not dare commit any further mischief. But later when in Shawwal, 3 A.H, the Quraish in order to avenge themselves for the defeat at Badr, marched against Medina with great preparations, and the Jews saw that only a thousand men had marched out with Muhammad (SAW) as against three thousand men of the Quraish, and even they were deserted by 300 hypocrites who returned to Medina, they committed the first and open breach of the treaty by refusing to join the Holy Prophet in the defence of the city although they were bound to it. Then, when in the Battle of Uhud the Muslims suffered defeat, they were further encouraged, so much so that Bani an-Nadir made a secret plan to kill Muhammad (SAW), though the plan failed before it could be executed.

Now there was no question of showing them any further concession. The Holy Prophet at once sent to them the ultimatum that the treachery they had meditated against him had come to his knowledge; therefore, they were to leave Medina within ten days; if anyone of them was found staying behind in their quarters, he would be put to the sword. Meanwhile Abdullah bin Ubayy sent them the message that he would help them with two thousand men and that the Bani Quraizah and Bani Ghatafan also would come to their aid; therefore, they should stand firm and should not go. On this false assurance they responded to the Holy Prophet's ultimatum saying that they would not leave Medina and he could do whatever was in his power. Consequently, in Rabi' al-Awwal, 4 A.H, Muhammad (SAW) laid siege to them, and after a few days of the siege (which according to some traditions were 6 and according to others 15 days) they agreed to leave Medina on the condition that they could retain all their property which they could carry on the camels, except the armour. Thus, Medina was rid of this second mischievous tribe of Jews.

The reference is to the fact that the Muslims cut down or burnt many of the palm-trees that stood in the oases around the settlement of the Bani al Nadir in order to facilitate the siege. However, they left those trees standing which did not obstruct the military operations. At this the hypocrites of Medina and the Bani Quraizah, and the Bani an-Nadir themselves, raised a clamour, saying that, on one hand, Muhammad (SAW) prohibited spreading disorder in the world, but, on the other, fruit trees were being cut down by his command, which amounted to spreading disorder in the world. At this AIIah revealed this verse “whatever you have cut down of [their] palm trees or left standing on their trunks - it was by permission of Allah and so He would disgrace the defiantly disobedient” (Quran 59; 5, Sahih International). The legal injunction that is derived from this verse is that the destruction caused for the sake of military operations does not come under "spreading disorder in the world".  (S A A Maududi)

Allah knows best.

Dr Samad Billoo