Almighty Allah says (what can be translated as): “O you who have believed, when you meet those who disbelieve advancing [for battle], do not turn to them your backs [in flight]. And whoever turns his back to them on such a day, unless swerving [as a strategy] for war or joining [another] company, has certainly returned with anger [upon him] from Allah, and his refuge is Hell - and wretched is the destination.” (Al-Anfal: 15-16)
Almighty Allah commands the believers to stand firm in battles and confront the disbelievers by faithful hearts. He encourages them not to retreat or turn their backs to the enemies even if the disbelievers were more than the believers in number because fleeing from the battlefield causes weakness inside the fighting Islamic army.
Almighty Allah lets the fighter move freely during the battle. They used to move from one place in the battle to another to support a group of Muslims or to fill a gap from which the enemies penetrated. The important thing is that the Muslim fighter’s aim has to be victory or martyrdom and obeying the commands of the leadership. As for those who leave the battle whether to flee or escape death, Almighty Allah promises them with painful torment on the Day of Resurrection.
(Allah’s Messenger, Peace Be upon Him, rated the act of fleeing from the battle as one of the major sins) (Authenticated by the Two Imams)
These verses begin with a strong warning and a fearsome threat of the punishment of Allah’s wrath and end in the Hellfire. “O you who have believed, when you meet those who disbelieve advancing [for battle], do not turn to them your backs [in flight]. And whoever turns his back to them on such a day, unless swerving [as a strategy] for war or joining [another] company, has certainly returned with anger [upon him] from Allah, and his refuge is Hell - and wretched is the destination.” Should the believers face their enemies who may in essence present themselves in a great show of power, they must not, under any circumstances, turn away, except for tactical reasons. These may include choosing a better position, carrying out a more effective plan, joining another group of believers, or moving to another Muslim stronghold in order to resume the fight. Deserters and people who turn away in flight deserve the most terrible double punishment of incurring Allah’s anger and being thrown into hell.
Some scholars have expressed the view that this ruling applies only to the people of Badr, or to a battle in which the Prophet himself took part. But the overwhelming majority of scholars have emphasized its general application. They consider fleeing from battle as one of the gravest sins. In the two Şahīh, the most authentic collections of the Prophet’s ahadith, al-Bukhari and Muslim relate, on the authority of Abu Hurayrah, that Allah’s Messenger says: “Steer away from the seven ruining sins.” When he was asked which these were, the Prophet answered: “Associating partners with Allah, black magic, killing a human being except for a legitimate cause, devouring usury, pilfering an orphan’s property, running away from battle and falsely accusing chaste believing women of adultery.”
In his scholarly work, Ahkam al-Qur’an or Qur’anic Rulings, al-Jaşşaş, a leading Hanafi scholar, explains in detail the different views on this point. It is useful to quote here what he says:
Allah says: “And whoever turns his back to them on such a day, unless swerving [as a strategy] for war or joining [another] company, has certainly returned with anger [upon him] from Allah, and his refuge is Hell - and wretched is the destination.” (Verse 16) Abu Nadrah mentions that this statement applies only to the Battle of Badr. Abu Nadrah argues that had they turned away on that day, they could only have joined the unbelievers, because there were no other Muslims on that day. But this statement is not particularly accurate, because there were numerous Muslims in Madinah who were not ordered by the Prophet to join the army. They had not gone out with the Prophet because they believed that no battle was imminent and the whole affair would merely be a case of intercepting a trade caravan. The Prophet was joined by those who were ready and quick to move out with him in the circumstances. Hence, Abu Nadrah’s view that there were no other Muslims at that time and that they would have only joined the unbelievers is wrong.
It has also been said that they were not permitted to join any other group on that day because the Prophet was with them and they were not allowed to leave him, as Allah says in the Qur’an: “It was not [proper] for the people of Madinah and those surrounding them of the bedouins that they remain behind after [the departure of] the Messenger of Allah or that they prefer themselves over his self.” (At-Tawbah: 120) This shows that they could not let Allah’s Messenger down or abandon him, even though Allah had taken it upon Himself to protect him as He clearly states in the Qur’an: “And Allah will protect you from the people.” (Al-Ma’idah: 67) That was imperative on them, whether their enemies were small or large in number. Moreover, the Prophet himself was the rallying force for the Muslims on that day. Anyone turning away could only do so for tactical reasons, in an endeavor to join a company of believers. On the day of Badr, they could only join the Prophet. Ibn Umar reports: “I was with an army when we had a quick round before returning to Madinah. People accused us of fleeing, but the Prophet said: `I am your company.’ This means that a person who is in a position away from the Prophet and wants to turn away from the unbelievers could only do so in order to join the Prophet. If the Prophet was in the army, then there was no group other than his. In such a case, no turning away was possible. Al-Hasan says that this verse, beginning with “And whoever turns his back to them…” defined the situation for the people of Badr. Allah says in the Qur’an: “Indeed, those of you who turned back on the day the two armies met, it was Satan who caused them to slip because of some [blame] they had earned. But Allah has already forgiven them. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Forbearing.” (Ali Imran: 155) This is due to the fact that they turned away leaving the Prophet in battle. Similarly, on the day of Hunayn, they deserved Allah’s punishment for leaving the Prophet and turning away: “Allah has already given you victory in many regions and [even] on the day of Hunayn, when your great number pleased you, but it did not avail you at all, and the earth was confining for you with its vastness; then you turned back, fleeing.” (At-Tawbah: 25)
This was then the ruling applicable when they were with the Prophet fighting any enemy that mustered small or large forces. In another verse, Allah says: “O Prophet, urge the believers to battle. If there are among you twenty [who are] steadfast, they will overcome two hundred. And if there are among you one hundred [who are] steadfast, they will overcome a thousand of those who have disbelieved because they are a people who do not understand.” (Verse 65) This applied perhaps — and Allah knows best — to a situation when the Prophet was with them. A company of twenty had to fight two hundred, remaining steadfast. If the hostile force was greater than that, then they were allowed to try to join another group in order to resume the fight. But this was later abrogated by the Qur’anic statement: “Now, Allah has lightened [the hardship] for you, and He knows that among you is weakness. So if there are from you one hundred [who are] steadfast, they will overcome two hundred. And if there are among you a thousand, they will overcome two thousand by permission of Allah. And Allah is with the steadfast.” (Verse 66)
According to Ibn Abbas: It was a commandment that one man must not turn away in flight if he was facing ten enemy soldiers and this was then reduced by the Qur’anic verse, “Allah has lightened [the hardship] for you, and He knows that among you is weakness.” You are now commanded that one hundred may not flee from two hundred unbelievers. Ibn Abbas states: “If one man runs away from two enemy soldiers, then he is a deserter. If he flees when he faces three, he is not.” Desertion refers to turning away in flight as mentioned in the Qur’anic verse. The verse makes it compulsory for a Muslim soldier to fight when he faces two unbelievers. If they are more than two, then it is permissible for a single soldier to try to join a company of Muslims that may give him support. If he wants to join a group of Muslims who will not support him in the fight, he is under the threat mentioned in the Qur’anic verse: “And whoever turns his back to them on such a day, unless swerving [as a strategy] for war or joining [another] company, has certainly returned with anger [upon him] from Allah, and his refuge is Hell - and wretched is the destination.” (Verse 16) For this reason the Prophet says: “I am company to every Muslim.” When Umar ibn al-Khaţţab heard that Abu Ubayd ibn Mas‘ud fought hard without thinking of retreat until he was killed, Umar said: “May Allah have mercy on Abu Ubayd. Had he joined me, I would have been company for him.” When Abu Ubayd’s fellow soldiers arrived, Umar said to them: “I am your company.” He did not take issue with them over their retreat.
This ruling is confirmed in our school of law, [i.e. the Hanafi school], and it remains in force unless the Muslim army is 12,000 in number, in which case they may not flee from a force which is more than double their size, except for tactical reasons. They may move to a position where they can engage their enemy better, or may take a different step that does not constitute fleeing from battle, or join a group of Muslims who will fight with them. Muhammad ibn al-Hasan (a leading Hanafi scholar) mentions that if a Muslim army is 12,000 in number, they may not turn away in flight, although their enemy may be much greater. There is no difference among our scholars (i.e. Hanafi scholars) on this point. In support of this view, a hadith reported by Ibn Abbas is cited in which the Prophet is quoted as saying: “The best group of friends is four, and the best expedition is 400, and the best host is 4,000. An army of 12,000 shall not suffer on account of inferior numbers, and shall not be defeated.” In another version: “An army of 12,000 shall not be defeated if they are truly united.” Malik was asked: “Is it open for us not to join a battle against those abandoning Allah’s law in favor of a different law?” Malik answered: “If you have 12,000 with you, you may not stay behind. Otherwise, staying behind is permissible.” The person who put the question to him was Abdullah ibn Umar ibn Abd al-Azīz ibn Abdullah ibn Umar. This confirms what is stated by Muhammad ibn al-Hasan. The authentic reports attributed to the Prophet with regard to an army of 12,000 constitute a basic principle in this respect. An army of such numbers may not turn away in flight from any enemy, even though that enemy may be several times their number, because the Prophet says: “If they are truly united.” Allah has commanded believers to be always truly united.
Ibn al-Arabi also comments on this difference of views. He writes in his book bearing the same title, Ahkam al-Qur’an or Qur’anic Rulings: People have disputed whether the turning away in flight applies only to the Battle of Badr or to all battles Muslims may fight at any time until the Day of Judgment. Abu Sa‘id al-Khudri reports that this order applies only to the Battle of Badr, when the Muslims had no other company or troop other than Allah’s Messenger. This view is supported by Nafi’, al-Hasan, Qatadah, Yazid ibn Habīb and al-Dahhak.
Ibn Abbas and all other scholars are of the view that this Qur’anic verse applies at all times until the Day of Judgment. Those who have taken a different view, saying that it applies to Badr only have misinterpreted the statement, “Anyone who turns his back to them on that day,” making the phrase ‘on that day’ a reference to the Day of Badr only. But this is not so. It refers to the day of battle whenever a battle takes place. In evidence we take the fact that this Qur’anic verse was revealed after the Battle of Badr was over with all that it involved. The Prophet is authentically quoted to list fleeing from battle as one of the worst cardinal sins. In itself, this hadith should settle all disputes and make the ruling absolutely clear. We have clarified how the confusion arose that led some scholars to think that it applied to Badr only.
For our part, we support Ibn Abbas’s view and all other scholars as reported by Ibn al-Arabi. To flee from battle deserves such condemnation because of the magnitude of its serious consequences on the one hand, and because it has a bearing on the very question of having faith.
A believer should be firm and resolute, able to resist any force on earth, since he believes that Allah’s power can overcome all powers. If a believer’s heart experiences a tremor at a moment of danger, such a tremor should not go as far as making him flee from battle. The moment of anyone’s death is determined by Allah alone. Hence, no believer may flee from battle fearing for his life. This should not constitute too much of a burden for anyone. A believer is a human being who encounters an enemy, who, in turn, is a human being. Hence, they are of the same nature. The believer, however, has the advantage of relying on the overpowering might of Allah Himself. Moreover, he is under Allah’s care while he is alive, and he entrusts himself to Allah’s care if he attains martyrdom. This means that in all situations he is stronger than his enemy who defies Allah and His Messenger. Hence this absolute ruling: “O you who have believed, when you meet those who disbelieve advancing [for battle], do not turn to them your backs [in flight]. And whoever turns his back to them on such a day, unless swerving [as a strategy] for war or joining [another] company, has certainly returned with anger [upon him] from Allah, and his refuge is Hell - and wretched is the destination.” (Verse 16)
We should reflect a little here on the mode of expression and its remarkable connotations. The statements, “…do not turn to them your backs [in flight]”, and, “…whoever turns his back to them on such a day”, portray a sense of defeat as it manifests itself physically. They also add a strong condemnation as the whole action is shown to be repugnant, particularly the image of turning one’s back to one’s enemies. Then we have the expression, “has certainly returned with anger [upon him] from Allah.” In the Arabic text, there is a connotation that a defeated person is carrying with him Allah’s anger right to his abode in hell, which is an awful end to his journey. Thus these connotations add to the sense and effectiveness of the statement. Together they spread a feeling of abhorrence of the very act of fleeing from battle.