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Sharia law does not call for child soldiers

An IS child soldier holding a gun

It appears that at least 400 children have been recruited by Isis as child soldiers for the Caliphate. The recruitment happens through violence or with the consent of families, too poor to oppose. However, a quick review of Islamic norms documents that this practice is also against Islamic law, on which the Caliphate itself stands.

They have been dubbed ‘Cubs of the Caliphate’ (ashbâl al-Khilafa) and they are, unfortunately, far more numerous than most people realize. According to a report by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Isis has enlisted at least 400 minors to its ranks since the beginning of 2015. Young ‘cubs’ are recruited in special offices located in several cities in Syria, including Mayâdîn, Bûkamâl and Raqqa. The practice is always the same: the kids are picked up in schools, mosques and streets, deceived with false promises – money, cars, weapons – and convinced to enlist. Alternatively, they are forcibly abducted or removed from their families with parental consent. In the latter case, the militants take advantage of the widespread desperation and poverty and knock on the doors of the families convincing them to hand over their children to the jihadist cause in exchange for a small sum of money, explained Abû Ibrâhîm, a founder of the site ‘Al-Raqqa tudhbih bi-samt’ – ‘Raqqa suffers the slaughter in silence’. The militants present themselves as ‘social workers’ and make themselves available to help families in need and welcome both healthy and disabled children in their ranks.



The children are then taken to training camps and subjected to a program that lasts from a few weeks to three months, according to the military needs of the moment. The program includes indoctrination lectures on sharia law, on the ideology of the caliphate and on the importance of fighting to restore it, as well as field lessons where the children learn how to handle weapons and fight in hand-to-hand combat. Among the known training camps, there is the one in Bâb in Aleppo, which houses boys between 14 and 15 years old, and one in Raqqa, which hosts children from 10 years old upwards.



The phenomenon of child recruitment is unfortunately more widespread than most people realize. Even though the Arab press links this phenomenon almost exclusively to Isis, the report drawn up by the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic last August also associates the problem of the recruitment of under-age boys to government forces and Kurdish militias. The text discusses the Popular Committees of Aleppo who recruited children and used them as spies and couriers, as well as government forces that used children aged between 6 and 13 years as part of military operations. In this case, children were used as infiltrators to identify members of enemy armed groups, and were therefore exposed to reprisals and punishments of various kinds.



The recruitment of children in Islamic law



Under international law the recruitment of children under the age of 15 is a war crime. But this does not matter to the jihadists: what matters to them is the Islamic law. However, even a cursory investigation of the shariatic rules concerning the recruitment of children can bring to light that the phenomenon as it is today does not fall within the framework of Islamic normativity.1



Islamic law stipulates firstly the distinction between combat as collective obligation (fard kifâya) if the jihad is offensive, and individual obligation (fard ‘ayn) if the jihad is defensive.


In the case of offensive jihad, jurists agree on the idea that to take part, you need to ‘have reached maturity (bulûgh)’. The tradition is clear: to Ibn Rushd (our Averroes, who was firstly a lawyer – it is often forgotten – d. 1198), ‘the collective obligation lies with the free men and adults’, for al-Marghînânî (Hanafi jurist, d. 1197) ‘jihad is not a requirement for the child (sabî)’, and Ibn Hazm (d. 1064) believed that jihad ‘is not an obligation for the woman and for those who have not come of age’. In the case where the jihad is fard kifâya, then it is an obligation that only extends to part of the community, women and children are therefore not required to take part in combat, because the Qur’an says, ‘There is no blame in the weak, nor in the sick, nor in those who do not find what they should spend ...’ (9:91).



In addition to their weakness, children are relieved from the obligation also because of their mental and physical balance, still precarious and not completely developed. The Qur’an believes children are unable to decide for themselves, because the sura of the Women stipulates that the goods of orphans are entrusted to the management of a guardian: ‘Test the orphans when they reach the age of marriage. Then if you discern in them maturity, deliver to them their property’ (Cor 4.6). By analogy al-Shâfi‘î, founder of the Shâfi‘î school of law, believes that children are not even in a position to fight.



Next to the ban in the Qur’an there is also that of the Prophet. Al-Bukhârî and Abû Dawûd reported in their collections some hadîths exempting children from combat ‘until he has reached maturity’, ‘until he becomes an adult’, or until ‘the little did not grow’. Specifically, a tradition of the Prophet fixed the age of maturity at 15 years and stipulates the exemption from jihad of boys under that age. This saying says that during the Battle of Badr Ibn ‘Umar asked Muhammad if he was old enough to fight: ‘The messenger of God reviewed me the day [of the battle] of Uhud, when I was just a boy of 14 years, and I was not allowed [to fight]. Then he reviewed me the [day of the battle] of the Trench, I was 15 years old and he agreed. […]’.



The key point is then the question of ‘maturity’, about which there is no agreement on the timing and the ways in which this maturity is reached among the jurists and the ulema. Some make it a matter of physical development, others purely a matter of age. According to Abû Hanîfa, founder of the Hanafi school of law, the transition occurs at 18 years for males and 17 for females, but for some Maliki, it is 17 years for both sexes.


As for the recruitment of children in the case where the jihad considered is fard ‘ayn so it is a personal duty, jurists disagree. According to the Hanafi, Shâfi‘î, and Maliki schools of law, adolescents who are able to fight are expected to go into battle, with or without parental consent, because the external invasion represents a danger for all people without distinction and all are called to launch into battle ‘weather armed lightly or heavily’ (Cor. 9.41). According to the Hanbali school of law, however, the opposite is true, children cannot be forced to fight.



Ultimately, it is increasingly clear that the Islamic state, while standing up in defence of sharia, actually fails to comply with its provisions and it changes the concepts and rules according to the necessities of the moment. If certain rules of sharia are problematic with respect to the contemporary concept of human rights, certain practices of the Islamic state will also move away from the traditional understanding of Islam, as Mustafa Akyol recently observed.2 The Islamic state strives to give a semblance of honesty to the operation ‘cubs of the Caliphate’, trying to convince the boys of the nobility of their actions and persuade their families about the goodness of the caliphate, eager to lift them from economic hardship. But what the Islamic state does is contrary to Islamic law itself.




1‘Alî al-Sawâ, Mawqif al-Islâm fî tajnîd al-atfâl, «Hawliyya kulliyat al-sharî‘a wa al-dirâsât al-islâmiyya», Jâmi‘at Qatar, 1999, n. 17, 375-402.


2Conference “The tablet and the crescent. Islam and the West Tested by the Media”, Tuesday April 14th, 2015, San Fedele Foundation, Milan.







Al-Sharq Al-Awsat






United Nations Human Rights