The news coming in from around the world is grim. Photos and videos of beheadings, in all their grisly detail, flood our inboxes and social media feeds. Media personalities, celebrities, and world leaders have all denounced this barbaric behavior by saying that it does not represent true Islam.
But are such assertions true, or simply a particularly dangerous form of political correctness?
The two primary and authoritative sources within Islam; namely, the Qur’an (Islam’s primary foundational text) and the Sunnah (the recorded words and deeds of Muhammad, the founder of Islam) offer answers to this question that we would be foolish to ignore. I contend that the Qur’an and Sunnah demonstrate unambiguously that the beheading of captives is justified within Islam.
First, then, let us look briefly at the context within which this question about beheading has arisen. Recently, of course, the ostensible re-establishment of the Islamic Caliphate in Iraq and Syria by the group calling itself the ‘Islamic State’, has been the occasion of numerous beheadings, several of which have been videotaped and made available to the world through social media. Recently there has been another beheading right here in the United States by a Muslim of a non-Muslim coworker. Typically, when these beheadings become known to the public, there are groups and individuals in the West who will rush to the defense of so-called “moderate Islam” and attempt to distance the actions of these killers from Islam as such. Their reasoning is essentially that while these individuals claim to be Muslims and claim to act on behalf of Islam, they do not represent ‘true’ Islam, which, according to them, is inherently peaceful and moderate, and not extremist. CAIR (the Council on American-Islamic Relations), a Muslim Brotherhood front group here in the U.S., usually makes a statement to this effect immediately after any ‘extremist’ event has occurred. The local Imam will make similar statements, as happened recently in the case of the Oklahoma City beheading. The point of these defensive statements is to try to distance Islam from the extreme actions committed by individual Muslims.
As a result of the recent spate of very public beheadings carried out by Muslims acting in the name of Islam, numerous world political and religious figures in the West have recently weighed in on the subject. And the vast majority of these individuals have taken the position of defending Islam as essentially peaceful as well. They label the actions of the ‘extremists’ as an aberration from so-called “authentic Islam.” The list of noteworthy world leaders who have made such assessments includes but is not limited to: President Barack Obama; U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry; UK Prime Minister David Cameron; former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair; UK Home Secretary Theresa May; and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. From the East, the Dalai Lama himself has expressed similar sentiments defending Islam. A number of celebrities have also weighed in, the most recent and notable being actor and director Ben Affleck, who reacted with visceral aggression on an episode of Real Time With Bill Maher when confronted with a discussion about whether Islam is inherently violent.
Referring to the recent beheadings, John Kerry says that the Islamic State is a “…perversion of Islam.” Tony Blair agrees and says that Islamic State’s ideology is “…based in a complete perversion of the proper faith of Islam.” David Cameron says of the Islamic State: “…[T]hey claim to do this in the name of Islam. That is nonsense. Islam is a religion of peace. They are not Muslims, they are monsters.” Theresa May goes so far as to declare that the actions of Islamic State “…have absolutely no basis in anything written in the Qur’an.” At the UN recently, (and, significantly, in preparation for military strikes against the Islamic State) President Obama stated blandly: “Islam teaches peace,” thereby repeating sentiments first expressed by President George W. Bush in 2001. Even Pope Francis, albeit almost a year ago now, implied that the jihadists are getting Islam all wrong, when he declared that “…authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Qur’an are opposed to every form of violence.” [Evangelii Gaudium #253]
Returning to our original question, then, we have to ask ourselves sincerely: Since beheading a [live] person is undeniably a “form of violence,” is it or is it not sanctioned within Islam? After all, the putative Islamic Caliph and head of Islamic State himself, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has a Master’s Degree and a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies. It is reasonable to assume that he may in fact know more about Islam than political leaders for whom the subject is merely an occasional political distraction, or celebrities for whom it is an awkward social cause.
First, then, let us turn to the Qur’an. Islam’s defenders frequently refer to Qur’an 8:12 and say that this verse has somehow been “misinterpreted” by Islamic jihadists today (e.g. Islamic State) and that in fact this verse does not command beheading. The verse reads [Sahih International translation]:
[Remember] when your Lord inspired to the angels, “I am with you, so strengthen those who have believed. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieved, so strike [them] upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip.“
First, despite its obvious connotation, it should be noted that this particular verse (8:12) is not the verse typically cited within Islamic jurisprudence to justify beheading. The verse which overwhelmingly is used by Islamic scholars to do so is not verse 8:12, but rather verse 47:4 [Sahih International]:
“So when you meet those who disbelieve [in battle], strike [their] necks until, when you have inflicted slaughter upon them, then secure their bonds, and either confer favor afterwards or ransom [them] until the war lays down its burdens. That [is the command]…” [emphasis added].
The significance of verse 8:12 should not be discounted. But for the record, 47:4 is the verse that deserves particular attention, because it is the verse that respected Islamic scholars themselves cite to justify beheading [see Bulandshahri, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Ibn Kathir, Abu’l-Hasan al-Mawardi, al-Akham as-Sultaniyyah, among many others].
Second, it is universally acknowledged by the most respected Islamic scholars and Qur’an commentators, both classical and modern, that the interpretation of Qur’an 47:4 is precisely that beheading is justified by this verse. All four schools of Islamic jurisprudence (Shafi, Maliki, Hanafi, and Hanbali) interpret 47:4 as an unambiguous justification — within the Sharia — of the practice of beheading. Also, Zamakhshari takes “strike at the necks” to mean that Muslims should strike non-Muslims specifically on the neck rather than elsewhere, so as to make sure they are dead, and not just wounded.
It is difficult to conceive of an interpretation which could arrive at any other conclusion than that the practice of beheading is justified, and in fact commanded, by the Qur’an itself. The Qur’an explicitly says to “strike at their necks,” and authoritative Islamic commentators (not just modern jihadists like Islamic State) interpret this as a justification and sanction for the practice of beheading. How is this unclear? In fact, in one of the most recent beheading videos from Iraq, the masked executioner taunts President Obama that [because U.S. fighter jets are “striking” Muslims in Iraq and Syria] “…it is only right that we continue to strike the neck of your people”.
Next, we have the example of the founder of Islam, Muhammad himself. And it is important to note that within Islam [Qur’an 33:21] Muhammad is considered the ideal model of behavior for all Muslims. He is the “perfect man” whose actions are always to be commended and taken as a sure pattern of righteous behavior. No sincere Muslim would ever say or believe otherwise than this. And thus we have the second justification — within Islam — for the practice of beheading. Namely, that Muhammad himself commended it. At the massacre of the Jews of the Qurayza tribe in Medina in the year 627, Muhammad ordered that between 600-800 Jewish captives be beheaded.
Ibn Ishaq recounts:
“Then they [the Qurayza Jews] surrendered and the apostle [Muhammad] confined them in Medina…Then the apostle went out to the market of Medina (which is still its market today) and dug trenches in it. Then he sent for them and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out to him in batches”
[emphasis and brackets mine].
Tafsir Ibn Kathir recounts:
“Then the Messenger of Allah [Muhammad] commanded that ditches should be dug, so they were dug in the earth, and they [the Qurayza Jews] were brought tied by their shoulders and were beheaded. There were between seven hundred and eight hundred of them”
[emphasis and brackets mine].
The conclusion is once again inescapable: the practice of beheading is unambiguously sanctioned within a proper understanding of Islam. We have the authority of the Qur’an, as authoritatively interpreted by the most respected Islamic scholars, commanding that Muslims should behead non-Muslims. And we have the example of the founder of Islam, Muhammad himself, who was personally responsible for the beheading of hundreds of individuals. With specific examples in the two most authoritative sources of Islamic theology – the Qur’an and the Sunnah [of Muhammad] – there is simply no credible refutation of the fact that beheading is justified within any orthodox understanding of Islam.
Some have suggested that perhaps there is a possibility for Islam to reform itself by rejecting Qur’an passages that clearly favor beheading, viz. 47:4. Unfortunately, a priori, within Islam no such “reform” is possible for two important reasons.
First, for Muslims, the Qur’an is understood to be the “perfect book” and the exact words of Allah directly dictated by Allah to Muhammad. The Qur’an is viewed by faithful Muslims as the verbatim word of almighty Allah. Moreover, the period when the authoritative interpretation of the Qur’an was to be made is already over. Thus, no further Qur’anic “innovations” or subtractions are possible, making any meaningful reform unlikely.
Second, we have the example of Muhammad, Islam’s founder. Since Muhammad himself commended beheading, it would be nearly impossible for a modern day Muslim to build a viable case against beheading, because it would suggest that Muhammad had done something wrong by condoning this behavior in the first place. Any Muslim today who attempted to do so would similarly be subject to the extreme penalties of Islamic law – if not beheading, then perhaps crucifixion [per Qur’an 5:33] for “spreading corruption in the land,” which is precisely the charge that modern day jihadists often make to justify their violence against non-Muslims.
There are certainly no few Muslims who find these practices abhorrent, but they are able to object only on a personal basis, not as a matter of Islamic theology. It is a religion which is, by design, tremendously resistant to reform. Still, with God all things are possible. We may yet pray that Muslims will reject the violence inherent in their religion, and furthermore, that they will come instead to know the love and peace of Christ.
Originally published on November 11, 2014.