ISLAMIC STATE jihadists are obsessed with beheading enemies and unbelievers. Not beheading by sword, the most humane method of decapitation, if there is one, but beheading with a knife, often a dull one, to cause the victim the most suffering and agony possible.
Middle East Forum Images of masked terrorists standing behind Western hostages in Iraq and Saudi Arabia have become all too common on Arabic satellite stations such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Mana, not to mention websites like Bare Naked Islam.
The beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, true to its intention, horrified the Western audience. Chechen rebels, egged on by Islamist benefactors, had adopted the practice four years earlier, but the absence of widely broadcast videos limited the psychological impact of hostage decapitation.
In Iraq, terrorists filmed the beheadings of Americans Nicholas Berg, Jack Hensley, and Eugene Armstrong. Other victims include Turks, an Egyptian, a Korean, Bulgarians, a British businessman, and a Nepalese. Scores of Iraqis, both Kurds and Arabs, have also fallen victim to Islamist terrorists’ knives. The new fad in terrorist brutality has extended to Saudi Arabia where Islamist terrorists murdered American businessman Paul Johnson, whose head was later discovered in a freezer in an Al-Qaeda hideout.
A variation upon this theme would be the practice of Islamists slitting the throats of those opponents they label infidels. This is what happened to Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, first gunned down and then mutilated on an Amsterdam street, and to an Egyptian Coptic family in New Jersey after the father had angered Islamists with Internet chat room criticisms of Islam.
Apologetics and Reality
Some American commentators say that Islamist decapitations are intended as psychological warfare and devoid of any true Islamic content. Imam Muhammad Adam al-Sheikh, head of the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, for example, claimed incorrectly that “beheadings are not mentioned in the Koran at all.” Asma Afsaruddin, an associate professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Notre Dame, also misrepresented Islamic theology and history when she told a reporter, “There is absolutely no religious imperative for this.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) as well as the American Anti-Arab Discrimination Committee (ADC) have both signed on to a statement that such killings “did not represent the tenets of Islam.” Sam Hamod, former director of the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C., claimed that the Qur’anic passage on beheading unbelievers did not actually mean that people should be killed.
Such fulminations have had an effect: the Western news media has, perhaps as a result of political correctness or its own bias, twisted the reality of Islamic history and propagated such revisionism. With such apologetics, Western academics either display basic ignorance of their fields or purposely mislead. The intelligentsia’s denial of any religious roots to the recent spate of decapitation has parallels in the logical back flips and kid-glove treatments in which many professors engaged in order to deny a religious basis for violent jihad. Afsaruddin and Hamod aside, Islamists justify murder and decapitation with both theological citations and historical precedent.
Decapitation in Islamic Theology
Groups such as Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi’s Al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad (Unity and Jihad) and Abu ‘Abd Allah al-Hasan bin Mahmud’s Ansar al-Sunna (Defenders of [Prophetic] Tradition)justify the decapitation of prisoners with Qur’anic scripture. Sura (chapter) 47 contains the ayah(verse): “When you encounter the unbelievers on the battlefield, strike off their heads until you have crushed them completely; then bind the prisoners tightly.”
The Qur’anic Arabic terms are generally straightforward: kafaru means “those who blaspheme/are irreligious,” althoughDarb ar-riqab is less clear. Darb can mean “striking or hitting” while ar-riqab translates to “necks, slaves, persons.” With little variation, scholars have translated the verse as, “When you meet the unbelievers, smite their necks.”
Many recent interpretations remain consistent with those of a millennium ago. In his Saudi-distributed translation of the Qur’an, ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali (d. 1953) wrote that the injunction to “smite at their necks,” should be taken both literally and figuratively. “You cannot wage war with kid gloves,” Yusuf ‘Ali argued.
Muhammad Muhammad Khatib, in a modern Sunni commentary bearing the imprimatur of Al-Azhar university in Cairo, says that while traditionalist Muslims tend to see this passage as only applying to the Prophet’s time, Shi’ites “think it is a universal precept.” Ironically, then in this view, Zarqawi has adopted the exegesis of his religious nemeses. Perhaps the most influential modern recapitulation of this passage was provided by the influential Pakistani scholar and leading Islamist thinker S. Abul A’ la Mawdudi (d. 1979), who argued that the sura provided the first Qur’anic prescriptions on the laws of war.
Another, albeit less-frequently, cited Qur’anic passage also sanctions beheadings of non-Muslims. Sura 8:12 reads: “I will cast dread into the hearts of the unbelievers. Strike off their heads, then, and strike off all of their fingertips.” The point of this opening phrase—to “cast dread” or, as some translations have it, “instill terror”—has now been adopted by Islamist terrorists to justify decapitation of hostages.
Decapitation in Islamic History
While some Islamists might justify murder of prisoners on Qur’anic prescription, others reinforce their conclusions by drawing analogies to events during the almost 1,400 years of Islamic history. Here beheading of captives is a recurring theme. Both Islamic regimes and their opposition have utilized beheadings as both military and judicial policy.
The practice of beheading non-Muslim captives extends back to the Prophet himself. Ibn Ishaq (d. 768 C.E.), the earliest biographer of Muhammad, is recorded as saying that the Prophet ordered the execution by decapitation of 700 men of the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe in Medina for allegedly plotting against him. Islamic leaders from Muhammad’s time until today have followed his model. Examples of decapitation, of both the living and the dead, in Islamic history are myriad. Yusuf b. Tashfin (d. 1106) led the Al-Murabit (Almoravid) Empire to conquer from western Sahara to central Spain.
The Ottoman Empire was the decapitation state par excellence. Upon the Ottoman victory over Christian Serbs at the battle of Kosovo in 1389, the Muslim army beheaded the Serbian king and scores of Christian prisoners. At the battle of Varna in 1444, the Ottomans beheaded King Ladislaus of Hungary and “put his head at the tip of a long pike … and brandished it toward the Poles and Hungarians.” Upon the fall of Constantinople, the Ottomans sent the head of the dead Byzantine emperor on tour to major cities in the sultan’s domains.
In the early nineteenth century, even the British fell victim to the Ottoman scimitar. An 1807 British expedition to Egypt resulted in “a few hundred spiked British heads left rotting in the sun outside Rosetta.”
Decapitation has also been quite common among Muslims whenever orthodoxy confronts Mahdist movements. According to Islamic tradition, the Mahdi, or “rightly-guided one” will come before the end of time to usher in a worldwide, perfect Islamic state.
Beheading has particular prominence in Saudi Arabia. In 2003 alone, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia beheaded more than fifty people. (However, the Saudis tend to use the less brutal form of decapiation by the sword) This number included both Muslim and non-Muslim workers. Over the past two decades, the Saudis have decapitated at least 1,100 for alleged crimes ranging from drug running to witchcraft and apostasy. The Saudi government not only uses beheadings to punish criminals but also to terrorize potential opponents.
All these various justifications contribute to the rash of beheadings in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. Increasingly, Islamist groups conflate “unbelievers,” “combatants,” and prisoners of war, which, coupled with their claim to Islamic legitimacy, provides them with a license to decapitate.
Islam is the only major world religion today that is cited by both state and non-state actors to legitimize beheadings. And two major aspects of decapitation in an Islamic context should be noted: first, the practice has both Qur’anic and historical sanction. It is not the product of a fabricated tradition. Second, in contradiction to the assertions of apologists, both Muslim and non-Muslim, these beheadings are not simply a brutal method of drawing attention to the Islamist political agenda and weakening opponents’ will to fight.
ISIS and other Islamists who practice decapitation believe that God has ordained them to obliterate their enemies in this manner. Islam is, for this determined minority of Muslims, anything but a “religion of peace.” It is, rather, a religion of the sword with the blade forever at the throat of the unbeliever.