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The Islamic fervor for beheading

Last week in a federal courtroom in Alexandria Virginia, a British national admitted he was a key part of the Islamic State’s actions to torture and behead four American hostages between 2012 and 2015. In March of this year, a father in India beheads his daughter in a case of honor killing. Daniel Pearl, an investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal was beheaded in Pakistan in 2002. In Indonesia, Islamic State sympathizers have called for the beheading of a man who claimed to be a new prophet. All Muslims know that Muhammad claimed to be the last prophet that Allah sent down. Any prophets after Muhammad would be false prophets, worthy of beheading.


What makes Muslims, and in particular the Islamic State, so adamant about beheading people who cross their religion through blasphemous language and apostasy? Most other religions are tolerant and for the most part, so are most Muslims. Most people do not realize that beheading is the standard method of executing the death penalty under classical Islamic law. As a means of execution, beheading had been abandoned in most countries by the end of the twentieth century. While a few countries such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen still use beheadings as legal executions, numerous non-state jihadist groups such as ISIL, Tawhid, and Jihad also continue to use beheading as a technique of killing their captives. Since 2002, many terrorist groups have spread videos of beheadings as a type of propaganda and terror.


Because of the recent flurry of public beheadings carried out by Muslims acting under Islam's flag during the Syrian Civil War, numerous world political and religious figures in the West have weighed in on the subject. Most of these people have taken the position of defending Islam, saying these beheadings are not justified in the Islamic faith. In a 2014 address to the U.N. General Assembly, President Obama stated: “Islam teaches peace,” thereby repeating sentiments first expressed by President George W. Bush in 2001. In 2014, in support of President Obama, ex-British Prime Minister Theresa May went so far as to declare that the actions of the Islamic State “…have absolutely no basis in anything written in the Qur’an.” Perhaps she was not aware of the two verses listed below.

There are two verses in the Qur’an that address this issue:


Your Lord revealed to the angels: ‘I am with you: give the believers firmness; I shall put fear into the hearts of the disbelievers – strike above their necks and strike all their fingers’ (8:12) (Italics added).


So, when you meet the disbelievers in battle, strike them in the neck, and once they are defeated, bind any captives firmly – later, you can release them as a grace or for ransom – until the toils of war have ended (47:4) (Italics added).


The significance of verse 8:12 is essential, but sura 47:4 is the verse that respected Islamic scholars repeatedly cite to justify beheading. All four Islamic jurisprudence institutions (Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanafi, and Hanbali) understand and support 47:4 as an explicit justification — within the sharia — of the practice of beheading.


Next, we have the illustration of the founding founder of Islam himself, Muhammad. At the massacre of the Jews of the Qurayza tribe in Medina in the year 627, Muhammad ordered that 600-800 Jewish captives be beheaded. The bottom line is religious scholars and jurists all agree that the practice of beheading is a sanctioned type of execution within the rituals of Islam.


There is one last bit of circumstantial evidence that Islamic law justifies beheadings. The former Islamic Caliph and head of the Islamic State himself, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (d. 2019), had a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies. Al-Baghdadi, who received his Ph.D. from the Islamic University of Baghdad, focused on Islamic culture, history, sharia, and jurisprudence, sanctioned quite a few beheadings. It is sensible to believe that he may know even more about acceptable Islamic customs than political leaders for whom the subject is merely an occasional political distraction.

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