Beheading in the Name of Islam
Middle East Quarterly
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-Manar. Islamist
websites such as Muntadiyat al-Mahdi
go further, streaming video of their murder.
The February 2002 decapitation 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. The Pearl murder and video catalyzed the resurgence
of this historical Islamic practice. 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.
The purpose of terrorism is to
strike fear into the hearts of opponents in order to win political
concession. As the shock value wears off and the Western world becomes
immunized to any particular tactic, terrorists develop new ones in order to
maximize shock and the press reaction upon which they thrive. In the 1970s
and 1980s, terrorists hijacked airliners to win headlines. In the 1980s and
1990s, the car bomb became more popular; Palestinian terrorists perfected
suicide bombings in the 1990s. But what once garnered days of commentary now
generates only hours. Decapitation has become the latest fashion. In many
ways, it sends terrorism back to the future. Unlike hijackings and car
bombs, ritual beheading has a long precedent in Islamic theology and
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
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
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," although Darb 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."
For centuries, leading Islamic
scholars have interpreted this verse literally. The famous Iranian historian
and Qur'an commentator Muhammad b. Jarir at-Tabari (d. 923 C.E.) wrote that
"striking at the necks" is simply God's sanction of ferocious opposition to
Mahmud b. Umar az-Zamakhshari (d. 1143 C.E.), in a major commentary studied
for centuries by Sunni religious scholars, suggested that any prescription
to "strike at the necks" commands to avoid striking elsewhere so as to
confirm death and not simply wound.
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.
Under no circumstances should the
Muslim lose sight of this aim and start taking the enemy soldiers as
captives. Captives should be taken after the enemy has been completely
Accordingly, for soldiers of Islam,
victory should be the only consideration. Status of prisoners of war was
open to interpretation. Mawdudi maintained that the verse did not clearly
forbid execution of prisoners but that "the Holy Prophet understood this
intention of Allah's command, and that if there was a special reason for
which the ruler of an Islamic government regarded it as necessary to kill a
particular prisoner (or prisoners), he could do so."
As do many Islamists, Mawdudi cited historical examples of the Prophet
Muhammad ordering the execution of prisoners, such as some Meccans captured
at the Battle of Badr in 624 C.E. and at least one Meccan seized at the
Battle of Uhud in the following year. While such examples do not directly
address decapitation, they do allow for murder of prisoners-of-war.
Mawdudi's interpretation, though, does not sanction the execution of
hostages. Only the government, and not individual Muslim soldiers, could
determine the fate of captives.
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." In
the original text, the relevant phrase is adrabu fawq al-‘anaq,
"strike over their necks." This verse is, then, a corollary to Sura
47:3. Yusuf ‘Ali is one of the few modern commentators who addresses this
passage, interpreting it as utilitarian: the neck is among the only areas
not protected by armor, and mutilating an opponent's hands prevents him from
again wielding his sword or spear.
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
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. After the battle of
Zallaqa in 1086, he had 24,000 corpses of the defeated Castilians beheaded
"and piled them up to make a sort of minaret for the muezzins who, standing
on the piles of headless cadavers, sang the praises of Allah."
He then had the detached heads sent to all the major cities of North Africa
and Spain as an example of Christian impotence. The Al-Murabits were
conquered the following century by the Al-Muwahhids (Almohads), under whose
rule Castilian Christian enemies were beheaded after any lost battles.
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. The Ottomans even
beheaded at least one Eastern Orthodox patriarch. In 1456, the sultan
allowed the grand mufti of the empire to personally decapitate King Stephen
of Bosnia and his sons—even though they had surrendered and, seven decades
later, the sultan ordered 2,000 Hungarian prisoners beheaded. 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. Every
few generations, a charismatic leader emerges claiming to be the Mahdi.
Since the Mahdi is the harbinger of just government, then any leader he
challenges is by nature corrupt. The fervor of such claims often leads both
the orthodoxy and the Mahdists to label the other unbelievers, allowing them
to invoke Qur'anic verse 47:3 and behead captives.
A prime example of this occurred 500
years ago in the Gujarati sultanate of western India. Sayyid Muhammad
Jawnpuri (d. 1505 C.E.) asserted that he was the Mahdi.
His followers, who came to be known as Mahdavis, accused the Gujarati
sultans and religious officials of takfir (unbelief). The sultans
fought back, often displaying the severed heads of Mahdavi caliphs in order
to intimidate would-be followers. The Gujarati brutality served its purpose
and, by the end of the sixteenth century, the Mahdavis faded into oblivion.
Perhaps the most famous Mahdist
movement—and one of very few to gain power—was
that led by Muhammad Ahmad of Sudan in the late nineteenth century. In 1880,
Muhammad Ahmad declared himself Mahdi and led jihad against the Ottoman
Empire, its Egyptians subjects, and their British allies.
He and his followers beheaded opponents, Christian and Muslim alike. This
Mahdi's most famous victim was Charles Gordon, a British general in Sudan on
behalf of Anglo-Egyptian forces. Rudolf Slatin, an Austrian taken prisoner
by the Mahdist army, later described the Mahdists' triumphant reaction to
Gordon's execution in January 1885. One historian related how:
Three black [Mahdist] soldiers were
in the lead, one of whom he recognized as a man named Shatta. … Shatta was
carrying something wrapped in a bloody cloth. Slatin stood silent as they
stopped in front of him, their faces triumphant. With a smile, Shatta undid
the cloth while the crowd shouted. Slatin looked: it was Gordon's severed
head … "Is this not the head of your uncle, the unbeliever?"
While not as graphic as an Al-Qaeda
video, the impact on Victorian society was the same. Revenge would take
years. Muhammad Ahmad died, probably of typhoid or malaria, in 1885, but his
state fell to the British army only in 1898.
A half century later, in the years
after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the Turkish Republic and imposed secular
government, a revolutionary religious leader named Mehmet led a short-lived
but violent Mahdist revolt.
Mehmet was a Sufi—an Islamic mystic—of the Naqshabandi order. Mehmet and his
six disciples adopted the identities of the "Seven Sleepers" of the Qur'an:
seven Christian youth who fell asleep in a cave during the time of Roman
persecution of Christians in the third century C.E. and emerged, unscathed,
over a century later when Rome had joined the faith.
By such identification, Mehmet and his Mahdist disciples sought to invoke
the Qur'anic imagery of the small band of true believers standing against
state idolatry. From Manisa, in west-central Turkey, Mehmet and his
followers trekked to Menemen on the Aegean coast where, in the main mosque,
Mehmet declared himself the Mahdi and called for the reestablishment of
Islamic law canceled by Atatürk. Mehmet's enthusiastic supporters
overwhelmed the local Turkish army garrison. They killed the commander and
put his severed head on a pole and paraded it around town. The uprising was
short-lived, though. The Turkish army rallied its forces and crushed the
revolt, executing all involved.
Beheading has particular prominence
in Saudi Arabia. In 2003 alone, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia beheaded more
than fifty people.
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. One famous example involved a Saudi
national guardsman named Juhayman al-‘Utaybi. In late 1979, the start of the
fifteenth century in the Islamic calendar, ‘Utaybi declared his
brother-in-law Muhammad bin Abd Allah al-Qahtani to be the Mahdi. They
seized control of the holy mosque in Mecca and called on all Saudis to rise
up against the government in Riyadh.
The house of Saud responded forcibly with a shock-and-awe campaign. After a
bloody battle, they regained control of the holy mosque. Within weeks, they
had hunted down and either killed or captured the Mahdists. In early 1980,
the Saudi government publicly beheaded ‘Utaybi and his imprisoned followers.
While outsiders may consider the Saudi practice barbaric, most Saudi
executions are swift, completed in one sword blow. Zarqawi and his followers
have chosen a slow, torturous sawing method to terrorize the Western
All these various justifications
contribute to the rash of beheadings in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle
East. Because Zarqawi and his followers consider the Iraqi and Saudi
governments to be illegitimate, they find no injunction within Islamic law
that would prohibit execution of prisoners. Indeed, Zarqawi has commented
that he would "accept comments from ulema regarding whether his killing
operations are permitted or forbidden according to Islam—provided that the
ulema are not connected to a regime and are offering opinions out of
personal conviction, and not to please their rulers"
Islamist beheadings may be condemned by the imam of the great mosque of
Mecca and by religious leaders in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon,
but like self-styled mahdis throughout Islamic history, Zarqawi and Islamist
terrorists simply dismiss these fatwas (religious rulings) as empty
rhetoric from lackey regimes. Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda is also on record
as supporting beheadings, including that of at least one Egyptian worker in
Iraq whom they classified as a "nonbeliever" by virtue of his citizenship in
an apostate regime, as well as his presumed approval of the U.S. actions in
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.
Islamic civilization is not a
historical anomaly in its sanction of decapitation.
The Roman Empire beheaded citizens (such as the Christian Saint Paul) while
they crucified noncitizens (such as Jesus Christ). French revolutionaries
employed the guillotine to decapitate opponents. Nevertheless, 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. Zarqawi 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.
is assistant professor of history at Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta.
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Yusuf ‘Ali, The Meaning of the Glorious Qur'an,
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 Paul Fregosi, Jihad in
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 Derryl N. MacLean, "La
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 P.M. Holt,
Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd ed. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1960-2002),
s.v. "Al-Mahdiyya." The Sudanese Mahdi's writings have been published in
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 Byron Farwell,
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 Hamit Bozarslan, "Le
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 Sura al-Kahf 18:16-27;
Holt, Encyclopedia of Islam, s.v. "Ashab al-Kahf"; Yusuf ‘Ali, The
Meaning of the Glorious Qur'an, vol. 1, p. 730, note 2337.
 The Atlanta
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 Ibid., June 27, 2004.
 Joseph A. Kechichian, "Islamic
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Saudi People,'" The Muslim World (Hartford Seminary), Jan.
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 "Al-Zarqawi Associate:
Al-Zarqawi Unconnected to Al-Qa'ida,
Seeks to Expand Fighting to Entire Region," Middle East Media Research
Institute (MEMRI), Sept. 23, 2004.
 The Wall Street
Journal, Sept. 3, 2004.
Magazine: ‘O Sheikh of the
Slaughterers, Abu Mus'ab
al-Zarqawi, Go Forth in the Straight Path, Guided by Allah,"
MEMRI, Oct. 12, 2004.
ABCNews.com, Aug. 11,