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Does Islam Condone Beheadings?

Lately, losing one’s head for Islam has most appropriately referred to livid, murderous mobs in Afghanistan and Pakistan who, unfortunately, took at face value Newsweek and its false story of American interrogators’ desecration of the Qur’an at Gitmo. Lest we forget, however—since it hasn’t happened for some months—there is a much more literal and horrific sense in which someone can lose his head for Islam, particularly if he is non-Muslim. Between the spring of 2003 and the fall of 2004, dozens (mostly non-Muslim, but also some Turks and at least one Egyptian) were decapitated in Iraq and Saudi Arabia by Islamists. Perhaps we have seen the last of such brutality. But more than likely, we have not—for beheading has a long pedigree in Islam, both religious and historical.

For the last several years, commentators (both Muslim and non-Muslim) have tried to whitewash decapitation, claiming either that it was un-Qur’anic1 or that it was a misrepresentation of Islam2 (or both). Western, particularly American, journalists have seized on these pronouncements and disseminated them willy-nilly, never stopping to actually check them against the Qur’an and against Islamic history. Doing so reveals the vacuuity—indeed, the outright mendacity—of the claims that beheading is unIslamic.

Two passages in the Qur’an enjoin decapitating opponents of Islam. Sura 47 [Muhammad]:3 says “When you encounter the unbelievers on the battlefield, strike off their heads until you have crushed them completely; then bind the [surviving] prisoners tightly.” Sura 8 [al-Anfal]:12 states “I will cast dread into the hearts of the unbelievers. Strike off their heads, then, and strike off all of their fingertips.” Now without delving into a long discussion of Qur’anic exegesis, it is only fair to acknowledge that these passages should be read against others in the Muslim scriptures that are more pacific3 (as is done with the violent passages in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament). But that said, the most prominent Muslim Qur’an commentators over the centuries have by-and-large accepted these passages at face value.4 That is, they mean—as `Abdullah Yusuf `Ali put it in his Qur’anic commentary—“you cannot wage war with kid gloves.”5 One might also gloss these passages as only applying to Muhammad’s time and not to today,6 a view that is in vogue among Westerners (both liberal Christian and ardently secular) but that rarely shows up in Muslim commentary on these passages. And it is obvious that the majority of the world’s Muslims do not take this passage any more literally than do most Jews the Levitical code7 or most Christians Jesus’ granting of authority over poison snakes.8 However, just as there is a minority of Jews that tries to live by the Levitical code and a minority of Christians that tries to handle deadly serpents,9 there is undeniably a minority of Muslims that advocates, and practices, beheading of “unbelievers.” But since Christianity and Islam are so much larger than Judaism (2 billion and 1.3 billion, respectively, as compared to about 15 million), a small percentage of those can amount to large numbers, in real terms.

And the Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawis of the world can cite not only the Qur’an, but Islamic historical precedent, on their behalf. The Prophet himself ordered opponents—700 Jewish members of the Banu Qurayzah tribe in Medina—beheaded.10 In 680 CE the Shi`i leader Husayn, the son of `Ali (the closest surviving male relative of Muhammad) was beheaded after losing an internecine struggle with the Sunni Umayyads. The al-Murabit (Almoravid) caliphs beheaded tens of thousands of Christians (admittedly many of them knights and soldiers) in the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa during their reign from 1056-1147 CE. Likewise for the Muslim state that conquered and succeeded them, the al-Muwahhids (Almohads). Ruling North Africa and Iberia from 1130-1269 CE, the Muwahhids decapited not only Christian but Muslim opponents. Even the great—and famously tolerant (at least for his time)—Salah al-Din, who retook Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187, was not above detaching his enemies from their heads. (Of course, if any Crusader justly deserved such a fate, it was the obnoxious, vile and violent Reynauld de Chatillion.) The largest and longest-lived Islamic empire of all time, that of the Ottoman Turks, was also the most enamored of decapitions.11 The Ottomans beheaded Serbs after the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 and Hungarians—including their King, Ladislaus—after the Battle of Varna in 1444. It is said that after taking Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II send the dead Byzantine Emperor’s severed head on tour. A few years later, the Ottoman Grand Mufti (the highest religious authority) was allowed to personally decapitate King Stephen of Bosnia and his sons.

Beheading of the enemies of Islam—both Muslim and non-Muslim—often is done by self-declared Mahdis. The Mahdi, “the rightly-guided one,” in Islam is an eschatological figure that comes toward the end of time (along with the returned prophet Jesus) to make the entire planet one Islamic caliphate. Over the centuries, a number of Muslim revolutionary holy men have declared themselves the Mahdi.12 And such leaders are often proponents of decapitation. The most prominent example is that of Muhammad Ahmad of Sudan, who declared himself the Mahdi in 1880, started a jihad against the Ottomans, Egyptians and Brits in Sudan, and by 1885 took over the country. Opponents—most famously, General Charles Gordon—were often beheaded.

Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, the Islamic state that most prominently still practices the policy of decapitation is the Kingdom of Sa`udi Arabia. At least 1,000 malefactors have been killed in this fashion there in the last two decades13 focbr offenses running the gamut from drugs, to apostasy to homosexuality. In an ironic, if bloody, turning of the tables on a self-declared Mahdi, the Sa`udis beheaded Juhayman al-`Utaybi and his supporters after they tried to overthrow the government in 1979 in the name of the Mahdi (said to have been al-`Utaybi’s brother-in-law, Muhammad b. `Abd Allah al-Qahtani). At least the Sa`udis, when they behead, have it done quickly with a large sword—quite unlike the method employed to kill the likes of Nicholas Berg and other Americans by Islamists in Iraq and Sa`udi Arabia.

Al-Zarqawi and the other Islamic fundamentalists who behead “infidels” do so because they consider all extant Muslim governments to be illegitimate and because their reading of both the Qur’an and Islamic history gives them a license to decapitate. Any fatwas from Muslim authorities branding beheadings as “unIslamic” are dismissed out of hand by al-Zarqawi and his ilk. Western scholars and commentators can argue till they’re blue in the face that beheading is “unIslamic,” but that doesn’t deter the Islamists one bit. And looking at the Qur’an and the arc of Islamic history, who can say the Islamists are wrong?


This article is a reworking of my densely-sourced article “Beheading in the Name of Islam,” Middle East Quarterly, XII, 2 (Spring 2005), pp. 51-57. Herein I will provide only what I consider to be essential citations.

1 Imam Muhammad Adam al-Sheikhy, imam of the Dar al-Hijrah Mosque, Falls Church, VA, quoted in “ USA Today,” June 30, 2004.

2 Asma Afasaruddin, associate professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies, University of Notre Dame, quoted in “The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,” June 26, 2004; Council on American-Islamic Relations, quoted in a news release “U.S. Muslims Condemn Beheadings,” U.S. Embassy, Islamabad, Pakistan, June 25, 2004.

3 For example, Sura 5 [al-Ma’idah]:65ff: “If the People of the Book [Jews and Christians]….observe the Torah and the Gospel and what is revealed to them from their Lord, they shall enjoy abundance from above and from beneath. There are some among them who are righteous men; but there are many among them who do nothing but evil.”

4 In medieval times, Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari (d. 923 CE) and Mahmud b. Umar al-Zamakhshari (d. 1143 CE), for example. In more modern times, `Abdullah Yusuf `Ali (d. 1953).

5 In The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an. Text, Translation and Commentary. Vol. II (Cairo: Dar al-Kitab al-Masri, 1934), p. 1378, note 4820.

6 As does Muhammad M. Khatib, The Bounteous Koran [sic]. A Translation of Meaning and Commentary (London: MacMillan Press, 1984), p. 673, note 3.

7 Leviticus 18-20.

8 Mark 16:18; Luke 10:19;

9 I grew up in rural Kentucky knowing some members of these “snake-handler” churches. Needless to say, their numbers are small.

10 This is according to Ibn Ishaq (d. 768 CE) the earliest biographer of Muhammad: `Abd al-Malik Ibn Hisham, The Life of Muhammad: a Translation of Ishaq’s “Sirat Rasul,” introduction and notes by A. Guillaume (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2004 [reprint of the 1955 edition]), pp. 461ff; `Abad al-Malik Ibn Hisham, al-Sirah al-Nabawiyah, vol. 3, Mustafa al-Saqqa and Ibrahim al-Hafiz Shalabi, eds. (Cairo: Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi, 1936), pp. 251ff.

11 See Paul Fregosi, Jihad in the West: Muslims Conquests from the Seventh to the Twenty-first Centuries (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998), especially pp. 187-374, for examples.

12 These movements are the topic of my forthcoming book Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, their Jihads and Osama bin Laden ( Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2005).

13 “The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,” June 27, 2004.