Beheading in Islam

Beheading was a standard method of execution in pre-modern Islamic law, as well as in pre-modern European law. Its use had been abandoned in most countries by the end of the 20th century. Currently, it is used only in Saudi Arabia. It also remains a legal method of execution in Iran, Qatar and Yemen, where it is no longer in use.

In recent times, non-state Jihadist organization such as ISIL and Tawhid and Jihad use or have used beheadings. Since 2002, they have circulated beheading videos as a form of terror and propaganda.[1][2] Their actions have been condemned by other militant and terrorist groups, and well as by mainstream Islamic scholars and organizations.[3][4][5][6]

Beheading: background and context

Main article: Decapitation

The use of beheading for punishment continued well-into the 20th century in both Islamic and non-Islamic nations.[7][8] When done properly, it was once considered a humane and honorable method of execution.

Beheading in Islamic scripture

Two surahs which refer to "smiting the neck" of enemies are cited by the terrorists who argue that the Quran commands beheading:[9]

When the Lord inspired the angels (saying) I am with you. So make those who believe stand firm. I will throw fear into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Then smite the necks and smite of them each finger.[10]
Now when ye meet in battle those who disbelieve, then it is smiting of the necks until, when ye have routed them, making fast of bonds; and afterward either grace or ransom 'til the war lay down its burdens.[11]

Scholars disagree about whether these surah refer specifically to beheading, but they are in agreement that they refer to killing the enemy by striking at the neck.[9] Terrorists who use them to justify beheadings take them out of context.[9] Surah 47:4 goes on to recommend generosity or ransom when waging war.[9] Furthermore, it refers to a period when Muslims were persecuted and had to fight for their survival.[9]

Justification for beheading has also been drawn from the Siras and Hadiths. In one account, Muhammad is said to have ordered the beheading of at least six hundred males from the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe,[9] while another states that he was merely present and watched the beheadings and mass burial.[9] There is no agreement among scholars as to the historical accuracy of this and similar accounts from the life of Muhammad.[9]

Beheading in Islamic law

Beheading was the normal method of executing the death penalty under classical Islamic law.[12][1] It was also, together with hanging, one of the ordinary methods of execution in the Ottoman Empire.[13]

Currently, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world which uses decapitation within its Islamic legal system.[14] The majority of executions carried out by the Wahhabi government of Saudi Arabia are public beheadings,[15][16] which usually cause mass gatherings but are not allowed to be photographed or filmed.[17]

Beheading is reported to have been carried out by state authorities in Iran as recently as 2001,[14][18][19] but as of 2014 is no longer in use.[18] It is also a legal form of execution in Qatar and Yemen, but the punishment has been suspended in those countries.[14][14][20]

Historical occurrences

Modern use by non-state actors

Modern instances of Islamist beheading date at least to the First Chechen War (1994–96), and to the beheading of Yevgeny Rodionov, a Russian soldier who refused to convert to Islam, whose subsequent beheading has led some within the Russian Orthodox Church to venerate him as a martyr.[26]

The 2002 beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl by Al-Qaeda member Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Pakistan drew international attention enhanced by the release of a beheading video.[27]

Jihadist organization such as ISIL and Tawhid and Jihad use or have used beheadings. Since 2002, they have been mass circulating beheading videos as a form of terror and propaganda.[1][2]

Beheadings have emerged as a terror tactic in Iraq since 2003.[28] Civilians have borne the brunt of the beheadings, although U.S. and Iraqi military personnel have also been targeted. After kidnapping the victim, the kidnappers typically make some sort of demand of the government of the hostage's nation and give a time limit for the demand to be carried out, often 72 hours. Beheading is often threatened if the government fails to heed the wishes of the hostage takers. Frequently the crude beheadings are videotaped and made available on the Internet. One of the most publicized murders of an American was that of Nick Berg.[29][30][31]

Since 2004 insurgents in South Thailand began to sow fear in attacks where men and women of the local Buddhist minority were beheaded.[32] On 18 July 2005 two militants entered a teashop in South Thailand, shot Lek Pongpla, a Buddhist cloth vendor, beheaded him and left the head outside of the shop.[33]

According to Peter R. Neumann, Director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King's College London, viral beheading videos are intended, and are at least somewhat effective, as a recruiting tool for jihad among both Western and Middle Eastern youth.[34][35] Other observers argue that while Al Qaeda initially used beheading as a publicity tool, it later decided that they caused Muslims to recoil from Islamism and that although ISIS/IS is enthusiastically deploying beheading as a tactic in 2014, it, too, may find that the tactic backfires.[36] Timothy R. Furnish, as Assistant Professor of Islamic History, contrasts the Saudi government executions, conforming to standards that minimize pain, with the non-state actors who have "chosen a slow, torturous sawing method to terrorize the Western audience."[37]

ISIL beheading incidents

In January 2015, a copy of an ISIL penal code surfaced describing the penalties it enforces in areas under its control, including beheadings.[38] Beheading videos have been frequently posted by ISIL members to social media.[39][40] Several of the videoed beheadings were conducted by Mohammed Emwazi, whom the media had referred to as "Jihadi John" before his identification.

The beheadings received wide coverage around the world and attracted international condemnation. Political scientist Max Abrahms posited that ISIL may be using well-publicized beheadings as a means of differentiating itself from Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and identifying itself with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the al-Qaeda member who beheaded Daniel Pearl.[41] The publicised beheadings represent a small proportion of a larger total of people killed following capture by ISIL.[42]

Condemnation by Muslims

Mainstream Islamic scholars and organizations around the world, as well as militant and terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Al-Qaeda have condemned the practice.[3][4][5][6]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 Sara Hussein and Rita Daou (3 September 2014). "Jihadists beheadings sow fear, prompt Muslim revulsion". Yahoo! News. AFP. Retrieved 3 September 2014.
  2. 1 2 James Watson, Anne Hill (2015). Dictionary of Media and Communication Studies. Bloomsbury Publishing USA. p. 325.
  3. 1 2 "Muslim World Reacts To ISIS Brutal Tactics, Beheading Of US Journalist James Foley". International Business Times. 22 August 2014. Retrieved November 24, 2014.
  4. 1 2 Alia Brahami (2010). Sibylle Scheipers, ed. Terrorist Beheadings: Politics and Reciprocity. Prisoners in War. Oxford University Press. p. 551.
  5. 1 2 "Hezbollah, Hamas denounce beheadings". Associated Press/NBC News. May 13, 2004. Retrieved August 10, 2016.
  6. 1 2 "Even al-Qaeda denounced beheading videos. Why the Islamic State brought them back". Associated Press/NBC News. August 22, 2014. Retrieved August 10, 2016.
  7. Cliff Roberson, Dilip K. Das (2008). An Introduction to Comparative Legal Models of Criminal Justice. CRC Press. p. 156.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Rachel Saloom (2005), "Is Beheading Permissible under Islamic Law – Comparing Terrorist Jihad and the Saudi Arabian Death Penalty", UCLA Journal of International Law and Foreign Affairs, vol. 10, pp. 221–49.
  10. Surah 8:12.
  11. Surah 47:4.
  12. Rudolph Peters (2006). Crime and Punishment in Islamic Law: Theory and Practice from the Sixteenth to the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge University Press. p. 36.
  13. Rudolph Peters (2006). Crime and Punishment in Islamic Law: Theory and Practice from the Sixteenth to the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge University Press. p. 101.
  14. 1 2 3 4 Hood, Roger; Hoyle, Carolyn (2015). The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective. Oxford University Press. p. 178. ISBN 978-0-19-870173-6.
  15. Janine di Giovanni, "When It Comes to Beheadings, ISIS has Nothing Over Saudi Arabia", Newsweek, 14 October 2014.
  16. Russell Goldman, "Saudi Arabia's Beheading of a Nanny Followed Strict Procedures",, 11 January 2013.
  17. Justine Drennen (January 20, 2015). "Saudi Arabia's Beheadings Are Public, but It Doesn't Want Them Publicized". Foreign Policy Magazine.
  18. 1 2 "Death Penalty Database: Iran",, Cornell Law School, accessed 13 June 2016.
  19. "Iran / death penalty A state terror policy" (PDF). International Federation for Human Rights. 16 March 2010. p. 38. Retrieved 5 April 2016.
  20. Kronenwetter, Michael. Capital Punishment: A Reference Handbook. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781576074329.
  21. Alfred Guillaume (1955). The Life of Muhammad. Oxford University Press. p. 752. ISBN 0-1963-6033-1.
  22. Newman, Sharan (2007). The Real History Behind the Templars. Penguin. p. 133. ISBN 0425215334.
  23. Bunson, Matthew. "How the 800 Martyrs of Otranto Saved Rome". Catholic Answers. Retrieved 11 February 2012.
  24. Nancy Bisaha (2004). Creating East And West: Renaissance Humanists And the Ottoman Turks. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 158. Recently, though, historians have begun to question the veracity of these tales of mass slaughter and martyrdom. Francesco Tateo argues that the earliest contemporary sources do not support the story of the eight hundred martyrs; such tales of religious persecution and conscious self-sacrifice for the Christian faith appeared only two or more decades following the siege. The earliest and most reliable sources describe the execution of eight hundred to one thousand soldiers or citizens and the local bishop, but none mention a conversion as a condition of clemency. Even more telling, neither a contemporary Turkish chronicle nor Italian diplomatic reports mention martyrdom. One would imagine that if such a report were circulating, humanists and preachers would have seized on it. It seems likely that more inhabitants of Otranto were taken out of Italy and sold into slavery than were slaughtered.
  25. Byron Farwell, Prisoners of the Mahdi (New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989), pp. 156-7.
  26. "Boy soldier who died for faith made 'saint'", The Daily Telegraph, 24 January 2004.
  27. "Online NewsHour Update: Pakistan Convicts Four Men in Pearl Murder". 15 July 2002. Retrieved 26 September 2013.
  28. "The Terrorist as Auteur"
  29. Anthony, Augustine (23 May 2011). "Study ties new al Qaeda chief to murder of journalist Pearl". Reuters. Retrieved 4 February 2013.
  30. Mount, Mike (15 March 2007). "Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: I beheaded American reporter". Cable News Network. Retrieved 24 March 2013.
  31. "Al-Qaida No. 3 says he planned 9/11, other plots". MSNBC. Associated Press. 15 March 2007. Retrieved 4 February 2013.
  32. "Reuters - Thai Buddhist beheaded, another shot in Muslim south". Reuters. Retrieved 28 November 2014.
  33. Beheadings Raise Tensions in Thailand
  34. From Daniel Pearl to James Foley: The modern tactic of Islamist beheadings, Adam Taylor, 21 August 2014, Washington Post/Chicago Tribune.
  35. Islamic State steps up propaganda videos, beheading another captive, Videotaped atrocities in an attempt to spread fear are nothing new for IS. But it appears to be stepping up its propaganda as world powers start to engage in halting its spread, Dan Murphy, 29 August 2014, Christian Science Monitor.
  36. Why Beheading Videos Are Back With ISIS, and Why They Went Away, Katie Zavadski, 21 August 2014, New York Magazine.
  37. Timothy R. Furnish (2005). "Beheading in the Name of Islam". Middle East Quarterly. 12 (2): 51–57.
  38. Saul, Heather (January 22, 2015). "Isis publishes penal code listing amputation, crucifixion and stoning as punishments - and vows to vigilantly enforce it". The Independent. London.
  39. "Staffer, Crisis, and Jake Hume. "Balance of Powers: Syria." (2014)." (PDF). Retrieved 2015-03-04.
  40. "Celso, Anthony N. "Jihadist Organizational Failure and Regeneration: the Transcendental Role of Takfiri Violence."" (PDF). Retrieved 2015-03-04.
  41. Taylor, Adam (21 August 2014). "From Daniel Pearl to James Foley: The modern tactic of Islamist beheadings". Chicago Tribune. Archived from the original on 21 September 2014. Retrieved September 21, 2014.
  42. Cumming-Bruce, Nick (2 October 2014). "5,500 Iraqis Killed Since Islamic State Began Its Military Drive, U.N. Says". The New York Times. Retrieved 16 August 2015.
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