Beheading in Islam
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Beheading was a standard method of execution in pre-modern Islamic law, similarly to 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 Qatar, Yemen, and was reportedly used in 2001 in Iran according to Amnesty International, where it is no longer in use.
In recent times, non-state Jihadist organizations such as ISIL and Tawhid and Jihad have used beheading as a method of killing captives. Since 2002, they have circulated beheading videos as a form of terror and propaganda. Their actions have been condemned by other militant and terrorist groups, as well as by mainstream Islamic scholars and organizations.
Beheading: background and context
The use of beheading for punishment continued well-into the 20th century in both Islamic and non-Islamic nations. When done properly, it was once considered a humane and honorable method of execution.
Beheading in Islamic scripture
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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. (8:12)
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. (47:4)
Among classical commentators, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi interprets the last sentence of 8:12 to mean striking at the enemies in any way possible, from their head to the tips of their extremities. Al-Qurtubi reads the reference to striking at the necks as conveying the gravity and severity of the fighting. For al-Qurtubi, al-Tabari, and Ibn Kathir, the expression indicates the brevity of the act, as it is confined to battle and is not a continuous command.
Some commentators have suggested that terrorists use alternative interpretations of these surahs to justify beheading captives, however there is agreement among scholars that they have a different meaning. Furthermore, according to Rachel Saloom, surah 47:4 goes on to recommend generosity or ransom when waging war, and it refers to a period when Muslims were persecuted and had to fight for their survival.
Beheading in Islamic law
Beheading was the normal method of executing the death penalty under classical Islamic law. It was also, together with hanging, one of the ordinary methods of execution in the Ottoman Empire.
Currently, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world which uses decapitation within its Islamic legal system. The majority of executions carried out by the Wahhabi government of Saudi Arabia are public beheadings, which usually cause mass gatherings but are not allowed to be photographed or filmed.
According to Amnesty, beheading have been carried out by state authorities in Iran as recently as 2001, but as of 2014 is no longer in use. It is also a legal form of execution in Qatar and Yemen, but the punishment has been suspended in those countries.
- Execution of the men of Banu Qurayza for an alleged treaty violation, with several hundred killed in 627.
- Saladin personally beheaded Raynald of Châtillon, a Christian knight who served in the Second Crusade and organized attacks against Islam's two holiest cities after the Battle of Hattin (1187).
- Forces of the Ottoman Empire invaded and laid siege to the city of Otranto and its citadel in 1480. According to a traditional account, after capture, more than 800 of its inhabitants – who refused to convert to Islam – were beheaded. They are known as the "Martyrs of Otranto". Historicity of this account has been questioned by modern scholars.
- Muhammad Ahmad declared himself Mahdi in 1880 and led Jihad against the Ottoman Empire and their British allies. He and his followers beheaded opponents, Christian and Muslim alike including the British general Charles Gordon.
Modern use by non-state actors
Modern instances of Islamist beheading date at least to the 1990s. In First Chechen War (1994–96), the beheading of Yevgeny Rodionov, a Russian soldier who refused to convert to Islam, led some within the Russian Orthodox Church to venerate him as a martyr. In 1997, the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria beheaded 80-200 villagers in Benthalia.
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. Revulsion in the Muslim community led al Qaeda to abandon video beheadings. Groups in Iraq led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Tawhid and Jihad and later ISIL, continued the practice. Since 2002, they have been mass circulating beheading videos as a form of terror and propaganda. One of al-Zarqawi's most publicized murders was that of American Nick Berg.
Since 2004 insurgents in South Thailand began to sow fear in attacks where men and women of the local Buddhist minority were beheaded. 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. The founder of a Bridges TV, Muslim cable channel in New York city that aimed to combat negative perceptions of Muslims that were allegedly dominating mainstream media coverage, beheaded his wife in 2009 in the offices of Bridges TV.
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. 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. 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."
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. Beheading videos have been frequently posted by ISIL members to social media. 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. Beheadings represent a small proportion of a larger total of people killed following capture by ISIL.
Condemnation by Muslims
Impact on war coverage
Some analysts have argued that the beheadings of journalists and aid workers, along with other abductions and executions of independent observers in Syrian war zones, have forced international media to rely exclusively on reporting which is directly or indirectly influenced by rebel and opposition groups and in this way allowed the latter to dictate the coverage of events in areas under their control.
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- 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.
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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.
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