Does Islam Condone Beheadings?

News Abroad

Mr. Furnish, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor, History, Georgia Perimeter College; Ph.D., Islamic History; M.A., Church History.

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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.

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More Comments:

first Last - 1/18/2010

I am a Muslim and I do NOT support beheadings, stonings or any injustice towards my fellow man...so to say that all Muslims support such atrocities is a statement rooted in bigotry. Either way, bless you.

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

Starting with a false premise :"....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" Dr Furnish charges ahead!

For one thing was it "Newsweek and its false story " or is it that the Pentagon could not but confirm at least FIVE cases of desecration?
The question asked in the title "Does Islam Condone Beheadings?" is as inane and as loaded with ill will as any of the following questions:
-Does Christianity condone burning at the stake , nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
-Does Judaism condone Deir Yassin, Bahr El Bkkar and Qana?

Equally inane , and loaded with more ill will, is the assertion:"there is a much more literal and horrific sense in which someone can lose his head for Islam, particularly if he is non-Muslim".
"...for Islam "??
It would be redundant, but unfortunately it is inevitable in this context, to confirm that the actions of certain men do not speak for a religion they profess!
I will go further and contend that even the actions of a duly elected government, as distinct from "certain men", enjoying the support of millions and millions of its citizens DO NOT speak for the religion(s) of that nation; Christianity and Judaism re Hiroshima and Nagasaki!
However it the ceaseless efforts of people on the stage, like Furnish and Pipes , and in the gallery, like Moshe, Friedman and Simon, to demonize Islam that poses a basic question: "what is it they hope to achieve?"
Apart from intensifying the hatred of the general American public of Islam and Moslems thus unconsciously increasing their support for Israel to the ulterior loss of the USA, which will be duly and heartily reciprocated by the 1.5 billion Moslem community, what do they expect to achieve?

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

To Professor Furnish
-Does Christianity condone burning at the stake , nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
-Does Judaism condone Deir Yassin, Bahr El Bkkar and Qana?

For a "professor" to answer a question with a question while refraining from giving an answer is somewhat bizzare but not untypical of those among them to whom "educating" comes second or third in importance!
Nevertheless , to quench Proeessor Furnish's thirst for knowledge, I answer with a YES to his second and third questions with a qualification on the second about "...going back to Muhammad," in which I say " I really do not know for a historical fact whether it was practiceed ( the beheading) or not in Muhammed's time !
However since Professor Furnish seems to know; I would be grateful if he tells me was it documented as a historical fact and where.
Still the BIG question is the first in Professor Furnish's awesome set of three questions; the first two being infantile:
"Does the Qur'an sanction beheading unbelievers or not?"
The answer here is that no one in Islam can answer unequivocally for what the Koran sanctions or does not sanction!
Hopefully Professor Furnish knows that Islam has no Pope in it nor a grand rabbi with the authority to speak "officially" and conclusively for Islam !
So my answer is bound to be "it depends on the reader of the Koran" to say whether the Koran sanctions beheading or not.
Of one thing I am certain:there will be a multitude and a diversity of answers.
Having, to the best of my ability, answered Professor Furnish' s three questions; dare I hope that he, being a Professor is duty bound, to answer my naive question:
" what do they expect to achieve? "

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

Mr Friedman
All sorts of sophistry, perverted interpretations and justications could be used for cheap political purposes including insinuation ..as in your inane statement:"Moreover, studying Islamic culture is worthwhile since Muslims in the name of Islam, not Christians in the name of Christianity, are engaged in a "holy war."
If I recall correctly the Crusades were a "holy war"waged in the name of Christianity and you, the know all, would recall what happened in the conquest of Jerusalem in the first Crusade to both Moslems and Jews!
Still we refuse to consider that the slaughter that took place then was done in the name of Christianity..With fellow Arab Christians living with and among us we knew better that it was not!
As a matter of fact the name "Crusades"and its derivatives is the name given to it and used solely by the invaders.
For the Arabs it was correctly known and chronicled as "hurub al farangah" ; wars of/with the Franks.

Has not Christianity been often used by Christians in the name of Christianity to foment anti Semitism?
Can we have some of your bottomless erudition on that!

The same ,of course, does not apply to Deir Yassin ,Bahr el Bakkar and Qana, inter alia, all being part and parcel of the ideological dictates of Zionist dogma and a true reflection of its real nature!

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

"1) Does Islam condone beheading?
The answer to (1) is yes,"
is a hasty unconsidered response, I sincerely hope you are not going the Ajami way.
It is not a popularity contest..!

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

That is a real pity..I hope you will reconsider...you are too good for that.
I mean it
Best bof luck

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

This article poses two distinct questions but only answers the first one:

1) Does Islam condone beheading?
2) Is there Islamic justification for Abu Musab al Zarqawi's beheadings?

The answer to (1) is yes, but (1) does not by itself provide an answer to (2), and no convincing answer to (2) is given here.

The passages in the Qur'an that enjoin decapitating do so in a context that is very different from that of the Iraqi insurgency, and one would need to provide a plausible qiyas-based account to forge the link between the two things. I'm not excluding the possibility that it can be done, but it hasn't been done here. Absent a "long discussion of Quranic exegesis," there is no way to discuss that issue, but that is precisely what Furnish hasn't...furnished (sorry, couldn't resist that).

Bottom line: case unproven, at least for now. But Furnish is probably right to say that it's harder to get Islam off the hook for what the insurgency is doing than many Muslim reformists think.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Oh, but I am going the Ajami way. I sold out a long time ago, Omar. I basically write for applause, nothing more. I leave intellectual integrity to people like you.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Don't have time right now, but I'll discuss this on my HNN blog ("Theory & Practice") sometime this week.

David L. Pompili - 10/2/2005

Yes indeed ! Yor nebulous interpretatiom of the Muslim practices indicate that you have no idea what you are talking about.

Keith Harrison - 7/9/2005

Um, that's what I just said. Or did you not mean to reply to me?

N. Friedman - 6/12/2005


You can, in fact, find people who will say anything about Islam. In this case, however, you will find, if you read some of the major scholars of Islam, that what Professor Furnish says is traditional Islam.

I suggest you go to the library and pick up a copy of Ignaz Goldhizer's Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law. He is as respectful of Islam as any scholar who ever lived - without, that is, losing his effort at objectivity -. And, in his time, he was the world's leading Islamicist. His writing and scholarship has held up very well over time - with few exceptions where further discoveries have been made -.

As deferential as he is to Islam - and he is not quite an apologist but pretty close -, he notes the role of Jihad in Islam as a means for conquest. He notes that Jihad has rules, etc., etc. While he does not set forth the rules for executing people by cutting of their heads, he does explain the rule of violence in Islam rather clearly so that you can tell rather clearly that Professor Furnish has to be correct.

In fact, unless you read a mere apologist, you will find that Furnish is quite correct.

Michael Barnes Thomin - 6/12/2005


Tim R. Furnish - 6/12/2005

Mr. Pompili,
To quote DeNiro, "you talking to me?"
Tim Furnish

David L. Pompili - 6/12/2005

I notice a lot of fingerpointing by a "learned" professor who apparently is trying to diminish the fact that the beheadings have and are occurring. I am not surprised at this ducking and dodging tactic as I have seen it used mny times here in America and in the middle east where I spent over a year and a half as a civilian.I don't think there is even a median solution to the fanaticism that is taking place. Muslims killing Muslims ? Are these victims Kaffirs ? I think not.

N. Friedman - 6/10/2005

Actually, Islam is rather communal in nature, not individualistic. Hence, the ummah (i.e. national or people of Islam, considered collectively). On the other hand, Islam has, over the years, been rather willing to permit considerable divergence of opinion regarding belief. On the other hand, Islamic law applies communally, not according to preference.

Keith Harrison - 6/10/2005

> What is and is not "Islamic" is a highly individualised
> process. Contrary to what many believe, religion is an
> individualistic practice that is not ultimately
> communitarian in any way, since everyone has different
> interpretations of what is and is not "Islamic.

You really should precede this with "in my 'highly individualised' opinion." Because I'd love to see you try to persuade the average Islamist that his religion - explicitly stated as societal as well as personal in its nature, was ultimately down to individual interpretation. The 'gates of interpretation' - the ijtihad - are closed in Sunni Islam.

Even in that wooliest, most individualistic of religious institutions, the Church of England, you'd be hard-pressed to find a bishop who'd state that sawing peoples' heads off with a knife a la Zarqawi is very much down to the conscience of the individual believer. There are rules on these sorts of things.

Keith Harrison - 6/10/2005

> For a "professor" to answer a question with a question
> while refraining from giving an answer is somewhat
> bizzare but not untypical of those among them to
> whom "educating" comes second or third in importance!

If only you had been around to correct Socrates in his error. Oh brave new world, to have such people in it!


P.S. Just as a side note, I don't know if you noticed, but Christians don't burn people at the stake any more: we gave it up for Lent one year, a few centuries ago, and it just seemed to lose its pzazz after that. OTOH, slowly sawing peoples' heads off with knives has the full backing of the Wahabbis, and a number of supportive fatwas justifying the practice. Allah may be merciful, but that doesn't seem to help captured aid workers.

N. Friedman - 6/6/2005


Talk about Islam has become so politicized that matters about which there could be no debate become matters of earnest dispute - between those with some knowledge and those who speak nonsense -.

Tim R. Furnish - 6/6/2005

Well, that does seems rather obvious--but then an awful lot of folks on here seem to resist the obvious.

N. Friedman - 6/6/2005


In that the Qur'anic provision is rather clear and since there are regulations for beheadings in Shari'a, it is rather difficult to imagine that a serious scholar can assert that beheadings are anything other than positively enjoined in appropriate circumstances. The issue, of course, is whether the current circumstances are, in fact, appropriate, not whether Islam is supportive of beheading - it surely is.

N. Friedman - 6/6/2005


Your point is well taken. I am not sure I would say it proven that most people approve. On the other hand, Chris' assertion Muslims or Arab Muslims do not often believe in beheadings is also a positive assertion which requires proof. So, what we have are a lot of unproven assertions.

On the other hand, there is very good circumstantial evidence showing that a rather large portion of the Arab regions are not much bothered by beheadings. And historically speaking, beheadings are not uncommon in Islam, particularly in connection with war. So, it is reasonable to assert that beheadings have fairly wide support in the Arab regions.

Tim R. Furnish - 6/6/2005

No, sir, the entire point of my article was clearly whether decapitation itself--however swiftly, slowly, cleanly or horribly done--has a basis in Islamic doctrine and history. I think I demonstrated that it did.
When you Brits separated Charles' noggin from his body, or the French did likewise to Louis, no one was claiming Biblical sanction for it. That's the difference between Cromwell's and Robespierre's folks on one hand, and the followers of al-Zarqawi and others today.
I wish I could find contemporary commentators on the Qur'an who reject--or at least allegoricize--the relevant Qur'anic verses, but I have so far only found one (M.M. Khatib, "The Bounteous Koran. A Translation of Meaning and Commentary," London: MacMillan, 1984, p. 673, note 3) that says the passages apply only to the Prophet's time. The others that I have consulted either totally ignore these passages--thus assenting, I would argue--or, like Yusuf Ali, support them as still in effect.

Graham Charles Lester - 6/6/2005

To quote your penultimate paragraph:

"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."

Surely the crucial point is not whether decapitation is Islamic but whether the particularly cruel and barbaric method of decapitation used by the likes of Al-Zarqawi is Islamic.

We Brits decapitated a king not too many generations ago, and the French were decapitating people well into the last century. At the time of Muhammad, beheading was probably the most humane form of execution available. It could be argued that a swift beheading is more humane than electrocution.

It seems to me that a more germane question is: Do the majority of contemporary commentators on the Qu'ran think that it supports swift executions or deliberately drawn out and painful ones?

Derek Charles Catsam - 6/6/2005

I will say this in Chris' favor -- I think the burden of proof is on someone asserting that the majority of people do support beheadings, not to prove the negative that people do not. especially since the assertion is a pretty harsh one. In other words, to say that most muslims do support beheadings is a pretty big accusation. The burden ought to be on the person asserting such a thing to prove it. Otherwise, couldn't anyone make such assertions and simply say "prove that it is not true."
Most men support rape -- disprove it. Most women support child beating. Disprove it. Most people named Friedman wet their beds. Disprove it. Etc. You get my point. The affirmative assertion is the one that needs evidence and bears the burden of proof.


Tim R. Furnish - 6/6/2005

Good enough! Thanks.

N. Friedman - 6/6/2005

In my last comment, there is an error in the sentence that reads: I note that Bernard Lewis claims that acts like 9/11 - which he interprets as an unprovoked attack with no prior warning (against the injunction to send a letter to the infidel advising them of the benefits of Islam and what will occur if they do not convert or allow Muslim rule) -.

The sentence should read: I note that Bernard Lewis claims that acts like 9/11 - which he interprets as an unprovoked attack with no prior warning (against the injunction to send a letter to the infidel advising them of the benefits of Islam and what will occur if they do not convert or allow Muslim rule) - are not within the Muslim tradition.

Tim R. Furnish - 6/6/2005

Don't waste your typing energy.....
Again, I appreciate your comment. I would like your expert opinion on how one might convince an al-Zarqawi that decapitation is NOT Islamic, considering its presence in the Qur'an and its historical pedigree.

Tim R. Furnish - 6/6/2005

Mr. Pettit,
My "narrow definition" of WHAT? Of beheading? Of the histories of Islamic dynasties? My point was simply to refute the hordes of commentators, "analysts," "scholars" and, yes, apologists who claim that there is NOTHING ISLAMIC ABOUT DECAPITATION. There most certainly is, both Qur'anically and historically. Note that I TAKE PAINS to point out that a MINORITY of Muslims today shares the viewpoint of al-Zarqawi. But it is irrefutable that for him and his ilk beheading of infidels is most certainly Islamic.
It never ceases to amaze me that folks commenting on my articles that cannot read what is written clearly and/or who read into my pieces things I simply did not say.

N. Friedman - 6/6/2005


Assuming everything you write is correct, that does not mean that it is inappropriate to study what Muslims do on Muslim terms. Which was my exact point.

If there is an article about the Crusades, then we can comment about them. But this is not that article.

N. Friedman - 6/6/2005


I am at a loss to understand your point. If one wants to understand the history of the Muslim regions, one must study it including the portions of Muslim culture which dictate offensive war an beheadings. Such is particularly the case when those involved in the war point to such provisions from their own religion as justification for their acts. On your way of thinking, we might as well ignore what has occurred in the past and say: Muslims, like us, are people so they, whatever their culture teaches and whatever their tradition calls for, would never hold views we find abhorent.

And, on your view, what the Jihadis say and do lacks relevance as, (a), Westerners do bad things and (b) not all Muslims follow their religion in its traditional form. Now, there is a serious question whether, in fact, the Jihadis are interpretting their religion in a novel or a traditional manner. From my readings on the matter, I think the Jihadis are closer to the traditionalist view than are the reformists who follow your analysis. But I could be wrong.

Irfan makes a serious objection to the content of the article. I do not, on the other hand, understand you to make a real point.

I might add: how do you know that most Muslims do or do not support beheadings? What is the basis for that view? Is it from public opinion polls? Or is it from the more Westernized Muslims you may have contact with? If it is so abhorent, why does Al-Jazerra broadcast the beheadings on their TV station? Presumably they do so because there is an audience that finds the beheadings worthy of at least observing.

I note that Bernard Lewis claims that acts like 9/11 - which he interprets as an unprovoked attack with no prior warning (against the injunction to send a letter to the infidel advising them of the benefits of Islam and what will occur if they do not convert or allow Muslim rule) -. However, I do not think even he would claim that beheadings in an actual Jihad are without precedent supported by the traditional rules set forth in Shari'a.

chris l pettit - 6/6/2005

...who have protested the beheadings...as well as many organisations who favor peace and dialogue whom have excoriated those who claim that it is Islamic.

You reference a "global Jihad." While I am sure that many Islamic extremists would agree with you, most of the Islamic world is just like the common person in the US, they worry about their lives, interests, making a living, raising a family, etc. We too often lose sight of that. For every jihadist you can produce, I can produce 1,000 Muslims who want to just have decent lives. They may agree with some power based ideological rhetoric drummed into their heads, but what are they actually going to do about it. And again, their version of what is or is not approved by the Qu'ran is subject to a) their own interpretation of the scripture (for the brighter ones) or b) what is dictated by those ideological figures in power positions who are portraying their individual idea of the Scripture, applying it to the present situation, and manipulating the trust and ideological naivety of their followers. So like I said, while the professor may be correct within his narrow definition, he is certainly incorrect when looking at history in a different fashion. His way of looking at it gives precedence to the extremist ideals that, in fact, betray the very principles of the faith (they argue otherwise...then you move to part two of my comment about ideologues and their "faith"). It is as intelligent as arguing that Christianity allows Apartheid because the government of South Africa (and there are many here that still would tell you it is true) utilized biblical passages to support their ideology. I was not engaging in comparative history except to demonstrate the fallacious reasoning employed by the professor outside of his narrow definition. As I said, he is entitled to set his own parameters...but I find the article to be rather manipulative and not contributing one iota to the intelligent resolution of the problems the world faces today, except to say that one ideology is wrong, and presumably whatever ideology the professor supports is a better one. instead, he could state that this applies to extremists, is misguided, and present ideals of Islamic thought that contradict what the extremists claim...very similar to my usage of Jesus' teachings to refute much of what Christian fundamentalists stand for. The ideologues will very rarely change their disturbed little minds...it is those who are open minded who can be approached. As an ideologue, I approach you now with the hope that your blatant misinterpretations of history and insistance on the abandonment of law, rationality, reason, and rights can be worked out, as I do not yet put you in the category of extremists in terms of nationalistic and horrifying "patriotic" thought. you speak of misunderstanding the present...i would hope maybe you could appreciate the complexities instead of turning everything into an "obvious" black and white situation. You misunderstanding of the nature of mankind, the community of humanity, the concept of law and rights has been a buffer to your actually being able to truly come to grips with what is taking place in the world today. unfortunately it is all too common in the US today because of the seeming determination to veiw everything through an ideological lens. one would hope that clearer heads might come to the forefront in the near future...


N. Friedman - 6/6/2005

Very good post.

N. Friedman - 6/6/2005

Please note that I am not saying that all Muslims support beheading, Jihad or war. I am saying that support for advocating beheadings, Jihad and war have substantial support in the Muslim tradition and in the religion. And I do not the lack of objection coming from Muslims. The near silence is remarkable.

Tim R. Furnish - 6/6/2005

A fair and reasonable critique....I thank you.

N. Friedman - 6/6/2005


Comparitive culture can be interesting but must be considered rather carefully. Comparing a religious practice to a group of historical events is not an historically valid comparison.

Moreover, studying Islamic culture is worthwhile since Muslims in the name of Islam, not Christians in the name of Christianity, are engaged in a "holy war." One can certainly find Christians and Jews making war but that tells us very little about Jihad and its practice to behead infidel wherever they can be found. If that practice is to be discussed, one has to study Islam and its culture.

N. Friedman - 6/6/2005


You write: The majority of Muslims seem to not favor beheading, and are as appalled as those in the west at it.

Is there any evidence for your assertion? Are there Muslim people protesting beheadings? And what about stonings in Saudi Arabia - a regular event, by the way -: is anyone protesting them?

As for the rest of your comment:

It seems to me that there are two (or, to be more accurate, at least two) different ways to examine history. On the one hand, you can examine a particular culture's history in order to see what has occurred historically and to see how the culture's religion, ideology and practices - and anything else important - have contributed to that history and can be expected to contribute in the present and future.

Alternatively, you can attempt a comparison between cultures. Comparatively (and even then we need to be careful to make real comparisons, not merely to find seeming look alikes under different circumstances), Islam, excluding the present for the moment, while ideologically and culturally very different from Christiandom, has not behaved all that much differently than Christianity. Hence, infidel were treated attrociously by both cultures and both cultures made war a rather common habit.

But that sort of comparison does not tell us anything important. And, given the global Jihad today, the comparison is meaningless. What is important today is to understand the Jihad on its own terms and what it means. And, in particular, understanding the rules of Jihad, including when beheadings are legal, is rather interesting and important and such issue does not disapear under the rationalization that most Muslims are appalled. In fact, large numbers are quite obviously not appalled or the Jihadis would use different techniques.

Returing to the study of history: In fact, Islamic culture often rationalized its war making against non-Muslims on religion and, more particularly, war against infidel was called Jihad. Jihad, as offensive war to spread the rule of Islam (i.e. as a technique of empire building), dates all the way back to the Prophet himself who was involved in dozens of Jihads and was continued by his "companions" and their sucessors. And the religion spread by means of Jihad and became, as a result, an empire that conquered portions of three continents.

And, in Islam, all four major schools in Sunni Islam have set very clearly defined rules for what is acceptable war practice during a Jihad. And, in fact, beheadings are permissible based on Qur'anic pronouncements, exactly as the professor claims.

And that fact is rather important, unless the goal is to misunderstand the present.

chris l pettit - 6/6/2005

It is not that I really disagree with the article...it is more that I just don't understand what it brings to the table.

Sure, the Qu'ran and certain post canonical texts condone genocide. And we can find examples throughout history of people decrying the general principles of their faiths to concentrate on misinterpretations and those phrases that serve their own selfish interests. In addition, we can find numerous individuals who aren't smart enough to understand the historical and societal contexts of the texts and when they were written...and are actually gullible to belief that the texts are the literal "word of god." These people are extremists and religious ideologues that, for the most part, betray the very faiths they propose to uphold. I would highly recommend the author and whomever else is interested read Judge CG Weeramantry, Islamic Jurisprudence, An International Perspective, for a markedly different view. The majority of Muslims seem to not favor beheading, and are as appalled as those in the west at it. Sure, certain power mongers and clerics will take an ideological religious position...but how different is it than the extremist positions taken by Bush and many "fundamentalists" (who actually go against most everything taught by Jesus). It is as though these people can't see the fundamental principles of the faith and simply grasp on whatever fits their power ideology.

What is and is not "Islamic" is a highly individualised process. Contrary to what many believe, religion is an individualistic practice that is not ultimately communitarian in any way, since everyone has different interpretations of what is and is not "Islamic." SO saying that beheading is "Islamic" is accurate only within the definitions and parameters set by the author. His definition seems to be that it can be found throughout history and that certain individuals who identify themselves as following Islam think it is consistent. For me, this ignores the historical and societal circumstances and influences, ignores the mass opinion within Islam that the practice is un-Islamic in their individual interpretations, and allows extremist viewpoints to dictate what is or is not "Islamic." One could make the argument then that genocide, slavery, Apartheid and mass murder are "Christian" because of the fact that Christianity has been invoked to support each of those activities. So, while the author does state his definitions and what he identifies as "Islamic" it seems to be a rather narrow way of viewing the situation.

He is correct in stating that ideologues and extremists will not listen to those who rightfully excoriate them for betraying the fundamental principles of a tradition. One finds this in nationalism, religion, economics, everywhere. It is nearly impossible to debate someone whose ideology is so strong and is not based in logic, reason, or critical analysis, but is rather based in blind faith, misinterpretation, and fundamentally flawed assumptions. They ask you to prove negatives...and no matter how well you contradict their arguments, they can always fall back on the "faith" (which is highly individualistic as noted above and then imposed on others) and the idea that no matter how much we know, they somehow have a channel to that which is unknown...offering the ultimate answer. So he is spot on when he makes that charge. but i wonder how many have tried to reason with Bush or US extremists and had the same frustration when they basically ignore the only worthwhile part of the Bible (the gospels and words of Jesus) and instead focus on the war mongering and eye for an eye power politics of the Old Testament. how about those who have tried to reason with Israeli Zionist extremists and their horrific practices? Do we single out Islamic extremists simply because they deal in beheading? Many other methods are just as bad and are advocated by other extremists.

I am just curious to know what exactly this brings to the fore of the debate. It is not that the prof is wrong...indeed, beheading has been claimed as part as Islam since time began...but do we want to imput this on all of Islam? He is right about those who would deny that beheading existed and is interpreted by some to be Islamic...but I think he misinterprets much of what he criticises. My interpretation would be that the authors of those works are going to the general principles of Islam instead of selected verses, and are taking into consideration historical and cultural practices of the times when they were written (such as the persecution of the Muslims by Jews and others that helped stoke the conflict of Medina and the fact that beheading was not exactly uncommon in that period).

As my geshe always said...one Buddha died the schools were born...


Tim R. Furnish - 6/6/2005

Mr. Baker,
Does the Qur'an sanction beheading unbelievers or not?
Has decapitation been practiced by Muslims governments and leaders going back to Muhammad, or not?
Do A MINORITY of modern-day Muslims practice beheadings, or not?
Answer these questions. The rest of your commentary is (as usual) simply an aromatic pile of quite dead red herrings.