Blogs > Cliopatria > The Koran Indeed Mentions Beheadings

Jul 2, 2004 5:28 am

The Koran Indeed Mentions Beheadings

Lee Smith, in Slate (July 1, 2004):

Following the recent beheadings of Americans and other foreigners in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the U.S. press turned to various experts to identify a precedent in the Quran or Islamic history for this kind of gory murder."Beheadings are not mentioned in the Koran at all," Imam Muhammad Adam El-Sheikh, co-founder and chief cleric at the Dar Al Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Va., toldUSA Today. Yvonne Haddad, a professor at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University agreed, tellingNew York Newsday,"There is absolutely nothing in Islam that justifies cutting off a person's head."

If reporters bothered to open up a copy of the Quran, say, N.J. Dawood's Penguin Classics translation, they'd find at least two relevant passages:

God revealed His will to the angels, saying:"I shall be with you. Give courage to the believers. I shall cast terror into the hearts of the infidels. Strike off their heads, strike off the very tips of their fingers." (Sura 8, Verse 12)

"When you meet the unbelievers in the battlefield strike off their heads." (Sura 47, Verse 4)

For anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim, who wants to put some distance between contemporary jihadist practice and the beliefs of ordinary Muslims, there are a range of arguments that might attenuate the force of these passages. For instance, it could be argued that these excerpts need to be put into context; they don't literally mean what they seem to say; or that they're the product of a particular historical moment, now passed. What's more, some might say that beheading is not really Islamic at all but is in fact an unfortunate holdover from pre-Islamic times, when the warring tribes on the Arabian peninsula decapitated their rivals and left them unburied in the field for predators to devour.

Some commentators claim that centuries ago beheading was simply the easiest way to kill people. That's not quite accurate. Even the old Arabs knew it was a spectacularly vicious way to send people to their deaths, so savage that sometimes the executioner would pay the consequences for his murderous zeal. In fact, there's a famous story in pre-Islamic literature about a decapitated head having its revenge. Shanfara was a great warrior who boasted that he would slay 100 of his enemies. After he had killed 99, he was struck down in battle, decapitated, and his head tossed away. When one of Shanfara's enemies passed by and kicked his skull, the man injured himself and eventually died from the wound. So, even in death, Shanfara had his hundred....

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