From the blog Religion Q & A
What is it with Muslims and beheadings? Where does that come from?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
Islam has no hesitation about capital punishment when proper legal procedures are observed and death is hudud (mandatory) under Sharia (religious law). Traditionally this covers such infractions as murder, adultery, homosexual activity, political rebellion, and apostasy, including (under the strictest regimes) conversion to a different religion.
Beheading has a long human history, but what’s remarkable in the 21st Century is its continued use by certain sectors of Muslims while, as the question implies, much of the world regards it as repugnant. Today’s terror sects demonstrate that decapitation remains singularly effective for striking fear into the hearts of subjects and for expressing contempt toward victims. The current “Islamic State” caliphate, a.k.a. ISIS, proudly posts its bloodthirsty videos for another purpose, inspiring excitable youths to join its revolt against traditional religious authorities and attack despised fellow Muslims and non-Muslims.
We also have official incidents — minus posting of videos — such as Saudi Arabia’s public mass execution January 2 of 47 alleged terrorists and political dissidents. The event featured beheadings, including of a popular Shia activist, along with deaths by firing squad. Such executions are not unusual for the kingdom. By media accounts, it decapitated some 1,100 defendants in 1984 – 2004, and at least 57 in 2014 alone, for crimes ranging from drug-running to religious apostasy. Several Muslim regimes that formerly used this method of execution have abandoned it. That leaves Saudi Arabia as unique, and especially noteworthy because it purports to preserve pure and authentic Islamic practice.
Timothy Furnish of mahdiwatch.org (a Ph.D. in Islamic history teaching at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College) states that beheadings of captives date back to the Prophet Muhammad himself, and that during subsequent centuries Muslim decapitations of both living and dead enemies “are myriad.” A famous example was “Mahdist” insurgents’ 1885 beheading of British General Charles Gordon in Sudan.
There’s no pretense of following Islam’s judicial heritage with sporadic extra-judicial beheadings such as families’ “honor killings” of women, or when “Islamists” dispatch innocent civilians. An early instance was the 2002 beheading of the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl, portrayed in the movie “A Mighty Heart,” apparently because he was both a journalist and Jewish. Though the Religion Guy hesitates to cite anonymous postings at wikipedia.org, that site lists 24 known “Islamic State” beheadings with 305 victims since mid-2014.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations says “there is nothing in the Quran justifying beheadings,” but that referred only to Muslims’ terror killings of innocents. Virginia’s Imam Mohamad Adam el-Sheikh insists that “beheadings are not mentioned in the Quran at all,” but he was denying that method is required for official executions. Those two contexts should be clearly distinguished from beheadings during warfare, which do have scriptural warrant from two Quran passages (the following translations come from Majid Fakhry’s edition, endorsed by Al-Azhar University):
“When your Lord revealed to the angels: ‘I am with you, so support those who believe. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve; so strike upon the necks and strike every fingertip of theirs’ that is because they opposed Allah and His Messenger; and he who opposes Allah and His Messenger [will find] Allah’s punishment very severe” (sura 8:12-13).
“When you meet the unbelievers, strike their necks till you have bloodied them . . .” (sura 47:4).
The classic Quran commentary by A. Yusuf Ali, widely distributed by Saudi Arabia, said these revelations to Muhammad pertained to the Battle of Badr (624 C.E.) when his outnumbered troops in Medina “were under threat of extinction by invasion from Mecca.” Thus, in the Muslim view these teachings justify defensive combat for survival of the community and the faith.
As for battle tactics, Yusuf Ali said sura 47 means that “once the fight (jihad) is entered upon, carry it out with the utmost vigor, and strike home your blows at the most vital points (smite at their necks) both literally and figuratively. You cannot wage war with kid gloves.” On sura 8, he remarked that “the vulnerable parts of an armed man are above the neck. A blow on the neck, face, or head finishes him off. If he has armor it is difficult to get at his heart.” Regarding those “fingertips,” he explained that “if his hands are put out of action, he is unable to wield his sword or lance or other weapon, and easily becomes a prisoner.”
Beheadings have not been exclusive to Muslims, of course. Recall those famous decapitations in Britain ordered by purportedly Christian rulers, and the anti-Christian French Revolution that beheaded 10,000 or more enemies via the guillotine — an efficient mechanism for mass killing and said to be more humane than the sword, drowning, burning, stoning, hanging, or drawing and quartering. The last death by guillotine in France occurred as recently as 1977, four years before the nation ceased all capital punishment.
The electric chair has also come to be considered barbaric, contemporary Muslims have questioned the tradition of stoning adulterers, and many moderns oppose the West’s current preference of poisoning. Though debate persists, numerous Christians and Jews spurn executions in most or all cases as constituting “cruel and unusual punishment.”