Beheading in Islam: What would Muhammad do?

The news that the Islamic State is threatening an Indiana man with beheading, and that a Muslim convert in Oklahoma beheaded a coworker has again raised the question: Why do people keep decapitating others in the name of Islam?

The question has made the news periodically ever since the death of Daniel Pearl, and more recently amid the carnage in Iraq and Syria under the Islamic State. David Cameron (“They are not Muslims, they are monsters“) and Barrack Obama (“ISIL is not Islamic“) seem to believe that such actions are without precedent in Islam. Besides, to their credit, some “Muslim groups condemned the violence and offered condolences to the families of its victims.” In the light of this, it would be ridiculously unfair to suggest that Muslims as a whole condone such brutality. No doubt the vast majority worldwide are disgusted by the brutality in Syria and Iraq. Anyway, Mexican narco-terrorists also behead their victims and the biblical prophet Samuel hewed the Amelakite king Agag to pieces, so Muslims are not alone in committing such crimes.

And yet. Is it possible to ask about Muhammad’s position on decapitation without getting one’s own head lopped off by those who believe the act is consistent with their religion? Allah states in the Quran (8.12:), “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.”

Quoted out of context? Then let’s look to the medieval biography, “The Life of Muhammad,” where author Ibn Ishq (704-767? A.D.) offers clues about the Apostle’s thoughts on beheading. I quote from the Alfred Guillaume translation (Karachi: Oxford University Press, pg. 464):

Then they [the Banu Qurayza, a Jewish tribe in Medina] surrendered, and the apostle confined them in Medina in the quarter of d. al-Harith, a woman of B. al-Najjar. Then the apostle went out to the market of Medina (which is still its market today) and dug trenches in it. Then he sent for them and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out to him in batches. Among them was the enemy of Allah Huyayy b. Akhtab and Ka`b b. Asad their chief. There were 600 or 700 in all, though some put the figure as high as 800 or 900. As they were being taken out in batches to the apostle they asked Ka`b what he thought would be done with them. He replied, “Will you never understand? Don’t you see that the summoner never stops and those who are taken away do not return? By Allah it is death!” This went on until the apostle made an end of them.

Huyayy was brought out wearing a flowered robe in which he had made holes about the size of the finger-tips in every part so that it should not be taken from him as spoil, with his hands bound to his neck by a rope. When he saw the apostle he said, “By God, I do not blame myself for opposing you, but he who forsakes God will be forsaken.” Then he went to the men and said, “God’s command is right. A book and a decree, and massacre have been written against the Sons of Israel.” Then he sat down and his head was struck off.”

A Jewish woman was also killed. She seemed to find the slaughter of her kinsmen funny, so said Aisha, child wife of Muhammad. “I will not forget that she was laughing extremely although she knew that she would be killed.” A cheerful optimist, able to look at the bright side of the massacre, perhaps. Then again, maybe she went mad. The rest of the women and children were distributed among the Muslims as slaves.

As The New Republic argues, “If ISIS is not Islamic, then the Inquisition was not Catholic.”

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Beheading in Islam: What would Muhammad do?

  1. Kathe

    How interesting….I was starting to think I was going a little mad myself when I heard the “ISIL is not Islamic” comment. To think that beheadings are making a comeback in the 21st century is hard to get your head around….thank you for the lesson in history to help clarify. Keep on posting!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Kathe. It would be nice if our leaders and pundits would bother to read Islamic literature before making such pronunciations.

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