Politics & Policy

Abetting Beheadings

It is not clear that Islam condemns the al Qaeda killings.

Any rational person has to welcome yesterday’s attempt by Mustafa Akyol to find in Islam an unambiguous condemnation of the barbarous beheadings we’ve repeatedly seen since the butchering of Daniel Pearl two years ago. Regrettably, however, Akyol manages to achieve ostensible clarity only by abridging the Koran and seminal events in Islamic history–including the life of the Prophet Muhammed. I wish he had engaged these troublesome matters directly and opined about what we are to make of them.

To begin with, Akyol proceeds from the premise that jihad, i.e., violent holy war, as anticipated in the Islamic tradition, contemplates both that there will be many prisoners during active hostilities and that they must under all circumstances be treated humanely. Alas, there is abundant evidence that neither proposition is true. First and foremost, there is the Koran itself–specifically, Sura 8:65-67:

65. O Prophet, rouse the Believers to the fight. If there are twenty amongst you, patient and persevering, they will vanquish two hundred: if a hundred they will vanquish a thousand of the Unbelievers: for these are a people without understanding. 66. For the present, Allah hath lightened your burden, for he knoweth that there is a weak spot in you: But even so, if there are a hundred of you, patient and persevering, they will vanquish two hundred, and if a thousand, they will vanquish two thousand, with the leave of Allah: for Allah is with those who patiently persevere. 67. It is not fitting for a Prophet that he should have prisoners of war until he hath thoroughly subdued the land: Ye look for the temporal goods of this world, but Allah looketh to the Hereafter: and Allah is exalted in might, Wise. (Emphasis added.)

To support the notion of a consistent Islamic doctrine mandating humane treatment of prisoners, Akyol mines verse 6 from Sura 9: “If one amongst the Pagans ask thee for asylum, grant it to him, so that he may hear the word of God; and then escort him to where he can be secure. That is because they are men without knowledge.” Unfortunately, this passage addresses the very different situation of the time after Muslims have “subdued the land” and find themselves dealing with unbelievers who have broken treaties.

In fact, and on the contrary–as the verses from Sura 8 excerpted above illustrate–there is clearly Koranic authority for militants to rely on in concluding that (a) when jihad is ongoing, the taking of prisoners is frowned on, and (b) jihad should be ongoing until the enemy is subdued, meaning he has either surrendered or been routed.

So if prisoners ought not be kept, what, according to Muslim tradition, is to be done with them? The answer is not nearly as clear or as reassuring as Akyol contends. As Andrew G. Bostom has recently explained:

According to Muhammad’s sacralized biography by Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad himself sanctioned the massacre of the Qurayza, a vanquished Jewish tribe. He appointed an “arbiter” who soon rendered this concise verdict: the men were to be put to death, the women and children sold into slavery, the spoils to be divided among the Muslims. Muhammad ratified this judgment stating that it was a decree of God pronounced from above the Seven Heavens. Thus some 600 to 900 men from the Qurayza were lead [sic] on Muhammad’s order to the Market of Medina. Trenches were dug and the men were beheaded, and their decapitated corpses buried in the trenches while Muhammad watched in attendance. Women and children were sold into slavery, a number of them being distributed as gifts among Muhammad’s companions, and Muhammad chose one of the Qurayza women (Rayhana) for himself. The Qurayza’s property and other possessions (including weapons) were also divided up as additional “booty” among the Muslims, to support further jihad campaigns. (Emphasis added.)

Akyol lingers on “historical accounts reporting Prophet Muhammad ordering his men to treat captives very humanely,” but he leaves this one out. Moreover, it is far from the only germane example of Islamic beheading practice. As Bostom elaborates, the eleventh-century classical Islamic jurist al-Mawardi, writing during the so-called “Golden Age” of the Abbasid-Baghdadian Caliphate, counseled the following with regard to captives taken in the jihad:

As for the captives, the amir [ruler] has the choice of taking the most beneficial action of four possibilities: the first to put them to death by cutting their necks; the second, to enslave them and apply the laws of slavery regarding their sale and manumission; the third, to ransom them in exchange for goods or prisoners; and fourth, to show favor to them and pardon them. (Emphasis added.)

Why give the choice of execution by beheading (“cutting their necks”)? Marwadi relied on the Koran itself, specifically Sura 47:4. This is precisely the verse that Akyol cites to support his proposition that if beheading victims Nicholas Berg, Paul Johnson, and Kim Sun-il had been “regarded as prisoners of war” by their jihadist captors, “The verdict of the Koran is clear about them: They should be taken as captives during the battle, then, after the war, they should be released for free or ransomed.” But is that what Sura 47:4 really says? Unfortunately, no. It reads:

Therefore, when ye meet the Unbelievers in fight, smite at their necks; at length, when ye have thoroughly subdued them, bind the captives firmly: therefore is the time for either generosity or ransom until the war lays down its burdens. . . .” (Emphasis added.)

Obviously, we should all wish that the interpretation of this verse were as Akyol would have it–and perhaps someday, if there is a Muslim reformation and a clearly defined moderate Islam becomes the creed’s dominant ideological force, that will finally be the case. But we are not going to get there by pretending, ostrich-like, that the words “smite at their necks” aren’t there. The militants may plainly read this verse to say: Execute by beheading first, and show mercy only after the enemy–i.e., the entire enemy, not the individual captive–has been “thoroughly subdued.” Akyol needs to make a principled argument about why that jihadist construction is not only unreasonable but somehow pellucidly un-Islamic. He is not going to convince anyone who needs convincing by simply avoiding the words he’d prefer not to confront.

Nor, one is sadly forced to note, is Sura 47:4 singular. Others not addressed by Akyol but plain as day include, for example, Sura 2:191 (“[S]lay them wherever you catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they first fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who reject faith“); Sura 5:33 (“The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief throughout the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land”); and Sura 8:12 (“Remember thy Lord inspired the angels with the message: ‘I am with you: give firmness to the Believers: I will instill terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers: Smite ye above their necks and smite all their fingertips off them”). (All italics mine.)

The execution of captives, particularly by beheading, is not unusual in the history and scripture of Islam. This is not in any way to say that beheading is unique to the Muslim world–it was, for example, practiced in Europe for centuries. But, it is still practiced commonly in the Muslim world, and not just among jihadists but also in states, such as Saudi Arabia, in which Islamic law is, at least nominally, the regnant legal system.

I applaud Akyol for condemning the depravity of the militants who have savaged Johnson, Berg, il-Sun, Pearl, and others. But I don’t believe he has made a compelling case for the “Islamic condemnation of the al Qaeda killings.” Such a case would require taking these troubling verses and incidents head-on, and providing a cogent explanation of why they should not be interpreted as jihadists have interpreted them.

Andrew C. McCarthy, who led the 1995 terrorism prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and eleven others, is reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.


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