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Beheading, Torture, Mutilation

ISIS sympathisers and anti-Muslim extremists are united in cherry-picking the Qur'an to argue that Islam justifies all sorts of despicable atrocities such as beheadings, torture, mutilation, crucifixion, and so on. 

This, for example, was essentially the argument of Graeme Wood in his widely read piece for The Atlantic, in which he claimed that Muslims cannot reject the idea that Islam advocates the killing, slavery and crucifixion of "disbelievers" because doing so would require them to reject verses in the Qur'an, that advocate such actions plainly, and literally.

It is an unfortunate myth that literalistic readings of the Qur'an justify such extreme violence, when in reality, readings of the Qur'an that remain as close as possible to the literal and linguistic implications of the entire Qur'anic text lead to quite opposite conclusions.

By effectively endorsing ISIS' interpretations as if they are the most literal and authentic interpretations of Islam possible, writers like Wood completely overlook and ignore Islam's own internal scholarship.

 

Crucifixion

The Qur’anic verse that supposedly enjoins crucifixion is as follows: 

“It is but a just recompense for those who wage war on Allah and His Messenger and endeavor to spread corruption on earth that they are being slain in great numbers, or crucified in great numbers, or have in result of their perverseness, their hands and feet cut off from alternate sides in great numbers.” (5:33) 

Yet in Muhammad Asad’s famous translation and tafsir (commentary) on the Qur’an, widely regarded as one of the most influential of the modern era, he shows that a close literal reading of the text disproves the conclusion that the Qur’an is advocating crucifixion as a legal punishment. 

Asad, described by his biographers as “Europe’s gift to Islam,” was born an Austrian Jew named Leopold Weiss. After becoming a Muslim, he had a career as a diplomat, culminating in a post as ambassador to the UN. In his celebrated Qur’anic translation and commentary, The Message of the Qur’an, Asad points out that: 

“… the most convincing interpretation suggests itself to us at once as soon as we read the verse, as it ought to be read, in the present tense. For read in this way, the verse reveals itself immediately as a statement of fact, a declaration of the inescapability of the retribution which ‘those who make war on God’ bring upon themselves. Their hostility to the ethical imperatives causes them to lose sight of all moral values and their consequent mutual discord and ‘perverseness’ gives rise to unending strife among themselves for the sake of worldly gain and power. They kill one another in great numbers, and torture and mutilate one another in great numbers, with the result that whole communities are wiped out or, as the Quran puts it, ‘banished from the earth.’ It is this interpretation alone that takes full account of all the expressions occurring in this verse: the reference to ‘great numbers’ in connection with deeds of extreme violence, the banishment from the earth, and lastly, the fact that these horrors are expressed in the terms used by Pharaoh, the ‘enemy of God.’” 

Further internal textual support for this from the Qur'an comes from the fact that the exact same phrase occurs elsewhere in the Qur'an in relation to highlighting the corruption of the Pharoah: 

"He (Pharoah) said: 'Have you believed in him before taking my permission? He is surely your great one who has taught you magic. So, I will cut off your hands and feet from alternate sides, and I will crucify you on the trunks of the palm trees, and you will come to know which of us is greater in retribution and more lasting!'" (20:71)

In fact, the previous verse before 5:33 makes a specific reference to the failure of the Children of Israel to abide by their obligation to not commit murder, demonstrating that the later observation on crucifixions occurring as a consequence of such crimes is being merely described as an inevitable "recompense" for their own crimes. The two verses are not even referring to Prophet Muhammad, but to Prophet Musa (Moses) and his confrontation with the tyrannical Pharaoh:

"It is because of this that We have decreed for the Children of Israel: 'Anyone who kills a person who has not committed murder, or who has not committed corruption in the land; then it is as if he has killed all the people! And whoever spares a life, then it is as if he has given life to all the people.' Our messengers had come to them with clarification, but many of them are, after this, are corrupting on the Earth. The recompense of those who fight Allah and His messenger, and seek to make corruption in the land, is that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from alternate sides or that they be banished from the land; that is their disgrace in this world and in the Hereafter they will have a great retribution." (5:32-33)

All Mutilation is Forbidden

Decisively supporting this interpretation are several authenticated historical narrations. These hadith confirm that verse 5.33, cited by extremists to justify mutilation, was precisely revealed to prohibit mutilation.

One from the hadith collection Sunan Abu Dawud (4368/4370) reports that this verse was revealed after Muhammad enacted the punishment of mutilation on a group of thieves, on the basis of equal retaliation, as the thieves had inflicted similar punishments on their victims. The hadith then reports that:

“Allah rebuked him [the Prophet] for that and then Allah revealed the verse, ‘It is but a just recompense for those who wage war on Allah and His Messenger…’ [5.33].” The companion of the Prophet, Anas b. Malik, then narrates: “Thereafter, mutilation was forbidden.”

In Sahih Bukhari (3956), another hadith relates the same event, and adds:

“We have heard that after this incident the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, would encourage charity and he forbade mutilation.” 

This verse was therefore revealed not to enjoin, but to abrogate the punishments of crucifixion and mutilation that were already widely practiced in the tribal societies of the time. 

Other contradictory hadith do exist implying that the Prophet in some cases permitted 'like for like' punishments, which ISIS sympathisers use for their own purposes. These do not, of course, concord with the sorts of authenticated traditions described here. Taking the Qur'an and these Prophetic traditions together, however, it is clear that whether or not there was a period when such penalties occurred, this Qur'anic verse and the hadith describing their context prove that Islam moved to firmly prohibit such practices fairly early on.

Far from the condemnation of crucifixion being alien to Islam, crucifixion and mutilation – practices that the ‘Islamic State’ implements with alarming impunity – were ultimately abrogated by the Qur’an and Muhammad. ISIS can only justify its barbarism by ignoring and distorting Islamic sources, not by engaging with them holistically by Islam’s own internal standards of scholarship.

 

Beheading

"I will instill terror into the hearts of the unbelievers. Smite ye above their necks and smite all their finger tips off them. This because they contend against God and his apostle." (Qur'an 8:12)

This verse has been used by ISIS and its sympathisers to justify the idea that non-Muslims should be "terrorised" by Muslims, and that specifically this can be achieved by mutilating them by beheading them, and cutting off their fingers.

As usual, this interpretation can only be achieved by dislocating the verse from its own opening content, from the verse that follows straight after, mistranslating both, and ignoring the context of their revelation.

Firstly, historians recognise that this verse was in fact revealed in relation to the Battle of Badr, when the fledgling Muslim community at the time was heavily outnumbered by an offensive army. 

Secondly, when the verse is read seamlessly in connection with the verse that follows, it becomes once again clear that the verse is addressing a defensive response to those who are physically attacking the Muslims - not exhorting terror on anyone who is not a Muslim.

"Recall that your Lord inspired the angels: 'I am with you; so support those who believed. I will throw terror into the hearts of those who disbelieved. You may strike them above the necks, and you may strike even every finger.' This is what they have justly incurred by waging war on God and His messenger. For those who wage war against God and His messenger, God's retribution is severe." (Qur'an 8:12-13)

In both the tafsir of Abu Mansur and the Tafsir Gharib al-Qur’an (attributed to Imam Zayd ibn Ali), the word often translated as "opposing" or "contending" in verse 8:13, ‘شَآقُّواْ’ , is explained to mean حَاربُوهُ – waging war

Finally, a few verses down the Qur'an clarifies the context of war again, and the offer of peace if the aggressors stand down:

"If you [aggressors] seek the victory – the defeat has come to you. And if you desist [from hostilities], it is best for you; but if you return [to war], We will return, and never will you be availed by your [large] company at all, even if it should increase; and [that is] because Allah is with the believers." (8:19)

Another verse (47:4) is also cited by ISIS to justify beheading, ironically by dislocating the first half of the verse, from the other half. It reads: 

“Therefore, when you meet the unbelievers, smite at their necks.” 

Extremists use this verse to claim that if they encounter a random non-Muslim, they should behead them.

This, of course, ignores the fact that the verse was revealed in relation to the Battle of Badr, and that more accurate translations acknowledge that the verse specifically applies to a context of war. One more accurate translation, connecting with the next section of the verse, is as follows (the verse was revealed in relation to the Battle of Badr) - this version is from the highly regarded Muhammad Asad translation: 

"Now when you meet [in war] those who are bent on denying the truth, smite their necks until you overcome them fully, and then tighten their bonds; but thereafter [set them free,] either by an act of grace or against ransom, so that the burden of war may be lifted." (47:4)

The verse, in other words, has nothing to do with beheading, and the fuller context of the entire verse clarifies that it is referring to clashes with groups who rejected Islam and who were at war with the Muslim community at the time. It also makes clear that ceasing war is desirable.