Beheading, Decapitation and Mutilation

26th December 2018

The world awoke to yet another heinous crime, similar in its monstrosity to the burning alive of the Jordanian pilot Mu’az al-Kasasbah and the public beheadings of the American journalist James Foley and the British charity worker Alan Henning. Images and videos of completely severed and partially severed heads of the two Scandinavian tourists in Morocco flooded social media. They were also deliberately sent to the accounts of the grieving mothers of the victims. In a manner reminiscent of a horror movie, the perpetrators mutilated the victims’ bodies by stabbing after severing the heads.

The motivation of the gang is currently under investigation and it is not yet wholly certain that the attack is politically motivated. Yet, there are some indications that suggest that this is an act of terrorism. The Moroccan authorities have arrested a suspect in Marrakesh and have said that he was a member of an unidentified takfiri militant group. I am inclined to think that they are correct, because the method employed in the commission of the crime recalls those used by ISIS. It may be that the ongoing investigation reveals something further.

For those of us in the modern world, beheading, decapitation and mutilating the body are the practices of primitives. Yet, unfortunately they are supported by takfiri theory and carried out in practice. These topics are essential reading material for recruits in their militant education system and form part of practical militant tactics.

Let us explore the mind-set of takfiri and find out why they insist on replicating these medieval tactics? What motivates them? And on what grounds?

The best and most detailed example we can find is set out in our study, Tackling Terror. In his book, Jurisprudence of Blood, Al-Muhajir dedicated two chapters to a theological, jurisprudential justification for the Beheading, Decapitation and Mutilation. Chapters 11 and 12 of the ISIS document aim to provide an Islamic sanction for the mutilation of dead bodies. Chapter 11 focuses on general acts of mutilation and the cutting of any body parts, whereas Chapter 12 is dedicated solely to a discussion on the legitimacy of beheading.

ISIS’ core argument is that mutilation is justified. Chapter 11 opens with various hadiths of the Prophet that forbid mutilation: 

Mutilation is forbidden and was prohibited by the explicit text of the hadith. According to Abdullah bin Zayd, the Prophet forbade looting and mutilation. According to Imran bin Husayn, the Messenger of God used to encourage us to do charitable deeds and he forbade mutilation … The Prophet also used to say: … do not embezzle the spoils; do not break your pledge; and do not mutilate.

However, the author takes the position that mutilation is, in fact, permissible: by giving priority to one single report in which it is claimed that the Prophet tortured two people. The central hadith that supposedly justifies torture is that narrated from the authority of Abu Qatada:

“Two men from ‘Urayna who stole and killed farmers and were apostates from Islam, the Prophet ordered that they be blinded, their hands and feet be cut off, and that they be left in a volcanic area until they died on their own.”

The author’s reasoning on this hadith is that since the Prophet took part in mutilating the two people, it is permissible to follow his example and allow all types of mutilation including the amputation of body parts, arms and legs, and the severing of heads.

Thus here, the ISIS author provides two reports: one forbids mutilation whereas the second sanctions it. The rest of this chapter is spent on elaborating this issue, with the author advocating that the last hadith had authority over the previous one.

ISIS also argues that beheading is justified. Chapter 12 is dedicated to the same topic of mutilation, focusing on the permissibly of severing the head from the body: an act that should also be classed as mutilation. The chapter claims that the following key texts justify decapitation:

1. Qur’an 8:12:

“(Remember) when your Lord inspired the angels, verily, I am with you, so keep firm those who have believed. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who have disbelieved, so strike them over the necks, and smite over all their fingers and toes.” [al-Anfal: 12]

2. The hadith of Ibn ‘Abbas about the Battle of Badr that mentions decapitation:

When the Muslims took the prisoners captive, the Messenger of God said to Abu Bakr and ‘Umar, “What do you think we should do with these prisoners?” Abu Bakr said: “Prophet of God, they are our kith and kin, I think you should release them for a ransom; this will increase our strength over the unbelievers and God may guide them to Islam.” The Messenger of God said: “What do you think [‘Umar] ibn al-Khattab?” ‘Umar said “Messenger of God, no – by God – I disagree with Abu Bakr; I think you should let us strike their necks. Let ‘Ali strike the neck of [his brother] ‘Aqeel, and let me strike the neck of so-and-so (a relative of ‘Umar’s). For these are the leaders of unbelief.”

These are the main key texts that are manipulated to erroneously sanction these horrible practices. In the next article we will show that even considering the traditional debate around this topic, one can see that there is a contradiction among the texts which, in turn, has had an impact on the discussion. Even considering the traditional context, no agreement has been achieved on the legality of this matter among the traditional jurists.