Thursday, June 24, 2004

Beheading, the method that Islamist terrorists have used to execute three hostages in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, is specified by Islamic law, but should be used only in extreme cases, with at least one judge and credible witnesses to a crime, Islamic analysts say.

Others point out that the Koran refers to such a punishment for infidels and that Muhammad oversaw the beheading of several hundred men in his lifetime.

The tapes of the recent beheadings also have the terrorists yelling “Allahu akbar” — meaning “God is great” — while killing their hostage.

The killings of Americans Nicholas Berg and Paul M. Johnson Jr. and South Korean Kim Sun-il — and that of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002 in Pakistan — are “an extreme form of execution that is most inhumane,” said Sam Hamod, former director of the Islamic Center in the District who is now a lecturer and writer near San Diego.

The executioners, who claim to act in the name of Islam, he said, “may find a hadith [or saying of Muhammad] that supports it, but the Koran doesn’t allow it.”

The killers didn’t even do the job right, he said.

“If they are going to have an execution, the [executioner] must say a prayer and ask for forgiveness from God for what he is doing and pray for the person’s soul being killed,” he said. “You can’t do it like the idiots on TV. The right thing to do is slit the person’s throat, not cut off the entire head.”

At issue is book 47, verse four of the Koran, which says, “Therefore, when ye meet the unbelievers in fight [or jihad], smite at their necks at length; when ye have thoroughly subdued them, bind a bond firmly on them.

“Thereafter is the time for either generosity or ransom until the war lays down its burdens.”

The “smite at their necks” wording “doesn’t mean to kill somebody,” Mr. Hamod said.

Any Islamic capital punishment, he added, must be handed down by a panel of judges plus there must be four credible witnesses of an extreme crime committed by the person to be executed. And civilians — but not soldiers — are protected under Islamic law.

Secular authorities in predominantly Christian nations have used beheading as a method of execution, but there is nothing in the theology of either Judaism or Christianity to justify beheading.

Beheadings are common in Muslim states such as Saudi Arabia, and Andrew Bostom, an associate professor of medicine at Boston University, called it “an ugly reality” in an essay posted on

Such killings, he wrote, “are consistent with sacred jihad practices, as well as Islamic attitudes towards all non-Muslim infidels, in particular Jews, which date back to the seventh century.”

According to one of Muhammad’s biographers, Ibn Ishaq, the founder of Islam approved of the beheadings of 700 men of the Jewish Qurayza tribe of Medina, whose bodies were then stacked in trenches.

In the Koran, the incident is referred to in book 33:25-27, which says, in part, “some ye slew and some ye made prisoners.”

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership said the massacre has been accepted as fact among Muslims for 1,200 years but hardly shows up in Jewish literature.

Westernized Muslims, he said, can no longer deny what their fellow believers are doing.

“Right now in the world, many Muslims are devoting their lives to the truth of decapitation,” he said. “Simply to say, ‘It’s not Islam’ is not a helpful response, because for those who are doing it, it is.”

In the Old Testament, King David killed the giant Goliath, then cut off his head. In the apocryphal book of Judith, the heroine slices off the head of the Assyrian general Holofernes as he lies drunk in his tent.

“Rabbinic understanding of capital punishment may have included decapitation,” Mr. Hirschfield said. “It is a form of capital punishment that most closely resembles sacrifice mandated by God. [The Muslims who killed Western hostages] believe it is a profoundly sacred act.”

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, author of “What’s Right With Islam,” said beheading has been a method of capital punishment worldwide, not just in Islamic law.

“What we’re seeing is like the Wild West,” he said of the decapitations.

“The universal theme that motivates terrorists is humiliation,” he said. “The terrorism is an attempt at empowerment. Look at the images; [the executed] wearing the same orange as the prisoners of Guantanamo wore. It is the revenge of the hooded people. It is tit for tat.”

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