Decapitation and the Muslim World

Is there any special significance to beheading in Islam?

The Entry of Mahomet II Into Constantinople, 1876, by Benjamin Constant

A Muslim man was accused of beheading his wife last week in Buffalo, N.Y. In recent years, Islamic terrorist groups have made a common practice of decapitating their political and religious enemies and broadcasting the acts in gory videos. Is there any significance to beheading in Islam?

Yes, but it’s important in other cultures, too.  As Lee Smith noted in a 2004 Slate piece, two verses in the Quran refer to decapitation—both in the context of religious war. Sura 47, verse 4 reads: “Therefore, when ye meet the Unbelievers (in fight), smite at their necks.” However, this line has generally been interpreted by Islamic scholars to mean that when facing infidels on the battlefield, one must strike with a deadly force. (The verse goes on to say that once you have fully subdued your enemy, survivors should be shown “generosity and ransom.”) The same is true in sura 8, verse 12, in which it’s recalled that the Lord said to the angels at the Battle of Badr, “I am with you: give firmness to the Believers: I will instil terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers: smite ye above their necks and smite all their finger-tips off them.”* Both verses are traditionally understood as inspirations to ferocity and not literal calls for beheading.

Islamic history does have its share of prominent beheadings, however. Muhammad’s earliest biographer, Ibn-Ishaq, describes how the prophet approved the beheadings of between 600 and 900 men from the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe following the Battle of the Trench. * Decapitation of a dead enemy on the battlefield was the “primary form of symbolic aggression among Ottoman soldiers,” according to this history of the Ottoman Empire. However, Christian Crusaders were known to do likewise—Fulcher of Chartres chronicles how, in 1099, 10,000 Jews and Arabs were beheaded in the Temple of Solomon during the capture of Jerusalem.

Outside the context of warfare, beheadings are accepted as a criminal sanction in parts of the modern Islamic world. Under Sharia law, there are no crimes that specifically call for decapitation, but it is one of a range of execution methods that may be employed, along with stoning or hanging. Saudi Arabia is the only nation that continues to make regular and official use of decapitation, though as of 2004, Yemen, Iran, and Qatar had laws on their books that explicitly allow it.

Among Western countries, court-sanctioned beheadings continued well into the 20th century: Murderer Johann Alfred Ander was Sweden’s last decapitation in 1910; the last German to be beheaded was Berthold Wehmeyer in 1949; and the last guillotining in France took place in 1977—though death by the “national razor” remained on the books until 1981, when France abolished the death penalty.

There’s at least one mention of a righteous beheading in the Bible—according to the Old Testament, David killed Goliath with a stone and then ran to the giant, drew his sword from his sheath, “and slew him, and cut off his head therewith,” before carrying the trophy to Jerusalem. And in the deuterocanonical book of Judith, the beautiful Hebrew widow seduces the Babylonian tyrant Holofernes and then, after getting him drunk, cuts off his head. For the act she is “made great,” becoming “the most renowned in all the land of Israel” (16:25).

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Explainer thanks Haider Ala Hamoudi of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, Anver Emon of the University of Toronto, Dipak Gupta of San Diego State University, Regina Janes of Skidmore College, and Khaleel Mohammed of San Diego State.

Correction, Feb. 21, 2009: Due to a copyediting error, the original version of this sentence identified “instil” as a misspelling that was “in the original,” as opposed to a variant spelling of the word—which, in any case, had been translated from the Arabic. ( Return to the second paragraph.)Also, the original version of this sentence misspelled “Qurayza.” (Return to the corrected sentence.)