Not only the Islamic State, but also Saudi Arabia, a kingdom that loudly proclaims its absolute fidelity to the Qur’an and Islamic law, regularly performs beheadings. Why so many misunderstanders of Islam? In this piece in Aleteia, Fr. Dwight Longenecker claims that it all comes from a misinterpretation of Qur’an 8:12: “Remember when your Lord inspired to the angels, “I am with you, so strengthen those who have believed. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieved, so strike upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip.”
There are just two problems with this: the Qur’an and Islamic law. Fr. Longenecker does not mention, and probably doesn’t know, what is actually the primary Qur’an verse that Islamic jihadists and supremacists use to justify beheading: “When you meet the unbelievers, strike the necks…” — Qur’an 47:4
The literal understanding of this verse is paramount among Islamic commentators. The Tafsir al-Jalalayn says: “in other words, slay them — reference is made to the ‘striking of the necks’ because the predominant cause of being slayed is to be struck in the neck.” Zamakhshari takes “strike at the necks” to mean that Muslims should strike non-Muslims specifically on the neck rather than elsewhere, so as to make sure they are dead and not just wounded.
Nor does Fr. Longenecker mention, and probably doesn’t know, that the practice of beheading is also sanctioned by the example of Muhammad himself, the supreme example for Muslim behavior (cf. Qur’an 33:21):
“Then they [the Jewish Qurayzah tribe] surrendered, and the apostle [Muhammad] confined them in Medina in the quarter of d. al-Harith, a woman of B. Al-Najjar. Then the apostle went out to the market of Medina (which is still its market today) and dug trenches in it. Then he sent for them and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out to him in batches. Among them was the enemy of Allah Huyayy b. Akhtab and Ka’b b. Asad their chief. There were 600 or 700 in all, though some put the figure as high as 800 or 900.” — Ibn Ishaq 690
Muslim and non-Muslim authorities and spokesmen the world over are rushing to reassure appalled non-Muslims that the Islamic State doesn’t represent Islam and that its actions are un-Islamic. However, when they do so, as in this piece, by failing to discuss key information, they are outstandingly irresponsible, and are lulling non-Muslims into a false sense of complacency. For this extraordinarily misleading peace, Fr. Dwight Longenecker and Aleteia owe their readers a retraction and apology. “There you go again, Spencer, being harsh and prickly,” you’ll say. And I’ll respond: No. The hour is far too late to be spreading this kind of misinformation, however well-intentioned. I know that the vast majority of people in the Catholic Church and the world at large really, really want what Fr. Longenecker writes here to be true, and that the point of view I represent is reviled and despised in both, but that doesn’t make what he says any more true, or what I say any less so.
“Does the Quran Command Beheading?,” by Fr Dwight Longenecker, Aleteia, September 3, 2014:
The beheading of Steven Sotloff and James Foley are not isolated incidents. From northern Iraq and Syria come gruesome videos of piles of severed heads, heads stuck on fence spikes, teenagers beheading prisoners and even children laughing and carrying severed heads in the streets.
In this article I asked “Why Do Muslims Behead People?” Douglas Murray, writing in the Spectator here argues that beheading is commanded in the Quran. He quotes Quran 8:12 which says, “When your Lord revealed to the angels: I am with you, therefore make firm those who believe. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.”
It certainly sounds like the Quran expects unbelievers to be beheaded and it reads as if this violence is a divine command intended to inspire terror. Wanting to understand Islam a bit better and give Muslims the benefit of the doubt I searched online for an Islamic explanation.
After all, the Christian scriptures could be mined for some rather violent commands from God. There is the commandment in I Samuel 15:3 where God commands King Saul to slay the Amelekites: “Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.” For that matter, the words of Jesus could be taken out of context. He says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
Has the damning verse from the Quran been taken out of context? The explanation from Muslim apologists is that the background for this command is within an actual battle situation. The Battle of Badr in the year 624 is the time and place where Muslim warriors were called to defend their people. Muslim apologists argue that it is just as unfair to generalize from this verse and say that the religion of Islam condones beheading as it is for critics of Christianity to say that I Samuel 15:3 commands genocide, and that Christianity is intrinsically a barbaric and violent religion.
It seems a fair argument. The damning verse from the Quran, just like the damning verse from the Old Testament, was set in a particular historical context in which the warriors claimed divine revelation for their acts of genocide or violence.
The problem however, is that there are no Christians today who are wiping out whole villages at the edge of the sword. There are Muslims however, who are doing so in the name of their religion. In Nigeria, Boko Haram are doing just that as this report from Reuters reveals. The same is happening in Syria and Northern Iraq as ISIS claims territory—evacuating villages, slaughtering their inhabitants, selling the women into slavery and burning churches. Jesus may have said, “I have not come to bring peace but a sword.” But everyone understands that he did not mean it literally.
However, the prophet in Quran 8:12 did mean for his soldiers to use the sword literally and without mercy, and the Islamic warriors of ISIS behead those they consider infidels out of direct obedience to Quran 8:12.
No doubt moderate Muslims are as dismayed by such fanaticism as a Christian would be to hear of genocide committed in obedience to I Samuel 15:3. Nevertheless, obedience to the Quran is the reason given by the terrorists, and the terror instilled in others by beheading—which is given as the reason for barbaric acts seems to be working.
The answer therefore is that Quran 8:12 does not command beheading, but fanatical Muslims are using the words from their Scriptures to justify unspeakable violence and terror. Instead they should listen to their own moderate and wise teachers. Many Muslim leaders have spoken out against the barbarians of ISIS. The fanatics should stop and learn from their own teachers and from their own Quran where it is written, “Indeed, Allah enjoins justice, and the doing of good to others; and giving like kindred; and forbids indecency, and manifest evil, and wrongful transgression.” (Quran 16:91)