The problem of beheading in Islam is a microcosm of the problems faced by the religion’s car-crash encounter with Western modernity as a whole.
The recent spate of terror attacks in Europe seems to be unending. In a sad twist of fate, the countries most generous and accommodating to their religious minority populations are far more likely to become victims of this, with four attacks this week in Germany alone, of which three featured perpetrators that were welcomed into the country as part of the recent migrant influx.
Countries that have staunchly refused to participate in the hosting of migrants, such as Poland and Hungary, have been mercifully unaffected.
Perhaps the attack that will stand out most among recent incidences of brutality and violence was the murder of Father Jacques Hamel in front of his congregation in his Rouen church on July 26. Two attackers, one of whom was only 19-years old, entered the church and took the congregation hostage. Recording themselves, they performed a sort of twisted sermon in Arabic before they slit the 85-year old’s throat in what was described by some outlets as a beheading.
This kind of murderous assault on a religious figure may strike Europeans as a sick new tactic in the war on terror. The unfortunate reality, however, is that neither beheadings nor attacks on spiritual leaders are without precedent.
The core Qur’anic verse referring to this comes from Surah 8 – Sūrat al-Anfāl, meaning the spoils of war – verse 12, in which Allah says: “I shall put fear into the hearts of the disbelievers – strike above their necks and strike all their fingers.” (M.A.S. Abdel Haleem translation)
Striking above the neck (or just striking at the neck, as some translations have it) is taken to mean beheading. This is reinforced by the actions of the early Muslim campaigns under Mohammed, most notably the genocide of the Banu Qurayza, a Jewish tribe in Arabia that capitulated to the Muslims after a brief military conflict and subsequently had every male reaching the age of puberty decapitated – al-Tabari puts this at between 800-900 boys and men.
Throughout most of Islamic history, beheading of the infidel was common in the context of expansionist wars between Muslim states and non-Muslim ones, and acts of mass beheadings of non-Muslims occurred at different times in the culturally Islamic space that spanned from Spain to India.
This leads to a significant difficulty in the habilitation of Islam under a modern post-enlightenment cultural framework. Muslims are supposed to emulate Mohammad, who is described in Islamic theology as ‘al-‘Insān al-Kāmil’ or ‘the perfect human being’.
When the mass beheading of men and boys of a non-Muslim faith on Qur’anic justification is considered to be one of the many acts of a perfect and flawless human being whose timeless example shows Muslims how to behave, a lasting problem is created for which there is no easy solution.
The Western world mostly woke up to the reality of beheadings of civilian targets during the insurgency in Iraq, when captured aid workers, prisoners of war and foreign contractors were abducted and subsequently beheaded in grotesque televised episodes. Yet the targeting of spiritual leaders for beheading is something that came to prominence recently with the emergence of Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL).
Since ISIS took control of the region, Catholic priests have been beheaded in Iraq and Syria. ISIS-inspired attacks in other parts of the world, such as Bangladesh, have also featured the beheading or partial beheading of Hindu priests and Buddhist bhikkhus.
So what justification do these extremist Muslims have for carrying out such attacks on innocent priests? We must look back to the same verse of Sūrat al-Anfāl, where Allah says, “I shall put fear into the hearts of the disbelievers” – in other words, to terrorize them. What better way to terrorize a community, whether religious or secular, than to target and kill their leaders?
Examples of this are not limited to recent history: the last emperor of the Byzantine Empire, a significant leader in the Orthodox Church, was decapitated by the Ottomans after their conquest of Constantinople.
Beheading is perhaps the ultimate emasculation of one’s enemy. All civilizations have had beheading as a method of killing and totally dishonoring an enemy or criminal. Warriors in societies as far afield as Aztec Mexico and pre-contact Japan would collect the heads of defeated enemies, and in France, decapitation was carried out as a form of capital punishment even until the late 20th century (the last guillotining was in 1977).
However, unlike other civilizations, the Islamic world has been unable to shed this vestige of pre-modernity because it is unfortunately contained within the Qur’an and in the example set by the messenger of God.
The problem of beheading in Islam is a microcosm of the problems faced by the religion’s car-crash encounter with Western modernity as a whole. While most Muslims will, of course, condemn this act of appalling brutality as well as others, many would be reluctant to allow reinterpretation of the faith to the extent that such acts are unambiguously forbidden, rather than being allowed by expedient interpretation of religious commandments.
But if this reinterpretation is not carried out on a grand scale, the consequences will likely be that many more across Europe must bear witness to what Father Jacques’ congregation had to see on that warm July morning. That future is one that we cannot allow.