Friday, 5 September 2014

The Quran does not 'invoke beheading'.

On 2nd September 2014, The Telegraph published an article entitled "Where does the Islamic State's fetish with beheading people come from?" by Shashank Joshi
It began with this paragraph:
"Why does the Islamic State engage in beheadings and crucifixions? Of course, the practice of beheading is invoked in the Koran, but only the most extreme Islamic militants carry it out in the modern day."
It then went on to explain beheading as a weapon of terror in psychological warfare and to discuss whether it was logically speaking an effective strategy, the discussion of which I have no particular issue, but many people don't get past reading a headline and the first paragraph, and here I strongly object and lay out evidence to prove it is factually incorrect to state that the Quran invokes beheading.

I feel this is particularly important at such a time because these acts of barbarism are indeed horrific and must be stopped. I accepted The Quran as truth some ten years ago and I strongly believe that these young men who commit such atrocious acts are a victim of their own ignorance. Such ignorance needs exposing and Muslims everywhere need to be clear amongst themselves and to the wider community that beheading (and other acts of barbarism) play no role whatsoever in Islam and in fact stand against everything Islamic which has at its core a message of 'salam' (peace) and humanity.

I therefore asked the author via Twitter where in the Quran he was referring to regarding the invocation of beheading.

Shashank replied that 8.12 is the most famous example. He also pointed out that the term he used was 'invoked' not 'endorsed' and then went on to explain (in reply to someone else) that the Islamic State claims scriptural legitimacy.

But I believe that the Islamic State has no scriptural legitimacy at all regarding such an act, rather the opposite, and whilst the act of beheading is certainly 'not endorsed' in the Quran, it is not 'invoked' either.

Definition of Invoke
: to mention (someone or something) in an attempt to make people feel a certain way or have a certain idea in their mind
: to refer to (something) in support of your ideas
: to make use of (a law, a right, etc.)

Fist let me start with the verse at 8.12 in the Quran, but let's look at it in its entirety rather than take part of a sentence out of context which has been misinterpreted. This verse is from a chapter entitled 'Battle Gains' in which famous The Battle of Badr, is discussed in which it is known the Muslims were greatly outnumbered, and yet the Muslims won. This surah was sent to remind the Muslims, after the battle, that it was God (not might) who brought them victory, despite their lesser numbers.

This following translation is by M.A.S Abdel Haleem:

[8.9]"When you begged your Lord for help, He answered you, 'I will reinforce you with a thousand angels in succession.' [8.10]God made this a message of hope to reassure your hearts: help comes from God, He is mighty and wise. [8.11]Remember when He gave you sleep as a reassurance from Him, and sent down water from the sky to cleanse you, to remove Satan's pollution from you, to make your hearts strong and your feet firm. [8.12]Your Lord revealed to the angels: 'I am with you: give the believers firmness; I shall put fear into the hearts of the disbelievers - strike above their necks and strike all their fingers.'

This was clearly God talking to 'the angels' regarding striking the disbelievers with fear. It was certainly not a command for the Muslims to start chopping people's heads off. This passage is mentioned here as a reminder to the Muslims, after the battle, that it was God who put fear into their opponents, which resulted in the outcome of victory to the Muslims.

Later on in the same chapter the Muslims are commanded to incline towards peace as soon as those attacking do so:

[61]But if they incline towards peace, you must also incline towards it, and put your trust in God: He is the All Hearing, the All Knowing.

There is a second verse that I found is often referred to in the Quran when talking about beheading, surah (chapter) 47:4. This chapter again deals with the difficult issues of war - something the peaceful amongst us, including I, would rather avoid - but the Quran does not avoid guidance on the most difficult of matters which are very much a part of the world.

The translation by M.A.S.Abdek Haleem reads as follows:

[4]When you meet the disbelievers in battle, strike them in the neck, and once they are defeated, bind any captives firmly - later you can release them by grace or by ransom - until the toils of war have ended.

There are those that argue this is an instruction regarding the face to face combat specific at that time, during battle, and that the order was not to behead but 'strike in the neck', and if it was to behead then why would the verse then talk about what to do with the captives (since if they had been beheaded they would not be alive). I think this is valid argument and this alone should give one serious food for thought before concluding that Islamic scripture invokes the beheading of non-believers - or anyone at all at any time for that matter.

However, regarding this particular scripture, I think there is another translation that has not been considered. I must confess at this point that I am not a scholar of Arabic, rather I have a basic knowledge of the Arabic alphabet and basic vocabulary, but I find the Quran Word By Word site extremely helpful and I have also read several discussions regarding interpretations and explanations of key words regarding this and some other controversial verses.

For a word by word translation of 47:4 see here

It is the words at 47:4:5 and 47:4:6 that I suggest may be translated differently to all current translations that I could find, that would be more in keeping with the theme of the rest of the verse which talks about what to do with prisoners of war. The word 'fa darba' فَضَرْبَ here is translated as 'then strike'.  The word 'darba' stems from the route drb ض ر ب and can actually be translated in many different ways depending on context I have come to learn (as can many/most Arabic words). It is the same route as that which is used to describe the striking/parting of the sea by Moses in 26:63:5. One different translation I have come to understand that could be applied in this instance is 'to separate'.

The exact word 'l-riqābi' الرِّقَابِ, here translated as 'necks', is used in two other locations in the Quran and on both those occasions it refers to slaves/captives. Similarly, raqabatin رَقَبَةٍ is used in 6 locations and in all cases it refers to slaves/captives. In no other place could I find this word to mean 'neck' in the Quran, it therefore seems much more fitting that this word be translated in this instance as 'captives'.

The translation I therefore suggest as a more correct translation is:
'So when you meet those who disbelieve, separate the captives until you have subdued them'.
(Note I am as of yet undecided on the correct translation of the word here translated as 'those who disbelieve' but that is not the key point in this discussion).

Furthermore, I suggest that this entire verse talks about the protection of captives, rather than taking revenge on them, as the following verses go on to explain that God could have ordered punishment for them but didn't, so as to test us, and that we don't need to worry about those Muslims who have been killed since their deeds will not be forgotten and they will go to Paradise.

After reaching this conclusion and nearly finishing this post, I came across this, which actually suggests almost exactly the same translation as I:

It is taken from this discussion on the topic of 'wife beating' which is also an area that has been mistranslated and misunderstood, and certainly not condoned in Islam (although a topic for another day).

I love Islam, because it is a religion of humanity and peace. It is the religion where you say 'Salam' to the people you meet, even when someone annoys you, especially to the people that annoy you. It is the religion that encourages you to repel evil with something good. It is a religion that considers killing even one human being as being equal to the killing all of mankind. It is the religion that warns you of the risk of Hell for even the maltreatment of an animal and forbids even the cutting down of trees during war. When I come across a preaching that goes against peace, the wholeness of humankind, the importance of every single man, woman and child regardless of colour or status, the respect for every person regardless of religion, the protection of minorities (I could go on) then I instinctively know it is wrong and if it is based on scripture then there has been an elementary misunderstanding or mistranslation of that scripture (which will always happen when reading with a closed heart, due to the vast range of the Arabic language and political objectives).

I know there are several other disputed  verses in the Quran that people use to try and suggest otherwise, and in the coming weeks insha'Allah I shall attempt to address some of those verses too.


  1. I appreciate you writing this. There needs to be more of this kind of dialog to show the world that Islam is no different than any of the other major religions.

    Judeo-Christian religious writings are, themselves, filled with violence; however, as humanity's collective conscience has evolved, most adherents of these religions have ceased invoking religious right for committing violence -- with some notable exceptions.

    In the US, we have millions of practicing Muslims who are integrated and essential parts of our communities. My experiences with them, and from discussions I've had with Muslims overseas, leads me to the easy conclusion that the Islamic community is no different from the Jewish and Christian communities -- that the majority eschew violence, and especially the invocation of a religious right to violence.

    What those in the West must consider is that the continued poverty and repression of a large majority of people in the Middle East and Asia -- often supported by the West -- helps to breed extremism and a culture of fear and violence. The US and Europe have seen their own struggles with this in the past, and, even in the present -- maybe why the events in Fergueson, Missouri, a few weeks ago, gained such resonance with those in Gaza. Thus, they should understand this dynamic better, and act accordingly.

    Looking forward to more dialog of this type. :)

    Peter Simonetti

  2. It's very gladdening to see someone approach this with the attitude of peace. You should be applauded for this and for your research. However, I do have 4 points of contention with what you've written, maybe they are small, maybe not:

    Regarding: "strike above their necks and strike all their fingers."

    You say: "This was clearly God talking to 'the angels' regarding striking the disbelievers with fear."

    I find it strange to that their fingers would be mentioned too if this was referencing fear. But, maybe that is because of a different way of conceiving the body and how it is affected by fear. In Tibet, for example, when talking about consciousness they refer to it as residing mainly around the heart, not in the head as most Westerners do. It's common to talk about legs in reference to fear (my legs turned to jelly), hands shaking, and fingers - but why would fingers need to shake in battle?

    Having said all that, the next verse you quote also refers to striking them in the neck, so that would undermine the idea that the previous reference was to fear.

    Thirdly, you say "if it was to behead then why would the verse then talk about what to do with the captives (since if they had been beheaded they would not be alive)."

    Quite obviously (and thankfully!) you don't have to kill everyone to win a battle, so it's definitely not a valid point to make. The verse in English would imply that there are some left over naturally, like saying "Take the money on the table and get me some potatoes, once you've got them put any spare change towards some sweets." That could be down to translation, but as it stands, it's not valid.

    Finally, you talk about the use of the word "neck" and you suggest a better translation:

    "So when you meet those who disbelieve, separate the captives until you have subdued them"

    What does that mean though? It sounds like something mistranslated, like something Google Translate would return. It doesn't mean anything that would make sense in English, so I really don't agree with that point.

    As I said though, regardless of this, I found it heartwarming to see such well directed effort. If only everyone was so thoughtful about the way they live their life and the rules they live by.

  3. Re comment from Anon on 16 Jan:
    striking fingers with fear is relevant to a battle expecially one that involves bows and arrows (which this did) - think of a quivering bow for example. The second verse I quote does not actually refer to necks at all, that is a mistranslation, the word translated as neck actually means 'captive'. Regarding the word 'subdue' its meaning is 'to overcome, quieten, or bring under control' - fits perfectly with the context of war and is also the exact translation on the Quranic Arabic Corpus word by word translation. Thank-you for your thoughts and kind feedback.

  4. The question is - how many muslims read these passages in the same manner you did and how many are interpreting the words literally with "incorrect translation"? Perception is reality for 99% of them. So even though you might uncover the "true" meaning of the words - it does not matter for vast majority of the followers. Unfortunately, there is no tradition of common sense that is perpetrated by the leading muslim scholars. There is no outrage in the muslim communities that can be even remotely seen anywhere. Instead, the vahhabists use those very verses in quran to justify their barbaric prctices. Therefore, the beheading are muslim.

  5. The Quran is essentially an allegorical text with its roots in the mystery teachings of Babylon. It should never be interpreted literally in regards to its principles...