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The Shariah-Math of Public Beheading

Contributor: Scott Allswang


On October 7th, 2011 eight Bangladeshis were publicly beheaded in Saudi Arabia for the crime of murdering an Egyptian in 2007. The execution created a virtual tsunami of support and protest worldwide. The proud declaration of the Saudi ambassador in Bangladesh that his country follows “Allah’s Law” was immediately addressed by nybangla.com with a video of Saudi prince in a nightclub, acting in a decidedly unIslamic fashion (see below). This occurs at a time when there is raging debate transpiring the world over, about the legitimacy of capital punishment. Many countries have abolished it. Creating theological awareness in the Muslim masses about its anti-Islamic nature can help its elimination.

References from the Quran and Prophet Mohammed’s statements, quoted below, show that like many Sharia laws the rule of public beheading has some apparent legitimacy from Islamic scripture. 

  1. Death sentence is allowed - 5:33. 
  2. Beheading is allowed by the words “Smiting Neck” - 8:12 and 47:4. 
  3. Blood money can be paid for unintentional killing of a Muslim - 4:92. 
  4. Punishment of intentional killing of a Muslims is consignment to hell– no worldly punishment ismentioned - 4:93. 
  5. “Life for life, eye for eye, nose or nose, ear for ear, tooth for tooth, and wounds equalfor equal”.  Forgiveness is encouraged – 5:45, 2:178. 
  6. Punishment in public is instructed - 24:2. 
  7. The Prophet is reported to have publicly beheaded adult captives of Banu Quraiza by the  verdict of Sa’ad b. Mu'adh – (Banu Quraiza had already agreed to comply with his judgment)- Sahih Bukhari 4-280, 5- 148, Sahih Muslim 4368, 4369, 4370, Sirat of Ibn Hisham, Ibn Ishaq page 464 etc. 

Let’s note that the Quran and Sahi Bukhari 9-21 encourage forgiveness and other options such as exile and forbids killing without “good reason.” This does not adequately explain what that exactly could be. According to Sharia law an intentional murder can be adjudicated in 3 ways:-

(1)   If the family of the victim pardons then the murderer is acquitted. 
(2)   If the family of the victim accepts Blood-Money then the murderer is acquitted. 
(3)   If the family of the victim does not agree to pardon or take Blood-Money then the murderer is sentenced to public execution.

This law shows sympathy to the victim’s family and grants a right which none, not even the State, can supersede. On the other hand we see in secular democracies that a governor or president at times “pardons” convicted murder who face a death sentence, without even consulting the victim’s family. This can be heart-breaking for the victim’s family to see the convicted murderer of their beloved one roaming around proudly! But this law has some devastating impact also – see below #5. The law of public-beheading and the killer’s acquittal by forgiveness or payment (the principle of “compoundability”) are problematic in our time for these theological and practical reasons. 

(1)   This law is the reason for the increased number of honor killings. When a woman is killed by her father or brother for alleged relationship or anything else, the family members “pardon” the killer because they don’t want to lose another member of the family by death sentence of the court.  
(2)   This law will create havoc among people if applied in many Third World countries. There are criminals/ killers who are enormously rich, well connected, politically powerful, and brutish in nature, and have pet brutish young cadres under their command to boot. They will be free to kill because they are in a position to threaten and force the poor helpless family of the victims to “Pardon” them with or without Blood-money and the State cannot do anything.
(3)   Verses 5:33, 8:12 and 47:4 were revealed in a context of war; these can not be stretched to cover personal murder. 
(4)   Verse 24:2 is about adultery, it cannot be stretched to murder. 
(5)   This law discriminates against women because if the victim has son/s, his daughter/s cannot pardon the murderer – (Sharia the Islamic Law – Dr. Abdur Rahman Doi – page 235). 
(6)   The Banu Quraiza incident has always been debated – there are good references against it. There are enormous problems and violence in all secondary sources of Islam. 
Although Hadiths and Sharia law stipulate that denying them turns a Muslim into an apostate (this is sheer blackmailing in the name of Islam), we must apply our right to accept or reject any or all of them totally or partially to achieve sustainable peace.
(7)   Above all and most importantly, the institution of Sharia law totally ignores the Islamic dynamics of updating social laws while keeping the value or the spirit of the Quranic and Prophetic injunctions intact.  Even Sharia-leaders admit that many of the Quranic dicta are contextual and cannot be applied today. Examples include slavery, Jizya tax for non-Muslims etc. Some are already updated such as some rituals of Hajj, zakat or Islamic Tax (originally it was given to a State-fund) etc.

Public beheading might have been necessary in the past in which the society consisted of unenlightened people or there was no better way of carrying out the death sentence. We don’t need it anymore.  More human ways are developed to punish a criminal. Even if death sentence to murderers is accepted, it must not be by beheading and in public. Moreover, people who believe that public beheading reduces murder cases are utterly wrong. Public beheading measurably failed to reduce murder cases.  As the BBC reports, last year (2010) 26 criminals were beheaded in Saudi. This year until October, 56 people have already been beheaded – more are coming up. So, all this law manages to do, is defame Islam and Muslims.

Criminal laws reflect the nature and magnitude of intellectual resistance to crimes. Lest we forget – “Language of protest shows the nature of the protester”. 
 
Family Security Matters Contributor Hasan Mehsud is a member of AILC (American Islamic Leadership Coalition). He can be contacted at hasan.mahmud@hotmail.com.

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