Slate notes that "a Muslim man was accused of beheading his wife last week" -- a cursory and uninformative way to explain what happened in Buffalo last week -- and Slate's Explainer feature today undertakes to explain whether or not there is "any special significance to beheading in Islam." And the answer that The Explainer gives us is...Well, yes, but other people do it too!
Longtime Jihad Watch readers, and particularly readers of Hugh Fitzgerald's remarkable body of work, will know that this is a logical fallacy known as tu quoque -- an attempt to mitigate one's responsibility for a wrongdoing by pointing out that others also, perhaps even the accuser, do the same thing. It is a fallacy because it doesn't matter how many men behead their wives, it is wrong in every case. If the men are Christians, or Jews, or Hindus, or Buddhists, or Muslims, or atheists, it is wrong. If a Christian beheads his wife, it doesn't mean that the Muslim who beheads his wife the following week is somehow less responsible for his deed than he otherwise would have been. And if that Muslim beheads his wife because he believes that to do so is in line with Islamic texts and teachings, then those texts and teachings have to be addressed in some way -- discarded, reevaluated, reinterpreted -- in order to try to prevent recurrence of the behavior. And the existence of similar texts or teachings in other traditions does nothing to make this confrontation any less necessary.
Tu quoque is also misplaced in this instance, as in most instances, because it simply isn't true. There is justification in Islamic Scripture and tradition for beheading, and Muslims throughout history have considered that in beheading people they have been following the dictates of the Qur'an and Sunnah, and the example of Muhammad. And people who behead other people today are not exclusively Muslim, but they are overwhelmingly Muslims who are doing so in accord with the dictates of Islam. There simply aren't Jews or Christians beheading people and citing the example of David and Goliath, or Judith and Holofernes.
Why does this matter? Because to call attention to Biblical passages that no one believes are applicable in today's world, as if they were the equivalent of Qur'anic passages that are considered applicable today by jihadists the world over, is simply to avoid the hard work of scrutinizing how Islamic texts and teachings may have influenced Muzzammil Hassan as he came to believe that his wife must be beheaded -- and to sidestep the necessity of doing something about those texts and teachings so that there are no more Muzzammil Hassans.
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 [misspelling is in original] 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.
Actually, the literal understanding of this verse is paramount among Islamic commentators. Ibn Kathir says that it means that when Muslims "fight against" unbelievers, they should "cut them down totally with your swords." The Tafsir al-Jalalayn spells it out further: "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." And 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.
Modern-day jihad groups such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Al-Tawhid wal-Jihad in Iraq a few years ago pointed to this and other Qur'anic verses as justifications for their beheadings. And when al-Zarqawi beheaded Nick Berg in 2004, he invoked Muhammad's example: "Is it not time for you [Muslims] to take the path of jihad and carry the sword of the Prophet of prophets?... The Prophet, the most merciful, ordered [his army] to strike the necks of some prisoners in [the battle of] Badr and to kill them... And he set a good example for us."
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 Quyraza tribe following the Battle of the Trench.
It is refreshing to see this acknowledged at Slate, since Islamic apologists usually deny it, despite its presence in the earliest biography of Muhammad. But fear not! Christians did it too:
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.
But fear not! Non-Muslim countries do it too:
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).
Well, then! As soon as I see a squadron of Catholic militants beheading people and invoking the Book of Judith, I will retract everything in this article.
At the end of the piece, the author, Nina Shen Rastogi, thanks a number of Islamic scholars, presumably for providing her with information about beheading and Islam: 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.