In an article for Foreign Policy, Dr. Robert J. Bunker, whose biography describes him as, “a national security scholar with a research focus on violent 1266557778non-state actors — gangs, cartels, terrorists, and insurgents. He has been involved in a number of research projects related to ritual killing, torture and beheading, and suicide bombings, and has hundreds of publications” writes about “10 things you need to know about Radical Islamist beheadings:a primer“, and while some of the 10 points are of interest, much is wide of the mark. Consider:

Why beheading: Others forms of killing a hostage, such as firing squad, gun to the back of the head, or even stoning, do not hold the same cache for radical Islamists nor make for a good social media (video) spectacle. Beheading represents an historical archetype for radical Islamists and its mass use can be traced back to celebrated victories such as the battle of Zallaqa in 1086 when 24,000 fallen Castilians were said to have been beheaded and praises to Allah were sung on the piles of their heads. While many other world cultures and subgroups, such as Western Europeans, have beheading traditions (which include the French during their late 18th-century revolution), none of these older traditions are active except for its ongoing use by the state of Saudi Arabia, problematic in its own sense, which utilizes beheading as a form of Sharia-based capital punishment and may even engage in crucifixion  (also sometimes carried out by radical Islamists), after the fact, for some executions, and the more recent cartel beheadings out of Mexico and their surrounding areas of operation.

You’ll notice that in this analysis Bunker did not actually answer the question of “Why”, although he does note that it represents a “historical archetype for radical Islamists” that can be traced “back to celebrated victories such as the battle of Zallaqa in 1086…” But this does raises the question of why “radical Islamists” were beheading people after celebrated victories in 1086. The reality of course is that beheadings can be traced back far further than 1086, to such early reported conflicts as the battle of the early Muslims with the Jewish Banu Quaryza tribe of Medina, where, according to Ibn Ishaq (704-761)’s biography of Mohammed, between 600-900 Jewish men were beheaded. Even so, this is also a “historical” example, and not a doctrinal requirement. For that we must turn to Quran Sura 47:4,

So when you meet those who disbelieve [in battle], strike [their] necks until, when you have inflicted slaughter upon them, then secure their bonds, and either [confer] favor afterwards or ransom [them] until the war lays down its burdens. That [is the command]. And if Allah had willed, He could have taken vengeance upon them [Himself], but [He ordered armed struggle] to test some of you by means of others. And those who are killed in the cause of Allah – never will He waste their deeds.

To understand the significance of what this commandment demands, we can turn to an authentic classical tafsir (exegesis) of the Quran, such as Tafsir Ibn Kathir. Ibn Kathir writes that this Sura of the Quran is intended for “Guiding the believers to what they should employ in their fights against the idolators.” Ibn Kathir goes on to explain limitations on ransoms:

(tighten their bonds.) `This is referring to the prisoners of war whom you have captured. Later on, after the war ends and the conflict has ceased, you have a choice in regard to the captives: You may either act graciously toward them by setting them free without charge, or free them for a ransom that you require from them.’ It appears that this Ayah was revealed after the battle of Badr. At that time, Allah reproached the believers for sparing many of the enemy’s soldiers, and holding too many captives in order to take ransom from them. So He said then: (It is not for a Prophet to have captives of war until he had made a great slaughter (among the enemies) in the land. You desire the commodities of this world, but Allah desires (for you) the Hereafter. Allah is Mighty and Wise. Were it not for a prior decree from Allah, a severe torment would have touched you for what you took.) (8:67-68)

Of course this religious justification is important only if those groups Bunker is examining actually use these verses and jurisprudence to justify their behavior, which they do. As Timothy Furnish noted in his 2005 Middle East Forum article “Beheading in the Name of Islam“,

“Indeed, Zarqawi has commented that he would “accept comments from ulema regarding whether his killing operations are permitted or forbidden according to Islam—provided that the ulema are not connected to a regime and are offering opinions out of personal conviction, and not to please their rulers”…Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda is also on record as supporting beheadings, including that of at least one Egyptian worker in Iraq whom they classified as a “nonbeliever” by virtue of his citizenship in an apostate regime, as well as his presumed approval of the U.S. actions in Iraq.  Increasingly, Islamist groups conflate “unbelievers,” “combatants,” and prisoners of war, which, coupled with their claim to Islamic legitimacy, provides them with a license to decapitate.

Discussing why terrorists act as they do, while patently ignoring the reason which they themselves cite for their actions is an exercise in futility. Why does Bunker take such a roundabout method of “historical archetypes”? Perhaps because of another point in the piece, where he notes:

Relationship to jihad: These activities are the antithesis of mainstream and modernistic jihad defined as a personal struggle against sin practiced by the vast majority of today’s devout Muslims. Rather, it represents a throwback to the early interpretation of jihad as a component of the militant and expansionistic holy war of the original caliphate. This form of jihad represents a major component of the cultish behavior of al Qaeda network and Islamic State successor groups engaged in a global radical Islamist insurgency.

Bunker offers absolutely no evidence for this assertion that beheading is the “antithesis of mainstream and modernistic jihad”, and rightfully so, since it can not legitimately be defended. The recognition of jihad as a form of warfare for religion is not a “throwback”, but continues to represent the common understanding of the term, in any authentic book of Islamic law. Consider, for instance Reliance of the Traveller, an easy to read handbook of Islamic law certified as authentic by modern Islamic scholars in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt’s Al-Azhar university, and by scholars in the United States. Reliance of the Traveller describes Jihad thusly:

Jihad means to war against non-Muslims, and is etymologically derived from the word mujahada, signifying warfare to establish the religion.And it is the lesser jihad. As for the greater jihad, it is spiritual warfare against the lower self (nafs), which is why the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said as he was returning from jihad, “we have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.”

Thus Bunker’s characterization of a new interpretation of jihad which has replaced an older historical “throwback” version, is inaccurate and misleading. As Reliance notes, both “lesser” and “greater” jihads are understood to exist conterminously, and the one is not a replacement for the other. And despite being the “greater” jihad, Reliance says nothing further about “spiritual warfare” but proceeds to spend an additional 8 pages discussing the legal requirements for when, how, by and against whom jihad is to be waged, and what is to be done with the spoils of war, including non-Muslim captives, who, as previously noted, may be killed.

Dancing around the issue of violent jihad’s intrinsic role within authentic Islamic law (both classical, and modern), serves no purpose but to obfuscate. While it is true that many Muslims do not in fact engage in jihad, or behead people, this is in no way evidence of the presence or absence of jihad as a doctrinal obligation, or of beheading as a permissible (and even encouraged) method of execution.


Kyle Shideler is the Director of the Threat Information Office (TIO) at the Center for Security Policy. Kyle works to inject serious research and analysis on the subject of Islamic terrorism and Shariah law into the beltway policy discussion, by challenging false assumptions and providing fully documented resources, primary research and influential talking points to policymakers, journalists, and foreign relations professionals. Kyle has previously served as a Director of Research and Communications, Senior Researcher, and Public Information Officer for several organizations in the field of Middle East and terrorism policy since 2006. He is a contributing author to “Saudi Arabia and the Global Islamic Terrorist Network: America and the West’s Fatal Embrace,” and has written for numerous publications as well as briefed legislative aides, intelligence and law enforcement officials, and the general public on the threat posed by Islamist influence and penetration operations.

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