Tory Shepherd undercuts journalistic standards

Tory Shepherd, Does Islam sanction beheadings?
Bernie Finn ... jumped into what has become a rather messy debate on assimilation by saying on Facebook that he failed to understand “how concerns about a religion that seems to sanction decapitation can be construed as racism”...

Moving on to today’s question: Does Islam sanction decapitation?

By its very nature as an ancient text in another language, the Koran’s stance is murky.

For hundreds and hundreds of years the text has been debated, interpreted, reinterpreted, warped and rejigged and put to nefarious purposes. Some clerics say it does not mention beheadings at all.

While others cite specific passages – and, mind you, specific interpretations of specific passages – that talk about beheading.

Like the Bible, the Koran is full of violent imagery, bloody deeds and fiery retributions. There may be some smiting of necks involved.

Does that mean Islam sanctions beheading? About as much as [insert religion] sanctions [insert archaic and context-specific atrocity here].

So I call bullshit on Mr Finn.
Hey, mind the language, there might be some ladies reading.

So, apparently any religion is unknowable and can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways.

Her argument is that all religions have violent histories and can be interpreted in evil or peaceful ways, and trying to look for norms of interpretation is pointless and we should instead concentrate on supporting moderates and subduing extremists.

It's a convenient answer, particularly if you don't want to actually investigate yourself. But is it correct? Can we indeed finds normative interpretations of Islam? Yes, we can. And can we find equivalent violent interpretations and examples in Christianity? No, not to the same extent.

Andrew G. Bostom, The Sacred Muslim Practice of Beheading
Reactions to the grotesque jihadist decapitation of yet another "infidel Jew," Mr. Berg, make clear that our intelligentsia are either dangerously uninformed, or simply unwilling to come to terms with this ugly reality: such murders are consistent with sacred jihad practices, as well as Islamic attitudes towards all non-Muslim infidels, in particular, Jews, which date back to the 7th century, and the Prophet Muhammad's own example...

The classical Muslim jurist al-Mawardi (a Shafi'ite jurist, d. 1058) from Baghdad ... wrote the following, based on widely accepted interpretations of the Qur'an and Sunna (i.e., the recorded words and deeds of Muhammad), regarding infidel prisoners of jihad campaigns:

"As for the captives, the amir [ruler] has the choice of taking the most beneficial action of four possibilities: the first to put them to death by cutting their necks; the second, to enslave them and apply the laws of slavery regarding their sale and manumission; the third, to ransom them in exchange for goods or prisoners; and fourth, to show favor to them and pardon them. Allah, may he be exalted, says, 'When you encounter those [infidels] who deny [the Truth=Islam] then strike [their] necks' (Qur'an sura 47, verse 4)" ...

... We should not be surprised that these contemporary paroxysms of jihad violence are accompanied by ritualized beheadings. Such gruesome acts are in fact sanctioned by core Islamic sacred texts, and classical Muslim jurisprudence. Empty claims that jihad decapitations are somehow "alien to true Islam," however well-intentioned, undermine serious efforts to reform and desacralize Islamic doctrine. This process will only begin with frank discussion, both between non-Muslims and Muslims, and within the Muslim community.
Timothy R. Furnish, Beheading in the Name of Islam
Decapitation in Islamic History

The practice of beheading non-Muslim captives extends back to the Prophet himself. Ibn Ishaq (d. 768 C.E.), the earliest biographer of Muhammad, is recorded as saying that the Prophet ordered the execution by decapitation of 700 men of the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe in Medina for allegedly plotting against him.[21] Islamic leaders from Muhammad's time until today have followed his model. Examples of decapitation, of both the living and the dead, in Islamic history are myriad. Yusuf b. Tashfin (d. 1106) led the Al-Murabit (Almoravid) Empire to conquer from western Sahara to central Spain. After the battle of Zallaqa in 1086, he had 24,000 corpses of the defeated Castilians beheaded "and piled them up to make a sort of minaret for the muezzins who, standing on the piles of headless cadavers, sang the praises of Allah."[22] He then had the detached heads sent to all the major cities of North Africa and Spain as an example of Christian impotence. The Al-Murabits were conquered the following century by the Al-Muwahhids (Almohads), under whose rule Castilian Christian enemies were beheaded after any lost battles.
Robert Spencer, Bible and Qur’an: equally violent?
Bible and Qur’an: equally violent?

Besides passages apparently celebrating warfare and ethnic cleansing as sanctioned by almighty God, the books of Moses also contain other passages jarring to modern sensibilities. God commands, for example, that Sabbath-breakers be put to death … So are idolaters … The Book of Exodus contains some brief guidelines for occasions in which “a man sells his daughter as a slave” … And there is more, here and there, that has raised eyebrows not only in modern times but throughout history.

But is the Bible really enjoining violence, both against nonbelievers and believers who commit sins deemed worthy of capital punishment? This question cannot be answered by an evaluation of the text alone, for that text does now and has never in history stood apart from the way believers have understood it and acted upon it. From that perspective, the arguments … founder primarily upon one central fact: there are no armed Jewish or Christian groups anywhere in the world today who are committing acts of violence and justifying them by referring to these texts. Indeed, throughout history, these texts have never been taken as divine commands that either must be or may be put into practice by believers in a new age. All these passages, after all, are descriptive, not prescriptive. They nowhere command believers to imitate this behavior, or to believe under any circumstances that God wishes them to act as his instruments of judgment in any situation today.

… throughout history, rather than celebrating such biblical passages, Jews and Christians have regarded them as a problem to be solved. While interpretations of these passages differ widely among Jews and Christians, from the beginnings of rabbinic Judaism and Christianity one understanding has remained dominant among virtually all believers: these passages are not commands for all generations to follow, and if they have any applicability at all, it is only in a spiritualized, parabolic sense…

In short, the consensus view among Jews and Christians for many centuries is that unless you happen to be a Hittite, Girgashite, Amorite, Canaanite, Perizzite, Hivite, or Jebusite, these Biblical passages simply do not apply to you. The Scriptures records God’s commands to the Israelites to make war against particular people only. However this may be understood, and however jarring it may be to modern sensibilities, it does not amount to any kind of marching orders for believers. That’s one principal reason why Jews and Christians haven’t formed terror groups around the world that quote these Scriptures to justify killing civilian non-combatants…

But the Bible has made people commit violent acts – hasn’t it?

… certainly Christians have committed violent acts in the name of Christianity. But have they done so in obedience to Christian Scripture and the teachings of the various Christian sects, or in defiance of those Scriptures and teachings? During the Crusades, it became customary for those who joined the effort to be referred to as “taking up their cross,” echoing Jesus’ statement: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

But on its face, of course, this says nothing about war or violence of any kind, and has been understood throughout history as referring primarily to the Christian’s struggle to conform his life to the demands of the Gospel. And so it is with all Biblical passages that the Crusaders and Crusader theologians invoked: they often performed a reverse of the spiritualization we saw in connection with the Book of Joshua, taking what are clearly spiritual passages as if they were referring to physical warfare…

St. Bernard goes on in language reminiscent of that used in his day and today to exhort jihad warriors to fight on all the more valiantly, for their rewards will be great on earth if they are victorious and in heaven if they aren’t…

However, while Bernard is able to marshal Scriptural passages for the idea that God rewards martyrs, and that God is the Lord of both the living and the dead, he does not and cannot adduce any Scripture in support of his central assumption: that warfare in the name of Christ is justified. The fact that he must instead resort to the physicalization of passages about spiritual warfare only makes more obvious the fact that can have no recourse to any Christian martial tradition, or doctrine of warfare against and conquest of unbelievers.

In Islam, however, the situation is quite different.
Rudolph Peters, Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam
During the second half of the eighth century the first comprehensive treatises on the law of jihad were written by al-Awza’i (d. 774) and Muhammad al-Shaybani (d. 804). The legal doctrine of jihad was the result of debates and discussions that had been going on since the Prophet’s death and through which the doctrine had been developed. The period in which the doctrine of jihad was gradually formulated coincided with the period of the great conquests…

The doctrine of the jihad, as laid down in the works on Islamic law, developed out of the Koranic prescriptions and the example of the Prophet and the first caliphs, which is recorded in the hadith. The crux of the doctrine is the existence of one single Islamic state, ruling the entire umma. It is the duty of the umma to expand the territory of this state in order to bring as many people under its rule as possible. The ultimate aim is to bring the whole earth under the sway of Islam and to extirpate unbelief …

(sourced from Andrew Bostom’s Legacy of Jihad)
And now back to Robert Spencer:
Violence in the Qur’an?

… in contrast to the Bible, the Qur’an exhorts believers to fight unbelievers without specifying anywhere in the text that only certain unbelievers are to be fought, or only for a certain period of time, or some other distinction. Taking the texts at face value, the command to make war against unbelievers is open-ended and universal.

But aren’t you just cherry-picking violent passages?

… when I list Quranic passages that counsel violence, I am often accused of “cherry-picking” the worst of such passages in order to try to portray Islam in the worst possible light, and ignoring similar material in the Bible. In both cases, however, the question of whether or not one is “cherry-picking” can only adequately be solved by recourse to the mainstream interpretative traditions that have guided believers’ understanding of their respective holy books. And as we have seen, mainstream Bible commentators on both sides of the Reformation divide do not consider the Bible’s most violent passages to contain anything like marching orders for believers to make war against unbelievers.

In regard to the Qur’an, on the other hand, the situation is very different. It is not Gary Frazier – or Robert Spencer – who is “cherry-picking” violent passages from the Qur’an. Muslims themselves are doing so, or rather, have recourse to a venerable and mainstream mode of Quranic interpretation that exalts the violent verses at the expense of the peaceful ones — and this is one reason why the jihadist movement is growing all over the Islamic world today…

All this means that warfare against unbelievers until they either become Muslim or “pay the jizya” — the special tax on non-Muslims in Islamic law — “with willing submission” (Qur’an 9:29) is the Qur’an’s last word on jihad. Mainstream Islamic tradition has interpreted this as Allah’s enduring marching orders to the human race: the Islamic umma (community) must exist in a state of perpetual war, punctuated only by temporary truces, with the non-Muslim world.

All four principal Sunni schools agree on the importance of jihad. Ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani (d. 996), a Maliki jurist, declared:

Jihad is a precept of Divine institution. Its performance by certain individuals may dispense others from it. We Malikis maintain that it is preferable not to begin hostilities with the enemy before having invited the latter to embrace the religion of Allah except where the enemy attacks first. They have the alternative of either converting to Islam or paying the poll tax (jizya), short of which war will be declared against them.

Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), a Hanbali jurist who is a favorite of Osama bin Laden and other modern-day jihadists:

Since lawful warfare is essentially jihad and since its aim is that the religion is God’s entirely and God’s word is uppermost, therefore according to all Muslims, those who stand in the way of this aim must be fought. As for those who cannot offer resistance or cannot fight, such as women, children, monks, old people, the blind, handicapped and their likes, they shall not be killed unless they actually fight with words (e.g. by propaganda) and acts (e.g. by spying or otherwise assisting in the warfare).

The Hanafi school sounds the same notes:

It is not lawful to make war upon any people who have never before been called to the faith, without previously requiring them to embrace it, because the Prophet so instructed his commanders, directing them to call the infidels to the faith, and also because the people will hence perceive that they are attacked for the sake of religion, and not for the sake of taking their property, or making slaves of their children, and on this consideration it is possible that they may be induced to agree to the call, in order to save themselves from the troubles of war… If the infidels, upon receiving the call, neither consent to it nor agree to pay capitation tax, it is then incumbent on the Muslims to call upon God for assistance, and to make war upon them, because God is the assistant of those who serve Him, and the destroyer of His enemies, the infidels, and it is necessary to implore His aid upon every occasion; the Prophet, moreover, commands us so to do.

And so does the Shafi’i scholar Abu’l Hasan al-Mawardi (d. 1058), who echoes Muhammad’s instructions to invite the unbelievers to accept Islam or fight them if they refuse:

The mushrikun [infidels] of Dar al-Harb (the arena of battle) are of two types: First, those whom the call of Islam has reached, but they have refused it and have taken up arms. The amir of the army has the option of fighting them…in accordance with what he judges to be in the best interest of the Muslims and most harmful to the mushrikun… Second, those whom the invitation to Islam has not reached, although such persons are few nowadays since Allah has made manifest the call of his Messenger…it is forbidden to…begin an attack before explaining the invitation to Islam to them, informing them of the miracles of the Prophet and making plain the proofs so as to encourage acceptance on their part; if they still refuse to accept after this, war is waged against them and they are treated as those whom the call has reached…

These are all extremely old authorities – such that one might reasonably assume that whatever they say couldn’t possibly still be the consensus of the Islamic mainstream. The laws of the United States have evolved considerably since the adoption of the Constitution, which itself has been amended. So why shouldn’t this be true of Islamic law as well? Many observers assume that it must be, and that Al-Qaeda’s departure from mainstream Islam must be located in its preference for the writings of ancient jurists rather than modern ones. But in this, unfortunately, they fail to reckon with the implications of the closing of the gates of ijtihad.

Ijtihad is the process of arriving at a decision on a point of Islamic law through study of the Qur’an and Sunnah. From the beginning of Islam, the authoritative study of such sources was reserved to a select number of scholars who fulfilled certain qualifications, including a comprehensive knowledge of the Qur’an and Sunnah, as well as knowledge of the principle of analogical reasoning (qiyas) by which legal decisions are made; knowledge of the consensus (ijma) on any given question of Muhammad, his closest companions, and the scholars of the past; and more, including living a blameless life. The founders of the schools of Islamic jurisprudence are among the small number of scholars — mujtahedin — thus qualified to perform ijithad. But they all lived very long ago; for many centuries, independent study of the Qur’an and Sunnah has been discouraged among Muslims, who are instead expected to adhere to the rulings of one of those established schools. Since the death of Ahmed ibn Hanbal, from whom the Hanbali school takes its name, in 855 A.D., no one has been recognized by the Sunni Muslim community as a mujtahid of the first class – that is, someone who is qualified to originate legislation of his own, based on the Qur’an and Sunnah but not upon the findings of earlier mujtahedin. Islamic scholar Cyril Glasse notes that “‘the door of ijtihad is closed’ as of some nine hundred years, and since then the tendency of jurisprudence (fiqh) has been to produce only commentaries upon commentaries and marginalia.” …

Closing the doors of ijtihad has had extremely detrimental ramifications for the Muslim world. According to Qazwini, this decision has resulted in chronic intellectual stagnation, as thousands of potential mujtahids and scholars have been prohibited from offering workable solutions to newly emerging problems. Muslim thinkers have become captive to rules that were made long ago, leaving little scope for liberal or innovative thought…

The problem is that however much of a dead letter it became in practice during times of weakness in the Islamic world, this doctrine of Islamic supremacism was never reformed or rejected. No one seems to have told the warriors of jihad who besieged Europe through the seventeenth century that the Islamic empire had already reached the limits of its expansion centuries before. No one seems to have told the modern-day warriors of Islam from Bosnia to the Philippines that jihad is a dead letter, and that Islam isn’t doing any more expanding…

Underscoring the fact that none of this is merely of historical interest is another Shafi’i manual of Islamic law that in 1991 was certified by the highest authority in Sunni Islam, Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, as conforming “to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni community.” This manual, ‘Umdat al-Salik (available in English as Reliance of the Traveller), spends a considerable amount of time explaining jihad as “war against non-Muslims.” It spells out the nature of this warfare in quite specific terms: “the caliph makes war upon Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians . . . until they become Muslim or pay the non-Muslim poll tax.” It adds a comment by a Jordanian jurist that corresponds to Muhammad’s instructions to call the unbelievers to Islam before fighting them: the caliph wages this war only “provided that he has first invited [Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians] to enter Islam in faith and practice, and if they will not, then invited them to enter the social order of Islam by paying the non-Muslim poll tax (jizya) . . . while remaining in their ancestral religions.” …

For this to end, peaceful Muslims around the world would have to confront the fact that bin Laden and other jihad terrorists are regularly justifying their violence by reference to passages of the Qur’an and the words and deeds of Muhammad. If they don’t acknowledge this and formulate new and non-literalist ways of understanding this material, it will continue to be used to incite violence. In other words, the use that jihadists make of elements of the Qur’an and Muhammad’s teaching makes it incumbent upon peaceful Muslims to perform a searching reevaluation of how they understand those elements, so as to neutralize their capacity to set Muslims against non-Muslims.

People will do evil in all kinds of circumstances, and use all manner of justification for it; but the violent passages in the Bible are not equivalent to those in the Qur’an in content, in mainstream interpretation, or in the effect they have had on believers through the ages. The fact that in Islam violence against unbelievers has divine sanction in a way that it does not in Christianity makes religious violence more prevalent and harder to eradicate in Islam than it has ever been in Christianity. To equate it to a jumble of passages from the Bible to which no one would otherwise be paying any attention at all, at least as direct marching orders for twenty-first century warriors, is specious and dangerously misleading.
This distinction between Christianity and Islam has been known for a long time. Andrew Bostom:
The consensus on the nature of jihad from major schools of Islamic jurisprudence is clear. Summarizing this consensus of centuries of Islamic thought, the seminal Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun, who died in 1406, wrote:

In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty because of the universalism of the mission and (the obligation to) convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force. The other religious groups did not have a universal mission, and the holy war was not a religious duty for them, save only for purposes of defense.

Only Islam, Ibn Khaldun added, ‘is under obligation to gain power over other nations.’
Robert Spencer, Afghans: Beheading is un-Islamic
It is unfortunate, but not surprising, that no one quoted in this Reuters story explains why beheading is un-Islamic, or tells us how he would respond to a Muslim who justified beheading on the basis of Qur'an 47:4: "Therefore, when ye meet the Unbelievers (in fight), smite at their necks..." There is no hint of how these anti-beheading Muslims might respond to someone who invoked Muhammad's example, as well as that of numerous Muslim warriors throughout history, to justify beheading.

And that is always the problem. Peaceful Muslims flatly assert that this or that heinous practice -- a practice that other Muslims are justifying in the name of Islam and by means of Islamic texts -- is un-Islamic. Then, if someone like me dares to point out that a flat assertion is hardly likely to convince the jihadists that what they're doing is in fact un-Islamic, the cries of "bigotry" and "Islamophobia" fly thick and fast. I should be "supporting the moderates," you see, instead of "undercutting" them.

But the problem still remains: we're just supposed to take their word for it that these things are un-Islamic, but the mujahedin don't seem disposed to do so.
File under: histories are not the same, religions are not the same, ideologies are not the same, and ... journalists are not like they used to be i.e. concerned with facts, reason, judgement, distinctions and knowledge.


  1. As well as being an insult to history and intelligence, it's also an insult to Muslims to assert that their religion is so plastic it can be interpreted any which way. It's virtually saying: your religion is so vague and ill-defined as to be meaningless, as meaningless as a pot of tea leaves from which you can read anything.

  2. "as meaningless as a pot of tea leaves". Yeah, good point.