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Does the Quran Command Beheading?

Steven Sotloff being held by ISIS


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Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 09/03/14

The debate within Islam

The beheading of Steven Sotloff and James Foley are not isolated incidents. From northern Iraq and Syria come gruesome videos of piles of severed heads, heads stuck on fence spikes, teenagers beheading prisoners and even children laughing and carrying severed heads in the streets.

In this article I asked “Why Do Muslims Behead People?”  Douglas Murray, writing in the Spectator here argues that beheading is commanded in the Quran. He quotes Quran 8:12 which says, “When your Lord revealed to the angels: I am with you, therefore make firm those who believe. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.”

It certainly sounds like the Quran expects unbelievers to be beheaded and it reads as if this violence is a divine command intended to inspire terror. Wanting to understand Islam a bit better and give Muslims the benefit of the doubt I searched online for an Islamic explanation.

After all, the Christian scriptures could be mined for some rather violent commands from God. There is the commandment in I Samuel 15:3 where God commands King Saul to slay the Amelekites: “Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.” For that matter, the words of Jesus could be taken out of context. He says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Has the damning verse from the Quran been taken out of context? The explanation from Muslim apologists is that the background for this command is within an actual battle situation. The Battle of Badr in the year 624 is the time and place where Muslim warriors were called to defend their people. Muslim apologists argue that it is just as unfair to generalize from this verse and say that the religion of Islam condones beheading as it is for critics of Christianity to say that I Samuel 15:3 commands genocide, and that Christianity is intrinsically a barbaric and violent religion.

It seems a fair argument. The damning verse from the Quran, just like the damning verse from the Old Testament, was set in a particular historical context in which the warriors claimed divine revelation for their acts of genocide or violence.

The problem however, is that there are no Christians today who are wiping out whole villages at the edge of the sword. There are Muslims however, who are doing so in the name of their religion. In Nigeria, Boko Haram are doing just that as this report from Reuters reveals. The same is happening in Syria and Northern Iraq as ISIS claims territory—evacuating villages, slaughtering their inhabitants, selling the women into slavery and burning churches. Jesus may have said, “I have not come to bring peace but a sword.” But everyone understands that he did not mean it literally.

However, the prophet in Quran 8:12 did mean for his soldiers to use the sword literally and without mercy, and the Islamic warriors of ISIS behead those they consider infidels out of direct obedience to Quran 8:12.

No doubt moderate Muslims are as dismayed by such fanaticism as a Christian would be to hear of genocide committed in obedience to I Samuel 15:3. Nevertheless, obedience to the Quran is the reason given by the terrorists, and the terror instilled in others by beheading—which is given as the reason for barbaric acts seems to be working.

The answer therefore is that Quran 8:12 does not command beheading, but fanatical Muslims are using the words from their Scriptures to justify unspeakable violence and terror. Instead they should listen to their own moderate and wise teachers. Many Muslim leaders have spoken out against the barbarians of ISIS.  The fanatics should stop and learn from their own teachers and from their own Quran where it is written, “Indeed, Allah enjoins justice, and the doing of good to others; and giving like kindred; and forbids indecency, and manifest evil, and wrongful transgression.” (Quran 16:91)

Fr Dwight Longenecker’s latest book is The Romance of Religion—Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at

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