WASHINGTON — The Islamic militants who beheaded two American hostages in the past two months justify their actions in part as an expression of their faith, but Muslim religious authorities say nothing in the Koran or Islamic law specifically calls for beheading or gives it any special significance.
Instead, it appears to be aimed simply at terrifying Americans, driving them out of the Middle East and destabilizing U.S. allies there.
Photos posted on a militant Islamic Web site Friday showed grisly scenes of the beheading of American technician Paul Johnson in Saudi Arabia by al-Qaeda militants, who referred to him as a non-Muslim ”infidel.” That followed the videotaped beheading of American businessman Nick Berg by al-Qaeda militants in Iraq in May. Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was photographed being beheaded by his captors in Pakistan in 2002.
According to some Muslim religious leaders and other experts, the Koran and Islamic law state that murderers, not innocents, can be sentenced to death, but only after a proper trial including testimony from valid witnesses. And the Koran doesn’t specify the means of execution. During the early days of Islam — the seventh century — the most effective execution was death by the sword.
”But beheadings are not mentioned in the Koran at all,” says Imam Mohamad Adam El-Sheikh, co-founder and chief cleric at the Dar Al Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Va. ”According to Islamic penal law, killers will be sentenced to death, but the means of execution are not mentioned.”
Much of what the Koran has to say on the subject is open to interpretation, he says. The most direct reference to capital punishment is Chapter 7, verse 48, which starts with a call for retribution similar to the Old Testament verse of ”eye for an eye.”
But it later urges that the ”pain of the sentence be less than the pain inflicted by the murderer upon his victim,” El-Sheikh says. He adds the section strongly implies that mercy will be granted to merciful prosecutors and judges if and when they face their own day of judgment.
”Whoever did this, we don’t condone this,” he says. ”They are not following Islam. They are following their own whims.” El-Sheikh says the beheadings ”could be the best means of propaganda available to them to force Americans to leave the country. They want to provoke international opinion with the intention of scaring people.”
”It’s a political, psychological ploy to show the enemy is merciless, vengeful and will stop at nothing,” Richard Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told the Associated Press last week. Militants know ”what will cause maximum shock in the Western public and particularly the American public.”
There may be no specific reference to beheadings in the Koran, but along with amputations, they have been common practice across the Arab world, and particularly in Saudi Arabia.
By human rights group estimates, Saudi officials have held hundreds of public executions over the past decade, most of them beheadings. Although the tide of opinion among Saudi judges and other authorities may be shifting away from this method, it has been employed as a sentence for murder, rape, drug smuggling and armed robbery. Women, youngsters and foreigners aren’t exempt, according to Human Rights Watch.