Crucifixion, beheading, stoning and now burning alive? What does this mean?

Despite the ancient examples of capital punishment in the Bible, in modern times there’s been broad moral concern in Christianity and Judaism on whether it should ever occur.  

If legal, then what methods are proper?  Under secular law in the United States, hanging, firing squads and electrocution have given way to lethal injection, supposedly more humane though recent foul-ups raise questions about that.

Islam is unambiguous in endorsing executions for “just cause” (Quran surah 17:33). But what about the methods?

The Islamic State claimed religious sanction when it burned alive, proudly and on camera for all to see, Jordanian prisoner of war Muath al-Kasaesbeh, supposedly because this fellow Muslim was  an “infidel.”

In a good Reuters follow-up, doubly datelined from Dubai and Amman, Muslim religious figures denounced this form of execution. Sheik Hussein bin Shu’ayb, head of religious affairs in southern Yemen, declared that the Prophet Muhammad “advised against burning people with fire.” And Saudi Arabian cleric Salman al-Odah said “burning is an abominable crime rejected by Islamic law, regardless of its causes.” He added, “Only God tortures by fire.”

The most striking quote came from the grand sheik of Cairo’s venerable Al-Azhar University, Ahmed al-Tayeb, who said the pilot’s executioners deserve to be “killed, crucified or to have their limbs amputated.”

Amputation is the punishment prescribed for thieves in the Quran (surah 5:38), as many news articles have reported. But crucifixion? That form of lethal torture provoked global condemnation when employed recently by this very Islamic State organization. Yet the grand sheik could have quoted the Quran, which says “those who fight God and his Messenger” (that is, Muhammad) and fail to repent are “to be killed, crucified, have their hands and feet cut off on opposite sides, or to be banished from the land” (surah 5:33).

The Islamic State’s publicized beheadings, and use of that tactic by other Muslim terrorists, also bring furious condemnation.

Yet consider Saudi Arabia, which proclaims itself a totally Islamic state that adheres strictly to Sharia (religious law) in the criminal code. The Middle East Quarterly stated in 2005 that “over the past two decades, the Saudis have decapitated at least 1,100 for alleged crimes.”

Beheading is also the stated penalty if a Saudi Muslim converts to another religion.  Last September The Economist cited human rights monitors who counted 22 Saudi beheadings during just one 18-day period. Agence France Presse says that since Saudi King Salman began his reign Jan. 23 five criminals have been beheaded. Hardliners cite the Quran (surah 47:4): “When you meet the unbelievers strike their necks till you have bloodied them.”

Execution by stoning has been another controversial penalty in some Muslim lands,  traditionally applied to adulterers, which  does not stem from the Quran but teachings of Muhammad compiled in the Hadith.

This is a complex and sensitive topic, varies greatly by country, and tends to rouse ill will toward Islam. But The Religion Guy suggests that journalists carefully examine what forms of execution authentic Islam mandates, or allows, or forbids, and whether in the Islamic understanding a reconsideration is advisable or possible in the 21stCentury. Seasoned reporters will once again tap that list of Muslim experts they’ve been accumulating in these complex times.

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