Just another old-fashioned, fundamentalist way to die? Part III

decapitationThe way things are going, I think that I will soon run out of acceptable file art for beheadings.

Anyone know of any appropriate sources? I would prefer line drawings and paintings. Wouldn’t you? Let’s keep them on the blurry side of things.

I just received an interesting letter on the topic from the veteran religion-news specialist at the Post-Gazette in Pittsburgh. Clearly, there are — no surprise to veterans on this beat — different ways to translate and interpret the scriptures that are involved in this issue. Here is some of what Rodgers has to say:

… (Just) for the heck of it I decided to look up the two Koranic verses that your cited in my copy of the Koran. (the Muhammad Asad translation). Let’s just say that the translation is VERY DIFFERENT from that cited in your piece. It speaks of “striking the neck,” but the context of one of the verse clearly indicates that the one so stricken would still be alive afterward. …

Sura 47:4 says “Now when you meet [in war] those who are bent on denying the truth, smite their necks until you overcome them fully, and then tighten their bonds; but thereafter [set them free,] wither by an act of grace or against ransom, so that the burden of war may be lifted: thus [shall it be].

Clearly, if someone can be set free after his “neck is struck” we can’t be talking about beheading here. Frankly, the imagery conjurs up a more violent form of the “Spock pinch” from Star Trek.

I have no doubt that many of my colleagues often accept statements about Islamic theology too naively because they don’t even know how to look up a verse in the Koran. By the same token, I think the person who wrote the column you quoted also naively accepted the statements of someone with the opposite agenda. I think many of us know from our adventures with biblical translation that explaining an ancient foreign expression in today’s English is often a challenge. I can understand how “strike the neck of your enemy” could be translated as beheading. But context seems to argue for another interpretation.

Slate.com is not known as a right-wing source, of course, but this letter did send me back into Google land looking for other examples of writing on this topic. I found two D.C. articles that raise all kinds of interesting points. I recommend both to you.

The first is by reporter Steven Mufson of the Washington Post and it is essentially a short history of the symbolism of beheading — in Islam and elsewhere. It covers, for example, the accounts from 627 A.D. of the prophet Muhammad approving the beheading of 600 Jews from a tribe living near Medina. He believed tribe members had held talks with his enemies.

But it also notes that, in some cultures, beheading was considered the humane approach to killing a heretic or enemy. Note, for example, this passage from the cultural elites of Christian England.

When Sir Thomas More was convicted … in 1535, his sentence was “that he should be … hanged till he should be half dead; that then he should be cut down alive, his privy parts cut off, his belly ripped, his bowels burnt, his four quarters set up over four gates of the City, and his head upon London Bridge.” King Henry VIII commuted the sentence to beheading. As a warning to others not to defy the king’s will, as More had by refusing to take an oath recognizing Henry’s supremacy to the pope, More’s head was indeed placed on London Bridge, where it stayed for several months.

So there. Meanwhile, over at the Washington Times, veteran reporter Julia Duin found some viewpoints that echo points made my Ms. Rodgers. The verses in question do not automatically refer to beheading a person or even killing them. For example, consider the following from Sam Hamod, former director of the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C.

The executioners, who claim to act in the name of Islam, he said, “may find a hadith [or saying of Muhammad] that supports it, but the Koran doesn’t allow it.” The killers didn’t even do the job right, he said.

“If they are going to have an execution, the [executioner] must say a prayer and ask for forgiveness from God for what he is doing and pray for the person’s soul being killed,” he said. “You can’t do it like the idiots on TV. The right thing to do is slit the person’s throat, not cut off the entire head.” …

Any Islamic capital punishment, he added, must be handed down by a panel of judges plus there must be four credible witnesses of an extreme crime committed by the person to be executed. And civilians — but not soldiers — are protected under Islamic law.

Perhaps this is yet another example of why newspapers and networks need to hire trained, committed religion-beat specialists. It’s hard to cover a story if you do not know it exists. Or don’t want to admit that you don’t know it exists and, thus, go look it up.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Mary S

    You might also have mentioned that St. Peter and Our Lord were crucified – as Jews – while St. Paul, a Roman citizen, was beheaded.

  • Chris Hawley

    Terry says: “The way things are going, I think that I will soon run out of acceptable file art for beheadings. Anyone know of any appropriate sources? I would prefer line drawings and paintings. Wouldn’t you? Let’s keep them on the blurry side of things.”

    We all struggle with this from time to time. My solution? A normal photograph of a man, with an airbrushed highlight of his normal neck, with a “BEFORE” caption to be more than enough for most situations.


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