Center for Strategic Communication

The recent beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and the British aid worker David Haines by the Islamic State (IS) have been the subject of much media attention. Some of this attention has focussed on the question of whether IS is actually “Islamic” or not. World leaders like the American President Barack Obama and the British Prime Minister David Cameron have weighed in on this question by stating, respectively, that “[IS] is not Islamic” and “they are not Muslims; they are monsters”. The shock of seeing one’s countrymen being beheaded, Obama and Cameron’s wish to distinguish between the Islamic State and Islam as a religion and the fact that it is Muslims themselves who are often the victims of IS’s policies make such statements seem obvious. Still, one may wonder whether the question “Is IS Islamic?” is really one that non-Muslim politicians such as Obama and Cameron should answer. Although their reasons for doing so may be admirable, one could argue that the problem of whether IS is Islamic is fundamentally one for Muslims themselves to solve.

In any case, Muslims have spoken out frequently and clearly against IS and, more specifically, against the recent beheadings. To give a few examples: a group of Salafi scholars from Britain called on IS to release the British aid worker Alan Henning – who may be the next person IS is going to behead – just a few days ago and the famous Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen has similarly condemned IS’s beheadings in no uncertain terms. Such statements – and many others – would suggest that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are against IS and their beheadings of journalists and aid workers, which is most probably true. Yet how about radical Islamic scholars? Doesn’t their method of interpreting the Qur’an dictate that they should not only take the scripture literally when there is talk of cutting off people’s heads (e.g., Q. 8: 12), but also view such verses as applicable in this day and age against the people they frequently refer to as “the enemies of Islam”? This post looks at three relevant statements and writings by radical Islamic ideologues on the legitimacy of abducting and beheading James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines and (potentially) Alan Henning.


The first radical Islamic scholar who spoke out clearly against the beheadings was the Jordanian Abu Qatada al-Filastini, who is still in prison at the time of writing and limited his comments on this issue to statements to the press. He rejected IS as “Khawarij” and described them as “a bubble that will end soon” and also specifically condemned “the killing and slaughtering (al-qatl wa-l-dhabh) of the [American] journalists”. The reason of his being against this is that journalists are messengers, Abu Qatada states (here, here, here and here), and as such – he appears to imply – they should not be treated as combatants who should be killed, let alone slaughtered the way they were.

Interestingly, Abu Qatada does not state that the members of IS are non-Muslims. While he makes it crystal clear that he disagrees with IS’s policies and has done so for quite some time, he does not apply excommunication (takfir) to them. In fact, despite his severe criticism of IS, Abu Qatada simultaneously speaks out against the international coalition that is being built against IS, stating that “I am not in favour of an alliance against any Muslim. It is not allowed to agree with the alliance [against IS].” This seems to be an expression of the concept of al-wala’ wa-l-bara’ (loyalty and disavowal, see here, here, here, here and here for more on this topic), which dictates that one should have absolute allegiance to fellow Muslims and disassociate from non-Muslims. It also shows that Abu Qatada, in spite of his rejection of IS and its beheadings of journalists, cannot be counted on as a cheerleader for international action against that organisation.

Aid workers

A similar conclusion is reached by Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, another Jordanian radical Islamic ideologue who has often spoken out against IS but who, in his latest writing, also concludes that IS “is still in the ship of the Muslim community. It has not left it, despite its [own] striving to expel many Muslims from [the Muslim community through takfir].” The reason for al-Maqdisi’s latest article is not, however, to criticise the international anti-IS coalition, but to refute the idea that abducting and killing aid workers is Islamically legitimate. While David Haines had not been killed yet when Abu Qatada made his statements, al-Maqdisi focuses entirely on him and other aid workers.

Al-Maqdisi states that, in general, non-Muslims who enter Muslim lands to engage in charitable activities are not spies and should be treated as musta’minun (people who request and are given aman, an assurance of protection). As such, these aid workers should be protected and respected, al-Maqdisi writes, just as the Prophet Muhammad did with polytheists who helped him. Instead of abducting and killing them, al-Maqdisi states that they should be thanked for their help, citing a hadith stating that “he who does not thank people does not thank God”.

This is not the first time al-Maqdisi has defended aid workers. In an additional chapter for his book Waqfat ma’a Thamarat al-Jihad, written specifically after the bombing of the Baghdad headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 2003, he defends that organisation as truly humanitarian, respectful of Muslims and as having helped him personally by getting him books and magazines while he was in prison. He also condemns abducting or killing aid workers in that chapter and he does so again in his latest article with regard to David Haines and Alan Henning. Al-Maqdisi stresses that both men’s British nationality is quite irrelevant to this issue. While he states that “Britain has killed thousands of Muslims and has oppressed milions of them by its planting of the Jewish entity in the heart of the Muslim land”, the important thing here is that – referring to Alan Henning – “this British man came voluntarily with a charity organisation on which Muslims depend”. Jihadis, he claims, should distinguish between people instead of sullying jihad by killing everyone.

Call for release

Interestingly, al-Maqdisi writes that Qatada, Abu Qatada’s son, told him that his father had written to IS eight months ago to tell them to release Alan Henning, but that IS denied having abducted him at the time. Al-Maqdisi therefore admits to having been surprised when he saw Alan Henning as a hostage in one of IS’s videos. If this story is true, this appears to mean either that IS lied to Abu Qatada about this or captured Henning after Abu Qatada demanded his release. In any case, al-Maqdisi seconds his fellow scholar’s sentiment by calling for the release of Alan Henning and aid workers in general.

It is doubtful whether IS will heed al-Maqdisi’s call to release Henning, although there seems to be a precedent here. It was recently reported in the Jordanian press that al-Maqdisi had directly requested the mufti of Syrian al-Qa’ida-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) to release over 40 UN peacekeepers they had captured, which actually happened, as JN’s mufti, Sami al-’Uraydi, stated in a video message. Importantly, however, al-Maqdisi ideologically supports JN, has spoken highly of the group’s leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, and is personally very close to fellow Jordanian Sami al-’Uraydi. Since none of this applies to IS or its leadership – although al-Maqdisi used to be on very good terms with Abu Humam Bakr b. ‘Abd al-’Aziz al-Athari, “the caliphate’s scholar in arms” – his calls for releasing hostages is less likely to have the same effect on IS as it had on JN.


Perhaps the most important contribution to the debate on the (il)legitimacy of the recent beheading of Western captives (and certainly the most interesting) was written by Abu Mahmud al-Filastini, a lesser-known radical shaykh than the previous two mentioned. In a recent article, al-Filastini starts with a long citation from al-Maqdisi, but then moves on to give a much more comprehensive treatment of the permissibility of “slaughtering” someone than Abu Qatada and al-Maqdisi did. He starts his argument by stating that God has sent mercy (rahma) to people and that this idea does not square with ferocity in dealing with “the criminal enemies of God”. Even in killing, one should treat one’s enemies well, al-Filastini writes. The fact that some groups – he doesn’t mention names, but it’s clear who he’s talking about – do not apply this principle, al-Filastini writes, shows how little they understand. They act as if it is recommended or even compulsory to slaughter enemies, he states, while there is no evidence in the Qur’an that one should kill people by slaughtering them. Moreover, they also sully the image of jihad.

Al-Filastini writes that the classical Islamic scholarly rulings on slaughtering, which he seems to equate with killing someone in an unnecessarily painful way, or beheading someone range from “forbidden” (haram) and “reprehensible” (makruh) to allowed under certain conditions. No classical scholars, however, consider either slaughtering or beheading part of the Prophet’s Sunna. He goes on to list nearly universal scholarly condemnations of such practices and related acts, such as hurling away enemies’ heads through the use of mangonels.

The author then goes on to refute the arguments in favour of slaughtering and beheading. He cites verses from the Qur’an in which the believers are called upon to (in Arberry’s translation) “smite above the necks” (fa-dribu fawqa l-a’naq, Q. 8: 12) or to “smite their necks” (darb al-riqab, Q. 47: 4). Although such verses seem to justify what IS did to the Western captives they beheaded, al-Filastini points out that beheading people was simply the way people fought in the days of the companions of the Prophet because it was the easiest way to kill someone and the least painful method for the person being killed. This differs sharply from “acts of slaughter” like “the cutting of the neck and the prolonging of dying [as applied to the Western hostages]“, al-Filastini writes. He emphasises that there was no torture involved in the two verses mentioned above and that the word used in the Qur’an is “to smite” (daraba), not “to slaughter” (dhabaha). As such, the beheadings called for in the Qur’an cannot be compared with what we see today.

All hadiths presented as counter evidence supposedly proving that slaughtering is allowed are dismissed by al-Filastini as weak and unauthentic. As such, the author concludes, like Abu Qatada and al-Maqdisi before him, that the beheadings the world has witnessed in the past few months were not only damaging to the image of jihad but also contrary to the rulings of Islam. To be sure, none of the scholars cited goes so far as to label IS “not Islamic” or to refer to the group’s members as “monsters”, as President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron did, but taking into consideration that these are radical scholars who support al-Qa’ida, this is about as explicit a condemnation of the recent beheadings as one is likely to get from these ideologues.