THE ILLEGITIMATE THEOLOGY OF ISIS AND THE PUNISHMENT OF BURNING
The world was shocked in February 2015 when ISIS burned a 26-year-old Jordanian air force pilot alive and released an expertly-edited video about it. The media called this a ‘new level of barbarity,’ but for several years already, the world had been watching beheadings, flogging, cutting off hands and legs, stoning, and even crucifixions practiced by this group that calls itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The reports of those atrocities caused worldwide debates as to whether Islam justified such cruelties. But seeing a person being burned alive has caused many Muslims and non-Muslims alike to conclude that these actions definitely cannot be justified by Islam!
Nevertheless, in responding to the world criticism, ISIS used Islamic texts from both Qur’an and sunnah to justify burning an enemy alive. The question thus arises: Is there really an Islamic teaching that justifies such a punishment? What is the Islamic legal basis that this group used to justify their action?
I Refuting the Argument of Equal Retaliation
The primary source that ISIS used to justify burning the pilot alive is the first part of the qur’anic verse in Surah 16:126 which speaks about a principle known as equal retaliation (qisas): ‘If ye punish, then punish with the like of that wherewith ye were afflicted.’ ISIS argued that the pilot, by flying an air fighter and dropping bombs on buildings, caused people to die by fire and to be buried by the debris. ISIS argued that the aforementioned verse calls for equal retaliation, which, in the case of this pilot, meant to burn him alive and to bury him in debris.
However, the second part of the verse says: ‘But if ye endure patiently, verily it is better for the patient.’ It is very important to look at the second part of this verse and the historical context of when this verse was revealed in order to determine whether or not the ISIS understanding of this qur’anic verse is correct. We must also consider how other Qur’an interpreters comment on the verse.
The majority of the Sunni scholars and the qur’anic commentators believe that this verse was revealed in Medina and referred to the story of the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s uncle Hamza ibn Abdul-Mutallib, who was killed during the battle of Uhud. Afterwards a woman named Hind cut open his body and ate some of his liver. Interestingly there is no record of Muhammad retaliating against his enemies for killing his uncle and treating his body in such a cruel way.
Some of the Muslim scholars including Ibn Malik believe that the first part of Surah 16:126, which speaks about retaliation, was abrogated by the second part which speaks about patience instead of retaliation. When the historical context is also taken into consideration, this verse is actually a strong evidence to counter the principle of retaliation. If even the Prophet of Islam did not retaliate against his enemies this verse can hardly be considered a legitimate justification for ISIS burning an enemy alive.
The leading Islamic jurist of ISIS, Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir, however, promotes the practice of equal retaliation in his book about the Islamic jurisprudence concerning jihad (Ma-sa-el Fi Fiqh al-Jihad). This book uses Surah 16:126 to justify the practice of equal retaliation and he even explicitly mentioned the option of punishing an offender by burning the person alive or by burning his dead body.
II Early Muslim Leaders Burning Enemies
Hussein bin Mahmud, another jurist of ISIS, authored an entire study on burning enemies. In his study, Mahmud defends and promotes the punishment of burning, declaring that terrorizing the enemies is always a good act, especially in times of war. Mahmud points out that the Islamic caliphs and the companions of the Prophet set the example of punishing enemies by burning. They used this method for the purpose of casting fear and terror into the enemies’ hearts.
Mahmud cited two stories from Islamic history about two of the most famous followers of Muhammad. The first one speaks of an incident in the life of Ali ibn Abu Talib, who burned some of the followers of Abdullah ibn Saba alive for having called Ali to be God. The second report speaks about Khalid ibn al-Walid, the chief commander of the Islamic army at the time of the prophet muhammad, who burned several apostates for following a woman who claimed to be a prophet (Sajah) and for stopping payment of the charity (zakat), which is considered a religious duty and one of the five pillars of Islam. The historical background of this hadith is a massive wave of apostasy that hit the Arabian peninsula after the death of the Prophet Muhammad and during the time of the first Caliph, Abu Bakr. In this time, hundreds of thousands of Muslims rejected paying the charity tax to the Islamic state. Abu Bakr considered their refusal to pay the zakat as rejecting Islam and thus as an act of apostasy. Therefore, he waged war against anyone who refused to pay the zakat or followed the prophet Sajah.
These stories have caused several famous Islamic scholars in Islamic history to be in favor of the punishment of burning, including Imam Sufyan al-Thawri, Imam ibn Hajr, Imam Malek, Sheikh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyah, and Imam ibn al-Qayim.
III Refuting the Reports of the Prophet Using Burning
A third hadith that seems to give the strongest support for the cruel practice of burning, is a hadith that speaks about the Prophet Muhammad himself. According to this hadith the Prophet tortured some men for having stolen his camels and for having killed the sheperds and for leaving Islam. The hadith reports that the Prophet had their hands and feet cut off, and branded their eyes with heated nails. Eventually he let them die of thirst in the desert. According to Sheikh al-Albani, however, who is considered as one of the most knowledgeable scholars of hadith in our modern time, this report, is a weak hadith, which means that it has poor credentials for authenticity. Furthermore this hadith is in stark contrast with the hadith that quotes the Prophet saying: ‘…[D]o not burn him, for nobody punishes with fire except the Lord of the Fire.’  In another hadith the Prophet said: ‘Don't punish (anybody) with Allah's punishment.’ The term Allah’s punishment is refering to the punishment of burning, as we can see from several ahadith which declare explicitly that Allah is the only one who has the right to burn: ‘… It is not allowed to punish with fire, except for the Lord of the Fire.’ And ‘… [P]unishment with fire is done by none except Allah, ….’
All these ahadith speak a very clear language, leaving no doubt that the punishment of burning is absolutely prohibited in Islam. In one case the Prophet even rebuked his followers for having burnt a colony of ants, stressing that no one has the right to burn with fire except Allah. This can show that there is no justification whatsoever for burning with fire.
The famous Shia jurist and scholar Sheikh al-Kourani al-Ameli is one of many who criticised ISIS for the method of burning. He refuted the hadith used by ISIS, which describes the Prophet as committing cruelty and torture, by arguing that the Qur’an describes Muhammad as having an exalted standard of character (Surah 68:4); and Surah 3:159 praises Allah’s grace for the Prophet’s gentle dealing with his followers. Al-Kourani used these two verses arguing that qur’anic reports, which represent the word of Allah, are more trustworthy than a report about the Prophet that contradicts the Qur’an.
Whilst the argument of Sheikh al-Kourani is very indirect, there is a hadith which quotes the Prophet as saying explicitly: ‘ … [D]o not torture … .’
IV Comparing the Arguments
In summary, we can say that when we compare the number of ahadith that ban burning to the number of ahadith that report about the practice of burning, the result is clearly in favor of banning this cruel practice. But more compelling than just the number of hadith is the fact that the hadith that ban burning quote the Prophet himself, while some of the ahadith used to justify the practice of burning refer to the example of some of the Prophet’s companions or successors. The one hadith that tells of the Prophet burning the eyes of the camel thieves with hot nails is in stark contrast to all the other ahadith that quote the Prophet banning burning with fire.
V Voices Against ISIS from Inside Islam
Some modern Islamic scholars are standing up against the illegitimate theology of ISIS, and their point of view is gaining a stronger voice. Sheikh al-Sudaise, the imam of the Holy Mosque in Mecca, distanced himself from the atrocities committed by ISIS, criticizing their interpretation of the sunnah. On 13 Feb 2015 al-Sudaise said in his Friday sermon at the Holy Mosque in Mecca: ‘We declare our innocence to Allah from the behavior of ISIS who used weak and abrogated ahadith to justify killing innocent people.’ He referred to the correct hadith recorded by Bukhari that says that no one can punish with fire except the Lord of the Fire.
Many of the Sunni Islamic jurists and even some of the Prophet’s companions including Imam Ibn Abd al-Bar, Imam Sanaany, Ibn Abbas and Omr Ibn al-Khatab oppose the punishment of burning.
Al-Sudaise distanced himself in his Friday sermon not only from the practice of burning, but he also condemned the killing of innocent people in general. His opinion reflects the opinion of the majority of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
The grand imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tajib, declared in Mecca during a conferenc under the title ‘Islam and countering Terrorism’ that the main reason of the existence and the rise of Islamic extremism is the wrong understanding and interpretation of the primary sources of Islam, namely the Qur’an and the sunnah.
Vi Solving the Conflict Between ISIS and Human Rights
The clash of ISIS behavior with international human rights is more than obvious. International human rights laws unanimously condemn and outlaw torture and any form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. So we may ask: What is the solution for the conflict between ISIS’ behavior and human rights?
The world seems to believe that the problem can be solved by destroying this movement using military action. Countries who value the protection of human rights seem to view ISIS as having lost their right to existence due to their inhuman and barbaric behavior. These countries feel morally superior and thus claim the right and moral obligation to stop ISIS.
However, fighting ISIS through military action alone is a shortsighted approach. In fact, military action can fuel the anger of ISIS and other radical Islamic groups against the western world and thus provoke even more terror attacks.
In addition, many Muslims feel that the west — and especially the United States — have applied a double standard when it comes to protecting human rights. The reports of torture and inhuman practices in the American prisons in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib have harmed the image of the USA badly. Fighting internationally for human rights — while violating human rights in their own prisons — raises big doubts about the integrity of the west.
Human rights are indeed one of the greatest achievements of our world today, and every effort should be undertaken to promote and protect them — on all sides. However, military action by itself will not protect human rights against the assaults committed by ISIS.
The only effective long-term strategy that could stop radical Muslims from human rights violations would be to solve the problem from its roots. The roots of the problem that led to the rise of radical Islamic groups in the past years, including ISIS, can be seen in three different areas.
The lack of freedom and social justice and in many Middle Eastern countries due to corrupt dictatorships.
Injustice, which is partly seen in the double standard foreign policy of western countries that are backing some corrupt dictator regimes who severely violate human rights.
The radical interpretations developed by Islamic jurists and the confusion in the area of Islamic jurisprudence that make it hard for young Muslims to discern right from wrong.
Thus, both sides have a great responsibility in solving this conflict: Western countries, in terms of their foreign policy, should prove their integrity and care about the wellbeing of civilians under any circumstances, independent of their own interests, including oil. And the Islamic world, more specifically Islamic jurists, should do something to counter the radical interpretations that have been developed by Islamic scholars over the centuries and they should help the young generation to stress the peaceful elements of Islamic teaching.
Abu Dawud, Sulaiman bin Ash'ath. English Translation of Sunan Abu Dawud, Translated by: Nasiruddin al-Khattab (2008) vol 3, Book of Jihad, Darussalam Publishers & Distributors, Riyadh.
Ali, Abdullah Yusuf. The Holy Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary (1934) Sh. Muhammad Ashraf Publishers, Lahore.
Al-Bukhari, The Translation of the Meanings of Sahih Al-Bukhari, the book of jihad (Fighting for Allah's Cause) Translated by: Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan, (1997) vol 4, Darussalam Publishers & Distributors, Riyadh.
Al-Kurani al-Ameli, Ali. Alf Sual wa Ishkal [1000 Questions and Issues] Issue 164: Nesbatohom al qesswah ela al nabi [Accusing the Prophet of cruelty] available at http://www.alameli.net/books/?id=1384 (accessed 14 Feb 2015).
Al-Muhajir, Abi Abdullah. Masael fi fiqh al-jihad p 254+574 available at https://ia902306.us.archive.org/12/items/msael-mn/gxb11.pdf (accessed 9 Feb 2015).
Al Qurtuby, Mohammed bin Ahmed bin Abu Bakr. Al-jameh li ahkam al Qur’an [Collection of the Provisions of the Qur’an] (1964) p 281, The National Library and Archives of Egypt (Dar al Kutub al Masreyah), Cairo.
Ibn Rushd, Muhammad. Bedayat al mujtad (1999) vol 2, Dar Ibn Hazem, Beirut.
Al-Shahristani. Al-milal wa al-nihal 2ed (1975) p 173, Dar al-Ma’refa, Beirut.
Ibn Hajr, Al-Asqalany. Fath al bari fi Sahih al-Bukhari (1986) vol 6, Dar al-Rayan, Cairo.
Ibn Kathir. Al-bidaya wa al-nihaya [The Beginning and the End] 2 ed (2010) p 355, Dar Ibn-Kathir, Beirut.
Ibn Maflah al-Hanbali. Al-furua (2003) vol 6, Muasasat al-Risala, Beirut.
Mahmud, Hussein Bin. Bel lakum fi al harqu salaf: Dirasah sharaiyag tubayin qiyam al kulafa al muslimin wal sahabah bi harq aada al din bi al-nar. Wekalat al-anbaa al islamiyah available at http://www.dawaalhaq.com/?p=24181 (accessed 15 Feb 2015).
UN General Assembly. Universal Declaration of Human rights (UDHR). Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948 at the Palais de Chaillot, Paris.
UN General Assembly. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Adopted by General Assembly resolution 2200A (XXI) of 16 December 1966; entry into force 23 March 1976.
UN General Assembly. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). Adopted by General Assembly resolution 39/46 of 10 December 1984; entry into force 26 June 1987.
 ISIS stands for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
 ‚ISIS video claims burning Jordanian pilot alive‘, Al Arabiya News 3 Feb 2015, available at http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2015/02/03/ISIS-claims-to-have-burned-captive-Jordanian-pilot.html (accessed 15 Feb 2015).
 Pickthall translation is the closest English translation to the original Arabic text of this verse.
 Al Qurtuby, Mohammed bin Ahmed bin Abu Bakr. Al-Jameh li Ahkam al-Qur’an [Collection of the Provisions of the Qur’an] (1964) p 281, The National Library and Archives of Egypt (Dar al Kutub al Masreyah), Cairo.
 Abi Abdullah al-Muhajir. Masael fi Fiqh al-Jihad p 254+574 available at https://ia902306.us.archive.org/12/items/msael-mn/gxb11.pdf (accessed 9 Feb 2015).
 Hussein Bin Mahmud. Bel Lakum Fi al Harqu Salaf: Dirasah Sharaiyag Ttubayin Qiyam Al Kulafa Al Muslimin Wal Sahabah bi Harq Aada al-Din bi al-Nar. Wekalat al-anbaa al islamiyah available at http://www.dawaalhaq.com/?p=24181 (accessed 15 Feb 2015).
 Al Shahristani recorded this story as following: ‘When some of the followers of Abdullah ibn Saba al-Humeiri came to Ali Ibn Abi Talib, one of them said to Ali: “You are he.” Then Ali replied: “Who is he?” The person said: “You are Allah.” Ali was extremely disturbed and ordered a fire to be ignited and to put them [the followers of Abdullah ibn Saba al-Humeiri] in it.
Al-Shahristani. Al-Milal wa al-Nihal 2ed (1975) p 173 , Dar al-Ma’refa, Beirut.
 ‘Khalid Ibn Al-Walid called Malek Ibn Nuwayrah and rebuked him for following Sajah [a woman who claimed to be a prophet] and for stopping paying zakat. Then Khalid said to him: “Do you know that it [zakat] is similar like salah [prayer]?” then Malik said: “Your friend [Prophet Muhammad] claims that” then Khalid said: “Is he just our friend and not [also] yours?” Then Kalid ordered for his neck to be cut off and for his head to be put with two (little) stones in a pot and the three to be cooked together and Khalid ate from it in that night to cast terror into the heart of the Arabs who left Islam.’
Ibn Kathir. Al-Bidaya wa al-Nihaya [The Beginning and the End] 2 ed (2010) p 355, Dar Ibn-Kathir, Beirut.
 Ibn Kathir. Al-Bidaya wa al-Nihaya [The Beginning and the End] (1997) vol 6, p 104, Hager Publishing, Giza, Egypt.
 Ibn Rushd, Muhammad. Bedayat al Mujtad (1999) vol 2, p 339, Dar Ibn Hazem, Beirut.
 Ibn Hajr, Al-Asqalany. Fath al Bari fi Sahih al-Bukhari (1986) vol 6, p 174, Dar al-Rayan, Cairo.
 Ibn Rushd, Muhammad. Bedayat al-Mujtad (1999) vol 2, p 339, Dar Ibn Hazem, Beirut.
 Ibn Maflah al-Hanbali. Al-Furua (2003) vol 6, p 203, Muasasat al-Risala, Beirut.
 Ibn Maflah al-Hanbali. Al-Furua (2003) vol 6, p 204, Muasasat al-Risala, Beirut.
 Narrated Anas bin Malik: A group of eight men from the tribe of 'Ukl came to the Prophet and then they found the climate of Al-Madina unsuitable for them. So, they said, "O Allah's Messenger! Provide us with some milk." Allah's Messenger said, "I recommend that you should join the herd of camels." So, they went and drank the urine and the milk of the camels (as a medicine) till they became healthy and fat. Then they killed the shepherd and drove away the camels, and they became disbelievers after embracing Islam. When the Prophet was informed by a shouter for help, he sent some men in their pursuit, and before the sun rose high, they were caught and brought, and he had their hands and feet cut off. Then he ordered for nails which were heated and were branded with those nails, their eyes, and they were left in the Harra (i.e., rocky land in Al-Madina). And when they asked for water, no water was given to them till they died. Abti Qilaba, a subnarrator said, "They committed murder and theft and fought against Allah and His Messengerij and spread evil in the land."
Al-Bukhari, The Translation of the Meanings of Sahih Al-Bukhari, ch Jihad. Translated by: Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan (1997) vol 4, p 160–61, hadith 3018, Darussalam Publishers & Distributors, Riyadh.
 Albani, Mohammed Nasser al-Din. Selselat al Ahadith al Daifah [Set of Weak Ahadith] (1993) Maktabat al-Umah, Riyadh.
 It was reported from Muhammad bin Hamzah Al-Aslami from his father, that the Messenger of Allah appointed him as a commander over a military expedition. He said: "So I went along with them, and he (the Prophet) said: 'If you find so-and-so, then burn him with fire.' Then I turned to depart. He called me to come back, so I came back to him. He said: 'If you find so-and-so, then kill him, and do not burn him, for nobody punishes with fire except the Lord of the Fire."
Abu Dawud, Sulaiman bin Ash'ath. English Translation of Sunan Abu Dawud, Translated by: Nasiruddin al-Khattab (2008) vol 3, Book of Jihad, p 297–98, hadith 2673, Darussalam Publishers & Distributors, Riyadh.
 Narrated 'Ikrima: Ali burnt some people and this news reached Ibn 'Abbas, who said, "Had I been in his place I would not have burnt them, as the Prophet said, 'Don't punish (anybody) with Allah's punishment.' No doubt, I would have killed them, for the Prophet said, 'If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him."
Al-Bukhari, The Translation of the Meanings of Sahih Al-Bukhari, ch Jihad, Translated by: Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan, (1997) vol 4, p 159–30, hadith 3017, Darussalam Publishers & Distributors, Riyadh.
 It was reported from 'Abdur-Rahmãn bin 'Abdullah, from his father who said: "We were with the Messenger of Allah in a journey. He went to relieve himself. We saw a Humrah with two chicks of hers, and we took one of her chicks The Humrah came and started shaking her spread out wings. The Prophet came and said: 'Who distressed her because of her chicks, give her chick back to her. And he also saw an ant colony which we had burnt, so he said:' Who burnt this down?' We said: 'We did.' He said: 'It is not allowed to punish with fire, except for the Lord of the Fire."
Abu Dawud, Sulaiman bin Ash'ath. English Translation of Sunan Abu Dawud, Translated by: Nasiruddin al-Khattab (2008) vol 3, Chapter of Jihad, p 298, hadith 2675, Darussalam Publishers & Distributors, Riyadh.
 Al-Bukhari. The Translation of the Meaning of Sahih Al-Bukhari, ch Jihad, Translated by: Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan, (1997) vol 4, p 129–30, hadith 2954, Darussalam Publishers & Distributors, Riyadh.
 Surah (Y. Ali) 3:159 It was by the mercy of Allah that thou wast lenient with them (O Muhammad), for if thou hadst been stern and fierce of heart they would have dispersed from round about thee. So pardon them and ask forgiveness for them and consult with them upon the conduct of affairs. And when thou art resolved, then put thy trust in Allah. Lo! Allah loveth those who put their trust (in Him).
 Al-Kurani al-Ameli, Ali. Alf Sual wa Ishkal [1000 Questions and Issues] Issue 164: Nesbatohom al qesswah ela al nabi [Accusing the Prophet of cruelty] available at http://www.alameli.net/books/?id=1384 (accessed 14 Feb 2015).
 „Fight in the Name of Allah, in the cause of Allah. Fight those who disbelieve in Allah. Fight, but do not steal from the spoils of war, and do not break your promises, and do not mutilate (the dead enemy) and do not kill children.“ Muslim scholars interpret this verse as prohibiting torture, arguing that if the Prophet prohibited mutilation of dead bodies, how much more he will prohibit torture of living people.
Abu Dawud, Sulaiman bin Ash'ath. English Translation of Sunan Abu Dawud, Translated by: Nasiruddin al-Khattab (2008) vol 3, ch Jihad, p 264, hadith 2613, Darussalam Publishers & Distributors, Riyadh.
 CNN Arabic ‘Al-Sudaise Uhajim Da’ish [Al-Sudaise attacks ISIS]’ 14 Feb 2015 see online at http://arabic.cnn.com/isis-sudaise-ksa-friday-speech (accessed 14 Feb 2015).
 Ibn Hajr, Al-Asqalany. Fath al Bari fi Sahih al-Bukhari (1986) vol 6, p 174, Dar al-Rayan, Cairo.
 BBC Arabic. ‘Sheikh Al-Azhar: the wrong reading of the Koran and the Sunnah are causing extremism’ 22 Feb 2015 available at
http://www.bbc.co.uk/arabic/middleeast/2015/02/150222_azhar_grand_sheik_misreading_of_quran (accessed 22 Feb 2015).
 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Art. 5), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Art. 7) and the UN Convention against Torture (Articles 1 (1) and 16(1)).