Islam and Burning People Alive: A Reflection on Muhammad’s Own Statements and Actions
In December 2014, Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, a 26-year-old Jordanian Air Force pilot, was flying his F-16 in Syria in support of a U.S.-led coalition raid on the Islamic State (IS). During this mission his plane crashed near Raqqa, and he was captured by IS fighters. On February 3, 2015, Lt. al-Kaseasbeh was burned alive by IS. An IS-released video of the burning was titled Healing the Believers Chests, an apparent reference to 9:14 of the Koran.
Outrage was immediate, along with the claims that Islam not only prohibited Muslims from killing fellow Muslims, but also prohibited the burning of captives. As seems to have become usual in matters involving violence done in the name of Islam, there is more to this story.
Lt. al-Kaseasbeh was a Muslim fighting for the King of Jordan, in coalition with non-Muslim governments, against the Islamic Caliphate of IS. This combination would allow IS to declare their captured pilot a Hypocrite (Munafiq), someone whose external appearance was that of a Muslim, but who, by fighting for a secular government in coalition with non-Muslims against the new Caliphate, was actually showing his inner disbelief in Islam.
Here are some of the things the Koran says about Hypocrites: Allah has cursed them and prepared the fires of Hell for them (e.g., 4:145, 9:68, 9:73, and 48:6); and Allah commanded Muhammad to “strive hard against” and “be harsh” to the Hypocrites (9:73).
So IS was not killing a fellow Muslim; they were killing a Hypocrite who was already cursed by Allah and condemned to Hell, and against whom Allah had commanded Muslims to be harsh.
But doesn’t Islam prohibit burning people alive? To answer this question, we need to first look at Muhammad, who spoke for Allah (4:80) and is considered the standard of perfect conduct for Muslims (33:21). Muhammad had no qualms about burning people.
In December 627 Muhammad led an attack against the Al-Mustalaq tribe. Because that tribe fought back, Muhammad ordered their fortifications to be set on fire, even though the Muslims knew there were women and children inside.
Around June 628, when Kinanah bin al-Rabi of the Jewish Bani al-Nadir tribe would not reveal where his conquered tribe’s treasures were hidden, Muhammad ordered one of his soldiers, “Torture him until you extract what he has,” so a fire was built on Kinanah’s chest until Kinanah nearly died.
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