After a video of the brutal killing of Jordanian pilot Mouath al-Kasaesbeh came to light on Tuesday, Fareed Zakaria appeared on Jake Tapper’s “The Lead” to emphasize the “un-Islamic” nature of the killing. Zakaria, however, failed to explain how the ISIS fighters appear to have relied on an ancient Islamic law of retribution to justify their actions.
“This has nothing to do with Islam, as you’ve pointed out, Jake, the burning of a body dead or alive is very un-Islamic,” Zakaria claimed. A moment later, Tapper asked whether the un-Islamic nature of ISIS’s actions would matter. Zakaria replied, “It does matter. The Islamic State, to the extent it has any ideological appeal, it is that they are pure… This lays bare the reality: that’s all a lie. They’re really a band of thugs.”
Zakaria is correct that burning a body, even after death, is forbidden under Islamic doctrine. There are hadiths, important religious statements from outside the Koran, which indicate that Mohammed was against using fire as a punishment (on the grounds that fire is a punishment reserved to Allah).
Thus the use of fire in this video is indeed seen as un-Islamic by some observers. Important Muslim organizations, including Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, issued statements condemning the killing of Mouath al-Kasaesbeh, even calling for the crucifixion of those who killed him. Clerics in Yemen and Saudi Arabia made similar condemnations of ISIS’s actions, suggesting that with this video the group may indeed have gone too far.
What Zakaria did not mention is that there is also an established concept within Sharia law known as Qisas. As the BBC points out, Qisas is the Islamic equivalent of an eye for an eye. This principle of equivalence allows the relatives of a maimed or killed Muslim to demand the same punishment for the person who injured/killed them. Qisas is still practiced in some countries such as Iran and Pakistan.
ISIS’s execution video clearly attempts to present the killing of Mouath al-Kasaesbeh as an act of Qisas. Most of the video is devoted to the captured pilot describing how he dropped laser-guided bombs on various targets. Video of laser-guided weapons striking ground targets is interspersed with shots of injured and dead children, some of them burned. The transition used between each video segment is an expanding flame. The point being made is that the pilot dropped bombs which burned his targets to death.
The final portion of the video shows the Jordanian pilot walking around the site of an airstrike, witnessing the rubble left behind by bombs like the ones he dropped. This video is once again interspersed with images of rescuers searching rubble for survivors and finding dead or injured people.
Many observers Tuesday were confused why, after Mouath al-Kasaesbeh has already been killed by fire, a front-end loader drops tons of concrete on his body. But Qisas explains why this was done. The point is to replicate the injustice he allegedly caused as exactly as possible. Thus the last image we see is a burned hand sticking from beneath the rubble. ISIS is visually arguing that he got precisely the kind of death he had, in his role as a pilot, given out to others.
As PJ Media pointed out, an ISIS-supporting Twitter feed even published a justification for the killing on Twitter, citing Islamic scholar Ibn Hazm. Ibn Hazm wrote nearly 1,000 years ago that burning was one of many acceptable forms of retaliatory justice under Qisas. It’s worth noting that this suggestion got some significant pushback on Twitter from many who felt ISIS was mistaken.
More importantly, Islamic scholars have already condemned ISIS’s actions, suggesting the group didn’t convince many observers of their interpretation of Islamic law. But the idea that this brutal killing had “nothing to do with Islam” as Zakaria suggested is simply false. From ISIS’s perspective they are following Islamic law as it was understood 1,000 years ago and still is understood today in some corners of the world.