Barnabas Edit: Murder, mischief and the killing of Alan Henning

October 13, 2014 by  
Filed under newsletter-world

ISISIraq, October 09,2014: Last week the world received the tragic news of the beheading of kind-hearted British taxi-driver, Alan Henning, who had courageously and sacrificially travelled to Syria with a group of Muslims last December to bring aid to its beleaguered people.  He was almost immediately kidnapped, and nine months later killed by Islamic State, the ruthless Islamist group who used to be known by the more modest title of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The threat to Mr Henning had been flagged up by Islamic State through a video in their habitual way, allowing plenty of time for pleas for mercy to be issued to them from many sources.  One such was a letter published in the British daily newspaper The Independent (17 September 2014) and signed by 119 imams and other leading Muslims in the UK. In this letter, the British Muslim leaders expressed horror and revulsion at the recent murder of another British aid worker, David Haines.  They wrote that the “the senseless kidnapping, murder and now the despicable threats to Mr Henning at the hands of so-called ‘Muslims’ cannot be justified anywhere in the Quran and the Sunnah (Prophetic traditions).” It is noteworthy, however, that they only quoted one Islamic source text to justify their statement and even that was incomplete, as indicated by the three dots ellipsis inserted part way through:

Whosoever kills a human being . . .  it is as if killing the entire human race; and whosoever saves a life, saves the entire human race.


This quote comes from the Quran, sura 5, verse 32 (the verse number may be slightly different in different English translations).   The missing words are in fact an exclusion clause, indicating conditions under which the rest of the verse would not apply. In A. Yusuf Ali’s translation of the Quran, the phrase that has been omitted reads “unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land”.

The first cause that could justify killing someone, according to this verse, is apparently if that individual had committed murder.  This seems to be relatively unambiguous and is in line with the “eye for an eye” type of theology found elsewhere in Islam and of course in the Old Testament too. Indeed the verse itself starts by saying that this command was first ordained for the Children of Israel.

What about the second justification for killing?  What does it mean for a person to spread mischief in the land?  This is a fantastically vague phrase in English, using a word that is applied both to children’s pranks and to serious misconduct, so we are not much the wiser if we simply study this one verse on its own.

But the next verse in the Quran gives a good indication of what it meant to the early Muslims:

The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Apostle and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution or crucifixion or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter.  Sura 5, verse 33 (A. Yusuf Ali’s translation)

So the main type of “mischief” envisaged seems to be opposition to Islam and to Muslims, especially armed opposition.  The worst mischief is, as described by the great Muslim scholar Abdullah Yusuf Ali in his commentary on this verse (note 738 in his Quran translation), “treason against the state, combined with treason against Allah, as shown by overt crimes”.  For this, “four alternative punishments are mentioned, any one of which is to be applied according to circumstances, viz., execution, crucifixion, maiming or exile.”

The next verses have more to say about the dreadful fate in the hereafter that awaits those who do not follow Allah.  It is not surprising therefore to learn that some Muslims interpret “mischief in the land” as including secularism, democracy and other non-Islamic values in a land.  Some English translations use the word “corruption” rather than “mischief”, which probably conveys better the idea of dangerous and damaging ideas being promoted in Islamic territory.

Far from being a blanket condemnation of killing per se, when read complete and in context the often quoted words of Quran 5:32 turn out to include a justification for killing certain people.

Alternatively or additionally, Islamic State may hold, as many other Islamists do, that an infidel aid worker coming to Syria was by definition spreading mischief in the land and that he should have converted to Islam. It remains to be seen whether Peter Kassig, who seems to be next in line for execution by Islamic State, will be treated differently from other American and British hostages following his conversion to Islam.


On 15 July 2005 the very same Quranic verse, abbreviated in an identical way, was quoted in a much heralded joint statement of British Muslim leaders and scholars on following the bomb attacks of 7 July 2005 in London, which killed 52 people.  This raises the question of whether either or both  the July 2005  joint statement and the September 2014 joint statement were designed to reassure the non-Muslim community or to reprimand the militant Muslims.

There can be no doubt that radical Muslims would be conversant with the full text of Quran 5:32 and the partial omission might be interpreted by them as silent acquiescence or even approval from the British Muslim leaders. Extremists would consider murder and mischief to include any UK policies that they deem anti-Islamic, and they will therefore regard their actions as having Quranic and thus divine legitimacy.


Even if the verse is interpreted in the way that the British Muslim leaders who wrote to The Independent clearly wish it to be, Islamic State could easily refute the argument by quoting many other Islamic religious texts.  The contradictions within the Islamic source texts have kept Muslim scholars busy for centuries, and there is immense scope for any individual – whether peaceable or belligerent – to find confirmation that Allah approves their chosen behaviour.

– dr patrick sookhdeo

Enter Google AdSense Code Here

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!