The Burning of the Jordanian Pilot and the Legitimacy of the Islamic State’s Caliphate

Last Tuesday the Islamic State released a video of their execution of a captured 26-year-old Jordanian pilot. In the gruesome video, they placed the young man in a cage, then lit an accelerant that quickly engulfed him in flames, burning him alive until he was dead. This was brutal even by Islamic State standards, which otherwise regularly beheads its enemies and recently attempted to execute a homosexual by throwing him off of a seven-story building. When they realized the man had survived the fall, they stoned him to death. Yet none of these gruesome executions generated as much condemnation as the video of the young pilot being burned to death.

Condemnation in the West was swift and furious, but it was perhaps even more pronounced in many parts of the Islamic world, as Muslim political and religious leaders condemned the execution as well. Such condemnations ranged from respected and influential Islamic authorities like the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb, to radical and militant leaders from Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, who compete with the Islamic State for recruits and legitimacy. See here, here, and here.

Yet the primary stated reason for the intensity of such condemnations had little to do with the death of the pilot, but rather the means by which the pilot died- fire.

According to critics of the Islamic State, burning someone to death is not permitted in Islam (whereas apparently, for some, slow painful beheadings by a handheld knife is okay). This is based on a Qur’an verse that seems to explicitly reserve this sort of punishment by fire for Allah alone. Thus critics argued that the Islamic State had overreached in their zeal to terrorize and humiliate their enemies. It seemed like an excellent moment to strike a blow against the legitimacy and authority of the religious leadership of the Islamic State’s caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.


The problem is that the leaders of the Islamic State may have wanted to pick this fight because they feel it is one they can win based on their religious texts and historic Islamic practice. If so, then it will undoubtedly only add to the legitimacy of their caliphate in the eyes of at least some potential recruits or supporters of their cause.

The Islamic State’s case is based primarily on two arguments, one stronger than the other.

  1. The weaker or less convincing argument highlighted by members or supporters of the Islamic State emphasizes another Qur’anic verse (Sura 2:194), which points reads “if one transgresses against you, you may respond likewise.” The point here is that because the Jordanian pilot had killed using fire, through his bombs, then the leadership of the Islamic State has the right to kill him using fire, thus “responding likewise.”
  1. More significantly, the Islamic State also issued a fatwa that considered the legitimacy of “burning an infidel with fire until he dies.” Their response was as follows:

“The Hanafi and Shafi’i schools [of Islam] hold that burning is completely permissible. They interpreted the saying of the Prophet that ‘Only Allah shall torture with fire’ as [a call for] humility. [The scholar] Al-Muhallab said: ‘This ban is not [an actual] prohibition, but rather a means for [advocating] humility.’

“[Shafi’i scholar] Ibn Hajar, may Allah have mercy on him, said: ‘[This saying] indicates that it is permissibile to burn, as the Companions did. The Prophet blinded two men from ‘Arina [whom he judged to be apostates and criminals] with a branding iron. Khalid bin Al-Walid, [one of the Prophet’s Companions], also burned apostates with fire.’

“Some scholars hold that burning with fire is essentially prohibited, but is permissible while acting in retribution, as the Prophat did with the two men of ‘Arina. He blinded them with an iron as an act of retribution, as is mentioned in authentic [hadith]. And this is the most prominent among the proofs.”

This seems to me to be a powerful response to their critics. First, the Prophet Muhammad used a form of fire (a branding iron) to blind two men who had abandoned Islam. Second, and more explicitly, Khalid bin Al-Walid, who was the Prophet Muhammad’s top military commander and among his closest companions, engaged in the practice of burning their enemies with fire, which was apparently done without cause for concern.

Two points of clarification are in order.

  1. For those who are unaware, the “Hadith” cited above is the second most important and authoritative source in Islam. It claims to preserve an accurate record of the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad on issues that either are not addressed in the Qur’an, or provide further clarification on issues that are considered there. So in citing the Hadith, the Islamic State is well aware that this represents an authoritative source for all Muslims.
  1. The reference to Khalid bin Al-Walid as Muhammad’s top military commander may also throw off some readers who are unfamiliar with early Islamic history. In short, such readers should be aware that the Arabian Peninsula was brought under the control of Muhammad and his followers as a result of considerable violence. Muhammad himself, according to the Qur’an and Hadith, personally fought in or sanctioned no less than eighty-six battles. Khalid bin Al-Walid played perhaps the most significant role in the conquest of the Arabian Peninsula during this time. Correspondingly, the Islamic State is certainly aware of how Al-Walid is idealized as a sort of military ideal for Muslims during wartime, hence his example is a potentially powerful one.

While such arguments will not, undoubtedly, convince everyone, they may be strong enough for some more radicalized Muslims weighing the legitimacy of the Islamic State’s Caliphate.

Moreover, there is additional evidence that the Islamic State can marshal in defense of their position. Beyond the examples of Muhammad and Al-Walid cited above, Ali ibn Abi Talib, for example, the cousin of Muhammad, who married his daughter Fatima and became the fourth Caliph, also is recorded as having burned two heretics to death. Indeed, as Dr. Mordechai Kedar, a senior lecturer in the Department of Arabic at Bar-Ilan University, has noted:

“…the burning alive of the Jordanian pilot is not a new propaganda weapon invented by ISIS, as some of the media commentators on the movie claimed. This is a method of eliminating enemies that is well known and documented in early Islamic sources, and based on a deductive legal principle in Sharia law.”

So while many Muslim authorities are arguing that the Islamic State has overstepped, this may well be a debate that they relish having as their arguments have the potential to carry weight with many radicals and, if they win the debate, enhance the authority of their budding caliphate.