The Islamic State’s (IS) decision to burn alive the captured Jordanian pilot, Mu’adh al-Kasasibah, has sent shock waves around the world. In addition to the sheer brutality of the act, the decision by IS to distribute a video of their atrocity, and the fact that ordinary people in Raqqa—including children—were forced to watch his death, are all causes for horror and condemnation. Even some radical clerics—like Salman al-‘Awdah—have reacted with disgust and argued that burning people alive is forbidden by Islamic law (Shariah).
It is interesting that another well-known cleric, linked with al-Qaeda (AQ), explicitly chose to forego this particular line of criticism, and instead cited pragmatic concerns for his refusal to support this barbarity. According to Abdullah bin Muhammad al-Muhaysini, the act was wrong because it would make people sympathize with the pilot, allow the torture of Muslim captives, and encourage people to participate in the “Crusader” campaign (the usual AQ term for any U.S. military engagement).
IS has responded by issuing a fatwa defending their actions. The fatwa (legal ruling) makes an argument based around the important concept of “qisas” or equivalent retribution. Issued by the group’s “Research and Fatwa Commission,” the legal ruling is unusually short, cites only two scholars by name, and fails to deal with any contrary evidence. The fatwa also acknowledges that, “Some people of knowledge (i.e. ulama) found that immolation is fundamentally forbidden, but it is permissible by qisas…”
Given this reasoning, the rest of the world can expect other barbarities from IS to be justified as legitimate because of qisas.
This is the core of the IS’s argument: that qisas allows burning by fire in this specific case. Qisas is an accepted form of Islamic justice valid for two sorts of crimes: intentional murder and intentional bodily harm. These particular crimes are dealt with according to one of three methods; the choice is up to the person injured (or the next of kin to the person killed): the payment of blood money (diyya), outright forgiveness, or qisas, based on the Qur’anic injunction of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” It is the argument of IS’s clerics that the pilot had burned others alive through bombing IS forces, and therefore, qisas allowed retribution by immolation. Given this reasoning, the rest of the world can expect other barbarities from IS to be justified as legitimate because of qisas.
But IS is not the only group that has mentioned qisas in discussions about how its enemies will be treated: AQ has cited the principle on multiple occasions to justify terrorist attacks and assassinations, and to specify the way that the group intends to deal with the U.S. and other enemies in the future. In statement after statement, AQ has made it clear that they intend to demand “blood for blood” and a well-accounted vengeance for all the “wrongs” suffered by the group.
As a final point, it is worth nothing that the statement by al-Muhaysini shows this reasoning of qisas affects extremists’ views of others as well. Al-Muhaysini said that the immolation of the pilot would allow the torture of Muslim captives, a sentiment that only makes sense if others would seek (justified) equivalent retribution for the way al-Kasasibah was killed.