Torture in the Quran and early Islam

Where is Islamic justice and human rights?

James M. Arlandson

Three main (twisted) purposes of torture are to punish criminals, to extract information, and to exact revenge. But torture by its nature is excess multiplied by excess, so it is wrong and unjust by its nature.

It is at least one of these three purposes that Muhammad, the founder of Islam who asserts that his way is the best for all of humanity, had in mind when he tortured some criminals and a treasurer who would not disclose where Jewish wealth lay hidden, and an enemy—an old woman taken as a prisoner in a Muslim raid.

In an apparent reply to these unpleasant facts about original Islam, one of the oddest interpretive gymnastics performed by Muslim polemicists and missionaries asserts that Jesus also endorsed torture and summary executions. So who are Christians and the West (though the two are not identical) to complain about Islam? But did Jesus really endorse such barbarism? Where would Muslim apologists (defenders) find even a hint of it in the life and teachings of Christ?

The Quran commands crucifixion and mutilation

The Quran in Sura 5:33 says:

5:33 Those who wage war against God and His Messenger and strive to spread corruption in the land should be punished by death, crucifixion, the amputation of an alternate hand and foot or banishment from the land: a disgrace for them in this world, and then a terrible punishment in the Hereafter . . . . (MAS Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an, Oxford UP, 2004)

It is important to realize that this verse comes in a legal context; Muhammad is laying down the law. The verse is not a parable or an illustration. It is intended to be carried out in real life, and it was then and it is today, as this article demonstrates.

In this verse, Allah says that the criminal who strives to spread corruption in the land can be (1) executed, (2) crucified, (3) mutilated, or (4) expelled. The problems lie in the second and third punishments. In crucifixion a criminal dies a needlessly painful death, and in mutilation (cutting off an alternate hand and foot), the criminal has no chance to redeem himself for the vague crime of corruption. It is one thing to execute a first-degree murderer, for example, but to torture him by crucifixion is unacceptable.

At first glance, the clause "those who wage war" denotes an offense much larger than a crime like murder. However, as we shall see, the historical context of this verse comes nowhere near a war, so the clause is overblown.

The key word, then, is "corruption." How should it be defined?

An article published by the journal al-Tawhid (Oneness or Unity) in Qum, Iran, the seat of learning for Shi’ites, uses Sura 5:33 and defines the crimes broadly (scroll down to Point Three), as follows: prostitution and the disintegration of family relationships; narcotics and the disintegration of individual's rational personality; colonialism and the undermining of peoples' dignity and plundering of their resources; racism and the disintegration of human brotherhood; violation of all recognized rights and the breaking of covenants; bombardment of populated areas, use of chemical weapons; attacks on civil aviation, national railways, commercial and tourist vessels, and similar methods which are universally condemned in war.

This broad description of crimes opens the door to all manner of justifications for applying the punishments in Sura 5:33. Oddly, the Iranian scholar places his definition and the punishments in the verse in a discussion of human rights. But should a human have his alternate hand and foot cut off for prostitution, pimping, or racism? Should he be crucified for disintegration of the family? For colonialism? (Islam itself has been a terrible perpetrator of colonialism.) Rather than questioning this verse, the author of the article and many in the Islamic world seem to accept it as coming from God and so matter-of-factly interpret it for society today.

For more translations of this verse, the readers may go to these three sites: this one has multiple translations; this one has three; and this conservative translation is subsidized by the Saudi royal family. See this article on another related Islamic atrocity: the Quran’s command in Sura 5:38 to chop off the hands of male or female thieves.

The next three historical examples take place in AD 628, when Muhammad was strong enough militarily to inflict torture on people without fear of a substantial retaliation. He grew in strength since his victory at the Battle of Badr in AD 624, and it was then that he started down the path of misusing his power.

Splitting an old woman in two

Raiding was part and parcel of seventh-century Arab culture, and Muhammad incorporated this dubious custom and elevated it to jihad. Sometimes the raids took ugly, nasty turns.

In early AD 628, during a raid, Zayd, Muhammad’s freedman and adopted son, was wounded and some of his men were killed by a tribe. Zayd vowed to abstain from sex until he took revenge. After Zayd recovered from his wounds, Muhammad sent him and a raiding band back to the tribe. An old woman named Umm Qirfa was taken prisoner. Would a Muslim leader spare her from death, not to mention from torturing her? No. Her death was cruel, says an Islamic source, matter-of-factly.

The executioner appointed by Zayd "tied each of her legs with a rope and tied the ropes to camels, and they split her in two." (Tabari)

It is not hard to imagine her screams. From the Islamic sources it is unclear why she, an old woman, had to die in the first place. But assuming only for the sake of argument that the initial raid was justified—a big assumption based on the belief that the old woman’s tribe was collaborating with the Jews of Khaybar—assuming this is true, did an old woman have to die in such a gruesome way—by torture, which is grossly excessive and hence always wrong? It may be argued that Muhammad himself did not order this torture, but that misses the point. The whole expedition was conducted under his orders. Thus, he was ultimately responsible for the behavior of his men. If this atrocity went against his instructions, if he did not agree with such cruel methods (even though he himself committed cruelties), then why did he not punish—like for like—Zayd and his executioner? He did not even reprimand them. But Zayd was his adopted son, so apparently family loyalty wins out over justice.

The following hadith, though not mentioning the torture, recounts the aftermath of the raid. One of the raiders kept the daughter of Umm Qirfa for himself, and brought her back to Medina, where Muhammad lived. Once Muhammad saw the girl, he shouted to the Muslim raider that he wanted her. What did he do with her? Sell her back to her family? Did he give her family the option to ransom her?

I [Salama, a Muslim raider] drove [captives] along until I brought them to Abu Bakr [Companion of Muhammad] who bestowed that girl on me as a prize. So we arrived in Medina. I had not yet disrobed her when the Messenger of Allah . . . met me in the street and said: Give me that girl, O Salamah. I said: Messenger of Allah, she has fascinated me. I had not yet disrobed her. When on the next day, the Messenger of Allah . . . again met me in the street, he said: O Salama, give me that girl, may God bless your father. I said: she is for you, Messenger of Allah . . . By Allah, I have not yet disrobed her. The Messenger of Allah . . . sent her to the people of Mecca, and surrendered her as ransom for a number of Muslims who had been kept as prisoners in Mecca. (Muslim no. 4345)

Early Islam—the one that Muhammad founded—trafficked in slavery and allowed sex with women prisoners of war, in their most helpless condition. This hadith gives a sad snapshot of slavery and abuse in early Islam. It is disappointing that Muhammad did not stop this trade with firm commands: No more slavery and no more sex with prisoners of raids! This prohibition is doubly needed when a religion traffics in this trade, as original Islam did. But why would such a command come down from on high, since the trade generated a lot of money and satiated male sexual lust for women?

Muslim polemicists and missionaries make much of Islamic justice. But how is cruelly killing an old woman anywhere close to appearing like justice?

Sources: Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad, trans. Guillaume, (Oxford UP, 1955), pp. 664-665; Tabari, the History of al-Tabari: the Victory of Islam, trans. Michael Fishbein, vol. 8, SUNYP, 1997, pp. 95-97. Ibn Ishaq (d. 767) is an earlier biographer of Muhammad who is considered an important source by modern scholars except the miraculous elements and some chronology. Tabari (d. 923) is an early historian who is also considered reliable.

Mutilating Arab tribesmen

The following event supposedly provides the historical context of Sura 5:33. Shortly after Umm Qirfa’s horrible death (perhaps only a few weeks or within the same month), some Arab tribesmen visited the prophet and at some time converted to Islam. But they fell sick in the uncongenial climate of Medina. So Muhammad told them to follow a shepherd outside of the city, recommending to them an old folk belief: drinking the milk and urine of a camel, rather than his healing them through the power of Allah. Subsequently, they are reported to have felt better. However, for some reason, they killed the shepherd, turned apostate, and drove off the camels for themselves. This news reached Muhammad, and he ordered them to be hunted down and brought before him. He decreed that their hands and feet should be cut off. Then he added these excesses on top of the others:

Then he ordered for [sic] nails which were heated and [the tribesmen] were branded with those nails, their eyes, and they were left in the Harra (i.e. rocky land in Al-Madina). And when they asked for water, no water was given them till they died . . . . (Bukhari, Book of Jihad, no. 3018; cf. online source)

Though this passage is awkwardly translated, it is one of many that should shock everyone of a sound mind. Muhammad actually pierced their eyes with nails (one version says with needles). Then their bodies were thrown on stony ground, dying of dehydration. One version says they died from the battering they suffered from being thrown on rocky ground; another says they died from loss of blood, for Muhammad did not cauterize their amputated limbs. It is not hard to imagine their screams. Regardless of the specific cause of their unnatural deaths, torturing them is excess multiplied by excess, and this is never just.

In fact, this hadith says that Allah reprimanded his favorite prophet for his cruelty:

When the Apostle of Allah . . . cut off (the hands and feet of) those who had stolen his camels and he had their eyes put out by fire (heated nails), Allah reprimanded him on that (action), and Allah, the Exalted, revealed: "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." (Abu Dawud, no. 4357)

The problem with this reprimand is that it makes Sura 5:33 appear as if it were a vast improvement on the prophet’s ungodly actions. Though the verse may improve on them a little, it still legalizes torture by crucifixion and mutilation. Both methods of punishing criminals are still excessive and therefore unjust.

But Allah seems to not understand this unjustice, because he may have learned it from Pharaoh. Sura 7 was revealed in Mecca, before the prophet's Hijrah (Emigration or Flight) to Medina. The context of the following verse in the Quran finds Muhammad confusedly relating the narrative about Moses confronting Pharaoh and his magicians. After seeing the power of God, the servants and magicians in Pharaoh’s court believe in God, but the ruler will not stand for it. He threatens them with the same punishment that Allah and Muhammad mete out in Sura 5:33.

The Quran in Sura 7:124 says through the mouth of Pharaoh:

"Be sure I will cut off your hands and your feet on apposite sides, and I will cause you all to die on the cross." (Yusuf Ali)

The question is: did Pharaoh inspire Allah, or did Allah inspire Pharaoh? Either way, they are both on the same unjust and barbaric level.

Sources: Bukhari, Book of Punishments (Hudud), vol. 8, no. 6802-05 (online source and read the passages below this linked one); Muslim nos. 4130-4137; Sunan Abu Dawud nos. 4351-4359 (online source); Ibn Ishaq, pp. 677-78. For more information on this gruesome torture inflicted by the Allah-inspired prophet, please see this article. This one replies to Muslim polemics.

Burning the treasurer of the city of Khaybar

Muhammad conquered Khaybar in AD 628 (only a few months after the gruesome deaths of Umm Qirfa and the Arab tribesmen), but in AD 625, he had besieged and exiled the Jewish tribe of Nadir in Medina. They immigrated to Khaybar to the north. Now Muhammad wanted their treasure, not to mention the entire city.

Ibn Ishaq the biographer writes about the torture of the treasurer, to extract information:

Kinana b. al-Rabi, who had custody of the treasure of B. al-Nadir, was brought to the apostle [Muhammad] who asked him about it. He denied that he knew where it was.

Then Muhammad finds some of the treasure:

A Jew came to the apostle and said that he had seen Kinana going around a certain ruin every morning, early. When the apostle said to Kinana, "Do you know that if we find you have it, I shall kill you?" he said Yes. The apostle gave orders that the ruin was to be excavated and some of the treasure was found.

Here is the torture that Muhammad permitted:

When he [Muhammad] asked him about the rest, he refused to produce it, so the apostle gave orders . . . "Torture him until you extract what he has," so [the torturer] kindled a fire with flint and steel on his chest until he was nearly dead.

Michael Fishbein, a translator of the early historian Tabari, disagrees with a phrase in the above translation of Ibn Ishaq. The fire was not kindled on the treasurer’s chest with "flint and steel," but with a "firestick on his chest . . . The firestick (zand) was a stick of wood that could be twirled rapidly in an indentation in a second piece to produce fire" (note 510). Whether by flint and steel or a firestick, such torture to find material wealth is wrong and misguided.

So how does the story of the treasurer and Khaybar end? Kinana was beheaded in revenge for a killing, and Khaybar was conquered. The citizens, mostly Jews, could work the lands that now belonged to Islam by conquest, but they had to turn over half of the resources to Muhammad and his special Muslim recipients.

Sources: Ibn Ishaq, p. 515; Tabari, vol. 8, pp. 122-123. For the tense relations between Muhammad and the Jews during the ten years that he lived in Medina, please see this article. For more information on the torture of the treasurer, read this article.

Muslim defenses of these atrocities

The defenses take many forms, but three are the most common.

For the first defensive strategy, Muslim polemicists seek to discredit Ibn Ishaq and Tabari as being less reliable than the hadith collectors and editors Bukhari (d. 870), Muslim (d. 875), and Abu Dawud (d. 875). It should be noted that the explicit information about two victims of torture (Umm Qirfa and Kinana the treasurer) comes only from Ibn Ishaq and Tabari.

In reply, however, this effort to discredit is a one-way street. These same polemicists value Ibn Ishaq and Tabari when they portray Muhammad as heroic and noble. Also, modern western scholars, using modern standards of western scholarship, take these acts of torture seriously, and these scholars almost always defend Muhammad and Islam.

Plus, simple coherence supports the two acts of torture recorded only by Ibn Ishaq and Tabari (Umm Qirfa and the treasurer). That is, the hadith records the torture of the Arab tribesmen, and the hadith records other violent, stealthy actions done by Muhammad, such as assassinations. (Also go here). Thus, many acts of violence cohere together in describing early Islam, and thus the accounts about the two torture victims are pieces that fit into the big picture puzzle.

Finally, the most unpleasant events in early Islam have the strongest probability of really having occurred because it is inconceivable that a Muslim would make them up on his own or receive them from non-Muslims. These harsh anecdotes and accounts, therefore, cannot be explained away in terms of the (alleged) unreliability of the source documents. In fact, those accounts in the hadith and Ibn Ishaq and Tabari that praise the prophet to high heaven, such as his working miracles, are the most suspect, especially since the Quran says that he could not perform miracles, except for producing the Quran itself (though this "miracle" has been easily duplicated by native speakers of Arabic).

The second line of defense shows that Muslim polemicists deflect our attention away from torture in Islam, make a false comparison, and fail to make the right one. For instance, Abul Hamid Siddiqi translated the hadith collection Sahih Muslim and provided some commentary. He describes the renegade Arab tribesmen (see the second historical example, above) in the worst way possible so that the Quranic punishments seem to fit the crime. He also reviews the opinions of classical legal scholars. Then he writes this about western law:

Lest some of these penalties may appear barbarous to some hypersensitive Western reader, let him cast a glance on drawing and quartering: a penalty of the English criminal code maintained as late as the eighteenth century, inflicted on those found guilty of high treason against the King or government. The person committed was usually drawn on a sledge to the place of execution; there he was hung by the neck from a scaffold, being cut down and disemboweled, while still alive; his head was cut from the body and his corpse divided into four quarters . . . . (vol. 3, p. 894, note 2121)

Like many Muslims, Siddiqi deflects the brutality in the origins of his own religion by criticizing later western civilization. He seems to say, "Who are you ‘hypersensitive western’ readers to complain? You have your own excessive punishments." But this is a tacit admission that Sura 5:33 is in fact cruel and brutal. However, since it came down from Allah, Siddiqi and many others are not allowed to deny its validity. In fact, they have to deny or explain away its barbarity. This is like a husband deflecting his wife’s accurate observations of his cruel flaws with the retort that she is not perfect, either. With that attitude, the husband will never reform. Can or will Islam reform? How can it when the sacred book, brought down by Gabriel from Allah, endorses atrocities?

Next, Siddiqi makes a false comparison and fails to make the right one. He compares the founding documents of Islam with much later, but now outdated western laws. However, this comparison is asymmetrical. It is always better to compare the founder and the source documents of a religion (Islam) with the founder and the source documents of another religion (Christianity). This comparison will be developed in the next section, but suffice it to say here that never did Jesus endorse such brutality in a penal code or as an example for society in order to impose external righteousness. He sought to change people, even criminals, from the inside out, so that they can lead moral lives. He did not come to physically maim and torture people.

Finally, though this is not a defense, Siddiqi informs us that later jurists decreed that if a criminal is being killed in retaliation or for committing a grave crime, he should be supplied with water, if he asks for it. "Callousness should not be shown even to a person who is undergoing capital punishment. The criminal must receive punishment according to the law of the Shariah, but he should not in any way be treated brutally" (vol. 3, p. 894, note 2123). This is a remarkable observation and admission, even though Siddiqi does not mention his prophet by name, the one who committed these atrocities in the first place.

In effect, Siddiqi and these classical jurists correct and improve on Muhammad’s "callousness" and "brutality." These jurists follow justice more closely than their prophet did.

Readers can see more replies to Muslim polemicists in this article (scroll down to "Modern explanations of Sura 5:33"). For the source of the two options concerning the reliability of Islamic documents (an early Muslim author would neither fabricate on his own the questionable behavior of Muhammad nor receive this from a non-Muslim), go to this article, and scroll down to the subsection "Satanic verses," searching for W. M. Watt’s assessment.

Did Jesus endorse or practice torture?

The third line of defense is worse than the first two because it twists the words of Jesus. But the misinterpretation of two Gospel parables is easily exposed and explained.

In one passage, Jesus says in a parable that every servant should watch for the return of the master of the household (Luke 12:35-48; cf. Matthew 24:43-51 and 25:1-13). If everyone is ready to greet him, then the servants will be rewarded. If not, then the most serious offenders—those who get drunk and physically abuse the other servants—"will be cut into pieces" by the master. This parable is discussing the end times and everyone facing judgment.

In the second passage, another parable, Jesus says that a nobleman went off to become king of another land (Luke 19:11-27). But his future subjects hated him and did not want him to be king, so they sent a delegation to inform him of this. But the nobleman went anyway, and he returned as the new king of that land. After he settled his investments done by his servants while he was away, he called his enemies to stand before him and commanded his servants to kill them in front of him. This parable is discussing the end times and judgment.

Every freshman Bible student is taught to determine the genre or kind of Scripture passage that he is analyzing. If it is a parable, then the students must not take the details literally. In this case, both parables relate the events at the end time, during God’s judgment (note the key theme of "return"). Islam and Christianity agree that disobedient unbelievers will be punished for their actions, in the Last Day. In these parables, Jesus is simply using the stereotypical king that had evolved over the centuries (see Daniel 2:5), so that the original listeners could catch the degree of sinfulness of the disobedient persons’ affront to God. The details of a parable must not be overinterpreted, but the essentials are what matter. And the essential message is this: The severity of the punishments in the literary world of the two parables indicates the severity of the punishments at Judgment. But the punishments in the parables about the Last Day are not to be carried out down here on earth, here and now. They are left in God’s hands in heaven when he calls for the ending of the world.

However, down here on earth, can any Muslim polemicist point out a passage in the Gospels that clearly and literally and physically shows Jesus cutting people into pieces or summarily executing someone in real life? (He did not allow the summary execution of the woman caught in adultery in John 8:1-11). Can anyone cite a passage in which Jesus raised a band of raiders that (stealthily or openly) split an old woman in two? Can anyone cite a passage about Jesus torturing a treasurer (or anyone else) to discover where money was hidden? What about a passage concerning the early church in the Book of Acts or the next generation of Christian documents? No one can, because such passages do not exist. Jesus never waged war or raided people, even though he had twelve legions of angels at his disposal (Matthew 26:53). This shows divine restraint, even at his most desperate hour, just before his crucifixion.

This is far different from Sura 5:33 and the life of Muhammad. This verse is not a parable; it is law. It legitimizes and commands crucifixion and mutilation. Also, Muhammad and his close followers actually inflicted torture in real life, so he was consistent with the Quranic law dreamed up by the god of the Arabian Peninsula. Moreover, Muhammad believed Muslim angels helped him kill his enemies at the Battle of Badr (Sura 8:12).

Thus, the difference between Gospel parables and Jesus’ real life on the one hand and a Quranic legal passage and Muhammad’s real life on the other is too wide to be compared. The contrast could not be clearer.


Muslim missionaries boast that Islam is the best and fullest religion in the world, because it specifies duties and requirements for every aspect of life. But what happens if this control is oppressive? What if it is rooted in a harsh and outdated holy book?

As to the specific area of punishing criminals and enemies and extracting information and exacting revenge, all by torture, the explanations offered by Abul Hamid Siddiqi (and classical jurists) limp towards improvement on original Islam (see "Muslim defenses," above). He says, for example, that a criminal who is about to be executed should not be denied water. This surpasses Muhammad’s policy inflicted on the renegade Arab tribesmen. He denied them water and other basic medical needs, such as cauterizing their limbs (though he should not have cut them off in the first place). Siddiqi and these classical jurists should be applauded. Using clear reason and not depending on bygone revelations, they have moved past their seventh-century prophet.

Islamic websites that preach justice and human rights must also move past the origins of their religion, including the Quran. But this must be done clearly and explicitly, without whitewashing the violence. For example, these three articles, representing others, preach "peace and love," but they do not substantially confront (or do not at all confront) the unpleasant truths lurking in the origins.,,

This unwillingness to confront, combined with whitewashing hard truths embedded in their religion, is deceptive at best and dangerous at worst. What happens when or if Islam gets a foothold in a new region on the basis of peace and love, but later on, conservative and strict Muslims (not to mention nonviolent and violent fanatics) cite the numerous violent verses and passages in the Quran and in the hadith in order to defend the infliction of a harsh law, like mutilation or crucifixion in Sura 5:33?

Besides the present article, the following one challenges the Islamic version of human rights and justice: top ten reasons why sharia (Islamic law) is bad for all societies.

So is Islam really the best religion to lead all of humanity into the new millennium? Is Islamic control over every area of life a reason to boast?

The bottom line: Jesus Christ came with good news and the love of God. As the eternal Son of God, he came to save people and to transform them from the inside out. If people do not want this, then they are free to go their own way. This is religious freedom. On the other hand, being only a human messenger (Suras 3:144; 39:30; 41:6) who needed to control his religion and Muslims, Muhammad came with crucifixion and mutilation and torture. This is religious slavery.

Christianity advances society forward. Islam drags society backwards.

Jesus saves. Muhammad tortured.

Supplemental Material

See this short article for Muhammad’s use of torture.

This article examines Muhammad’s torture of the Arab tribesmen, citing may hadiths. And this article replies to Muslim defenses of this indefensible atrocity.

This webpage has many fine articles on Muhammad’s questionable policies and practices.

The abuses at Abu Ghraib Prison were wrong. But they seem like adolescent pranks (e.g. naked human pyramids and underwear put on a head) when they are compared with Muhammad’s methods of torture that caused slow, horrible deaths. To judge from his (excessive) purposes of punishing criminals and enemies and extracting information and exacting revenge, who in the Islamic world today can really talk about human rights with a straight face unless he improves on his prophet—and explicitly and plainly renounces his founder’s methods? Next, the comparisons between Muhammad’s tortures and the abuses at Abu Ghraib break down not only because his tortures were so severe that they led to death, but also because Muhammad claimed divine inspiration, whereas the US government or military does not. So his claim backfires and makes his tortures look even worse, if that is possible.

This short article condemns the abuses at Abu Ghraib, puts them in relation to the torture committed by Muhammad, and asks some pertinent questions.

One difference should be obvious: Those incidents at Abu Ghraib were clearly condemned and punished by the authorities. Muhammad, on the other hand, did not speak out clearly against these excesses, let alone punish those who tortured others. On the contrary, he himself clearly ordered torture in some instances.

Sometimes Muslim polemicists point out the wars in the Old Testament and the severe commands of God. But they have been explained and contrasted with Islamic wars in this article and this one. This article replies to Muslim polemics on the topic. Besides, for Christians, Jesus Christ fulfills this area of the Old Testament and raises our vision to spiritual warfare, waged by preaching and praying, alone. He is our example to follow, and he did not wage military war on anyone, even though he had at his disposal twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:53). What Constantine and later Crusaders did is not foundational to Christianity.

Even though this article replies to Muslim polemics on Muhammad’s inconsistent views on poets, it still has a solid discussion on the reliability of non-hadith sources like Ibn Ishaq the biographer.

Copyright by James Malcolm Arlandson.

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