Over the past year, Saudi Arabia has faced recurrent criticism that its ultraconservative interpretation of Islamic law is not so far off from what is practiced by the Islamic State, an extremist organization that proclaimed its "caliphate" across parts of Syria and Iraq in June 2014. The criticism clearly irks some Saudi officials, who have threatened legal action against social media users who make the comparison with the Islamic State.
This weekend's announcement that Shiite cleric Sheik Nimr Baqr al-Nimr was among 47 people executed in Saudi Arabia in a day has added considerable fuel to the fire, however. Saudi authorities have acknowledged that some of those executed were beheaded — a technique widely used and publicized by the Islamic State.
In just one sign of broader official outrage at the execution of Nimr, the website of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, released an image that contrasts the Saudi kingdom's use of beheadings with the Islamic State's decapitation videos. "Any differences?" it asks, showing a Saudi executioner with a sword standing over a kneeling man.
The idea that Nimr could have been beheaded will only inflame sectarian tensions in the Muslim world, with Shiites remembering the way that Husayn ibn Ali, the third Shiite imam, was beheaded by the Sunni Umayyad caliphate in the seventh century.
While the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran is part of a larger sectarian rivalry in the Islamic world, it is hard to deny that Saudi Arabia is bucking the trends when it comes to beheadings. Much of the world stopped using beheading as a method of execution in the modern era, yet the Saudi kingdom not only continues to behead people but may actually be increasing the number of beheadings. Groups that monitor executions in the gulf kingdom say beheadings in Saudi Arabia have reached their highest level in two decades, part of a broader increase in the number of executions in the country.
There are only a handful of other nations that still have laws that allow the state to behead people, including Qatar and Iran. In practice, these measures are rarely, if ever, carried out: The last reported beheading by the Iranian state occurred in 2001, and local activists say the penalty is no longer used (the country does continue to execute hundreds of people each year, mostly by hanging). Although beheadings were long favored in many parts of Europe and Asia and in some cases fell out of use only relatively recently — France last used the infamous guillotine in 1977, for example — almost all governments have now moved away from beheadings, either replacing it with other execution methods or simply doing away with capital punishment altogether.
Meanwhile, strict punishments have remained a key part of the Saudi legal system, which is rooted in the ultraconservative Wahhabi school of Islam. The system is based on judges' interpretation of Islamic law, most of which is set out in the Koran or in the Sunnah, a record of the teachings and practices of the prophet Muhammad. In practice, judges often have significant discretion, though Saudi leaders have also been known to step in to offer pardons in extreme and unpopular cases.
It was only relatively recently that beheadings came to be associated with Islamist terror groups and insurgencies. In 1996, Chechen rebels beheaded a captive Russian soldier after he refused to convert to Islam — an event that may well have sparked a resurgence in the use of this tactic among non-state groups. The beheading of Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter, in 2002 was filmed by Pakistani militants and its footage widely shared, setting another precedent for beheadings. Over the past two years, the Islamic State has made its decapitation videos a gruesome calling card in its propaganda fight to control the Middle East.
The Islamic State often appears to use extreme violence such as beheadings as a way to provoke its enemies further into conflict and draw more gore-hungry recruits. At the same time, it also views itself as a legitimate religious authority and has cited various parts of scripture to justify its more extreme actions, despite considerable criticism and rebukes. Given that beheadings are mentioned in the Quran and that in some accounts of his life, Muhammad is said to have personally approved mass beheadings, some conservative clerics argue that beheadings are religiously justified, though they remain highly contentious with many Islamic authorities.
The Saudi kingdom views the Islamic State as a real threat to its stability, and the extremist group views the kingdom as an illegitimate state run by apostates, yet their use of beheadings ties the two enemies together. Saudi officials have responded forcefully to those who say there is "no difference" between their legal system and that of the Islamic State by emphasizing their processes rather than their punishments.
"When we do it in Saudi Arabia, we do it as a decision made by a court," Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, an Interior Ministry spokesman, told NBC News last year. "The killing is a decision. I mean it is not based on arbitrary choices, to kill this and not to kill this." Saudi swordsmen have bragged about their skill at making the execution relatively quick. "People are amazed how fast [my sword] can separate the head from the body," executioner Muhammad Saad al-Beshi told Arab News in 2003.
Critics view it differently. "Beheading as a form of execution is cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and prohibited under international law under all circumstances," Juan Méndez, a U.N. special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, said at a news conference in 2014 while urging Saudi Arabia to halt its executions. Amnesty International, a group that opposes the death penalty in general, has pointed out that beheadings are sometimes used as punishment for relatively minor crimes and that trials that result in beheadings are often flawed.