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The Qur’an and Law

The first and most basic source of all Islamic teaching is the Qur’an. Muslims believe the Qur’an to be the unchanging, revealed word of God. The Qur’an provides the Muslim with both guidance and inspiration: “Say: ‘The holy spirit [angel Gabriel] has brought the revelation from your Lord in truth, in order to strengthen those who believe, and as a guide and glad tidings’” (Qur’an 16:102).

Muslims do not have a binding religious authority, a Muslim equivalent of the Pope. Muslims read the primary Islamic sources, refer to the opinions of legal scholars, and then determine their individual course of action based on the evidence at hand, the advice of the scholars, and their own conscience.

The Qur’an serves as a primary source of guidance to Muslims around the world. Although many of its verses are general and spiritual in nature, it also contains specific legislation about the rights and duties of human beings. Laws regarding marriage and divorce, punishment of criminal behavior, diet, inheritance, business transactions, and personal etiquette are outlined in detail.

When the Qur’an does not directly address certain issues or does not discuss them in detail, Muslims turn to secondary sources of guidance.

A Beautiful Exemplar;

The Qur’an describes Muhammad’s role as follows: “Allah is the One who sent among the unlettered ones a messenger from among themselves, reciting to them Allah’s verses, purifying them, and teaching them the Book and the wisdom. Truly they had been before in manifest error” (Qur’an 62:2). Muslims are ordered in the Qur’an to follow the words and acts of Muhammad (as presented in the Sunnahand verified by the hadith): “Whatever the Prophet ordered you to do, you should do, and whatever he forbids you, you should reject” (Qur’an 59:7).

The Lawful and Unlawful;

As a fundamental principle, everything is permitted in Islam except those things that have been expressly forbidden by Allah. In Islam, forbidden things are known as haram, and permitted things are known as halal.

Muslims rely on scriptural text, reasoning, and the conclusions of scholars when deciding on the legality of a particular matter. In the end, there is no individual or governing body that has the sole duty or right to interpret Islamic law. Muslims are left to follow the clear guidance as they best understand it.

Muhammad advised his followers to steer clear of doubtful things and stick to what they know for sure. He said: “The lawful is clear, and the unlawful is clear, and between them are things which are doubtful and not known to most of you. So anyone who keeps away from the doubtful things, in fact he is protecting his faith and honor, and he who indulges in doubtful acts falls into fault.”

The word haram means prohibited, forbidden, or unlawful. The word halalmeans allowed, permitted, or lawful. Muslims also recognize a gray area, makrooh, which describes that which is not forbidden but is disliked, undesirable, or doubtful — thus, best avoided.

The Qur’an warns people against making lawful things forbidden, and vice versa, based on their own opinions. “And do not say concerning the falsehood which your tongues utter, ‘This is halal and that is haram,’ in order to fabricate a lie against Allah. Assuredly, those who fabricate a lie against Allah will not prosper” (Qur’an 16:116). Muslims are always very careful when determining or instructing others about the lawfulness or unlawfulness of a course of action, for fear of leading other people astray and falling into this category of people who “lie” about God’s legislation.

Is it necessary for a Muslim to confess a sin to someone, either privately or publicly?

No. In Islam, repentance is directly between an individual and God, without any intermediaries.

In a chapter titled “Repentance,” the Qur’an says, “Do they not know that it is God Who accepts the repentance of His servants?” (Qur’an 9:104).

Bitter Truth And The History of Capital Punishments For Crimes

The Islamic Shari’ah is the entire legal system implemented in Islam. The word itself implies an endless source of water from which people satisfy their thirst; specifically, it refers to the divine law that was revealed in the Qur’an and exemplified in the life of Muhammad(PBUH).

Islam is concerned with the well-being and security of every individual in society. Any behavior that threatens or violates the rights of others is prohibited in Islam, and strict punishments exist to help deter potential criminals. In this way, the lives and property of all members of society are secured and protected.

In Islam, there are penal laws for major crimes such as murder, assault, theft, and adultery. The degree of punishment depends on the magnitude of the material or emotional injury resulting from the act. At all times, only an authorized court may mete out punishment. There is no vigilantism in Islam. However, victims or their families have the final say on whether the punishment is carried out. They may, at their discretion, forgive the perpetrator and accept compensation for the crime committed.

The Islamic penal code calls for the following punishments:

  • Murder: execution or monetary compensation to the victim’s family (discretion is given to the victim’s family in this choice).
  • Accidental homicide: freedom for one of the perpetrator’s slaves and monetary compensation to the victim’s family; if the perpetrator has no money, he or she must fast daily for two consecutive months. (Obviously, the injunction on freeing a slave is no longer relevant.)
  • Intentional injury: an injury equal to the one caused, or monetary compensation to the victim.
  • Land, sea, or air piracy: execution, crucifixion, cutting off of alternate hands and feet, or exile from the land. This category includes terrorism and rape.
  • Theft: cutting off of one hand, unless the individual stole out of true need and necessity.
  • Fornication (premarital sex): flogging of both man and woman.
  • Adultery: stoning to death of both man and woman.
  • False accusations about a person’s chastity: flogging and rejection of all future oaths and testimony.
  • Homosexual practices: execution of both individuals.
  • Drinking of alcohol: flogging.

It is important to remember that the punishments are harsh because they are meant to deter would-be criminals. Punishments such as these are meted out only for crimes that are considered transgressions against the community, because they put the entire society at risk. The punishments of the Hereafter are much more severe, but the door to forgiveness is always open through sincere repentance.

Only an Islamic court of law may order these sentences, and in reality, they are rarely carried out. Their presence in Islamic law is mainly to warn people about the consequences of wrongdoing.

A Short History of Capital Punishment

Lincoln conspirators execution

The Execution of Lincoln’s Conspirators

Capital punishment has been the hot subject of a very long-running debate. Even today it is assumed that a substantial proportion of the public want to see it restored, although governments are broadly against its return in places where it has already been abolished. When the UK parliament decided to ban all public executions – the last one was as recently as 1868 – the public were outraged, having always enjoyed a good hanging as a kind of spectator sport.

In the days when executions at Tyburn were routine, London’s busiest gallows stood on a spot close to modern Connaught Square at Marble Arch. These could accommodate 21 men or women at a time, convention dictating an order of precedence such that highwaymen as the ‘aristocrats of crime’ were despatched first, then common thieves, with traitors being left to bring up the rear.

Artist’s Impression of The Tyburn Tree
tyburn tree


The condemned would be taken to the so-called Tyburn Tree from Newgate Gaol in the City, where the Old Bailey is today. Each would be presented with scented nosegays by crowds which could number up in the tens of thousands. Convicts could also enjoy a last drink free of charge at the Mason’s Arms, which is still open for business in Seymour Place, London W1. It wasn’t unknown for some to escape the drop, and in 1705 John ‘half-hanged’ Smith earned his nickname by taking so long to die that the crowd rioted and demanded he be cut down and let loose. Patrick O’Bryan also escaped, but deciding to murder his accuser he was boiled in pitch to stop any such crime happening again.

But hanging is not the only grisly method by which criminals were punished for their deeds.

The Barbarity of The Electric Chair


Some executions were more notorious than others. When Charles II’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, was executed for treason in 1685, it took his executioner Jack Ketch five blows with the axe to kill him. With Ketch almost certainly drunk, even then the job had to be finished off with a knife.
Monmouth had attempted to topple his father, but lost the critical Battle of Sedgemoor.

According to legend, a portrait was painted of Monmouth after his execution. The belief is that after the grisly deed it was realised that there was no official portrait of the Duke. For a son of a King, and someone who had claimed the throne, albeit in vain, this was unheard of. So Monmouth’s body was exhumed, the head stitched back on the body, and it was sat for its portrait to be painted.

The Duke of Monmouth


Boiling to Death was legal punishment in olden times, though instances of it were not as frequent in the annals of crime as some of the other modes of execution. In the year 1531, when Henry VIII was King, an act was passed for boiling prisoners to death. The act details the case of one Richard Rouse, a cook in the diocese of the Bishop of Rochester who had, by putting poison in the food of several persons, occasioned the death of two, and the serious illness of others. He was found guilty of treason and sentenced to be boiled to death without the benefit of celery being present. He was brought to punishment at Smithfield, on the 15th of April, 1532; and the Act ordained that all manner of prisoners should meet with the same doom henceforth. In 1531, a maid-servant was boiled to death in the market-place of King’s Lynn for the crime of poisoning her mistress. Then March 28th, 1542, a maid-servant named Margaret Davy perished at Smithfield for poisoning persons with whom she had lived. However, the act was repealed in the year 1547.

The dreadful practice of boiling people alive
via boiled alive


Captain William Kidd was hanged in London in 1700 after abandoning piety for piracy. The Scottish sailor started out on the right path but eventually turned to buccaneering at sea. Inevitably the legend is larger than the man, and it seems doubtful that his actual “depredations on the high seas” were any worse than many a lesser-known brigand.

Kidd’s capture and trial in 1700 caused a sensation, however, when he fell victim to political points-scoring. Hanged in the traditional manner for pirates – at London’s Wapping Stairs, where three tides washed over his corpse – he was then hanged in chains at Tilbury, and his body was left there to rot for 20 years.



Until 1772 the rich could opt for something known as peine forte et dure, French for ‘hard and forceful punishment’. This involved being pressed to death beneath a wooden board loaded with weights, a slow and hideously painful process whose sole advantage was avoiding one’s property being confiscated by the Crown.

The most famous case of peine forte et dure in the United Kingdom was that of Roman Catholic Martyr St Margaret Clitherow, who was pressed to death on March 25, 1586, after refusing to plead to the charge of having harboured Catholic (then outlawed) priests in her house. She died within fifteen minutes under a weight of at least 700 pounds. Several hardened criminals, including William Spiggot (1721) and Edward Burnworth, lasted half hour under 400 pounds before pleading to the indictment. Others, such as Major Strangways (1658) and John Weekes (1731), refused to plead, even under 400 pounds, and were killed when bystanders, out of mercy, sat on them.

Example of Crushing Execution in India
crushiung death


The largest crowd ever assembled in Britain for a public execution was that which gathered outside Newgate Gaol on 30 November, 1824 to see a sentence of death carried out on Henry Fauntleroy. An estimated 100,000 people thronged the streets, some paying enormous sums for rooms with a clear view of the gallows.

Fauntleroy was a banker who had been convicted of successfully defrauding the Bank of England of £250,000, or more than £20 million at current values. He cheerfully squandered the entire sum, which somehow seemed to make the offence even worse and certainly took the biscuit as far as the crowd was concerned. He was the last person to be hanged for forgery in the UK.



Capital Punishment in Islam

“…If anyone kills a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he killed all people. And if anyone saves a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all people” (Qur’an 5:32).

Life is sacred, according to Islam and most other world faiths. But how can one hold life sacred, yet still support capital punishment?

The Qur’an answers, “…Take not life, which God has made sacred, except by way of justice and law. Thus does He command you, so that you may learn wisdom” (6:151).

The key point is that one may take life only “by way of justice and law.” In Islam, therefore, the death penalty can be applied by a court as punishment for the most serious of crimes. Ultimately, one’s eternal punishment is in God’s hands, but there is a place for punishment in this life as well. The spirit of the Islamic penal code is to save lives, promote justice, and prevent corruption and tyranny.Islamic philosophy holds that a harsh punishment serves as a deterrent to serious crimes that harm individual victims, or threaten to destabilize the foundation of society.

According to Islamic law (in the first verse quoted above), the following two crimes can be punishable by death: 

Intentional murderFasad fil-ardh (“spreading mischief in the land”) 

Intentional Murder

The Qur’an legislates the death penalty for murder, although forgiveness and compassion are strongly encouraged. The murder victim’s family is given a choice to either insist on the death penalty, or to pardon the perpetrator and accept monetary compensation for their loss (2:178).

Fasaad fi al-ardhThe second crime for which

capital punishment can be applied is a bit more open to interpretation. “Spreading mischief in the land” can mean many different things, but is generally interpreted to mean those crimes that affect the community as a whole, and destabilize the society. Crimes that have fallen under this description have included: 

  • Treason / Apostacy (when one leaves the faith and joins the enemy in fighting against the Muslim community)
  • Terrorism
  • Land, sea, or air piracy
  • Rape
  • Adultery
  • Homosexual behavior

Actual methods of capital punishment vary from place to place. In some Muslim countries, methods have included beheading, hanging, stoning, and firing squad. Executions are held publicly, to serve as warnings to would-be criminals.It is important to note that there is no place for vigilantism in Islam — one must be properly convicted in an Islamic court of law before the punishment can be meted out.

 The severity of the punishment requires that very strict evidence standards must be met before a conviction is found. The court also has flexibility to order less than the ultimate punishment (for example, imposing fines or prison sentences), on a case-by-case basis.

Most Brutal Execution Methods of Ancient Civilization

1. Hold your breath. You are about to witness some very severe historical penalties. Though our ancient cultures were said to be very civilized, there is evidence of their having used a wide variety of hideous torture methods throughout history to end the lives of criminals and traitors.



2. Death by Boiling

Can you imagine boiling someone alive in large pot? Though not common, this was an unusually cruel method of execution. There is plenty of evidence that it was practiced throughout human history. Archeologists have found human bones in cooking pots and hearths in China which were found to be around 500,000 years old.

In England in the 1500s this was the legal method of punishment. The victim was immersed in boiling water, oil or tar until dead. Imagine the fear the prisoner felt when they were taken to this deadly big pot to suffer their horrible fate.

Excecution of Goemon Ishikawa, death by boiling


3. Crucifixion

Crucifixion was among the most gruesome and painful of ancient execution methods and was practiced from about the 6th century BC until the 4th century AD, mainly among the Seleucids, Carthaginians, Persians and Romans. The condemned person was tied (or nailed) to a large wooden cross and left to hang till dead. Their dead body was then left on display as a warning. Sometimes, the victim was ordered to carry their own crossbeam – which weighed about 75-125 pounds (35-60 kg) – on their shoulders to the place of execution. Not only this, but to humiliate them, they were ordered to be hung up naked.

There is evidence of a practice much like crucifixion having taken place during World War I and II. A punishment known as ‘Field Punishment Number One’ was very similar – although it involved the victim being flogged rather than executed. In the British Army, especially during World War I, soldiers were punished for crimes such as refusal of orders and disobedience.

Nowadays, versions of crucifixion are practiced as a devotional ceremony in some part of New Mexico and the Philippines. Though the church greatly discourages this practice, followers of Jesus still imitate the suffering of Christ by being ‘crucified’ for a limited time on Good Friday. It has been seen in the town of Iztapalapa, just outside Mexico City, and also in San Pedro Cutud, during the ‘Passion Week Celebration’ of 2007. 

Devotional crucifixion in San Fernando, Pampanga, Philippines, easter 2006


4. Flaying

In this author’s opinion, this was the most uncivilized method of torture and punishment practiced during the Middle Ages. Brutal to the bone, it involved removing the skin from the body of a still living prisoner.

Flaying was an ancient practice, inflicted on criminals, captured soldiers and ‘witches’ around a thousand years ago in places such as the Middle East and Africa. The victim was flayed alive as part of a public execution, after which the skin was nailed to the wall as a warning, so that others would heed the lesson and never ever dare to defy the law.

Flaying of St Bartholomew


5. Disembowelment

Disembowelment was among the most severe forms of punishments ever heard of or seen. This method was used to punish thieves and those accused of adultery. Some or all the vital organs were removed one by one from the body, mainly from the abdomen. Sources say it was practiced in England, the Netherlands, Belgium and in Japan.

In Japan, it was a ritualized suicide method for Samurai, referred as “seppuku”, in which two cuts across the abdomen were made. In another version, a fine cut was made in the victim’s gut, leaving him to catch an infection.

Also, in later medieval times, the torture was performed using small starving animals such as mice, which led to the victim’s death. Imagine the agonizing pain the prisoner must have felt when their 6-meter-long intestines were slowly eaten by the starving mice.

woodblock print of warrior about to perform seppuku


6. Breaking Wheel

The breaking wheel, also known as the ‘Catherine wheel’, was a medieval execution device. It was used during the Middle Ages and was still in use in the 19th century. It originated in Ancient Greece and from there spread through other countries such as France, Russia, Germany, Spain, Portugal and Sweden.

A wooden wheel was used to stretch the victim out, with their limbs extended along its many spokes. Then a hammer or a large iron bar was applied to the limb through the gap to break all its bones. This process was repeated with every limb, leaving the victim alive but in pieces.

Sometimes the executioner was ordered to strike on the stomach and chest, a practice known as the ‘blow of mercy’. The number of blows was specified in the court sentence. If mercy was shown, after two to three blows the victim was strangled. In severe cases, the victim would be cudgeled ‘bottom-up’ starting with the legs, while those who had committed lesser offenses were beaten ‘top-down’ starting with the throat. When the execution was complete, the criminal’s head was often placed on a spike for exhibition and the shattered limbs were left for birds to eat. Imagine the pain and suffering involved in this cruel execution method.

Breaking Wheel Punishment


7. Impalement

We all know about piercing the nose, ear or naval as a beautification procedure – but what about being pierced with a long stake? This was among the most revolting of punishments ever imagined and practiced by humans. It was a favorite of the Romans, Chinese, Greeks and the Turks. It was also practiced in Asia and in Europe during the Middle Ages.

Though rarely practiced, impalement was truly horrifying. The victim was pierced through the rectum, through the vagina, through the side or even through the mouth, causing deep bleeding and painful wounds. They were then dropped into their own grave. The victim endured a long period of continued suffering before their death. Sometimes, before execution, the victim was asked to dig their own grave too. What suffering the victim had to endure with the stake penetrating their groin during those agonizing hours (or days) before death.

Judean Impalement


8. Crushing

This forceful execution method was used in the common law legal system. It has an extensive history, with several varying methods used through time. One of them was ‘Crushing by Elephants’, which was used throughout south and south-east Asia for over 4,000 years. Sources say it was also used by Romans as well as by the Nguyen Dynasty in Vietnam.

In another method, the victim was pressed with extremely large and heavy stones laid upon their chest, causing suffocation and then death. Though these forms of execution are no longer sanctioned by any governing body, the fact remains that it was incredibly unkind to let someone die, crushed or suffocated beneath rocks or the strong legs of a giant creature.

Execution by elephant


9. Death by Burning

We may love to eat roasted potatoes, roasted chicken and roasted beets – but what about a roasted human? Many of us cannot even imagine seeing a human burning alive. So imagine the cruelty of this wild and evil execution procedure. In days gone by, some criminals were burned alive for whatever heinous act they committed.

The progress of the fire would burn the calves, thighs, hands, stomach, breasts and upper chest before reaching the face. It was extremely painful, although sometimes the person died from carbon monoxide poisoning before the fire even touched their calves. Pitch was also applied to the prisoner’s body, which helped the fire to burn quicker and make the process faster.

There is evidence of enemies being burned alive in Rome, in Akragas in Sicily, in England, and in some part of North America too. Among the best known individuals executed by this brutal method were St. Joan of Arc (1431), Patrick Hamilton (1528), Thomas Cranmer (1556) and the Old Believer leader Avvakum (1682).

The most recent record is of ‘Jesse Washington’, whose execution is internationally remembered as ‘The Waco Horror’. Washington was found guilty of raping and murdering a white woman and was only 17 when he was tortured and burned alive in front of a cheering crowd of 16,000. What could be a more brutish and wild punishment than this?



10. Sawing

You can grasp what this execution procedure was about by its name. It involved hanging the helpless condemned person upside down and then slicing them down the middle, starting at the groin. It was a gross procedure to say the least… Bleeding severely but still alive and conscious – the thought alone is enough to make you throw up. As the condemned was hanged upside down, their brain received enough blood supply, so they remained alive in spite of the pain and severe bleeding. This method was used in Europe, under the Roman Empire and also in some parts of Asia. According to some religious histories, the prophet Isaiah was executed in this manner. The illustration here shows the painful death of a delinquent.

sawing in two


11. Slow Slicing

Another vicious punishment method involved slicing the prisoner very slowly. Around 900 AD it was a common execution method in China, until its abolition. There it was known as ‘Ling Chi’, which means ‘The Lingering Death’ or ‘Death By a Thousand Cuts’. The idea behind the method was to humiliate the victim with a slow and painful execution and then for the punishment to continue even after after death.

The condemned person was killed using a knife. Methodically, over an extended period of time, parts of the body were removed. This was a public execution method used to threaten people. Sometimes opium was also administered to prevent fainting or as an act of mercy. Because of the severity of the punishment, it could not last longer than 15 to 20 minutes.

So friends, which method did you like the most? The full list is quite long and includes other horrible methods such as decapitation, shooting, necklacing and hanging. Since there seems to be no end to the list of diabolical methods, this author’s opinion is: “Aargh…..!! They are all equally uncivilized and gruesome!”

Lingchi torture in Beijing around 1910


12. In an age when the death penalty has been abolished in most of the developed world, and is often frowned upon even where is practiced, it might seem difficult to believe that barely a century ago executions were not only the norm but were put unashamedly on public display. In the American Old West, capital punishment was, by comparison with today, meted out in spades. Lynching from trees and other forms of tough justice were the order of the day, and be hanged with scruples like wrongful convictions and the idea that such practices only ape the culture of violence they condemn.



13. Tough Justice: Hanging of a horse thief in Oregon circa 1900.

Some might argue that the Wild West was a time when justice needed to be severe: where outlaw order prevailed in the form of brutal banditry that preyed upon banks, trains and stagecoaches, judicial murder was a case of the punishment fitting the crime. Even what we now might consider lesser crimes, such as horse thievery and cattle rustling, were offenses judged serious enough to be punished by hanging – such were the handicapping effects the loss of livestock had on the victims. It was also a lesson to others to keep their hands clean and forget about law-breaking.



14. Tom Ketchum on the scaffold before hanging, 1901.

A cowboy and cattle rancher who later turned to a life of crime in Texas and New Mexico, Tom ‘Black Jack’ Ketchum is purported to have committed his first train robbery in 1892 and his first murder in 1895. He was also allegedly involved in the killing of Republican politician Albert Jennings Fountain and his son in early 1896, and later the same year the robbery of a store and post office after being invited inside by the owners during a storm. Following the latter crime, Ketchum and his cronies were tracked down by a posse, but emerged unhurt from the ensuing shootout while two of their assailants lay dead.



15. Sending a warning: 1901 postcard of Ketchum’s decapitated body after hanging.

Ketchum then joined the infamous Hole in the Wall Gang and focused on robbing trains. In August 1899, Black Jack single-handedly tried to rob the same train in the same way his gang had done just weeks earlier. The conductor recognised Tom as he neared the moving train and shot him with a shotgun, leaving him badly wounded. After being taken by a posse to hospital he had his arm amputated, and was later convicted and – unconstitutionally it turned out – sentenced to death. Ketchum’s weight and the inexperience of his executioners meant he was decapitated as he dropped through the scaffold trap door. His last words? “Good-bye. Please dig my grave very deep. All right; hurry up.”



16. Mob rule: Newspaper shot of the lynching of ‘Killer’ Jim Miller and others, 1909.

Some hangings in the Old West were done even less by the book. James B ‘Killer’ Miller was convicted of his first homicide in 1884 but acquitted, and soon boastingly embarked on a career as an assassin. Armed with a shotgun, he was alleged to have had a hand in at least eight murders for money, plus another six killings due to saloon and gambling disputes. After Miller had been hired to kill ex-US Marshal Allen Bobbitt, he was arrested in Texas and extradited to Oklahoma to stand trial – but with evidence weak, a mob broke into the jail and dragged Miller and three other suspects to a nearby abandoned stable for lynching. Miller is said to have shouted “Let ‘er rip!” and stepped voluntarily off his box.



17. Shot at the crime scene: Lee seated next to his coffin just prior to execution.

Less your typical outlaw, early Mormon pioneer John Doyle Lee was put to death for leading the Mountain Meadows Massacre. In 1856, the Fancher party, an Arkansas emigrant group, were camped in southern Utah when they were attacked by a group of Mormon militiamen dressed as Native Americans. Lee convinced the emigrants to surrender their belongings in return for safe passage, at which point 120 of the party were slain. Lee’s first trial in 1875 ended in a hung jury, but when tried again in 1877 he was sent to the firing squad. Adamant he had personally killed no one and was a scapegoat for others of his faith, Lee’s last words were: “I have been sacrificed in a cowardly, dastardly manner.” 



18. Biting the bullet: 1914 photograph of execution by firing squad in Mexico.

Execution by firing squad was almost as much a staple of capital punishment in the Wild West as lynching, and those found guilty also bit the bullet south of the Rio Grande River. The difference is: the death penalty was abolished in Mexico in 2005.

Still, it all seems a far cry from the present where even the gas chamber and electric chair have been all but superseded by the lethal injection. Yet, more clinical though modern methods of execution may be, do they have any more care for human rights? The days of slow strangulation by short drop hanging may be over, but even lethal injection has come under fire for being too painful. At least it’s all kept hidden behind closed doors though, eh? And don’t mention miscarriages of justice.

Mexico_execution_by_firing squad_1916


19. Beheaded revolutionists in Wuchang, 1911

The death penalty in the Far East has a notorious past, with some extremely inhumane execution methods having been practiced. In the 19th century “death by elephant” – in which elephants were used to crush, maim or otherwise torture prisoners – was one method of public execution that was still being practiced.



20. Execution of Boxer leaders at Hsi-Kou, 1900-1901

However, in the early part of the 20th century there were many different methods used to kill people as punishment for alleged crimes, and what makes this more macabre is that often these executions were carried out in public – and with photographs taken. This article will examine some of these shocking images. They’re not for the faint-hearted. Execution of Boxer leaders at Hsi-Kou 1900-1901


21.Garrote Execution, Manila, the Philippines, 1901

The man above is being garrotted to death in Manila Bilibid Prison. Garrotting is essentially strangling someone to death using a chain or a wire. However, during executions, a post with a seat to which the captive was tied was generally used, with a metal band placed around the victim’s neck that was tightened until the condemned suffocated to death. In some cases (especially in Spain, which used the garrotte until 1973) there was a spike on the band to break the spinal cord more quickly. In the Philippines, the use of the garrotte was banned in 1902, with three priests accused of taking part in the 1872 Cavite Mutiny against the Spanish among the most famous victims of this means of execution. Not a pleasant way to die.

22. Execution in China ca. 1900s

Beheadings were very common in the Far East, and often the head was displayed to the public afterwards. (An executioner who decapitates people is known as a “headsman”.) In China beheading was thought of as a more extreme form of punishment than strangulation because in the Chinese tradition it was considered disrespectful to return the body of an individual to their ancestors in a dismembered state.



23. Spy being beheaded, Liaoning, China in Russo-Japanese War, 1905

In Japan, beheadings were also considered a severe punishment before the practice was abolished. One particularly extreme example of this involved a would-be assassin who was buried up to his neck in the ground in order that his head could be slowly sawn off over several agonizing days. However, in Japan there was a context in which decapitation was considered honorable – when someone committed the ritual suicide, an act known as seppuku. After the individual disemboweled themselves, another warrior would come along and slice off their head to hasten death. However, most beheadings were carried out by courts or during wartime.



24. Beheading during the Qing Dynasty (1636 ~ 1912), China

In the North-West Frontier Province of British India (now Pakistan), it has been written that women practiced decapitation during the Anglo-Afghan war. Pathan women would behead (and castrate) non-Muslims like British and Sikh POWs, according to the autobiography of British officer John Masters.

25. Beheaded corpses, Caishikou, China, 1905

The public laying out of the headless bodies in the above image is as disturbing as any shown here. The information that comes with the photo says that the victims were lined up according to rank at the crossroads of a vegetable market in Beijing, China.

26. Chinese civilians to be buried alive, 1937/38

In this extremely macabre photo, Chinese people are being forced into a pit ready to be buried alive by Japanese troops during the Nanking Massacre, as Japanese forces invaded China. As an execution method, premature burial might be seen to have a practical purpose – there is no need to move the body for burial – but any trace of humanity is sadly lacking.

In feudal Russia premature burial was also the punishment handed out to women who had killed their husbands and was called “the pit”. The last known execution in Russia by such a method was in 1927.

27. Public executions, Peking, China, c. 1927

Desecrating the bodies of the condemned and executed was also far from unknown in the Far East. In some cases the heads of people who had been decapitated were stuck on sticks or pikes as a warnings to others. In the image above, a man’s head was placed between his legs and left there. The photographer marked the image “a ghastly joke”.


28. Mancage in Afghanistan, 1921

Banditry in Afghanistan had been a serious problem in the early 1900s and the authorities set out to curb it. They would imprison those captured in iron cages like this one and leave them up there to die without food or water. By 1921 the crime had become less of a problem. No wonder!



29. Exhibition of strangled Chinese malefactors, c. 1907

This image shows an instance of public execution in which Chinese criminals had been strangled before their bodies were put on display in these wooden cages – more for the sake of deterring others from crime than anything else, one suspects.

There is one other truly abhorrent example of the death penalty too graphic to be shown here (if you want to see an image of it, go here). Known as Ling Chi, it has also been called death by a thousand cuts, slow slicing, the lingering death or the slow process. Although officially abolished in China in 1905, the image above was taken in 1910, so Ling Chi clearly still went on afterwards. The condemned was tied naked to a post, often publicly, and their flesh gradually cut away with small slices from a knife until they died of blood loss or shock. Occasionally the victims were given opium to stop them from fainting or perhaps (small possibility!) as an act of mercy.

None of these execution methods are pleasant to say the least, but men have been putting each other to death for hundreds of years and have been alarmingly creative in finding methods that are especially painful. These sinister images show the worst side of mankind and the worst side of some ideas of justice.


My sincere thanks to the following for images and information contained in this story:

 Alka Sharma,  Karl Fabricius, Michele Collet