Public Execution in the Umayyad Period: Early Islamic Punitive Practice and its Late Antique Context

Andrew Marsham


Executions can be understood as symbolic events and part of wider political culture. Recent commentators on early Islamic execution have observed that Umayyad punishment of apostates, rebels and brigands was ‘pre-classical’. There is less agreement about the extent to which ‘Islam’ affected Umayyad practice. Epistles and poetry provide a more secure basis for understanding Umayyad public capital punishment than the problematic anecdotal evidence of other sources. Umayyad punitive practice was indeed not ‘classical’, and its justification does not seem to have explicitly invoked Prophetic precedent. However, it was sometimes justified with reference to the Qurʾān, and in particular with reference to ideas about violation of God’s covenant (nakth) and public violence (khurūj and fasād fī l-arḍ). Furthermore, when the supposed forms of punishment are considered in their late antique context, features of Umayyad-era penal culture that appear to have been shaped by the wider, monotheist context can be identified.

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