The gruesome burning death of Jordanian pilot Moaz al Kasasbeh, like countless other atrocities committed by the Islamic State, has been condemned by Muslims around world. The question of whether Muslim law sanctions the militant group's most abhorrent practices — if there ever was a doubt — has been definitively answered, Islamic legal experts say.
Clerics, including some affiliated with jihadi movements, reacted angrily to the release of last week's video depicting the 26-year-old Kasasbeh's gasoline-fueled immolation inside a cage. Among the chorus of criticism, Abu Mohammed al Maqdesi, an extremist preacher linked to al Qaeda, told a Jordanian television network that the act was "not acceptable in any religion." In Aleppo, the Islamic State sacked several religious officials who objected to the burning, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights.
The Islamic State — also known as ISIS, ISIL, or daesh — reportedly projected the video on large screens in Raqqa, its Syrian stronghold. A Twitter account used by a group of anonymous local activists said the militants intended for "the public to watch over and over again."
The immolation of Kasasbeh, whose charred body was subsequently covered in cement rubble, appeared to be, at least in part, an effort to replicate the deaths caused by the US-led coalition bombing on Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria. Images that preceded his murder depicted the burned and broken bodies of victims, apparently of coalition airstrikes.
Jordanian authorities believe Kasasbeh was killed in early January, a month before the video of his death was disseminated online. In a fatwa issued in the middle of last month, Islamic State-affiliated clerics reportedly determined live immolation is "forbidden in principal" but "permissible in cases of reciprocity."
'I've never come across a case where there's a judicially ordered burning of someone to death.'
Mohammad Fadel, a law professor at the University of Toronto and expert in Islamic doctrine, told VICE News that interpretation falls flat in the face of centuries of Islamic jurisprudence.
"Based on well-established doctrines that were enforced in the pre-modern era, there was no idea that the government would gratuitously inflict pain and suffering," Fadel said. "I've never come across a case where there's a judicially ordered burning of someone to death."
Fadel added that Muslims such as Kasasbeh can be targeted under Islamic law in the course of battle — as he was when his jet was fired upon — but must be afforded protection once they are captured. Kasasbeh could have been tried for a specific crime, such as the murder of civilians, but that never occurred — and even then immolation as a punishment would still have contradicted Islamic law.
Despite outcry over the immolation, reports have emerged of its use elsewhere in Islamic State territory. According to US-funded Radio Free Europe, members of the group this month burned at least three people alive in Iraq's Anbar province. The killings, which could not be confirmed by VICE News, reportedly came in response to the victims trying to recruit locals to fight the militants.
Javaid Rehman, a law professor at Brunel University London, said the legality of burning a captive alive is a moot one, considering the criminal nature of the Islamic State, which has tried to create a so-called caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq.
"They have no basis, no legitimacy, no authority to speak on the part of the Muslim people," Rehman told VICE News. "They are a bunch of thugs, on that we have to be very clear."
'These are devastating strikes and they could be creating a crisis.'
Rehman said there is no moral equivalency to be drawn between the burning of Kasasbeh and deaths resulting from coalition strikes in Iraq and Syria. Though he added that the air campaign had drawn little scrutiny, both in terms of its possible death toll and its context in the increasingly violent Middle East that followed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
As of Sunday, aircraft belonging to the US-led coalition have launched a total of 2,341 strikes on alleged extremist targets in Syria and Iraq since they began attacks last year. A spokesperson for the Combined Joint Task Force told VICE News that, "in the instance of a credible report of civilian casualties, a thorough investigation would be launched to determine the accuracy of the claim."
"To date, we have not received any credible reports of civilian casualties as a result of the coalition air campaign," said the spokesperson.
This weekend, Jordan announced it had killed some 7,000 Islamic State fighters since the start of coalition strikes, a toll that could not be verified. On Friday, the Islamic State said its last remaining American hostage, 26-year-old aid worker Kayla Mueller, had been killed in one of Jordan's most recent retaliatory strikes. The fate of Mueller is still unclear and the Islamic State's announcement was widely seen by its military foes as a cynical ploy to foster ruptures between the US and its Arab allies.
Despite the contributions of those Arab countries, it is the US that has carried out slightly less than half of all bombings, according to coalition figures. If past American campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, serve as an indicator, it would be almost impossible for civilians not to have been killed.
"These are devastating strikes and they could be creating a crisis," said Rehman. "There has to be an objective analysis of the consequences of this bombing of Iraq and Syria. The question is to what extent the US is following the Geneva Convention and other humanitarian restraints that are placed on major powers."
Rehman, like many others, pointed out that the Islamic State's own genesis can be traced to the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. In the years that followed, the group grew under the auspices of al Qaeda. Last year, the burgeoning affiliate broke with al Qaeda leadership.
"It hasn't happened overnight," said Rehman. "They should have seen it coming and, I suggest in the future, we need to see what our actions can create."
As for the oft-raised question of what Muslims make of the burning of Kasasbeh, or the beheadings of other hostages, Rehman says the answer is simple, and need not subscribe to doctrine.
"The issue is that it violates the sense of humanity which all Muslims carry towards human beings," he said.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford