One of the most terrible assaults upon human dignity is the ancient method of execution, burning a person alive. As a student of history, the mass burnings of dissidents under the Inquisition horrified me and turned me forever against the religious denomination that carried out such acts.

It was a method frequently used by the pagan Roman Empire. Josephus, the Jewish traitor who served Titus, the destroyer of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE, reported that after the fall of the city and the capture of thousands of its inhabitants, Titus visited Caesarea on the coast and then Caesarea Philippi ‘…where he stayed a long time exhibiting shows of every kind. Many of the prisoners perished here, some thrown to wild beasts, others forced to meet each other in full-scale battles.’ Another 2,500 were similarly dealt with, some being burnt alive, to celebrate his brother Domitian’s birthday in Caesarea a few months later (Josephus The Jewish War BK VII ch II & ch III.)

When I discovered that Paul of Tarsus, who was in fact the founder of the form of Christianity which became dominant, supported this type of government, my adherence to his religion also faltered. Paul wrote, just a few years before this atrocity, in his Letter to the Romans: “You must all obey the governing authorities. Since all government comes from God, the civil authorities were appointed by God, and so anyone who resists authority is rebelling against God’s decision, and such an act is bound to be punished. Good behaviour is not afraid of magistrates; only criminals have anything to fear…..The State is there to serve God for your benefit.” (Romans 13:1-4)

Mass burning at Cathars

Mass burning at Cathars

It was a form of punishment used by the Roman Catholic Church against the Cathars in southern France in the 1200s. These Cathars preached the unity of God, they rejected the trinity and veneration of the cross. They appear to have been remnants of the early followers of the Gospel who rejected Pauline teachings. They were the target of a major crusade and were exterminated.

Their last stronghold was the fortress of Montségur. It was overcome by siege and on 16 March 1244, a large and symbolically important massacre took place, where over 200 Cathars were burnt alive in an enormous fire near the foot of the castle. Over 200 living people burned alive in the pursuit of doctrinal purity! It is not something to forget.

The position of Islam on such horror is very clear. Wael Shihab writes in an opinion, ( “It is Islamically forbidden to burn a human, whether dead or alive. Allah Most High says, {Truly We have honored human beings} (Al-Isra’ 17: 70); burning a human being is a blatant disregard of the honor owed him or her as per the Divine will. In one of his hadiths, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “No one is entitled to punish with fire except the Creator (God) of the fire”. (Abu Dawud, Sunan, No. 2673)”

That is why all of the Muslim world is horrified at the blatant disregard of Divine Law by the extremists in Iraq and Syria with their murder by fire of Muadh al-Kasasbeh, the Muslim pilot they captured. Such horrors belong to paganism and religious fanaticism, they are not part of Islam.