September 19, 2004
(Non)excessive punishments in the QuranBy James Arlandson
For three years now after 9/11, many Westerners curious about Islam have walked softly around it and skipped over some of its customs. For example, all of us have heard of cutting off the hands of thieves and hitting wives. But are these punishments rumors or facts?
It is time now to critically examine Islam and sharia (Islamic law that has its ultimate source in the Quran) that traditional Muslims believe reflect God's best for society.
Saudi television aired a talk show that discussed wife—beating as part of the Quran. Scrolling half way down the link, the readers can see an Islamic scholar holding up various rods that husbands might use (or not). He also says that beatings could cure sadomasochism and that this claim has led one (unnamed) psychologist to convert to Islam because a sacred text, the Quran, finally points the way toward curing a mental illness. Thus, the scholar seems to believe that conversion to Islam demonstrates its effectiveness and squelches all debate and doubt about the Quran's revelations.
Saudi Arabia's embassy in Washington, DC, recommends the website of the Islamic Affairs Department, which contains hundreds of pages outlining Islamic beliefs, citing passages from the Quran and the Hadith (body of reports of the sayings and deeds of Muhammad outside of the Quran). The site is unintentionally ironic: on the one hand, it says the superior Quran abrogates or cancels the New Testament, but on the other hand, it quotes a verse that says husbands may beat their wives (the New Testament does not advocate this). Does it ever occur to the publishers of the website to question whether God would inspire a sacred text that has such a punishment?
Indeed, far from questioning Islam, traditional Muslims would like to see the Quran and sharia imposed on any society, as far as Islam can spread. Yet, are the Quran and sharia good for society? Do they have inherent problems that cannot be explained away, and certainly not imposed on society? This article analyzes these questions and compares the Quran with the New Testament, which has influenced Western society, either directly or indirectly.
1. God through Gabriel sent down the Quran, so it abrogates the New Testament and guides society.
Based on verses from the Quran itself, basic Islamic theology asserts that by God's command Gabriel brought down the Quran to Muhammad who had it recorded over two decades, beginning, tradition says, in 610. This verse represents others:
26:192 Truly, this Quran has been sent down by the Lord of the Worlds: 193 the Trustworthy Spirit [Gabriel] brought it down 194 to your heart [Prophet], so that you could bring warning 195 in a clear Arabic tongue. (Haleem's translation, which is used throughout the article)
The words 'sent down' and their synonyms are used over three hundred times in the Quran, as Muhammad's circumstances dictated. As we already saw, this is an exceptionally high view of Scriptural inspiration, much higher than what Christian theology teaches, so it paints Islam into a very small corner for literalists and even for moderates because it allows no room for human ideas. Christian theology asserts that divine inspiration is much more 'organic' and cooperates between God and human.
Furthermore, basic Islamic theology teaches that since God sent Gabriel down with the Quran, it abrogates the New Testament. Muhammad recognized the value of the Book or the Bible (see 4:47; 4:136; 4:163; 5:44—48; 5:82—83; 6:92, 154; 9:111), but ultimately the New Testament must yield to the new and superior revelation.
5:15 People of the Book [Jews and Christians] . . . a light has now come to you from God, and a Scripture [Quran] making things clear, 16 with which God guides them who follow what pleases Him to ways of peace, bringing them from darkness out into light, by His will, and guiding them to a straight path. (See also 6:154—157)
We learn from this passage four ideas. (1) This verse was 'sent down' in the context of Muhammad's dispute with the Christians, who through their unrighteousness disqualified themselves from the Gospel revelations, which had been corrupted anyway. (2) A Christian today immediately recognizes the imagery of light. Jesus said he was sent down as the light of the world, and Peter says Christians have passed from darkness into the light (John 1:4—5, 8:12, 9:5, 12:46; 1 Peter 2:9). Now, however, Muhammad claims that Christians have been living in darkness, and he has come to clarify matters for them, as if things had been muddied. The Quran offers guidance along a 'straight path,' a theme often repeated in the Muslim Scripture (see sura or chapter 1) and makes 'things clear.' (3) This claim is perfectly consistent with the Islamic doctrine of inspiration. After all, if Gabriel himself brought the Quran down, who would not wish to obey it? Why would it not guide society, especially when Gabriel was guiding God's prophet through communal, social problems? (4) Verse 16 is likely one of the verses a Muslim has in mind when he points out that Islam is a religion of peace. But is it always, to judge from the Quran itself, not from later Islamic history?
Finally, the following verses show that the Quran should guide all of society not only with mercy and healing, but also with punishment:
7:52 We have brought them a Scripture [Quran]—We have explained it on the basis of true knowledge—as guidance and mercy for those who believe.
17:82 We send down the Qur'an as healing and mercy to those who believe; as for those who disbelieve, it only increases their loss.
39:41 We have sent down the Scripture to you [Prophet] with the truth for people. Whoever follows the guidance does so for his own benefit, whoever strays away from it does so at his own peril . . . .
The Quran brings healing and mercy to society, but it also warns the disobedient. They will 'lose' and stray away at their own 'peril,' if they disbelieve it. This is one of major themes of the Quran. Even a casual reading shows that Muhammad was sent to warn people of impending judgment not only in the afterlife, but also here on earth, and he was not afraid of imposing perilous penalties on rule—breakers, as we shall see.
If we add up the beliefs linked in the Introduction and all of the verses cited so far, the basics of the Quran follows this chain of logic:
(1) If A, then B. If God through Gabriel sent down the Quran, then it abrogates the New Testament (NT).
We do not need to challenge each premise, but only (3), especially the consequent (the 'then' clause). If it collapses, then the rest of the argument is called into question. Does the Quran, sent down from God through Gabriel to Muhammad, the source of sharia, guide society better than the New Testament does? We can answer this question, using punishment as a test.
2. The Quran permits execution or the cutting off hands and feet for merely corrupting the land.
5:33 Those who wage war against God and His Messenger and strive to spread corruption in the land should be punished by death, crucifixion, the amputation of an alternate hand and foot or banishment from the land: a disgrace for them in this world, and then a terrible punishment in the Hereafter, 34 unless they repent before you overpower them: in that case bear in mind that God is forgiving and merciful.
The following event provides the historical context of 5:33—34 and is found under the hadith section that deals with combatants and apostates (converts to Islam who later deny it). (See also the early biographer Ibn Ishaq pp. 677—78, Guillaume's translation.)
Some people from an Arabian tribe visited the prophet, but fell sick in the uncongenial climate of Medina, so he recommended an old folk belief: drinking camel milk and urine. Subsequently, they are reported to have felt better. However, for some reason, after departing from Medina, they killed some shepherds, turned apostate, and drove off the camels of Muhammad. This news reached him, and he ordered them to be hunted down and brought before him. He decreed that their hands and feet should be cut off, their eyes gouged out, and their bodies thrown upon stony ground until they died.
It should be pointed out that the Hadith corpus has an entirely different section for the treatment of enemies in war or jihad, and it does not seem that these tribe members had embarked on a full—scale war. It seems more like a surprise raid, common in Arabia in the seventh century, which Muhammad also initiated often. Therefore, this passage in the Hadith should be broadly interpreted, in terms of the grave sin of apostasy.
Analyzed, 5:33—34 yields the following: (1) waging war against God is the same as waging war against Muhammad his prophet, an extraordinary claim. (2) According to Abdul Hamid Siddiqi, a translator of Muslim's (c. 817—875 AD) collection and editorship of the Hadith, where the above historical event is found, 'death' can be translated as 'murdered,' which, in these two verses, apparently includes being thrown onto stony ground. (3) According to the Hadith summarized above, corruption can mean apostatizing, and merits the same punishment as waging war. This is too broad and can be (mis)interpreted according to the attitude of the judges or leaders. (4) Banishing offenders from the land is an option, but Muhammad does not take it at least one other time, as he inflicts the ultimate penalty on some 600 male Jews: decapitation .(5) Punishing corrupters with amputation is designed to disgrace the guilty in this life and in the 'Hereafter,' where he will suffer 'a terrible punishment.' This raises the punishment to heavenly heights. If one suffers this, we are supposed to envision Allah examining the maimed newcomer to heaven and then tossing him in hell. (6) Repenting 'before you [Muslims] overpower them' is ambiguous, for what happens if the guilty repent just before getting caught? Did the members of the offending tribe repent before their Muslim pursuers overtook them? Apparently not.
If we combine 5:33—34 with the hadith passage, we see that Muhammad applied both kinds of punishment, amputation and death, but added a new one before the tribe members were executed: gouging out eyes. Later commentators point out that some jurists say that the gouging out of the eyes should not be inflicted, but imprisonment can be. This is a tacit admission that this particular brutality in this hadith is too severe, whereas 5:33 is not. To an outsider, though, the entire verse is too severe. It is one thing to apply the death penalty to murderers, but it is quite another to torture or execute corrupters, or even to torture the murderers before they are executed, as Muhammad did, according to this hadith.
An article published by the journal al—Tawhid in Qum, Iran, the seat of learning for Shi'ites, uses 5:33 and defines 'corruption' as follows: prostitution and the disintegration of family relationships; narcotics and the disintegration of the rational personality; colonialism, undermining a person's dignity, and plundering national resources; racism and the disintegration of human brotherhood; and so on. This opens the door to all manner of implementations of the punishment. Should a man have his alternate hand and foot cut off for selling drugs or pimping or racism? Rather than questioning this verse, the author of the article and many in the Islamic world seem to accept it as coming from God and matter—of—factly interpret it for society today.
Maybe Saddam Hussein used 5:33 to justify cutting off the hands of seven Iraqis, who, in his eyes, 'spread corruption in the land'—his land. This shows only the ambiguity in the verse once it is applied by an authority.
Siddiqi, commenting on this passage in his translation of Muslim's entire Hadith collection, seems defensive yet curiously unquestioning of the verse:
Lest some of these penalties may appear barbarous to some hypersensitive Western reader, let him cast a glance on drawing and quartering: a penalty of the English criminal code maintained as late as the eighteenth century . . . .
Siddiqi makes two familiar missteps. First, he, like many Muslims, deflects the ambiguity in the origins of his own religion by criticizing later Western civilization. He seems to say, 'Who are you 'hypersensitive Western' readers to complain? You have your own excessive punishments.' But this is a tacit admission that the verse is in fact cruel and brutal; however, since it came down from God, Siddiqi and many others are not allowed to deny its validity. In fact, they have to deny or explain away its barbarity. Also, this first misstep is like a husband deflecting his wife's accurate observations of his cruel flaws with the retort that she is not perfect, either. With that attitude, the husband will never reform. Can or will Islam be reformed?
Second, Siddiqi, like many Muslims, compares the founding documents of Islam with much—later, but now out—dated Western laws, but this comparison is asymmetrical. It is always better to compare the founding documents of a religion with the founding documents of the other religion, in our case Christianity.
And in no instance does Jesus ever come close to recommending that a leader in his new community and larger society should impose this penalty. It is true that Jesus said that if one's right eye or hand causes one to sin, one should gouge it out or cut it off and throw it away (Matt. 5:30), but Jesus realized that neither the hand nor the eye really and literally caused one to sin. 'But the things that come out of the mouth [words] come from the heart, and these make a man unclean' (Matt. 15:18). Thus, Jesus knew 'the heart' causes one to sin, but did he mean the physical heart? Should one cut that out too? He later clarifies for his disciples in private what he meant: 'For out of the heart come evil thoughts' and then he lists some sins like adultery and theft (Matt. 15:19). Therefore, in Matthew 15 Jesus takes the common meaning of 'the heart' as the deepest part of the human, not the physical heart. Likewise, in 5:30, he merely says that one should treat sin so seriously that one should cut it—the sin—out of one's life no matter how deeply one may cherish it, or no matter how deeply it has sunk its claws in one's soul.
Never did Jesus endorse such brutality in a penal code or as an example for society in order to impose external righteousness, even if people were 'combatants' (for killing shepherds and driving off Muhammad's camels) and apostates. He sought solely to convert people, not to execute them or to literally maim his Church and the larger society.
Therefore, we on the outside of Islam are allowed to ask: are the Quran's punishments better than Jesus' (non—existent) 'punishment'? Does the Quran (the source of sharia) offer better guidance for society than the New Testament does? Should the Quran abrogate the New Testament? Does Muhammad improve on the teaching and deeds of Jesus? Indeed, would God send Gabriel down to inspire in Muhammad's heart Quran 5:33?
3. The Quran permits the cutting off of the hands of both male and female thieves.
5:38 Cut off the hands of thieves, whether they are male or female, as punishment for what they have done—a deterrent from God: God is almighty and wise. 39 But if anyone repents after his wrongdoing and makes amends, God will accept his repentance: God is most forgiving and merciful.
The revelation of this sura takes place in Medina, after Muhammad's Hijrah (Emigration) there in 622. Over the years he has to grapple with two religions that challenge his, Christianity and Judaism, which occupy many verses in the sura. Also, he lays down some general laws for the Muslim community wherever it may be found. One of the laws permits the severing of hands of thieves.
It is understandable that Muslim commentators would be anxious to show that these verses should be applied only in special cases. Indeed, one translator of the Quran, Maulana Muhammad Ali, has: 'addicted to theft,' which implies habitual, unreformed thieves (kleptomaniacs?). He also says in his commentary on 5:38 that the punishment may be taken metaphorically. A leader may 'cut off' a thief as one 'cuts off' a speaker to silence him. This soft interpretation, says Maulana, amounts to putting the thief in prison (silencing his or her hand?). Finally, v. 39, some moderates point out, says repentance can be accepted, so a judge should not be hasty. But this shows how the Quran shifts from severity to mercy in a flash.
The Hadith, which did not come down from Gabriel, so it occupies a secondary, yet sacred place in Islam, explains Muhammad's policy. Three passages indicate that the penalty is not metaphorical, but physical. It should be applied to not only major, expensive thefts like shields, but also to lesser ones. This is a quick compilation taken from the two most reliable collectors and compilers of the Hadith, Bukhari (810—870 AD) and Muslim (c. 817—875 AD) (in that order of importance):
Aisha [favorite wife of Muhammad] reported the Prophet saying, 'A thief's hand should be cut off for only a quarter of a dinar and upwards.'
A dinar, a word taken from the Roman denarius, was not a small sum, but not exorbitant either.
Ibn Umar said the Prophet had a thief's hand cut off for a shield worth three dirhams.
The shield, then, was fairly expensive.
Abu Huraira reported the Prophet as saying, 'God curse a thief who steals an egg and has his hand cut off, and steals a rope and has his hand cut off!'
Some commentators are quick to say that an 'egg' is really a steel helmet, and the rope is a ship's rope, which is sizable and costly. However, the translation above is usually accepted, and this means that the penalty could be imposed for trivial thefts.
Yet, even if we allow for the exceptional cases, this still places the Quran in some interpretive difficulties. How are jurists in Islamic countries supposed to apply the sacred verses to their society today? Are they breaking the letter of Gabriel's command if they ignore the literal meaning of amputation? Would the violent radicals who are now stalking the world impose this law on non—Muslim nations, if the radicals could ever conquer them? If they do not hesitate to cut off heads, why would they not cut off hands to make society pure and holy before Allah, who gave this rule in the first place?
Moreover, even if we again allow for the imposing of this penalty only in rare cases, these verses can be compared to the policy of Jesus, so we can get a larger perspective.
One day, he entered Jericho, just to pass through. A short man, Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, and wealthy, wanted to see who Jesus was, so he ran ahead along Jesus' path, and climbed a sycamore tree to get a good look at him above the crowds. Jesus approached, saw him, and invited himself to dinner, and Zacchaeus was glad to have him in his large house. Though the people muttered that Jesus should not spend time in a sinner's house, Zacchaeus was so overwhelmed that he said to him:
Luke 19:8—9 'Look, Lord! Here and now I give half my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.' 9 Jesus said to him, 'Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.'
Jesus answers the self—righteous 'judges' of Zacchaeus: '. . . this man, too, is a son of Abraham.' Thus, Jesus came to save the lost, even if they were major thieves. He did not order that his hand should be cut off. Besides, the Torah itself does not prescribe such punishment, so why should Jesus be crueler than it, which was sacred to him and which orders restitution (Ex. 22:3; Lev. 6:4)?
For good measure, even though Muslims recognize only the four Gospels, Christians regard the entire New Testament as inspired (though Gabriel did not bring it down), and Paul in his epistle to the Ephesians recommends a remedy for thieves:
4:28 He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.
The verb tense in '[h]e who has been stealing' signifies that the thief has been stealing habitually. Evidently, Paul believes that a thief like that can undergo reform if he works with his own hands, so that he can share his product with the needy. The irony is rich: his hands should be employed, not cut off. The New Testament does not shift from severity to mercy in a flash.
Thus, we on the outside of Islam are allowed to ask whether the Quran's punishments are better than Paul's 'punishment' or Jesus' bringing about the repentance of Zacchaeus (a non—punishment), without either leader threatening to cut off hands. Does the Quran (the source of sharia) guide society better than the New Testament does? Would God send Gabriel down to Muhammad with such a message? Should this message supercede the New Testament?
4. The Quran permits husbands to hit their wives.
4:34 Husbands should take full care of their wives, with [the bounties] God has given to some more than others and with what they spend out of their own money. Righteous wives are devout and guard what God would have them guard in their husbands' absence. If you fear high—handedness from your wives, remind them [of the teachings of God], then ignore them when you go to bed, then hit them. If they obey you, you have no right to act against them: God is most high and great.
In a difficult verse like this, it is better to let Muslim scholars explain its meaning, and we should let the softest interpretation prevail, not the one offered by the Saudi scholar linked in the Introduction to this article, because even the most generous interpretation still lands Islam into a morass of problems. And no one surpasses the exegesis (a detailed explanation of a passage) offered by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem (whose translation of the Quran we are using in this article) in his book Understanding the Qur'an: Themes and Style (pp. 46—57). He examines the three steps in the last half of the verse that remedy a troubled marriage: reminding, ignoring, and hitting.
To define our terms, we can ask a preliminary question: what behavior in the wives subjects them to the three remedial steps? The root meaning of 'high—handedness' is 'rebellion,' and in this context it implies unseemly behavior or flagrant lewdness. This is supported by a passage in Ibn Ishaq (c. 704—768 AD), a biographer of Muhammad, who is considered reliable by modern historians (except the miraculous elements). Ibn Ishaq sketches out this part of Muhammad's sermon, which was delivered during Muhammad's last pilgrimage to Mecca and heard by thousands:
You have rights over your wives and they have rights over you. You have the right that they should not defile your bed and that they should not behave with open unseemliness. If they do, God allows you to put them in separate rooms and to beat them but not with severity. If they refrain from these things, they have the right to their food and clothing with kindness. Lay injunctions on women kindly, for they are prisoners with you having no control of their own persons. (Guillaume's translation, p. 651)
In this farewell speech we see that the bed is 'defiled' and that the wives behave with 'open unseemliness.' What, then, are the three remedial steps, once it has been demonstrated that wives are behaving in this egregious manner?
In the first step, husbands are supposed to 'remind them [of the teachings of God]' i.e. the Quran, which prohibits lewd behavior. This can include discussing passages in the Quran, with the aim of perhaps reawakening their wives' consciences.
Second, if reminding the wives of God's word does not work, then the husbands are supposed to 'ignore them when you [the husbands] go to bed.' This does not mean, according to Haleem, that the husbands should send the wives apart to a separate room, though many translators understand the clause that way. Instead, the husband may share the same bedroom, but he need not fulfill his obligation of intimacy, including speaking to her. Haleem says that this is reasonable because husbands should not be expected to have relations with their wives if the wives are committing lewd acts.
However, it should be pointed out that at least in one case Muhammad withdrew from his wives for a lesser reason. One day, he was sitting in a room in his house, surrounded by all of his wives, notably Aisha and Hafsa, all of whom were asking him for more money since he grew rich from raids. To punish them, he withdrew from all of them for twenty—nine days, and then threatened afterwards to let them 'depart,' which amounts to a de facto divorce (see 33:28—34; 65:2, 6—7). A long passage in Muslim's Hadith, though trimmed here, records the incident:
. . . Abu Bakr [Muhammad's lieutenant] then got up, went to Aisha [his daughter and Muhammad's wife] and slapped her on the neck, and Umar [another lieutenant] did the same to Hafsa [his daughter and Muhammad's wife], both of them saying, 'Are you asking God's messenger for what he does not possess?' They all replied, 'We swear by God that we never ask God's messenger for more than he does not possess.' Thereafter he [Muhammad] withdrew from them for a month or twenty—nine days . . . .
Skipping over the troubling scene of fathers slapping (once) their grown daughters, we can observe instead that Muhammad threatened them merely because they were asking for more allowance. With his threat, they amended their behavior and stopped asking. Also, it should be recalled that Muhammad, in the nick of time, got another revelation that favored him: he was permitted to let them go, if they so chose (33:28—34). They decided to stay with him.
Finally, the third step is 'hitting,' which does not mean 'beating' (Yusuf Ali and Dawood), 'scourging' (Pickthall) or 'chastising' (Maulana Muhammad Ali's translation is too soft and archaic). The other two words are too harsh, says Haleem, who prefers 'a hit,' pointing out that a hadith says that a man slapped his wife's face only once, not many times, so this should guide the meaning of the word. Also, Haleem says that some Muslim jurists infer that hitting should be used only if it is clear that good results will come afterwards. Moreover, in no case did Muhammad ever hit his wives even once, so that should serve as an example to Muslim husbands, as well. Finally, Muhammad, it should be remembered, told his men in his last sermon that the husbands must not use severity when hitting.
In contrast to Haleem's fine exegesis, however, Bukhari and Muslim record this troubling pronouncement:
Abdallah b. Zam'a reported God's messenger as saying, 'None of you must whip his wife as a slave is whipped, and then have intercourse with her at the end of the day.' A version has, 'One of you has recourse to whipping his wife as a slave and perhaps he lies with her at the end of the day.'
Does this hadith give permission or not? Is the husband allowed to whip her, except not as severely as a slave is whipped because a man's wife lives and has sex with him? Or does it prohibit whipping altogether? In any case, it does not disconfirm, that hitting—if not whipping—is permitted.
However, setting aside the ambiguity in that hadith, and adopting the principle of generosity, we should take Haleem's exegesis as the best explanation of 4:34 because as a reputable scholar he does not explain away the word 'hit,' but confronts it head on. Thus, he concludes that husbands should not hit their wives for any ad hoc reason, according to the husbands' whim or angry outburst. And hitting once should be used only in the case of flagrantly lewd behavior, only after the first two remedial steps have been tried, and only lightly.
Yet, even if we generously take Haleem's exegesis at its best, we can ask the same question that many Muslim scholars ask rhetorically, according to Haleem's quotation of them: 'if the Qur'anic teaching in this matter is not fair and sensible, then what are the alternatives?' (p. 55). This is indeed the right question, but the answer that Haleem gives, summarizing Quran 4:34 and the next verse (35), falls short of the mark:
Surely it is better to remind the wife of her duty, or sulk for a while, or even strike her lightly, and then bring in arbiters who could, if all attempts at reconciliation fail, rule in favor of divorce [v. 35]. (p. 55)
Surely a more reasonable and acceptable answer to the rhetorical question is this: husbands should bring in the arbiter (v. 35) after reminding their wives of God's teaching, or possibly after an 'in—house' separation, but they should not 'sulk,' nor should they ever hit in any circumstances. Alternatively, the answer could run as follows: the first step (reminding) is a sound one; the second step (ignoring) may be sound, if their wives are committing sexual acts outside of the marriage; yet the third step (hitting) is completely wrong and immoral in all cases, no matter how light, so it can be omitted; and the fourth step (arbitrating and maybe divorcing as a last resort) is a sound one, though the divorce would be sad. That is the alternative which Haleem and the Muslim scholars are looking for: husbands should never hit their wives, for any reason. They should omit the third step.
Therefore, even though Haleem's excellent exegesis restricts hitting (once and lightly) to extreme cases and as a last resort, we on the outside of Islam can nevertheless ask whether domestic punishment in the Quran is better than never hitting at all, which is precisely the policy found in the New Testament (and the Hebrew Bible). So, does the Quran (the source of sharia) offer better guidance for society than the New Testament does? Should the Quran supercede it? And would Gabriel come down with the revelation that permits husbands to hit their wives?
5. The Quran permits flogging adulterers and adulteresses one hundred times.
24:2 Strike the adulteress and the adulterer one hundred times. Do not let compassion for them keep you from carrying out God's law—if you believe in God and the Last Day—and ensure that a group of believers witnesses the punishment.
The initial context of this sura occurs on a raid of a tribe in December 627 or January 628, on which Muhammad brought his favorite and youngest wife, Aisha, also the daughter of Abu Bakr, his right—hand lieutenant. After the Muslims' victory, they journeyed back to Medina, one hundred and fifty miles to the north. On their last halt, Aisha answered the call of nature, but lost her necklace in the dark, just as the army was setting out from their encampment. She left her litter, returned to look for it, found the necklace, and went back to the camel bearing her litter.
Meanwhile, the man leading her camel assumed she was in her curtained litter and led the animal by the halter. Aisha saw that she was left behind. However, a handsome young Muslim named Safwan saw her and accompanied her back to Medina, though the Muslims and Muhammad's opposition, both, wagged their tongues at seeing the two youngsters entering the city together. Eventually, revelation came that Aisha was not guilty of any immorality.
Sura 24 thus establishes some ground rules against adultery, of which flogging one hundred times is one of the rules. Amazingly, 24:2 exhorts the accusers and judges not to let compassion keep them from carrying out God's law.
However, as we have seen, many Muslim traditionalists believe that flogging is insufficient, whereas stoning to death is the most appropriate punishment. In Malaysia, the opposition, Party of Islam, adopts a plank in its platform, the stoning of adulteresses and the cutting off of the hands of thieves. Where do they get the punishment of stoning?
The answer is found in the Hadith, such as the following, recorded by Bukhari and Muslim:
Umar said: God sent Muhammad with the truth and sent down the Book [Quran] to him, and the verse of stoning was included in what God most high sent down. God's messenger [Muhammad] had people stoned to death, and we have done it also since his death. Stoning is a duty laid down in God's Book for married men and women who commit fornication when proof is established, or if there is pregnancy, or a confession.
Umar was Muhammad's right—hand lieutenant (along with Abu Bakr), and even shortly after Muhammad's death he tried very hard to get a verse allowing stoning into the Quran (Ibn Ishaq, p. 684, Guillaume's translation.) Be that as it may, the Hadith is sufficient for many Muslims today to endorse stoning.
Perhaps the most gruesome hadith is the following (summarized):
A woman came to the prophet and asked for purification. He told her to go away and seek God's forgiveness. She persisted four times and admitted she was pregnant as a result of fornication. He told her to wait until she had given birth. Then he said the Muslim community should wait until she had weaned her child. When the day arrived for the child to take solid food, Muhammad handed the child over to the community. 'And when he had given command over her and she was put in a hole up to her breast, he ordered the people to stone her. Khalid b. al—Walid came forward with a stone which he threw at her head, and when the blood spurted on his face he cursed her' . . . Fortunately, though, the prophet prayed over her dead body too and then buried her. (Muslim)
Mark A. Gabriel, former professor at al—Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, and convert to Christianity, says in his book Jesus and Muhammad (pp. 185—186), that Muslim scholars teach this hadith as an example of Muhammad's compassion because, apparently, he waited for the child to be born and weaned before he buried his mother up to her breasts and stoned her to death—one can only imagine the mother's inner torment before this, as she wondered about what Muhammad's decree would be. It is not impossible to believe that she counted on his forgiveness, since she had lived this long, until he snatched the child away from her.
However, despite these ahadith (plural of hadith), we should, again, adopt the principle of generosity and conclude that the Gabriel—inspired Quran does not order the execution—by—stoning of adulterers and adulteresses, so these ahadith must take second place. The question still remains, though: would God send down a verse like 24:2, long after the New Testament?
It is true that the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) endorses the stoning of adulterers (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22), but scholars recognize that the Torah is part and parcel of its culture, and it was written (traditionally attributed to Moses) in the second millennium BC, not 600 years AD, when the Quran was recorded. Also, Hebrew Scriptures are silent on the actual carrying out of this punishment. Finally, Judaism today has evolved; no one endorses the stoning of adulterers and adulteresses.
Muhammad's new Law can be compared to Jesus' non—Law (which for the Christian abrogates the Torah on this one matter). The Gospel of John 8:1—11 says that some religious leaders, wanting to trap Jesus between his message of love and forgiveness and his respect for the Torah, brought a woman caught in adultery and made her stand in their midst. They reminded Jesus that the Law of Moses orders that she should be stoned. He stooped down and wrote in the dirt, contemplating. They kept questioning him, perhaps stones in hand. What would he do? He then spoke the famous lines: 'He who is without sin should throw the first stone' (v. 7). One by one, from the oldest to the youngest, the accusers left. Alone with her, Jesus said to her: 'Go now, and leave your life of sin' (v. 11).
This is a long, long way from Jesus instituting the punishment of stoning sinners, or even their flogging, as Muhammad did.
Therefore, we on the outside of Islam are allowed to ask: do traditional Muslims connect the harshness in the Quran (and the Hadith) to their claims that the Quran is inerrant and that it abrogates the New Testament? Is the Quran, the source of sharia, the best guide for society? Would Gabriel bring down a verse like 24:2?
6. Did God through Gabriel send down the Quran, so that it abrogates the New Testament and guides society?
We set out to challenge premise (3), which states:
(3) If the Quran (source of sharia) guides society better than the NT does, then Quranic punishments for wrongdoers are better than NT 'punishments.'
If this challenge has been successful in denying the consequent (the 'then' clause), then the rest of the argument can be called into question, in reverse:
(1') If the Quranic punishments for wrongdoers are worse than NT 'punishments,' then the Quran (source of sharia) is a worse guide for society than the NT is.
The Quran state numerous times that God is compassionate or merciful; every sura except 9 opens with this declaration. Also, the Quran states that Gabriel brought it down. So how does a traditional Muslim square the severity of these punishments with these two beliefs? Perhaps he does so by the sheer act of his will or faith. However it is done, it must include this absolutist logic:
(6) Every passage in the Quran that appears excessive and severe is actually mild and merciful and should be applied to any society today.
This is apparently the thinking that many Muslims, including those linked in the Introduction to this article, employ to work out the cognitive dissonance that at least some must feel sometimes, when they read their sacred Book. After all, how could they think otherwise if they believe that God inspired the inerrant Quran?
However, we on the outside of Islam are allowed to use our simple observation and reason, which even a child has, and use this logic:
(9) Every passage in the Quran that appears excessive and severe is in reality excessive and severe and should in no way be applied to any society today.
Does the deadlock between these two syllogisms lie in mere custom within a culture and not in reality as reasonable people see it? As noted, this is what the Saudi ambassador to London was implying. East and West should respect the customs and cultures of the others, which is the mature attitude.
However, many traditional Muslims, even those in the US, would like to see Islam spread everywhere, even in the US. Sharia would then follow. It seems, then, that custom and culture do not determine reality. The Quran is supposed to rise above time and place because it reflects the will of God, and he created the earth and all that is in it, so his will should be applied everywhere. The Quran determines customs and reality in all cultures.
Using punishment as a test case, this article has sought to challenge the core belief that the Quran reflects the will of God. Would God send down through Gabriel the punishments analyzed here? Should the Quran abrogate the New Testament? Should the Quran, the source of sharia, guide society? Simple observation and reason say that the answer to all of these questions is a firm no.
Jim Arlandson (PhD) teaches at a college in southern California and has published a book, Women, Class, and Society in Early Christianity (Hendrickson, 1997).