The death sentence in Islam: culture or doctrine?

I was at a family gathering recently when the the news came on the television and two stories were reported, one after the other: the imprisonment and death sentence of Meriam Ibrahim in Sudan, and the stoning to death of Farzana Parveen on the steps of the Lahore High Court in Pakistan.

One of my in-laws, a Muslim, commented, “that’s terrible, but there’s nothing in Islam about this kind of thing, it’s just their culture.” I made light conversation around the subject, but didn’t challenge the statement – he’s a nice person who I didn’t want to argue with or strain our relationship, and anyway, it wasn’t the time or the place for it.

But is it true? Is it true that Islam does not condone death for apostasy, 100 lashes for adultery, and death for marrying against your family’s wishes?

The case of apostasy is clear – those who turn their back on Islam should be killed. True, if you just use the Quran as a guide, the advice is ambiguous. Depending on your view you could make the verses work either way, it’s a matter of interpretation (Quran 2:217, 4:89-91, 9:5, 74, 16:106). But Quran-only Muslims are a tiny minority – indeed many Muslims think ‘Quranists’ are apostates – and should be killed.

So where does the explicit law originate? The answer is the Hadith – the set of books that tell the life of Mohammed, how he interpreted and used the Quran, and therefore what is law for Muslims – and pretty much all Muslims accept the Hadith (though not all Muslims accept all Hadith). Here’s some of what they say:

“If somebody [a Muslim] discards his religion, kill him.” (Bukhari 4:52:260)

“The blood of a Muslim … cannot be shed except in three cases … for murder … a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse … and one who reverts from Islam and leaves …” (Bukhari 9:83:17)

“Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.” (Bukhari 9:84:57)

There’s very little interpretation necessary from the Hadith, and it is not an extremist view, it is mainstream Islamic belief.

What about the punishment for adultery? For this the Quran has the answer: “The [adulterous] woman or man found guilty of sexual intercourse – lash each one of them with a hundred lashes …” (Quran 24:2).

But the evidence requirements are strict – four good Muslim (male) witnesses to the act itself (Quran 24:4), something that is pretty much impossible in order to prevent false accusations (not to mention the conundrum of labelling a Muslim ‘good’ if he’s part of a group of men watching someone else’s bedroom antics). However, if the guilty party confesses, then that is admissible – though they can safely retract the confession before any punishment is carried out. (Malik ibn Anas 41:2:13).

There is another form of evidence though, one that is the cause of much injustice and suffering, and that is if an unmarried woman is found to be pregnant then she can be accused of adultery (Bukhari 8:82:816) – a situation that has led, all too often, to women who are the victims of rape being punished.

The Hadith backs up the punishment of 100 lashes (Muslim 17:4192 and others) but also adds death by stoning (Bukhari 8:78:629, 8:82:816, Muslim 17:4192, 4196, 4206, 4209 and others). Actually, the Quran also once reportedly advocated stoning but, rather amusingly, the passage in question was lost after being eaten by a goat (Sunan ibn Majah 9:2020).

What about the issue of marrying against your family’s wishes? This stems from the concept of arranged marriages. A marriage cannot happen without the consent of the woman’s male guardian (Sunan ibn Majah 9:1953-55) – however, the woman must also consent to the marriage (Quran 4:20, though it should be noted that silence is taken as consent (Bukhari 7:62:67)).

Marriages tend to be arranged because private pre-marital courtship is forbidden (Quran 24:3-4, 31-32), a condition that inevitably leads to family-led match-making. There does seem to be a conflict about a woman arranging her own marriage – Sunan ibn Majah 9:1956 says “… no woman should arrange her own marriage. The adulteress is the one who arranges her own marriage”, and we know from above that adultery can be punishable by stoning. But some Muslims look to another Hadith, Bukari 7:62:72, to say that a woman can, in fact, arrange her own marriage, and there are other places where the refusal of a guardian to endorse a woman’s choice can lead to the guardian’s replacement, and that the punishment for killing a believer intentionally is Hell (Quran 4:93, except in those three instances cited above: murder, adultery, or apostasy).

It seems to me, despite some contrary verses and the usual confusion that can be created through individual interpretation, there is doctrinal scope within Islam for using the harshest punishment in relation to a woman going against her family’s marriage wishes.

I would end with one caveat to all this: although religion (not just Islam) does explicitly decree the death penalty for what are, essentially, trivial ‘crimes’, and it can also contribute to (if not actually create) a culture where such penalties can seem justified, violence against women happens all over the world in any number of cultures. Having said that, I think primitive religious attitudes in all societies have a lot to do with the prevalence of misogyny – culture so often has a deep vein of religion running through it, even if it has eventually been smoothed over by more rational, secular attitudes.