Islam, Adultery, and Death by Stoning

In July 2010 Iran ignited a firestorm of controversy by announcing that a 43-year-old woman, Sakineh Muhammadi Ashtiani would soon be stoned to death for adultery. Westerners responded to the proposed execution with a mixture of outrage and disbelief. UK Foreign Minister Alistair Burt complained that stoning is “a medieval punishment which has no place in the modern world.” Likewise, President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso called the sentence “barbaric beyond words.” Throughout that summer human rights organizations, the governments of France, Italy, and Brazil, not to mention well-known entertainers like Emma Thompson, Juliette Binoche, and Carla Bruni, demanded that Iran either free Ashtiani or lessen her punishment.”

Behind the West’s high-powered campaign to save this woman stood two unspoken assumptions. First, only a savage or a lunatic could execute someone for a “minor” impropriety like adultery. Second, those Muslim states that criminalize adultery—such as Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia—should update their “backward” and “unenlightened legal codes to sanction all forms of consensual sex whatsoever. These suppositions, which are in grounded in feelings of profound cultural superiority, prevented the West’s politicians, journalists, and human rights activists from posing a rather obvious question: “Why do Muslims feel compelled to execute adulterers in the first place?” When we actually listen to Muslims it becomes clear that they have some powerful and logical reasons for treating adultery as a major criminal act.

First, if this variety of unlawful intercourse (Arabic, zina) is allowed to take root, other forms of illicit sexual activity are bound to spring up: fornication, homosexuality, pedophilia, and incest. These sins will then usher in a tidal wave of fitna (Arabic, moral chaos), that will destroy the family unit, then civilization itself, as people surrender to “a fllod of lusts and self-gratification,” in the words of Sheykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Second, in Muslim eyes adultery must be suppressed because it leads to eternal damnation. Speaking about the adulterer/ and or fornicator, the Qur’ an promises that “the torment will be doubled to him on the Day of Resurrection and he will abide therein [hell] in disgrace” (25:68-69). Likewise, in a celebrated hadith (saying of the Prophet), Mohammed himself warned that “a most foul smell will emanate in hell from the private parts of an adulterer.”

Since adultery has such pernicious consequences, both in this world and the next, it should come as no surprise that Islamic law (sharia) insists upon the most stringent measures to prevent it. In the words of Sheikh Burhaddin Ali, “A married person convicted of whoredom is to be stoned … The Prophet condemned Maaz to be thus stoned to death … and he also declared it unlawful to spill the blood of a Muslim, excepting only three causes, namely apostasy, whoredom after marriage, and murder.” Non-Muslims may find stoning a particularly loathsome form of execution, but from the perspective of Islamic orthodoxy, as Abdur Rahman I. Doi explains, “The idea behind awarding such a severe punishment for adultery in an open place is that it should serve as a deterrent to other evil-minded persons in society.”

By now it ought to be clear that Muslims do have powerful reasons both for banning adultery and punishing it with death. Nonetheless, the West cannot accept their logic on this matter. Why? Quite simply, the majority of Westerners are now accustomed to a prodigious degree of sexual freedom and find the thought of prohibiting consensual relations—even adultery—preposterous. On the other hand, Muslims, who consider chastity to be a divine commandment that guarantees  both morality in this life and salvation in the hereafter, find suggestions that they should turn a blind eye to adultery, or decriminalize it, utterly insane. On this issue, then, the gulf between civilizations appears gigantic and unbridgeable.

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