Salah Al-Nasrawi: A Lesson From Iran: Islamic Sharia is Flexible After All

Stop Stoning

It might surprise many to learn the Qur’an never commands “stoning,” though death by stoning is specified as a punishment numerous times in the Bible:

For taking ”accursed things”

Achan … took of the accursed thing. … And all Israel stoned him with stones, and burned them with fire, after they had stoned them with stones. … So the LORD turned from the fierceness of his anger. Joshua 7:1-26

For cursing or blaspheming

And he that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him. Leviticus 24:16

For adultery

If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city. Deuteronomy 22:23-24

For animals

“If a bull gores a man or woman to death, the bull is to be stoned to death, and its meat must not be eaten. But the owner of the bull will not be held responsible. Exodus 21:28

For a woman who is not a virgin on her wedding night

If any man take a wife, and go in unto her, and hate her … and say, I took this woman, and when I came to her, I found her not a maid: Then shall the father of the damsel, and her mother, take and bring forth the tokens of the damsel’s virginity unto the elders of the city in the gate: And the damsel’s father shall say … these are the tokens of my daughter’s virginity. And they shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city. … But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel: Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she dieDeuteronomy 22:13-21

For worshipping other gods

If there be found among you … that … hath gone and served other gods, and worshipped them … Then shalt thou … stone them with stones, till they die. Deuteronomy 17:2-5

If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers … thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die. Deuteronomy 13:5-10

For disobeying parents

If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother … Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city … And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he dieDeuteronomy 21:18-21

For witches and wizards

A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them. Leviticus 20:27

For giving your children to Molech

Whosoever … giveth any of his seed unto Molech; he shall surely be put to death: the people of the land shall stone him with stonesLeviticus 20:2

For breaking the Sabbath

They found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day. … And the LORD said unto Moses, the man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones…. And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the LORD commanded MosesNumbers 15:32-56

For cursing the king

Thou didst blaspheme God and the king. And then carry him out, and stone him, that he may die1 Kings 21:10

In the modern world, it’s Muslim-majority countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan, that have become infamous for brutal punishments, including stoning. Ignoring dozens of Muslim-majority countries that don’t engage in such practices, anti-Muslim bigots constantly shine a spotlight on the most regressive regimes, leaving the public with the impression harsh punishments are an inevitable feature of Islamic Law.

Yet Iran has recently passed a law abolishing stoning as a punishment for adultery. As fixated as the major media usually are on that country, the story has attracted relatively scant coverage–and predictably, it’s been completely ignored by hate sites devoted to demonizing Muslims and generating hysteria about “creeping sharia.”

A lesson from Iran: Islamic Sharia is flexible after all

by Salah Al-Nasrawi, Ahram (Egypt)

A new law by the Islamic Republic of Iran to abolish stoning to death for adulterers passed last month has been received with a lot of skepticism in the West and little attention in the Arab and Islamic world.

But the ruling could have a significant bearing on the debate about the role of Islamic Sharia as Islamic groups gain power throughout the Middle East with many of them aspire to see Islamic jurisdiction as the law of the land.

Iran’s Guardian Council and Iranian parliament have approved an amendment to the country’s penal code by removing all executions by stoning which will come into effect once signed by the country’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Under Iran’s old penal code, stoning to death was one of the sentences applied for adultery. Iranian activists who campaigned against the practice said at least 99 men and women have been executed by stoning over the last 30 years.

The stoning sentence against Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 45-year-old Iranian woman, on charges of adultery and murder in 2006 has turned the spotlight on Iran as one of very few countries which adopts Sharia, or Islamic law.

The concept was equated in the West and among Muslim secularists with a variety of retributions including stoning of adulterers, chopping of limbs of thieves, death in blasphemy cases and restrictions on rights of women and minorities.

Ashtiani’s was convicted of having an “illicit relationship” with two men after the murder of her husband and was sentenced to 99 lashes. The verdict led to an international condemnation which has made Tehran delay carrying out the sentence.

While Ashtiani’s case points to a larger divide between the West and Iran, the punishment of the mother of two has highlighted how the contentious issue is a practice that has largely survived through centuries’ long cultural heritage.

The sentence, and now its abolishment, renewed a theological controversy in Islam on whether the harsh punishment is God’s commands, or a man-made effort to interpret Islamic Sharia, or Islamic law.

The case has spilled over into larger and even more complex issues within Islamic discourse, such as what consist Sharia, and if it is compatible with modern day human rights standards.

Most of Iran’s legal code was based on the constitution enacted under guidance of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, after the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled secular regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The document declared Iran as a Muslim nation whose laws are derived from Islamic Sharia, which it defines as God’s “exclusive sovereignty and the right to legislate”, based on God’s commands in Quran and Sunnah, which is Prophet’s Mohammad’s teachings.

Sharia is still wide open for judgment under Islamic principle of Ijtihad. The term means an endeavor of a Muslim scholar to derive a rule of divine law from the Quran and Prophet Mohammad’s heritage.

Since the Islamic revolution some Iranian clerics have said stoning should be stopped because it may harm the reputation of Islam or the Islamic nation.

Others believed stoning is a divine punishment.

Some Muslim scholars believe stoning to death was never contemplated by Islam as a punishment for the act of adultery since the Quran does not even mention the word “stoning” or ‘death by stoning in any of its verses.

According to the Holy book of Islam all sexual intercourse outside the marital bond is considered sinful. Some scholars say Quran makes no distinction between adultery and fornication; in both cases the punishment is flogging to those found guilty.

In Quran verse “The Light (24:2) says: “The adulteress and the adulterer shall each be given a hundred lashes. Let no pity for them to cause you to disobey Allah.”

On the other hand, many Islamic legal scholars and judges agree that the Quranic text does not refer to executions by stoning but state they are part of the Sunnah.  They say there is no necessity that all orders of Sharia to be mentioned in Quran, one by one.

Other clerics say that even if stoning was practiced by Prophet Mohammad and his immediate followers it cannot be enforced nowadays. They believe stoning is a part of Islamic law but only the Prophet and his immediate successors are authorized or qualified to order and implement it.

In theory, stoning to death is still enacted in laws of countries which apply Islamic Sharia, such as Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. It has been also carried out in the previous Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and some parts of Nigeria.

Iran’s amendment of the penal code is believed to have been adopted in response to international criticism of its violations of human rights. It also coincides with mounting tension with the West over its nuclear program and increasing fear of a military conflict.

Critics, however, say the new code still considers adultery for married persons as a crime, although it doesn’t designate any specific punishment for it, leaving that for the judge to rely on a fatwa by a reliable cleric. Human rights organizations argued that such measures were inadequate and insisted that real change in the law is necessary.

Whether Iran wants to improve its human rights record or it is trying to ward off increasing Western pressure, the revision of its Islamic law now remains highly significant from both political and theological standpoints.

As Islamic groups gain power throughout the Middle East, the role of Sharia is coming under increased focus. Modernist forces in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia were shocked by the remarkable collective rise to power of these parties and the sudden transformation of their civil states into states with budding theocratic inclinations.

While fundamentalist movements, such Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Tunisia’s Enhhada Party and the Justice and Development Party in Morocco speak about a broadly defined application of Sharia as “a main source” for legislation, other ultra-orthodox groups want a full-fledged Islamic legal code.

Yet there are increasing signs that show Islamic groups in these countries want more religion than previously admitted. Multiple reports and research works are suggesting that these countries are evolving towards more conservative rules and an Islamisation of social life.

There have already been calls from some Islamists to close down the tourist sites and to impose Islamic dress codes on the costal resorts. Women are also worried that political Islam might impose new restrictions on them such as forcing them to wear the Hijab (veil) and restrict their personal freedom.

Christians, a religious minority in the countries recently taken over by Islamists, complain of more intolerance and say they fear for their safety after increased cases of sectarian violence and discrimination.

Many secularists and liberals in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and other countries now want to see their next constitutions to have solid guarantees of democratic and civic commitments.

Here comes the Iranian experiment of abolishing a deep rooted Islamic concept of retribution and the lesson to be drawn from that by newly empowered Islamic groups in these three Arab countries and perhaps in others that will soon follow.

In Egypt, where the debate will open soon on drafting a new constitution, focus will increase on the role of Sharia in the country’s political and social life, especially in balancing Islam with democracy, personal freedom and modernity.

Although it is generally agreed among mainstream political groups that Sharia is the point of reference in legislation, the challenge will remain about how to distinguish what directly comes from the Quran and Sunnah from man-made interpretation of God’s revelations and the Prophet’s teachings.

Article 2 of Iran’s constitution provides such a room for maneuverability by combining both Ijtihad by qualified Faqih, or scholar(s) and the resort to “sciences, arts and the most advanced results of human experience” with Quran and Sunnah in legislation.

Under such overwhelming circumstances, the most liberal, secularists and reform minded Egyptian Muslims can argue for is that any stipulation of Islamic Sharia in the new constitution should provide flexibility, so that Islamic laws should be viewed and amended in light of time and changing circumstances.

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