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Stoning to Death for Adultery?
Unfortunately, there are many who think that stoning to death is a punishment laid out in the Qur’ȃn and thereby promoted by Muslims for acts such as adultery. The fact is that the Qur’ân never sanctions stoning to death as a punishment for anyone for any crime. Verse 24:2 stipulates the maximum punishment for proven adultery, and verse 24:4 stipulates the punishment for false accusation; neither verse mentions “stoning to death”:
الزَّانِيَةُ وَالزَّانِي فَاجْلِدُوا كُلَّ وَاحِدٍ مِّنْهُمَا مِائَةَ جَلْدَةٍ
“Strike the fornicatress and adulteress and the fornicator and adulterer on the body of each one of them a hundred times.” (24:2)
وَالَّذِينَ يَرْمُونَ الْمُحْصَنَاتِ ثُمَّ لَمْ يَأْتُوا بِأَرْبَعَةِ شُهَدَاءَ فَاجْلِدُوهُمْ ثَمَانِينَ جَلْدَةً وَلَا تَقْبَلُوا لَهُمْ شَهَادَةً أَبَدًا
“Strike eighty times on the bodies of those who calumniate chaste women and who do not support (their accusation) with four witnesses, and never accept their testimony (because) it is they who are the disobedient (and break the law).” (24:4)
For carrying out this punishment, four eyewitnesses (أَرْبَعَةِ شُهَدَاءَ) are required, not testimony based on hearsay. If four eyewitnesses who were present and witnessed the adultery are not produced, the accusation is dropped and the accuser is considered a defamer who him or herself is to be punished. The purpose of this injunction is threefold: first, to abolish the Jewish and pagan custom of stoning adulterers to death and to provide an alternative to it; second, to express Allah’s extreme dislike for such an act; and third, to protect women from false accusations. By putting the very stringent condition of producing four eyewitnesses, the Qur’ȃn made such a punishment extremely difficult to carry out and essentially limited punishment to the rare instance where such an act was done in public. In addition, the aforementioned “striking”, if ever applied, is intended to be symbolic and not meant to inflict any physical harm. It is not logical for so called scholars to require capital punishment for adultery, if even for a crime as heinous as murder, the paying of blood money by the perpetrator is considered acceptable.
Even though there is no mention of stoning in the Qur’ȃn—though there is a clear injunction on adultery (24:2–4)—many Muslim clerics, when discussing the legitimacy of the practice of stoning in Sharî’a, cite instances in the Ahadith, the acts and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Even the most authentic of the books of Ahadîth contradict one another on this topic. One reason for these differences is a confusion about nomenclature: The Arabic word used for “stoning” is rajam, رجَم, and for “stoning to death” is rajam hatt al-mawt, رجم حتٌئ الموت. There is no doubt that some narrations in the books of Muslim traditions (the Ahadith) mention rajam. The crucial point is the exact meaning of rajam, especially the meaning the Holy Qur’ân gives to this word. Such classical Arabic dictionaries as those of Qȃmûs, Lisȃn al-‘Arab, Tȃj al-‘Arûs, Lane, and Imȃm Rȃghib assign the following meanings to rajam: “to stone, to cast stones, to curse, to revile, to expel, to put a stone (on a tomb), to speak conjecturally, to guess, to surmise.” Rujûm, رجوم, means “shooting stars, to be thrown off, to be damned, to throw someone out with a curse.” Marjûm, مرجوم, is “the one who is thrown out or cursed.” Yarjumû or yarjumûna, يرجمون , means “they pelted with stones, they condemned.” Arjumanna, ارجمن, means “I shall certainly cut off all relations.” Narjumanna, نرجمنٌ, means “we shall surely excommunicate.” Marjûmîn, مرجُمين , means “those who are thrown out, despised.” Rajîm, رجيم, means “one thrown off (by a curse), rejected.” All these meanings can be found in Qur’ȃnic verses (cf. 11:91, 18:20, 19:46, 26:116, 36:18, 44:20). The root with its foregoing forms occurs in the Holy Qur’ân fourteen times, and not once is it used in the sense of stoning to death for any punishment. We read:
فَإِذَا قَرَأْتَ الْقُرْآنَ فَاسْتَعِذْ بِاللَّهِ مِنَ الشَّيْطَانِ الرَّجِيمِ
“And when you recite the Qur’ân, seek refuge with Allâh from satan, the rejected” (16:98).
We do not seek refuge from satan , al-Shaytȃn, the “devil”), who is “stoned to death”, but rather is outcast, rejected, and thrown out. The following Words of the Qur’ân further clarify the meaning: قَالَ فَاخْرُجْ مِنْهَا فَإِنَّكَ رَجِيمٌ, “(God) said, ‘Then get out of this (state); you are surely driven away [or cursed] (from My mercy)’” (38:77). In the Ahadith (traditions), the Holy Prophet (pbuh) must have used the word rajam in this sense and not in the sense of “stoning to death,” رجم حتٌئ الموت, for otherwise he would have been acting against the Qur’ânic limit of punishment for adultery mentioned in 24:2. Without challenging the Arabic wording of the Ahadith, we need to carefully examine the meaning given to them in modern Arabic and their rendering into other languages.
While the concept of stoning to death is not a Qur’ânic concept and should not have a place in Islam, it is endorsed in the Bible, which might explain how this practice crept into contemporary Islam. In the Bible, you read: “If a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then they shall both of them die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman: so shalt thou put away evil from Israel. 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; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbor’s wife: so thou shalt put away evil from among you” (Deut. 22:22–24). Stoning is a method of execution mentioned frequently in the Torah. The crimes punishable by stoning were the following:
- Breakingthe Sabbath (Num. 15:32–36)
- Homosexual practices (Lev. 20:13)
- Enticing others to polytheism (Deut. 13:7–11)
- Cursing God (Lev. 24:10–16)
- Engaging inidolatry (Deut. 17:2–7) or seducing others to do so (Deut. 13:7–11)
- “Rebellion” against parents, after repeated warnings (Deut. 21:18–21)
- Getting married as though a virgin, when not a virgin (Deut. 22:13–21)
- Rape (Deut. 22:25–27)
Prior to early Christianity, doubts were growing in Jewish society about the effectiveness of capital punishment in general (and stoning in particular) as a useful deterrent. Subsequently, its use was increasingly dissuaded by Jewish legislators. In the following centuries, the leading Jewish scholars imposed so many restrictions on the implementation of capital punishment as to make it de facto illegal. The restrictions were to prevent execution of the innocent and included many conditions for a testimony to be admissible that were difficult to fulfill.
Unfortunately, these older Jewish and biblical traditions, sometimes called “Israîliyȃts” crept into the fearful minds of some members of the Muslim “clergy” and have led to false conclusions and interpretations of several aspects of Islamic law, including injunctions regarding adultery. At the time of the Holy Prophet (pbuh), stoning to death was practiced by the pagan Arabs. The few instances of stoning to death that can be found in the books of Ahadith should be scrutinized for their timing in relation to the foregoing verses, whether the punishment was carried out by the Jewish community or for the context of the usage of the word rajam.
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