Many Muslims are aware of the opinion in Islamic Law that married people who commit adultery should be stoned to death. However, this quite clearly contradicted by the Qur’an as I will show.
These days any punishment for adultery, indeed any reason for marriage is questionable in modern British society. Marriage is still part of life but increasingly fewer people see any need to get married even when they are planning to have children. The norm in society is for people to have full physical sexual relationships outside of marriage, and if marriage is considered it is merely a public commitment that should help when the children come along. Its vows of lifelong fidelity, “till death us do part” are merely an ideal which few consider binding and has no force in law.
So, before going in to the subject of what the punishment is for adultery, it is necessary to briefly describe the importance and function of marriage in Islam.
Marriage – What is it good for?
Marriage in Islam is about letting the community know that you are in a relationship and are taking on the relevant responsibilities. A marriage is the basic way that a father is guaranteed that any children the wife has are indeed his children. The wife in an Islamic marriage can expect that she and her children will be provided for by her husband. Rights of inheritance and other familial rights are established through marriage. It forms the basic legal structure for structuring our relationships with one another.
In Islam marriage, although ideally for life, can end in divorce and the rules allowing divorce are set out in the Qur’an. Islamic marriage is quite simple in principle but extremely flexible. The basic mechanism is that the man pays up front a sum of money or other offer in exchage for the prospective wife’s marriage obligations. This is called the mahr. The wife is given this sum of money as part of the marriage. If the husband wants to end the marriage he can do so by simply releasing his wife from her ongoing obligations. This then is subject to a three month cooling off period. In divorcing his wife, he cannot reclaim his mahr and must also pay some maintenance. On the wife’s side she may also get divorce but in her case she would have to return the mahr or make another suitable settlement.
In addition to the mahr the wife may require whatever she wants as an obligation in the marriage contract which if violated will give the wife a right to divorce without repaying the mahr. This functions much like a “prenuptual agreement” which has only in recent years started to be recognised in various English courts.
What does the Qur’an say about adultery?
The punishment and how to deal with adultery are spelled out in the following verses:
24:2 The woman and the man guilty of adultery or fornication,- flog each of them with a hundred stripes: Let not compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by God, if ye believe in God and the Last Day: and let a party of the Believers witness their punishment.
24:3 Let no man guilty of adultery or fornication marry and but a woman similarly guilty, or an Unbeliever: nor let any but such a man or an Unbeliever marry such a woman: to the Believers such a thing is forbidden.
24:4 And those who launch a charge against chaste women, and produce not four witnesses (to support their allegations),- flog them with eighty stripes; and reject their evidence ever after: for such men are wicked transgressors;-
24:5 Unless they repent thereafter and mend (their conduct); for God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.
24:6 And for those who launch a charge against their spouses, and have (in support) no evidence but their own,- their solitary evidence (can be received) if they bear witness four times (with an oath) by God that they are solemnly telling the truth;
24:7 And the fifth (oath) (should be) that they solemnly invoke the curse of God on themselves if they tell a lie.
24:8 But it would avert the punishment from the wife, if she bears witness four times (with an oath) By God, that (her husband) is telling a lie;
24:9 And the fifth (oath) should be that she solemnly invokes the wrath of God on herself if (her accuser) is telling the truth.
It is abundantly clear from these verses that the punishment is “100 stripes” not stoning. It is equally clear that this applies to married couples too as it specifically refers to what they should do if accused by their partner and how they should avoid the punishment.
It is clear that if the prophet would do anything here he would be more lenient as he is warned not to let “compassion move you in their case” . Yet we have in the hadith a couple of stories about adulterers who far from wanting to avert the punishment urged the prophet repeatedly to give them the most severe of punishments for adultery. Eventually in these lengthy stories the Prophet orders that they be stoned to death. Even then when the confessors change their mind about getting stoned the prophet gets annoyed that the stoning goes ahead.
To me it is inconceivable that these stories could describe the prophet’s actions after the revelation of the above quoted verses. Even if we did, then the most we could reasonably argue is that if someone confesses and demands the most severe punishment then and only then is it justified to use the old Judaic punishment of stoning the adulterer.
But I don’t accept this. This is a well know judaic punishment and it is known that the prophet used to try to follow what he knew of earlier revealed religions and made this obligatory on his followers. He used to fast when the jews fasted and prayed towards Jerusalem. At a particular point when Islam became established in Medina as a distinct religious community, there was a break in the way the prophet treated earlier revealed instructions.
The Qur’an became the new law abrogating the old. The direction of prayer changed, obligatory fasting was set to be only for the month of Ramadan and the religious community of Islam was made distinct. Before this point, when an issue came up, it seems that the prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) would try to reach his best judgement using his knowledge of earlier revelations. After this point, he would wait for revelation in the Qur’an to resolve any legal issue faced.
This waiting was evident in the event of the accusation of adultery that preceded the revelation of the verses quoted above.
If there ever was a stoning instructed by the prophet (pbuh) then it must have happened at a time when he was still trying to apply the rules from earlier revelation. This means that stoning has now been abrogated by the above verses.
The issue of Stoning the Adulterer is a crucial one for Muslims because it is perhaps the clearest case of blatant contradiction between what jurists have declared the law to be and what the Qur’an instructs. Muslims are faced with a clear dichotomy: either obey Allah, or obey the jurists.
My concience will not allow me to do the latter.