Islam and stoning: A historical perspective

Many critics of Islam allege that Islam is barbaric because it legislates the capital punishment for offenses like rape, apostasy, heresy, blasphemy etc. etc. This is not a new allegation on Islam, many critics have been using the same rhetoric for a long time now. This perception of Islam (that it condones stoning to death) is built on the historic events that occurred during the life of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him), where he suggested stoning of people.

If you study the Holy Quran, you will be astonished to know that there is no mentioning of this punishment in the entire scripture. There is punishment but death (no matter in what shape or form) is not even remotely mentioned for this offense. In the hadith (sayings / biography of the Prophet (Peace be upon Him)) we find certain accounts for when the Prophet (Peace be upon Him) ordained the stoning of death for adulterers. These rare events should be viewed in the historical perspective of that time. Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him) had migrated from Mecca towards Yathrib (which was later to be known as Medina), He was made head of state by an agreement between the dwellers of Medina and the surrounding (Jewish) tribes. It is important to remember that the Prophet’s (Peace be upon Him) reputation as a shroud and honest judge had perpetrated throughout entire Arabian peninsula. Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him) served as an arbitrator towards the community and people of all cast, creed and religion brought their feuds and conflicts to him and returned satisfied.

Verily, Allah commands you to make over the trusts to those entitled to them, and that, when you judge between men, you judge with justice. And surely excellent is that with which Allah admonishes you! Allah is All-Hearing, All-Seeing. (Chapter 4, Verse 59)

Having established his reputation as an unprejudiced, wise and honest judge, the people of Medina (and those of the surrounding Jewish tribes) brought their conflicts to Him in pursuit of justice. When the cases of murders, adultery and harassment, the Prophet of Allah (peace be upon him) inquired from the people what was the punishment ordained amongst them for these offenses. And the same punishment (according to the religion of the parties) was ordained for the accused. In simple words, the ‘stoning to death’ did not originate in Islam. Let us briefly explore the origins of this punishment.

Stoning to death: History

While the origins of stoning may be unknown outside the Abrahamic religions, what is known that Aztecs used to stone the adulterers to death. The first account of stoning to death in Abrahamic religions come from Torah, which is a part of the Old testament.

12 Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not approach the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain is to be put to death.

13 They are to be stoned or shot with arrows; not a hand is to be laid on them. No person or animal shall be permitted to live.’ Only when the ram’s horn sounds a long blast may they approach the mountain.”

(Exodus 19)

Here the bible is commanding the followers to kill those who touch the Holy Mountain without touching them. In Numbers we find texts which ordain the similar punishment but for another crime.

32 While the Israelites were in the wilderness, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day.

33 Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly,

34 and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him.

35 Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.”

36 So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the Lord commanded Moses.

These are two of many examples where the bible commands for spiritual crimes be met with physical (and absolute) punishment. Even sleeping or lying with an engaged woman (who is engaged to another man and not violating the woman or abusing her) is punishable by stoning. Other crimes include: blasphemy, witchcraft, adultery, Overtime however the Jewish priests enacted some doctrines in order to prevent innocent from receiving capital punishment.

The Islamic link

As stated earlier, there is no account of stoning to death mentioned in the Quran. However, we find certain judgements during the time of Prophet (peace be upon him) that certain people were killed by stoning to death. Why? well the following Hadith sheds some light on the issue:

The Jews brought to the Prophet a man and a woman from among them who had committed illegal sexual intercourse. The Prophet said to them, “How do you usually punish the one amongst you who has committed illegal sexual intercourse?” They replied, “We blacken their faces with coal and beat them.” He said, “Don’t you find the order of Ar-Rajm (i.e. stoning to death) in the Torah?” They replied, “We do not find anything in it.” ‘Abdullah bin Salam (after hearing this conversation) said to them, “You have told a lie! Bring here the Torah and recite it if you are truthful.” (So the Jews brought the Torah). And the religious teacher who was teaching it to them, put his hand over the Verse of Ar-Rajm and started reading what was written above and below the place hidden with his hand, but he did not read the Verse of Ar-Rajm. ‘Abdullah bin Salam removed his (i.e. the teacher’s) hand from the Verse of Ar-Rajm and said, “What is this?” So when the Jews saw that Verse, they said, “This is the Verse of Ar-Rajm.” So the Prophet ordered the two adulterers to be stoned to death, and they were stoned to death near the place where biers used to be placed near the Mosque. I saw her companion (i.e. the adulterer) bowing over her so as to protect her from the stones. (Sahih Bukhari 6.79, Narrated by Abdullah ibn Umar)

As you can see from the above account, the Prophet (peace be upon him) judged between the two parties on the basis of Torah (their religious scriptures). It was never sanctioned into Islam as far as history goes. This tradition spread through the Muslims, some of them spread the news without proper context, which was that the punishment was legislated within Torah and not Quran. Therefore after the death of Prophet (peace be upon Him) this false tradition was taken up by Muslims.

The punishment for adultery in Islam is for the perpetrator to be lashed out (which can be changed based on the culture), not put to death. This is evident from the following Hadith:

Narrated Abu Huraira and Zaid bin Khalid Al-Juhani: A bedouin came to Allah’s Apostle and said, “O Allah’s apostle! I ask you by Allah to judge My case according to Allah’s Laws.” His opponent, who was more learned than he, said, “Yes, judge between us according to Allah’s Laws, and allow me to speak.” Allah’s Apostle said, “Speak.” He (i .e. the bedouin or the other man) said, “My son was working as a laborer for this (man) and he committed illegal sexual intercourse with his wife. The people told me that it was obligatory that my son should be stoned to death, so in lieu of that I ransomed my son by paying one hundred sheep and a slave girl. Then I asked the religious scholars about it, and they informed me that my son must be lashed one hundred lashes, and be exiled for one year, and the wife of this (man) must be stoned to death.” Allah’s Apostle said, “By Him in Whose Hands my soul is, I will judge between you according to Allah’s Laws. The slave-girl and the sheep are to be returned to you, your son is to receive a hundred lashes and be exiled for one year. You, Unais, go to the wife of this (man) and if she confesses her guilt, stone her to death.” Unais went to that woman next morning and she confessed. Allah’s Apostle ordered that she be stoned to death.The stoning was done to the woman because she was a jew and according to torah punishment is stoning.The son got 100 lashes because its the punishment for zina in quran.

(Sahih Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 50: Conditions, Number 885)

So it is safe to say that it is not Islamic law which dictates barbaric punishment, the fact is that these have nothing to do with Islam at all. Therefore all those out Islamophobes out there, when you talk about stoning, be prepared to criticize the Jews and the Christians for this cruelty not Islam. If you are curious to learn the status of capital punishments in Islam, please follow the link here.

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About Hasan
A Muslim with a slightly different perspective. A student of history, theology and science.

One Response to Islam and stoning: A historical perspective

  1. Islam says:

    This country need Islamic system to run.

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