In Katsina, a state in Nigeria, a woman called Amina Laval was sentenced to death by stoning. The Shariat Court of Bakori pronounced the sentence for the crime of Zina, meaning adultery. Amina is a divorcee who was accused of illicit relations with Yahya Mahmud; Amina claims he is the father of her child. The Shariat Court - upholding the verdict of a lower court - further decreed that the sentence would be carried out only after the eight-month-old child's weaning period (two years). Amina's lawyers have said that they would go in appeal to the Supreme Court.
Around the same time in Pakistan, the Federal Shariat Court, reversing the order of a lower court, acquitted rape victim Zafran Bibi, who was sentenced to a similar punishment under the Hudood law. This decision was hailed in Pakistan as a landmark judgement.
Once again, the two cases throw up the issue of 'gender bias in Islam'. The fact that the heinous concept of 'stoning to death' is being debated in the 21st century places a mark on Islam and gives the anti-Islam lobby something to crow about.
It is therefore high time to look at the Quranic injunctions about Zina and to understand what has been enjoined in the faith, as distinct from the customary practice in society.
Does this barbaric practice find any mention in the Quran? And if not, can one claim that it is an Islamic practice? Does it have anything to do with Islam as it was revealed to the Prophet? From my reading of the Quran, I maintain that Islam does not sanction the punishment of stoning to death for adultery. I say 'from my reading' by design, because I believe that the verses of the Quran are there for all to read and understand.
We must not forget that the Quran was revealed for common understanding - 'AlDin-I-Yasrin', meaning 'Din is Easy' - to guide the ordinary woman and man and not for highly esoteric interpretations. The description of the human being's nearness to Allah is: 'He is closer to you than your 'shehrug' (jugular vein)'. Therefore I, an ordinary human being and a Muslim woman, claim with confidence that my religion, my Prophet, my Shariah does not sanction such barbarity.
But let us look at the Quran and consider the Ayats which mention the word Zina. The word is used both for men and women. There are two Surahs in which the concept is discussed by use of the word Zina. The first is Surah 17, Al Isra or Bani Israil, verse 32 - primarily about the Ascension of the Prophet but also purity in sexual relations and probity in all dealings:
Nor come nigh to adultery
For it is a shameful (deed)
And an evil, opening the road
(To other evils)
The second reference is in Surah 24 Al Nur, verse 2, and it speaks of the regulation of sexual behavior and reprobation of false slander against women:
The woman and the man
Guilty of fornication
Flog each of them
With a hundred stripes
And let a party of believers
Witness their punishment
It is this verse which has been subject of many interpretations although the words of the Quran could not have been clearer. It states that the punishment applies equally to men and women, and second that it comprises 100 stripes - not a single more or less. I, for one, cannot read anything in this verse which can be understood as stoning to death.
So, where did this interpretation come from and how much credence does it deserve? According to some authoritative sources this particular passage refers 'only' to fornication (not adultery) for which the punishment is 100 stripes. For adultery the punishment (according to one account of the Sunnah [practice] of the Prophet) is stoning to death.
According to another account this was the old Jewish punishment. When a Jew once asked the Prophet what he should do in case of Zina, the Prophet is supposed to have said 'follow your practice'. In such a short space there are already two interpretations. For me, therefore, it is the word of the Quran that needs to be adhered to, above and beyond all interpretations.
Besides, I cannot accept this attribution to the Prophet because it goes against his entire personal attributes and interpersonal relationships. It is also inconsistent with the sensitivity of the Quran in dealing with matters pertaining to human beings in general and women in particular.
Let us again, consider the facts as explained in the Quran. The undesirability of adultery enjoins that it should be punished. The punishment should serve as a deterrent. 100 stripes are a severe punishment and when publicly meted out to men and women it certainly puts fear in the spectators' hearts as well. But what is the basis of this punishment? The Quran orders that such punishment should never be given without solid proof. And what is the proof? In the case of women the Quran requires that four persons be produced who have actually witnessed the act with their own eyes. This is clearly stated in Surah 4 Al Nisa:
If any of your women
Are guilty of lewdness
Take the evidence of four
(Reliable) witnesses from amongst you
This condition obviously reflects the concern in Islam for women victimized by false accusations. Not one, not two, nor three but four witnesses are required - a clear message in the formidable condition. Where can four such persons be found who can testify as eyewitnesses?
The general injunction for bringing such a charge against men is two witnesses. But two does not suffice for women. "To protect the honor of women," writes translator and commentator, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, "stricter evidence is required; i.e. evidence of four instead of the usual two witnesses."
And this is not the only protection provided for women. Those (miscreants) who bring such a severe charge against women and fail to produce four witnesses are required to be given an equally severe punishment, almost. If the adulterer is given 100 lashes, the false accuser is to be given 80 lashes. Once again this injunction is clear and unequivocal:
And those who launch
A charge against chaste women
And produce not four witnesses
(To support their allegations)-
Flog them with 80 stripes;
And reject their evidence
Ever after: for such men
Are wicked transgressors
(Surah Al Nur, 24:4)
The tragedy is that the very words of the Quran which protect women against the wicked transgressions and profligacy of men, whose habits have not changed much in 1400 years, are twisted around to convey the exact opposite. And the equality of the sexes in punishment and reward, enjoined by Islam, is conveniently forgotten.