In the last scene of the film Dead Man Walking, Matthew Poncelet (played by Sean Penn), is about to be executed with a lethal injection. Sister Helen Prejean, his spiritual adviser (played by Susan Sarandon), quietly watches the last moments of his life.
She delicately raises her hand against the glass enclosed partition and comforts him with a sense of dignity and humanity. There is a moment of resignation as the criminal walks towards his execution. The film touches on universal themes of revenge and redemption, crime and punishment, and fear and salvation.
I recalled this scene on a gloomy Friday afternoon, July 16th, 1999, while in Saudi Arabia. It was our family’s last stop before completing our Umra, or minor pilgrimage. Our taxi driver, taking us to the mosque for the Friday prayer, stopped in front of a public square and insisted that we didn’t want to miss this action.
What we saw next would affect me for the rest of my life.
A barefoot, cuffed, manacled and blindfolded woman was being led from a van to the middle of the square. Uniformed officials nudged her to kneel down.
Her name and crime were read out aloud: Aisha Sa’adah Qasim. Drug smuggling. She was Nigerian, as I later learnt from the Amnesty International website. Dead woman walking.
There was a surreal moment of frozen silence. The sword gleamed against the bright blue sky. With one mighty swing, the executioner severed Aisha’s head and sent it flying two or three feet away. Blood sprayed from the severed arteries and veins, swooping into the air like a fountain. The crowd started to clap. The dead woman walking was no more.
I had a flashback to Sister Helen Prejean and her hand slowly giving comfort to Matthew Poncelet. Unfortunately, poor Aisha had none of that humanity, dignity or comfort during her last moments. Garbage bags were brought to put her head in. Garbage bags! This was what her life had been worth. So hard to see, harder to forget.
What I had witnessed was an example of the hudud punishments (the Islamic penal code) or, more precisely, the Saudi government’s application of this code.
A day has not gone by that I do not think of Aisha. At that moment, I made a personal commitment to understand why Aisha had been killed and to ensure that her death was not in vain.
My answer came on March 30th, 2005 when the Islamic activist and scholar, Professor Tariq Ramadan, issued ‘An International Call for a Moratorium on corporal punishment, stoning and the death penalty in the Islamic World.’ In it, he called for an “immediate moratorium” in Muslim-majority countries on the application of these hudud punishments prescribed in Shari’a law.
His reasoning for this bold action was that “a moratorium would impose and allow a basic debate to unfold in serenity, without using it as an excuse to manipulate Islam. All injustices made legal in the name of Islam must stop immediately.”
The reaction from the Muslim world, though predictable, was disconcerting. Many Muslims viewed the call as – once again – that of another Muslim scholar switching sides and becoming a ‘Westerner in Muslim dress.’
Organizations supposedly advocating for the rights of Muslims had nothing to say on Professor Ramadan’s call. Some decried the fact that it would create an opportunity for the “enemies of Islam” to attack again. Or, that it would pit Muslims against one another. Others stated that it was not a priority.
If people had even bothered to read the Call, they would have at least understood this much – it is calling for a moratorium while an internal dialogue takes place, and it has nothing to do with the pacifying the West. It is not denying the texts dealing with hudud punishments. It is not against the Islamic teachings and the Shari’a, but for the integrity of their name.
The only Islamic leader who seriously engaged in a scholarly dialogue was the Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Gomaa. Other scholars issued emotional, non-scholarly responses or were dismissive of Professor Ramadan. These types of reactions undermine the process of reform and dialogue so greatly needed in the Muslim world.
As we mark the one year anniversary of the Call being put out, the issue of hudud punishments is still one area that urgently requires the collective Muslim attention.
In a total betrayal of the Islamic message of justice, many Muslim majority countries, in the name of hudud (which is but a small part of Shari’a), are implementing repressive policies and injustices – from corporal punishments to death penalties – in the name of Islam. And who are the first victims of this application? Women, the poor and political opponents.
How can we tolerate such injustices in the name of Islam if we are saying that the Shari’a is about social justice? Isn’t it our responsibility to speak out and represent the voices of the voiceless who live under these repressive policies?
Islamic scholars and socially engaged Muslims must recognize that, far from pitting people against each other, an internal debate and an intra-community dialogue is urgent and necessary.
Silence is just not going to suffice anymore.
If Muslim religious leaders are not going to stand up and defend the integrity of the Shari’a, then it is going to have to come from the grassroots. On that day, when we are before our Creator and asked what we did about our poor brothers and sisters who were punished and killed in the name of Islam, what are we going to say?
Being faithful to the notion of Shari’a today means to speak out when it is implemented wrongly or used as a means of instrumentalizing Islam.
With Aisha’s image haunting me, I signed the on-line petition initiated by Muslim Presence Canada entitled “In the name of Islamic Justice” supporting Professor Ramadan’s Call, but was shocked to see in the list of top 10 petitions, vying for number two spot, was a petition created by a Muslim group. And what were they fighting for? To internationally recognize the Halal trademark that guarantees a product complies with the Islamic Sacred Law (the Shari’a).
They already had 263,726 signatories. I hope we, Muslims, realize that a human life is just as kosher.