Does Islam require stoning to death for adultery and gay sex, and amputation for larceny?

Does Islam require stoning to death for adultery and gay sex, and amputation for larceny? April 19, 2019

THE QUESTION:  This month, the Muslim nation of Brunei cited religious grounds for prescribing execution by stoning for those guilty of adultery or gay sex, and amputation of hands to punish convicted thieves. Does Islam require these penalties?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

In the Muslim world there’s no consensus that the faith requires these traditional punishments in modern times, but a handful of the 57 member nations in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation have such legislation. One is the small East Asian sultanate officially named Brunei Darusslam (“Brunei, Abode of Peace”), which proclaimed these penalties six years ago. Due to the resulting uproar, the law did not go into effect until this month. When it did, the foreign minister responded to another round of international denunciations by stating that “strong religious values” form “the very foundation of the unique Bruneian identity.”

The punishments were commanded by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Brunei’s hereditary monarch, who wields absolute political and religious powers and is devoted to strict interpretation and application of shariah (Muslim law). At the same time, fabled oil revenues provide the sultan  eyebrow-raising personal wealth of some $20 billion, the world’s largest home (1,788 rooms), and largest collection of rare automobiles including a gold-plated Rolls Royce.

UPDATE:  On May 5, facing threatened economic boycotts and international condemnation, the sultan stated that his realm’s de facto moratorium on executions would apply to cases of adultery and gay sex, but did not abrogate the amputation penalty for thieves. 

Regarding punishment for sexual sins, Muslims point out that long before Islam arose the Bible’s Old Testament law named execution as the penalty for adultery (Leviticus 20:10) and for same-sex relations between men (Leviticus 20:13), as well as other sins. Those passages did not state what method was to be used for execution, but rabbinic law later compiled in the Talmud specified stoning for gay relationships. Stoning was also commonly cited for adulterers.

Jewish scholars say the Bible’s various laws on execution were meant to signify and proclaim the seriousness of the misdeeds but were rarely applied in practice. For one thing, testimony from two eyewitnesses was required in capital cases, an unlikely occurrence with sexual situations. After ancient times, Judaism had no nation-state to apply punishments, and  modern-day Israel does not exact any legal punishments for such behavior.

Islam has always regarded adultery (e.g. Quran 25:68 or 60:12) and same-sex behavior (Quran 26:165-166 or 29:29) as serious crimes. The Quran defined the penalty for adultery as  lifetime house arrest (4:15), which exegetes think was then abrogated by 24:2, which specifies whipping with 100 lashes. Rather than the Quran, Muslim hardliners cite authoritative hadith traditions of the Prophet Muhammad’s words and deeds as precedents for executing adulterers and homosexuals, and by stoning.

Similar to the Old Testament practice, proof is difficult because the Quran requires testimony from four male eyewitnesses (unless guilty parties confess). Some jurists also allowed  conviction if a married woman became pregnant when her husband was absent.

A New York Times article by Muslim liberal Mustafa Akyol pointed out  that until it was dissolved in 1924, the caliphate that long led Sunni Islam under the Ottoman Empire favored imprisonment, forced labor, or fines as punishments and all but eliminated executions. Terms for adultery ran from three months to two years, and the law code did not list any penalties for homosexual acts.

Christianity has long since abandoned any civil penalties for sexual misconduct and its general attitude was shaped by a beloved incident in John 8:3-11. When teachers of the law brought a woman caught in the act of adultery to Jesus, he said “let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone.” After the shamed accusers melted away, Jesus told the woman “go, and do not sin again.” (Modern scriptural editions have footnotes informing readers that this passage is missing in the earliest texts, while other manuscripts locate it elsewhere in the Gospels. Conservatives like the late Donald Guthrie of the London School of Theology think that’s no reason to suppose the tradition is not genuine.)

Theft is especially haram (“forbidden”) in Islamic belief, according to which severe punishment deters crime and thus benefits society. Nations like Brunei can take amputation directly from the Quran: “As for the thieves, whether male or female, cut off their hands in punishment for what they did, as an exemplary punishment from Allah. Allah is mighty and wise. But whoever repents after his wrongdoing and mends his ways, Allah will forgive him” (5:38-39, Majid Fakhry translation).

Hadith traditions underscore this scriptural tenet. Muhammad was even quoted as saying he would not hesitate to subject his beloved daughter Fatima to amputation if she were ever guilty.

“The Study Quran” (HarperOne, 2015), from a team led by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, provides details:  Amputation is only meant to disable; consequently, medical treatment is made available so the criminal doesn’t bleed to death. Early Muslim caliphs in practice only used amputation for thefts of serious value, with simple repayment for the stolen goods in minor cases. Some jurists ruled that only four fingers would be cut off, not the entire hand. There’s debate whether the Quran’s forgiveness phrase might spare a truly repentant thief from amputation or only involves God’s “judgment and punishment in the Hereafter.”

The Old Testament law prescribed amputation in one but only one instance, when a woman’s hand had seized the genitals of a man who attacked her husband (Deuteronomy 25:11-12). The “Etz Hayim” commentary on this obscure modesty rule says ancient Jewish sages always resisted literal mutilation and instead charged a fine. Amputations were never administered to thieves.

Incidentally, Brunei’s new code also demands harsh penalties for abortion, blasphemy, heresy, ridicule of the Quran, insulting of the Prophet, or giving Muslim children knowledge about other religions. Since Brunei has not in fact executed anyone for anything since 1957, the world will be watching how it enforces the controversial new code.

 

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