Or be forgiven, healed, and restored by Jesus!
James M. Arlandson
As recent as April 2004, a Swiss court annulled a government decision that fired or sacked Hani Ramadan for publicly defending the punishment of stoning adulterers to death. He takes the standard line of Muslim apologists (defenders of Islam) that without stoning sexual sinners, the world can never solve its moral collapse and cure its sexually transmitted diseases.
In December 2004, Amnesty International reports:
An Iranian woman charged with adultery faces death by stoning in the next five days after her death sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court last month. Her unnamed co-defendant is at risk of imminent execution by hanging. Amnesty International members are now writing urgent appeals to the Iranian authorities, calling for the execution to be stopped.
She is to be buried up to her chest and stoned to death.
The Saudi Ambassador to London, Ghazi al-Qusaibi, says that stoning may seem irrational to the western mind, but it is "at the core of the Islamic faith." He also says that Westerners should respect Muslin culture on this matter.
An intellectual, the Iranian Supreme Court, and the Saudi ambassador to London assert that stoning adulterers to death is a legitimate punishment for society. Where do they get this punishment from? From a twentieth-century extremist? Out of thin air? Does it sit at the "core" of Islam?
It is sad to report that these three Muslims get it from early Islam, during Muhammad's lifetime. Completely reliable hadiths (Muhammad's words and deeds outside of the Quran) demonstrate beyond doubt that Muhammad, under Allah's direction, stoned adulterers to death and flogged fornicators-this last punishment comes from the Quran, Sura 24:2.
To show how and to get a clearer picture on this policy, this article is divided into two main sections: the Quran and the hadith, on the one hand, and the New Testament on the other. As we shall see, the two sacred Books have radically different solutions to sexual sin.
The section on the Quran follows a specific method of exegesis (detailed analysis of a text). First, we use two reputable Muslim translations of Sura 24:2. Second, we look at the historical context. The third step is to examine the literary context, or the verses surrounding the target verse. These second and third steps explain the verse more clearly, and they prevent the standard, reflexive "out of context" defense from Muslim apologists. The fourth step is to interpret the key verse. By far the most competent defender of traditional and original Islam is Sayyid Abul A'La Maududi (d. 1979) in his The Meaning of the Qur'an. He was an Indo-Pakistani who worked hard at establishing a theocratic state in Pakistan. So we let him explain early Islam. The interpretation stage also involves explaining the policy in three sections: the prerequisites that must obtain before a judge imposes the penalty; the purpose of the penalty (to deter future "crimes" and to purge society); and the confusion that inheres in Islamic law or sharia.
For the New Testament section, we ask and answer the simple question: What would Jesus do? The short answer: forgive, heal and restore the sinner-not flog or stone him to death.
At the end we apply our findings to the world today.
The Quran and the Hadith
The first step in our method is to cite a reliable Muslim translation of Sura 24:2. This one comes from MAS Abdel Haleem, The Qur'an, (Oxford UP, 2004):
24:2 Strike the adulteress and the adulterer one hundred times. Do not let compassion for them keep you from carrying out God's law-if you believe in God and the Last Day-and ensure that a group of believers witnesses the punishment. (Haleem)
The historical context of this sura supposedly occurs on a raid of a tribe in December 627 or January 628, on which Muhammad brought his favorite and youngest wife, Aisha, also the daughter of Abu Bakr, his right-hand lieutenant. After the Muslims' victory, they journeyed back to Medina, one hundred and fifty miles to the north. On their last halt, Aisha answered the call of nature, but lost her necklace in the dark, just as the army was setting out from their encampment early in the morning. She left her litter, returned to look for the necklace, found it, and went back to the camel bearing her litter. Meanwhile, the man leading her camel assumed she was in her curtained litter and led the animal away by the halter. Returning, Aisha saw that she was left behind. However, a handsome young Muslim named Safwan saw her and accompanied her back to Medina, though the Muslims and Muhammad's opposition, both, wagged their tongues at seeing the two youngsters entering the city together. Eventually, revelation came that Aisha was not guilty of any immorality.
The historical context of Sura 24:2 thus establishes some ground rules against sexual sin, of which flogging one hundred times is one of the rules.
The literary context-the verses after our target verse-establishes new domestic and marriage rules for the Muslim community. In v. 3 an adulteress may marry an adulterer or an idolater, and the same goes for an adulterer. Muhammad says in v. 4 that an accuser of chaste women of fornication must provide four witnesses. If not, then he should be whipped eighty times, and his testimony is to be rejected thereafter, unless he repents (v. 5). In vv. 6-9 Muhammad establishes the rule for a husband who accuses his wife, but who does not have four witnesses. This is known as the law of Li'an, which comes from La'na. This word refers to a curse and is derived from a rule in these three verses that says that the husband and wife must swear four times and on the fifth invoke Allah's curse on himself or herself if he or she is lying.
The literary context, then, reveals that Allah through his prophet is setting forth more domestic and marriage rules in his Muslim community in Medina, and sometimes the penalty phase of the violated rules are harsh.
This brings us to our fourth step, discussing some key components in the verse itself. The first word is "flog." It is comes from the Arabic word jalada, which in turn comes from the word "jild" or "skin" (Maududi, vol. 3, pp. 311-12, note 2). This means that the flogging, whether by a whip with many straps or a by cane, should not break the skin. For Muslim apologists, then, this means that Muhammad is being merciful, but as we shall see, the entire idea of applying corporeal punishment on sinners is misguided to begin with. The second key word is zina, which covers all extramarital sexual intercourse between a man and a woman, says Haleem in a footnote to his translation. Maududi defines it as: "Sexual intercourse between a man and a woman without the legal relationship of husband and wife existing between them" (3:290). However, he also clarifies for us that flogging is reserved for unmarried fornicators, whereas stoning is reserved for married adulterers (3:311-12). He has the support of the hadith for this interpretation.
Hilali's and Khan's translation, The Noble Qur'an (Riyadh: Darussalam, 2002), which has the funding of the Saudi royal family, agrees with Maududi in their parenthetical notes, which are not in the original Arabic:
24:2 The fornicatress and the fornicator, flog each of them with a hundred stripes. Let not pity withhold you in their case, in a punishment prescribed by Allah, if you believe in Allah and the Last Day. And let a party of the believers witness their punishment. [This punishment is for unmarried persons guilty of the above crime (illegal sex), but if married persons commit it (illegal sex), the punishment is to stone them to death, according to Allah's law].
The part in brackets is derived from the hadith. Unmarried fornicators receive a hundred stripes, but married adulterers must die by stoning, as seen in these two hadiths. The first one provides evidence for flogging only unmarried fornicators:
Narrated Zaid bin Khalid al-Juhani: I heard the Prophet ordering that an unmarried person guilty of sexual intercourse be flogged one hundred stripes and be exiled for one year. (Bukhari 8:6831; see also 8:6833)
Exiling for a year has been debated by Islamic jurists, and some say that time in prison replaces this punishment (Maududi 3:311-12), but exiling in this part of the law does not concern us here in this article. However, it should be noted that the western world throughout its history has applied imprisonment or other outlandish punishments for fornication and adultery, but to no effect. This ineffectiveness challenges the assumption that punishing sinners harshly purges society of sexual sins and deters future sins. This challenge is developed, below, in the major section "the New Testament."
As for married adulterers, they are to be stoned to death, according to this hadith passage:
Narrated Jabir bin Abdullah al-Ansari: A man from the tribe of Bani Aslam came to Allah's Messenger [Muhammad] and informed him that he had committed illegal sexual intercourse; and he bore witness four times against himself. Allah's Messenger ordered him to be stoned to death as he was a married person (Bukhari 8:6814; see also 8:6825; 8:6829)
But in either case, applying such harsh punishments to the sexual sins of fornication and adultery is wrong and misguided, as we explain, below.
Finally, it must be pointed out before we leave this step in our exegetical method that, amazingly, 24:2 exhorts the accusers and judges not to let compassion keep them from carrying out God's law. Maududi cites a hadith that says a judge shall be taken to hell on judgment day because he commuted the sentence to one stripe, out of pity. "He will be asked, 'Why did you do so?' He [the judge] will say, 'It was out of pity for Your people.' Allah will say, 'Well, it means you were more compassionate towards those people than Myself." Then it will be ordered: 'Take him to hell.'"
This is one of the paradoxes of Islam. A Muslim judge feels as all reasonable persons do when they hear of such harsh punishments sent down from Allah. But Allah supposedly feels more compassion than the human judge, while the deity sends the compassionate human to hell-for compassionately commuting Allah's uncompassionate punishment. This is indeed difficult to understand.
Islamic law on the matter of zina can be further clarified in these three sections: Prerequisites for applying flogging or stoning; the purpose of the two punishments; and two confusing elements in Islamic law. Since Islamic law (wrongly) elevates fornication and adultery to the level of crimes, we use that word and its cognates in the next three segments. However, when we reach the New Testament view on adultery and fornication, we will return to the more accurate terms "sin" and "sinner."
Prerequisites for applying the punishments
Muslim expositors explain that Islam does not like to impose these two severe punishments of flogging and stoning. Jurists have set up a series of steps or conditions that must be fulfilled before the punishments are applied (Maududi 3:306). We focus on five.
First, the proof for zina must be established by four eyewitness (Suras 4:15; 24:4, 13). Second, the witnesses should be reliable and never proven to be false witnesses on previous occasions. They should not be found to hold a grudge against the accused. Third, the four witnesses must provide evidence that they found the man and woman in the actual state of intercourse or in flagrante delicto (while the crime is blazing). This is exceedingly hard to do, so the punishment is applied rarely, say Muslim apologists. In reply, however, the punishment was actually carried out in Muhammad's day, so it is not impossible. Fourth, the witnesses should be unanimous in regard to the time, place and persons committing the crime. Any doubts nullify their testimony.
Maududi seems to take refuge in the difficulty of actually carrying out the punishments:
These conditions amply indicate that the Islamic Law does not intend to punish people as a matter of course. It inflicts severe [note the word] punishment only when, in spite of all the measure to reform and eradicate the evil, there still exists a shameless couple in the Islamic society who commits the crimes in a way as to be witnessed by as many as four men (3:306).
It almost seems as if Maududi is embarrassed by Sura 24:2 and the hadith that mete out flogging and stoning for sexual sin. It is interesting that this devout Muslim scholar calls the punishment severe and the sin a crime. He is right in his first insight, but wrong in his second. Fornication and adultery are serious sins that impact society negatively, but they are not crimes. The punishments, on the other hand, are so severe that they should be considered crimes.
A fifth requirement is that the sinner may confess four times. This is based on the hadith, such as the one we saw above, narrated by Jabir bin Abdullah al-Ansari (Bukhari 8:6814). This hadith shows Muhammad turning his face away from a man who committed adultery:
Narrated Abu Hurairah: A man from among the people came to Allah's Messenger ... and addressed him, saying ... "I have committed illegal sexual intercourse." The Prophet turned his face away from him. [This continues until the following:] [A]nd when he confessed his sin four times, the Prophet called him and said, "Are you mad?" [Punishment is not inflicted on the insane]. He said, "No, O Allah's Messenger!" The Prophet asked, "Are you married? He said, "Yes, O Allah's Messenger." The Prophet said (to the people), "Take him away and stone him to death." (Bukhari 8:6825; cf. 8:6815)
Turning his face away means that Muhammad was allegedly showing mercy on the man and trying to get him to repent in private. But the man continued, so Muhammad imposed the ultimate and irreversible penalty of death by stoning. Despite the "mercy," the question is: should this punishment exist in the first place? This is seen most clearly in one of the most gruesome hadiths in the entire hadith corpus, as follows.
A woman came to the prophet and asked for purification by seeking punishment. He told her to go away and seek God's forgiveness. She persisted four times and admitted she was pregnant. He told her to wait until she had given birth. Then he said that the Muslim community should wait until she had weaned her child. When the day arrived for the child to take solid food, Muhammad handed the child over to the community.
And when he had given command over her and she was put in a hole up to her breast, he ordered the people to stone her. Khalid b. al-Walid came forward with a stone which he threw at her head, and when the blood spurted on his face he cursed her ... (Muslim no. 4206)
The prophet prayed over her dead body and then buried her. Truthfully, though, how effective was the prayer when Muhammad and his community murdered her in cold blood? The rest of the hadith says that Muhammad told Khalid not to be too harsh, but the prophet's words drip with irony. How does one not become harsh when throwing rocks at a woman's head? Should the rocks go only 40 miles per hour or 30? Perhaps Muhammad meant that Khalid should not have cursed her. And as for the alleged mercy shown in Muhammad turning his head away four times, he should have turned his head away 40 or 400 times; that is, if Muhammad and Khalid really did not want to be harsh, but to show mercy, they should have forgiven her and let her go to raise her child.
The Iranian Supreme Court ordered that an adulteress should be buried up to her chest and stoned to death. The Court knows the hadith quite well. This august body is closely following Allah's prophet.
The question needs to be asked again: Should this punishment exist in the first place six hundred years after Christ showed us the better way?
The purpose of the punishments
Muslim apologists adopt two strategies for justifying the indefensible punishments of flogging fornicators and stoning adulterers. The punishments (allegedly) are just and appropriate first because they serve as deterrents and second because they purge society of sexual crimes.
First, the apologists claim that these punishments serve as a deterrent. This is implied in Sura 24:2 when the flogging (and stoning) should be carried out in public: ... "[A]nd ensure that a group of believers witness the punishment" (Haleem). This public humiliation is designed to scare other people into obeying the laws of Allah (Maududi 3:319-20, note 4).
In reply, however, this kind of a priori reasoning is shaky at best. We should not let a revelation determine facts. More hard evidence needs to be provided that flogging and stoning deter would-be sinners from committing their crimes. As we shall see in the next section, the punishments may drive the sinners to conceal their acts more carefully than before. The punishments will not stop crimes, since the crimes are rooted in human nature itself.
The second strategy of traditional Muslims is to claim that flogging and stoning are designed to purge society from sexual crimes and to protect it from collapse and ruin. Here the logic of the apologists must make the effects of the sexual crimes so horrible and devastating that applying the punishments seems only just and appropriate.
For example, I got a series of lengthy emails from a Muslim who, besides calling me a wicked sinner (and other such things) for questioning the Quran and Islam, said that zina constituted social suicide-an entire society commits suicide over time if it allows fornication and adultery to go unpunished in the Islamic style. He pointed out gleefully, so it seemed, that western society is collapsing because of sexual crimes. I replied that fornication and adultery are serious sins that impact society, but the punishment of flogging and smashing people on the heads with rocks is not the answer. Also, it is simplistic to single out one factor for society's collapse, if indeed the western world is falling apart. He could not bring himself to see the inherent excess in killing sexual sinners. The following logic illustrates how locked in he was to an absolutist mindset:
Any fair-minded and reasonable observer knows that this policy is the exact opposite of just and appropriate. But if the observer's mind and sound judgment have been clouded by a lifetime of devotion to Islam, then he will defend the indefensible. The intellectual, the Iranian Supreme Court, and the Saudi ambassador to London cited in the introduction to this article have this locked-down mindset, so why should we be surprised if an average Muslim does too? It is difficult to penetrate such an absolutist outlook.
Furthermore, Maududi says that sexual sins threaten society at its foundation:
In fact, the very foundations on which the structure of human civilization and culture has been built will topple down and the whole basis of the concept of social life will disappear. (3:291).
It is true that society suffers from rampant sexual sins, but are the punishments of flogging and death by stoning the answer, or should we help the sinners in other ways?
Finally, Mufti Muhammad Aashiq Illahi Muhajir Madani (Illuminating Discourses on the Noble Qur'an, Karachi, Pakistan, Zam Zam, 2003) also follows this tactic of describing society that does not undergo Islamic punishments for the two sexual crimes. Families fall into ruin, which means society also is ruined. Sexual sins also cause widespread disease (vol. 6, pp. 360-66). Madani (and others) says that punishing sinners in this way preserves the family structure. Children will be raised in healthy families when adultery does not afflict a household.
All of these effects may be true, but the question bears repeating: Do the harsh punishments fit the crime and solve it? The answer will be clear once we analyze the New Testament's view on adultery and fornication.
Confusion in Islamic law
Islamic law in the matter of zina has two confusing problems. The first concerns preserving the family by stoning a parent to death. The second relates to concealing one's crimes relative to the assertion that Islamic punishments deter future sexual criminals and preserve society.
As noted in the previous section and in the part that analyzes purging society of ruinous sins, Muslims assert that the punishment of stoning an adulterer preserves society and the family. In reply, however, it is difficult to imagine a punishment that does just the opposite. Depriving children of one of their parents by stoning him or her to death breaks down the family and can only cause irreparable damage to the children, once they learn why their father or mother will never return to them. Allah took him or her away, out of his divine "compassion." Also, this irreversible punishment forever shuts down any hope of reconciliation between the fractured married couple. It is true that the witnesses can stop the punishment under certain conditions by not initiating it (Muslim no. 4196, and the translator's note 2161; and Maududi 3:308-09). But what if the rocks are thrown and the criminal is killed, but later on the offended party changes his or her mind? By then, it is too late.
This is seen analogously, in the severe Islamic punishment for theft: cutting off the hand. According to the hadith (Bukhari 9:6895), two men accused a man of theft. Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law and cousin, accepted their testimony and cut off the accused man's hand. Afterwards, another man stepped forward and showed that the now disfigured man did not commit the theft. Ali accepted his testimony, but it was too late. The man's hand was already cut off. The punishment could not be reversed. Ali said that if he thought for even one moment that the first two witnesses had deliberately falsified their testimony, he would apply the same punishment of chopping off their hand. Therefore, in the same way, the penalty of stoning to death cannot be reversed, even in the best of circumstances, like a courtroom overseen by a competent judge.
Once again, Muhammad and Islam take things too far, especially when we compare him and his religion with Jesus and Christianity, in the next section.
The second confusing policy in sharia is the concealment of one's sexual crimes when the goal is to deter them and preserve society. Maududi cites three hadiths that show Muhammad telling the criminals that it had been better for them if they had concealed their crimes. First, this hadith reports that Muhammad says: "If any of you is guilty of any immorality, he should better remain hidden under the curtain of Allah, but if he discloses it to us, we shall certainly enforce the law of Allah on him" (Maududi 3:305). Second, the following one says that a man confessed his sin to the prophet, so he ordered the man to be stoned to death. But at the same time he said to the condemned man: "Would that you had kept the matter hidden: this would have been better for you" (3:305). Finally, Maududi cites this hadith that has Muhammad saying: "You should yourselves pardon the crimes which merit prescribed punishment because when a crime which calls for such a punishment comes to my notice, it will become obligatory on me to award the punishment" (3:305)
However, this concealment contradicts the ultimate purposes of punishing zina: to preserve the family and society and to deter future sexual criminals. These three hadiths say just the opposite. Instead, Islamic law only encourages criminals to go further underground, rather than confess their crimes openly in order to receive help and healing. Concealment serves only to make society collapse secretly-that is, if Muslim apologists are to be believed about the danger of sexual sins being the only factor in a large civilization's downfall.
Also, Muhammad says in the last hadith that criminals should pardon their own crime privately, but how is this possible when adultery infects the whole family, not to mention fornication between two single people? With such heavy punishments inflicted on a sexual criminal, he will be reluctant to confess his crimes, especially if he fears that his offended spouse will react in anger and expose the crime to the authorities.
However, let us imagine that the offender decides, hope against hope, to confess his crime to the offended spouse, wanting reconciliation. If the offended spouse also wants reconciliation, then this is good, but how will they seek help if someone else may threaten the offender with exposing his crime to the authorities? Thus, it is not completely farfetched that a "snitch" society may be produced with citizens, especially the more self-righteous, spying on others. In fact, Saudi Arabia has turned this into an art. They have religious police on patrol, ensuring that the citizens conform to Islamic law.
On the other hand, let us say that the offended spouse drags the offender into court, but does not have four eyewitnesses. Then the criminal spouse will either have to lie in court and deny that he committed adultery, or he will have to be honest in court and confess his crime and potentially suffer the ultimate, irreversible penalty. If the adulterer lies in court, despite his honest and sincere confession to his spouse, then Islamic law forces him into being a liar, and how does this preserve the sanctity of marriage and therefore society?
These scenarios bring us back to the law of Li'an (rules concerning a spouse accusing his or her own spouse). They also bring us to the cleverness of Islamic jurists who may have ways out of these predicaments. But examining the law of Li'an further and figuring out an escape from these scenarios miss the point entirely. Rather, the ultimate solution is not to raise sexual sins to the level of crimes in the first place. True, these sins need to be dealt with, and they do impact society negatively, but the proper way to deal with them surely does not include flogging and stoning. These two harsh and excessive punishments exert a chilling effect on reconciliation in a marriage, a virtue that preserves the family and society.
Muhammad has misjudged the crime and the criminal. The policy of stoning adulterers to death and flogging fornicators one hundred times raise the stakes too high. It is only logical and in fact completely understandable that the penalties would drive crime underground. Hence, society will not be purged from these crimes, if indeed this is possible in the first place.
Once again, Muhammad and his laws take things too far. He works confusedly at incorporating some of the Torah, which orders the adulterers to be stoned to death, and at rejecting other parts of the Torah, which stones fornicators to death, but only under certain circumstances. The only way out of the unintended and confusing dilemmas and contradictory consequences of Islamic sharia, described in this section, is the way of Jesus.
The New Testament
Muhammad completely misses the mark when we compare his harsh and excessive policies with those of Jesus and his early church, who offer holiness from the inside out, not impose it from the outside. Muhammad is a deformer, not a reformer, of the earlier religion (and Judaism). In light of this, we drop the excessive terms "crime" and "criminal" and use the more accurate "sin" and "sinner."
How Jesus fulfills the law
In private emails to me or on the worldwide web, Muslim apologists frequently cite the Torah to demonstrate how excessive and harsh the Bible is. So who am I or other Christians to critique the Quran? But this completely misunderstands around 1,400 years of Old Testament history, beginning from the time when tradition says Moses lived up to the advent of Jesus, and it completely misunderstands a standard Christian interpretation of the Old Testament.
First, Christians honor the Old Testament, but they also take this multifaceted document in its historical context. The Torah was part and parcel of its culture. It either reflects its culture (like some architectural features of the tabernacle), or it improves on its culture (ethical monotheism). Not all of the old law applies to today's world. Second, Christians look back at the Old Testament through the vision of Jesus. It is true that the Old Testament endorses the stoning of adulterers (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22), and other punishments for fornicators, including a monetary fine and stoning, depending on the circumstances (Ex. 22:16-17; Deut. 22:23-26; 28-29). However, for Christians, Jesus' interpretation of these laws is final. He takes away their sharp sting with his death on the cross and by his sinless life and divine love.
Moreover, it should be pointed out that even the Old Testament itself is silent on the actual carrying out of the punishment of stoning adulterers and fornicators, though it does cite an instance of stoning a man for blasphemy (Levitcus 24:10-16) and of executing some ancient Hebrews for mixing sexual immorality with the worship of false gods (Numbers 25:1-16). Curiously, the Muslim scholar Maududi says that the ancient Hebrews wrongly fell short of carrying out the divine decree for adultery and fornication (3:293-94). Islam is here to rectify this shortcoming, so the later religion is superior, as he says. It is breathtaking to watch traditional Muslims like Maududi blithely restoring archaic laws to society today.
Jesus came to fulfill the law or Torah, not to abolish it (Matthew 5:17). He fulfills it in at least three ways, but the one we look at here takes away the law's severe punishments. This benefits all of society, especially today.
Jesus fulfills the law by taking on himself the penalty for our sins. The Torah is filled with specific punishments for specific sins, but his death on the cross satisfies and propitiates divine wrath that is directed at our sins-this is the Christian doctrine of the atonement. It is for this reason that a Christian could never give up this doctrine and must totally reject Muhammad's odd view that Christ never died on the cross, but another man took his place (Sura 4:157). Muhammad's belief is completely misguided. Christ's death is God's gift to us. We are saved and on our way to heaven, not based on our own works, but on Christ's good work on the cross. Therefore, those who trust in Christ do not have to pay the penalty for their sins.
For more information on how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament, click on this article.
How Jesus forgives sexual sins
One aspect of the old law that Christians take seriously is its morality-though failing or succeeding to keep it does not determine their eternal destiny, for only Christ's death on the cross does that. Be that as it may, the Old Testament says that adultery and fornication are sins, and so does the New Testament. So what is the policy of Jesus on stoning or flogging sexual sinners? For us Christians, his interpretation on these matters is final.
Of course, Jesus emphatically says that adultery and fornication are sins (Matt. 15:19; Mark 7:21), but they are no longer crimes as the Torah implies by its stern punishments and as Islamic sharia would like to revive. Again, Jesus fulfills the punishment aspect of the old law. He also shows a new path in dealing with these sins in two ways. This clear and better path goes to the human heart, the root of the sin.
First, Jesus zeros in on the root cause of adultery. In the famous Sermon on the Mount he says this about adultery and lust (Matt. 5:27-28):
5:27 "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
Immediately, this raises the stakes so high that all corporeal punishment is removed; otherwise, all of humanity would kill each other with legalized stoning. These two verses say that sexual sin is no longer a civil crime or any kind of crime. As usual with Jesus, he goes to the heart of the sin. Adultery and other sexual sins begin in the mind, so the solution to them must also begin in the mind.
Muhammad, on the other hand, believes in imposing sexual holiness from the outside of a person's mind by flogging and stoning. But this has never worked throughout human history because sexual sin is too deeply entrenched in human nature. Moreover, as we saw in the section "Confusion in Islamic law," Muhammad's harsh punishments do not bring healing to a family and subsequently to society, but they tear the family and society apart. Also, it is only logical that such punishments would drive the sin underground; indeed, according to reliable hadiths that Maududi cites, Muhammad encouraged his early followers to keep their sins or "crimes" a secret. This is no long-lasting solution, either.
Second, Jesus goes beyond pointing out the spiritual root cause, and offers a spiritual solution, which is clarified in the Gospel of John 8:1-11. This passage says that some religious leaders, wanting to trap Jesus between his message of love and forgiveness and his respect for the Torah, brought a woman caught in adultery and made her stand in their midst. They reminded Jesus that the law of Moses orders that she should be stoned. He stooped down and wrote in the dirt, contemplating. They kept questioning him, perhaps stones in hand. What would he do? He then spoke the famous lines: "He who is without sin should throw the first stone" (v. 7). One by one, from the oldest to the youngest, the accusers left. Alone with her, Jesus straightened up and asked her: "'Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?' 'No one, sir,' she said. 'Then neither do I condemn you.' Jesus declared, 'Go and leave your life of sin'" (vv. 10-11). The spiritual solution is forgiveness without condemnation. Jesus never intended to reinstitute the punishment of stoning sinners, or even their flogging, as Muhammad would like to reinstitute an old-new law. Jesus intended to rise above such shallow solutions. (For more information on John 8:1-11 and its connection to the New Testament, see the end of this article.)
Maududi in his commentary refers to this passage in the Gospel of John, but he concludes that because Jesus did not sit over a court, he had no real authority to act (3:294). This is wrong on two counts. First, while it is true that Jesus was not an official judge, he could have dragged the sinful woman into a Jewish court at the time and demanded that the judge or judges carry out the letter of the law of Moses. This is seen in the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, not long after the Resurrection of Jesus. Stephen was dragged before the Sanhedrin; and after a lengthy speech that stung the authorities and the crowds, he was dragged outside of Jerusalem and stoned to death (Acts 6:8-8:1). Jesus could have done the same thing to the adulteress. But, again, he rose above such superficial solutions to the deep problems of the heart, in order to find a deeper and lasting solution. Second, John 8:1-11 and Matthew 5:27-28 were designed to clarify problems and solutions for the early Christian community. Christian leaders should not stone or flog the sinner, but instead forgive him or her and offer a path of help and healing.
How the early Christians followed the wisdom of Jesus
The earliest followers of Jesus needed some guidelines as they lived in Christian communities, first in Jerusalem and Judea, and eventually throughout the Greco-Roman world. For this reason (and many others), the New Testament came into being. The Christians wanted to know what Jesus may have said or thought about this or that problem like dietary restrictions or the Sabbath. We can be certain that the church was also working out the problem of sexual sins in their communities. We can get a view of how the church worked out their policies, under the leadership of the Spirit of Christ. Muslims recognize the four Gospels, but Christians believe that the entire New Testament is inspired. And we focus on the inspired Apostle Paul.
In Paul's first letter to the Christians living in Corinth, Greece, a city renowned for temple prostitutes, we listen in on the middle of a conversation (1 Cor. 5:1-12). Apparently, a young man is living with his father's wife (likely his young stepmother), and the Corinthian church is proud of him, rather than rebuking him. Aghast, Paul reacts firmly and sternly. He tells the leaders of the church to remove him from fellowship or community life until he repents. The church follows his instructions, and the story ends happily. From Paul's second letter to the Corinthians we learn that the sinner repented "with excessive sorrow" and was welcomed back into fellowship (2 Cor. 2:5-11). Says Paul: "If you forgive anyone, I also forgive him" (v. 10).
It may be argued that the crowds in the various cities throughout the Mediterranean world did not have the authority to stone people. However, this did not stop a mob in Lystra from stoning Paul without permission from the Council or the Assembly (Acts 14:19). It is entirely possible that the authorities in Corinth would have looked the other way, when a social group took matters into their own hands. However, even if Paul knew that the church in Corinth could have stoned the errant young man to death without a challenge from the authorities, Paul still did not endorse this punishment simply because he knew the Spirit of Christ-this Jesus whom Paul argued was resurrected (I Corinthians 15). Jesus was in heaven guiding his church.
Paul was following the wisdom of Jesus in forgiving and restoring the young man. According to Matt. 18:15-18, Jesus said, first, to show a brother his fault. But if he does not repent, then the early Christians were to take two or more brothers with them to show him his fault. If he refuses to listen, then the Christians were to tell it to the church; and if he still does not repent, then he is to be removed from Christian fellowship. Paul and the Corinthian church did this for the errant young man, though in a compacted way, since the sin had reached an advanced stage and influenced the church too much already. He repented of his sin and so was welcomed back into the church. These are practical and down-to-earth steps that Christian churches may follow with variations that relate to specific facts. These principles behind the steps are found not only in the Gospels, but throughout the New Testament. Therefore, early Christianity has a lot to offer society.
But the essential difference (among many) between these steps and Muhammad's recycling of an old-new law is the penalty. In no place does the New Testament endorse flogging or stoning sinners. Rather, Jesus and his New Testament authors seek to help and heal the sinner, not condemn him as a criminal.
How Christianity changes society
Should New Testament Christianity impose its rules and ways on the larger society?
A frequent complaint that Muslims level at early Christianity is that it does not provide specific new laws to guide society. This complaint is partially right, but it is also partially wrong. It is right because Jesus' mission was to look beyond establishing a worldly government, but to provide the true path of salvation by his atoning death on the cross. He knew that wandering messiahs and prophets tried to establish their credentials by military and political means around the greater Middle East, before and during his time, so he avoided a military and political messiahship. Besides, he was destined to fulfill Old Testament passages that describe a spiritual Messiah, such as Isaiah 53. When he comes back a second time, he will fulfill the role of a Messiah that is both military (one word will eliminate all enemies) and political (he will rule on earth peacefully and without opposition).
But the complaint from Muslims is also wrong in at least one way. Later jurists and legal scholars, long after the New Testament was written, take from the Christian sacred text (and from the Old Testament) some moral principles. But their efforts to codify these principles have produced only mixed results. Sometimes they would in fact flog the adulterer, or sometimes even impose the death penalty. In early puritan America, the authorities would make the adulterer wear a scarlet colored letter "A" (for Adultery). But how have any of these policies purged society of this sin?
Maududi and Madani also assert that because Christianity does not control the details of the larger western society, it is in danger of collapse, seemingly at any minute now (see above, "Purpose of the punishments"). They also assert that Islamic society is much purer than the West. We have already challenged these two assertions above, in the section "Confusion in Islamic law" and in the previous paragraph. But we repeat our challenges.
First, no evidence suggests that when the church controlled the details of society, for example, in the Medieval Age, society was purged of its sins. As we saw in Muhammad's hadith that Maududi cites, sin quickly goes underground. Secondly, Maududi and Madani must provide clear evidence that Islamic society is cleansed from sexual sin. But how can they or others collect these data, when any admission of guilt may drag the people in front of a sharia court? People are forced to fulfill their lusts in more secretive ways.
But let us assume that Islamic societies have fewer incidents of fornication and adultery because of strict laws or customs concerning, for example, women wearing veils over their faces or keeping separate from men in social settings. Then these results of fewer incidents of sexual "crimes" may have negative effects, such as the oppression of women. Generally, sharia restricts women's social mobility and rights, the more closely sharia is followed. For example, in conservative Saudi Arabia women are not allowed to drive cars. This article reviews the inequities and abuses inhering in Iranian penal codes, pertaining to women's rights. If women are summoned as witnesses for adultery, their testimony counts half that of men. Many more adulteresses are stoned to death than are adulterers, to cite only these two examples of testifying and being killed. Sharia for women is not just, to say the least.
Muhammad's sharia imposes its own version of holiness from the outside onto the populace, and this is not good. People must be allowed to choose holiness freely and voluntarily and without harassment if they take another path.
On the other hand, when masses of individuals in western societies (Christianity and western civilization are not identical) finally allow the Holy Spirit to cleanse them from the inside out, then society can make external improvements naturally and gladly. Christians preach the gospel of good news to get people to join their cause and allow the Spirit into their lives, one soul at a time. They do not and cannot impose the sovereign Spirit on to people. And they certainly do not hit them with whips and stones. Christianity seeks to improve society by spiritual means, by seeing the heart change.
Application to today
This article can be applied to the world of today.
First, sharia is not a benefit to society, contrary to what the intellectual Muslim, the Iranian Supreme Court, and the Saudi ambassador to London imply. It contains too many harsh rules and punishments. One of the most tragic and under-reported occurrences in the West in recent years is the existence of a sharia court in Canada. Muslims are pushing for a sharia divorce court in Australia, as well. Having a court of arbitration if it is based on western law and legal theory is legitimate, but sharia does not hold to this standard. So Canada should promptly shut down any sharia court, and Australia should never allow one. Such a court should never be permitted in the US, the West, or anywhere else in the world. Thankfully, the province of Quebec, Canada, has forbidden sharia. This is the right initiative, for sharia ultimately degrades society and diminishes freedom.
Second, the violent radicals who are now slithering around the world would gladly impose their Quran's and the hadith's severe law on non-Muslim nations, if the radicals could ever conquer them by force or by gradual means. If the terrorists do not hesitate to cut off heads, why would they not flog fornicators or stone adulterers to make society pure and holy before Allah, who gave this rule in the first place? The war on terror must continue, in order to preserve western civilization and an assortment of nonwestern nations struggling with Islam.
Third, we on the outside of Islam are allowed to ask whether the Quran's punishments are better than the New Testament's policy of forgiving and restoring sexual sinners. Does the Quran guide society better than the New Testament does? Would the true God send Gabriel down to Muhammad with such a message that is found in pagan Arabia six hundred years after Jesus? Should this message supercede the New Testament?
Given the hard evidence, Bible-educated Christians realize that the true God would not send down such an extreme verse in the new era of salvation which Jesus ushered in. They realize that the Quran is empirically and factually worse than the New Testament.
Jesus Christ came with good news and the love of God. Muhammad came with flogging fornicators and stoning adulterers. Christianity advances society forward. Absorbing an old law in a haphazard way, Islam drags society backwards.
Jesus forgives and restores. Muhammad flogged and stoned.
For more information on stoning in the modern world, refer to these Islamic websites.
It remains to be seen whether these liberal or modernist Muslims opposing stoning will be able to effect any real change. The established hierarchy that is in control of Islamic jurisprudence seems not to budge on this issue. As far as we can tell, none of these authors is a recognized authority in any Islamic power structure. Neither a Mufti nor any widely acknowledged authority in Fiqh is backing them as of now-nor is any national Islamic council in any country. The internet gives people a voice who would otherwise not be able to bring their opinions into the discussion, but displaying more links in opposition to stoning than in favor of it does not mean that this is in any way representative of the numbers or weight of each camp. Stoning goes on unabated in the modern world.
This news story shows a fourteen-year-old boy getting flogged, by order of an Iranian judge. The boy broke the Ramadan fast. Due to the flogging, he subsequently died. Though his sad case has nothing to do with fornication or adultery, it demonstrates how deadly flogging can be. This punishment is excessive and therefore unjust.
This website references John 8:1-11 and says that this passage is not found in the earliest Greek manuscripts. This is true, but most scholars believe that this pericope (unit or section) had been circulating throughout the early church for a long time, as a reliable "hadith" of sorts. Finally, it was anchored in the sacred text. It certainly agrees with the Spirit of Christ as seen in the four Gospels and in the other New Testament documents. Jesus did not endorse flogging fornicators and stoning adulterers to death. Rather, he forgives, heals, and restores them. He came to die for the sins of the world and to cleanse sinners with his Holy Spirit, from the inside out; he does not impose holiness on to people, with whips and stones. For more information on John 8:1-11 and its connection to the four Gospels, please see this portion of a sound article.
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