One Hundred Lashes and the First Thrown Stone

The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (داعش or Daesh, from the Arabic acronym for the organization/place) has made quite a name for itself by, among other things, taking captive non-Muslim women as part of their continuing war on just about everyone around them and using them as concubines.

This little document appears to cite surat al-mu’minun (The Believers) to justify this practice:

1 Successful indeed are the believers.
2 Those who offer their prayers with all solemnity and full submissiveness.
3 And those who turn away from false talk, and all that God has forbidden.
4 And who pay the poor tax.
5 And those who guard their chastity
6 Except from their wives or what their right hand possesses — for then, they are free of blame.
7 But whoever seeks beyond that, then those are the transgressors. (23:1-7, Khan/Al-Hilali translation)

“From what their right hand possesses.” This is usually understood as captive women, concubines, and slaves. There is better justification for the practice, however, in surat an-nisa (The Women):

And whoever of you [plural] have not the means wherewith the wed free, believing woman, they may wed believing girls from among those whom your right hand possess, and Allah has full knowledge about your Faith, you are one from another. Wed them with the permission of their own folk and give them their Mahr [payment made to the bride] according to what is reasonable; they should be chaste, not adulterous, nor taking boy-friends. And after they have been taken in wedlock, if they commit illegal sexual intercourse, their punishment is half that for free women. This is for him among you who is afraid of being harmed in religion or in his body; but it is better for you that you practice self-restraint, and Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. (4:25, Khan/Al-Hilali translation)

Of course, Daesh is not all that inclined to mercy — something that is true of most ideological groups — inherent in this passage, which comes as part of a long discourse/revelation on inheritance, who Muslim men may marry (it bears tremendous resemblance to Leviticus 18), as well as the obligations and responsibilities of men toward women, and couples toward the community.

And my guess is that the fine young men of Daesh do a lot of transgressing. In reality, what the Qur’an calls for is not all that different from the Bible’s commands on this matter.

Case in point: did you know that Deuteronomy allows for the marrying of women taken captive in war?

10 “When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, 11 and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, 12 and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. 13 And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. 14 But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her. (Deuteronomy 21:10-14 ESV)

Note where the mercy is. Both Deuteronomy and the Qur’an grant a kind of special status to captive women. In the case of Deuteronomy, they are most definitely not slaves. The teaching in Deuteronomy acknowledges that any women held as “prizes of war” (how else to refer to them?) are already humiliated because they have been taken from their kinfolk and their home. (I notice that husbands and brothers are not noted here. The Qur’an explicitly demands chastity, and possibly even virginity, from captive women; Deuteronomy may implicitly demand it.) If unwanted, they are free to go. That may or may not be a good thing, since free and unattached women were unprotected, and thus very vulnerable. Absent a better offer, or family somewhere, where would such a woman go?

In the Qur’an, the mercy — and the acknowledgement of their humiliation — seems to be in a reduced the punishment for illicit sex, which for captive women seems to lie somewhere between mere fornication and outright adultery. An unattributed footnote in the Khan & Al-Hilali translation (usually footnotes are ascribed to one or more late medieval commentators) explains the passage this way:

Female or male slaves (married or unmarried); if the commit illegal sexual intercourse, their punishment is fifty (50) lashes (half of that which is for free unmarried women); neither stoning to death nor exile. (p. 129)

The punishment of 100 lashes for “fornication” is given in surat an-nur (The Light), 24:2. (The same surah then goes on to describe the punishment for false accusations.) However, Khan and al-Hilali note this punishment is only for unmarried people — for fornication as opposed to adultery. (The Qur’an itself does not say this.) Married people are to either be flogged and then exiled (according to one hadith) or they are to be stoned to death (according to another hadith, both collected in the Sahih Bukhari, according to Khan and al-Hilali). I suppose it’s up to the judge whether there will be anything remotely resembling mercy or not. The Qur’an counsels strongly against mercy, as the commands of God are at stake.

Christians and Jews ought not to feel so smug, however. Because Leviticus is harsh and merciless on this matter as well:

10 If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. (Leviticus 20:10 ESV)

* * *

The hadith (story) in which stoning to death is imposed as a punishment for adultery is related this way:

Narrated Jabir bin ‘Abdullah Al-Ansari: A man from the tribe of Bani Aslam came to Allah’s Messenger 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. [Sahih Bukhari, 8/6814]

Now you could take this at face value as a punishment for adultery. Which generations of Islamic scholars and faithful Muslims have. And still do. But this is clearly an absurd story. The longer version I have both heard and read involved Muhammad pronouncing God’s forgiveness for the confessed sin, and then repeatedly warning the man that if he kept confessing publicly the Messenger of God would have no choice but to impose some kind of punishment, and that it would be better for him to walk away. Which the man did not. For whatever reason, he was compelled to proclaim his sin, over and over again, leaving Muhammad little choice but to act.

The real point of the story appears to be confess your sins, accept God’s forgiveness, and then move on. Don’t be stupid, and do not dwell on your sinfulness. This is mercy. This is grace.

One thought on “One Hundred Lashes and the First Thrown Stone

  1. After 9/11, I was greatly influenced by a long essay called “Wrestling with Islam” by Canadian journalist David Warren, who spent part of his childhood in Pakistan around 1960, and who has since retired from journalism, except for a modest blog devoted mostly to life and religion from a Catholic point of view. The main conclusion I took from it, which seemed to be confirmed by many other things I read as well as by events, was that the Middle East in general was already in the process of a very slow train wreck, which might take a generation or more to finish the grim process. This appeared to be due to internal stresses, such that the actions of the US, the existence of Israel, and any other external factors were almost irrelevant by comparison. One external factor has hastened the process: the general increase in the cost of importing food, which has made Egypt a vassal to the Saudis.

    One of Warren’s main points was that the ideological intensity of Islam today is a very new thing. His contrast of life in Lahore as he observed it during later visits compared to the city of his childhood was stark and disturbing.

    The harshness of Leviticus was certainly moderated by the humane reinterpretations of Talmudic scholars. Islam also tended to some moderation when not in a state of cultural conflict. Western Christianity (the church rather than the general culture) actually tended to be more humane in its first millennium than it was in the later Middle Ages and the early Reformation. But then it had the chore of civilizing barbarian chieftains, and looked good by comparison.

    Whether humaneness is the same thing as righteousness and the will of God is another question (to which I do not have the answer, BTW).

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