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. (24:2)

Ouch!

There can be no doubt that Islam takes sexual immorality seriously.  The word used in this ayah for sexual sin connotes any extramarital sexual activity, including sexual relations between unmarried people.  Notice that the punishment is supposed to be equally shared by both offenders, regardless of gender.  Translator Abdel Haleem says the strikes were to be “on the skin” and Islamic tradition shows this was originally done with the hand, clothes, shoes, or a belt.

I am afraid its passages like these that make people say Islam is a violent religion, especially the “don’t be compassionate” part.  And definitely it should be said at this point that there are stories all over the Internet of people who identify themselves as Muslims who do take dictates like these and use them as justification for the mob killing or honor killing of people caught in sexual sin.  Often the woman suffers even worse.  Out of respect for my Muslim friends who surely would not let sexual indiscretion become an excuse for violence of an animalistic nature, I will not link to any such articles.

Certainly there is nothing godly about using a person’s sin as an excuse for uncorking the plug that holds back our most base violent impulses.  However.  It should be remembered that God’s people are to be a people of holiness.  We stand for purity and honor, even in a culture like many of us live in today that views sexual sin as unavoidable, common, and excusable.  And, dare I remind us, Christians and Jews should remember there are similar commands in our Bible too (c.f., ).

Maybe the most important point for those who find passages like this one and make a case for the depravity of Islam is that the quote above is only a partial quote.  Ayah 2 continues:

. . . and ensure that a group of believers witnesses the punishment.

The hope seems to be that the public nature of punishment will encourage honesty and self-control.  So lighting one’s daughter or sister on fire in the hiddeness of one’s own kitchen and calling it an unfortunate cooking accident (as is happening in the rare instances of “honor killings” in parts of North America and Europe — no I won’t link to these either, out of respect) is absolutely outside of the spirit of this passage.

Ayah 4 adds that the charge of fornication requires four witnesses.  One can’t simply trump up charges against a person.  Given the private nature of sexual activity, four witnesses is actually a high demand, further evidence that the intention is to maintain justice and truth.  In fact, an accuser who cannot produce four witnesses will have his case thrown out and he will suffer 4/5ths of the punishment (80 strikes) he was seeking for the others.

As with all texts, it is imperative that we remember the broader context of the passage.  This entire section of this new Medinan surah named “Light” focuses on the need to be just in one’s punishment, in particular to ensure that all accusations are corroborated by the required number of witnesses.  The thrust of this passage is actually towards justice not away from it, as dragging a woman into the city streets upon her father’s word that his daughter has been indecent in her relationship with her boyfriend and stoning her with fury and bloodlust would be.

Islamic tradition tells us that Muhammad had personal experience with this topic and that seems to be the impetus for what is written here.  On the return from an expedition to Banu al-Mustaliq, the Prophet’s wife `A’isha had backtracked in search of a necklace she had dropped.  Soon a nomad named Safwan happened upon her.  Placing her on his camel, Safwan reunited her with her husband.  However, a man and a woman traveling through the desert alone only gave some a ripe opportunity to cast dispersions on `A’isha’s moral character (24:11).  Apparently this rumor developed some traction (24:12).  Today’s passage chides those who would believe and even pass on such accusations without the required corroboration (24:13ff).  Such is not just nor fitting of holy people.

No doubt, sexual purity is a must for those who wish to see God.  But so too is truthfulness and justice.

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