In October 2001, Amina Lawal, a northern Nigerian woman, was convicted of adultery after falling pregnant more than nine months after her divorce. Her sentence is to be stoned to death, but only after she has weaned her infant, the evidence of her offense. This sentence is due to be carried out some time in 2003.
Amina Lawal’s plight has attracted remarkable interest throughout the world. A question crying out to be asked is ‘Why?’ On what basis did a Nigerian Islamic shari’a court come to this decision? Why should the penalty for adultery be a stoning? And why should this penalty be deferred until Amina’s child is weaned?
Muhammad as the basis for Islamic shari’a
By using dismissive terms such as ‘medieval’ and ‘barbaric’ to refer to Amina Lawal’s sentence, Western media commentators only muddy the waters of understanding. It is important to understand the basis for this legal determination in shari’a law.
‘Shari’a’ simply means ‘way’ — the way for the Muslim community to live. But on what basis is the Islamic shari’a or ‘way’ constructed?
The key to understanding shari’a is Muhammad himself, Allah’s Messenger. His life is taken as the perfect example for all to follow, and his teaching the only sure guide to righteousness. This is established by divine revelation in the Qur’an:
Verily in the Apostle of Allah you have the best example for everyone who looks forward towards Allah and the Day of Judgement (Sura 33:21).
Whatever the Apostle commands you, accept it; and whatever he forbids you, avoid (Sura 59:7).
Whenever Allah and the Apostle have decided a matter, it is not for a faithful man or woman to follow a course of their own choice (Sura 33:36).
Shari’a law, as a creation of classical Islam, represents the systematization of Muhammad’s example and teaching. It sets the standard for enjoining right and forbidding wrong. Muslim practices such as paying a poor-tax, women wearing the hijab, and five-times daily acts of worship, all take their authority from the teaching and example of Muhammad.
The stoning penalty in shari’a law
What then in Muhammad’s teaching and example could possibly be the basis for the Nigerian shari’a court’s decision that Amina Lawal should be stoned for adultery?
This penalty is clearly supported by secure traditions. Muhammad himself directed the implementation of this penalty. Several instances are recorded, for example Ibn Umar reported witnessing the stoning of a Jewish couple for adultery: “Allah’s Apostle ordered that the two be stoned to death, and so they were stoned.” (Sahih Bukhari 8.809). Other secure traditions list adultery, along with apostasy and murder of a fellow Muslim, as one of only three lawful reasons for putting a Muslim to death. Based on traditions such as these, found in all the six canonical collections of hadiths, all four schools of Islamic shari’a agreed that the penalty for a married adulterer is stoning to death, so this penalty has been a permanent part of the shari’a since its inception under Muhammad.
Why then the suspension of the penalty for a pregnant woman until her child is born and weaned? In this too the Nigerian judges show that they are acting in accordance with Muhammad’s example. Muslim in his canonical collection of hadith relates the story of the ‘woman from Gamid’:
There came to him (the Holy Prophet) a woman from Gamid and said: ‘Allah’s Messenger, I have committed adultery, so purify me.’ He (the Holy Prophet) turned her away. On the following day she said: ‘Allah’s messenger, why do you turn me away? ... By Allah I have become pregnant.’ He said ‘Well, if you insist upon it, then go away until you give birth.’ When she was delivered she came with the child (wrapped) in a rag, and said ‘Here is the child whom I have given birth to.’ He said ‘Go away and suckle him until you wean him.’ When she had weaned him, she came to him (the Holy Prophet) with the child who was holding a piece of bread in his hand. She said ‘Allah’s Apostle, here is he as I have weaned him and he eats food.’ He (the Holy Prophet) entrusted the child to one of the Muslims and then pronounced punishment. And she was put in a ditch up to her chest and he commanded people and they stoned her. (Sahih Muslim 4206)
This hadith also reveals an important aspect of this penalty: the stoning was regarded as cleansing the penitent from her sin of adultery. When the woman from Gamid says ‘so purify me’, she was asking to be stoned. Islamic commentary on this passage usually extols her pious example.
When a 27-year old follower of the Indonesian Laskar Jihad known as ‘Abdullah’ – not his real name – confessed to adultery and then submitted to death by stoning, he was widely hailed as a hero of the shari’a cause. In May of 2001 the magazine Suara Hidayatullah presented Abdullah's family with a ‘Syariah Award’ for his example, giving them 10 million Rupiah. Wisnu Pramudya, the editor of Suara Hidayatullah Magazine said in a simple ceremony attended by a number of Indonesian Muslim leaders that the stoning of Abdullah represented a milestone in Indonesian Muslims’ struggle to save the nation through the implementation of Islamic shari’a.
Is there any alternative?
Is there no way to get around this? No escape-route for the devout adherent to the way of the prophet of Islam? The Hebrew Torah advocates the very same penalty, yet Judaism and Christianity have managed to dispense with it. Why shouldn’t Islam be able to do the same?
For Christians, Jesus laid the practice to rest by his example with the woman caught in adultery (John 8:7). Rabbinic Judaism has also eradicated this penalty.
Muhammad anticipated that Muslims would find this a difficult law to live by. In a deathbed speech, recorded by Ibn Ishaq in the earliest history of the Apostle’s life, Muhammad exhorted the Muslim community to continue to stone adulterers. After Muhammad’s death, the Caliph Umar gave his inaugural address to the gathered Muslim community in Medina. Of all the topics he could have chosen, Umar decided to devote this historic sermon to the adultery penalty:
Allah sent Muhammad with the Truth and revealed the holy book to him, and among what Allah revealed, was the verse of Rajam (the stoning of married persons, male and female, who commit adultery) and we did recite this verse and understood and memorized it. Allah's Apostle did carry out the punishment of stoning and so did we after him. I am afraid that after a long time has passed, somebody will say "By Allah's Book", we do not find the Verse of Rajam in Allah's Book, and thus they will go astray by leaving an obligation which Allah has revealed.
It is puzzling that this verse is not found the Qur’an. A classical interpretation is that the precise words of the verse were abrogated, but the command was retained.
Muhammad was well aware of the possibility that this law might be neglected. He was also aware that the Jews had abandoned the stoning penalty in favour of a more humane punishment. This formed one of the main grounds for his charge against them that they were no longer observing the law as given to them by God. The Sahih Muslim (paragraph 4214) records that a series of Qur’anic verses were ‘sent down’ at that time rebuking the Jews for neglecting the Torah’s stoning law, including Sura 5:45:
Whoso judgeth not by that which Allah hath revealed: such are wrong-doers.
This explicit condemnation of the Jews for abandoning stoning makes it that much more difficult for later generations of Muslim jurists to follow Judaism’s example. Since classical Islam was understood to have corrected the religious corruptions of the Jews, including their failure to adhere to the Torah, how can Islam accept that the example of the Jews – which Muhammad specifically condemned – is preferable to Muhammad’s own example?
One might well conclude that place of the stoning penalty in shari’a law finds very strong support within Islam.
Many Muslims do reject stoning, and there have been Muslim voices amongst the world-wide condemnation of Amina Lawal’s sentence. Some point out that the Qur’an does not mandate this penalty: all it mentions is flogging for illegal intercourse (Sura 24:2).
On the other hand, the shari’a court judges of Nigeria are undoubtedly aware of the strong supports for stoning. It will not be enough simply to condemn Amina Lawal’s sentence as ‘un-Islamic’, an example of ‘patriarchy’ or as something incompatible with human rights in Islam. The clear grounds for stoning adulterers in Muhammad’s example and teaching need to be thoroughly acknowledged and dealt with if conservative Muslims are to remove this sentence from the Islamic shari’a.
All around the world, shari’a law is very much on the rise. In the past 50 years, virtually every Muslim state has taken steps, however small, towards re-implementing it. The case of Pakistan is entirely typical. In 1947 it was established as a secular state. In 1956 it was proclaimed a Muslim state. In the 1970s a shari’a court was established, and in 1984 blasphemy against Islam was declared a capital offense.
This trend cannot be ignored. Reintroduction to the statute books of the stoning penalty in nations as far-flung as Nigeria, Sudan and Malaysia is just one symptom of the world-wide shari’a revival.
In March 1999 John Garang, the Sudanese chairman of the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement, posed the following question to a press conference in Geneva:
“I ask this very important question: is the jihad a religious right of those who declare and wage it, or is it a violation of the human rights of the people against whom it is declared and waged?”
John Garang was referring to the Sudanese jihad, declared by Khartoum against the people of southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains, as one aspect of the northern Sudanese implementation of the Islamic shari’a.
Now, more than two years later, Amina Lawal’s story raises the same question: Is the implementation of Islamic shari’a law an exercise of a religious right, because it arises from a faith community’s desire to live out the principles of their religion? Or does the Islamic shari’a deprive human beings of fundamental human rights?
This will surely prove to be one of the most persistent, difficult and divisive questions of the 21st century.