The Punishment of Adultery in Islam
Quran:024.002: “The woman and the man guilty of adultery or fornication, flog each of them with a hundred stripes: Let not compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by God, if ye believe in God and the Last Day: and let a party of the Believers witness their punishment.”
From the verse above, it is fairly clear that the punishment of adultery AND fornication is flogging and not stoning to death. Why is it that some Muslims continue to believe that according to the Sunnah (the sayings) of the Prophet, the punishment is stoning to death and, therefore, that’s what should be followed? The Hadith is fairly clear that the Prophet did order at least a couple people to be stoned to death for adultery. Is it the Hadith that is fabricated or is it that Prophet Muhammad made a “mistake” in obeying God’s law? The answer is neither.
As we know, the Quran was revealed in stages. The Prophet Muhammad’s sayings, as reported in various compilations of Hadith, cover a long period of time and are not always in sync with God’s revelations. What is important is to judge what the Prophet’s instructions were AFTER the revelations of verses on those particular subjects. For example, if the Prophet instructed his followers in one way and God revealed different instructions later, then it is God’s instructions that should be followed as that has precedence over Hadith.
Coming back to our subject, we need to first find out why the Prophet ordered ‘rajm’, and secondly if he did so AFTER the above quoted verses from the Quran. The first case in which the Prophet ordered stoning, it was a Jewish couple that had been charged with adultery and the Prophet used the Old Testament law in awarding that punishment. Subsequent to that, many Muslims were also stoned. However, it seems that those people were stoned BEFORE the revelation of Verse 24:002. There is a tradition in Bukhari in which a similar question was raised without a conclusive answer. Narrated Ash Shaibani , I asked ‘Abdullah bin Abi Aufa, ‘Did Allah’s Apostle carry out the Rajm penalty ( i.e., stoning to death)?’ He said, “Yes.” I said, “Before the revelation of Surat-ar-Nur or after it?” He replied, “I don’t Know.”
Those Muslims who believe that stoning is part of the Sunnah and the practice must continue, quote other Hadiths attributed to the second Caliph Omar Razi’allah Anh in which he is said to have claimed that Stoning was something that was sanctioned by the Prophet ‘after’ the revelation of Verse 24:002 and that the injunctions ‘were’ to be found in the Quran. However, most of these Ahadith seem to contradict each other. Lets look at each of these Ahadith one by one and analyze them:
“Narrated Ibn ‘Abbas
‘Umar said, “I am afraid that after a long time has passed, people may say, “We do not find the Verses of the Rajam (stoning to death) in the Holy Book,” and consequently they may go astray by leaving an obligation that Allah has revealed. Lo! I confirm that the penalty of Rajam be inflicted on him who commits illegal sexual intercourse, if he is already married and the crime is proved by witnesses or pregnancy or confession.” Sufyan added, “I have memorized this narration in this way.” ‘Umar added, “Surely Allah’s Apostle carried out the penalty of Rajam, and so did we after him.”
In this Hadith, Caliph Umar acknowledges the fact that the punishment of stoning is not to be found in the Quran. Secondly, he says that people may “go astray” by not following an obligation that Allah has “revealed.” The question is, where is it revealed if it is not to be found in the Quran?
The Second Hadith: Bukhari 008.082.817“In the meantime, ‘Umar sat on the pulpit and when the callmakers for the prayer had finished their call, ‘Umar stood up, and having glorified and praised Allah as He deserved, he said, “Now then, I am going to tell you something which (Allah) has written for me to say. I do not know; perhaps it portends my death, so whoever understands and remembers it, must narrate it to the others wherever his mount takes him, but if somebody is afraid that he does not understand it, then it is unlawful for him to tell lies about me. Allah sent Muhammad with the Truth and revealed the Holy Book to him, and among what Allah revealed, was the Verse of the Rajam (the stoning of married person (male & female) who commits illegal sexual intercourse, 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.”
In this Hadith, ‘Umar is quoted to have said that the verse regarding Rajam ‘was’ in the Quran and that everybody recited that verse and understood it. Now, as every Muslim knows there are no verses that have been taken out from the Quran. Secondly, even if there were, that means that those verses were not applicable anymore and the instructions on Rajam should not have been followed. There are two possibilities that explain this apparent contradiction. 1). Hadith is wrong. 2). ‘Umar was misunderstood. The first possibility is unlikely because Bukhari was one of the most conservative compilers of Hadith and who chose Hadith in his compilation after carefully verifying the authenticity of all narrators. Secondly, there was no incentive for Bukhari to invent such a tall tale when there was no need to do so. The second possibility, therefore, seems more likely. These Hadiths, attributed to Caliph Umar, have all been narrated by only one of the Sahaaba (companion of the Prophet), Ibn Abbas, and report only one incidence where Umar is said to have made these claims in a Friday sermon. We also know that Ibn Abbas ran a theological seminary from his house, and most likely the Hadith on this issue was narrated through one of his students. Since the quoted Hadith is self contradictory, it is possible that somebody along that chain of narrators misunderstood and confused the facts. One explanation, which has been given by some scholars, is that Umar was referring to the Torah and not to the Quran when using the word “Kitaab Allah” (common terminology in the Quran for Torah. See Quran 2:213). However, that seems unlikely as the Hadith says that the practice continued “after” Prophet Muhammad. The other explanation, which is sometimes given, is that a verse was indeed revealed on Rajm but it was later abrogated. If that is the case, then the commandment itself should have been abrogated and the practice should not have continued.
The other Hadith which is usually quoted is not from Bukhari but from Sahih Muslim, which also has only one narrator and one chain. This Hadith goes back not to Caliph Umar but to the Prophet Muhammad himself. This is stated as follows:
Book 017, Number 4191:
“’Ubada b. as-Samit reported: Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying:
Receive (teaching) from me, receive (teaching) from me. Allah has ordained a way for those (women). When an unmarried male commits adultery with an unmarried female (they should receive) one hundred lashes and banishment for one year. And in case of married male committing adultery with a married female, they shall receive one hundred lashes and be stoned to death.”
The interesting thing is that this Hadith is not to be found in Bukhari’s compilation, which had been written earlier. Muslim was a student of Bukhari and probably had recourse to the same information. It seems that Bukhari rejected this Hadith as he considered it unreliable. It is also not clear whether this saying of the Prophet was before the revelation of Verse 24:002 or after.
There is one more report regarding Ali (r.a.) flogging and then stoning somebody for adultery, saying that the flogging was according to the Quran and the stoning according to Sunnah. That sounds strange, because Sunnah cannot override God’s law.
As some other authors have pointed out, Verse 4:25 of the Quran precludes any possibility of a death sentence. It talks about the punishment of a married slave adulterous woman to be “half” the punishment of a free married woman. In this case, how can one give somebody half a stoning?
Conclusion: Due to the facts outlined above, it seems that the punishment of ‘rajam’ is at least controversial, if not wrong, from a purely theological point. It is obvious that early Islamic scholars themselves debated this issue and were not certain. To give benefit of the doubt to the criminals, in my humble opinion, ‘rajam’ should never be carried out. It is time that Muslim scholars, who usually rely on the opinions of their predecessors, should come out and boldly speak against this mode of punishment, which unfortunately is still being carried out in some Islamic countries.