In Nigeria in 2002, Amina Lawal was fount guilty of adultery and was sentenced to death by stoning. The penalty, to bury her up to her neck in sand and then throw rocks at her head until she died, caused an international outcry. [i]
Since stoning to death is imposed in some Islamic countries, it is worthwhile to find out what Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions say about this practice.
The Law of Moses states that male and female adulterers are to be put to death (Deuteronomy 23:22). If a betrothed woman was attacked in the town, she was held responsible because she did not call for help (Deuteronomy 22:23-24). If the offence occurred in the open country, the woman was not to be punished; it was accepted that there was no one to hear her cries.
If this seems arbitrary, the punishment for a man who raped a virgin is even more questionable. He was to pay a substantial fine, and was required to marry the woman, without any right to for him to divorce her (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).
The opinion of the rape victim about this arrangement is not recorded.
However, this is not all that the Jewish Scriptures tell us about adultery and its punishment. Take the case of Tamar (Genesis Ch 38).
Tamar was the daughter-in law of Judah, one of the sons of Israel. She was married to Er, the eldest of Judah’s three sons (Genesis Ch 38:6) but Er offended Yahweh, and Yahweh killed him. (Genesis 38:7) It was then the duty of Onan, the next brother, to beget children by Tamar in Er’s name.
But Onan, knowing that the line would not count as his, spilt his seed on the ground every time he slept with his brother’s wife, to avoid providing offspring for his brother. What he did was offensive to Yahweh, who killed him too. (Genesis 38:9-10, New Jerusalem Bible)
Judah sent Tamar home. He said it was to wait until his youngest son grew up, but actually it was to keep her away from the boy. Time passed. Judah’s own wife died and after the mourning period he had business near where Tamar lived. When she found this out she disguised herself as a prostitute and waited on the road. Judah saw her, offered to pay her a kid from the flock to have sex with her and gave her his seal, cord and staff as a surety. However, when Judah later sent a friend to pay the woman he couldn’t find her and no one knew of a prostitute who plied her trade in those parts.
‘Let her keep the things,’ Judah said, ‘or we shall become a laughing-stock. At least I sent her this kid, even though you did not find her.’ (Gen 38:23 NJB)
About three months later, Tamar’s pregnancy was revealed:
‘Your daughter-in-law, Tamar has played the harlot; moreover, she is pregnant as a result of whoredom. ‘ And Judah said, ‘Bring her out, and let her be burnt.’ As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, ‘It was the owner of these who made me pregnant. And she said, ‘Take note, please, whose these are, the signet, the cord and the staff.’ (Genesis 38:25, New Revised Standard Version).
Tamar had put her life in Judah’s hand. It was a huge risk. Judah and his brothers had slaughtered all the men of Shechem and enslaved all the women and children because one townsman had ravished their sister (Genesis ch. 34). They sold their brother Joseph into slavery (Genesis 37: 26-27 and would have killed him, if Judah had not suggested enslavement instead. How would such a man react to this revelation?
Again, Judah preserved life. He said:
She is more right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah. (Genesis 38:26 NRSV)
Judah saved both Tamar’s life and the life that she was carrying. He accepted responsibility for the pregnancy and did not blame Tamar. Indeed, he acknowledged that she was more in the right than he was because he had failed to do his duty under the law of inheritance. As for the requirement to burn her to death, it fell away completely.
The law to put adulterers to death wasn’t applied to David or Bathsheba. David saw Bathsheba bathing from the palace rooftop, found out who she was, sent for her. She became pregnant. At first, David tried to cover this up by bringing her husband from the army where he was serving, and giving him leave to be with his wife. The man refused to take time off so David let him return to his unit, but gave orders to the Commander that he was to be killed in the fighting. The deed was done; Bathsheba was widowed and after the period of mourning, David married her (2 Samuel Ch. 11).
The prophet Nathan went to David and told him a story of a poor man who had just one little ewe lamb, and a rich man who took it.
David flew into a great rage with the man. ‘As Yahweh lives,’ he said to Nathan ‘the man who did this deserves to die. For doing such a thing and for having shown no pity, he shall make fourfold restitution for the lamb.’
Nathan then said to David, ‘You are the man. Yahweh, God of Israel, says this, “I anointed you king of Israel. I saved you from Saul’s clutches, I gave you your master’s household and your master’s wive s into your arms, I gave you the House of Israel and the House of Judah; and, if this is still too little, I shall give you other things as well. Why did you show contempt for Yahweh, by doing what displeases him? You put Uriah the Hittite to the sword, you took his wife to be your wife, causing his death by the sword of the Ammonites. For this, your household will never be free of the sword, since you showed contempt for me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite, to make her your wife.
‘Yahweh says this, “Out of your own household I shall raise misfortune for you. Before your very eyes I shall take your wives and give them to your neighbour, who will lie with your wives in broad daylight. You have worked in secret, but I shall work this for all Israel to see, in broad daylight.”‘ (2 Samuel 12:5-12, New Jerusalem Bible)
This blistering attack prompted a mea culpa from David:
‘I have sinned against Yahweh.’ Nathan then said to David, ‘Yahweh, for his part, forgives your sin; you are not to die. But since you have outraged Yahweh by doing this, the child born to you will die. And Nathan went home’ (2 Samuel 12:13-15, New Jerusalem Bible).
After this broadside to the king it is no wonder that Nathan left immediately.
David’s actions left Talmudic commentators with a problem. The moral lapses are obvious but was it adultery? The sages said no. According to Rabbi Aaron Perry,
Technically, David and Bathsheba’s coupling did not constitute adultery. Since the time of King Saul, soldiers who went out to battle granted their wives a bill of divorcement…so that in the even they are captured or killed in battle and their bodies are not discovered, their wives would be able to remarry. If they indeed returned they would simply take their wives back with a new ceremony [ii].
Nevertheless, like Judah, David took full responsibility for his actions. The Biblical narrative stressed the moral failure of David, not Bathsheba. Similarly, in the warning about adultery to young men in Proverbs, the teaching is directed towards the man (Proverbs 6:20-7:27). So despite the death penalty for adultery in the Torah, there are other approaches in the Jewish tradition. Take the prophet Hosea:
I will not punish your daughters when they play the whore,
nor your daughters-in-law when they commit adultery;
For the men themselves go aside with whores,
and sacrifice with temple prostitutes;
thus a people without understanding comes to ruin.
(Hosea 4:14, New RSV)
This shows how the idea of judging sexual morality for both sexes equally was undermining the idea of punishing women harshly. This was further developed in the New Testament.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph faced a delicate situation:
When … Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child… (Matthew 1:18-19, New RSV)
The gospel tells us that this was by the Holy Spirit, though Joseph did not know this.
Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him…. (Matthew 1:19-20, NRSV)
The gospel assumes that a decent man would not invoke the severity of the law or exposure of a woman to social disgrace. Jesus was to display the same sensitivity to women who had broken the moral code.
Jesus was known as a friend of sinners (Matthew 11:19, Luke 7:34). When a sinful woman came to Jesus it says that he forgave her sins (Luke 7:36-50). Jesus astonished a Samaritan woman (John 4:12) and his own disciples (John 4:27) by speaking to her. He did not turn away from this woman because of her unconventional sexual history (John 4:16-18).
Then there is the story of the woman taken in adultery. It is not found in the most ancient manuscripts and this is noted in many translations. Nevertheless, its teaching is accepted as authentic by Catholics [iii] and conservative Protestants:
The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? ” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8: 3-11 New Revised Standard Version)
As with Tamar and David, it was the men who were confronted with their own sexual culpability. How could guilty men cast stones at an adulterous woman? Jesus’ teaching might seem to subvert the Law of Moses but it is well in line with what Hosea taught and what happened in the case of Tamar and David. Christians have not always followed this teaching but it has helped to prevent the harsh treatment of women.
The Islamic traditionshows that Mohammed was well aware of the Law of Moses on adultery. One of the hadiths says:
A Jew and a Jewess were brought to Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) who had committed adultery. Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) came to the Jews and said: What do you find in Torah for one who commits adultery? They said: We darken their faces and make them ride on the donkey with their faces turned to the opposite direction (and their backs touching each other), and then they are taken round (the city). [iv]
The Jews in Mohammed’s time had modified the strictures of the Mosaic Law, abandoning the death penalty for a naming and shaming ritual. However, Mohammed insisted on the older punishment
He said: Bring Torah if you are truthful. They brought it and recited it until when they came to the verse pertaining to stoning, the person who was reading placed his hand on the verse pertaining to stoning, and read (only that which was) between his hands and what was subsequent to that. Abdullah b. Salim who was at that time with the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said: Command him (the reciter) to lift his hand. He lifted it and there was, underneath that, the verse pertaining to stoning. Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) pronounced judgment about both of them and they were stoned. Abdullah b. ‘Umar said: I was one of those who stoned them, and I saw him (the Jew) protecting her (the Jewess) with his body.[v]
I don’t know if Mohammed knew this story of the woman taken in adultery, but the contrast between it and the accounts of Mohammed’s dealings with adulterous women are striking:
… a woman came to the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, and informed him that she had committed adultery and was pregnant. The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said to her, “Go away until you give birth.” When she had given birth, she came to him. The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said to her, “Go away until you have suckled and weaned the baby.” When she had weaned the baby, she came to him. He said, “Go and entrust the baby to someone.” She entrusted the baby to someone and then came to him. He gave the order and she was stoned. [vi]
Would the woman have come to Mohammed and confessed her sin if she knew was going to be stoned to death? If she had heard of Jesus she might have hoped or even expected that her life would have been spared. The story could be read as a cruel confidence trick, lulling the woman into a false sense of security and then executing her when the child had been weaned and provided for.
A second account is more detailed:
There came to him (the Holy Prophet) a woman from Ghamid 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? Perhaps, you turn me away as you turned away Ma’iz. By Allah, I have become pregnant. He said: Well, if you insist upon it, then go away until you give birth to (the child). 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. Khalid b Walid came forward with a stone which he flung at her head and there spurted blood on the face of Khalid and so he abused her. Allah’s Apostle (may peace be upon him) heard his (Khalid’s) curse that he had hurled upon her. Thereupon he (the Holy Prophet) said: Khalid, be gentle. By Him in Whose Hand is my life, she has made such a repentance that even if a wrongful tax-collector were to repent, he would have been forgiven. Then giving command regarding her, he prayed over her and she was buried. [vii]
I find this account even more troubling. The woman does not choose the guardian for the child. Her execution is described in gory detail, including the abuse that was heaped on her. The most striking contrast between Mohammed and Jesus is in their attitude towards the woman and the law. Mohammed recognised the woman’s repentance and prayed for her soul but he still had her killed. Jesus saved a woman’s life, turning the accusation of immorality back on her accusers, but demanding that she sin no more.
While these may be distant stories from far-off times, for many Muslims, the accounts of the prophet Mohammed are second only to the Koran in authority. Stoning adulterers to death is part of Sharia law, and is still carried out today.[viii] [ix] [x]
Amina Lawal, however, won on appeal. The court accepted two grounds: the proper number of witnesses did not testify against her, and as she became pregnant less than five years after divorcing her husband, it could be argued under Sharia law that that the child could still be her ex-husband’s. [xi]
Christian, Jewish and secular moral thinking has moved beyond the commands to kill adulterers. Although, these commands can still be round in ancient texts their application today should be totally rejected. They have no place in a civilised society.
[i] Susie Steiner, “Sharia law” The Guardian, 20 August 2002
“http://www.guardian.co.uk/theissues/article/0,6512,777972,00.html” (accessed 20 September 2006)
[ii] Rabbi Aaron Parry, “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hebrew Scripture”,
Alpha (Penguin) Books, New York, 2005, ISBN 1-59257-354-1, page 139 (text box “Lord Knows”).
[iii] The New Revised Standard Version, puts the passage in double brackets with this footnote: “The most ancient authorities lack 7.53-8.11; other authorities add the passage here or after 7.36 or after 21.25 or after Luke 21.38, with variations of text; some mark the passage as doubtful. The New Jerusalem Bible notes: The author of this passage…is not John; it is omitted by the oldest witnesses (MSS, versions, Fathers) and found elsewhere in others; moreover, its style is that of the Synoptics and the author was possibly Luke, see Lk 21:38h. Nevertheless, the passage3 was accepted in the canon and there are no grounds for regarding it as unhistorical”
[iv] University of Southern California, USC-MSA Compendium of Muslim Texts Translation of Sahih Muslim, Book 17:
The Book Pertaining to Punishments Prescribed by Islam (Kitab Al-Hudud) Book 017, Number 4211: “http://www.usc.edu/dept/MSA/fundamentals/hadithsunnah/muslim/017.smt.html#017.4211” accessed 20 September 2006
[vi] Translation of Malik’s Muwatta, Book 41: The Mudabbar Section: StoningBook 41, Number 41.1.5:
“http://www.usc.edu/dept/MSA/fundamentals/hadithsunnah/muwatta/041.mmt.html#041.41.1.5” accessed 20 September 2006
[vii] Translation of Sahih Muslim, Book 17: The Book Pertaining to Punishments Prescribed by Islam (Kitab Al-Hudud)Book 017, Number 4206: “http://www.usc.edu/dept/MSA/fundamentals/hadithsunnah/muslim/017.smt.html#017.4206” accessed 20 September 2006
[viii] Honour or horror? Friday, 07 July 2006 “http://www.aliran.com/content/view/91/10/” accessed 20 September 2006
[ix] Iran: Islamic Justice – Woman Adulterer To be Stoned To Death, Murderers Get Jail Kurdish Aspect,June 29, 2006 “http://www.kurdishaspect.com/doc629100.html” accessed 20 September 2006
[x] Khaleej Times Online Fujairah Shariah court orders man to be stoned to death for adultery By Salah Al Deberkey 11 June 2006 “http://www.khaleejtimes.com/DisplayArticle.asp?xfile=data/theuae/2006/June/theuae_June301.xml§ion=theuae” accessed 20 September 2006
[xi] Brian Carnell, Nigerian Court Overturns Stoning Adultery Sentence, Equity. Feminism.com “http://www.equityfeminism.com/archives/years/2003/000116.html” accessed 15 July 2006
By Michael Glass