Stoned for Adultery: How Islam’s Laws Are Being Overlooked

Amid a global outcry over a couple stoned to death for adultery in Afghanistan, Eliza Griswold asks why an Islamic law designed to protect women’s rights is being used against them today.

The stoning of an unmarried couple in the Afghan village of Qunduz over the weekend is raising the familiar barrage of questions about what Islam actually says about stoning to death for adultery. And why does stoning seem to be facing a popular resurgence in Afghanistan, Iran, and in the lesser-known battlefields of Somalia?

What was designed to protect women’s rights during the seventh century is still being used against them as the twenty-first begins.

Last year in Somalia, two women were sentenced to death for adultery by the militant group al-Shabab and then stoned. The first was a child, really, a 13-year-old girl who had been gang-raped. As punishment, she was put in a hole, buried up to her neck, and had stones thrown at her head until she died. The second was a 20-year-old who gave birth to a stillborn child. Displeased, the baby’s father reportedly turned her in to al-Shabab for sleeping with him.

Even Iran has made the very public and deliberately incendiary gesture of sentencing Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani to death by stoning. Through these brutal acts, rogue regimes are claiming their right to exact the extreme punishments in the criminal code of Sharia, or Islamic law, as a way to take a public stand against the West.

And now add Afghanistan to this list of places where so-called religion is a great excuse for barbarism. So, clearing aside our outrage, where does stoning actually come from?

Here’s what the Quran, the holy book which Muslims understand to be God’s word, says about stoning. If a man and woman are caught in the act of fornication and there are four witnesses who explicitly see it, then both can be sentenced to death by stoning.

The particular strictures put on this law—and the very high burden of proof it requires—are designed to protect women, said Abdullahi An-Na’im, professor of law at Emory University and liberal theologian.

Stoning women to death for adultery dates back much further than Islam’s birth, however. It’s the law of the Arab desert. It’s the ancient law encoded before 1500 B.C. by the Mesopotamian leader Hammurabi.

Two thousand years after Hammurabi, when Muhammad became a prophet, girl babies were frequently killed, women had no right to divorce, they couldn’t inherit property—and they died at a man’s whim. These injunctions of Islam as a new religion were designed to protect women. But what was designed to protect women’s rights during the seventh century is being used against them as the 21st begins.

In addition to being horrifying, stoning is sure to elicit a reaction from the Western governments and human rights organizations that these regressive regimes, whether village councils or national governments, wish to provoke.

In fact, among the three major religions we know today—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—the first mention of putting a believer to death by stoning doesn’t come from the Quran. It comes from the Book of Deuteronomy: “If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, “Let us go and serve other gods….thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die” (Deuteronomy 13:6-10).

As Reza Aslan, author of No God but God, puts it: There’s no such thing as a single kind of Islamic law. There’s also no such thing as a single Islam. There are, instead, a growing number of Islams.

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Stoning was tribal law. It predates each of the three major faiths and had no place at any historical moment. And it has none now.

“This is not only about women’s rights. At stake are human dignity and thousands of years of civilization,” said Human Rights Watch board member Kati Marton of the Iran stoning case.

Eliza Griswold is a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation. Her book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Islam and Christianity comes out this month from FSG.