ripped sharia sticker placed on a street sign in the UK

Murder, robbery and rape are crimes in the view of Muslim law, but under some interpretation so to are music, gambling, the building of mansions and the making eunuchs. The manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, drug dealing and reading pornographic literature are also forbidden. Games of chance and lotteries are considered the "work of satan" because they exhort "quick and easy gains." Sharia also lays down a number of laws related to slavery and vendettas.

According to “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”:To ensure adherence to God's commands, punishment, in both this world and the next, forms an integral part of Islamic teaching. Muslims are constantly reminded that straying from the straight path effects penalties on the Day of Judgment. God may put off punishment, but He never overlooks the sinful deed. [Source: “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”, Haeberle, Erwin J., Bullough, Vern L. and Bonnie Bullough, eds., sexarchive.info]

Sharia practiced in most extreme form is notorious of its cruel punishments: chopping of limbs, beheading and stoning to death. These practices violate most international norms of human rights. The Sharia punishment for many crimes is beating. According to Muslim Law men caught drinking alcohol or are supposed to be publicly flogged. Those found guilty of blasphemy or apostasy or converted to another religion can be executed. The punishments for adultery including public flogging and stoning to death.

A passage in the fifth chapter of the Qur’an reads: “The only reward of those who make war upon Allah and His messenger...will be they will be killed or crucified or have their hands and feet on alternate sides of cut off...in the Hereafter theirs will be an awful doom." There are equally harsh passages in the Bible.

Websites on Sharia: Sharia by Knut S. Vikør, Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics web.archive.org ; Encyclopædia Britannica britannica.com ; Four Sunni Schools of Thought masud.co.uk ;
Law by Norman Calder, Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World web.archive.org ; Sharia Law in the International Legal Sphere – Yale University web.archive.org ; 'Recognizing Sharia' in Britain, anthropologist John R. Bowen discusses Britain's sharia courts bostonreview.net ; "The Reward of the Omnipotent" late 19th Arabic manuscript about Sharia wdl.org

Misconceptions About Sharia Punishment

According to the BBC: “Many people, including Muslims, misunderstand Sharia. It's often associated with the amputation of limbs, death by stoning, lashes and other medieval punishments. Because of this, it is sometimes thought of as draconian. Some people in the West view Sharia as archaic and unfair social ideas that are imposed upon people who live in Sharia-controlled countries. Many Muslims, however, hold a different view. In the Islamic tradition Sharia is seen as something that nurtures humanity. They see the Sharia not in the light of something primitive but as something divinely revealed. In a society where social problems are endemic, Sharia frees humanity to realise its individual potential. [Source: BBC, September 3, 2009 |::|]

places where premarital and extramarital sex are crimes under sharia zina laws, with light green being places it is practiced in some localities

Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood, a British Muslim, told the BBC: ““The usual criticisms of Sharia - that it is so cruel as regards execution, flogging and cutting off hands - totally ignore all the extenuating circumstances that would lead to these penalties not being applied. They are known as hadd penalties (pl. hudud), the extreme limit of the penalty. Thus, if a person was sentenced to having a hand cut off, he or she should not be sent to prison and/or be fined as well. People who regard these practices as cruel will never be persuaded otherwise, so Muslims usually leave that aside. Their point is that the cutting of the hand for theft is a very powerful deterrent - Muslims care less for the callous and continual thief than they do for the poor souls who are mugged and robbed and hurt by the thieves. [Source: Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood, BBC, September 3, 2009 |::|]

“The Middle East is certainly not full of one-handed people - as any traveller would tell you. What we have lost here is the horror of dishonour that true Muslims still have. They would do anything rather than offend Allah, and they of course believe that Allah sees every single thing that is done - there are no secrets. Even if you get away with something on earth, it has been seen and recorded and you will have to face judgement for it eventually, and the people hurt by your action will be recompensed. Of course, if you do not believe in God, or a judgement, or a life to come, the whole system is quite meaningless to you. In Sharia law, if a thief could prove that he/she only stole because of need, then the Muslim society would be held at fault and made to supply that need, and there would be no hand-cutting. Most thieves would think twice before risking a hand on mugging an old lady for her handbag!

Harsh Punishments — Not Rooted in Sharia

The harsh interpretation of Sharia and brutal punishments are not a revival of ancient traditions. Jessica Marglin wrote: On the contrary, this interpretation is related to a particularly modern approach to Islamic law, one that is typical of Islamism. Islamism is an approach to Islam and the Sharia that arose in the 20th century across the Muslim world. Among its best-known example is the Muslim Brotherhood, which originated in Egypt and argued, for instance, that Sharia was indispensable to a vibrant Muslim community. [Source: Jessica Marglin, Associate Professor of Religion, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, The Conversation, May 8, 2019]

In fact, Sharia was not usually the primary source of criminal law in the pre-modern period. Rather, Sharia courts focused more on regulating issues such as contracts, debts, marriage, divorce, mortgages and other everyday matters of civil law. This was in part because the Sharia required such high standards of proof for crimes as to make conviction nearly impossible. My own research on law in pre-colonial Morocco shows that everyone – Muslims and Jews alike – used Sharia courts, which were mostly concerned with making sure that debtors paid their debts.

Is Colonialism Rather Sharia to Blame for Islamic Extremism?

public hanging of a rapist in Qarchak, Varamin, Iran in 2011

Mark Fathi Massoud wrote: “In the 1950s and 1960s, when Great Britain, France and other European powers relinquished their colonies in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, leaders of newly sovereign Muslim-majority countries faced a decision of enormous consequence: Should they build their governments on Islamic religious values or embrace the European laws inherited from colonial rule? Invariably, political leaders of these young countries chose to keep their colonial justice systems rather than impose religious law. [Source: Mark Fathi Massoud, Director of Legal Studies and Associate Professor of Politics, University of California, Santa Cruz, The Conversation, December 31, 2020]

My research uncovers how today’s instability across the Middle East and North Africa is, in part, a consequence of these post-colonial decisions to reject Sharia. Newly independent Sudan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Somalia, among other places, all confined the application of Sharia to marital and inheritance disputes within Muslim families, just as their colonial administrators had done. The remainder of their legal systems would continue to be based on European law.

“In maintaining colonial legal systems, Sudan and other Muslim-majority countries that followed a similar path appeased Western world powers, which were pushing their former colonies toward secularism. But they avoided resolving tough questions about religious identity and the law. That created a disconnect between the people and their governments. In the long run, that disconnect helped fuel unrest among some citizens of deep faith, leading to sectarian calls to unite religion and the state once and for all. In Iran, Saudi Arabia and parts of Somalia and Nigeria, these interpretations triumphed, imposing extremist versions of Sharia over millions of people. In other words, Muslim-majority countries stunted the democratic potential of Sharia by rejecting it as a mainstream legal concept in the 1950s and 1960s, leaving Sharia in the hands of extremists.

“But there is no inherent tension between Sharia, human rights and the rule of law. Like any use of religion in politics, Sharia’s application depends on who is using it — and why. Leaders of places like Saudi Arabia and Brunei have chosen to restrict women’s freedom and minority rights. But many scholars of Islam and grassroots organizations interpret Sharia as a flexible, rights-oriented and equality-minded ethical order.

Islam and Capital Punishment

Islam generally is viewed as accepting capital punishment. The Qur’an reads: “Take not life, which God has made sacred, except by way of justice and law. Thus does He command you, so that you may learn wisdom.” — Qur'an 6:151. Even so forgiveness is preferred and peace is a more predominant theme in the Qur'an than eye-for-an-eye justice.

According to the BBC: “Muslims believe that capital punishment is a most severe sentence but one that may be commanded by a court for crimes of suitable severity. While there may be more profound punishment at the hands of God, there is also room for an earthly punishment. Methods of execution in Islamic countries vary and can include beheading, firing squad, hanging and stoning. In some countries public executions are carried out to heighten the element of deterrence. Each case is regarded individually and with extreme care and the court is fully able to impose more lenient sentences as and when they see fit. [Source: BBC, September 16, 2009 |::|] “Islamic countries that practise a very strict Sharia law are associated with the use of capital punishment as retribution for the largest variety of crimes. At the other end of the spectrum are countries such as Albania and Bosnia, which still retain the death penalty as part of their penal system, but are abolitionist in practice. |::|

herbal healer beheaded for "practicing magic and sorcery" in Yemen in 2012

“In Islamic law, the death penalty is appropriate for two groups of crime: 1) Intentional murder: In these cases the victim's family is given the option as to whether or not to insist on a punishment of this severity; 2) Fasad fil-ardh ('spreading mischief in the land'): Islam permits the death penalty for anyone who threatens to undermine authority or destabilise the state What constitutes the crime of 'spreading mischief in the land' is open to interpretation, but the following crimes are usually included: 1) Treason/apostasy (when one leaves the faith and turns against it); 2) Terrorism; 3) Piracy of any kind; 4) Rape; 5) Adultery; 6) Homosexual activity |::|

“Whilst Islam remains firmly retentionist, there is a small but growing abolitionist Islamic view. Their argument is as follows: ) The Ulamas (those who are learned in Islamic Law, constitution and theology) do not always agree on the interpretation or authenticity of the sacred texts. Neither do they agree on the social context in which these texts should be applied. ) Sharia law is often used by repressive powers that attack women and the poor. ) There are incidences of these states summarily executing those who are accused whilst denying them access to a lawyer. These acts are totally contradictory to the concept of Islamic justice. |::|

“In Geneva, on 28th April 2005, there was a call for a moratorium on corporal punishment, stoning and death penalty. This was, however, rejected by the Legal Research Commission of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the world's leading Islamic learning centre.” |::|

Why is Sharia Equated with Cruelty

Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood told the BBC: “I think through two things - ignorance of the reality of Sharia law, and much publicised cases where Muslims in positions of authority have been very poor Muslims, if not non-Muslims in Muslim disguise. For example, 100 years ago we had stories of awful Turkish sultans, and people being rushed to blocks to have their hands cut off etc. The media picks out certain cases and blows them up to make a big drama of them - they might pick on one particular murderer on death row in the USA and rouse everyone's feelings, but totally ignore all the others due to be executed that day! [Source: Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood, BBC, September 3, 2009 |::|] “A case like the Nigerian woman in danger of being stoned for adultery is a case in point. She might have been stoned by irate villagers, but on being taken into custody and judged by Sharia law she gets the opportunity to appeal and explain etc. In her case, if it is true that she was raped, she most certainly would not be sentenced to death. What interests me is who were the rotten people who brought the case against her anyway? |::|

“Incidentally the correct Islamic method of stoning according to Sharia was similar to that advised by the Pharisees at the time of Jesus - the person was held fast in a fixed position, and a stone or rock that it took two men to lift (i.e. was heavier than one man could lift alone) was to be dropped to crush the head - it was not someone tied to a post and rocks hurled at them, although this has been done in some cultures. The point was that if someone really had to be executed, it was to be done swiftly, with as little torture as possible, and usually publicly so that no vindictive person could do further nasty things behind the scenes and get away with it. |::|

“Sharia should promote gender equality. In fact, the natural Islamic tendency is to always consider women as the weaker sex in need of care and protection, and come down hard on the men who allow their womenfolk to get into difficulties.” |::|

Adultery, Sharia and the Taliban

Taliban execution of Zarmeena for adultery in Kabul in 1999

Islam does take a strong position on adultery. It prohibits sex outside of marriage. Premarital and extramarital sex are sternly frowned upon. On the subject of adultery Muhammad said: "The adultery of the eye is to look with an eye of desire on the wife of another; and the adultery of the tongue is to utter what is forbidden.” According to strict interpretations of Muslim law men committing adultery are supposed to be publicly flogged and women who commit adultery are supposed to be stoned to death. In accordance with the law for a person to be convicted of adultery four male witnesses have to have observed the adulterous act.

Asma Afsaruddin told The Conversation It’s true that the Qur’an prescribes punishment by lashing. “But there is a high bar of evidence that must be met before this punishment can be meted out: Four witnesses must observe the actual act of penetration. Even in this age of voyeurism, it would be next to impossible to meet this criterion. Such a punishment was “hardly ever carried out in the premodern world.” [Source: The Conversation, August 31, 2021]

Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood, a British Muslim, told the BBC: “In the west, adultery has become so commonplace because of sexual freedoms - all the emphasis these days seems to be on finding sexual satisfaction; in Muslim societies, there is far less emphasis on sex - it is usually regarded as a weakness that can lead to all sorts of trouble. Family is far more important; the notion of a million unborn children per year being aborted, and single mothers, is abhorrent in Islam. [Source: Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood, BBC, September 3, 2009 |::|]

In some places a husband has the right to injure or even kill his wife if she commits adultery. A wife can not do the same thing to her husband if he commits adultery. In other places — namely Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan — women accused of adultery have been stoned to death or buried up to their waists and pelted with shoes or stones.

Reports of the Taliban stoning women to death for committing adultery represents sharia taken to its most conservative extreme. Under the Taliban, in some cases, adulterers were placed together in a bed and stoned to death. First a judge threw a stone, then people start throwing stones while the couple cried a “very high cry.” It lasted one or two hours. One doctor told the Los Angeles Times that some dead stoning victims were brought to his hospital. “They brought in one woman who was skinned and another who was chopped into pieces and carried in a box, When we asked about the woman’s bodies, they said it was none of our business.”

The Taliban badly distorted shariah. According to sharia, people can only be convicted of adultery if four male witnesses observed the adulterous act and the punishment does not have to be stoning. The Taliban, however, often sentenced people to death without meeting four-male-witness standard of proof. Judges often dispensed justice without the presence of lawyers of witnesses. Some judges were notoriously corrupt. Some reportedly allowed murders to go free and orders innocent villagers to be executed in their place after receiving a bribe.

Murder and Sharia

Man crucified by al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al-Shari'a for allegedly directing U.S. drones in Yemen in 2012

Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood, a British Muslim, told the BBC: “Sharia law for murder allows the death penalty, but is kinder than western law in one respect - after judicial judgement has been made, appeals are then allowed to the family of the murdered victims, and they are begged to be merciful. In Islam, it is always regarded as the height of mercy to forgive a murderer, even though one may have the right to take his/her life in reprisal. [Source: Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood, BBC, September 3, 2009 |::|]

“The form of execution is not specified in Islam - i.e. it is not usually a stoning. Beheading used to be regarded as the quickest and most merciful way (as in Roman law, and the French guillotine); these days other methods may find approval. There are apparently far fewer executions in most Muslim countries than in the USA, for example. The penalty for adultery is open to debate. Most scholars will insist that the penalty as laid down in the Qur'an was 100 lashes, and there were various rules for regulating how lashes were to be given too. Other scholars maintain that the old penalty for adultery as laid down by the previous prophets was stoning (as in the Old Testament). By New Testament times, the prophet Jesus had the famous case where a guilty woman was forgiven and sent away, told only to sin no more. |::|

“In some Muslim societies, judges and populaces might stone out of mistaken belief that this was what Islam required. In fact, Islam made it virtually impossible - to be sentenced to death for adultery, the couple had to be actually witnessed performing the physical act by four people who were in a position to identify both parties without doubt; this virtually ruled out the penalty, since adultery is taken for granted as a secret act and something not done in public. |::|

Theft and Amputation

The penalty for the theft, according to the Qur’an, for both men and women, is the amputation of a hand. Sura 5:38 reads: "As for the man or woman who is guilty of theft, cut of their hands in retribution for what they might have earned." The concept is rooted in Arab tribal beliefs about vendettas and blood money payments. Once a decision has been made it is not usually rescinded. The Hanafi school allows the payment of money to settle theft crimes.

Many Muslim scholars argue that if it is to be applied at all the amputation penalty should only be applied in the most extreme cases. Others state the punishment is meant to be taken metaphorically: cutting the hand from robbery, perhaps through imprisonment. The very next verse in the Qur’an after the amputation verse teaches God's forgiveness of those who repent. Most Muslim countries do not mutilate thieves. The Qur’an specifically warns against literal interpretations.

right hand of 17-year-old school boy Ismael Khalif Abdulle-Quran found guilt of theft in Somalia in 2010

In places where the amputation has been applied there is some disagreement as to which parts of the body are cut off and how much. Sunnis believe the hand should be loped off at the wrist. Shias (Shia) maintain that the fingers should only be cut off at the first knuckle, so that the victim can still feed himself. Muslims are supposed to eat with their right hand (the left hand is for wiping oneself). Unfortunately for Sunni thieves it is the right hand that is removed."

In Afghanistan, under the Taliban, people convicted of theft had a foot or hand cut off. In 1992, according to Amnesty International, one "prisoner of conscience" from Syria was sentenced to the amputation of his hand.

Muslim Execution and Stoning Deaths

According to conservative interpretations of Sharia executions are supposed to be carried out in public. Only for proven adultery and apostasy is the death penalty mandatory. Under the Islamic code of some schools a convicted murderer given the death penalty can escape death if he or his family pays restitution of around $50,000 to $100,000 to the victim's family.

Describing a stoning death in Jeddah in February 1958, R. M. Macoll wrote: "A prince, a nephew of the king, sat stern-faced on a chair. Before him was a carpet. From a lorry a man was led forward by two khaki-clad policemen. He was in his late twenties and was completely composed...His hands were chained together behind him and he walked awkwardly because of the chains festooned about his ankles...Arrived at he edge of the carpet he knelt and was told by the police to keep his eyes fixed on the prince's face." [Source: Eyewitness to History , edited by John Carey, Avon, 1987]

"At his side an official unrolled a scroll and started to read aloud the man's misdeed and the punishment decreed by the court. The crowd was now utterly hushed...Suddenly the line of police parted and the executioner appeared, sword in hand. He approached the victim from behind and on tiptoes. As the reading stopped the executioner bent and touched the kneeling man lightly on the back with his finger...Instinctively the man started, and in so doing raised is head. In an instant, with a swift and expert blow, the executioner decapitated him...A long, slow sigh came from the onlookers. "

"Now a woman was dragged forward. She and the man had together murdered her former husband. She, too, was under thirty, and slender...The recital of her crime was too read out as she knelt, and the executioner stepped forward with a wooden stave and dealt a hundred blows with all his strength upon her shoulder...As the flogging ended the woman sagged over on her side."

countries where public stoning is a judicial or extrajudicial form of punishment, light color is where it is practiced in some localities

"Next, a lorry loaded with rocks and stones was backed up and its cargo deposited in a pile. At a signal from the prince the crowd leaped on the stones and started pelting the woman to death...It was difficult to determine how she was facing her last and awful ordeal, since she was veiled in Muslim fashion and her mouth was gagged to muffle her cries...It took over an hour before the doctor in attendance, who halted the stoning periodically to feel the victim's pulse, announced her dead."

"Had this scene been taking place in the middle of the desert it would have been grim enough, but that it should have been enacted in the heart of modern Jeddah's business neighborhood lent it a dismally macabre quality...The execution of the man”...The beheading was at least done humanely and quickly carried out...But the doing to death of the woman is something which the handful of horrified Europeans in the crowd will not quickly forget."

Blasphemy, Apostasy and Muslim Law

According to Muslim blasphemy laws the saying blasphemous words against Allah, implied or otherwise, is against Muslim law. Look at how much trouble Saloman Rushdie got into for saying that Muhammad fraternized with a prostitute. In 1989 the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran handed down a death sentence to Salman Rushdie for blasphemy after his publication of "Satanic Verses" in 1989. See Salman Rushdie factsanddetails.com

The Quran admonishes blasphemy, but does not specify any worldly punishment for blasphemy. The hadiths, which are another source of Sharia, suggest various punishments for blasphemy, which may include death. Blasphemy laws, originally established to prevent people from disrespecting Islam, have been used by Muslim extremists to crack down on and harass opponents. See Pakistan, Egypt.

Fareed Zakaria wrote in the Washington Post: “One holy book is deeply concerned with blasphemy: the Bible. In the Old Testament, blasphemy and blasphemers are condemned and prescribed harsh punishment. The best-known passage on this is Leviticus 24:16 : “Anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death. The entire assembly must stone them. Whether foreigner or native-born, when they blaspheme the Name they are to be put to death.” [Source: Fareed Zakaria, Washington Post, January 8, 2015]

The dictionary definition of apostasy is “having rejected your religious beliefs or your political party or a cause (often in favor of opposing beliefs or causes)." In Islam, any sane Muslim who renounces Islam and persists in doing so after being given chances to repent loses a variety of rights. There is no penalty for any Muslim who kills such a convert on the grounds of his apostasy.

Converting to Christianity is regarded as a form of apostasy, a crime punishable by death. Explaining why such a conversion is such a serious offense an Afghan imam told the Washington Post, “You must understand how shameful it is for us that a Muslim would become a Christian. If other people want to come to Islam, we encourage and appreciate them. But ours is the complete and final religion. If you leave it, that is like throwing God away...If you leave Islam, our law says you must be killed."

Among the countries with apostasy laws on the books are Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan and Egypt. Killing for apostasy is rare even in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, which say they fully implement Islamic law.

stoning of a woman in 19th century Qajar, Persia

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons and WikiIslam

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, Encyclopedia.com, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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