I was talking to a mature Muslim girl yesterday – who prays regularly, reads the Quran and comes across as a good Muslim – who said to me: “One thing I don’t like [about Islam] is Sharia Law.” What she meant by “Sharia Law” was stoning, lashing and chopping off hands, i.e. the corporal punishments and penal codes. I felt compelled to remind her of something: First, the corporal punishments associated with Islam account for a small percentage of Sharia Law. The majority of Sharia is to do with one’s spirituality, like praying, fasting and giving to charity, the Law also encompasses everything from economics to hygiene. Secondly, Sharia Law is profoundly nuanced: not only is it open to interpretation but it is flexible and able to move with the times. According to academic Scott Kugle, Sharia means a “broad pathway”.
The Quran teaches that it is better to forgive than to seek revenge, although the latter is permitted by Sharia Law. Furthermore, the references to God’s forgiveness outnumber those of His justice by around ten to one in the Quran (1).
According to Islamic scholar Hamza Yusuf, corporal punishments are suppose to be avoided in Islam (2). It is preferable that crimes aren’t taken to the government so that punishments don’t have to be exacted. The best thing to do is to hide the crime or keep it anonymous: this is why, traditionally, if a daughter is impregnated outside of marriage, she was kept in the house by her parents until she had the baby.
But what’s striking about the prerequisite for punishing somebody for adultery, is that the act of penetration must be observed by four reliable witnesses. Now, unless someone is completely reckless, how often will this happen? This is why Shaikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah, a leading Muslim scholar from Mauritania said that, if anything, the punishments are more deterrents to warn people of the severity of what they are doing (3).
During the time of the second Islamic caliph, Umar ibn-Khattab, there was a famine and, during this period, he didn’t apply the punishment for stealing (cutting of the hand) because he knew people would act in ways they wouldn’t normally. After all, people steal in times of desperation.
There is another narration where Umar, known for his religious zealousness and no-nonsense approach for dealing with people, caught a man stealing. Now, under normal circumstances this would warrant a punishment or, at the very least, an investigation into why the man stole. However, Umar approached the man and said something to the extent of: “I didn’t just see you steal that did I?” After the man said “no”, Umar let him off. This is the merciful spirit in which Sharia Law is suppose to be enacted.
According to one of the Islamic schools of thought, the Maliki madhab, if a woman confesses to fornication, the judge is suppose to try and get her out of it (4). He might say something like: “Maybe you were asleep and somebody came into your bed” or something similar.
In the UAE, many judges go to the most compassionate of legal opinions when they use penal punishments.
In the Islamic tradition there is a story of a man who confessed to committing adultery with a woman. After the woman swore by God that he is lying, she was let free and the man was punished twice. This is another thing worth remembering: Islam encourages that we trust people, especially if they swear, and the final decision and fate of people lies with God.
Another Muslim later said to me: “What I don’t like is that when Muslim women are raped, they are stoned.” I couldn’t believe it. Is there seriously this much ignorance about Islam? And, if this is what Muslims think, what must non-Muslims think? One of the biggest problems is that people conflate the traditions of certain uneducated or literalist people with the way Islam is understood by the great scholars and majority of adherents. If Islam really was like how it is portrayed in much of the media. I wouldn’t follow it, neither would the myriad of Muslim intellectuals or the great sages and saints in Islam’s illustrious history.
The very first word that was revealed in the Quran was “read”, and it’s because many Muslims have abandoned reading, why the Muslim community is facing so many problems.
2), 3) Shaikh Hamza Yusuf, The Path of the Scholars (http://www.deenintensive.com/open-classroom/path-of-the-scholars-shaykh-hamza-yusuf)