Skip to site content

Under Sharia the Punishment Doesn’t Always Fit the Crime

Does religion permit government to kill its own citizens? According to international law, the answer is never. International law prohibits the death penalty. According to the Islamic legal code known as sharia, however, sex between an unmarried man and woman is a crime that merits the death penalty.

The controversy surrounding the stoning sentence of a Nigerian Muslim woman, Safiya Husaini, who alleges that her baby daughter was conceived as a result of rape, recently brought the gender-discriminatory aspects of sharia to international attention.

Sharia permits men and women alike to be stoned to death for adultery or fornication, but in practice the sentenced party is likely to be a woman. If pregnant, she literally carries the evidence judges will use against her. However, to convict a man of adultery under sharia in Nigeria requires the testimony of four eyewitnesses to the act of penetration.

Husaini’s case was not the first one in which a Northern Nigerian provincial government would have sentenced a citizen to severe bodily injury and possibly death for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. In mid-September of 2000, a court in Gusau, Nigeria sentenced an unmarried 17-year-old girl to 180 strokes of the cane 40 days after delivery of her baby.

Nigeria is an ethnically and religiously divided country with a federal government like our own (one in which the national government delegates some of its powers to smaller, regional governments). Some of the Northern states, which are heavily Muslim, have recently instituted sharia. Sharia is a particularly explosive issue in Nigeria because Islam is not a dominant religion in the country. Nigeria is also home to Christians and followers of indigenous religions.

In Pakistan’s version of sharia, the testimony of four eyewitnesses is required to substantiate a charge of rape as well as adultery. Moreover, the eyewitnesses must be Muslim men of honor. In effect, men are not punished in Pakistan for raping women; only the victims, left pregnant, are punished.

The sentence was stoning to death until a few years ago, when international pressure caused Pakistan to abolish the death penalty for women (but not for men). Today, life imprisonment is the sentence for a Pakistani woman found guilty of adultery or fornication, or who is unable to prove her allegation of rape for lack of four adult men who are Muslim, of good repute, eyewitnesses to the rape, and willing to give testimony on the victim’s behalf.

To understand sharia, visualize a U.S. judicial and law enforcement system administered by the Southern Baptist Convention. Moreover, pretend that the SBC wrote all the country’s laws based upon a literal interpretation of the Bible. Imagine that the SBC and our state governments are one, and infractions of the law are religious offenses for which one might be tried by a pastor.

Sharia is entirely different from our own legal code, which separates state and religion. In the strict Islamic societies that follow sharia, religion, government and the law are one. Islamic judges are not, as in the United States, respected lawyers or legal scholars. Instead, Islamic judges are the holy men, the scholars of the Quran.

Following sharia makes one more than a good citizen; more importantly, it makes one a good Muslim. To break the most important Quranic injunctions (including adultery, theft, drinking alcohol, murder and blasphemy) is heresy. Thus, the penalties for such crimes—stoning to death, amputation, public flogging—are harsh.

These stringent penalties seem to sharia supporters to be warranted by the gravity of the crime, disobeying Allah’s word. Moreover, supporters note, sharia only applies to those citizens who are Muslims. A non-Muslim in a society under sharia should be prosecuted by civil, rather than Islamic, law. Critics of sharia, however, maintain that freedom of worship is a universal human right, but that religious freedom does not permit one to violate other universal human rights, such as those to life and to the protection of bodily integrity.

Husaini was lucky. Nigeria’s Christian President Olusegun Obasanjo spoke out on her behalf.  The court to which she had appealed her case ruled in her favor, noting that at the time of the daughter’s conception Northern Nigeria had not yet implemented sharia. Husaini may live because of a loophole, but Nigerian Muslim women pregnant out-of-wedlock who have conceived since the implementation of sharia will face the death penalty.

With the news from Nigeria of Husaini’s acquittal came also the news that another Northern Nigerian court has convicted another mother, Amina Lawal, of delivering a son conceived outside of marriage. The court has sentenced her to death by stoning.

Lisa Sharlach is assistant professor of political science at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.