Fornication and adultery

Surah 4 (Al-Nisa/Women): 15

As for those of your women who may commit whoredom, call against them four witnesses from among them if they testify, confine you them to their houses till death complete their turn of life, or Allah appoint for them some other way.


Two verses in separate surahs deal with the general punishment to be imposed for illicit heterosexual activity. In {4.15} (above), a sentence of confinement until death is fixed for a woman who commits the sin of ‘fahisha’ (literally ‘strong desire’) whilst in {24.2} a sentence of one hundred lashes is fixed for men or women who commit the crime of being a ‘zānī’ (derived from the Hebrew word ‘zanah’ meaning fornication or adultery) What is intended by each of these terms and whether they refer to the same misconduct or two different offences, is not clear from the Qur’an. Many translators render the two terms with different English expressions, so that Pickthall renders them the commission of ‘lewdness’ and being ‘the adulterer and the adulteress’ respectively; Arberry, ‘an indecency’ and being ‘the fornicatress and the fornicator’.

Since the two offences carry different punishments, and both apply to women, they must either be differently defined or else, in respect of women, be in conflict with one another. We can deduce that the offence of zana’, must extend to sexual offences by married women, since the punishment is doubled for the wives of Muhammad, {33.30}. But since the Quranic concept of marriage involves no expectation on the wife’s part, of a sexually exclusive relationship with her husband 〈58.〉 it is hard to see how zana’, at least where committed by a man, might originally have carried the meaning of infidelity. Given the Quranic understanding of marriage described in 〈57.〉, it is more realistic to think of zana’, as a violation of the system of for regulating men’s exercise of sexual rights over women. But whilst this offence carries the punishment of flogging, even where committed by one of the prophet’s own wives, the Qur’an fails to clarify the aggravating feature that would convert a zānī’ into the capital offence of ‘fahisha’.


To make an already unclear situation even more confusing, numerous hadith describe Muhammad ordering those guilty of adultery to be stoned to death – a sentence that appears nowhere in the Qur’an, but which has now become probably the best-known Sharia punishment. One of these hadith present Muhammad as adopting the punishment, not from any revelation or inspiration, of his own, but from discovering it in the Torah:

The Jews brought to the Prophet a man and a woman from among them who had committed illegal sexual intercourse. The Prophet said to them: ‘How do you usually punish the one amongst you who has committed illegal sexual intercourse?’

They replied: ’We blacken their faces with coal and beat them’.

He said: ‘Don’t you find the order of Ar-Rajm (i.e. stoning to death) in the Torah?’

They replied: ‘We do not find anything in it.’

Abdullah bin Salam (after hearing this conversation) said to them: ‘You have told a lie! Bring here the Torah and recite it if you are truthful.’

(So the Jews brought the Torah). And the religious teacher who was teaching it to them, put his hand over the Verse of Ar-Rajm and started reading what was written above and below the place hidden with his hand, but he did not read the Verse of Al-Rajm.

Abdullah bin Salam removed his (i.e. the teacher’s) hand from the Verse of Al-Rajm and said: ‘What is this?’

So when the Jews saw that Verse, they said: ‘This is the Verse of Al-Rajm.’

So the Prophet ordered the two adulterers to be stoned to death, and they were stoned to death near the place where biers used to be placed near the Mosque. I saw her companion (i.e. the adulterer) bowing over her so as to protect her from the stones.


Since the Jews had brought ‘a man and a woman from among them‘, this hadith (which appears in the earliest hadith collection, The Muwatta of Malik bin Anas) is in accordance with the Qur’anic verses that confirm the continuing validity of the Torah as God’s revealed word for the Jews. Despite the obvious illogicality of a person who is reading from a scripture seeking to conceal from other people present that they were omitting a passage (probably Deuteronomy 22.20-24 ) by covering it with their hand, the depiction of Jews as the devious corrupters of God’s commands is also Quranic 〈88.〉


The scene of the adulterers dragged before Muhammad for his judgment has been deliberately told to contrast Muhammad’s faithfulness to the Torah with Jesus, who when faced with precisely the same situation (John 8.7 ) made the sanction of stoning effectively inapplicable, with the words: ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’


Other hadith record Muhammad ordering his followers, as well as the Jews, to be stoned to death for illicit sexual activity whilst they were married, or to be flogged for such activity if they were not. This strikes a middle way between the Torah, which ordered for the Israelites stoning for extramarital sex regardless of the actor’s marital status, and Jesus’s teaching of unlimited mercy. Similar Quranic compromises can be seen in its provisions for dealing with assaults causing injury 〈72.〉 and in its dietary laws 〈74.〉 However, no hadith has Muhammad seek to explain why the Torah punishment should be generally applicable to Muhammad’s non-Jewish but married followers at all, nor to explain the obvious contradiction between the Torah punishment and the Quranic punishments of confinement till death and flogging.


All this presents a knotty problem for Sharia jurists. One possible explanation is that the Qur’an abrogated itself twice: first by the announcement of whichever of {4.15} and {24.2} was announced first by the other; and then that verse by a third verse instructing stoning for married offenders, the record of which has been lost.

Abdullah bin Abbas reported that Umar bin Khattab sat on the pulpit of Allah’s Messenger and said: ‘Verily Allah sent Muhammad (may peace be upon him) with truth and He sent down the Book upon him, and the verse of stoning was included in what was sent down to him.

We recited it, retained it in our memory and understood it. Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) awarded the punishment of stoning to death (to the married adulterer and adulteress) and, after him, we also awarded the punishment of stoning, I am afraid that with the lapse of time, the people (may forget it) and may say: ‘We do not find the punishment of stoning in the Book of Allah’, and thus go astray by abandoning this duty prescribed by Allah. Stoning is a duty laid down in Allah’s Book for married men and women who commit adultery when proof is established, or it there is pregnancy, or a confession.

Elsewhere the precise wording of this lost verse is said to have been preserved in men’s memories:

‘When a married man or woman commits adultery, stone them to death as a deterrence from God.

And God is Most Merciful and Wise.’

One hadith, attributed to Aisha, even describes the moment that the ‘stoning verse’ was lost, the papyrus upon which the crucial passage was written having been eaten by a goat as Muhammad lay dying.


However, this scenario is awkward for those who regard other verses of the Qur’an as pledging that God will protect the Qur’an’s transmission 〈7.〉 Furthermore, it does not explain why this verse, if it could be exactly remembered, could not have been promptly written down again.


It is suggested that a more likely scenario is that the stoning to death of adulterers was a Jewish practice that had been informally adopted by the early Islamic community through their proximity to Jews, notwithstanding the text of the Qur’an. The same is likely true for other non-Quranic practices adopted by Islam from Judaism: such as male circumcision and the avoidance of figurative art. This state of affairs was then retrospectively justified by accounts that the punishments currently recorded in the Qur’an had been  superseded for  married offenders only either by the practise of Muhammad (notwithstanding the inconsistency of this with {33.30}) or by a subsequent but lost abrogating verse.


Where flogging is required, the number of lashes is halved for slaves {4.25} – but, as noted above, doubled for the wives of Muhammad, {33.30} 〈79.〉