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Religion and Society

Why Stoning Sakineh Is a Mistake

Sudanese-born Abdullahi Ahmed an-Naim is Professor at the Emory Law School, Atlanta. A disciple of reformer Mahmud Taha, sentenced in Khartoum in 1985, Naim is one of the best-known and talked-about Muslim teachers on human rights in Islam. Massimo Papa teaches Comparative Private Law at Rome’s Tor Vergata University. He is vice-president of the Istituto per l’Oriente and Afghanistan Consultant to the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During the Summer School on Re-thinking Rights in a Plural Society organized by ASSET in Venice we asked the two scholars to comment on the case of Iranian woman Sakineh.

Professor Naim, what is your assessment of Sakineh’s case?


Officially, the authorities maintain this is a straightforward murder case. Although I have not followed the matter in detail, I think that the ambiguity of the versions produced throughout the years is suspicious and betrays the presence of political manipulation. This poor woman has ended up at the centre of a struggle between different underground factions. There are many cases similar to this.



About this charge, and especially the (momentarily suspended) sentence, the authorities have invoked Islamic legitimation. Sakineh’s case would be included in the hudùd category, which comprises crimes explicitly defined as such in the Koran itself: murder, adultery, theft, slander and alcohol consumption.



The whole hudùd question is contradictory. To start with, the Koran does not mention stoning for adultery. Besides, traditional norms are very exacting in terms of evidence collecting: they talk about four witnesses who must tell in detail and without contradictions the taking place of the sexual act. The tradition tells of a man who came to accuse himself before the Prophet, and the Prophet thrice over turned his ear to the other side in order not to listen to him. Only the fourth time did he decide to believe the confession that, according to traditional law, must be maintained by the condemned person throughout the execution. In Sakineh’s case, instead, we see an over-eagerness for punishment. Behind this there is a political game.



Even with the important limitations you have mentioned, the hudùd discipline remains problematic.


I certainly am of the opinion that today it is not possible to execute hudùd punishments by law. The punishments are so severe that they require absolute certainty. First of all, the Koran does not give any definition of theft or adultery. Besides, the various law schools have taken different positions about what constitutes evidence, with the result that the same fact can lead to death by stoning in Northern Nigeria and absolution in Sudan -- possibly with the accusers being condemned for slander, with relative corporal punishment. But how is it possible for the same event to be dealt with in such different ways? Who is right? I think that the authentically pious position should acknowledge that there is too much disagreement and possibility of error for such punishments to be applied.



Professor Papa, are you convinced?


It is extremely difficult not to totally agree with these arguments. This is obviously the viewpoint of a Muslim believer seeking an historical interpretation of Islamic Law. General Islamic principles are often invoked but how they should be filled with contents is controversial. I would like to return to the inflexible evidence issue, historically used for attenuating the severity of the norms. Thanks to the slander accusation and to the often near-impossibility to produce any evidence, the sacred origin of the norm was eluded. Yet, as soon as the sha’riah norm becomes a law, this flexibility disappears. In many Muslim countries modernization has paradoxically meant sharpening the severity of the norms.



And what about the murder charge?


In view of international pressure, the regime prefers to register the case as murder in order to place itself at the same level as other States, such as the US and China, which have a provision for capital punishment: in this way, external interference would be avoided. So then I have two questions: what is the meaning of being attached to the Islamic tradition? Is this important in order to affirm one’s degree of Islamicity? Above all, how many other Sakineths lie in Iranian prisons? At least 30, according to what filters through. There are also cases of suspected homosexuals – in fact, opponents of the regime, sentenced to death by the score during the summer. Why does the international community not display the same degree of indignation? How come the West cannot have an influence by demanding respect for the conditional clauses in treaties of economic cooperation? The answer is simple: Iran is too important an economic partner. We are ready to give in before mere economic interests. This I think is hypocritical. You cannot accuse the Islamic tradition and then be unable step back when economic interests are at stake.



Professor Naim, what is wrong with the idea of a State directly imposing shari’ah?


The nature of the State and the law has radically changed with the onset of modernity. In pre-colonial times hudùd punishments were exceptional and not controlled by the State. The social network made the formulation of accusations very difficult. Now, on the contrary, you have mega-cities where the individual is depersonalized and you have the central role of the State as the only source and executor of the Law. Besides, the certainty of punishment is demanded vis-à-vis the fluidity of the different juridical schools. We Muslims cannot carry on business as usual, as if nothing had happened. Even if we wanted to champion the application of shari’ah on part of the State, it is no mystery that many people have managed to elude its severity. Last summer in Iran scores of people were killed during public protests. There is no immunity for State officials or the police according to shari’ah. Why were they not tried? If we want to be honest and consistent we should conclude this is a total travesty of shari’ah to serve the interests of specific groups.



One final point. Prof. Papa has criticized the West; I will criticize the Muslim world. Where are the protests? The region’s media are silent. When Saddam was overturned I publicly declared I was against the American intervention and considered it illegal on the international law level. However, I also asked: where were our Arab intellectuals during the thirty years when Saddam performed his atrocities? Our credibility is undermined by our inability to take a stance. The double standards system is very widespread, and not only in the West.




[Text collected by Martino Diez]



*This interview has been published in an abridged version on «Avvenire»