[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
My column neighbor Burak Bekdil had an interesting piece yesterday titled, “Would Mr. Erdoğan kindly care for this Muslim woman?” While Mr. Erdoğan probably needs no introduction, “this woman” was Sakineh Mohammedie Ashtiani, an Iranian citizen who reportedly faced a threat of being executed by stoning. Mr. Bekdil was wondering — rhetorically, I guess — if the Turkish prime minister could use his prestige in Tehran to save the poor lady from such an unfortunate end. Besides that, he was also making tongue-in-cheek references to the Quran to imply how upholding that book can lead Muslims to “barbaric” acts such as stoning.
And, well, I have a few things to say about all that.
No stoning in the Quran
First things first. Although Mr. Bekdil defined stoning as an “explicit Quranic commandment,” it actually isn’t. There is simply no reference to stoning in the whole Quran. The only scripture that orders this painful execution is in fact the Torah. In Islam, stoning appeared as a post-Quranic injunction, established by “hadiths,” or sayings attributed to the prophet, whose authenticity has always been contested. My honest belief is that it came from an outside source (Judaism, obviously) and, like many other elements of Islamic law, became incorporated into Islam over time.
So, Mr. Bekdil is simply wrong to think “the devout mind with perpetual citings from the Quran” has to choose “muteness” in the face of questions regarding stoning. One can obviously oppose stoning – as I do – in total compliance with the Muslim scripture.
Yet there are other corporal punishments in the Quran — such as lashes for adultery or the false accusation of it and the amputations of hands for theft. One way to understand these is the literalist way, which not only the fundamentalist Muslims, but also many critics of Islam see as the only way. (Mr. Bekdil, for example, thinks “Quranic commandments come in one flavor only… about do’s and don’t’s.”)
But, in fact, there has always been a more figurative method of interpretation as well, which focuses not just on the wording, but also on the intent of the scripture. This tradition realized that the Quranic commandments on social and legal matters were bound by their context, and a change in the latter could change the whole picture. Caliph Umar created the first precedent by declining to implement some Quranic commandments about the governance of land for the simple fact that the conditions that made them necessary in the first place had changed. In the 14th century Imam Shatibi of Spain built a whole theory about this in his book on the “Maqasid al-Shariah,” or the Purposes of the Shariah.
Based on such ideas, some corporal punishments were rendered obsolete in the more flexible schools of Islamic law, such as the Hanafi one, which the Ottoman Empire subscribed to. Under Sultan Mehmed II, the conqueror of Istanbul, the amputations of hands for theft was replaced by beatings or monetary fines graded according to the economic status of the culprit. Stoning was also made very hard to implement and is known to have happened only twice during the six centuries of Ottoman rule.
In the modern era, Islamic scholars such as the late Fazlurrahman have been arguing that Islamic law should be totally reinterpreted within this perspective. At the time the Quran was revealed, these scholars remind, corporal punishments were the standard norm in the whole world. Moreover, it was impossible to give any other form of penalty in 7th century Arabia, where you simply had neither any prison nor any bureaucracy to establish and run one. Yet the new world we live in, these scholars say, needs new rulings, which will uphold the “purposes” of the Shariah by changing its wording.
Adultery in the US
To make a long story short, one can simply say Islamic law is actually a bit more complicated than what is seen through the “one flavor” detecting lens of Mr. Bekdil.
Even the West is more complicated. Mr. Bekdil was referring to a “shock” that the “Westerners” had in 2006 when there was an attempt by the AKP to outlaw adultery — as it was in the Turkish legal code until the ’90s. I criticized the AKP on that mistaken step. But it might be worthwhile to note that in the countries of some of those “Westerners,” too, adultery is still a crime. In the United States, the state of Michigan still penalizes adultery with a consequence as serious as a life sentence. Maryland imposes a fine on it. Wisconsin considers it as a “class I felony.”
You can say these punishments in the American legal texts are hardly implemented, and you would be right. But I am saying the same thing is possible with the adultery laws in Islam as well, which would probably be the case had the Ottoman society, and its evolution, survived.
The trouble we have in the post-Ottoman Muslim world is a resurgence of fundamentalism and literalism — a mindset internalized by not only the Islamists, but, as you can see, also the secularists.