Killings in the Name of Religion
by Mohamad K. Yusuff
few weeks ago, ABC News magazine, Nightline, televised a documentary,
originally produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), titled, A
Matter of Honor, on two consecutive nights -- February 15 and 16, 1999. The
drama that enfolded on television during these two one-half hour programs was
stunning, incredible, and heinous. It dealt with a barbaric custom of murdering
Muslim women for immoral activities in rural Pakistan, at the hands of male
family members, including fathers, brothers, and even husbands, to maintain the
purity of tribal honor.
my view, this program should have been renamed: "A Matter of
Dishonor." Similar documentaries, with different titles, from other
geographic regions including Jordan and Lebanon, have been produced and shown
before -- all with the same results -- the victims invariably were Muslim
women, killed by male relatives to "restore family honor." It seems
that blood -- women’s blood -- is the price of men’s honor in some parts
of the Muslim world.
article will briefly discuss issues raised in this documentary, including
"consent and marriage, adultery and false accusation," and the
"legality of honor killings," on the basis of the Prophetic Tradition
and the Sacred Qur’an, the pre-eminent Book of Laws for all of Islam.
Honor killings for female sexual misconduct (real or imagined) is a
practice that is outside my living experience, and that of millions of Muslims
born and bred in the West. Undoubtedly, this type of gender homicide is an
aberrant relic of a feudal patriarchy that is alien to Islamic teachings
and the Muslim way of life.
ABC News introduced Part I of this documentary
Journalists should always think twice before
embarking on a report critical of another culture or another religion’s
practices. It is simply too easy to judge, too easy to believe that our ways
are better ways. But some practices are so disturbing -- and in the case of
tonight’s broadcast, so horrific -- that they demand a painful closer look.
Such a practice found in a number of Muslim
countries is called "honor killing," women murdered when they are
suspected of immoral activities. This might include marrying someone the family
disapproves of, being seen with the wrong person, going out alone at night, or
just being the subject of gossip. Honor is recovered only when the woman dies.
. . .
Part II of the documentary was introduced by
ABC News as follows:
Since our broadcast last night, we have
received numerous emails and phone calls from people worried that a report on
how brutally women are treated in parts of the Muslim world may be a criticism
of the religion of Islam. It is not. Nothing in Islam demands the murder of
women suspected of immoral behavior.
But it is true that countless fundamentalist
Muslims, and in some parts of the world other religious groups as well, believe
that the behavior of their women must be strictly controlled, and they believe
even the appearance of a woman’s misbehavior spells death or else the men in
the family will be dishonored. . . .
broadcast portrays a dominant and inelastic patriarchal system, in which male
members make life-and-death decisions on the physical well-being of their
women. These Muslim women are essentially illiterate and are totally subjugated
under the pernicious system of purdah -- seclusion of women from male
society and covering from head to toe when in public. The primary reason given
for female homicide was "alleged sexual misconduct," ranging on the
moral continuum, from "suspicion of adultery" to "rumor of
adultery." The program showed that male members of the Pakistani feudal
patriarchy have exclusive prerogative over marriage arrangements of their
daughters, who are helpless and have absolutely no recourse but to obey the
chauvinist dictates of a backward system. This barbarism over Muslim women by a
tyrant patriarchy is a travesty that is outside the pale of the Islamic model,
as taught by the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.a.w).
Asma Jahangir of Pakistan Human Rights
Commission analyzed the women’s dilemma in the program as follows: "You
are seeing these people who are ignorant and who are sick and it has nothing to
do with Islam, except that these people have been allowed to get away with it
by our state machinery. . . . So it is really the state that is allowing them
to do it. It has nothing to do with religion. . . ."
Consent and Marriage
the program, we met a father (together with his son) charged with the killing
of his daughter and a man with whom she had allegedly eloped. When questioned
about the murders of his daughter and her "man friend," the father
responded: "My daughter ran away with someone, so we killed them both.
When she eloped, she wasn’t my daughter anymore. I did the right thing. I’m an
honorable man. I killed them both. There is no greater honor anywhere. . . ."
This is the "life-and-death hold" that fathers have over their daughters
in this tribal enclave, a practice that violates all Islamic tenets.
custom of "arranged marriages" is an ancient, time-tested system,
practiced by all societies and by all religious traditions from time
immemorial. Even in twenty-first century America today, this practice is alive
and well. Islam is not averse to "arranged marriages" provided that
the woman’s consent is safeguarded. Islam views marriage as a contract for
life, and as such, the man and the woman must reach a mutual understanding as
to their compatibility as life partners.
sacred Qur’an enjoins: "Marry such women as seem good to you." (4:3)
The Prophet recommended: "When one of you makes a proposal of marriage
to a woman, he, if he can, should look at what attracts him to her."
(Abu Dawud) The canonical hadith texts (al sahihain) of Islam’s two most distinguished muhaddithin, Imam al Bukhari
and Imam Muslim, contain chapters with headings essentially titled: "To Look at a Woman Before Marriage." According to the
Prophet’s teachings, it is recommended that marriage partners see each other.
The Messenger of Allah directed a companion, Mughira
ibn Shu`ba, to go and see the woman to whom he had
proposed marriage because "it was likely to bring about greater love and
concord between them." (Ahmad, Tirmidhi, and al
Mishkat al Masabih)
jurists are in general agreement on the principle of approval (istihbab), i.e., looking at the woman one intends to
marry and vice versa. Moreover, the marriage contract is a mutually agreeable
document requiring the consent of both parties (man and woman). Since the man
is allowed to look at the woman, it would seem fair that the woman has the same
right to look at the man before giving her consent for marriage. This
conclusion is based on Islam’s bedrock principle of equality in
rights and obligations, between man and woman.
according to tradition, the consent of both the man and the woman is an
essential element of the Muslim marriage procedures. The noble Qur’an clearly
lays down that the two must agree: "Prevent them not from
marrying their husbands when they agree among themselves in a lawful manner."
(2:232) Ahmad Shukri, in his noted work, The Muhammadan Law of Marriage and Divorce, page 43, (on
the authority of `Abd al Qadir,
al Nahr, page 218), states: "The time
for seeing her should precede the betrothal. . . . The woman is recommended to
have a look at the man if she wants to marry him, because anything that would
please her with him will please him with her . . . ."
the Islamic tradition, when a man agrees to marry a woman, he makes a proposal
of marriage to the parents or guardians. Some jurists contend that the proposal
can be made directly to the woman herself. Once the man makes this proposal, other
suitors are forbidden to propose to the same woman until the first suitor
withdraws, or until his proposal is rejected. (al Bukhari) A woman may also make a proposal of marriage to a
man. (al Bukhari) Generally,
it is the man who makes the proposal. It should be noted that it was the
Prophet’s wife Khadija (r.a) who proposed to him, and
not vice versa.
shown here, consent is a requirement in Islam’s marriage procedures, a
principle that is completely violated by the ironclad practice of
"male-controlled marriages" in the Pakistani patriarchal system. Much
of the evil of Pakistan’s tribal marriage practices is also compounded by
abject ignorance and religious illiteracy, by both the "so-called mullahs"
and the "misinformed lay" masses.
Note on Purdah
Purdah was defined earlier in this paper. In my
opinion, probably no other individual in the twentieth century had more to do
with the degradation and subjugation of Muslim women in the Indian subcontinent
and elsewhere than Maulana Sayyid
Abul A`la Mawdudi. His work on women, Purdah and the Status of
Woman in Islam (1939), is a pernicious book that has set back the Muslim
woman’s cause, to a time reminiscent of the jahiliyyah
(age of ignorance) that predated Islam. One ironic note is that while the
theologians of Saudi Arabia have praised Mawdudi’s Purdah
and have been its main distributor, they have totally rejected other fine works
of the great Maulana. [A detailed analysis and review
of Purdah by the Islamic Study Academy of Maryland is forthcoming soon.]
Adultery and False Accusation
broadcast showed that women were killed on the "slightest suspicion of
adultery" (zina) or on the "mere
rumor of sexual misconduct." The mother-in-law of one woman, who was
killed along with her "alleged" sweetheart cousin, stated that "the
couple was seen alone together and this was enough to tarnish the family’s
honor. They had to be killed. . . . If somebody dishonors us, he should be
killed. No matter how old, even if they are innocent." One Muslim man in
jail for such killing boldly claimed: "We are Muslims. Our Shari`a says
if you see them, kill them. We cannot spare them if we see them. It says so in
the Shari`a and the Qur’an. Even the Mullahs say it. . . ."
What abject ignorance!
here is a layman’s summary of "adultery and false accusation" --
offenses which are punishable under the laws of Islam. As a general
proposition, it is nearly impossible to prove a case of adultery under Islamic
jurisprudence, simply because the "four required witnesses" have to
testify that they actually "witnessed" the sexual offense, i.e.
copulation. "Suspicion, rumor, or hearsay" is legally inadmissible.
Qur’an mandates: "The adulteress and the adulterer, flog each of them
(with) a hundred stripes, and let not pity for them detain you from obedience
to Allah . . . ." (24:2) The Qur'an also stipulates
that the punishment for adultery committed by "slave-girls" is half
that imposed on "freed married women" (4:25). These two verses
were the last revelation in the Qur’an mandating flogging,
and not the practice of stoning to death, for the
offense of zina (click
here for a related question and answer). An earlier revelation of two
verses (4:15-16), stipulating "house arrest" for women fornicators
and "punishment" for homosexuality, was superceded
by the two later verses noted herein, according to some
punishable offense is "false accusation of adultery" (al qadhf), essentially slander. The Qur’an commands: "And
those who accuse free women and bring not four witnesses, flog them (with)
eighty stripes and never accept their evidence, and these are the transgressors
-- except those who afterwards repent and act aright; surely Allah is
Forgiving, Merciful" (24:4-5). Thus, false accusation is a serious
offense in Islam.
Qur’an makes it clear that "death," either by "stoning" or
by any other means as a punishment for adultery, is unlawful based on divine
law. This is in direct contradiction to death by stoning for illicit
sexual conduct, practiced in countries such as, Saudi Arabia, Iran,
Afghanistan, Pakistan, and others.
The Right to Life
Riffat Hassan, professor of religious
studies at the University of Louisville, explained the women’s plight in the
broadcast as follows: "Unfortunately, most religions of the
world developed in patriarchal cultures, which were male centered, male
dominated, and gave men a sort of sole authority to interpret the texts and assume
proprietary rights in some cases over the lives of women . . . . To these men
who are killing their wives and sisters, their honor is something that is
priceless, and the lives of these women are worth very little. . . . women are replaceable . . . . but
honor is not . . . . but it’s, you know, certainly not
reflective of Islamic teachings."
fact is that Islam has laid down universal fundamental rights for humanity,
which are to be observed and respected under all circumstances. For example,
human blood is sacred and may not be spilled without strong justification. It
is not permissible to oppress women, children, old people, the sick or the
wounded; women’s honor and chastity must be respected; the hungry must be fed,
the naked clothed, and the wounded or diseased treated medically. All Muslims
within an Islamic state must recognize these rights.
first and foremost basic right in Islam is the right to life. The Sacred
Qur’an lays down: Whoever kills a human being,
except as punishment for manslaughter or corruption on earth, it is as though
he had killed all mankind. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had
saved the lives of all mankind. (5:32) The Qur’an also makes clear: Do
not kill a soul which Allah has made sacred except through the due process of
on these injunctions, the calculated murder of Muslim women shown in the
broadcast cannot be justified under any circumstances.
Responsibility of the Islamic State
Sacred Qur’an envisions that the aim and purpose of the Islamic State is to
promote in humans behavior that is innately good, and to suppress actions that
are evidently evil. The demand of Islam is that principles of morality must be
observed at all costs and in all walks of life. Hence, it lays down an unalterable
policy that the state should base its policies on justice, truth, and honesty.
It is not prepared, under any circumstances, to tolerate fraud, falsehood, and
injustice for the sake of political or sectarian expediency. Islam also imposes
similar obligations on the state and the individual to use power and authority
in pursuit of justice, and to regard power as a trust from God to be used
equitably, on account of the fact that man is responsible to God for his
the basis of Islamic practices and regulations noted herein, it is easy to
conclude that only a legally constituted state has the right to adjudicate
moral offenses committed by citizens. At the same time, not even the state can
impose capital punishment for sexual misconduct, since this is strictly
prohibited by the sacred law itself, as documented above. Hence, the barbaric
practice of "honor killings" prevalent in the Indian subcontinent and
elsewhere is an atrocity that is wholly illegal and without scriptural basis.
What is more abhorrent and immoral in the eyes of millions of Muslims today, is the abject failure of the government of Pakistan
to reign in and extirpate this heinous and criminal tradition. We thus call on
Muslims the world over to denounce the gruesome murders of Muslim women on the
mere suspicion of sexual misconduct -- wherever in the world such injustice
as the sacred Qur’an commands in this bedrock regulation: You
who believe, be upholders of justice, witnesses to Allah, even it be against
yourselves, your parents, or your kinsmen -- whether he be rich or poor. . . .
And if you distort or turn away from (truth), surely Allah is ever Aware of what you do. (4:135)
Posted March 9, 1999. This article was
printed in the February/March 1999 issue of the Voice of Islam newsletter.
(This newsletter is published by the Islamic Society of the Washington Area).