Adultery in Islam


Adultery in Islam refers to an unlawful sexual act of intercourse between a man and a woman during which, according to the prophet of Islam, the male organ enters the female organ the way “a rope goes into a well or a stick enters a Kohl canister” (Inamullah 1965). This definition applies equally to married and single people. In Islam, any illicit act of sexuality that does not involve full penetration does not comprise adultery.

Some versions of Shari’a law require that married or divorced persons found guilty of adultery (zina) be executed by stoning. Countries that contain a majority or large minority of Muslims vary greatly in their treatment of people who are found guilty of this crime. According to Amnesty International, countries such as Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Djibouti, Macedonia, Mozambique, Turkey, and Turkmenistan have formally abandoned execution as the penalty for all crimes, including adultery and other sex crimes (Tahtawi 1998). A recent Pakistani law abolished the death penalty for extramarital sex and revised a clause on making victims produce four witnesses to prove rape cases. Other countries with a large Muslim population that practice a very strict form of Islamic law such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Iran, and some of the northern states of Nigeria still apply the death penalty for various crimes, including blasphemy and adultery. The Qur’an, the ultimate source of the Shari’a, does not advocate death by any form to the adulterer. The Qur’an prescribes flogging and does not even mention the word “stoning” or “death by stoning” (rajm). Verse 24-2 says, “The woman and the man guilty of adultery, flog each of them.”

Where Shari’a is practiced, various countries tend to divide adultery into two categories, depending on whether it was committed by unmarried or married persons. Many traditional theologians (ulama) such as Imam Shafi’i in classical times and A. A. Maududi in modern times contend that “flogging” mentioned in the Qur’anic verse 24-2 applies to unmarried adulterers, whereas “stoning to death” applies to married adulterers. They support their views by referring to various sayings (hadith) by the

Prophet Muhammad, such as the following saying transmitted through various narrators: “Abd al-Wahhab told us from Yunus bin ‘Ubayd from al-Hasan from Ubadah bin al-Samit that the Messenger of God said: ‘Take it from me, take it from me, God has appointed a way: for bikr with bikr (the unmarried or virgin), flogging with a 100 stripes and banishment for one year; for al-thayyab with al-thayyabah (the married), flogging with a 100 stripes and death by stoning.’”

Other theologians and scholars such as al Maliki, al-Tabari, and Ibn Qutayba stress that death by stoning is not Islamic, has nothing to do with the Qur’anic teachings, and was introduced into the Islamic laws under the ordinance of the Torah.

Despite the heated polemics about the nature of zina (adultery) and the mechanisms of its punishment, all theologians agree that self-confessions by the adulterers or the testimony of four impeccable witnesses who have seen the actual act of penetration are required to apply the punishment. This tradition traces back to the Prophet’s sayings and practices in circumstances where he applied the punishment to a self-confessed person.

The Islamic process for verifying adultery is very cautious. Naturally, with the call for four witnesses it is next to impossible to prosecute a person for the crime of adultery unless the persons committing it have no regard for the mores of their society and commit the act in public.

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