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Stoning in Judaism and Islam and what the comparison of the two can tell us

BS”D

First off I want to relate you to an amazing and informative post by Jessica on askanislamicist, where she writes about Schacht and Hallaq, two Islamicists, who are important to know and understand in order to get the discussion at hand, and in the academic study of Islamic law in general. So please take a little time reading her post before reading the following.

Did you read it? Good, let’s get to it.

As you without a doubt read in my two last posts, I am telling a little about my assignments, having the last post being about my assignment on the Quranic view on Biblical texts. In this post I will deal with my seminar paper on the comparative study of stoning in Judaism and Islam. But first, why stoning? What is it that makes a sane guy (as far as I am sane, I’m doubting that sometimes, and I know my wife wasn’t too sure after having witnessed me going in depth with the issue) focus on stoning, maybe one of the most cruel capital punishments the human mind can think of? Well, let me tell you this; as part of this study I also read about other capital punishments, and there are methods of killing out there WAY worse than stoning. As a matter of fact, if I should choose between all the methods of being killed (and no, please don’t take this as an encouragement, I do like to live), stoning definitely comes on my top5 list. Just think about the Chinese way of cutting of pieces of the body, flesh first, then limbs, until you die. Or the Persian method of – well- feeding you with milk and honey until you – as a consequence – have certain natural urges, but then trap you in a hollow tree or two boats put together, place you in the desert, and let bugs be your only company, until you die from one of several causes. Detailed enough I think, and I do apologize. But this study was a lot about details, and how they did not fit together.

When one says “stoning,” many might think of “Muslim barbarians” stoning innocent women in Africa or wherever you find these kinds of guys. Well,  breaking illusions, as it is portrayed these cases of stoning is actually going against Islamic law, and is more telling about people basing their judgment on lack of knowledge, than actually relating to Islamic law. Of course, the women being stoned (because it is interestingly enough mostly women, though Islam also prescribes stoning for men) probably don’t care much, but when we relate to Islam and the matter of stoning, this is of extreme importance. The equitant being that some Americans groups killed people randomly with gas, and then establish that this was telling of the States in general, since gassing is one of the ways of killing criminals convicted to death (and any innocent who ends up there, based on a error of judgment).

That aside, Islam is not the only religion having stoning as a death sentence, as well as stoning is not the only way of killing. There is also crucifixion and beheading, depending on what the crime is. Stoning in Islam is given for adultery, but not all people committing adultery are judged to stoning. One has to be “muhsan,” that is, married, free, Muslim, adult, and of sane mind. A slave, for example, cannot be judged to stoning, but “only” lashes, and only half of what the free non-muhsan Muslim would receive. So the punishment is to a lesser degree dependent on what is done, as to who has done it, except in case of sodomy, which also leads to stoning, no matter the status of the person doing the crime.

In Judaism it is a little different. Here it is not so much the status of the person who did the crime that matters, as the crime being done. For example, if you have sex with a married woman you would receive a different punishment than if you had sex with a betrothed woman, who was a virgin, or if you had sex with your daughter in law or your father’s wife. Also, in Judaism stoning is not only related to adultery, but also to certain rebellious attitudes, for example he who curses his parents, as well as idolatry.

Another difference, which I put particular interest in, is the concept of stoning, that is, how it is done. In the Bible, the Torah, we find stoning mentioned with two terms, s’qilah (סקילה), and regimah (רגימה). It is not clear what the difference between the two is, when reading the Torah itself, but relating to various dictionaries, such as Gesenius’, we can learn that the term s’qilah is related to something heavy, probably being related to the Arab word shaql (شقل), while the term regimah is related to the sense of something being thrown as a missile, piling up. This is interesting, since the Arabic word for stoning is rajm (), which is basically the Arab form of the Hebrew regimah, consisting of the same root (resh/ra, gimel/gjim, mem/mim), and they both carry the same basic meaning.
What is even more interesting is that when we read the Mishnah on stoning, in Seder Neziqin, Massechet Sanhedrin, we see that stoning is described in relation to s’qilah, namely via a heavy stone thrown on the sentenced in order to crush him (after having been pushed down from a height of two men – maybe an influence from Roman law, though not of interest here). If he does not die from this, a second heavy stone is thrown at him by the witnesses, and then – if he should survive that as well, he is to be pelted by “Israel,” that is, the people witnessing the stoning. The word used in order of the heavy stones is s’qilah, while the term used for the people pelting him is regimah. Here we clearly see the difference between the two terms, the one relating to crushing with a heavy stone, where as the other is relating to stones thrown/pelted at somebody. For the Hebrew speakers it might be interesting to read the verses in the Torah with that knowledge in mind, and see what meaning the verses give you now – and please write in a comment what you got out of it, could be interesting to hear.

Stoning in Islam is solely described with the term rajm, that is, the Arabic version of regimah. The understanding is the same, pointing at a shared Semitic origin. Also, if we read ancient Semitic laws, such as Hammurabi and the Eshnunna, we will see that the term regimah/rajm is also used, so there is a pre-Judaic/Islamic origin of the regimah/rajm.

Considering these details, and many more which I also describe, it is hard to reach the conclusion that the stoning of Islam is influenced or even borrowed from the Jewish ditto. Rather it seems like they share a common origin, but Judaism developed the concept of stoning, maybe influenced by some non-Semitic sources. It seems more that the Islamic concept of stoning is of a pre-Islamic Arabic and maybe even Semitic origin, going back to early Aramaic-Arabic relations, long before Islam.

This was the first part I dealt with in the paper. The second part is relating to the Schacht-Hallaq impasse (!!), and their claims. Schacht believes that stoning is a later Islamic concept, most likely borrowed from Judaism, and from Iraqi-Jewish sources (such as the Talmud and the early Geonim). Schacht sees the Iraqi Muslim scholars and jurist as the definers of Islamic law, particularly Shafi’î, who is considered one of the greatest and earliest Islamic legal minds, and the founding father of the four roots of Usul al-Fiqh (Quran, Sunnah, Ijma, and Qiyas). Hallaq on the other hand sees the Hijaz as the legal forming center, and refuses Schacht’s critical attitude to the hadiths. Hallaq sees a lot of pre-Islamic Arabic legal practice as the base for later Islamic law, or at least sees Islamic law as being founded in a shared Semitic origin, rather as mere borrowing from Jewish or Roman law (the latter is something Schacht believes strongly being the source of much of Islamic law).

But relating this to stoning. Since Schacht believes that stoning only entered Islamic law some centuries after Muhammad’s death, and that it is based on Jewish traditions, while Hallaq sees the opposite, what can my study say about this? I think it’s obvious. The Islamic concept of stoning does not seem to be much influenced by the Jewish concept. If indeed Islam “borrowed” the Jewish stoning as a punishment, and this is based on Iraqi Muslim scholars’ meeting with Jewish ditto, why then use the term rajm, and not for example shaql, based on the Hebrew s’qilah, or a derivation thereof? Why do we not see more similarities, or rather any similarities? Why is one judge enough to judge in Islam, when twenty-three (or more) is needed in Judaism? Why are four witnesses needed in Islam, when two is enough in Judaism? Why is Islam more focused on the status of the person, when Judaism is more focused on the crime being done? And so on. It seems a little weird to claim that the Jewish concept of stoning should be the base for the Islamic ditto, when so little is similar between. And Roman law is totally out of the question – as far as I know – since stoning is not used as a capital punishment.

I would rather believe that the roots of Islamic stoning is found in a Semitic environment not being too exposed to non-Semitic cultural encounters, and of all places I can think of the Arabian Peninsula is the only place that could be, which would mean that stoning in Islam most likely is based on pre-Islamic Arabic practices. And if that is the case, then this is definitely going in Hallaq’s favour.

Of course, stoning could be based on Sassanian law (pre-Islamic Persian dynasty), but my knowledge about Sassanian law is close to non-existent. So if anyone out there can enlighten me on that subject I would be grateful.

Some notes here in the end I probably need to share, which is obvious from the paper itself, but not from what I have written here: The Quran says nothing about stoning as a punishment. On the contrary, the Quran prescribes lashes as punishment for adultery. I related only to Sunni-Fiqh, not Shi’a, and I based the paper on the Maliki al-Muwatta, though many of the hadiths I related to also are found both in Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim. I also only related to the Mishnah, not so much to the Gemarrah, since the Mishnah lays the foundation and the Gemarrah only relates to the broadening of details. Furthermore I spent some space in the paper on discussing the hadith about the two Jews being brought to Muhammad, and the problematic nature of ‘Abdullah ibn Salâm’s involvement, considering that he should have been a learned rabbi, in comparison to the details being presented in the hadith.

With that said I think it’s time to stop. Thanks for your time.

All the best.


2 Comments

  1. AJ says:

    Shmuel,
    My understanding based upon Quran and Hadith is that stoning is the Jewish punishment for adultery and lashes is the Islamic punishment. Allah made it easier for Muslims🙂 It is the same way Allah made the payback for murder easier for Muslims. For Jews it was eye for an eye and for Muslims if it was not cold blooded murder, then blood money was allowed. Anyway going back to adultery; the verse in the Quran where Jews come to Muhammad (PBUH) to get his verdict for the adulterous couple and are instructed by people back home to get the lighter punishment and ignore if given the harsh punishment, makes it clear to me that the stoning was the harsher punishment which they wanted to avoid. I think that verse correlates with the Hadith about the Jewish couple that got stoned. I am sorry it is late here and I am feeling a little lazy to look up the verse numbers but I think you know what I am talking about. Best, A.

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