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Cruel and Usual Punishment
By Nonie Darwish
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2008 Nonie Darwish
All rights reserved.
The Roots of Sharia
In 2006 Afghani citizen Abdul Rahman was arrested and sentenced to death for converting to Christianity. This occurred not under the Islamic state of the Taliban, but in the newly liberated secular government of Afghanistan. The Constitution of Afghanistan was contradictory. On one hand, it recognized a limited form of freedom of religion. On the other, it allowed Islamic jurisprudence, which mandates the death penalty for apostasy from Islam.
Under international pressure, the government released Rahman under cover of night, citing mental illness concerns so that he could "receive medical treatment overseas." He was spirited out of the country to protect him from Sharia enforcers who had vowed to take matters into their own hands.
Sharia courts hand down such death sentences all over the Islamic world. But, just as often, the courts aren't even involved. Converts from Islam are killed either by their own family or by Islamists on the street even before the government is notified. In Abdul Rahman's case, his family turned him in to the authorities.
When news of Rahman's secret release hit the streets of Kabul, several hundred clerics, students, and other protestors gathered, calling for his execution and shouting, "Death to Christians!" Afghanistan's deputy attorney general appeased hardliners by saying that Rahman was allowed to go overseas for medical treatment but that the case could be reopened "when he is healthy."
The death penalty for apostasy is the ultimate Sharia club to keep Muslims in line. This was the case in the seventh century, and it is still the case in the twenty-first.
What is Sharia?
Sharia is the body of Islamic law. It deals with all aspects of day-to-day life, including politics, economics, banking, business law, contract law, marriage, divorce, child rearing and custody, sexuality, sin, crime, and social issues. It makes no distinction between public and private life, treating all aspects of human relations as governable by Allah's law. The Sharia laws are based on the Qur'an and hadiths (sayings and example of the Prophet) as well as centuries of debate, interpretation, and precedent. There are literally thousands of Sharia laws.
There are four Sharia schools: Hanafi (of Imam Abu Hanifa), Shafi'i (of Imam Shafi'i), Maliki (of Imam Malik), and Hanbali (of Imam Hanbal). Hanbali law is the strictest and is followed only in Saudi Arabia. Most of the world's Muslims follow Hanafi law, which is the most liberal.
Muslim countries follow different schools and enforce Sharia to different degrees. Some, such as Saudia Arabia and Iran, enforce full Sharia, which includes three major categories of crimes:
1. Hudud crimes are crimes such as murder, apostasy (leaving Islam), theft, adultery, or drinking alcohol. Punishments for such crimes include stoning, beheading, amputation of limbs, and flogging. (Hudud is Arabic for "limits," implying crimes that are beyond the limit, crossing a border that should not be crossed. It is the most serious category of crimes.)
2. Qesas crimes are revenge crimes in which the victim has the right to seek retribution and retaliation. For example, the family of a murder victim can ask for blood money from the murderer instead of a public execution.
3. Tazir crimes are the least serious and can carry punishments such as fines, public or private censure, family and clan pressure and support, seizure of property, confinement in the home or place of detention, and flogging.
When it comes to punishment for Hudud crimes, Sharia does not distinguish between crime and sin—that is, "sin" as defined by Islam. So punishments for adultery and murder could be the same: beheading. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran follow all of the Sharia punishments for the above crimes, including the flogging of any woman caught without a head cover or seen with a man who is not her relative. In a recent Saudi case, a woman who had been gang-raped by seven men was sentenced to flogging because she had been seen talking with a man who was not her relative. Her attackers, by the way, saw that infraction as a justification to rape her. Some secular Muslim countries, such as Egypt, are formally Sharia states. Informally, however, Egypt does not follow the Sharia mode of punishments for some Hudud crimes, punishments such as flogging, beheading, and amputation of limbs for theft. In Egypt, death by hanging is the mode of execution.
Before we begin looking at specific Islamic Sharia laws and their effects on individuals and society, we need to understand how they came about. That requires going back to the seventh-century Arabian Peninsula, when Mohammed burst upon the scene, and then to the eighth century, when the laws began to be formulated and written down under the direction of various caliphs, or Islamic heads of state.
Arabian desert culture
To fully understand the world of Sharia, we must delve into the historical dynamics and physical environment of the Bedouin tribal culture of the Arabian Peninsula. The harsh desert climate in many ways dictated the way of life for nomadic tribes: their culture, dress, methods of warfare, family structure, and ways of obtaining food and water. We start with the commodity most necessary for survival—water itself; the very word, Sharia, means "way to water."
Without rivers or natural sources of fresh water, desert tribes gathered around scattered underground wells. It was their only source of life. With the exception of a few palm trees, there was hardly any agriculture or vegetation in a mostly flat desert and very little shelter from the hot sun and wind. Long before Islam, both men and women had to wear head cover as protection both from the sun and the severe sand storms.
Even though Egypt had a milder climate than Arabia, I remember the spring khamaseen sandstorms that were terrible, especially if a person was caught outdoors unprepared. The strong winds carried the desert sand into the air, blinding and striking us with a stinging sensation to uncovered arms, faces, legs, and eyes. It felt like a million mosquitoes attacking the body all at once. Now, one can just imagine how that felt in the open desert of seventh-century Arabia where the landscape offered little protection—no hills, valleys, or trees to break the wind, and no buildings, merely tents. Bedouins clustered in close proximity around a well—their only source for water. This proximity required a highly regulated social environment. In this open, exposed desert, a woman's clothes were her only means of privacy. The female nomad could only protect her privacy and dignity in two places—her tent, which she shared with many others, and within her clothing. The robe and head cover protected her face, eyes, and skin from the harsh environment, but they also gave her much-needed privacy in the dense area around the well. A verse from the Sahih Bukhari hadith collection gives some insight: "The Prophet said to his wives, 'You are allowed to go out to answer the call of nature.'" Women in the exposed desert climate had to walk out in the open field hidden in their tent-like protective clothes to relieve themselves.
Her clothing also represented a woman's boundary in a tribe that allowed little privacy. The head cover that could be wrapped around the face when necessary for protection from sun and sand and the long garment that covered arms and legs were not the creation of Islam, but existed prior to Islam; it was not originally adopted for religious reasons, but rather was an adaptation to the physical environment. Men in the Arabian desert also adapted to the environment by wearing the well-known Arabian male robes and head cover.
The extreme climate and scarcity of resources resulted in a primal struggle for survival and protection. Basic thirst and hunger necessitated a high level of dependency. Absolute obedience and loyalty to the tribe was essential to staying alive. The removal of tribal protection for any reason meant death from the elements or at best, enslavement by a rival tribe. Tribes competed and battled over the limited sources of water, food, and other essential goods. The scarcity of water contributed to a lack of hygienic practices among the Bedouins who had to use sand or rocks for cleansing their bodies. The following hadith by Mohammed reflects this hardship: "Use odd number of stones (minimum three) to clean your private parts." Bedouins often used pre-used or dirty water. In another hadith collection, "Narrated Abu Said al-Khudri: 'I heard that the people asked the Prophet of Allah: Water is brought for you from the well of Budai'ah. It is a well in which dead dogs, menstrual clothes, and excrement of people are thrown. The Messenger of Allah replied: Verily water is pure and is not defiled by anything.'" That is probably the reason Islam stressed the necessity of ablution before every prayer. Paradise according to Islam also reflects the scarcity of water in Arabia. In verse 47:15, Allah promises Muslims who go to Paradise gardens with rivers of incorruptible water, milk, wine, and honey, where as non-Muslims will dwell in fire and drink boiling water that will tear their intestines.
The whole tribe relied heavily on their strong young men who were revered fighters in an environment where tribes lived under constant anxiety over finding resources—all that while having to defend themselves from other tribes, who were always ready to do battle over such resources. Waiting patiently in hiding for their prey, attacking and raiding a caravan was honorable—and even a noble—act for the survival of the tribe.
The tribal system rewarded the young males who defended the tribe and brought it wealth. They were rewarded not only with a good share of the booty, but also with brides from within the tribe in addition to the ones won in battle. Women adored them and were happy to be given to them in marriage, even as one of the many wives to serve the heroes of the tribe. The young warriors were given not only great respect but also all the sexual gratification they asked for; the most beautiful and young females of the tribe were at their disposal. Such a reward was not taken by force, but offered as a sign of gratitude for the returning young warriors who survived a ruthless battle for survival.
The gratitude of the tribe— expressed in songs of encouragement and in poetry about their bravery and courage—for the men who returned from battle was immense, and those who died were heroes to be remembered for generations. With them they brought the booty of war—goods, food, and slaves that would keep the tribe alive for some time. Victory in battle brought not only wealth to the tribe but also protection to all the males—such as the older men who would otherwise have been killed by rival tribes—and protection for the females and children who would have been taken as slaves.
War and raiding were glorified in Arab poetry, a major cultural aspect of Arabia. Poems often expressed pride in battle and shedding the blood of the enemy. I have childhood memories of learning old Arab poems describing the Bedouin's pride in his arrows and how they fly to kill the enemy, and when their garments would be stained with blood, its scent to the Bedouin fighter was sweeter than the odor of musk. Many famous Arab poets glorified swords, battles, and the capture of booty while describing their bodies as made of iron. They would boast about drinking the blood of their enemies from their skulls. Female poets expressed pride in fighters who do not hesitate, the one with a brave and stubborn heart.
Arabian desert culture practiced a dual system of justice and ethics: one for their tribe, and another for all others. You had the right to justice only when judged by your own tribe, but you had no rights if you fell in the hands of raiders of the other tribe. Women and children of the defeated tribe became slaves, and men were killed. Justice did not apply to everyone equally. This law of the desert was the major cultural factor that produced Islamic Sharia, a system that gives justice to people depending on who they are and to which tribe they belong. Sharia codified this kind of legal discrimination, creating different sets of laws for Muslim and non-Muslim. Under Sharia, if you are a Muslim, you have one set of laws to protect you; and if you are not, a different set of laws can protect you—if you accept a second-class citizen protected status, called a dhimmi—as long as you pay the jizya tax. It is a penalty fee a non-Muslim must pay to the Muslim government for protection from being killed for being a non-Muslim. The Western Judeo-Christian Golden Rule that applies to all was and still is alien to Arabia and to the Islamic Sharia laws that Arabian culture produced and still lives by today.
The use of females as reward to the heroes was an institution in the Arab tribal culture and existed long before Mohammed. Acquiring many wives and women slaves was a sign of a man's bravery, manhood, and social status in the tribe. Men who were weak or with physical disabilities, if not wealthy by inheritance, could not have the reward of females and pay their dowry. Having women and sexual gratification was a privilege of the brave warriors that weaker and poorer men could not have. Women, sex, power, violence, the sword, pride, and battle were all linked with one another in the culture of Arabia. Women as well as men were invested in a desert-raiding survival system that brought with it prestige and immense pride. The whole system was based on exhibiting power. Strong tribes were admired, respected, and feared. Others would think twice about attacking them and in fact sought out alliances.
Both male and female not only accepted the nature of their gender roles but also wanted to preserve these roles—power, respect, and sexual rewards for the male; protection from slavery and assurance of survival in a harsh environment for the female. The last thing the Bedouin female thought of was her human rights or her independence. Being one of the gifts to the man who returned triumphant from battle was not something to be ashamed of but was a source of pride, and women of the tribe competed to appease them. This competition was enhanced by polygamy where wives had to compete over a husband's love and approval. A woman's social status was measured by whom she married; she would rather be one of the many wives of the hero rather than the wife of a weaker, poorer male. Females linked their safety and security to their surrender to male power. Arabian women knew well what could happen to them if their heroes were defeated in battle; they would become not only sexual slaves but also slaves and servants of the females of the conquering tribe. Thus, tribal culture produced a female who wanted to please and was thankful and proud of her protector hero. The roles of male supremacy and female submission in Arabian Peninsula culture would come to form the basis of Sharia law governing the relationships of the sexes.
Arabia is one of the few regions in the Middle East that was unattractive to the great conquerors, who were often discouraged by the harsh desert environment and the fierce, warring tribes. For the Arab man, the desert was his curse as well as his protection from slavery. The lack of a conquering history made the Arabian man value his independence and freedom immensely and despise the semi-slave settled lifestyle of the peasant. For centuries, Arabia had remained a culture of the proud independent rebel male hero, with no central authority and no social structure beyond the family and the tribe.
Arabia, in fact, looked with disdain at the settled cultures—Egypt, for example, with its dense population along the Nile River, which provided water for an agrarian style of life. Because of the Nile, Egypt was an old, settled society controlled by a central government. Arabia was also very different from the Sham region to the north (today's Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel). These were also more settled communities with more reliable water resources and fewer struggles for survival.
When Mohammed arose and began attracting followers around 622 CE, there was a huge Byzantine Christian Empire to the northwest, the Persian Zoroastrian Empire to the northeast, and Egypt, a thriving, diverse region with a large majority of Coptic Christians as well as members of other religions, to the southwest. Furthermore, within Arabia itself there were many different groups—Jewish tribes in Yemen and also scattered around northern Arabia, Eastern Christians in northern Arabia, and pagan tribes who worshiped many deities scattered throughout the Peninsula. But it was the earlier monotheistic religions—Judaism and Christianity—that on one hand inspired Mohammed, but on the other hand were seen as rivals to Mohammed's emerging new religion. During the life of Mohammed in the seventh century, the impact of Christianity and Judaism was strongly felt in Arabia, and some tribes were actually converting to Christianity.
Arabia was at a crossroad—undergo major cultural and organizational change represented by Christianity and Judaism, or protect their tribal way of life by rejecting those two foreign religions, religions that were the product of the more-settled cultures that Arabia despised but also envied—envied for having more available water resources, rivers, agriculture, and wealth. The impact of the "treat your neighbor like yourself" culture was threatening to the "raid your neighbor before he raids you" culture.
Excerpted from Cruel and Usual Punishment by Nonie Darwish. Copyright © 2008 Nonie Darwish. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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