Shagged someone outside of marriage? 100 lashes for you, the Wisest says

Not S&M but a divine command

Not S&M, but a divine commandment.

A friend recently texted me late at night to tell me it had finally dawned on him that the peculiar noises coming from his flatmate’s room were those of fornication. His message was intended for mere lol-inducing purposes, but instead it got me thinking about what the presumed author of the Quran would make of this. (It didn’t, really, but it makes for a more relevant story if I say it did.)

It vaguely baffles me how few Muslims are aware of the Quran-prescribed response to unmarried sex: 100 lashes for both “culprits”. Or, as elaborated on in the second verse of Surat An-Nur (a chapter that starts off with the very sober proclamation that this surah has been laid down and made mandatory in plain terms and with clear commandments):

The woman and the man guilty of adultery or fornication – flog each of them with a hundred stripes: Let not compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by Allah, if ye believe in Allah and the Last Day: and let a party of the Believers witness their punishment. (24:2)

This is not some medieval interpretation of Sharia law that still only lingers on in Saudi or Iran. These are the supposed words of the Wisest himself. And that should be very worrying for Muslims who classify themselves as moderate.

It should be worrying because, had my friend gotten four of his buddies and barged in on his flatmate (hence producing four witnesses to the “crime”, as demanded in the fourth verse of that same chapter), that flatmate and his accomplice, according to God, should have been dragged before a judge, and then scourged with a whip 100 times, without mercy, in front of “a party of believers.”

“Barbaric” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in a hyperbolic manner, but I cannot think of a more appropriate word to describe this supposedly divine commandment. This is God, the “ultimate being”, calling for torture. Public torture. And for no reason other than a bit of shagging.

Reconcile that with your idea of a perfect being, if you can.

Out of context and too literalist?

Unfortunately for the “New Age” Muslim who insists that the god of the Quran is really just a fluffy, cute bunny at heart, the word “flog” in Arabic is not one of those cryptic, archaic terms that might also mean “symbolically tickle them with a feather.”

No, faijlidoo kulla wahidin minhuma miata jaldatin is as clear a way as possible to say flog each of them 100 times – it’s as clear as the preceding verse promises this entire chapter to be.

Also, while the words alzzaniyatu waalzzanee in that verse refer to the man and woman guilty of adultery, according to every single interpretation and established Quranic commentary, this is not just adultery in the Biblical sense of a husband or wife cheating on their spouse, but it specifically refers to “fornication” in the general sense of unmarried people having sex.  (Not that it would make this punishment any less unjustifiable or savage if it was reserved specifically for unfaithful spouses.)

The desperate apologist at this point might say that I’ve left out the implications of the fourth verse of that chapter:

And those who launch a charge against chaste women, and produce not four witnesses (to support their allegations) – flog them with eighty stripes; and reject their evidence ever after: for such men are wicked transgressors. (24:4)

The implicit sexism in that verse aside, the apologist could argue that this counter-punishment would be very effective against slander, since no one would ever risk making a false accusation of that nature. Also, the necessity of four witnesses makes it nearly impossible to realistically produce the necessary evidence to justify the 100 lashes noted in the second verse. So, really, they might say, these two verses technically cancel each other out, since it’s virtually impossible to get four witnesses to catch people in the act. However:

1)      No, it is very possible, as illustrated by the all too common circumstance I shared at the beginning of this post. Also, we have cameras now. Does footage count as evidence? Why hasn’t an all-knowing god mentioned that/updated the Quran since, given the gravity of the punishment?

2)      If these two verses are supposed to cancel each other out, what was the point of having them to begin with?

3)      There is a huge scope for abuse here. Witnesses can be bought and often are. All it takes is one asshole of a person with influence or money. And there are many.

4)      Whether 100 lashes or 80, and regardless of the intended purpose, this is still an inherently inhumane, torture-based approach to dealing with issues such as sex and false accusations.

5)      Don’t forget we are talking about nothing more than victimless, consensual sex. Not rape. Not paedophilia. Not genocide.

One way to defend the existence of this unsavoury passage is to invoke that conveniently confusing property of the Quran called abrogation. This is the claim that some early verses were annulled by God in later chapters when it became appropriate to do so (due to some historical context relevant to the Prophet’s particular time). This verse, the apologist might say, is an example of that.

And they would be wrong.

In fact, according to anybody who has anything to say on the subject of abrogation, it’s the opposite: this verse came to replace an older command in the fifteenth verse of the fourth chapter:

If any of your women are guilty of lewdness, Take the evidence of four witnesses from amongst you against them; and if they testify, confine them to houses until death do claim them, or Allah ordain for them some other way. (4:15)

According to the “scholars” that I keep being told know better, God did ordain for them some other way in later revelations: the 100 lashes of 24:2.

The word of God or medieval men?

This is not fundamentalist extremism. This is a clear Quranic command.

The truly liberal Muslim (whatever that means) might say that I fail to understand the historical mentality that justified this punishment: we are, after all, talking about a time when people genuinely believed that free love would literally lead to the collapse of society and human civilization. For them, without everlasting bonds of fidelity that are recognized by society and guaranteed by the existing social structure, the entire human enterprise would topple: a grave risk that warrants a grave punishment.

At this point, though, it’s clear we have moved away from what is the presumed “eternal word of God” and entered the domain of anthropology. This argument seems to already concede that the Quran is not the immutable word of God, but is really little more than a reflection of the cruel norms of its time (or, at best, of norms vaguely ahead of its time).

But even if this Iron Age perception of sex were valid, we can still conclude that this punishment is not justifiable: it is still inhumane, it is still torture, it is still ineffective, and it is still wildly subject to abuse.

Ultimately, what I am trying to suggest is that, if you think savagely whipping people is seriously not cool (regardless of the reason), then this passage in the Quran should be somewhat of a deal breaker for you – at least to the extent that you believe the Quran is the literal word of God, or that it is meant for all times and places.

In other words, if your relationship with Islam is similar to how you might feel about a spouse that you deeply love (i.e. you accept it with all the good and all the bad because for some seemingly inexplicable reason you are attached to it), this passage should be akin to finding out that your spouse is a secret Stalinist. Or a fan of the Teletubbies. Or, more accurately, an outright sadist. It should be very worrying. It should shatter your perception of everything you thought you knew about them.

That’s how unequivocally bad I think this passage is. I can only hope that you find it equally disturbing.