Muslim Sexual Ethics:

The Treatment of
 Honor Killings
 in Traditional Texts

How do traditional Islamic sources – the Qur’an, prophetic traditions, and the writings of the legal authorities – deal with questions of sex, honor, and punishment? The Qur’an praises chastity and sexual modesty as a virtue for both sexes (e.g., Q. 33.35). Though women may always have only one legal sexual partner at any given time, men, if they possess enough wealth to support more than one wife, may have multiple lawful partners. (Though generally considered no longer applicable today, traditional texts also allow men to have sexual relationships with female slaves whom they owned. (Read more about "Islam and Slavery.") Yet this is not a license to male debauchery: equal punishment is to be meted out to males and females guilty of zina, consensual intercourse outside of marriage.

The Qur’an (Q. 24.2) prescribes 100 lashes as punishment for zina. Later jurisprudence applies this punishment only to those offenders who have never been married. Muhsan(a) offenders, those who are married or have been previously married even if they are not married at the time of the offense, are subject to harsher punishment. Based on a prophetic tradition accepted by the legal schools, they are to be stoned to death. Qur’an, hadith, and law uniformly state that punishments for zina are the same for men and women, except that some jurists set an additional penalty of one year’s banishment for the never-married male offender. Thus, if a woman committing zina is married while her male partner is not, she will be subject to stoning and he to flogging; if the reverse is the case, then the man will be liable to death and she will receive only lashes.

As this discussion of zina makes clear, Islamic texts and traditional schools of legal thought take a very strong stand against illicit sexual activity, by men or women. Yet the imposition of these penalties for zina requires stringent proof: jurists require a confession, or four separate confessions (read more about Hadith), from a guilty party or the testimony of four male eyewitnesses to the actual act of penetration. (The dominant opinion of the Maliki school is that pregnancy in a woman who is not currently married is prima facie evidence of zina. This view is not shared by the other schools, and even Maliki jurists seemed reluctant to implement it, as jurists sometimes accepted seemingly far-fetched explanations for a pregnancy in an unmarried woman, such as a “sleeping fetus” left over from a previous marriage or accidental impregnation by semen on the public bathhouse bench.) The Qur’an (Q. 24.4) prescribes, and law upholds, a punishment of 80 lashes (nearly equal to the 100 lashes for zina) to those who accuse a woman of unlawful intercourse but cannot produce four witnesses to her crime – undoubtedly an effective deterrent against people coming forward with accusations of zina.

These evidentiary requirements make proving a charge of zina no small matter, and place responsibility for judgement and punishment squarely in the hands of the public authority, rather than making it a matter for private retribution (read more). Even in the exceptional case of a husband who wants to accuse his wife, he must have witnesses in order for her to be charged with a hadd crime. Instead, a man who does not have witnesses but wishes to deny paternity of a child his wife is carrying may accuse her through the Qur’anic procedure of “mutual cursing” (li‘an) (Q. 24.6-9). In this procedure, a husband swears four times that his wife is guilty of adultery; then he swears that God’s curse will be upon himself if he is lying. The wife then swears four times that she is not guilty, and then that God’s curse will be upon herself if she is lying. In this way, the husband is not liable to punishment for bringing a false accusation, and the wife is not liable to punishment for zina. Following li‘an, a three-fold divorce takes place; the couple is permanently separated and the child is linked to the mother alone. The husband is divested of any and all rights and duties associated with paternity, and the child has no legal father. In this way, a man can disavow the paternity of a child his wife is carrying without being subject to the usual, nearly impossible to satisfy, requirements of proof for zina. Aside from this special case, both traditional law and prophetic tradition insist on the attribution of paternity to husbands. Mere suspicion or jealousy does not allow a man to deny paternity of a child his wife is carrying or has delivered.

Content by Kecia Ali
Senior Research Analyst, FSE
Revised June 10, 2003