The Punishing Truth about Islam
Blade, November 16, 2001
"Whenever a male mounts another male, the throne of God
trembles," or so argued an early Islamic commentator. The outlook hasn’t
gotten much better since then, especially in Afghanistan.
By Paul Varnell
Barely two weeks before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade
Center and the Pentagon, the New York Post and Court TV both ran items about
punishment meted out by Afghanistan’s Taliban regime on two men convicted of
According to those stories, the Taliban's Islamic jurists knew that
homosexuality was reprehensible and the sentence should be execution, but they
were genuinely puzzled by conflicting Islamic opinion on exactly how the
execution should be carried out.
"We have a dilemma on this," one Taliban leader explained.
"One group of scholars believes you should take these people to the top
of the highest building in the city, and hurl them to their deaths."
The other group, he said, opted for a different approach. "They
recommend you dig a pit near a wall somewhere, put these people in it, then
topple the wall so that they are buried alive."
No one thought to point out that these approaches are atavistic survivals
of options presented during the earliest days of Islam in the mid-seventh
The idea of stoning is derived from the Korans account of the destruction
of Sodom by a "rain of stones," apparently due to Mohammed's
misunderstanding of the Hebrew legend of "fire and brimstone"
(sulfur), and from a supposed hadith ("saying") of Mohammed's urging
stoning of both partners found engaging in homosexual sex.
Mohammed's successor, his father-in-law Abu Bakr (reigned 632-34),
reportedly ordered a homosexual burned at the stake. The fourth caliph,
Mohammed's son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib (reigned 656-61) ordered a sodomite
thrown from the minaret of a mosque. Others he ordered to be stoned.
One of the earliest and most authoritative commentators on the Koran, Ibn
Abbas (died 687) stipulated a two-step execution in which "the sodomite
should be thrown from the highest building in the town and then stoned."
Later it was decided that if no building were tall enough, the sodomite could
be shoved off a cliff.
Subsequent commentators on the Koran denounced homosexuality in what
ethnologist Jim Wafer calls "extravagant" terms: "Whenever a
male mounts another male, the throne of God trembles; the angels look on in
loathing and say, Lord, why do you not command the earth to punish them and
the heavens to rain stones on them."
These early doctrines and practices were codified by the influential
Hanbalite school of law, the most conservative school of Islamic
jurisprudence, named after the theologian Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-855).
Ibn Hanbal argued that human reasoning was not a reliable guide to truth
and that the Koran and the habitual behavior of Mohammed, literally
understood, offered sufficient guidance for later practice. As a result,
Hanbalites uniformly urged execution, usually by stoning.
There were, to be sure, other schools of thought on the subject. The
Hanafites, named for Abu Hanifa (699-767), put greater emphasis on individual
reasoning and local circumstances. They taught that homosexuality was wrong
but did not merit physical punishment because another supposed hadith of
Mohammed said Muslim blood should be spilled only for adultery, apostasy or
But some ambiguity remained. For a married man, homosexuality could be
interpreted as adultery, so an individual judge might choose to impose a
physical penalty anyway.
Other schools of jurisprudence urged public whipping, usually 100 lashes,
so that the pain of the sodomite might serve as an exemplary warning to
Reports of these punishments being carried out in early times are not
abundant. Some historians think this means Islamic culture was more tolerant
in practice than in principle. But more likely most court records have simply
not survived, so we have no information.
What may have protected some homosexuals, though, was the insistence by
most Islamic jurists that conviction for homosexuality required witnesses,
sometimes as many as four. That meant that homosexuality conducted discretely
and in private might survive unpunished.
What does all this history have to do with us?
Just this. The strict Hanbalite school of Islamic jurisprudence remains
powerful to this day, and is dominant in Saudi Arabia and Syria. The
distinguished Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr describes the current
Hanbalite school as:
"The most strict in its adherence to the Koran and the Sunnah [the
original practices] and does not rely as do the other schools of law upon the
other principles"—such as the consensus of the learned, the welfare of
the community, modern scientific knowledge, or individual human reasoning—"and,
in fact, rejects them."
The official Saudi Arabian state religion is a puritanical branch of Islam
called "Wahhabism," named for the fundamentalist religious leader
named Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-92), who urged an anti-modern, "restorationist"
or "back to the Koran" puritanism fully consistent with the
It is hardly necessary to remind anyone that Osama bin Laden is a Saudi
Arabian who grew up in the state-supported fundamentalist Wahhabi religion; or
that the Saudi government and royal family have channeled hundreds of millions
of dollars to fundamentalist Islamic groups worldwide, including hundreds of
millions of dollars to promote their particularly homophobic version of Islam
among U.S. Muslims.
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