Last edited: December 05, 2004

The Punishing Truth about Islam

The Washington 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 homosexuality.

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 century.

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 murder.

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 others.

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 Hanbalite school.

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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