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Honour Crimes and Muslims
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Article ID: 1330 | 7673 Reads

How can three truths equal a false assumption?

Here's how:

Truth # 1
: Muslims lay great emphasis on the values of modesty; believe that cross-gender interaction should be regulated by Islamic injunctions and strictly prohibit sexual relationships outside marriage.

Truth # 2
: Islamic law prescribes capital punishment (meted out by an Islamic government) for people found guilty of fornication and adultery.

Truth # 3
: According to statistics, a high number of "honour" crimes either originate in countries which have a predominantly Muslim population or occur among people of Middle-Eastern, African or Asian origin, living in heterogeneous societies in the West.

A quick glance through these premises clearly shows how the simplistic and incorrect assumption may have arisen, that since a violation of the values of modesty and chastity is a punishable offence in Islam, ergo, Islam must sanction horrible crimes in the name of preserving and avenging "honour".

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

Before we examine the horrifying (and heartbreaking) details of present-day "honour" crimes that regularly surface as newspaper headlines, let us obtain a perspective from the past on the origins and history of such crimes.

The history and origins of "honour" crimes:
In Roman and Greek civilizations crimes against women by their legal 'owners' – fathers and husbands -- were so commonplace, that they barely caused people to raise an eyebrow. Under the Roman law of Paterfamilias, a man had absolute power over his children -- he could even execute his married daughter for a real or perceived indiscretion and had full authority to physically chastise, even to beat to death, his wife and grown children or grand-children.

Under another Roman law, the Manus, married women were considered the property of their husbands and placed under their complete control – they could be divorced, tortured, sold into slavery, imprisoned for life or put to death at the husband's discretion. The Roman lex Julia de Adulteriis defined adultery as a crime perpetrated only by a married woman against her husband, and punishable like theft under property laws. A married man was not considered guilty of adultery even if he had a sexual relationship with a single woman, since his wife had no conjugal or ethical rights over him.

Dio, The Consul, the first King of the Romans, established the law that a woman found guilty of adultery could be put to death by her husband or relatives in whatever way they thought fit. Later, Cato allowed the husband to execute his wife if he found her guilty, without a verdict from the court.

In Greece, women were virtually considered an inferior sub-species, socially at par with slaves, immature children or mentally challenged adults. They were largely confined to their quarters (gynaecium), forbidden from going to school, speaking in public and in court as witnesses, eating at the same table as guests, or leaving their houses without a male escort. Female infanticide was common and infant girls were seen as "an economic liability, a social burden." The ancient Athenians punished women found guilty of adultery with death, and in parts of Crete , an adulterer was covered with a crown of wool, publicly made to pay a heavy fine, and barred from holding any government office.

Some Indian tribes in North America and others in Africa punished adultery by bodily mutilation or amputation of the limbs – under the rationale that the adulterous woman and her paramour had perpetrated 'robbery' upon the husband; and to prevent the woman from ever being tempted to do so again, or be a temptation to others.

In India, the Laws of Manu decreed that if a wife violates her conjugal duties, "the king shall cause her to be devoured by dogs in a place frequented by many and the male offender to be burnt in a bed of red-hot iron." The customs of self-immolation (sati) at the funeral pyre of a husband or mass self-immolation (jawhar) by consorts of the king in order to preserve the dead husband's honour and prevent the women from living a life of 'dishonour' were widely encouraged and enforced. Aryan husbands were entitled to cut off the nose and ears of wives suspected or found guilty of infidelity – a custom that eerily echoes in various cases of "honour" crimes in the Indian subcontinent across the centuries.

Under Babylonian Law, in The Code of Hammurabi, a woman accused of adultery was encouraged to throw herself into the river, in spite of insufficient evidence against her: "If the finger is pointed at the wife of a citizen on account of another man, but she has not been caught lying with another man, for her husband's sake – she shall throw herself into the river." If she drowned, her guilt was established; if she remained uninjured in the water, her innocence was proved.

In Egypt, women found guilty of adultery were imprisoned, flogged or faced mutilation – including cutting off the nose. In China, the husband of a woman found guilty of adultery was authorized to cut off his wife's hair, and lead her in that state to a mandarin, who caused her to be thrown to an elephant trained as the public executioner. In Persia, women accused of sexual impropriety were pushed headlong into a well and left to die.

Female infanticide was widely practiced in pre-Islamic Arabia and it was believed that: "the dispatch of daughters is a kindness" and "the burial of daughters is a noble deed." Contrary to popular belief, the motive behind female infanticide was not always their alleged 'unproductivity' in wars or rampant poverty -- it was a misplaced sense of "honour".

Fathers – often tribal chieftains -- wanted to pre-empt and avoid the dishonour and disgrace that would certainly befall them should their daughters be captured by an enemy in war, or be accused of sexual misconduct before or after marriage (a common cause of inter-tribal wars). Historians report that the murder of female children for fear of dishonour began with Qays bin Asim, a leader of Banu Tameem, as related in the following story:

"Mosharmaraj the Yashkorite raided the Sa'd and carried off, among other women, the daughter of a sister of Qays, who was then married to the son of her captor. When Qays came to ransom her, she refused to leave her husband. Qays was so indignant that he killed all his girls by burying them alive and never again allowed a daughter to live.

One daughter born in his absence was sent by the mother to her own kin and on Qays's return he was told by his wife that she had been delivered of a dead child. Years passed on till the girl grew up and came one day to visit her mother.

"I came in," so Qays himself told Prophet Muhammad, and saw the girl. Her mother had plaited her hair, and put rings in the side-locks, and strung them with sea-shells and put on her a chain of cowries, and given her a necklace of dried dates. I said, "Who is this pretty girl?" and her mother wept and said, "She is your daughter," and told me how she had saved her alive. So I waited till the mother ceased to be anxious about her, then I led her out one day and dug a grave and laid her in it, she crying, "Father , what are you doing with me?" Then I covered her up with the earth, and she still cried, "Father, are you going to bury me? Are you going to leave me alone and go away?" but I went on filling in the earth till I could hear her cries no loner; and that is the only time that I felt pity when I buried a daughter."

It is reported that Qays's example found imitators until every chief destroyed his daughters for fear they might cause him shame.

Evidently, there has been a long history of atrocities committed against women in the name of "honour" that has its origins in the oppressive cultures of misogyny, tribalism, feudalism and casteism – during what is termed as the period of " jaahiliyyah" (ignorance) in history – long before Muslims came into the picture.

Profiling "honour" crimes today:

According to reports by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights approximately 5,000 "honour" crimes occur worldwide each year – in places as diverse as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Great Britain, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Latin America, Palestine, Pakistan, Morocco, Sweden, Turkey, and Uganda.

The provocations may be wide-ranging – from "misdemeanours" like resisting a forced marriage, choosing a husband belonging to a different tribe, caste, race or ethnicity, to perceived "slurs on family/tribal honour"; sexual misconduct (real or imagined); being the victim of sexual violence like rape, childhood abuse and domestic violence, seeking a divorce, to not serving a meal on time or having a love ballad dedicated to one's name over the radio.

The perpetrators of "honour" crimes, sometimes euphemistically called "crimes of passion" are nearly always close family members – parents, siblings or spouses usually acting in collusion with other members of the extended family; but that's about the only common factor.

Perpetrators and victims belong to varied religious and cultural backgrounds – mainly Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs of African, Asian, Latin American or Middle Eastern origin, where there is a strong sense of community and a deep-rooted tribal or feudal culture.

"In countries where Islam is practiced, they're called 'honour' killings, but dowry deaths and so-called 'crimes of passion' have a similar dynamic in that the women are killed by male family members and the crimes are perceived as excusable or understandable," says Widney Brown, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. The practice, she says, "goes across cultures and across religions."

It's a point that leaders of all the major religions have repeatedly emphasized: even though perpetrators of "honour" crimes may use religion to justify their actions, it essentially remains a cultural issue and should be legally recognized and treated as such.

Islam and "honour" crimes:

Scholars of all the branches of Islamic jurisprudence are united in their opinion that killing an innocent soul (whose killing has been forbidden) is a grave sin:

"But whoever kills a believer intentionally -- his recompense is Hell wherein he will abide eternally; and Allah has become angry with him and has cursed him, and has prepared for him a great punishment."

[Soorah An-Nisaa 4:93]

According to the opinion of Shaykh Muhammad Saalih al-Munajjid: "It is not permissible to accuse chaste women of adultery or fornication (Zina) without proof. Zina can only be proven by the testimony of four men who see the act take place with their own eyes, and see the male sexual organ enter the female sexual organ, or by the unforced confession of the man or woman who committed Zina."

According to the Quran, merely accusing a woman of Zina without producing four witnesses, merits a punishment for the accuser:

"And those who accuse chaste women, and then do not produce four witnesses – lash them with eighty lashes and do not accept from them their testimony ever after. And those are the defiantly disobedient."

[Soorah Noor 24:4]

The punishment for fornication and adultery in Islam is included in the category of Hadd, which is defined as a specific punishment for committing a specific crime which infringes upon the rights of God and human beings .

However, no one is authorised to carry out the Hadd punishments except with the permission of an Islamic government. According to the opinion of Shaykh al-Munajjid: "If there is no Islamic government (that rules according to Islamic law) then it is not permissible for ordinary people to carry out the Hadd punishments. Whoever does that is sinning, because carrying out the Hadd punishments requires examining the matter and requires knowledge of Islamic law in order to know the conditions of proof.

Ordinary people have no knowledge of such things, and if they carry out one of the Hadd punishments it leads to many evils and the loss of security, whereby people will attack one another and kill one another or chop off one another's hands on the grounds that they are carrying out Hadd punishments."

Shaykh Muhammad Al-Hanooti, member of the North American Fiqh Council, adds: "In Islam, there is no place for unjustifiable killing. Even in case
of capital punishment, only the government can apply the law through
the judicial procedures. No one has the authority to execute the law
other than the officers who are in charge. Honor killing could be a wrong cultural tradition. It is an unjust and inhuman action. The murderer of that type deserves punishment."

It is narrated that during the lifetime of the Prophet, sallallaahu 'alayhi wa sallam, a Companion Sa'd bin Ubadah asked him what should he do if he saw a man (in a compromising position) with his wife. Was he expected to produce four witnesses even in those extenuating circumstances? The Prophet, sallallaahu 'alayhi wa sallam, said: "Yes."
[Saheeh Muslim, 9/3570]

In another instance, a Companion 'Uwaymir Al-'Ajlani came to the Prophet, sallallaahu 'alayhi wa sallam, who was in the midst of the people and said: "O Allah's Apostle! If a man finds with his wife another man, should he kill him, whereupon you would kill him (in Qisas): or otherwise, what should he do?" Allah's Apostle said: "Allah has revealed something concerning the question of you and your wife. Go and bring her here." So they both carried out the judgment of Lian (where both parties testify to the truth of their words and invoke a curse upon the one who is lying). When both of them had finished, 'Uwaymir said, "O Allah's Apostle! If I should now keep my wife with me, then I have told a lie". Then he pronounced his decision to divorce her. [Saheeh Al- Bukhaari: Volume 7, Book 63, Number 185]

It is clear that there has never been a precedent in the early generations of Muslims of people carrying out "honour" killings, or even encouraging and condoning such acts. In fact, some of the alleged "misdemeanours" that provoke such attacks are actually rights that Islam has granted women.

For example, many "honour" crimes involve women choosing their own husbands, or marrying outside their own tribe or race, when in Islam a woman is entitled to choose her own spouse and has the right to refuse a forced marriage.

During the lifetime of the Prophet, sallallaahu 'alayhi wa sallam, a teenage girl came to the Prophet's wife Aishah and said: "My father has given me away in marriage to my cousin, so that his social status will be raised, but I was not consulted in this." Aishah referred the girl to the Prophet, sallallaahu 'alayhi wa sallam, who called for the girl's parents and then gave the girl the opportunity to make her own decision. The girl said that she had accepted the marriage, but wished to make the matter clear for the benefit of other women, that a woman has the right to choose her own spouse.

Similarly, loyalty to tribal traditions (Asabiyah ) or discrimination in the name of race or social status has been denounced by the Prophet, sallallaahu 'alayhi wa sallam, as un-Islamic, and people who follow these practices have been declared to be: "not from us (Muslims)."

Yet, Islam continues to be erroneously associated with "honour" crimes. Perhaps the only way to break the almost free-associative link is to educate Muslims that the honour of Islam is sufficient for us – hankering for "honour" in un-Islamic acts will only be to one's detriment – in this world and the next.

Post Script:
"Honour" crimes have been referred to within quotes throughout this article, in order to show the contradiction between the two terms – there is nothing 'honourable' about crimes committed against women, in the name of Islam or otherwise.


1. Women of Greece and Rome: Private Lives and Public Personae, Dr. Susan Martin
2. Reade, 'Savage Africa '
3. H.H. Bancroft, The Native Races of the Pacific States of North America
4. Laws of Manu, V, 154; VIII, 371
5. Indopedia: Women in Hinduism
6. Punishment for Adultery in Islam: A DetailedExamination, Dr. Ahmad Shafaat
7.W. Robertson Smith, Kinship & Marriage in Early Arabia. London, Adam and Charles Black, 1903.
8. UNCHR Reports


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