Legal penalties are checks imposed by God Almighty to restrain from doing what He has forbidden or failing to perform His commands. Because men are naturally driven by desire to ignore the promises of the hereafter for the sake of immediate pleasure, God Almighty has set such punishments as may deter the ignorant by fear of suffering and painful punishment. Thus, His taboos would be avoided and His duties performed for the greater welfare of mankind and more perfect observance of the law.
These hadd punishments are not simply a relic of the ancient past. For example, sharia law is currently on the books in 12 states across predominantly Muslim northern Nigeria, and there are documented cases in the country in recent years of people having their hands amputated for theft, with many more such sentences being issued but later repealed after widespread public outcry. This is in line with the unambiguous mandate for the punishment in the Qur’an: “As for the thief, both male and female, cut off their hands. It is the reward of their own deeds, an exemplary punishment from Allah. Allah is Mighty, Wise.” (5:38)
Similarly, in Sudan in 2010, footage emerged on the Internet of a woman being brutally lashed by police for an undisclosed crime relating to “immoral activity and prostitution”. When this incident began to receive international attention, the Governor of Khartoum, Dr. Abd al-Rahman al-Khadr, justified the punishment, saying: “What was aired was the implementation of an Islamic punishment...We should consider the more important issue in this case – our penal code is in keeping with Islam, and the sharia is the main source of our legislation. Islamic punishments are carried out to purge the perpetrator.” Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir also defended the flogging, remarking: “If she is lashed according to sharia law, there is no investigation. Why are some people ashamed? This is sharia.”
The lethal penalty for adultery is also still enforced in the Muslim world. A February 2012 report identified fourteen Muslim countries where the punishment of stoning to death for adultery is either a dormant part of the legal system or actively practised.
Apologists for Islam disassociate themselves from such brutality by noting that the Qur'an “only” prescribes a maximum penalty of lashes for adultery (24:2). However, stoning remains an uncontested part of sharia based on the hadith.
In one hadith, Muhammad's companion Umar ibn al-Khattab – who went on become the second Rightly-Guided Caliph, or leader of the Muslim community, following Muhammad’s death in 632 AD – maintained that the Qur’an’s prescription regarding adultery was incomplete. Umar claimed that there was originally a verse in the Qur’an mandating stoning to death as the appropriate punishment, but it was somehow left out of the final composition:
I am afraid that after a long time has passed, people may say, ‘We do not find the Verses of the Rajam (stoning to death) in the Holy Book,’ and consequently they may go astray by leaving an obligation that Allah has revealed. Lo! I confirm that the penalty of Rajam be inflicted on him who commits illegal sexual intercourse, if he is already married and the crime is proved by witnesses or pregnancy or confession...Surely Allah's Apostle carried out the penalty of Rajam, and so did we after him. (Sahih Bukhari v.8, b.82, no.816)
Umar's reference to Muhammad carrying out stoning is attested to elsewhere in the hadith and sira. On one occasion he encountered a group of Jews in Medina who had arrested an adulterous couple. Although stoning is mandated in the Torah, neither Jews nor Christians have ever historically practised it, having developed traditions of interpretation that prevent them from taking such verses literally. When Muhammad asked the Jews what they were going to do with the adulterous couple, they tried to pretend that the Torah didn't say anything about stoning. He angrily rebuked them and ordered the couple be stoned to death (Bukhari v.4, b.61, no.3635). On another occasion, a woman came to him and confessed that she had committed adultery, and asked for his forgiveness. He forgave her – and then had her stoned to death. (Sahih Muslim b.17, no.4206)
Homosexuals also face severe persecution throughout the Islamic world. More than thirty Islamic countries have laws on the books that prohibit homosexuality and make it a criminal offense. In most cases punishment ranges from floggings to life imprisonment. In Mauritania, Bangladesh, Yemen, parts of Nigeria and Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, convicted homosexuals can also be sentenced to death.
As with the other punishments we have discussed, this behaviour is merely a normative, traditional part of sharia. The Qur’an reproduces the Biblical story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom, but unlike the Bible, the Qur’an clearly and unambiguously states that God destroyed Sodom because its people engaged in homosexual activity: “We also (sent) Lut [Lot]: He said to his people: 'Do ye commit lewdness such as no people in creation (ever) committed before you? For ye practise your lusts on men in preference to women: ye are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds.'...And we rained down on them a shower (of brimstone): Then see what was the end of those who indulged in sin and crime!” (7:80-84)
In the hadith, Muhammad is quoted as saying: “If you find anyone doing as Lot's people did, kill the one who does it, and the one to whom it is done.” (Sunan Abu Dawud b.38, no.4447) It is therefore not surprising that in its discussion of what to do with one who commits “sodomy or fornication”, the important sharia manual Reliance of the Traveller states that “If the offender is someone with the capacity to remain chaste, then he or she is stoned to death.” It quotes the above hadith as justification for this punishment. Other legal authorities, citing the example of Muhammad’s closest companions, recommend a number of equally brutal penalties, including burning alive, crushing under a falling wall, throwing from a rooftop, and beheading.
It should be clear from all of the above that the hadd punishments that sharia commands are not only barbaric and completely incompatible with 21st century civilisation, but also have a living legacy of death and suffering that can no longer be ignored.
N.B. Especially savvy readers may have noticed that there has been no discussion here of sharia's two most notorious punishments: the death penalties for blasphemy and apostasy. This is not an oversight. They will be discussed another day.