Does Islam Endorse Honor Killing?
What is the Islamic view on honor killing? The answer to this question depends on whether one adopts a legalistic or a cultural approach in defining Islam. The Jordanian campaign regarding Article 340 generated a revealing dispute among Muslim authorities regarding Islam's role in the evolution of honor killings. The state's religious establishment asserts that honor killing is unconnected to the Islamic religion; in contrast, the Islamist party in the Jordanian parliament sees honor killings as part of Islam's code.
The religious establishment in Jordan views honor killing as a remnant of pre-Islamic Arab tribalism, for Islam prohibits the "taking of the law into one's own hands." The Jordanian king's advisor on Islamic affairs, Sheikh 'Izz ad-Din at-Tamimi, stated that if a woman is proven guilty of adultery, the person entitled to carry out her punishment is "a specialized employee" designated by the government for such a purpose.31 The prohibition on taking the law into one's own hands does not amount to a moral denunciation of honor crimes; rather, it is a criticism of the technical transgression of authority. This notion is conventional in the Arab world; thus Egypt's Ifta ' Council of Al-Azhar University, a leading religious authority of Sunni Islam, issued a fatwa stating that applying the punishment on a female caught committing adultery or found in an adulterous situation, "should be up to the ruler."32 Following this same logic, the mufti of Gaza, Sheikh 'Abd al-Karim Kahlut, goes so far as to demand the death penalty for honor murderers, because "they are not authorized to carry out [the punishment] on the women. "33
Religious officials have only minor disagreements regarding the proper Islamic punishment the state should level at adulterers. Hamdi Murad, an official at the Jordanian Ministry of Awqaf explains that if an adulterer, male or female, has a previously unblemished reputation, the proper Islamic punishment is one hundred lashes, while if the adulterer's reputation is blemished, the punishment is stoning to death.34 The Jordanian minister of awqaf (religious foundations), 'Abd as-Salam 'Abadi, finds that in the case of an unmarried female adulterer, "the Shari'a is clear and she should be lashed eighty times."35
The Jordanian Islamic Action Front (IAF) disagrees. In the heat of the Jordanian debate, this parliamentary coalition of several Islamist groups, most of whom affiliate with the Muslim Brethren, issued a fatwa that declared honor-killings are seen as favorable by Islam; male relatives should punish their female relatives and not leave this duty to the state. Ibrahim Zayd al-Kaylani, head of the IAF's Ifta ' committee, said that a man who restrains himself from committing an honor killing, leaving this unpleasant burden to the government, "negates the values of virility advocated by Islam." Article 340, Kaylani added, is based on "the Islamic principle that allows a Muslim to defend his honor, property, and blood."36 Muhammad 'Uwayda, dean of Zarqa University's Shari'a College and a member of the lower house, stated that while the Shari'a does prohibit individuals from taking the law into their own hands, "cases where a man catches his wife committing adultery are the exception."37 The IAF issued a fatwa to the effect that "canceling Article 340 would contradict the Shari'a."38 Thus the Jordanian Islamic Movement has suddenly declared that honor-killings are part of Islamic dogma rather than a detestable remnant of tribal paganism.
The Islamic establishment adopts a legalistic approach to the teachings of Islam, arguing that honor killings are not prescribed in the Qur'an. The Islamists, in contrast, see honor killings in the cultural context of Islamic teachings and find it consistent with "the values of virility."
An Islamic Practice?
For several reasons, the Islamists' view of the relation between Islam and honor killings is more connected to the reality of religious influence on the practice of honor murders than that of the religious establishment. In other words, the influence of Islam on the conduct of Muslims is not limited to what is written in sacred texts; rather, it includes cultural perceptions of Islam. First, there is the fact, noted above, that the Jordanian public and its elected representatives by a nearly 2:1 margin endorse men punishing their women-folk. This custom is, in other words, deeply rooted in a devout society that does not view honor killing as an aberration from the teachings of Islam. Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear honor murderers claim that they believe what they did was part of their religion.39
Second, if honor killing originated in pre-Islamic Arab tribalism, it has long since been incorporated into Islamic society and thereby become common throughout the Muslim world, including India,40 Pakistan, Turkey, and the Balkans. In Muslim Kosovo, for instance, thousands of Muslim women raped by Serbs during the war were abandoned by their husbands. Indeed, as one observer noted, most victims do not report the crimes because in Albanian society rape brings shame on the victims. Women who gave birth as a result of the rape, abandoned their babies and escaped from the hospital to live, "with no identity to prevent the disclosure of their situation, which would turn their life into hell."41
Third, honor killings fit into a wider pattern of customs that flow from the texture of Muslim life without specifically being required by Islam, yet still enjoy the blessing of Muslim authorities. Female circumcision, now more often known as female genital mutilation, is another example: common mostly in Muslim African countries, it is not mentioned in Islam's sacred texts and did not originate in Islam. Yet in those countries, religious authorities associate this practice with Islam. In other words, female genital mutilation, a clearly pre-Islamic custom, was adopted by modern Islamic authorities, who declared female circumcision to be worthy Islamic conduct. Mufti Sa'id al-Hijawi of Jordan, referring to the practice of female circumcision in one tribe at the Rahma village in south Jordan, ruled that female circumcision is "a noble trait accepted by Islam even though it is not a necessity."42 This fatwa is in line with the rulings of many senior Egyptian Islamic authorities in recent decades. Former Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Jadd al-Haq 'Ali Jadd al-Haq, for example, ruled in 1983 that it is impossible to abandon the lessons of the Prophet Muhammad in favor of the teachings of others, even doctors, because medical science evolves and does not remain constant. The responsibility of female circumcision lies with the parents and with those in charge of the girl's welfare. Those who do not abide by it do not do their duty.43 It is noteworthy that Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid at-Tantawi issued a contradictory fatwa in his former capacity as grand mufti of Egypt stating that the decision on female circumcision should defer to the opinion of doctors.44 Sheikh Tantawi still holds to this fatwa as the current Sheikh of Al-Azhar.
Fourth, it bears noting that the policy of "not taking the law into one's own hands," which dominates Islamic authorities' circles, is less than an unequivocal moral and religious prohibition of honor murder. The refusal of Islamic authorities to unambiguously denounce honor killings signals to the public that this practice does not necessarily contradict Islam.
Fifth, the already ambiguous Islamic objection to honor killings becomes even less effective when considering the way mainstream Islamic scholars interpret the Qur'anic verse (4:34) that legitimates wife-beating. This verse states: "Men are responsible for women... So virtuous women obey [their husbands]... Admonish those of them on whose part you apprehend disobedience, and keep them out of your bed, and beat them." Various Islamic rulers have contemplated this verse in an attempt to regulate the beatings. Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, dean of Shari'a at the University of Qatar and a leader of the Muslim Brethren, advocates non-painful beating:
If the husband senses that feelings of disobedience and rebelliousness are rising against him in his wife, he should try his best to rectify her attitude by kind words, gentle persuasion, and reasoning with her. If this is not helpful, he should sleep apart from her, trying to awaken her agreeable feminine nature so that serenity may be restored, and she may respond to him in a harmonious fashion. If this approach fails, it is permissible for him to beat her lightly with his hands, avoiding her face and other sensitive parts. In no case should he resort to using a stick or any other instrument that might cause pain and injury.45
Other Islamic scholars have come up with their own recommendations on wife-beating. Some rule out the breaking of bones and stress that in no case should the beatings be accompanied with "verbal assault."46 The Islamic rulings section of the Palestinian Authority's daily newspaper forbids stabbing.47 There is a consensus that the husband should avoid leaving bruises on his wife's body, and all scholars agree that wife-beating is the husband's last resort. Still, it is recommended when a couple finds itself on the verge of divorce: "It is better for the husband to beat his wife a little, to make her feel she was wrong, than to destroy the family through divorce."48
The faith, in short, cannot be confined to the narrow boundaries of the Qur'an and other early holy sources. It includes developments and interpretations that occurred after the sacred texts appeared. If this cultural reading of the teachings of Islam is accepted, then the role of the mainstream Islamic establishment itself is revealed in nurturing the "values of virility" that lead to honor killings.
The Outside World
Although the movement to end honor killings must come from within Muslim societies, they can be helped by the outside world. The international community should, first and foremost, establish its stand on this problem. A United Nations report issued in January 2000 dealing with extra judicial, summary, or arbitrary executions came close to establishing honor killings as a violation of basic human rights. The special rapporteur, Asma Jahangir, condemned honor killings as "practices affecting the right to life."49 Her report specifically condemned governments which maintain exemption and token penalties for honor murderers; she commended the Jordanian government and crown for their initiative to amend the Jordanian penal code to conform with international standards.
But a U.S. immigration court in December 1997 did not accept the view that the existence of honor killings constitutes a reason for granting asylum. A Jordanian woman who had engaged in premarital sex fled to the United States for fear of being murdered. The court record indicates that her father asked her brothers to kill her, and she claimed asylum on this basis.50 To be eligible for asylum, she had to show that honor killings are a general pattern of persecution of a social group defined in part by gender, and that the persecutor is either the government itself or a group the government is unable or unwilling to control. The judge did not accept that this situation obtained. In August 1999, the Board of Immigration Appeals upheld the judge's ruling and maintained that the woman's fear of being killed was speculative and resulted from "a personal family dispute," rather than official or semi-official persecution. Thus, the Board noted "that the Jordanian government attempts to provide some degree of protection to its female subjects and to punish those who harm women for violating societal norms," even if it does not do so to the extent that it should. (In contrast, Fauziya Kasinga, an African woman fleeing her country in fear of female circumcision, won American asylum in 1996.)51
Despite the successful Kasinga case, it seems that U.S. immigration authorities are still puzzled by non-political asylum appeals. Legitimate, though not necessarily justified, fears of mass immigration collide with the natural inclination to help an individual in distress. In the Kasinga case, the judicial authorities emphasized moral resolve; in the Jordanian woman's case, they emphasized the language of the law. The difference may be traced to outside the courthouse. The campaign against female genital mutilation has won a high media profile in recent years with women testifying to terrible personal experiences.52 The lack of such a media profile concerning honor killing may have harmed the Jordanian woman's case.
The honor murder phenomenon has become a social plague in many Muslim societies around the world. Despite its clear pre-Islamic pagan origins, contemporary Islamic authorities usually refrain from unequivocally condemning it. Some important Islamic scholars in Jordan have even gone further by declaring honor-crimes an Islamic imperative that derives from the "values of virility advocated by Islam." This unwelcome development does not come as a surprise when the almost consensual approval of both Muslim public and leadership is considered. It may be a while before reduced sentences for honor murderers are abolished from the laws of Arab states. Yet the campaign against Article 340 of the Jordanian penal code has already proved successful in at least one important aspect: it shattered the silence that shielded these atrocities.
Yotam Feldner is a researcher at the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute.
1 Chicago Tribune, May 3, 1998.
2 United Nations Report of the Special Rapporteur, Ms. Asma Jahangir, on Civil and Political Rights, Including Questions of Disappearances and Summary Executions (New York: United Nations, Jan. 2000), p. 27.
3 The Washington Post, Feb. 2, 2000.
4 Joseph Ginat, Blood Revenge: Family Honor, Mediation, and Outcasting (Brighton, England: Sussex Academic Press, 1997), pp. 129-130.
5 The Jordan Times (Amman), Feb. 15, 2000.
6 The Jordan Times, June 15, 2000.
7 Such legal procedures are apparently common in traditional societies in other parts of the world, including Latin America: see The New York Times, Mar. 8, 1997.
8 'Iyad al-Luzi, director general of Jordan's Justice Ministry, Al-Ayyam (Ramallah), Oct. 7, 1998.
9 The New York Times, June 20, 1999.
10 Al-Hayat al-Jadida (Ramallah), Apr. 5, 1999; also the Mufti of Gaza, Sheikh 'Abd al-Karim Kahlut, Al-Hayat al-Jadida, Apr. 22, 1999.
11 Ash-Sh'ab (Ramallah), July 24, 2000.
12 Al-Hayat al-Jadida, May 6, 2000.
13 Al-Ayyam, June 1, 2000.
14 Al-Hayat al-Jadida, June 12, 1999.
15 Ar-Risala (Gaza), June 11, 1998.
16 Al-Ayyam, June 1, 2000.
17 Newsday, Apr. 1, 1989.
18 The New York Times, Oct. 21, 1994.
19 The Jordan Times, July 22, 1999.
20 According to The Star (Amman), Nov. 30, 1999, similar laws exist in the Palestinian Authority, Egypt (Article 237 of the Penal Code), Syria (Article 548), and Lebanon (Article 562).
21 The Jordan Times, Nov. 11, 1999.
22 The Jordan Times, Feb. 15, 2000.
23 The Jordan Times, Mar. 10, 2000.
24 The Jordan Times, Nov. 9, 1999.
25 Ad-Dustur (Amman), Nov. 30, 1999.
26 Ad-Dustur, Nov. 30, 1999.
27 The Jordan Times, May 18, 2000.
28 Ad-Dustur, Nov. 30, 1999.
29 The Jordan Times, Nov. 30, 1999.
30 Al-Ayyam, Feb. 25, 2000.
31 The Jordan Times, Nov. 9, 1999.
32 The Jordan Times, Feb. 24, 2000.
33 Ar-Risala, July 11, 1998.
34 The Jordan Times, Mar. 14, 2000.
35 The Jordan Times, Nov. 30, 1999.
36 Al-Quds (Jerusalem), Feb. 23, 2000.
37 The Jordan Times, Feb. 25, 2000.
38 The Jordan Times, Feb. 24, 2000.
39 Al-Hayat al-Jadida, June 12, 1999.
40 The Hindu, Apr. 25, 1999.
41 Al-Quds, Jan. 17, 2000.
42 The Jordan Times, Dec. 2, 1999.
43 Gad al-Haq, Gad al-Haq 'Ali: Khitan al-banat, Al-fatawi al-islamiyyah min dar al-ifta' al-masriyyah, Wazarat al-awqaf, Cairo, 9(1983): 3119-3125, quoted in Sami A. ad-Deeb Abu Sahlieh, "To Mutilate in the Name of Jehovah or Allah: Legitimization of Male and Female Circumcision," July 1994, http://www.cirp.org/library/cultural/aldeeb1/.
44 "Egypt: Court Asserts Doctors' Right to Perform Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)," July 1997, http://www.equalitynow.org./action_eng_8_3.html.
45 Yusef al-Karadhawi, The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam (Beirut: The Holy Koran Publishing House, 1985), p. 205.
46 Ar-Risala (Gaza), Oct. 1, 1998.
47 Al-Hayat al-Jadida, Oct. 2, 1998.
48 Ar-Risala, Oct. 1, 1998.
49 U.N. Report on Civil and Political Rights, pp. 27-29.
50 The Washington Post, Feb 2, 2000.
51 The Washington Post, Feb. 2, 2000; Board of Immigration Appeals at http://www.uchastings.edu/cgrs/law/bia/a-_bia.pdf.
52 Waris Dirie and Cathleen Miller, Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad (New York: William Morrow & Co, 1999).