Islam and Honor Killings
For that reason, we ordained for the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul for other than murder or spreading corruption in the land, it is as if he has killed the whole of humanity… Qur’an 5:35
One of the gravest charges levied against Islam, in terms of its alleged antipathy towards women, is the claim that it encourages a phenomenon known as honor killings. This un-Islamic practice consists of the murder of female family members who are seen as dishonoring their families through real or perceived acts of indiscretion, such as premarital sexual relations or unapproved dating. This charge has been intensified recently due to the tragic murder of a Pakistani Canadian teenage girl, Aqsa Parvez.
The practice of honor killings has absolutely no sanction in the Qur’an, the Prophetic practice, or in the evolved systems of Islamic law. In the case of fornication or adultery, the only way a charge can be levied against an individual, male or female, is through confession, which is discouraged, or by four people actually witnessing the male organ penetrating the female. Even if four people witnessed a naked man engaged with a naked woman, but could not actually testify that they witnessed penetration, their testimony would be rejected.
In a somewhat related issue, it should be noted that in three of the four Sunni schools of law, as is the case with all of the major Shiite schools, pregnancy is not a proof of fornication, as the possibility of rape exists in such a case. Therefore, if a single woman were to become pregnant, according to the overwhelming majority of Islamic jurists, there is no basis for punishing her. In the few well-publicized instances where a pregnant woman has been threatened with death, the minority opinion of the Maliki School of law was unjustly evoked, as occurred in Nigeria,[i] or criminal malfeasance occurred as is the case in Pakistan.[ii]
In the case of dating, there is no Islamically-mandated punishment for a male or a female seeing a member of the opposite sex against the wishes of their families. Such situations should be handled with counseling, compassion and a healthy dose of common sense. Muslim immigrants who have migrated to the West should realize that they have placed their children in an environment where there is a tremendous amount of un-Islamic peer pressure. This is especially true if they have placed their children, as was the case of the young lady who was recently murdered in Canada, in public schools. Children who succumb to that pressure should not be seen as “bad” kids, for by the standards of the society that has shaped them, no matter how strong their home environment is, they are normal. To kill a female guilty of an offense such as dating or dressing like her peers under such circumstances is nothing short of cold-blooded murder, and no Islamic authority can argue otherwise.
The overwhelming majority of Muslim societies are free from the practice of honor killing, although it does endure in some parts of the Middle East and South Asia. According to statistics released by the United Nations in 2000 there are approximately 5,000 deaths annually from “honor” killings. Even if one killing occurred due to such barbarity, it would be one too many, as the Qur’an emphasizes.
However, to use the existence of such killings to smear Islam shows the desperation and misplaced priorities of many of those levying such attacks. Most of those deaths are the pathetic acts of sick individuals, who are far removed from the letter, as we have shown above, and the spirit of Islam. An example of such an individual is Muhammad Riaz, a British Muslim of South Asian descent who died as a result of a fire he set to burn to death his wife and four daughters, allegedly because his wife resisted his attempt to arrange marriages for his daughters. His wife and daughters did perish in that fire. To present Riaz, whose daughters had neither fornicated nor dated, as anything other than a sick individual is a sad attempt to defame Islam.
To attack Islam from this angle is a case of misplaced priorities because it can distract attention from far graver abuses of women that demand immediate redress. For example, the State Department estimates that approximately 800,000 women and girls are trafficked as sexual slaves annually. The overwhelming majority of these females are taken from and sent to nominally Christian countries.
Over the last five years well over one thousand women have been kidnapped and then gruesomely murdered in Guatemala. Their bodies usually turn up after a few days, mutilated and in some instances with messages such as “death to bitches” written on them. To date only three men have been incarcerated in connection with those attacks. Would it proper for us to infer from that situation the conclusion that the “Christians” of Guatemala, an overwhelmingly Christian nation, have no regard for the suffering of their women? Of course it would not.
Another situation demanding immediate redress is the plight of women in many war-torn areas. In many areas where all semblance of governmental authority has broken down rape is endemic. One such area is the eastern Congo. Tens of thousands of women have been raped, many in the most brutal fashion. Visitors to the area state that no female, regardless of age, is safe. There are reports of women being strung up on poles for days on end and then repeated raped by any soldier passing by. Such abuses should be exposed and every effort should be made to eradicate them.
To return to the death of Aqsa Parvez, such episodes are acts of domestic violence resulting from rage that emanates from a total neglect of Islamic teachings. Ms. Parvez lost her life due to such violence and perhaps there are a few other instances where Muslims women in Canada or here in the United States, have been similarly victimized. However, these instances should be kept in perspective. In the United States there are approximately 1,200 women killed every year by their husbands or intimate partners. There are other “Christian” nations where murders of this type are even higher.
The United States, Guatemala and the Congo are Christian nations. However, it would be disingenuous to use the existence of such abuses as an indictment against Christianity. These issues are an affront to humanity and require our collective attention. Until we view such problems in this manner, we are in jeopardizing the health and integrity of our society.
Saying this is not to minimize the gravity of so-called honor killings to the extent that they do occur in Muslim societies. As Muslims, we are commanded to be committed to justice. That commitment entails that as a community we oppose in the strongest terms “honor” killings and take immediate action to end such a practice in our communities.
Practical steps include the following:
- Emphasize that such killings have no sanction in the Qur’an, the Prophetic practice, or in Islamic law.
- Declare anyone guilty of involvement in honor killings to be a cold-blooded murderer.
- Encourage judicial authorities to enact the harshest penalties possible for anyone accused of involvement in such killings.
- Educate our Muslim communities, especially in the West, about the un-Islamic nature of honor killings, and the pressures, nuances, challenges and complications facing young Muslims, male and female in the West.
- Work to eliminate the double standards, and to expose the hypocrisy that exist in our communities, generally, concerning attitudes and standards relating to the indiscretions of males as opposed to females.
In conclusion, Islam honors the female, and values femininity. It is up to every Muslim to translate teachings in that regard into a beautiful reality that helps to elevate the status of women in all societies. Honor killings, domestic violence in general, murders of the type terrorizing women in Guatemala, female sexual slavery and trafficking, pornography, especially its more violent manifestations, are all crimes against humanity that we should oppose in the strongest terms and work strenuously to eliminate. If our women are not safe, psychically, emotionally, spiritually, or psychologically we are all at risk, for without women men are incomplete, and without men women are incomplete. Our Prophet, peace and blessings of God upon him alluded to this complementariness when he said, peace upon him, “Women are the complimenting halves of men.” We must all work harder to make our societies whole.
Imam Zaid Shakir
[i] In cases where the Maliki school is evoked, I describe that as unjustly because every effort should be made to ward off accusation of a crime in such cases. If the majority opinion does that then it should be the basis of the ruling.
[ii] In the Pakistani cases the Hanafi school of law, which is universally followed in Pakistan, discounts the existence of pregnancy as a basis for proof of fornication or adultery. Hence, any effort to punish a woman who comes up pregnant, especially due to rape, is a crime and a perversion of justice.