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Sharia law as applied in some Muslim countries

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Some versions of Sharia law require that married or divorce persons found guilty of Zina (adultery) be executed by stoning. Countries which are predominately Muslim or which have a large minority of Muslims vary greatly in their treatment of people found guilty of this crime. According to Amnesty International:

bullet Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Djibouti, Macedonia, Mozambique, and Turkmenistan have formally abandoned execution as the penalty for all crimes, including adultery and other sex "crimes."
bullet Albania, Bosnia, the Russian Federation, and Turkey still retain the death penalty on the books, but do not perform it in practice. Both the Russian Federation and Turkey are expected to formally abandon it in the near future.
bullet Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Sudan, and some of the northern states of Nigeria practice a very strict form of Sharia law. So do the states controlled by the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) party in Malaysia. 1

Few Muslim countries still sentence people to death by stoning. "Two people were stoned to death in Iran last year. A man was stoned for raping and killing his daughter in 2000 in Yemen. In Afghanistan, under the Taliban, adulterous couples were often killed together." 13

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The Qur'an and Sharia Law:

Sharia law is derived both from:

bullet The teachings of the Mulsim holy book, the Qur'an, which is believed to be the Word of God, and
bullet From Sunna, the practices of the prophet Muhammad.

The term "Sharia" literally means "the path to a watering hole." "Sharia is a religious code for living, in the same way that the Bible offers a moral system for Christians." 2

There are multiple forms of Sharia laws. For example, the Maliki Law School accepts evidence of pregnancy as proof that an unmarried woman has either committed adultery or been raped. "The other schools, namely Shafii, Hanbali, Hanafi and even the Shia do not recognize evidence of pregnancy as proof of Zina [Adultery]." 3

"In the 19th century, many Muslim countries came under the control or influence of Western colonial powers. As a result, Western-style laws, courts, and punishments began to appear within the Sharia. Some countries like Turkey totally abandoned the Sharia and adopted new law codes based on European systems...Modern legislation along with Muslim legal scholars who are attempting to relate the will of Allah to the 20th century have reopened the door to interpreting the Sharia. This has happened even in highly traditional Saudi Arabia, where Islam began....Since 1980, some countries with fundamentalist Islamic regimes like Iran have attempted to reverse the trend of westernization and return to the classic Sharia." 4

Within Sharia law, there are a group of "Hadd" offenses such as pre-marital sexual intercourse, sex by divorced persons, post-marital sex, adultery, false accusation of unlawful intercourse, drinking alcohol, theft, and highway robbery. Hadd sexual offenses carry a sentence of stoning to death or severe flogging. An eyewitness account of Soraya M, a woman executed by stoning, can be read on an anti-Iranian web site. Caution: do not read this if you have a weak stomach; it is quite graphic. 5

Sharia law  has been adopted in various forms by many countries, ranging from a strict interpretation in Saudi Arabia and northern states of Nigeria, to a relatively liberal interpretation in much of Malaysia. 2

Chapter 24 of Islam's holy book, the Qur'an, explicitly instructs believers to whip those found guilty of adultery. A leading Muslim scholar, Maulana Muhammad Ali noted that "stoning to death was never contemplated by Islam as a punishment for adultery." Roman Catholic Archbishop of Lagos, Dr. Anthony Olubunmi Okogie, said that the "official text of the Qur'an only sanctions a punishment of so many lashes for such an offence not stoning to death...[the] punishment of stoning was introduced later by Omar, the second Calif for reasons best known to him." 6 Many Muslim scholars and judges agree that the Qur'an does not refer to executions by stoning. "...the Islamic legal scholar Tarik Abdul-Rahman states they are part of the Hadith (collections of sayings and acts of the Prophet), and go back to the Pentateuch (first five books of Hebrew Scripture)." 7 Execution by stoning is thus in harmony with the 613 laws which make up the Mosaic code in the Bible.

Massoud Shadjareh, of the London-based Islamic Human Rights Commission, opposes stoning sentences. He urges other Muslim leaders to speak out against them. Otherwise, he fears that what he calls an inhumane brand of Islamic law will take root in Nigeria. Shadjareh said:
"Shariah has been translated to be harsh, extreme treatment — it isn't." He argues that amputations and stonings are supposed to be used only as a last resort, and only within those Islamic societies that have eliminated poverty and corruption. Neither condition has yet been achieved, either in Nigeria or in other countries where stoning is practiced. 13

Some interesting details associated with Sharia law:

bullet Under the form of Sharia law that is practiced in Sudan, "the stones thrown during the execution should not be so large that the offender dies after a few strikes, nor so small as to fail to cause serious  injury." 7
bullet A conviction normally requires a minimum of four witnesses who directly observed the sexual activity at the same time, or a freely-given confession by the defendant. However, as noted below, the former requirement is not always followed. If the woman is pregnant and either unmarried or divorced, she may be assumed to be guilty, if she is tried under the conservative Maliki Law School form of Sharia.  8
bullet Under "an obscure tenet of Islamic law, embryo can 'sleep' for years before swelling a woman's belly." 9 Thus, it is believed that an interval of up to seven years can pass between conception and birth. This means that a woman who is pregnant and has been divorced for fewer than seven years can theoretically claim that the father of the fetus is her former husband.
bullet Problems sometimes arise when an unmarried or divorced woman becomes pregnant as a result of a rape. Some Sharia courts do not recognize DNA testing or the evaluation of possible paternity by other blood tests. The case often results in a "she-said, he said" situation. Sometimes, the alleged rapist is found not-guilty because his involvement cannot be proven. But if an unmarried woman becomes pregnant, she can be assumed to be guilty of extra-marital sexual activity and can be executed. If she claims that she was raped and is unable to prove her case, then she will probably receive severe punishment, because she would be assumed guilty of making a false accusation.
bullet Sharia law is only applicable to Muslims. Christians and other non-Muslims are supposed to be exempt from the provisions of the law -- a provision that is ignored in the Sudan.

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Sharia law in Nigeria:

Nigeria is Africa's most populous country with a population of 110 million, spread out over 250 ethnic groups in 36 states. The residents in the northern states are predominately Muslim, while those in the south are mainly Christian. Nigeria has received a lot of news coverage in recent years because of the strict Maliki interpretation of Sharia (Islamic) law by courts in some of  the northern states. Introduction of the "Sharia Penal Codes" and "Sharia Codes of Criminal Procedure" first came into force in the state of Zamfara on 2000-FEB-27. The states of Sokoto, Kano, Katsina, Jigawa, Borno, Kaduna followed suit between 2000-MAY and 2001-FEB. The states of Gombe, Kebbi, Niger and Yobe adopted Sharia law later in 2001. This triggered horrendous levels of inter-religious conflict and mass murder. Over 2,000 people are believed to have died in inter-religious rioting in the Kaduna state alone during 2000-FEB. A further 500 were killed in the state of Jos during 2001-SEP. In violation of the country's constitution, and of the UN Convention Against Torture which the federal government signed in 2001-JUN, some northern Nigerian courts have imposed beheadings, stoning and amputations for what are considered relatively minor crimes elsewhere in the world. Executions have been occasionally performed as punishment for behavior that is not even considered criminal in other jurisdictions.

During 2001 and 2002, there were a flurry of persecutions that resulted in sentences of death by stoning. Nigerian fundamentalist Islamic groups are pressuring the state governments to prove their commitment to Sharia law by carrying out the executions.

Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian, is the president of Nigeria. He received significant support from Muslims in the north during the last election. He said that "sharia is not a new thing and it's not a thing to be afraid of." His main response to sharia law was to try to persuade northern courts to make their sentences more lenient.

Some commentators have suggested that the harsh sentences under Sharia law are being imposed as "an act of defiance by northern leaders against President ... Obasanjo, whom they accuse of neglect, and against the south as a whole, where Nigeria's economic power lies. [Some] southerners accuse the rulers of the mainly Muslim north of manipulating Islam to divide voters along religious lines — and to distract the people from their state governments' poor performance since military rule ended in Nigeria three years ago." 13

In 2002-MAR, the federal government ruled that sharia law in the north of the country was was illegal under Nigeria's constitution. Justice minister, Godwin Agabi, wrote that "a Muslim should not be subjected to a punishment more severe than would be imposed on other Nigerians for the same offence". He said that the country "cannot be indifferent" to international pressure over recent court sentences. 2

Dalhat S. Abubakar, chief registrar for the Katsina Shariah Court of Appeal, questioned whether Islamic law is being applied correctly in cases of sexual activity outside of marriage. Referring to stoning sentences, he said: "Under normal circumstances they are not supposed to do that. Adultery is not an offense against the state."

Sharia law is not supposed to apply to Christians and other non-Muslims. In theory, the Penal Code for Northern Nigeria remains in effect for non-Muslims. However, Zamfara state requires its female employees to meet Muslim standards of dress regardless of religion. Christians and women of other non-Muslim faiths cannot ride motorcycle taxis or share mass transportation with men. Smaller buses are provided for women, but they are few in number and run infrequently. 9

Considerable opposition to Sharia law has come from outside of Nigeria:

bullet According to Human Rights Watch, "previous trials in Sharia courts in several northern states of Nigeria have been characterized by an absence of due [legal] process. Defendants do not always have legal representation; they are often ill informed about procedures and about their rights. Judges and other court officials frequently lack legal training." 10
bullet Baobab, a Nigerian based NGO promoting women's rights, and Amnesty International state that "the current practice and many regulations in the new Sharia penal Codes and Sharia Codes of Criminal procedure violate many international human rights instruments ratified by Nigeria, including the 'Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women,' the 'Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment' and the 'International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.' " 11
bullet The European Parliament passed a resolution on 2002-APR-8 titled "Urgency Resolution on Human Rights Situation in Nigeria." The resolution: "Condemns all forms of religious intolerance and expresses its concern that the fundamentalist interpretation of the Sharia law in 12 northern Nigerian states is contrary to the respect for basic human rights even under moderate Islamic legal interpretations of the Koran and asks the Sharia states in northern Nigeria to amend these laws... 12
bullet The "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2001," prepared by Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor of the U.S. State Department states: "The implementation of an expanded version of Sharia law in 12 northern states continued, which challenged constitutional protections for religious freedom and occasionally sparked ethno-religious violence." 10

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Books on Sharia law:

bullet Muhammad Salim Awa, "Punishment in Islamic Law : A Comparative Study," American Trust Publications, (1982).
bullet M. Cherif Bassiouni, Ed., "The Islamic Criminal Justice System," Oceana, (1982).
bullet Wael B. Hallaq, "Law and Legal Theory in Classical and Medieval Islam," Variorum, (1995).
bullet Majid Khadduri, Ed., "Law in the Middle East,", Middle East Institute, (1955).

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References used:

  1. "Malaysian by-elections test hardline Islamic party," Yahoo! News, 2002-JUL-18. No longer online.
  2. "Sharia Law," Guardian Unlimited, at:,6512,777972,00.html
  3. Buba Iman, "Safiyatu's conviction untenable under Sharia," Jenda: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies, Volume 1.2 (2001). Online at:  You need software to read these files. It can be obtained free from:
  4. "The Origins of Islamic Law," Constitutional Rights Foundation, at:
  5. "The stoning of Soraya M.," at:
  6. Andrew Ahiante, "Koran Does Not Approve Stoning - Archbishop," 2002-MAR-24,, at:
  7. Sandhya Jain, "Should Sharia laws be reconsidered?," at:
  8. "Woman Executed in Afghanistan", Associated Press News Service, 1997-MAR-30
  9. Stephan Faris, "Final Decision Expected in Nigerian Stoning Case," Women's Enews," at:
  10. Jim Fisher-Thompson, "U.S. Women Protest Stoning Verdict by Nigerian Court. Activists decry 'barbaric' aspect of Sharia law," U.S. Department of State, International Information Programs at:
  11. "BAOBAB for Women's Human Rights and Amnesty International Joint statement on the implementation of new Sharia-based penal codes in northern Nigeria," 2002-MAR-25, at:
  12. "Urgency Resolution on Human Rights Situation in Nigeria." European Parliament, 2002-APR-8, at:
  13. D'arcy Doran, "Stoning Sentences Surge in Nigeria," Associated Press, at:

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Site navigation: Home page > World Religions > Sharia/Adultery > Islam > here

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Copyright 2002 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-SEP-1
Latest update: 2002-SEP-18
Author: B.A. Robinson

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