The stoning of adulterers in Islam: No strong hadith shows it happened after Surat al-Nur

There are numerous hadiths that tell us the Prophet Muhammad PBUH stoned a number of married adulterers. The most important hadith might be one where the Jews of Medina bring a cause of married adultery before the Prophet PBUH. The Prophet PBUH wants to deal with the adulterers according to Jewish law (probably because no Quranic verse had been revealed regarding the issue). The Jews try to ward off the punishment by saying there is nothing in the Torah about stoning adulterers. But Abdullah b. Salam, a Jewish scholar who converted to Islam, forces them to tell the truth:

Malik related to me from Nafi that Abdullah ibn Umar said, "The Jews came to the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, and mentioned to him that a man and woman from among them had committed adultery. The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, asked them, 'What do you find in the Torah about stoning?' They said, 'We make their wrong action known and flog them.' Abdullah ibn Salam said, 'You have lied! It has stoning for it, so bring the Torah.' They spread it out and one of them placed his hand over the ayat of stoning. Then he read what was before it and what was after it. Abdullah ibn Salam told him to lift his hand. He lifted his hand and there was the ayat of stoning. They said, 'He has spoken the truth, Muhammad. The ayat of stoning is in it.' So the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, gave the order and they were stoned.

Muwatta Book 41, Hadith 1. Also in al-Bukhari, Muslim and others.

The fact that the Prophet PBUH ordered the stoning of some adulterers is uncontroversial. But the most important thing we need to know is whether he ever ordered stoning after Surat al-Nur was revealed, the chapter of the Quran where the issue of adultery is dealt with in some detail. The Quran does not mention stoning of adulterers anywhere, and if we only had the Quran to follow, it would have been clear that adulterers are only to be punished with flogging rather than stoning.

The great 20th century scholar of Islamic law Muhammad Abu Zahra found stoning so repulsive that he considered it impossible that Prophet Muhammad PBUH, sent as a “mercy to mankind”, would instate such a barbaric punishment in his law. (See my essay about his view).

To clarify the matter, I decided to collect all hadiths that mention stoning happening after the Islamic law on the issue was revealed in Surat al-Nur. As it happens, the strongest hadith we have actually tells us that a Companion was unsure whether stoning ever took place after Surat al-Nur was revealed.

Hadith 1

Narrated Ash-Shaibani:

I asked Abdullah bin Abi Aufa about the Rajam (stoning somebody to death for committing illegal sexual intercourse). He replied, "The Prophet (ﷺ) carried out the penalty of Rajam," I asked, "Was that before or after the revelation of Surat-an-Nur?" He replied, "I do not know."

Sahih al-Bukhari 6840, also in Muslim and Mustakhraj Abi Uwana.

Below is a diagram of the chains of this hadith:

This hadith receives an authenticity score of 30.2%, which makes it authentic according to probabilistic hadith verification (which has much more stringent criteria compared to the criteria used by al-Bukhari and other scholars, see my essay about it).

Hadith 2

The following hadith is the strongest hadith we have that states that stoning was carried out after the revelation of Surat al-Nur. In it Umar b. al-Khattab (may God be pleased with him) defends stoning.

Narrated Ibn `Abbas:

Umar said, "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." Sufyan added, "I have memorized this narration in this way."Umar added, "Surely Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) carried out the penalty of Rajam, and so did we after him."

Sahih al-Bukhari 6829, also in Muslim, Ibn Maja, al-Humaydi, Abu Uwana, Musnad Ahmad, Ibn Hibban, Musannaf of Abd al-Razzaq and al-Nasa'i.

Below is the hadith’s chain diagram:

This hadith receives an authenticity score of 27.79%, below the 30% needed for judging it authentic.

Hadith 3

The following is the second and last hadith we have that states stoning was carried out after Surat al-Nur:

Narrated Ash-Sha`bi:

From Ali when the latter stoned a lady to death on a Friday. Ali said, "I have stoned her according to the tradition of Allah's Messenger (ﷺ)."

Sahih al-Bukhari 6812

Below is the hadith’s chain diagram:

This hadith’s fatal weakness is that al-Shaʿbī, according to the hadith scholars al-Ḥākim, Ibn al-Jawzī and Ibn Ḥazm, never heard anything from Ali, therefore there is at least one hidden transmitter before al-Shaʿbī. This makes the hadith receive an authenticity score of 11.08%, making it rather weak, since unknown transmitters are given half the authenticity score of known transmitters in the probabilistic method. But even if we assume the unknown transmitter is entirely trustworthy, the hadith’s score only increases to 22.16%, still below the needed 30%.

Putting Islamic law’s fate in the hands of two men

All of the chains of Hadith 2 above come to us through a single transmitter, Ubaydullah b. Abdullah (it has an alternative chain that is so weak as to be unworthy of consideration). As for Hadith 3, it too comes to us through a single, unknown transmitter.

What this means is that in order to decide whether Islamic law requires the stoning of married adulterers or not, we have to place our entire trust in two men, one of whom is unknown. The law of the Quran (which does not include stoning) has to be ignored because two men tell us, through relatively low-quality hadiths, that stoning took place after Surat al-Nur.

I believe we should require evidence that receives an authenticity score of at least 60% before we can consider anything controversial to be proven beyond doubt. Putting the fate of Islamic law in the hands of two men, and ignoring the Quran for their sake, seems extremely irresponsible to me.

Another piece of evidence in favor of stoning adulterers is Maliki law, which is not entirely derived from hadith, but also from the practice of the people of Medina at the time of Imam Malik (ʿamal ahl al-madīna, or ʿamal for short, which Shaykh Umar Faruq Adullah translates as “Medinan praxis”). But this can be explained as follows: Perhaps after Surat al-Nur was revealed, there were no more cases of adultery brought before the Prophet PBUH. And after he died, since people only remembered the cases where he had stoned adulterers, people assumed this was the right thing to do in such cases. The issue never received much analysis because of the extreme rarity of adultery cases. Islam requires four witnesses to the act, which makes it almost practically impossible to prove a case of adultery. People only remembered the fact that the Prophet PBUH stoned some adulterers, without worrying about whether these cases took place before or after Surat al-Nur. And since there were no cases of adultery judged according to Surat al-Nur in the present or the past, and since all cases of adultery before had been judged according to Jewish law, it was Jewish law that was accepted as the tradition of the Prophet PBUH.

Since stoning is a matter of life and death, and since the Quran’s various verses on the punishment of adulterers contradicts it (slave-women get “half” the punishment of free women in the Quran. How can stoning to death be halved?), I believe we are well-justified in considering stoning an unproven punishment, and well-justified in only carrying out the Quranic punishment.

It may be prudent to add that I believe Islamic law should only be applied when people freely choose to live under it. The question of forcing Sharia law on people should never arise among civilized Muslims.

Bosnian Genocide in 1995: Still in our memories

It was on Thursday night that I was checking my Twitter account and I found a beautiful and at the same time heart breaking post: some supplications for those who died in the Bosnian genocide, back in the nineties.

I was a little child when this happened, I was not even a Muslim by then.
I embraced Islam in February 2001, when I was 16 years old, and I felt so proud of my religion. I was a hijabi from the very first day. It was not easy. My parents were totally against Islam.

That same year the 9-11 attacks took place, and everything seemed to be worse: my parents forbade me from attending the mosque as a desperate measure to take me outside my new faith.

At home, with my books and PC as my only company, I investigated terrorism and its roots. Somehow I read about the genocide in Bosnia. We didn’t study it at school, we didn’t hear it on the news. It didn’t receive the media coverage that it really needed. Not in my country at least. I remember I cried when I read the story, facts, and some memories shared by victims.

Now, 24 years later, I decided to write this article to help us remember what happened then, and overall, to keep those victims alive in our prayers.

It was in the spring of 1992 that Bosnia and Herzegovina declared its independence from Yugoslavia. Of a population of 4 million at that time, 44% were Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks). The Bosnian Serbs wanted to forge an independent state. Their plans included ethnic cleansing by removing the Bosniaks from the area.

In 1994 the U. N. disarmed three eastern Bosnian towns: Srebrenica, Žepa and Goražde, so that they would be “safe heavens” protected by international peacekeepers.

On July 11th 1995, Serbian forces overthrew the Dutch peacekeepers. In four days 8,000 Bosnian Muslims (men and boys) were hunted, killed and buried in hidden mass graves. Later examination of the bodies showed that they were mutilated and their extremities tied before their execution.
At the same time, 20,000 women and children were forced to leave their homes to Serbian controlled areas and camps where sexual violence was used. Some of the abused were as young as 12.

24 years later, many Bosniaks are still searching for the remains of their loved ones. Some others were able to bury their relatives, some only pieces of them. This year, 33 newly identified victims were able to be put to rest. Over 1000 are still missing.

I believe that it is important for us to understand these painful events of our past, to prevent them from happening again. And although we Muslims may be scattered throughout the world, and we may think that there is little or nothing to be done, we have a very powerful weapon with us: duas (prayers). Yes, I do believe in the power of supplications. That’s why I wrote this article. Because I want every Muslim to remember those who died. They deserve our prayers, even if it is a silent prayer. They deserve to be honored with our hearts in our supplications. Their families and victims deserve our duas to be with them, to find some peace.

No strong hadith prohibits paintings and drawings of living things

The issue of whether making pictures or paintings of living things (taṣwīr) is permitted in Islam has led to a great amount of controversy. Mainstream scholars (such as those of al-Azhar University) have chosen to permit it due to considering the evidence for the prohibition not strong enough, while those who consider themselves true followers of hadith have chosen to accept the prohibition. There are also important exceptions, such as the Syrian Shaykh Muhammad b. Amin, a follower of Ibn Tamiyya, who also considers the evidence for the prohibition unsatisfactory and contradictory. See my translation of an important article by him: A Traditionalist Critique of the Islamic Prohibition on Taṣwīr (Making Drawings and Statues of Humans and Animals).

I decided to conduct a study of the existing hadith evidence to find out its strength using the probabilistic hadith criticism method. The result, as I expected, is that none of the hadiths are strong enough to establish the prohibition, and there is one hadith among them that demolishes the rest. Unfortunately this hadith too is not very strong, although this can be explained by hadith scholars choosing to ignore it and not transmit it due to conflicting with their own views. But the hadith’s content happens to be the most believable compared to the rest due to the way it mentions a very realistic scenario. The quality of the hadith’s content is very similar to the strongest hadiths we have.

I ignored hadiths that merely mention that al-muṣawwirūn are punished by God due to the fact that these hadiths could simply be referring to those who make icons and statues meant for worship. The hadiths I included are those that seem to clearly imply that all picture-making is prohibited regardless of the intention behind making them.

Hadith 1

Narrated Ibn Umar:

Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) said, "Those who make these pictures will be punished on the Day of Resurrection, and it will be said to them. 'Make alive what you have created.'

Sahih al-Bukhari 5951, also in Musnad

Below is a diagram of the hadith’s chains:

The hadith receives an authenticity score of 16%, which is far below the 30% needed for ruling it ṣaḥīḥ (authentic) according to the probabilistic verification methodology.

Hadith 2

I heard [Prophet] Muhammad saying, "Whoever makes a picture in this world will be asked to put life into it on the Day of Resurrection, but he will not be able to do so."

Sahih al-Bukhari 5963, also in Muslim, Musnad, al-Tabarni, Musnad Abi Ya`la, al-Bayhaqi and al-Nasa'i.

Below is the diagram of its chains:

This hadith, despite its convoluted chains, receives an authenticity score of 19.44%.

Hadith 3

I heard from Allah's Messenger (ﷺ). I heard him say: All the painters who make pictures would be in the fire of Hell. The soul will be breathed in every picture prepared by him and it shall punish him in Hell ...

Sahih Muslim 2109 c, 2110 a, Musnad

Below is the chain diagram:

This hadith has a score of 8.6%, making it rather weak.

Hadith 4

Narrated `Aisha:

I purchased a cushion with pictures on it. The Prophet (came and) stood at the door but did not enter. I said (to him), "I repent to Allah for what (the guilt) I have done." He said, "What is this cushion?" I said, "It is for you to sit on and recline on." He said, "The makers of these pictures will be punished on the Day of Resurrection and it will be said to them, 'Make alive what you have created.' Moreover, the angels do not enter a house where there are pictures.'"

Sahih al-Bukhari 5957, the strongest chain is in al-Muwatta

Chain diagram:

This hadith has a score of 21.6%, again below 30%.

Hadith 5

Narrated `Aisha:

Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) returned from a journey when I had placed a curtain of mine having pictures over (the door of) a chamber of mine. When Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) saw it, he tore it and said, "The people who will receive the severest punishment on the Day of Resurrection will be those who try to make the like of Allah's creations." So we turned it (i.e., the curtain) into one or two cushions.

Sahih al-Bukhari 5954, also in Muslim

Chain diagram:

This hadith gets a score of 10.1%.

Hadith 6

Narrated Abu Zur'a:

l entered a house in Medina with Abu Huraira, and he saw a man making pictures at the top of the house. Abu Huraira said, "I heard Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) saying that Allah said, 'Who would be more unjust than the one who tries to create the like of My creatures? Let them create a grain: let them create a gnat.' "Abu Huraira then asked for a water container and washed his arms up to his armpits. I said, "Abu Huraira! Is this something you have heard I from Allah's Messenger (ﷺ)?" He said, "The limit for ablution is up to the place where the ornaments will reach on the Day of Resurrection.'

Sahih al-Bukhari 5953, also in Musnad Ishaq b. Rahawayh

Chain diagram:

This hadith gets a score of 11.5%.

Hadith 7

This is the hadith that refutes the others, in which Aisha (may God be pleased with her) denies having said that angels do not enter a house in which there is a picture (Hadith 4 above).

Abu Talha Ansari reported Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) as saying:

Angels do not enter the house in which there is a picture or portraits. I came to 'A'isha and said to her: This is a news that I have received that Allah's Apostle (ﷺ) had said: Angels do not enter the house in which there is a picture or a dog, (and further added) whether she had heard Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) making a mention of it. She said: No (I did not hear this myself), but I narrate to you what I saw him doing. I bear testimony to the fact that he (the Holy Prophet) set out for an expedition. I took a carpet and screened the door with it. When he (the Holy Prophet) came back he saw that carpet and I perceived signs of disapproval on his face. He pulled it until it was torn or it was cut (into pieces) and he said: God has not commanded us to clothe stones and clay. We cut it (the curtain) and prepared two pillows out of it by stuffing them with the fibre of date-palms and he (the Holy Prophet) did not find fault with it.

Sahih Muslim 2106 f, 2107 a

Chain diagram:

This hadith gets a score of only 3.25% due to the lack of supporting chains, although the first three transmitters are all Companions. If we assume that all three transmitted the hadith with complete authenticity, the hadith’s score rises to 9.03%, which is still not very good.

Hadith 8

We also have the following hadith (considered authentic by al-Albani) in which we find Aisha had toy horses that had wings.

Narrated Aisha:

When the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) arrived after the expedition to Tabuk or Khaybar (the narrator is doubtful), the draught raised an end of a curtain which was hung in front of her store-room, revealing some dolls which belonged to her.

He asked: What is this? She replied: My dolls. Among them he saw a horse with wings made of rags, and asked: What is this I see among them? She replied: A horse. He asked: What is this that it has on it? She replied: Two wings. He asked: A horse with two wings? She replied: Have you not heard that Solomon had horses with wings? She said: Thereupon the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) laughed so heartily that I could see his molar teeth.

Sunan Abi Dawud 4932

Chain diagram:

This chain gets a score of 1.4%, again due to the lack of supporting chains. But again its contents seem extremely realistic. My heart is much happier with this kind of hadith that mentions a lot of contextual and seemingly unnecessary details than with hadiths that merely transmit a statement of the Prophet PBUH.

What we can conclude

It looks like the instinct of the Azhar scholars is correct in not taking the prohibitory hadiths too seriously. Real prohibitions in Islam have extremely strong support behind them, with hadiths easily reaching 80% or 90% authenticity. The strongest prohibitory hadith only reaches a score of 21.6%.

The question is why the Prophet PBUH failed to impart this prohibition to his followers like normal prohibitions. Why did it have to come to us through isolated and rather low-quality hadiths? The most likely answer is that because he never taught such a prohibition. It seems very likely that the culture of the generation of Imam Malik began to confuse the hadiths in which the Prophet spoke strongly against picture-making meant for worship (i.e. idol-making), so that the context was lost and only the part where he mentioned picture-making survived. A prohibition on making religious idols became generalized in people’s minds to a prohibition on all picture-making.

Shaykh Ibn Amin’s study (that I linked earlier) adds further support to this theory. The Companions seem to have had a very casual attitude toward pictures and statues. We also know that Prophet Sulayman had statues built for him as the Quran tells us. The evidence of the Quran is always much stronger than hadith (due to the Quran’s far better transmission process), so the Quranic verse can be taken as strong evidence for the permissibility of picture-making (and even statues). The hadiths mentioned above are rather low-quality to be able to override what the Quran tells us.

We also know that one of the most respected early scholars of Islam (from the generation before Imam Malik) approved of picture-making (al-Qasim b. Muhammad).

The two hadiths of Aisha are also highly suggestive. In both of them the Prophet PBUH does not criticize the pictures/statues. In the first one he criticizes using cloth to cover walls, and in the second one he laughs at the toy horse without criticizing it.

There is also a place for human reason in this debate. It seems ridiculous to consider paintings of birds and animals as some sort of insult against God when in our daily lives we feel absolutely no compunction about things like children’s picture books filled with such paintings and drawings. The Quran tells us that the creation of the heavens and the earth is a greater accomplishment than the creation of humans (verse 40:57), so why should God feel jealous about painting humans and animals but not about painting stars and landscapes (which are God’s greater creation)?

All of Islam’s prohibitions seem to have some sense behind them, or they have very strong Quranic evidence. But in this case the evidence for the prohibition is rather weak and contradictory, and our own reason and conscience find no good justification for it.

Unfortunately we are stuck in this position where we have many low-quality hadiths creating a taboo against paintings and statues, and some (also weak) evidence going against the taboo. We also have the Quranic statement approving of Prophet Sulayman’s statues. So it seems that Muslims will forever have to deal with the ambiguities and uncertainty surrounding the issue, with mainstream scholars taking a tolerant attitude and a minority taking an extreme position in support of the taboo.

My conclusion

My own stance is to fully approve of drawings and paintings of living things, and as for statues, I consider them at worst to be in a gray area. I see no strong Islamic justification for speaking against those who make them.