One of the gravest charges levied against Islam, in terms of its alleged antipathy towards women, is the charge 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, such as premarital sexual relations or unapproved dating.
This practice 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 a punishment, the minority opinion of the Maliki School of law was unjustly evoked, as occurred in Nigeria, or criminal malfeasance occurred as is the case in Pakistan.
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. Hence, to kill a female guilty of one of these offenses is not some sort of Islamic punishment, it is cold-blooded murder, and no Islamic authority can argue otherwise.
The overwhelming majority of Muslim societies are free from such practices, although they do 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 death occurred due to such barbarity, it would be one too many, as the Qur’an emphasizes that whoever takes an innocent life without sanction it is as if the murderer has slaughtered the entirety of humanity (5:35).
To use the existence of such killings to smear Islam shows the desperation and misplaced priorities 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 briefly 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 and it teachings.
To attack Islam from this angle is a case of misplaced priorities because it distracts 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. In spite of that, it would be disingenuous to use such statistics as an indictment against Christianity or Christian sexual ethics. This existence of such a practice is an affront to humanity and requires our collective attention.
Other issues that involve attacks against the persons and dignity of women such as rape and pornography are epidemic and require the immediate attention of the international community.
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:
1. Emphasize that such killings have no sanction in the Qur’an, the Prophetic practice, or in Islamic law.
2. Declare anyone guilty of involvement in honor killings to be a cold-blooded murderer.
3. Encourage judicial authorities to enact the harshest punishments possible for anyone accused of involvement in such killings.
4. Educate our Muslim communities about the un-Islamic nature of honor killings, and the pressures, nuances, challenges and complications facing young Muslims in the West.
5. Work to eliminate the double standards and 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 theoretical teachings in that regard into a beautiful reality that helps to elevate the status of women in all societies.
1 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.
2 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.