VOICES & ECHOES
NOVEMBER 16, 2001 • HOUSTON VOICE
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The punishing truth about Islam
Barely two weeks
before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the
World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the
New York Post and Court TV both ran
items about punishment meted out by
Afghanistan's Taliban regime on two men
convicted of homosexuality.
According to those stories, the
Taliban's Islamic jurists knew that homosexuality was reprehensible and the sentence should be execution, but they were
genuinely puzzled by conflicting Islamic
opinion on exactly how the execution
should be carried out.
"We have a dilemma on this," one
Taliban leader explained. "One group of
scholars believes you should take these
people to the top of the highest building in
the city, and hurl them to their deaths."
The other group, he said, opted for a different approach. "They recommend you
dig a pit near a wall somewhere, put these
people in it, then topple the wall so that
they are buried alive."
No one thought to point out that these
approaches are atavistic survivals of
options presented during the earliest days
of Islam in the mid-seventh century.
The idea of stoning derived from the
Koran's account of the destruction of
Sodom by a "rain of stones," apparently
due to Mohammed's misunderstanding
of the Hebrew legend of "fire and brimstone" (sulfur), and from a supposed
hadith ("saying") of Mohammed's urging
stoning of both partners found engaging
in homosexual sex.
Mohammed's successor, his father-in-
law Abu Bakr (reigned 632-34), reportedly
ordered a homosexual burned at the stake.
The fourth caliph, Mohammed's son-in-law
AH ibn Abi Talib (reigned 656-61) ordered a
sodomite thrown from the minaret of a
mosque. Others he ordered to be stoned.
One of the earliest and most authoritative commentators on the Koran, Ibn
'Abbas (died 687) stipulated a two-step execution in which "the sodomite should be
thrown from the highest building in the
town .and then stoned." Later it was decided that if no building were tall enough, the
sodomite could be shoved off a cliff.
Subsequent commentators on the
Koran denounced homosexuality in what
ethnologist Jim Wafer calls "extravagant"
terms: "Whenever a male mounts another
male, the throne of God trembles; the
angels look on in loathing and say, 'Lord,
why do you not command the earth to
punish them and the heavens to rain
stones on them.'"
These early doctrines and practices were
codified by the influential Hanbalite school
of law, the most conservative school of
Islamic jurisprudence, named after the theologian Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-855).
Ibn Hanbal argued that human reasoning was not a reliable guide to truth and
that the Koran and the habitual behavior of
Mohammed, literally understood, offered
sufficient guidance for later practice. As a
result, Hanbalites uniformly urged execution, usually by stoning.
There were, to be sure, other schools of
thought on the subject. The Hanafites,
named for Abu Hanifa (699-767), put
greater emphasis on individual reasoning
and local circumstances. They taught that
homosexuality was wrong but did not
merit physical punishment because another
supposed hadith of Mohammed said
Muslim blood should be spilled only for
adultery, apostasy or murder.
But some ambiguity remained. For a
married man, homosexuality could be
interpreted as adultery, so an individual
judge might choose to impose a physical
Other schools of jurisprudence urged
public whipping, usually 100 lashes, so that
the pain of the sodomite might serve as an
exemplary warning to others.
Reports of these punishments being carried out in early times are not abundant.
Some historians think this means Islamic
culture was more tolerant in practice than
Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind of
the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S., grew up in the
state-supported Wahhabi religion, a version of
Islam that condones the stoning of gay men.
'Whenever a male mounts another male, the throne of
God trembles/ or so argued an early Islamic commentator.
The outlook hasn't gotten much better since then,
especially in Afghanistan.'
in principle. But more likely most court
records have simply not survived, so we
have no information.
What may have protected some homosexuals, though, was the insistence by most
Islamic jurists that conviction for homosexuality required witnesses, sometimes as
many as four. That meant that homosexuality conducted discretely and in private
might survive unpunished.
What does all this history have to do
Just this. The strict Hanbalite school of
Islamic jurisprudence remains powerful to
this day, and is dominant in Saudi Arabia
and Syria. The distinguished Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr describes the current Hanbalite school as:
"The most strict in its adherence to the
Koran and the Sunnah [the original practices] and does not rely as do the other
schools of law upon the other principles" — such as the consensus of the
learned, the welfare of the community,
modern scientific knowledge, or individual human reasoning — "and, in fact,
The official Saudi Arabian state religion
is a puritanical branch of Islam called
"Wahhabism," named for the fundamentalist religious leader named Muhammad ibn
'Abd al-Wahhab (1703-92), who urged an
anti-modern, "restorationist" or "back to
the Koran" puritanism fully consistent with
the Hanbalite school.
It is hardly necessary to remind anyone that Osama bin Laden is a Saudi
Arabian who grew up in the state-supported fundamentalist Wahhabi religion;
or that the Saudi government and royal
family have channeled hundreds of millions of dollars to fundamentalist Islamic
groups worldwide including, according
hundreds of millions of dollars to promote their particularly homophobic version of Islam among U.S. Muslims.
Paul Varnell is a Chicago-based syndicated
writer whose work can be found al the Iridependent
Gay Forum (www.indegayforum.org); he can be
reached at Pmrnell@aol.com.
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