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Honor Killings in the Name of Religion

by Mohamad K. Yusuff

A few weeks ago, ABC News magazine, Nightline, televised a documentary, originally produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), titled, A Matter of Honor, on two consecutive nights -- February 15 and 16, 1999. The drama that enfolded on television during these two one-half hour programs was stunning, incredible, and heinous. It dealt with a barbaric custom of murdering Muslim women for immoral activities in rural Pakistan, at the hands of male family members, including fathers, brothers, and even husbands, to maintain the purity of tribal honor.

In my view, this program should have been renamed: "A Matter of Dishonor." Similar documentaries, with different titles, from other geographic regions including Jordan and Lebanon, have been produced and shown before -- all with the same results -- the victims invariably were Muslim women, killed by male relatives to "restore family honor." It seems that blood -- women’s blood -- is the price of men’s honor in some parts of the Muslim world.

This article will briefly discuss issues raised in this documentary, including "consent and marriage, adultery and false accusation," and the "legality of honor killings," on the basis of the Prophetic Tradition and the Sacred Qur’an, the pre-eminent Book of Laws for all of Islam. Honor killings for female sexual misconduct (real or imagined) is a practice that is outside my living experience, and that of millions of Muslims born and bred in the West. Undoubtedly, this type of gender homicide is an aberrant relic of a feudal patriarchy that is alien to Islamic teachings and the Muslim way of life.


  • Preface to Part I of "A Matter of Honor"


      ABC News introduced Part I of this documentary as follows:

      Journalists should always think twice before embarking on a report critical of another culture or another religion’s practices. It is simply too easy to judge, too easy to believe that our ways are better ways. But some practices are so disturbing -- and in the case of tonight’s broadcast, so horrific -- that they demand a painful closer look.

      Such a practice found in a number of Muslim countries is called "honor killing," women murdered when they are suspected of immoral activities. This might include marrying someone the family disapproves of, being seen with the wrong person, going out alone at night, or just being the subject of gossip. Honor is recovered only when the woman dies. . . .


  • Preface to Part II of "A Matter of Honor"


      Part II of the documentary was introduced by ABC News as follows:

      Since our broadcast last night, we have received numerous emails and phone calls from people worried that a report on how brutally women are treated in parts of the Muslim world may be a criticism of the religion of Islam. It is not. Nothing in Islam demands the murder of women suspected of immoral behavior.

      But it is true that countless fundamentalist Muslims, and in some parts of the world other religious groups as well, believe that the behavior of their women must be strictly controlled, and they believe even the appearance of a woman’s misbehavior spells death or else the men in the family will be dishonored. . . .

The broadcast portrays a dominant and inelastic patriarchal system, in which male members make life-and-death decisions on the physical well-being of their women. These Muslim women are essentially illiterate and are totally subjugated under the pernicious system of purdah -- seclusion of women from male society and covering from head to toe when in public. The primary reason given for female homicide was "alleged sexual misconduct," ranging on the moral continuum, from "suspicion of adultery" to "rumor of adultery." The program showed that male members of the Pakistani feudal patriarchy have exclusive prerogative over marriage arrangements of their daughters, who are helpless and have absolutely no recourse but to obey the chauvinist dictates of a backward system. This barbarism over Muslim women by a tyrant patriarchy is a travesty that is outside the pale of the Islamic model, as taught by the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.a.w).

Asma Jahangir of Pakistan Human Rights Commission analyzed the women’s dilemma in the program as follows: "You are seeing these people who are ignorant and who are sick and it has nothing to do with Islam, except that these people have been allowed to get away with it by our state machinery. . . . So it is really the state that is allowing them to do it. It has nothing to do with religion. . . ."

Consent and Marriage

In the program, we met a father (together with his son) charged with the killing of his daughter and a man with whom she had allegedly eloped. When questioned about the murders of his daughter and her "man friend," the father responded: "My daughter ran away with someone, so we killed them both. When she eloped, she wasn’t my daughter anymore. I did the right thing. I’m an honorable man. I killed them both. There is no greater honor anywhere. . . ." This is the "life-and-death hold" that fathers have over their daughters in this tribal enclave, a practice that violates all Islamic tenets.

The custom of "arranged marriages" is an ancient, time-tested system, practiced by all societies and by all religious traditions from time immemorial. Even in twenty-first century America today, this practice is alive and well. Islam is not averse to "arranged marriages" provided that the woman’s consent is safeguarded. Islam views marriage as a contract for life, and as such, the man and the woman must reach a mutual understanding as to their compatibility as life partners.

The sacred Qur’an enjoins: "Marry such women as seem good to you." (4:3) The Prophet recommended: "When one of you makes a proposal of marriage to a woman, he, if he can, should look at what attracts him to her." (Abu Dawud) The canonical hadith texts (al sahihain) of Islam’s two most distinguished muhaddithin, Imam al Bukhari and Imam Muslim, contain chapters with headings essentially titled: "To Look at a Woman Before Marriage." According to the Prophet’s teachings, it is recommended that marriage partners see each other. The Messenger of Allah directed a companion, Mughira ibn Shu`ba, to go and see the woman to whom he had proposed marriage because "it was likely to bring about greater love and concord between them." (Ahmad, Tirmidhi, and al Mishkat al Masabih)

Muslim jurists are in general agreement on the principle of approval (istihbab), i.e., looking at the woman one intends to marry and vice versa. Moreover, the marriage contract is a mutually agreeable document requiring the consent of both parties (man and woman). Since the man is allowed to look at the woman, it would seem fair that the woman has the same right to look at the man before giving her consent for marriage. This conclusion is based on Islam’s bedrock principle of equality in rights and obligations, between man and woman.

Thus, according to tradition, the consent of both the man and the woman is an essential element of the Muslim marriage procedures. The noble Qur’an clearly lays down that the two must agree: "Prevent them not from marrying their husbands when they agree among themselves in a lawful manner." (2:232) Ahmad Shukri, in his noted work, The Muhammadan Law of Marriage and Divorce, page 43, (on the authority of `Abd al Qadir, al Nahr, page 218), states: "The time for seeing her should precede the betrothal. . . . The woman is recommended to have a look at the man if she wants to marry him, because anything that would please her with him will please him with her . . . ."

In the Islamic tradition, when a man agrees to marry a woman, he makes a proposal of marriage to the parents or guardians. Some jurists contend that the proposal can be made directly to the woman herself. Once the man makes this proposal, other suitors are forbidden to propose to the same woman until the first suitor withdraws, or until his proposal is rejected. (al Bukhari) A woman may also make a proposal of marriage to a man. (al Bukhari) Generally, it is the man who makes the proposal. It should be noted that it was the Prophet’s wife Khadija (r.a) who proposed to him, and not vice versa.

As shown here, consent is a requirement in Islam’s marriage procedures, a principle that is completely violated by the ironclad practice of "male-controlled marriages" in the Pakistani patriarchal system. Much of the evil of Pakistan’s tribal marriage practices is also compounded by abject ignorance and religious illiteracy, by both the "so-called mullahs" and the "misinformed lay" masses.

Note on Purdah

Purdah was defined earlier in this paper. In my opinion, probably no other individual in the twentieth century had more to do with the degradation and subjugation of Muslim women in the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere than Maulana Sayyid Abul A`la Mawdudi. His work on women, Purdah and the Status of Woman in Islam (1939), is a pernicious book that has set back the Muslim woman’s cause, to a time reminiscent of the jahiliyyah (age of ignorance) that predated Islam. One ironic note is that while the theologians of Saudi Arabia have praised Mawdudi’s Purdah and have been its main distributor, they have totally rejected other fine works of the great Maulana. [A detailed analysis and review of Purdah by the Islamic Study Academy of Maryland is forthcoming soon.]

Adultery and False Accusation

The broadcast showed that women were killed on the "slightest suspicion of adultery" (zina) or on the "mere rumor of sexual misconduct." The mother-in-law of one woman, who was killed along with her "alleged" sweetheart cousin, stated that "the couple was seen alone together and this was enough to tarnish the family’s honor. They had to be killed. . . . If somebody dishonors us, he should be killed. No matter how old, even if they are innocent." One Muslim man in jail for such killing boldly claimed: "We are Muslims. Our Shari`a says if you see them, kill them. We cannot spare them if we see them. It says so in the Shari`a and the Qur’an. Even the Mullahs say it. . . ." What abject ignorance!

Presented here is a layman’s summary of "adultery and false accusation" -- offenses which are punishable under the laws of Islam. As a general proposition, it is nearly impossible to prove a case of adultery under Islamic jurisprudence, simply because the "four required witnesses" have to testify that they actually "witnessed" the sexual offense, i.e. copulation. "Suspicion, rumor, or hearsay" is legally inadmissible.

The Qur’an mandates: "The adulteress and the adulterer, flog each of them (with) a hundred stripes, and let not pity for them detain you from obedience to Allah . . . ." (24:2) The Qur'an also stipulates that the punishment for adultery committed by "slave-girls" is half that imposed on "freed married women" (4:25). These two verses were the last revelation in the Qur’an mandating flogging, and not the practice of stoning to death, for the offense of zina (Click here for a related question and answer). An earlier revelation of two verses (4:15-16), stipulating "house arrest" for women fornicators and "punishment" for homosexuality, was superceded by the two later verses noted herein, according to some commentators.

Another punishable offense is "false accusation of adultery" (al qadhf), essentially slander. The Qur’an commands: "And those who accuse free women and bring not four witnesses, flog them (with) eighty stripes and never accept their evidence, and these are the transgressors -- except those who afterwards repent and act aright; surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful" (24:4-5). Thus, false accusation is a serious offense in Islam.

The Qur’an makes it clear that "death," either by "stoning" or by any other means as a punishment for adultery, is unlawful based on divine law. This is in direct contradiction to death by stoning for illicit sexual conduct, practiced in countries such as, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and others.

The Right to Life

Riffat Hassan, professor of religious studies at the University of Louisville, explained the women’s plight in the broadcast as follows: "Unfortunately, most religions of the world developed in patriarchal cultures, which were male centered, male dominated, and gave men a sort of sole authority to interpret the texts and assume proprietary rights in some cases over the lives of women . . . . To these men who are killing their wives and sisters, their honor is something that is priceless, and the lives of these women are worth very little. . . . women are replaceable . . . . but honor is not . . . . but it’s, you know, certainly not reflective of Islamic teachings."

The fact is that Islam has laid down universal fundamental rights for humanity, which are to be observed and respected under all circumstances. For example, human blood is sacred and may not be spilled without strong justification. It is not permissible to oppress women, children, old people, the sick or the wounded; women’s honor and chastity must be respected; the hungry must be fed, the naked clothed, and the wounded or diseased treated medically. All Muslims within an Islamic state must recognize these rights.

The first and foremost basic right in Islam is the right to life. The Sacred Qur’an lays down: Whoever kills a human being, except as punishment for manslaughter or corruption on earth, it is as though he had killed all mankind. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved the lives of all mankind. (5:32) The Qur’an also makes clear: Do not kill a soul which Allah has made sacred except through the due process of law. (6:151)

Based on these injunctions, the calculated murder of Muslim women shown in the broadcast cannot be justified under any circumstances.

Responsibility of the Islamic State

The Sacred Qur’an envisions that the aim and purpose of the Islamic State is to promote in humans behavior that is innately good, and to suppress actions that are evidently evil. The demand of Islam is that principles of morality must be observed at all costs and in all walks of life. Hence, it lays down an unalterable policy that the state should base its policies on justice, truth, and honesty. It is not prepared, under any circumstances, to tolerate fraud, falsehood, and injustice for the sake of political or sectarian expediency. Islam also imposes similar obligations on the state and the individual to use power and authority in pursuit of justice, and to regard power as a trust from God to be used equitably, on account of the fact that man is responsible to God for his actions.


On the basis of Islamic practices and regulations noted herein, it is easy to conclude that only a legally constituted state has the right to adjudicate moral offenses committed by citizens. At the same time, not even the state can impose capital punishment for sexual misconduct, since this is strictly prohibited by the sacred law itself, as documented above. Hence, the barbaric practice of "honor killings" prevalent in the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere is an atrocity that is wholly illegal and without scriptural basis. What is more abhorrent and immoral in the eyes of millions of Muslims today, is the abject failure of the government of Pakistan to reign in and extirpate this heinous and criminal tradition. We thus call on Muslims the world over to denounce the gruesome murders of Muslim women on the mere suspicion of sexual misconduct -- wherever in the world such injustice takes place.

For, as the sacred Qur’an commands in this bedrock regulation: You who believe, be upholders of justice, witnesses to Allah, even it be against yourselves, your parents, or your kinsmen -- whether he be rich or poor. . . . And if you distort or turn away from (truth), surely Allah is ever Aware of what you do. (4:135)

Posted March 9, 1999. This article was printed in the February/March 1999 issue of the Voice of Islam newsletter. (This newsletter is published by the Islamic Society of the Washington Area).


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