Thursday, July 02, 2009

"Stoning . . . is the introduction, by contemporary Islamic leaders, of a Jewish custom"?

The British scholar Chris Williams, who seems to be writing a regular column for the Korea Herald these days, had an article in yesterday's Herald that promised to apply lessons learned from the recent events in Iran to an analysis of North Korea: "Could 'Iran' happen in North Korea?"

Despite the headline, Williams actually had relatively little to say specifically about North Korea -- though he did make the following remark:

Hope for Iran, and North Korea, lies in two things. Despotic regimes inevitably score own goals, appear foolish and inept, and alienate their own supporters. But paradoxically, it is unfortunate that those who rule North Korea seem less inept than those who rule Iran.
I gather that North Korean 'eptness' means that the answer to the question posed in this article's headline as to the possibility of massive popular resistance in North Korea is: "Maybe not." I suspect, however, that if the North Korean leadership seems less inept than Iran's leadership, this is because the North Korean leaders do not flirt with democracy and therefore have no ballots to obviously and crudely miscount. Williams did have some otherwise interesting things to say about Iran, despotism, and democracy, but his article contains the following, confounding passage:

Stoning is not, as many believe, Iranian tradition. It did not happen during the Shah's era, and the practice is not Persian or proposed in the Koran. It is the introduction, by contemporary Islamic leaders, of a Jewish custom. The practice is closer to Zionism than Zoroastrianism.
That last line is perhaps indicative of an Anglo-Saxon love for alliteration, and thereby 'poetic', but the entire paragraph is a cognitive snarl that would appear to hold Jews in some way responsible for the un-Islamic application of stoning as punishment in Iran. Let us therefore look a bit closer at this issue.

Is stoning a Jewish custom? I don't currently see many Jews involved in stonings. To be frank, I don't see any. Jewish laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy do indeed mandate stoning for some crimes, and these might be what Williams was thinking of, but the laws on stoning haven't been applied for perhaps 2000 years. There may have been some exceptions, for isolated cases can probably always be found, but one can hardly call stoning these days a Jewish custom.

Moreover, stoning surely has nothing to do with Zionism, which is a secular political philosophy. I can't imagine that Williams thinks that the state of Israel has laws to mandate stoning for capital offenses. As for the reference to Zoroastrianism . . . well, why is that thrown in? Except for alliteration, of course . . . and, I suppose, because the Iranians used to be Zoroastrians, who apparently didn't use stoning as a punishment. But Iranians haven't been Zoroastrians since the Islamic conquest nearly 1400 years ago.

And that is the crux, for stoning is both law and custom in Islam. Williams is correct that the Qur'an does not mandate stoning, but Islamic law, shariah, certainly does, for shariah is based on three sources: Qur'an (Allah's revelation), Sira (Muhammad's life), and Hadith (Muhammad's sayings). Muhammad practiced stoning, and he condoned it. Stoning is not a recent introduction to Islam by contemporary Muslim leaders. It is decidedly no innovation.

As for the history of stoning's application in Islamic Iran, I know little about that. Possibly, Williams is correct that it was not practiced in the past and was only introduced into Iran's Islamic Penal Code in 1983. Be that as it may, stoning has certainly always been part of Islamic law, and when one considers that Iran's Islamist revolution took place in 1979, then the fact that stoning was made law merely four years later looks less like innovation and more like an opportunity grasped.

In no way should one blame the Jews for stoning in Iran . . . or for stoning in Islam.

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