Ready to Cast the First Stone

Until I first came to Nigeria in 1964, I never had given much thought to Islam. But when I arrived, my eyes were opened to a new world. At the international airport in Lagos, men in “Arabian Nights” outfits swarmed around me. Some months later, on a visit to Lagos during Christmas week, I came upon an election day riot, in which a large group of university students dressed in jeans and T-shirts were threatening violence against a smaller group of men dressed in these very same “Arabian Nights” outfits. By that time I had come to realize that the students in modern Euro-American dress were mainly non-Muslims from southern Nigeria and that the others were mainly Muslims from northern Nigeria. Even if a considerable number of non-Muslims in Nigeria nowadays dress in fashions of Muslim origin, the fact that there is such a thing as a male Muslim way of dressing may be taken as a key to something central to the Islamic tradition, not only in Nigeria, but also more generally.



It is often said by Muslims that Islam, unlike Christianity, is a way of life, not just a religion. It certainly is true that Islam enters into many more minutiae of daily life—e.g., how men dress—than does Christianity. In this, Islam has more in common with Orthodox Judaism. St. Paul, trained in this tradition of Judaism, steadfastly insisted that Gentile Christians were not held by the details of the Mosaic Law, starting with the laws of circumcision and diet. In this, Christians differ dramatically from Orthodox Jews or devout Muslims who follow the sunna (customary path) of Muhammad. Orthodox Jews and devout Muslims find God’s will, to the present day, in detailed conformity to set rules and regulations affecting every aspect of life.

Muslims call the codification of the divinely revealed or prophetically exemplified rules for living sharia. The detailed contents of sharia are specified by the Quran and the sunna of Muhammad, his customary practice as recorded in traditional accounts called hadith. The word sharia is used only once in the Quran, but its usage is quite significant. In this passage God addresses the prophet Muhammad: “We have set you on a path [sharia] of the divine command. Now, then, follow it! Do not follow the delusions of those who know nothing!” (Quran 45:18).

Sharia can be taken as a shorthand term for the whole of Islamic morality, dealing with every aspect of life from the most trivial (dress) to the most profound (statecraft). When Kemal Ataturk wanted not only to disestablish Islam in Turkey, but to relegate it to a cultural backwater, he forbade Turkish men to wear brimless caps and insisted instead on European-style hats with brims. Wearing such European hats, Muslim men could not easily make the five-times-daily worship (salat), since a hat with a brim would fall off in the prostrations that are part of the ritual. Muslim men are to perform their ritual worship with their heads covered. The fez fitted the bill exactly; the fedora did not.

Although most modern Muslim states have considerably modified sharia law, there are few Muslim states that do not pay at least lip service to the inspiration of the sharia in their constitutions. Only in Saudi Arabia and Iran, however, does one find sharia fairly fully implemented in the codifications of law.

There are five basic schools of interpretation of Islamic law, four of them sunni (Maliki, Hanafi, Hanbali and Shafi’i) and one of them shi’i (Ja’fari). The Maliki tradition within sunni Islam, originating in Medina with the scholar Malik ibn Anas in the eighth century, came down from northwestern Africa to West Africa over the past millennium. It has been honored, at least for such matters of personal law as marriage, divorce and inheritance, in most West African Muslim communities. Only in the last three years, however, have Nigerian Muslim politicians in the 12 northernmost states of the Nigerian federation pushed their desire for sharia legislation much beyond the area of personal law, introducing into their respective states the sharia penal code.

People ask me these days, when I travel overseas, why it is that women are stoned to death for adultery in Nigeria. As of the date of writing, September 2002, neither of the accused and convicted women in the lower sharia courts of Sokoto and Katsina states, Safiya Hussaini and Amina Lawal, has actually been executed in this brutal fashion. The case against the former was voided on appeal earlier in 2002. Her crime had been committed before the Islamic penal code was enacted in Sokoto State. She has since traveled to Italy as the guest of a women’s group in that country and on Sept. 8, 2002, was made an honorary citizen of the city of Rome.

Amina Lawal’s case is still pending appeal. Because she is a nursing mother, the time of her potential stoning has been deferred for more than a year, and her female lawyer is determined to reverse the conviction. Meanwhile, other people have also been accused of adultery in sharia courts elsewhere in northern Nigeria. As if in reaction to the question why women alone have been so accused thus far, a recent case has been lodged in another northern Nigerian state against both a man and a woman. Not a few people in northern Nigeria seem ready to cast the first stone.

How did the Islamic legal tradition decide on stoning as the punishment for adultery? The Quran makes no mention of such a punishment, although some early Muslim sources claimed that a verse to this effect had been omitted in the final edition of the Quran. The Quran does require four male witnesses to establish any charge of unlawful sexual intercourse (4:15-16), and the subsequent legal tradition has insisted that these be four eyewitnesses of the actual sexual act, a condition difficult to fulfill. The Quran also specifies strict retribution for false accusation in such a case: 80 strokes of the lash (24:4). The first punishment for an adulterous woman specified in the Quran is house arrest, but a subsequently revealed Quranic verse is said to abrogate this milder regulation and punishes the adulterer and the adulteress each with 100 lashes (24:2).

The punishment of stoning for adultery originates not from the Quran but from the sunna or customary practice of the prophet Muhammad, possibly deriving from the biblical punishment for betrothed virgins who violate their troth, along with their male collaborators (Dt. 22: 23-24). In modern times most Islamic countries have modified earlier regulations for punishing adultery, although Saudi Arabia and Iran persist in the practice of stoning, according to several human rights organizations. But even in Saudi Arabia, a royal princess so accused two decades ago was executed not by stoning but by beheading.

In the Maliki legal tradition that prevails in West Africa, the four male witnesses necessary to establish the charge of adultery need only provide circumstantial evidence of the crime, e.g., the pregnancy of an unmarried woman or a woman divorced for more than a year. This use of circumstantial evidence—obvious pregnancy—is unique to the Maliki tradition. In this use of circumstantial evidence, then, the sharia penal code in the 12 northern Nigerian states comes down harder on those who commit adultery, and especially women, than does the penal code of Saudi Arabia (where the Hanbali legal tradition prevails) or Iran (where the Ja’fari legal tradition prevails).

All capital punishment, in my opinion, is barbarous. I am appalled as an American that more and more American states, as well as the federal government, resort to this form of punishment for the most serious crimes. But how do I, as a student of Islam in Africa, explain this return to the most stringent Islamic penal practice in the northern third of Nigeria over the past three years?

Most of the northern third of Nigeria during the first decade of the 19th century was subjected to the reformist movement within Islam in that area usually called the Fulanijihad. Led by ‘Uthman dan Fodio, a Fulani scholar of Islamic law long resident in Hausaland (much of the northern third of Nigeria today), this reformist movement enforced a rigorous interpretation of the Maliki legal tradition. In the years (1804-9) of military conquest of Hausaland by forces loyal to him, ‘Uthman dan Fodio defined as infidels not only those wavering Muslims who sometimes revered supernal forces other than God but also those lax Muslims who persisted in serious sin.

Normally the sunni Islamic tradition considers the seriously sinful Muslim, no matter how persistent in his offenses, still a Muslim. ‘Uthman, at least during the period ofjihad, lapsed into a sort of Kharijism, that early Islamic heresy that defined serious Muslim sinners as apostates and subjected them to the most extreme retribution. ‘Uthman interpreted persistence in sin as an implicit denial of the divine or prophetic laws forbidding such acts. Not only persistently sinful Muslims, but also those Muslims who were responsible for the ‘legalization of sin’—such as the Muslim Hausa rulers who tolerated pagan possession dances by women in their realms—came to be defined as infidels by ‘Uthman dan Fodio, at least in the heat of thejihad.

The rigorous teaching of ‘Uthman dan Fodio lives on today in the sharia courts of the 12 northernmost Nigerian states. Alarmed by marital breakdown and tendencies toward sexual promiscuity in northern Nigeria, the 12 northern state legislatures have decided to root out sin among Muslims. The sharia courts have no jurisdiction over non-Muslims, it is said, but already there is a growing tendency to impose sharia law on everyone in these northern Nigerian states, including religious minorities. Prohibition of the sale of alcohol not only deprives Muslims of temptation but also deprives non-Muslims of liquid refreshment on a hot day, of which there are many in the northern third of Nigeria.

I doubt that Amina Lawal will be stoned to death for adultery when she finishes nursing her child some time in 2004. But the northern Muslim politicians in Nigeria are using her case and others like it to give the impression to their electorates, in the build-up toward the federal election early in 2003, that they are trying to enforce Islamic law and thereby create a moral society. Thus far, however, only petty thieves and those guilty of sexual transgressions have been found guilty before sharia tribunals. Embezzlers of state funds have managed to escape scot-free.

If the federal government of Nigeria, currently headed by President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian from the Yoruba southwest of Nigeria, tries to intervene in the case of Amina Lawal or in similar cases, Obasanjo and his colleagues risk the loss of their heavily northern Muslim constituency. If Obasanjo is re-elected anyway in the 2003 presidential poll, Muslim politicians in the sharia states will be able to say that they tried to enforce morality but the Christians of the south prevented it.

But if a northern Nigerian Muslim is elected in the 2003 election, he (it is unlikely to be she) will have to face ignominy throughout the world if a sharia state in northern Nigeria subjects anyone to stoning for adultery. Nigeria has already endured suspension from the Commonwealth and more general international pariah status for the execution of the poet and regional activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and his associates in 1995 under the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha. The death of Abacha in 1998 after five years of misrule paved the way for Nigeria’s return to elected civilian rule in 1999. Nigerians, although none too pleased with the concrete results of return to civilian rule three years ago, would not like to reverse the international political gains of the past three years. But there are some Muslims in Nigeria who secretly hanker for the era of military dictatorship, as long as the dictator in question is a fellow northern Muslim.

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