GUESTVIEW: Why stoning Sakineh is a mistake

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. This interview with Abdullahi Ahmed an-Naim and Massimo Papa about Iran’s stoning sentence against Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani on charges of adultery was originally published in Oasis, a Venice-based magazine on Christian-Muslim dialogue. Martino Diez is director of research at the Oasis International Foundation. sakinehBy Martino Diez .

Professor Naim, what is your assessment of Sakineh’s case?
Officially, the authorities maintain this is a straightforward murder case. Although I have not followed the matter in detail, I think that the ambiguity of the versions produced throughout the years is suspicious and betrays the presence of political manipulation. This poor woman has ended up at the centre of a struggle between different underground factions. There are many cases similar to this. (Photo: Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani in an undated photo handout from Amnesty International)

About this charge, and especially the (momentarily suspended) sentence, the authorities have invoked Islamic legitimation. Sakineh’s case would be included in the hudùd category, which comprises crimes explicitly defined as such in the Koran itself: murder, adultery, theft, slander and alcohol consumption.

The whole hudùd question is contradictory. To start with, the Koran does not mention stoning for adultery. Besides, traditional norms are very exacting in terms of evidence collecting: they talk about four witnesses who must tell in detail and without contradictions the taking place of the sexual act. The tradition tells of a man who came to accuse himself before the Prophet, and the Prophet thrice over turned his ear to the other side in order not to listen to him. Only the fourth time did he decide to believe the confession that, according to traditional law, must be maintained by the condemned person throughout the execution. In Sakineh’s case, instead, we see an over-eagerness for punishment. Behind this there is a political game.

Even with the important limitations you have mentioned, the hudùd discipline remains problematic.
I certainly am of the opinion that today it is not possible to execute hudùd punishments by law. The punishments are so severe that they require absolute certainty. First of all, the Koran does not give any definition of theft or adultery. Besides, the various law schools have taken different positions about what constitutes evidence, with the result that the same fact can lead to death by stoning in Northern Nigeria and absolution in Sudan — possibly with the accusers being condemned for slander, with relative corporal punishment. But how is it possible for the same event to be dealt with in such different ways? Who is right? I think that the authentically pious position should acknowledge that there is too much disagreement and possibility of error for such punishments to be applied.

Bishop of Arabia highlights Catholic questions on Muslim appeal

The Roman Catholic bishop of Arabia has published a letter on the dialogue call by 138 Muslim scholars pointing out possible stumbling blocs for future talks. The article by Bishop Paul Hinder in Oasis , a multilingual Catholic-Muslim dialogue magazine published in Venice, welcomes the appeal and says: “Here are Muslims offering a hand that we should take.”

Oasis reviewThe Swiss-born bishop is based in Abu Dhabi with responsibility for Catholics in the whole Arabian Peninsula. Just before the historic visit by Saudi King Abdullah to the Vatican on Nov. 6, he called in a Reuters interview for more freedom and security for minority Christians in Saudi Arabia and more freedom for foreign priests to enter the country to administer to them. There are about 1.2 million Christians in Saudi Arabia, nearly a million of them Catholics. Most are Filipino migrant workers.

In his Oasis article, Hinder listed several points that seem to have raised questions among Catholic theologians:

From Venice, more Catholic support for Muslim dialogue appeal

Cardinal Angelo Scola, Patriarch of VeniceThe Vatican is taking its time to study the dialogue appeal from 138 Muslim scholars before giving an official reply, but the Catholic Church’s Islam and inter-faith experts seem to be lining up to comment on it. After Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, S.J. yesterday, Cardinal Angelo Scola has given his positive analysis of it today. Since taking his post in 2002 as Patriarch of Venice, a city that has had extensive trading links to the East for centuries, the former rector of the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome has started up the Studium Generale Marcianum institute to study Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim culture. He also launched a unique biannual review named Oasis to foster Christian-Muslim understanding. It publishes reports and reviews in four separate bilingual editions — Italian and Arabic, French and Arabic, English and Arabic and English and Urdu.

In a front-page interview with the Milan daily Il Foglio (here in Italian), Scola said the call for dialogue took a realistic approach and the number and prominence of its signatories were impressive. Scola said he was also impressed “by the fact, probably without precedent, that the quotes concerning Jesus Christ were taken from the Gospels and not from the Koran. … It is a very encouraging signal, since it demonstrates that good will and dialogue can overcome prejudices. It is a spiritual reflection on the love of God.”

“The document, set in the perspective of the double love of God and neighbour, highlights a part of Muslim tradition that has been partially overshadowed by the growth of fundamentalism,” he said. “The Muslim leaders identify themselves with those ‘others’ of whom Jesus said: ‘those who are not against us are with us’.” Between the lines, he said, could also be read a condemnation of terrorism.