Geography quiz: Where is Brunei? I’ll save you the trouble of looking it up. It’s on the northern coast of the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia, nestled into Malaysia, which is north of Indonesia. In February, just two months ago, Secretary of State John Kerry, who had visited the tiny sultanate of Brunei not once, but twice last year, applauded the country’s “excellent cooperation” and “robust relationship” with the United States. “The depth and value of this relationship was plain for me to see during my two visits to your wonderful ‘Abode of Peace’ last year,” Kerry waxed poetic, referring to the sultanate’s official name, Negara Brunei Darussalam (“Nation of Brunei, the Abode of Peace”). Two weeks after Kerry’s visit, Brunei’s sultan Hassanal Bolkiah revealed his intension to implement the shari’a penal code: those who commit a smorgasbord of crimes, including blasphemy, will be stoned to death.
Switching gears for a moment, but only for a moment, let’s look at the Book of Leviticus. Leviticus tends to be laconic, tersely tossing out rules and standards for sacrifice. The two narratives it contains are strange and disturbing. Chapter 10 recounts the measure-for-measure deaths of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu who are consumed by fire after making an unauthorized incense offering. This week’s parashah, Emor, features the second narrative of Leviticus: the brief account of the blasphemer who is stoned by the community, which to the modern ear sounds ancient and barbaric. Here it is:
There came out among the Israelites one whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian. And a fight broke out in the camp between the half-Israelite and a certain Israelite. The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name in blasphemy, and he was brought to Moses—now his mother’s name was Shelomit daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan—and he was placed in custody, until the decision of the Lord should be made clear to them. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him. And to the Israelite people speak thus: Anyone who blasphemes his God shall bear his guilt; if he also pronounces the name Lord, he shall be put to death. The whole community shall stone him; stranger or citizen, if he has thus pronounced the Name, he shall be put to death. (Leviticus 24:10-16)
The names mentioned (and not mentioned elsewhere) seem to propel the narrative: Shelomit means “peace” or “wholeness,” supposedly restored to the community by the execution of the blasphemer, the grandson of Dibri, a named derived from the root meaning “speak,” which is how his crime was committed, who comes from the tribe of Dan, which means “judgment,” certainly a prominent feature in this tale. But what exactly happened here? Did the man accused of blasphemy curse God directly? Did he curse the man with whom he was fighting using God’s name? Did he merely pronounce God’s name aloud? And why are we told that his mother is Israelite and his father is Egyptian? Why does this matter involve the entire community—and Torah goes to the trouble to tell us that citizens and non-citizens alike participate? The answer to most of these questions is: we don’t know what this man did that was blasphemous, but we do know the response.
The story is disturbing; the very idea of stoning a human being, regardless of the crime committed, is cruel, and revolting. It is shocking that Brunei in the 21st century would move backward in time to primitive barbarism. The fact that stoning is mentioned (or even mandated) in an ancient and revered book—indeed, sacred literature—does not mitigate that assessment. If anything, it compounds the horror.
Already 1,700 years ago, the Rabbis of the Talmud agreed. In an amicus curiae (friend of the court brief) on the subject of execution filed with the Supreme Court of the United States, the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs and the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists noted:
…a close examination of the rabbinic interpretation of the Biblical text discloses that approximately 2000 years ago the rabbis of the Talmud agreed that execution must be carried out quickly and as painlessly as possible. They also agreed that an execution should not mutilate or disfigure the body of the condemned person. The relevant passages from the Talmud demonstrate that the rabbis sought—with the scientific knowledge and means available to them in their time—to formulate the quickest, least painful, and least disfiguring methods of execution that the technology of the day would allow within the framework of Biblical texts.
The Rabbis rejected stoning because it is savage and inhumane. In the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) Sanhedrin 45a they “reinterpret” the biblical mandate to require that the condemned criminal be pushed from a platform set high above a stone floor such that the fall would result in instantaneous, and hence painless, death. But they went further still: the Rabbis effectively did away with capital punishment by placing restrictions and impediments to carrying it out. Capital punishment remains “on the books” but we cannot meet their standards to carry it out.
Stoning of the sort described in Leviticus is reportedly (http://www.trust.org/item/20130927160132-qt52c/) either practiced or legally authorized in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Yemen, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Northern Nigeria, Mali and Mauritania. Obviously, all these countries are Muslim, or predominantly Muslim. Yet the Qur’an does not mention stoning and specifically stipulates 100 lashes for adultery (Surah al-Nur 24:2-9), they crime most often punished by stoning in these countries. What is more, it is only implied in the Hadith that stoning is acceptable in a passage that understand both that capital punishment was not carried out in the Jewish community, and that Muhammad did impose stoning, though current scholars debate whether stoning was actually carried out.
The Jews came to Allah’s Apostle [i.e., Muhammad] and told him that a man and a woman from amongst them had committed illegal sexual intercourse. Allah’s Apostle said to them, “What do you find in the Torah about the legal punishment of Ar-Rajm (stoning)?” They replied, (But) we announce their crime and lash them.” Abdullah bin Salam said, “You are telling a lie; Torah contains the order of Rajm.” They brought and opened the Torah and one of them solaced his hand on the Verse of Rajm and read the verses preceding and following it. Abdullah bin Salam said to him, “Lift your hand.” When he lifted his hand, the Verse of Rajm was written there. They said, “Muhammad has told the truth; the Torah has the Verse of Rajm. The Prophet then gave the order that both of them should be stoned to death. (‘Abdullah bin ‘Umar said, “I saw the man leaning over the woman to shelter her from the stones.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, vol. 4, bk. 56, no. 829)
Regardless of whether Muhammed had people stoned, and regardless of whether the Qur’an or Hadith authorizes stoning, Muslim religious leaders today can, and must, think for themselves. Several notable Islamic clerics, including Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, Ayatollah Yousef Saneii, and Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Mousavi Bojnourdi, are on record opposing it. They have condemned stoning as “un-Islamic.” Ayatollah Hussein Mousavi Tabrizi has argued that the demands of the modern age call for an end to stoning. Others argue that the practice embarrasses Islam and for this reason alone should be discontinued.
The popular invocations of religion and culture to defend indefensible barbaric acts hold no weight here. The claim that ancient religious texts must be read literally as divine directive without human interpretation is nonsense (and not even possible). The claim that religious law is static and immutable denies that it is linked to justice, and justice requires us to look both at each case separately and at our evolving understanding of justice, ethics, and human behavior. Those who hide behind a screen of shari’a law (or Church law or halakhah, for that matter) reveal only their brutality, and in the case of stoning, subject Islam to the condemnation of the world. While women have been a primary focus of stoning, homosexuals will soon become the focus of raving lunatics energized by hate and empowered by religious claims—but not at all fueled by God and certainly not infused with holiness.
All religious traditions have it within them to examine and reassess their practices and beliefs and make ethical changes; therefore all have the moral responsibility to do so continually.
 Hadith collection attributed to Persian Suni Islamic scholar Muhammad al-Bukhari (810-870 C.E.), considered one of the three primary collections of hadith. The term “Sahih” means “authentic” or “correct.”