Why are male clerics so obsessed with controlling female sexuality? In an Iranian prison today, a Muslim mother in her forties, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, awaits her fate for the alleged crime of adultery. She has been in jail for five years, received 99 lashes and awaits the manner of her execution for the crime, now that the authorities say she will not be stoned to death.
I write as a human, Muslim, son, brother to sisters and proud father of two baby daughters. And nothing, nothing warrants a mob of men stoning women to death or lashing them. The vast majority of the world’s Muslims feel the same way. We know that as a fact because, from Indonesia in the Far East to Bosnia in Europe, Muslim-majority nations do not stone people to death for adultery. The Muslim consensus, or ijma in religious Arabic, therefore, is against such outmoded penal codes.
Sadly, in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Sudan this popular
ijma is rejected. They seek a reading of Sharia that is harsh, literalist and disregards human rights. And in that, they are supported by hardline male clerics who draw rulings from medieval textbooks that are defunct in the modern world. This clerical opposition to modernity stems from a crisis of scholarship within contemporary Islam, an institutional failure to understand religious text within a 21st-century context. That paralysis leads to clerical silence on Iran’s desire to stone or lash a woman accused of adultery.
When I meet leading Muslim scholars in private in Syria or Egypt, they readily admit that stoning and flogging belong firmly in the Muslim past, but dare not say as much in public lest they lose scholarly credentials among their more conservative peers. Muslim scholars see themselves as transmitters of a tradition rather than as agents of change. But for how much longer will Muslim clerics remain silent? Where is their compassion and humanity? Do our women not deserve better than living in fear of capricious male punishment?
One senior cleric who has broken ranks in Iran is none other than the grandson of the man who founded the “Islamic republic” in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini. His grandson, Ayatollah Hussein Khomeini, has in clear terms, within an Islamic framework, called on his grandfather’s followers to end floggings and stoning of adulterers. As humans, we are not sinless and perfect — as worldly, flawed beings it is not our duty be judge, jury and executioner on private aspects of people’s lives.
Once upon a time, Jews and Christians implemented Old Testament teachings from the Book of Leviticus, which also advocated stoning adulterers and flogging fornicators. But Jews and Christians understand those instructions within their historical milieu. And Islam adopted these teachings within our tradition. Fortunately most Muslims relegate these practices to history — illustrated by most Muslim-majority states not equating these teachings with state law today. The countries that do, however, shame us all.
Iran is home to an ancient civilisation, the proud owners of a rich Persian language and deep culture. Tabriz, where Ms Ashtiani is imprisoned for allegations of adultery, produced poets and dervishes who taught Europe about mysticism and joy of religion. Rumi — a 13th century poet whose work is a bestseller in the US today — was inspired and taught by the mystic Shams of Tabriz 700 years ago.
In the 11th century, Persia gave us the great Omar Khayyam who in his famed Rubaiyyat called for freedom, joy, love, wine-drinking, and, some say, hedonism. Victorian Englishmen found liberation in Khayyam’s poetry. What happened to that Iran?
In Iran today, the practice of mut’a, or temporary marriage, is legal and widespread. A man and woman can contract a marriage that can last for one day, or one year. Critics have lambasted these arrangements as glorified prostitution and demeaning to women. Iran’s clerics are renowned for not only authorising such fluidity in relationships, but luxuriating in such arrangements themselves; and often with more than one woman at any one time.
Ms Ashtiani has pleaded her innocence repeatedly and still been lashed and imprisoned. But she is not alone — seven other women are in a similar predicament in Iran today. According to the Iranian Embassy in London, Tehran says that Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani will not be stoned. That is welcome news, but not enough. Ms Ashtiani and others deserve more — freedom, compensation, and a repeal of Iran’s penal laws.
As a fellow Muslim with huge respect for Iran’s past and admiration for its cultural and religious icons of Rumi, Hafez, and Sadi, I call on its leaders to live up to the teaching and spirit of the Prophet Muhammad. Be compassionate, merciful and loving: show the world that Iran was, and is, a civilised nation. Release Ms Ashtiani and change the laws. Let Muslim women be proud of their religion and heritage, and not live in fear of it.