Recently I stumbled upon Jonathan Brown’s somewhat reasonable essay on Hudud crimes and punishments for the Yaqeen Institute. The essay sought to dispel false notions of harshness and wanton cruelty often attributed to Islam. Unfortunately, Brown inadvertently exposed some of the exegetical contortions necessary to justify the draconian punishment of stoning adulterers many Muslims still insist as valid.
While discussing stoning, Brown mentions that Islamic scholars of old accepted the fact that the Quranic verses on stoning were removed in its entirety, yet still remained enforceable by Divine decree (naskh al-tilawa):
“Most pre-modern Muslim scholars had no problem with the notion that the Quran originally included a verse stating ‘The noble man and woman, if they commit zinā, surely stone them both,’ but that God ordered the verse removed while maintaining the ruling intact. The famous Shāfiʿī/Ashʿarī Hadith scholar Abū Bakr al-Bayhaqī (d. 458/1066) stated that he knew of no disagreement on the possibility of a verse of the Quran being removed in its entirety (naskh al-tilāwa) while its ruling remained…”
It’s fair to say that such an argument fails the most basic kind of syllogistic logic especially if we remain inside the boundaries of dogma and apologetics. As Muslims, we accept the Quran as a source of perfection, the very words of God Almighty. We also accept that God is omniscient, having complete knowledge of all things. How then are we supposed to wrap our heads around the notion that God would somehow remove a verse but still insist that we act upon it? It defies both reason and common sense.*
Worse, Muslims have argued that the very verse in question was accidently removed because a sheep ate the pages it was written on. It sounds like a joke made by an Islamophobe, but, unfortunately, it exists in the hadith canon. The purported hadith is even graded ‘Hasan’ by some:
“The Verse of stoning and of breastfeeding an adult ten times was revealed1, and the paper was with me under my pillow. When the Messenger of Allah died, we were preoccupied with his death, and a tame sheep came in and ate it.” Source
The frustration and fatigue that such odd and distorted theological assessments create are beyond measure. It’s vital for us to recognize that there exists a dogmatic stranglehold on Islamic exegeses in many of our communities online and elsewhere rooted in uncritical methodologies, scholar worship and patently false claims of consensus (‘it’s ijma, bro!). These remain the heights of inanity and are nothing but an outright disservice to our profound and beautiful faith.
* To be fair, even Brown insists that naskh al-tilawi is insane. However, he falls well short of denouncing stoning as un-Islamic and simply yields to a rote interpretation veiled in academic hubris.