Honor killings and Islam: Is there a link?

While Muslims in the West are slowly coming to realize that honor killings are not just a geographical issue for our brothers and sisters in South Asia and the Middle East, anti-Islam pundits, bloggers and intellectuals are using this recent rash of honor killings to link the religion of Islam to the murders.
There has been a recent upsurge in honor killings throughout the world – the practice of killing family members who have allegedly tarnished the family’s honor by engaging in shameful conduct.

Just last week in Montreal, a father and son murdered their four female relatives to preserve their family’s honor because their female relatives were accustomed to wearing Western-style clothing. Last Friday in Gaza, a father tortured and then killed his daughter, a divorced mother of five, for having a cell phone conversation with someone he believed to be another man. Fearing that his daughter was involved in an illicit relationship, he killed her.

The Montreal Gazette reports “The Canadian Muslim Forum fears the deaths will lead to ‘Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments.’” Less important it seems is whether the Canadian Muslim Forum will do anything to prevent future honor killings within Canada, or will worry only about how such a crime will increase anger against Muslim Canadians.

While Muslims in the West are slowly coming to realize that honor killings are not just a geographical issue for our brothers and sisters in South Asia and the Middle East, anti-Islam pundits, bloggers and intellectuals are using this recent rash of honor killings to link the religion of Islam to the murders.

Despite the fact that honor killings occur in Hindu and Sikh communities throughout Asia, anti-Islam pundits continue to attempt to link Islamic texts to the practice of honor killings.

Leading the way in this effort is Jihad Watch director Robert Spencer. Spencer cites to two Islamic texts to argue that Islam sanctions honor killings. He references the 12th century Shafi’i legal manual Umdat al-Salik, more commonly known as The Reliance of the Traveler, where it says, “retaliation is obligatory against anyone who kills a human being purely intentionally and without right.” However, “not subject to retaliation” is “a father or mother (or their fathers or mothers) for killing their offspring, or offspring’s offspring.” (Umdat al-Salik o1.1-2).

Spencer also references a hadith from Sahih Muslim, one of the two great Sunni hadith collections, where it says the following:

“The Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) used not to kill the children, so thou shouldst not kill them unless you could know what Khadir had known about the child he killed, or you could distinguish between a child who would grow up to be a believer (and a child who would grow up to be a non-believer), so that you killed the (prospective) non-believer and left the (prospective) believer aside.”

– Sahih Muslim Book 019, Number 4457.

Spencer advises, “Until the Islamic roots of the practice are discussed openly and human rights groups begin calling for reform, honor killings will continue in the Islamic world – and in Muslim communities in the West.”

Spencer’s assumption about honor killings is based on the idea that honor killings have Islamic roots and that he has shown us some of these roots via the references he cites above from The Reliance and Sahih Muslim. Spencer has long been able to cite jihadists who quote the Qur’an and hadith of the Prophet Muhammad to justify their violence, but in the case of honor killings the situation does not provide him with honor killers quoting the Qur’an or sunnah of the Prophet to validate their actions.

Spencer’s two references, after careful examination, fail to prove his point.

The first, the text of The Reliance, simply delineates the point that a father or mother is not to be retaliated against for murdering one of their children. This seems to be the dominant Shafi’i position according to the author of The Reliance, Shaikh Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri.

But why is a mother or father not to be retaliated against for the killing of their children? Ibn Naqib does not say, and neither does Spencer. The Reliance unsurprisingly makes no mention of preserving family honor. Spencer, however, seems to want his readers to assume this is the reason.

Exploring another Islamic text may provide an answer. Looking to another Islamic legal school provides some helpful insights to the unanswered questions stemming from the citation Spencer quotes from The Reliance. Matn Al-Risala of Shaikh Ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani, a Maliki jurist, says the following about a father who murders his son: “The blood money is made more exacting in the case [of] a father who kills his son…”

This itself demonstrates that there is a punishment for a parent that kills its child. However, why is the father not executed for the homicide?

The commentary of the text notes why: A father “is not executed because of the respect for fatherhood.” The commentary adds a caveat, however: “If circumstances indicate the [father] actually intended to kill [the son], then [the father] is killed for him in the well-known position.”

The dominant Maliki position, according to the Risala, is to provide for an actual penalty for a parent who murders his or her offspring. Either the parent would pay the blood money, which amounts to a large payment for the death of the child, or if it is found that the parent murdered the child intentionally, the parent is executed.

Islamic legal texts aside, there are no specific primary texts within Islam, from either the Qur’an or the hadith, that either promote or tolerate the killing of relatives for allegedly shaming the family.

Yet, this does not prevent Spencer from citing Sahih Muslim to prove that the Prophet did tolerate the killing of young children under certain circumstances.

As noted above, Spencer quotes a hadith from Sahih Muslim where it seems, based on the text, that if parents can determine that their child will become an unbeliever, then they can kill the child. This is a lot to swallow. But this hadith in Sahih Muslim is one of four hadiths on the same topic. Spencer quotes only one of these hadiths.

One of the other hadiths reads as follows:

“And you have written asking me about the killing of the enemy children in war. (You should understand that) the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) did not kill them and thou shouldst not kill them unless thou knew what the companion of Moses (i.e. Khadir) knew about the boy he had killed.”

– Sahih Muslim Book 019, Number 4458.

The other two hadiths are similar to this one by noting that the children being discussed are the children of the enemy, or whoever the Muslims were engaged in conflict with. Not the children of the Muslims. So if enemy children are not to be harmed during a battle, what treatment could the children of Muslims receive? It seems hardly plausible the Prophet would sanction their death or tolerate it under any circumstances.

The companion of Moses, known as Khidr or Khadir in Muslim lore, is a being whose job it is to carry out the commands of God in the unseen. His actions, as noted in Qur’an commentaries, would get any normal Muslim into serious trouble if carried out. He operates with his own set of rules because he has knowledge of things normal humans do not, such as how children will turn out in the future.

The reference to Khidr then in the above hadiths is purely symbolic. No Muslim could ever know how their child would turn out, whether sinner or believer. Therefore, to use such a hadith to justify killing one’s child for family honor has no basis in Islam and Spencer would certainly have a difficult time finding a single Muslim using this hadith to justify killing their child.

While there are no links between the religion of Islam and honor killings, this certainly does not eliminate the reality that honor killings are real and Muslims are committing many of them.

Many Muslims seem to have apathy towards this terrible crime, more concerned with the image of Islam than with stopping and preventing such acts from occurring in the future. By turning their back on the actual roots of honor killings, such as the societal pressure stemming from an extreme conservatism of tight knit communities, many will blame the wrong factors. Islam has nothing to do with such a disgusting crime, but ignorance of Islamic values and teachings does.

It is time for Muslims, especially in the West, to begin or ramp up educational efforts and outreach to overcome these sorts of societal customs. Domestic violence is a disease in all cultures, but honor killings are especially troublesome because of how they permanently damage the family and can horrify an entire community. Islam makes the family of central importance and the taking of life a grave issue. Such a horrific practice could find no sanction in God’s final revelation to humanity.
Omer Subhani attends the University of Miami School of Law. He writes frequently on his blog at omersubhani.blogspot.com.

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