Forbidding evil: Muslims “cast the first stone”

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Muslims face many a challenge when forbidding evil, and often lack the wisdom and sincerity to do so effectively. We might be quick to judge the new sister in our community who does not wear hijab, but fail to admonish the veteran sister who attends the study circle and backbites. Or we might stand against the brother who sells liquor, but will not speak up against the religious leader who commits wrongdoings.
The majority of Muslims are familiar with the alleged Biblical story of Jesus asking those free of sin “to cast the first stone” in their condemnation of an adulteress. Pericope Adulterae, as the story is typically referred to, is claimed by Biblical scholars to be attributed to the Bible even though its origins are not divine and is missing from the earlier scrolls of the sacred text. Based on the significance of the story and the fact that it does not contradict the noble character and teachings of Jesus, most Biblical scholars have agreed upon its inclusion in the later versions of the Bible.

In Pericope Adulterae, Jesus is approached by a group of hypocrites, with stones in hand, to judge in the case of an adulteress. The woman, commonly referred to as “the prostitute”, was caught in the act and brought to Jesus for judgment. Knowing their deceiving nature, Jesus addresses the hypocrites by saying: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” Haunted by their conscience, the group of men retreat from the scene, leaving Jesus and the woman alone. He then asks of her if there were any accusers who condemned her, and in their absence, he then tells her to “go on and sin no more.”

This story presents us with the human dilemma of judging others for their evil actions when we ourselves are guilty of sin. As Muslims, we are constantly deliberating between enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong, as God commanded us in the Qur’an, and keeping our sins in front of us when judging others. All too often we encounter fellow Muslim brothers and sisters publicly transgressing God’s boundaries in our communities: the brother with the convenience store who sells liquor, the sister who is always backbiting other sisters, the brother who abuses his wife. In these situations, we ask ourselves: “Who am I to say anything? Isn’t it hypocritical to admonish them when I am not without sin?”

In Islam, we can approach this moral predicament through the hadith reported by Abu Said Al-Khudri, where the Prophet Muhammad said, “Whoever amongst you sees an evil, he must change it with his hand; if he is unable to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is unable to do so, then with his heart; and that is the weakest form of Faith.” Muslims have an obligation to forbid evil in all cases or they run the risk of being cursed by Allah for not condemning it, as stated by Prophet Muhammad in his saying: “Nay, by Allah, you either enjoin good and forbid evil and catch hold of the hand of the oppressor and persuade him to act justly and stick to the truth, or Allah will involve the hearts of some of you with the hearts of others and will curse you as He had cursed them.”

Looking back at Pericope Adulterae, we find critics of the story questioning Jesus’ wisdom in not punishing the adulteress. It is often argued that Jesus understood the hypocrites’ approach to be a test of his knowledge and adherence to the Mosaic Law. Then there is the issue of double standards, in that only the adulteress was brought forth, leaving the unanswered questions of “Who was the adulterer?” and “Why was he not brought along with her?” Some critics are of the opinion that the adulterer may have been someone in the crowd, holding a position of authority from amongst the hypocrites, hence been left “off the hook.”

Muslims face many a challenge when forbidding evil, and often lack the wisdom and sincerity to do so effectively. For instance, we might be quick to judge the new sister in our community who does not wear hijab, but fail to admonish the veteran sister who attends the study circle and backbites. Or we might firmly stand against the brother who sells liquor in his convenience store, but will not dare speak up against the religious leader who commits wrongdoings.

In situations as such, we are reminded of the hadith reported by ‘Abdullah bin Mas’ud, in which the Prophet stated: “The first defect (in religion) which affected the Children of Israel in the way that man would meet another and say to him: ‘Fear Allah and abstain from what you are doing, for this is not lawful for you’. Then he would meet him the next day and find no change in him, but this would not prevent him from eating with him, drinking with him and sitting in his assembles. When it came to this, Allah led their hearts into evil ways on account of their association with others.”

Forbidding evil is a duty that we all need to assume responsibly for our own sake and the benefit of our communities. No one amongst us is free of sin: we must forbid evil nonetheless.
Enith Morillo is a scientist by profession and a writer by passion. Her writing is featured in the newly published “Many Poetic Voices, One Faith” and “Many Voices, One Faith II: Islamic Fiction Stories.” She is also the media liaison for the grass-root movement Healthy Families Initiative, a program dealing with domestic abuse in the Rhode Island Muslim community. You can visit her Umrah blog or contact her via email at enithcm [at] gmail.com. This article was first published on AltMuslimah on December 2, 2009.

11 Comments

  • OmarG says:

    The even greater question we face is exactly what is evil? Is it the big sins (kabaa’ir) or does it involve what goes against the culture and custom of the era?

  • OmarG says:

    BTW, that is quite possibly the most perfect illustration which could have been included with the article. Good eye.

  • katseye says:

    “Many of them dost thou see, racing each other in sin and rancour, and their eating of things forbidden. Evil indeed are the things that they do. Why do not the rabbis and the doctors of Law forbid them from their (habit of) uttering sinful words and eating things forbidden? Evil indeed are their works.” Surah al Maeda ayat 62, 63

    I gather from the article that we are talking about the leadership of the masjids and those who have sway in the community. The scene of the story of Jesus is in the temple court among the Pharisees (a political movement and school of thought)and those Learned of the Law. Throughout Jesus’ Prophethood, many of his teachings were to the Learned, the Temple priests, and the political hierarchies who rejected him.

    The Qur’an gives us examples so that we may either live by them in some instances or we heed the warnings in others. Maybe having those in the community that see themselves as learned need to read the warnings too.

    Nice article, mash’allah.

  • living3d says:

    …so you are essentailly arguing against the idea of forgiveness and in favor of the idea of condemnation?

  • living3d says:

    …kinda seems like this article is pointing the finger at this occurence in Jesus’ time and going “we don’t do that – we’re muslim.”

    Is there a place for both condemnation and forgiveness?  Sure.  But it should be clear which to favor over the other – especially since history has proven that people tend to strongly favor one over the other.

  • asmauddin says:

    Is the question about which one to choose, or about how to go about doing it (i.e. responsibly)? That said, sometimes acting responsibly means foregoing condemnation.

  • Enith says:

    In the article, I tried to present the idea of forgiveness not being absolute, and the dire need for accountability.  Some Muslims tend to turn a blind eye by covering their brothers’/sisters’ faults, and battle with passing a judgment or taking a firm stand against wrongdoers.  However, there are conditions for repentance. 

    I heard of a case in which a teacher in an Islamic school molested one of his students.  The teacher, a muslim brother, was not prosecuted (people sympathized with his wife and 4 children… if he went to jail, who would provide for them?) but asked him to resign from the school.  The brother moved to another state, applied for a job at another Islamic school.  When school # 2 called school # 1 to check for a reference… GUESS WHAT? They did not mention he had molested a child, but simply spoke of his teaching qualifications.  The brother ended up molesting another child at the new school.

    In cases as such, we should be aware of being “too” forgiving, and covering each others’ faults.

  • katseye says:

    @living3d-is there a possibility for both?

  • Enith says:

    The article is not intended to be a lecture but rather a thought-provoking piece, drawing a parallel between the story of “let him who is free of sin cast the first stone” and what Muslims face when deciding to stand up for the truth.

    You brought up a great point on the differences of belief within our ummah, and that was certainly beyond the scope of the article – but great idea!

    As for passing judgment on those who sell alcohol or do not wear the hijab, the goal was not to encourage condemnation but to caution readers to approach judgment carefully.  Often, Muslims in positions of authority like our religious leaders are not judged by the same standards as the “regular” Muslim.

    Allah says:

    4:135 “O ye who believe! stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both…”

  • living3d says:

    I’m sorry, I just don’t think the muslim community really needs a lecture on the need for “accountability.”  Honestly, I find the situations that you’ve mentioned in your response to be quite rare – and that when they happen they are usually more the result of neglegance (or some brand of self-interest) than instances of being “too forgiving.” 

    Further, enforcing the idea of condemnation over that of forgiveness is certain to tear the community apart.  There are some lines that can not be crossed, and you have not addressed this in your article.  Illegal and universally denounced activies – like child molestation – ar obviously fine to be condemed.  But big problems arise on many issues relatedto faith due to the huge diversity of belief in the ummah.  For example – you mention as worthy-of-being-condemed a woman who doesn’t wear hiijab and a man who sells alcohol.  There are muslims who believe that neither of these two activites constitues an offense religiously.  Yet you are encouraging people to condem the actions and thereby their persons.  We already have too much of this kind of antipathy within our ummah.

  • muqarnas says:

    the idea of “enjoining good and forbidding evil” needs to be balanced by looking at the context/culture we’re living in.  i strongly disagree with including “a woman who doesn’t wear hijab” in this discussion because in American Muslim culture, wearing hijab is largely a personal choice, and as Americans we tend to take offense when someone condemns us regarding personal choices.  I get offended when someone at prayer condemns me for wearing pants…perhaps if we were in another culture I would not get offended. 

    Furthermore, the unintended consequence of that offense, if it happens enough, is that it makes me less likely to keep going to the masjid, further alienating me from the community.  So I don’t think situations involving women not wearing hijab should be approached cautiously…I don’t think they should be approached AT ALL.  There are other issues to consider as well, and we should look at them in the context of the culture we’re living in, otherwise the law of unintended consequences will come into play and cause worse problems than if we were to just kept our mouths shut.

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