Comparing Biblical Law and the Sharīʿa on Accusations of Sexual Immorality: A Case Study

بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْم

Comparing Biblical Law and the Sharīʿa on Accusations of Sexual Immorality: A Case Study

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“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul…”

– Psalm 19:7

            Muslims believe that the Tanakh, including the so-called “Pentateuch” (the “Five Books of Moses”), has been corrupted but that the original Torah contained the genuine laws of God for the Israelites. Thus, the corrupted “Torah” may contain some genuine revelation from God but also the false ideas of fallible human authors. In this article, I will show one of the laws of Deuteronomy that I feel cannot possibly come from God, at least not in its present form. In Deuteronomy 22:13–21, a man could accuse his new wife of sexual immorality with surprisingly little evidence to back it up. This was dangerous for the woman because she could be killed if she could not refute the allegation. I will then compare this law to the Sharīʿa concept of liʿān, which deals with allegations of sexual immorality in the absence of eyewitness testimony.

Deuteronomy 22 and the “Virginity Test”

            Here is the passage from Deuteronomy 22:13–21 (emphasis mine):

“’If any man takes a wife and goes in to her and then hates her and accuses her of misconduct and brings a bad name upon her, saying, ‘I took this woman, and when I came near her, I did not find in her evidence of virginity,’ then the father of the young woman and her mother shall take and bring out the evidence of her virginity to the elders of the city in the gate. And the father of the young woman shall say to the elders, ‘I gave my daughter to this man to marry, and he hates her; and behold, he has accused her of misconduct, saying, ‘I did not find in your daughter evidence of virginity.’ And yet this is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity.’ And they shall spread the cloak before the elders of the city. Then the elders of that city shall take the man and whip him, and they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has brought a bad name upon a virgin of Israel. And she shall be his wife. He may not divorce her all his days. But if the thing is true, that evidence of virginity was not found in the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done an outrageous thing in Israel by whoring in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.’”

As we can see, the husband could make the mere accusation of sexual immorality because he did not see any “evidence of virginity”. What was the “evidence of virginity”? Verse 17 states that the woman’s parents could present a “cloak before the elders”. Earl S. Kalland explains in his commentary in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary that this “cloak” was the “blood-spotted bedclothes”. He explains that such “evidence” was “widely accepted in the ancient Near East”, though it was “not infallible”.[1] In other words, if the woman bled due to it being her first experience with sex (i.e., she was a virgin), that would serve as proof against the husband’s accusation. This “virginity test” was a common myth in the ancient Near East (ANE), even though, as Kalland admits, it was not “infallible”. Indeed, it is not medically true that every woman will bleed during her first act of sexual intercourse.

            The British National Health Service (NHS) explains that:

“some women will bleed…while others will not. Both are perfectly normal.”[2]

Not only that, but the hymen, the thin membrane that can tear and cause bleeding during sex, can also easily break before a woman has even had sex. This could be due to horse riding or any other physical activity. Thus, a woman may not bleed at the first act of sex, even though she was a virgin!

            This myth was also refuted in Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary (21st Edition), under the heading for “hymen”:

“[c]ontrary to folklore, the presence or absence (or rupture) of the hymen cannot be used to prove or disprove virginity or history of sexual intercourse. Pregnancy has been known to occur even when the hymen is intact.”[3]

            This should raise an important question: why does the Bible consider such flimsy and unscientific evidence as a “blood-spotted” cloth as admissible evidence in a case where a person’s life is on the line? This was a capital crime, because if the woman or her parents could not provide the “evidence” for her “virginity”, she was to be stoned to death:

“But if the thing is true, that evidence of virginity was not found in the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done an outrageous thing in Israel by whoring in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.”[4]

Why did the Bible, which was supposedly the “inspired” word of God adopt a mythical standard of proving “virginity” that was also followed by other cultures in the ANE that were ignorant of human anatomy? Shouldn’t God have known better? The strange thing is that this law clearly contradicts another part of Deuteronomy, which concerns proving accusations involving capital crimes. Deuteronomy 17:6 states that a capital crime such as apostasy has to be proven on the basis of at least two witnesses (cf. Deut. 19:15):

“On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness.”

So, not only was there a very low standard of evidence for proving sexual immorality but there was also no requirement for at least 2 witnesses who could testify that they saw the woman committing fornication. One has to wonder how many innocent women may have been killed, assuming this law was ever applied, for crimes they didn’t commit, all because the author(s) of Deuteronomy did not understand the female anatomy.

            Biblical apologists, especially Christians, may respond in a typical way: that was the “Old Testament”, so it no longer applies, or it was only for the cultural context of ancient Israel. This excuse is irrelevant. It does not matter if this law is no longer applicable (that is debatable). It DID apply in the past and it is very likely that innocent women could have been wrongly accused and killed for crimes they did not commit. Even if one woman fell victim to this unjust law, that would be one too many.

            Given the clear injustice of the law, we can also ask how can this be a genuine law from God, when Psalm 19:7 states that God’s law is “perfect”? Deuteronomy 22:13–21 was clearly not “perfect” and allowed fallible “evidence” to establish “guilt” and result in an unjust death sentence.

Liʿān in Islamic Law

            Let us now compare Deuteronomy 22:13–21 to Islamic law. First of all, it is well-known that the Sharīʿa requires at least four male witnesses to prove a charge of adultery:

“˹As for˺ those of your women who commit illegal intercourse—call four witnesses from among yourselves. If they testify, confine the offenders to their homes until they die or Allah ordains a ˹different˺ way for them.”[5]

Failure to bring the witnesses on the part of the husband who accuses his wife of adultery will result in the husband being flogged:

“Those who accuse chaste women ˹of adultery˺ and fail to produce four witnesses, give them eighty lashes ˹each˺. And do not ever accept any testimony from them—for they are indeed the rebellious…”[6]

            However, if the husband does not have four witnesses but still makes an accusation against his wife, he can avoid the punishment of flogging if he takes an oath in God’s name that he is telling the truth:

“And those who accuse their wives ˹of adultery˺ but have no witness except themselves, the accuser must testify,1 swearing four times by Allah that he is telling the truth, and a fifth oath that Allah may condemn him if he is lying.”[7]

This process is known as “liʿān”. Conversely, the wife can also then take an oath and deny any guilt on her part:

“For her to be spared the punishment, she must swear four times by Allah that he is telling a lie, and a fifth oath that Allah may be displeased with her if he is telling the truth.”[8]

            In this way, while one person may be lying (it is of course also possible that the husband may be certain of his accusation but nevertheless mistaken), they will face the curse and punishment of God but will be spared any punishment by earthly authorities. However, by invoking liʿān, the couple would “irrevocably divorced” and the husband would still have to pay the dowry, as explained by the scholar Ibn Kathir.[9] Dr. Mustafa Khattab adds in his commentary that “the marriage is terminated forever–which means that they can never be remarried.”[10]

            It should also be noted that accusations of sexual immorality cannot be established under the Sharīʿa on the absence of bleeding, as it can in the Deuteronomy law. This form of “evidence” is not admissible in a Sharīʿa court.[11]

            We can see that Islamic law is much more just and fair than the law in Deuteronomy 22. It protects the wife from slander, but it also gives a husband who does not have enough evidence (but who may have certainty that his wife committed adultery) a way out of the marriage. Nor does the law of liʿān allow for abuses of the law. A husband who just wants to get out of the marriage or deny paternity of a child and thus falsely accuses his wife will still pay a price by losing the dowry. Most importantly, he will invoke the curse of Allah on himself.

Conclusion

            In this article, we compared the Biblical and Islamic laws concerning accusations of sexual immorality. While the Biblical law placed undue importance on a mythical test to prove “virginity” to refute an allegation by a man against his wife, the Qur’an provided a logical and fair way to handle such a case. While the former would have placed innocent women in danger of losing their lives for crimes they did not commit, the Qur’an provided safeguards against such situations. It protected both parties if there was suspicion of sexual immorality. Given the unjust and illogical nature of the Biblical law, reason demands that it cannot possibly be from a just God. Rather, it was probably the result of human fallibility and ignorance that were all too common in antiquity.

            And Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) knows best!


[1] Earl S. Kalland, “Deuteronomy”, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 3: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel (electronic edition), ed. F. E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 138.

[2] https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/sexual-health/does-a-woman-always-bleed-when-she-has-sex-for-the-first-time/

[3] Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, 21st Edition, ed. Donald Venes (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: F.A. Davis Company, 2009), p. 1109.

[4] Deuteronomy 22:20–21.

[5] Surah An-Nisa, 4:15 (Mustafa Khattab translation).

[6] Surah an-Nur, 24:4.

[7] Surah an-Nur, 24:6–7.

[8] Surah an-Nur, 24:8–9.

[9] https://islamqa.info/en/answers/101771/if-she-accuses-her-husband-of-zina-does-she-have-the-right-to-separate-from-him-by-means-of-liaan

[10] https://quran.com/24?startingVerse=9

[11] https://islamqa.info/en/answers/40278/he-consummated-the-marriage-with-her-and-found-that-she-was-not-a-virgin-even-though-she-has-never-committed-any-immoral-action

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