Is there a Qur’anic basis for ‘honor killings’?

Jim asked: With all of the reports of ‘honor killings’ in the US and abroad – is there actually any Qur’anic basis for this practice?

Good question!  ‘Honor killings’ have started to appear in a lot of newspapers recently, usually in reference to the death of a person of Arab, Central or South Asian ethnicity or nationality dying at the hands of her/his family.  Firstly, as Islamophobia Watch has pointed out recently, in many of these cases, the concept of ‘honor killing’ was inserted by reporters or bloggers, without any basis from the case itself[1].  Also, as woodturtle has persuasively argued, although the term ‘honor killing’ tends to be applied only in certain cases – again, generally due to the racial, national or religious background of the victim or perpetrator-, the reality of people being grievously harmed or killed by their partners or families is all too real throughout North America, and really, we should treat all domestic violence as domestic violence.

That being said, this is a question where I need to stress at the outset that I can only answer this as a scholar of Islamic history.  I am a theologician, not a theologian – a theologician studies theology, a theologian writes it.  On this point, I strongly agree with Karl Barth[2], that as a non-believer, I have no right to write theology, and no Muslim would have any reason to listen to me even if I did.  So my answer is no, I don’t believe honor killings have any basis in the Qur’an or early Islamic practice.  But I know there are probably Muslims in the world who would disagree with me on that.

There are three reasons I would argue the idea of honor killings probably did not arise out of either early Islam or even out its environment of seventh-century Arabia.

The first is theological – honor killings violate one of the most repeated and most emphasized aspects of both the Qur’an and the early histories and biographies of the Prophet (peace be upon him), that it is a sin for a Muslim to kill a fellow Muslim.  Because the killing of a Muslim is such a fundamental aspect of early Islamic law – indeed, there are hadith to suggest that it was even considered a sin to kill someone who, in battle, had declared ‘there is no god but God’ for the obvious purpose of saving their own skin – claiming to kill a Muslim because you believe that person is incorrectly practicing their religion ends up being something of a Catch-22: if you are a father, who considers himself a Muslim, who is considering killing your daughter, who you consider enough of a practicing Muslim that you are concerned with her relative level of piety, you should be at least as concerned with the injunctions against killing a Muslim as you are with anything else.  Indeed, that these killings sometimes become murder-suicides emphases this point – since killing a fellow Muslim and killing yourself are generally marked in the early Islamic sources as two of the gravest sins, when a person does both I’m inclined to think that either 1.) that person was not as observant as they claimed to be and was acting out of different motivation or 2.) that person was attempting to shoot the moon when it comes to sinning[3].

There are two further social history facts that further suggest to me that honor killing as a tradition does not arise either from Islam or from its initial contemporary environment of seventh-century Arabia.  The first is that we have evidence of honor killings arising throughout Central and South Asia, often spanning ethnic and religious communities.  The cases that I am aware of in which such killings were given legal sanction arise out of highly stratified societies, such as Medieval Persia, and were generally tied to issues of marriage and inheritances.  The Medieval Persian empire of the Sassanians was, according to its laws, so preoccupied with maintaining the wealth of its upper class that not only did it sanction honor killings, it also often legally required incest (or, at least, marriages of incest), in order to prevent anyone outside of the upper class from inheriting their wealth.  Of course, most scholars assume that these laws were followed on paper only, and that alternate arrangements were made in practice, but it does highlight the essential link between the concept of honor killings and social class.

The second fact, on the other hand, is the laws of pre-Islamic Arabia, which present a very different picture.  Arabia was a tribal society, one surviving, generally in very small numbers, in a very hostile natural environment.  According to early sources, it was Arabian practice when one member of a tribe killed another – sometimes even if those tribes had declared war on each other – to pay a blood price, which was meant to literally make up the difference in the loss of production suffered by the tribe that lost one of its members.  This kind of precise balancing of life and death suggest a community which was just barely getting by with the numbers it had, so that killing someone had to carefully rationed against the sheer level of population needed to survive.  Although that system doesn’t discount honor killings as being entirely outside the realm of possibility, it does suggest that they would be strongly discouraged as they could result in the rapid depopulation of the tribe.  Indeed, this concern over population level may also help to explain why so many of the Qur’anic and early Islamic legal punishments were non-lethal – flogging and amputation of limbs, although repulsive to our modern sentiments, are at least generally survival, unlike flaying, crucifixion or drawing-and-quartering, common punishments in the neighboring empires of Byzantium and Persia.

In the modern context, honor killings would seem to fit rather nicely into the larger realm of domestic violence, and seem to stem from many of the same circumstances as domestic violence worldwide.  Obviously there are people, both Muslims and non-Muslims, who want to attach an Islamic gloss to these killings, but that gloss would seem to me to be both theological illogical and historically unsupported.

[1] Sidenote: rereading a month’s worth of posts on IW in one go is super depressing!

[2] If you haven’t read Karl Barth, and ever have a strong desire to read twelve volumes of dense, mid-nineteenth-century, German, revivalist theology, I strongly recommend The Church Dogmatics!

[3] A technique, I’d like to point out, that is not sanctioned by any religion, as far as I am aware.

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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5 Responses to Is there a Qur’anic basis for ‘honor killings’?

  1. Jim says:

    Thanks – I appreciate the insights. However, I have to admit that the concept of “shooting the moon” with regard to sinning has some appeal to it.


  2. noname says:

    ”…Based on this, that which is called “honour killing” is a transgression and wrongdoing, because it is killing one who does not deserve to be killed..”

    The ruling is from a Wahhabi, which are supposedly the ones who condone such killings.

    • Cool, thanks! A very good illustration of the problem with discussing the religiosity of honor killings – that there’s no theological evidence to support them doesn’t seem to reduce the conviction of those committing them!

    • tamīm says:

      Nowhere does that “wahhabi” fatwa condone honor killings. You must be blind.

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