Stoning as a penalty for sex crimes is back in the news after an Iranian woman was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery and an Afghanistani couple was stoned to death for eloping. The debates are complicated by fears of offending Muslims by appearing to blame Islam for such barbaric practices. Some Muslims complain that stoning — along with other traditional penalties like whipping and the amputation of hands — is too often sensationalized in the West to smear the reputation of Islam generally. Most of these severe punishments are carried out by the Taliban and other radicals who, many Islamic scholars say, have little real knowledge of Islamic law.
There is no reason to blame Islam alone for stoning. Human rights groups say a young girl was stoned to death in 2007 in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Yazidi community, which practices an ancient Kurdish religion. The Old Testament includes an episode in which Moses arranges for a man who violated the Sabbath to be stoned, and stoning probably took place among Jewish communities in the ancient Near East. Rabbinic law, which was composed starting in the first century A.D., specifies stoning as the penalty for a variety of crimes, with elaborate instructions for how it should be carried out.
The world's religions are rooted in ancient ideas and traditions much older than modern notions of equality. Stoning for sex crimes, for example, was originally intended to preserve the purity of male tribal bloodlines. Stoning is another reminder why religion should not be the basis of any of our laws.