Honour killings regularly make media headlines. Clan or family members are brutally murdered by one or more relatives because they feel that their victims have brought shame upon them by what is perceived as unacceptable sexual behaviour, marriage partners or dress codes. In order to restore lost honour, blood has to flow. The killings are seen as unavoidable.
There could be as many as 5,000 victims of world wide honour killings every year!1 Explicit laws allowing that brutal practice can be traced back as far as 1075 BC to the Assyrian civilization. They have also been common in the Babylonian and Roman empires.2
This article looks at the conditions that still allow honour killings to happen today. It focuses on the origins behind them and highlights the only viable solution to end the ongoing tragedy.
Why are honour killings still prevalent, especially in Islamic countries and among Muslims, despite the fact that the Quran does not officially condone them? While it is true that tribal cultural ways3 sometimes take precedent over religious beliefs, it can be argued that the following verses of the Quran indirectly encourage this despicable practice.
Surah 18, Al-Kahf (The Cave), verses 66 – 84, mention that a boy was killed because he was about to bring his parents grief and dishonour through his unbelief. Muslim commentators are not in agreement whether the servant of Allah who murdered the boy was an angel or a prophet. The important fact is that Allah wanted him to be dead because the boy would bring future dishonour to them.
According to Surah 24, An-Nur, (Light) verse 2, the punishment for adultery is 100 stripes, contrary to hadiths found in Sahih Bukhari, 2.413, 8.805, 814, and 819, where it is stoning to death. Islam prescribes that the family should refer to the law, rather than carrying out their own punishment.
Surah 4, An-Nisā’ (The Women), verses 34-35 state that men are in charge of women, being their protectors and maintainers. What happens if they fail in their duty to keep them out of harm’s way or women are simply unwilling to reconcile? The pressure of the Muslim community is on men to control the wives and daughters entrusted to them. In order to keep the honour of the family, be it for cultural or religious reasons, the strain could become so great that murder seems to be the only answer.
Surah 3, Al-i-‘Imran verse 110 proclaims, “You are the best nation produced [as an example] for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and believe in Allah….” (Sahih International Translation)
Traditionally, this verse has been understood to be addressed to Muslims and Arabs. “Anyone who becomes a Muslim becomes an Arab.”4 There is no distinction between Islam and culture. Islam is the culture of the Arabs. Anything a Muslim traditionally does in his culture is inherent to Islam, whether or not it is in the Qur’an.
Muslims aim to follow their Arab prophet in the way he dressed, kept his beard, ate, dealt with his enemies towards the end of his life,5 etc. There are many beautiful aspects in Arabic culture that are indeed worthy of copying, such as poetry, proverbs and wisdom, humour, intuition, romance, hospitality, loyalty and courage. However, as with all cultures, some aspects are bad, such as superstition, disunity, pride, temper, carelessness, lack of organisation, resistance to authority, pessimism and revenge. Blood revenge still exists in Arab villages. Revenge killings are common among Arab families and tribes. Take for example the animosity between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims that still exists today. It can to a great extent be traced back to their violent ways of determining a successor for their common prophet of Islam.6 Since to be a Muslim is to be an Arab it is quite possible to justify honour killings in that way by labeling them as part of the Islamic system.
A hadith used by some Muslims who follow the Shafi school of Islamic law within Sunni Islam justifies female genital mutilation to reduce their sexual drive. It is hoped that this practice would help to protect women from an otherwise increased risk of losing the honour of their families.7
Narrated Umm Atiyyah al-Ansariyyah: A woman used to perform circumcision in Medina. The Prophet … said to her: Do not cut severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband.8
There is no doubt that the concept of restoring relationships of honour through the shedding of blood is found throughout human history in various cultures as well as religions. The earliest evidence is recorded in the first few pages of the Bible. After God created a breathtakingly beautiful and perfect world he put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to lovingly fellowship with him and take care of his work. They were allowed to eat from the fruit of all trees except one, the tree of knowledge of good and evil that would cause them to die. Why did they rebel against God and as a result bring shame into their lives? Satan appeared in the form of a serpent9 and said to the woman:
You won’t die. God knows that the moment you eat from that tree, you’ll see what’s really going on. You’ll be just like God, knowing everything, ranging all the way from good to evil. (Genesis 3:4-5 – The Message)
Behind the disobedience of Adam and Eve was a lack of faith in the word of God. They believed Satan instead, who wrongly promised them to become like God. In doing so they tried to set themselves up as partners with God. Islam calls this ‘shirk’, the unforgivable sin. Since God does not share his Glory with anybody else, the Bible calls this heinous act ‘idolatry’ the substitution of somebody or something (e.g. money, sex, power, etc) for God. It is the essence of all sin and tragically being repeatedly committed ever since! In view of the fact that the first leaders of humanity failed miserably, all mankind suffers from the same problem. (E.g. Gaddafi was a bad Libyan leader and as a result his followers suffer.)
Adam and Eve immediately saw that they were naked and felt a tremendous sense of shame. Before, they were ‘clothed’ in love, the acceptance and security, and importance given by God. After falling into sin their eyes were opened to the sad truth that they were no longer acceptable to God and each other. Our first parents,
… sewed fig leaves together as makeshift clothes for themselves. (Genesis 3:7 – The Message)
Here we find the beginning of man-made religion, a futile attempt to cover up shameful deeds by totally insufficient work. The purpose is to regain the lost love and importance before God and man in one’s own strength. People are wrongly led to believe that there is a chance of their guilt and shame being covered as long as they adhere to certain lifestyles and rituals.10 It does not work because, as mentioned already, the root problem of Adam and Eve was not first of all a lack of work but a lack of faith that led to idolatry (‘shirk’)! The solution to a lack of faith is faith! Besides, those who try to obey God to gain his acceptance use obedience as a means to an end. Any end, focus or goal other than God is idolatry! When they heard God in the garden they became afraid and hid because they still felt naked in spite of their attempt to cover themselves.11
The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. (Genesis 3:21)12
This is the first indication where blood was shed by killing an animal to enable sinners to stand in God’s presence again and thereby having their honour restored! The garment made from animal skin was to replace Adam and Eve’s futile attempt to cover their nakedness with fig leaves.13
Their main punishment was the expulsion from the Garden of Eden.14 Consequently, the death Adam and Eve were threatened with if they took the forbidden fruit, referred to the end of their close, personal relationship with God. This spiritual death was followed later by physical death.
So far it has been established from the first pages of the Torah that the real reason behind man’s disobedience was found in a lack of faith towards God and his word. Had the problem just been a bad deed then the main religious answer to focus on doing good deeds would be understandable. However, since a lack of faith lies at the centre of the tragedy, the only logical solution to reverse the separation between God and man has to lie in focusing on faith in God and his word. In the punishment He pronounces on Satan God gives a hint of the nature of that problem-solving faith:
“I’m declaring war between you and the Woman, between your offspring and hers. He’ll wound your head, you’ll wound his heel.” (Genesis 3:13 – The Message)
This is the first prophecy of a son of a woman who will kill Satan and in the process will be suffering himself. The Bible identifies him as the Messiah, born by the Virgin Mary.15 God used him as a high priest, a mediator. He must be able to speak on equal terms with both God and man, and so Jesus took on a human nature in order to mediate between us.16
Only God Himself can remove shame and defilement (Arabic: ‘Najis’) that results in spiritual and physical death. Since birth everyone constantly carries inside them the very substances from which they regularly need to be cleansed. Similarly, as darkness cannot be chased away by itself, only through light, there is no way we can get rid of our internally resident impurities through our own ceremonial washings. Just as a candle casts darkness out of a room by entering it, God casts out defilement from humans by becoming one of them.17 He alone would restore the honour of His name in and through a perfect, sinless man, the Messiah Jesus. After all, God is the only one who can lift a person from a position of shame to a position of honour. No one can promote himself. It is an unwritten rule of the east. People know their place, and must remain in it.
As the story of the Torah and Zabur develops through people like Cain and Abel, Abraham and his son, and later through Israel, his chosen nation, the theme of sacrifice plays an absolutely central role. The word ‘sacrifice’ (or offering) is used 1047 times throughout the Holy Bible as the one and only means to get forgiveness:
Then the priest is to take one of the male Lambs and offer it as a guilt offering… (Leviticus 14:12)
Since the blood of animals cannot really forgive sins it served as a symbol for the perfect sacrifice to come:
John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
The time has come, Jesus said. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news! (Mark 1:15)
As has become clear, it is impossible for man to save himself. To repent means to realize that sin is deeply offensive to God and people, to be truly sorry about it, and to hate it. It is a personal decision to turn from sin, to forsake it and follow Jesus instead. We are asked to live honourable lives as God intended by doing good deeds out of thankfulness that we are saved. To believe means to trust that Jesus died on the cross for my sin that caused shame and defilement. He paid the punishment for it on my behalf. Through his resurrection from the dead he was victorious over sin and Satan!
Jesus: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11)
Jesus: “If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor to be with you for ever—the Spirit of truth… he lives with you and will be in you.” (John 14:15-17)
Man’s relationship with God is indeed close and personal. Through repentance and faith in Jesus, He lives in them through His Spirit, now and forever! His nature becomes their new nature; He is living in them and enabling them to be victorious over sin and shame! There is no more need for honour killings!
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:21)
God did not just give those who believe in Jesus a new position of honour (forgiveness and cleansing from sin, acceptance, affirmation and inclusion in his kingdom) but a new nature (crediting our lives with His perfection, His right standing!18). Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, that God honours the humble. When they are honoured, they simply grow more humble and turn the honour onto God alone who honours them!
Jesus Christ said: ‘If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.’ (John 7:17)
Are you prepared to choose to do God’s will and follow his truth, wherever it will lead you? Then he promises, you will find out whether his teaching is from God. Pray!
1 ‘A Human Rights and Health Priority’ (United Nations Population Fund)
2 The Codes of Hammurabi (180-183) and Assura, written in 1780 BC and 1075 BC respectively, are some of the earliest set of laws prescribing that a woman’s virginity belongs to the family. In the code of Assura it says: “If a virgin of her own accord give herself to a man, the man shall take oath, against his wife they shall not draw nigh. Threefold the price of a virgin the ravisher shall pay. The father shall do with his daughter what he pleases.” (I.55) See also this note on the legal status of women in Rome.
3 Some people claim that the practice of honour killings originated locally with various Baloch or Pathan tribes in Balochistan or North West Frontier Pakistan. See ‘Honour: crimes, paradigms and violence against women’ by Lynn Welchman and Sarah Hossain, p. 80.
4 Al-Hariri, p. 23, quoted from Abdul Aziz Al-Duri in his book, Arab Nationalism and Islam, p. 67 in Arabic.
5 See, e.g., these articles.
6 ‘Engaging Islam’ by George Houssney, chapter 7: The Arab character of Islam
7 Ahmad Ibn Hanbal 5:75, Afifi Muhammad al-Saadiq, Fi fiqh al-mar’a al-muslima (Beirut, 1986), p. 17.
8 Kitab Al Adab, Abu Daud, 5251.
9 Revelation 12:9, 20:2
10 ‘Breaking the Islam Code’ by Dr J.D. Greear, chapter 7
11 Genesis 3:8-10
12 All Bible quotes are taken from the NIV translation unless stated otherwise.
13 Genesis 3:7
14 Genesis 3:23-24
15 Isaiah 53; Luke 1:26-38
16 Hebrews 5:1-7. In chapter 1:3,10 we learn that Jesus is the exact representation of God, and it was through him the world was created. He has the required double qualification as mediator.
17 ‘The Gospel for shame cultures: a paradigm shift’ by Bruce Thomas, published in EMQ July 1994.
18 See Jeremiah 23:6