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Is Saudi Claim of Beheading Rizana Nafeek in Strict Accordance with the Sharia Correct?

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By Izeth Hussain

It seems to be a widespread notion that however tragic and horrifying Rizana Nafeek’s fate might be, we cannot in the last resort object to the Saudis having their own laws and applying them in the manner they think fit.

That view seems sound on the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of states. But it carries a large assumption. It is that the Saudi manner of applying its laws will be consistent with internationally accepted standards. No one has any business to assume anything of the sort considering Saudi Arabia’s horrendous record in human rights.

It is internationally accepted that murder must be punished and punished severely, but the death sentence is frowned upon widely today. As for the death sentence being carried out by beheading – at one time a universal practice – it is no longer in vogue today. But what happens in Saudi Arabia is that the victim is beheaded in a public square after the Friday Jumma prayers and spectators are allowed to enjoy themselves thoroughly. What is more, in the tragic case of Rizana, a film was made of the grisly proceedings, which is now available on the internet.

We can be certain that the almost universal reaction will be that the Saudi regime is intolerably barbaric. We know of course that public executions were universal at one time, including in the most advanced states. But that was at a time when there was no police force and the power of the state was not ubiquitous enough to enable the state to punish crime everywhere. So punishment had to be exemplary, setting an example to deter further crime, and therefore it had to be public and also cruel. Saudi Arabia’s reversion to medieval practices for which the rationale no longer exists is today rightly regarded as barbaric.

Can we expect a regime that glories in a practice almost universally regarded as barbaric, and has so horrendous a record on human rights, to apply the law in a manner consistent with internationally accepted standards? May be sometimes, may be even frequently, but not always surely.

In Rizana’s case, according to the information available, the manner in which she was tried and convicted showed contempt for internationally accepted standards. She complained that her confession was extorted under duress. There is nothing to show that that complaint was investigated properly. Her translator was an Indian Malayalee whose knowledge of Tamil may have been defective. Evidently our Embassy in Riyadh was not notified so that it could discharge its consular responsibilities by providing a reliable translator etc, a very serious lapse on the part of the Saudi authorities. I will not go into further details which are by now known to the public. Instead I will focus on the sheer utter total implausibility of the case made out against Rizana.

In cases of murder, as distinct from unintended killings which are categorized as homicide, it is all-important to establish a credible motive. Rizana was there for a very brief period – just a few weeks – and it strains credulity far too much to make us believe that in that very brief period she had developed such hatred of her employers as to drive her to murder. There was no record of ill-treatment by her employers, or of quarrels between them. Now after the execution, the Saudi authorities claim for the first time that the lady of the house had scolded her that morning, and she had therefore “plotted” – the term used in the official statement – the murder. No one whose rational faculty has not been seriously impaired can possibly accept that as establishing a credible motive.

Furthermore, it is known that in murder cases the murderer does everything humanly possible to escape detection. In this case we are asked to believe that Rizana screamed while committing the murder, attracting the attention of the other children who consequently testified against her. I won’t go on citing further details as that would be superfluous. Obviously the charge of murder is total tosh.

We can of course expect the Saudi authorities to claim that the Rizana case was handled strictly according to the Sharia, the Divine Law of Islam. As Saudi Arabia was the land of the Prophet, non-Muslims who know little or nothing about Islam and the Islamic world may well be disposed to believe that Islam is really a barbaric religion and that Muslims are, under a thin veneer of civilization, barbarians at the core. I must make some clarifications about the Sharia to dispel that misconception.

The Koran is regarded as the primary source of the Sharia. But out of its six thousand verses only six hundred deal with legal obligations, most of them to do with religious matters such as prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage. And only eighty verses deal with strictly secular legal matters, concerning women, marriage, and laws of inheritance. The second source of the Sharia are the hadiths, the sayings and deeds of the Prophet, of which there are many thousands. Six books of hadiths are accepted as canonical by Muslims, the most important of which is the compilation of Bukhari. My copy of Bukhari goes into nine volumes, most of them consisting of over four hundred and fifty pages.

Obviously, it had to be expected that more than one system of the Sharia would arise. About two centuries after the death of the Prophet four schools of the Divine Law came to be accepted in the Islamic world. Liberal Muslims who became important in the Islamic world from the late nineteenth century onwards question the very notion of the Divine Law.

If God had intended to set down an immutable legal system valid for all time and in all places, He would have done so in the Koran, instead of leaving it to Muslim legists to construct four legal systems centuries after the death of the Prophet. Today some would see the four schools of the Divine Law in terms of ideology in the Marxist sense – that is, their significance in relation to the world of power.

I have in mind Mohammed Arkoun, a Professor in the Sorbonne, who wrote: “Orthodoxy – in its Sunni or Shia version – is no more than the official religion resulting from the collaboration of the majority of the ulema with the state.” It is an interesting subject that I cannot pursue here.

What I want to do here is to emphasize that the Saudi pretention that Rizana was beheaded in strict accordance with the Sharia should be taken with a huge pinch of salt. I strongly suspect that the Saudi authorities have a pre-Islamic mind-set and that Rizana was beheaded strictly in accordance with pre-Islamic Judaic law: a tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye, or – since its money that makes the world go round – the payment of compensation.

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