Was the stoning verse abrogated?

January 22, 2018

By Abu Amina Elias

In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

There was a verse that was revealed to the Prophet (ṣ) and was recited by the companions, which mentioned stoning the adulterer, but its recitation was abrogated even though its ruling remained. Some Muslims are confused about this issue. Is the Quran really missing a verse?

In reality, the ‘verse’ was something that the Prophet (ṣ) stated but which was never part of the written Quran. Stoning the married adulterer, who was seen in public by four witnesses, is part of Islamic law as established in the Sunnah.

The purpose of the law is to convey the enormity of adultery, which severs families and causes turmoil in society, but the burden of proof is so impossibly high that very few stonings ever occurred in Islamic history. In this way, the law protects society from the breakdown of public morals while at the same time includes mitigating factors to protect individuals from its abuse by tyrannical governments.

Consequently, the law was considered very important by the leading companions. Umar ibn Al-Khattab, the second rightly-guided Caliph, felt that the law of adultery was so important that he wanted to write it in the Quran, except that he did not want to add anything to the Quran.

Umar ibn Al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, said:

رَجَمَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ وَرَجَمَ أَبُو بَكْرٍ وَرَجَمْتُ وَلَوْلَا أَنِّي أَكْرَهُ أَنْ أَزِيدَ فِي كِتَابِ اللَّهِ لَكَتَبْتُهُ فِي الْمُصْحَفِ فَإِنِّي قَدْ خَشِيتُ أَنْ تَجِيءَ أَقْوَامٌ فَلَا يَجِدُونَهُ فِي كِتَابِ اللَّهِ فَيَكْفُرُونَ بِهِ

The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, stoned (the married adulterer), Abu Bakr stoned, and I stone. Were it not that I hate adding to the book of Allah, I would have written it in the copy of the Quran. I fear that people will come and not find it in the book of Allah, so they will disbelieve in it.

Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 1431, Grade: Sahih

In another narration, Umar said:

وَلَوْلَا أَنْ يَقُولَ قَائِلُونَ زَادَ عُمَرُ فِي كِتَابِ اللَّهِ مَا لَيْسَ مِنْهُ لَكَتَبْتُهُ فِي نَاحِيَةٍ مِنْ الْمُصْحَفِ

Were it not that some would say Umar has added to the book of Allah what does not belong in it, I would have written it in the margins of the Quran.

Source: Musnad Aḥmad 157, Grade: Sahih

Hence, the stoning verse was never part of the official Quranic text, although some companions may have written it in the margins of their personal copies.

Umar, in fact, had asked the Prophet (ṣ) for permission to write this verse in the Quran, but he was refused.

Zaid ibn Thabit reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

الشَّيْخُ وَالشَّيْخَةُ إِذَا زَنَيَا فَارْجُمُوهُمَا الْبَتَّةَ

The married old man and old woman, if they commit adultery, then stone them irrevocably.

Umar said, “When this was revealed, I went to the Prophet and I said: Let me write it.” Shu’bah said:

فَكَأَنَّهُ كَرِهَ ذَلِكَ

It was as if the Prophet disliked that.

Source: Musnad Aḥmad 21086, Grade: Sahih

In another narration, the Prophet said:

 لا أَسْتَطِيعُ ذَاكَ

I cannot have it written.

Al-Bayhaqi comments on this statement, saying:

 فِي هَذَا وَمَا قَبْلَهُ دَلالَةٌ عَلَى أَنَّ آيَةَ الرَّجْمِ حُكْمُهَا ثَابِتٌ وَتِلاوَتُهَا مَنْسُوخَةٌ وَهَذَا مِمَّا لا أَعْلَمُ فِيهِ خِلافًا

In this, and what came before it, are evidence that the ruling of the verse of stoning is affirmed and its recitation is abrogated. This among matters of which I do not know of any disagreement.

Source: al-Sunan al-Kubrá 15553

And Al-Baqilani also comments on this incident:

إنه مما نُهيَ عن رسمه، ولو كان مما أمِرنا بإثباته لاستطاعَ أن يثبته ولم يكن لتركه

Indeed, it was among what he was prohibited to inscribe. Were we commanded to affirm it, then surely he would have been able to affirm it and he would not have left it out.

Source: al-Intiṣār 1/364

And Abu Muhammad said:

لِأَنَّ آيَةَ الرَّجْمِ إذْ نَزَلَتْ حُفِظَتْ وَعُرِفَتْ وَعَمِلَ بِهَا رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ إلَّا أَنَّهُ لَمْ يَكْتُبْهَا نُسَّاخُ الْقُرْآنِ فِي الْمُصْحَفِ وَلَا أَثْبَتُوا لَفْظَهَا فِي الْقُرْآنِ وَقَدْ سَأَلَ عُمَرُ بْنُ الْخَطَّابِ ذَلِكَ كَمَا أَوْرَدْنَا فَلَمْ يُجِبْهُ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ إلَى ذَلِكَ

When the verse of stoning was revealed, it was memorized, acknowledged, and it was acted upon by the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, except that he did not have it written in the copies of the Quran, nor did he affirm its wording in the Quran. Umar ibn Al-Khattab asked about that, as we have related, and the Prophet did not obligate him to do it.

Source: al-Muḥallá 12/177

Therefore, the verse was ‘abrogated’ in the sense that it was no longer recited and it was never written as the Quran. The ruling of stoning still applied as part of the Sunnah. We can only speculate the wisdom behind such abrogation. Perhaps, Allah does not intend for us to focus on criminal punishments to the detriment of more important religious matters, such as the five pillars of Islam, the six articles of faith, and personal moral and spiritual development.

It is worth repeating, as we have done elsewhere, that the hudud punishments in Islamic law appear harsh on their face, but in their details they contain many mitigating factors. For example, the Prophet (ṣ) encouraged Muslims to find legitimate excuses not to apply the maximum punishments when possible.

Aisha reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

ادْرَءُوا الْحُدُودَ عَنْ الْمُسْلِمِينَ مَا اسْتَطَعْتُمْ فَإِنْ كَانَ لَهُ مَخْرَجٌ فَخَلُّوا سَبِيلَهُ فَإِنَّ الْإِمَامَ أَنْ يُخْطِئَ فِي الْعَفْوِ خَيْرٌ مِنْ أَنْ يُخْطِئَ فِي الْعُقُوبَةِ

Avoid applying legal punishment upon the Muslims if you are capable. If the criminal has a way out, then leave him to his way. Verily, it is better for the leader to make a mistake forgiving the criminal than it is for him to make a mistake punishing the innocent.

Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 1424, Grade: Sahih

Thus, it became a principle of Islamic law that any doubt in the prosecution’s case would waive the maximum punishment.

As-Suyuti writes:

القاعدة (في الفقه) الحدود تسقط بالشبهات

A principle of law states that legal punishments are suspended by doubts.

Source: al-Ashbāh wal-Naẓāʼir 2/122

As such, the correct approach to this issue is to maintain the validity and importance of the hudud punishments as social statements against the worst forms of crime, but along with all of their mitigating factors which greatly reduce the likelihood of their application. This is how we can understand the verse of stoning, and maybe it is the reason why it was never written in the Quran to begin with.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.