Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Is there honor in honor killings?

Dallas M. Roark, Ph.D.

There is a lot of emphasis on honor in Muslim cultures. We read about so-called “honor killings.” The reasoning behind honor killings is that it “cleanses” the honor of the person or family whose honor has been wounded. Killing the suspected offender is supposed to restore the integrity of the family name. Actually, one alleged bad sin is followed by the worst sin of murder. The old saying is true: two wrongs don’t make a right. Murder is murder.

Let’s raise some questions about this whole concept. Where does my honor come from? Does it come from my family? Does my family bestow honor on me? Let us suppose that my father is a crook and I am not. Does that make me a crook? Not at all. Am I to be shamed because of him? Suppose that I am a crook and my father is not, does that make my father a crook? Not at all. Is he to be shamed because of me?

It has been observed that Muslim cultures are familial, clanish, and tribal, not individualistic. This concept seems to be behind “honor killings.” They believe that if you take away the corporate aspect of the culture, control over morality will be lost. What can be said about this idea? How can morality be protected by immoral acts? How can morality come from immoral acts?

First, the judgment of Allah does not include families. Paradise or hell are individual destinies, not family destinies. A man may go to paradise and the wife go to hell. When a man kills his wife or sister for talking with a stranger, or not wanting to wear Muslim garments, or whatever, he is committing murder for which he can go to hell. A Muslim may think that killing a daughter or wife is a good deed for honor sake, but it is murder in the eyes of God. In most of these killers there is no remorse or sorrow over what has been done.

Second, the real dishonor to the family comes when a father forces his daughter to marry a man who is 30-50 years older than she, and is someone she does not accept or want for her husband. The female is so degraded when the choice is forced by the father, rather than made by her. Women are so inconsequential that their wishes are not allowed to be important. This is the real dishonor in the family.

Third, the father dishonors the daughters by insisting on their conformity to a cultural practice that dates from the 7th century as in covering up, wearing a black tent, and being unseen, invisible to the world, talking to no one other than family members.

Fourth, the fathers are dishonoring their daughters by keeping them ignorant, not allowing them to go to school, not allowing a college education, a career, or whatever their abilities will allow. Muslim cultures are suffering from the deliberate rejection of the importance of women. Women are more than wombs.

When one is dealing with the idea of “honor killings” it must be understood that one is dealing with “folkloric” or “cultural” Islam and not with the religion itself because neither the Qur’an nor the hadiths support the idea of honor killings. Ironically, there are no Qur’anic sources for honor killings, nor are there hadiths for it. It appears that much of the practice comes from evil cultural influences. One can conclude that the “good Muslim” who is doing honor killings is really practicing evil rites. Would this not make the honor-killing Muslim a kafir?

Dis-honor is only related to the person who does the foul deed. Dishonor is not transferred. The claim that one person’s sin dishonors the whole family is irrational and is not supported by the Qur’an or the hadiths.

There are examples in the Bible in which a good king like Hezekiah had an evil son who corrupted all of Hezekiah’s good reign as king. Manasseh, Hezekiah’s son, succeeded his father and was one of the most wicked kings in the history of Judah. Hezekiah’s honor was not besmirched by Manasseh. Hezekiah will always be regarded as an honorable king in spite of his son’s own personal failings as a king. (compare 2 Kings 18:3 with 2 Kings 21:1-6)

In a contrasting way, Amon was an evil king and was assassinated and Josiah, his son became king. The evils of Amon were not heaped upon the reputation of Josiah. Josiah is remembered as a good king in spite of his father’s reputation.(compare 2 Kings 21:20-23 with 2 Kings 22:2)

We can conclude that a person’s honor and reputation is a personal achievement. It cannot be taken away from you, nor can it be lost by the actions of a family member.

In Islam there is a wrong view of honor and shame. There has been an increased awareness of the violence done to women in the name of shame and honor. The low opinion of women in Islam is seen in the fact that a man can divorce his wife by merely declaring the divorce three times and the woman is sent packing in shame. There are very few, if any, records of women killing the husband for shaming her. But if a woman wants a divorce from a man, for whatever reason, she may be murdered for bringing “shame” on him. Because it is a “family” affair, the police in many Muslim countries will not investigate any further. In other instances the man goes free because it is Muslim culture.

One can read an extensive list of honor killings by merely going to Google and typing in “honor killings.”

An honor killing is a contradiction in terms. . Muslims claim that it purifies their honor and name. The story appeared Feb. 26, 2009 of a Muslim who sought to improve the image of Islam by starting a Muslim TV station in Buffalo, NY. Unfortunately, his wife wanted a divorce. He beheaded her to purify his honor in the disgrace of the woman wanting out of her marriage to him (1, 2, 3)

Only in a Muslim culture would this sound good. What he did was hideous and brought more shame and dishonor to his name. An evil deed does not deserve honor, only shame.

In Amsterdam, April 17, 2005, an Iraqi-Kurdish man, 21, was being tried on the charge of murdering his 18 year old sister on the basis of an honor killing. She was a non-practicing Muslim and had a child by her non-Muslim boyfriend (*).

Two Muslim sisters in Irving, Texas, were shot to death by their Muslim father when he learned they had boyfriends (*).

In some cases females were killed because their parents were suspicious about an unknown phone number in their cell phone, or a female was suspected of sexual activity (later tests proved she was a virgin) and was put to death wrongfully, or a daughter wanted to wear Western clothes and was murdered..

The question must be asked: does an honor killing restore honor? Or, does an honor killing bring more dishonor? Can an honor killing “purify” the family name? How can a minor sin be purified by a more egregious sin? Or does the killing pollute the family name far beyond the deed of the person killed? The idea that honor killings can cleanse the family honor is evil and should be denounced.

Let me show you a different way. There is a concept in the Old Testament called “mercy.” What is mercy? One Webster’s dictionary says, It is “that benevolence, mildness or tenderness of heart which disposes a person to overlook injuries, or to treat an offender better than he deserves; the disposition that tempers justice, and induces an injured person to forgive trespasses and injuries, and to forbear punishment, or inflict less than law or justice will warrant. In this sense, there is perhaps no word in our language precisely synonymous with mercy. That which comes nearest to it is grace. It implies benevolence, tenderness, mildness, pity or compassion, and clemency, but exercised only towards offenders. Mercy is a distinguishing attribute of the Supreme Being.”

Mercy is mentioned a number of times in the Old Testament. One of the most profound stories relates to God’s revelation of Himself to Moses. Exodus 34:6 tells us:

“Then he passed in front of Moses and called out, "I am the LORD God. I am merciful and very patient with my people. I show great love, and I can be trusted."” In Deuteronomy 4:31 we read, “The LORD your God will have mercy--he won't destroy you or desert you. The LORD will remember his promise, and he will keep the agreement he made with your ancestors.”

Not only is God merciful, but people are commanded to be merciful. Hosea wrote, “The LORD God has told us what is right and what he demands: "See that justice is done, let mercy be your first concern, and humbly obey your God."” (Hosea 6:8 CEV) Jesus taught,

“Have pity on others, just as your Father has pity on you... Don't judge others, and God won't judge you. Don't be hard on others, and God won't be hard on you. Forgive others, and God will forgive you.” (Luke 6:36-37 CEV)

The honor and glory of God are seen in the mercy and forgiveness of God. It is what we humans all fall short of. Romans 3:23 says “All of us have sinned and fallen short of God's glory.”

Jesus told a story involving mercy and forgiveness.

“Peter came up to the Lord and asked, "How many times should I forgive someone who does something wrong to me? Is seven times enough?" Jesus answered: Not just seven times, but seventy-seven times! This story will show you what the kingdom of heaven is like: One day a king decided to call in his officials and ask them to give an account of what they owed him. As he was doing this, one official was brought in who owed him fifty million silver coins. But he didn't have any money to pay what he owed. The king ordered him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all he owned, in order to pay the debt. The official got down on his knees and began begging, "Have pity on me, and I will pay you every cent I owe!" The king felt sorry for him and let him go free. He even told the official that he did not have to pay back the money. As the official was leaving, he happened to meet another official, who owed him a hundred silver coins. So he grabbed the man by the throat. He started choking him and said, "Pay me what you owe!" The man got down on his knees and began begging, "Have pity on me, and I will pay you back." But the first official refused to have pity. Instead, he went and had the other official put in jail until he could pay what he owed. When some other officials found out what had happened, they felt sorry for the man who had been put in jail. Then they told the king what had happened. The king called the first official back in and said, "You're an evil man! When you begged for mercy, I said you did not have to pay back a cent. Don't you think you should show pity to someone else, as I did to you?" The king was so angry that he ordered the official to be tortured until he could pay back everything he owed. That is how my Father in heaven will treat you, if you don't forgive each of my followers with all your heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35 CEV)

The lack of mercy expressed in honor killings almost seems to border on the idea of vain pride. Webster defines pride as “Inordinate self-esteem; an unreasonable conceit of one's own superiority in talents, beauty, wealth, accomplishments, rank or elevation in office, which manifests itself in lofty airs, distance, reserve, and often in contempt of others.”

The father who kills his daughter, or the husband who kills his wife certainly shows no mercy and becomes very judgmental regarding the other person.

We have to ask the question about honor? Where does honor come from? Honor cannot be achieved by despicable deeds done to someone else. The law given to Moses by Yahweh said: “Do not commit murder” and that has not been rescinded. Honor killings are murder.

Where does honor come from? It has to come from Yahweh, the Creator.

Contrary to the Muslim understanding of Allah, the Bible speaks of God loving the world, even sinners. The Son of God came into the world to reveal God’s great love for his creation. His mercy is shown in his attitude toward us sinner. Our worth as humans is not in ourselves, but in God’s great love and mercy bestowed upon us. The Bible declares, “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39 RSV)

My honor, my worth, my value comes from God whose love transcends my circumstances of life. I am a sinner, but God’s great love brings forgiveness now. Romans 5:20 declares, “Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.” God’s grace is greater than our personal shame and dishonor.

There is a story about forgiveness in the life of Jesus. A woman was brought to Jesus and accused of being caught in adultery. Read the account:

“Then early the next morning he went to the temple. The people came to him, and he sat down and started teaching them. The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law of Moses brought in a woman who had been caught in bed with a man who wasn't her husband. They made her stand in the middle of the crowd. Then they said, "Teacher, this woman was caught sleeping with a man who isn't her husband. The Law of Moses teaches that a woman like this should be stoned to death! What do you say?" They asked Jesus this question, because they wanted to test him and bring some charge against him. But Jesus simply bent over and started writing on the ground with his finger. They kept on asking Jesus about the woman. Finally, he stood up and said, "If any of you have never sinned, then go ahead and throw the first stone at her!" Once again he bent over and began writing on the ground. The people left one by one, beginning with the oldest. Finally, Jesus and the woman were there alone. Jesus stood up and asked her, "Where is everyone? Isn't there anyone left to accuse you?" "No sir," the woman answered. Then Jesus told her, "I am not going to accuse you either. You may go now, but don't sin anymore." (John 8:2-11 CEV)

In contrast to honor killings as would be warranted in this story, there is mercy, hope, the possibilities of a new life, and above all the love of God which brings forgiveness.

What seems to be missing in Islam is the idea of forgiveness, personal forgiveness of one another, and the forgiveness of Yahweh. Jesus had some strong words concerning the lack of forgiveness to others. He taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, and it includes the words, “Forgive us for doing wrong, as we forgive others.” (Mt. 6:12 CEV) Then Jesus warned, “If you forgive others for the wrongs they do to you, your Father in heaven will forgive you. But if you don't forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15 CEV)

Not only does honor killing not cleanse the dishonorable act, but honor killings result in not being willing to forgive. Then there is no forgiveness for the perpetrator of that foul deed.

Personal honor can only be blackened by one’s personal sinful deeds. Those sinful deeds cannot be purified by more sinful deeds. Honor killings are murder regardless of the attempt to whitewash them. Muslims need to reject false concepts of honor and dishonor.

No honor killing is going to purify a sin so grievous. What is needed is an attitude of forgiveness borne out of mercy and love, not an act of murder borne out of a false sense of honor.

As a Christian I often pray that I will not do anything that will bring shame on the name of Jesus. Certainly in the minds of many, honor killings bring shame to the reputation of Islam.