What Does Islamic Law Say About Rape?

Understanding the Punishment for Rape in Islamic Law

Prison Cell
Getty Images / Darrin Klimek

Rape is completely forbidden in Islamic law and is a crime punishable by death.

In Islam, capital punishment is reserved for the most extreme crimes: those that harm individual victims or destabilize society. Rape falls into both categories. Islam takes very seriously the honor and protection of women, and the Quran repeatedly reminds men to treat women with kindness and fairness.

Some people confuse Islamic law by equating rape with sex outside of marriage, which is instead adultery or fornication. However, throughout Islamic history, some scholars have classified rape as a form of terrorism or a crime of violence (hiraba). Specific examples from Islamic history can shed light on how early Muslims handled this crime and its punishment.

Examples From Early Islamic History

During the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, a rapist was punished based on only the testimony of the victim. Wa'il ibn Hujr reported that a woman publicly identified a man who had raped her. The people caught the man and brought him to the Prophet Muhammad. He told the woman to go—that she was not to be blamed—and ordered that the man be put to death.

In another case, a woman brought her infant to the mosque and publicly spoke about the rape that had resulted in her pregnancy. When confronted, the accused admitted the crime to the Caliph Umar, who then ordered his punishment. The woman was not punished.

Adultery or Terrorism?

It is incorrect to say that rape is merely a subcategory of adultery or fornication. In the well-known Islamic legal book "Fiqh-us-Sunnah," rape is included in a definition of hiraba: "a single person or group of people causing public disruption, killing, forcibly taking property or money, attacking or raping women, killing cattle or disrupting agriculture." This distinction is important when discussing the evidence required to prove the crime.

Evidence Required

Obviously, it would be a horrible injustice for an innocent man to be falsely accused of a capital crime such as rape. To safeguard the rights of the accused, the crime must be proven with evidence in court. Various historical interpretations of Islamic law have existed over time, but the most common legal practice is that the crime of rape may be proven by:

  • Witness testimony: The testimony of four witnesses to the act itself is traditionally the requirement to prove adultery under Islamic law. Most Islamic scholars, however, recognize that adultery is voluntary while rape is coerced. Thus, they have moved beyond requiring this evidence alone to prove sexual assault.
  • Confession: The full and complete confession of the perpetrator is accepted as evidence under Islamic law.
  • Physical evidence: Even in early Islamic history, many Islamic jurists accepted physical evidence to prove a woman's lack of consent. As forensic science becomes more adept at providing physical evidence of sexual assault, such evidence has become commonly accepted in Islamic courts.

These strict evidence requirements are needed for rape to be considered a capital offense. If the sexual assault cannot be proven to such a degree, Islamic courts may have the discretion to find the man guilty but order a less severe punishment, such as jail time or monetary fines. According to several classical interpretations of Islam, the victim is entitled to monetary compensation for her loss as well, in addition to the state asserting its right to prosecute.

Marital Rape

The Quran clearly establishes that the relationship between husband and wife should be based on love and affection (2:187, 30:21, and others). Rape is incompatible with this ideal. Some jurists have argued that a standing "consent" to sex is given at the time of marriage, so marital rape is not considered a punishable crime. Other scholars have argued that rape is a nonconsensual and violent act that can happen within a marriage as well. Ultimately, a husband has a duty in Islam to treat his spouse with dignity and respect.

Punishing the Victim?

No precedence exists in Islam for punishing a victim of sexual assault, even if the assault is not proven. The only exception is if a woman is found to have deliberately and falsely accused an innocent person. In such a case, she may be prosecuted for slander.

In some instances, though, women have attempted to initiate a rape complaint but ended up being prosecuted and punished for adultery. These cases demonstrate a lack of compassion and a clear violation of Islamic law.

As was related to Ibn Mâjah and authenticated by al-Nawawî, Ibn Hajr, and al-Albânî, the Prophet Muhammad said, "Allah has pardoned my people for the acts they do by mistake, due to forgetfulness, and what they are coerced into doing." A Muslim woman who is the victim of rape will be rewarded by Allah for bearing her pain with patience, perserverance, and prayer.