Dr Yasir Qadhi writes:
There is a lot of confusion, both amongst non-Muslims and Muslims, regarding the punishments for specific crimes (the ḥudūd laws). Typically, those outside the faith find it highly problematic and accuse Islam of being barbaric. Some Muslims, under pressure, simply deny that they exist or claim that they have been abrogated. Others, attempting to seem ‘strong’ and ‘anti-liberal’ but with little study of the religion (and no actual experience in an Islamic courtroom, much less genuine training in the science of qaḍā) end up foolishly rejecting actual aspects and wisdoms of Islamic law because they want a stance that appears stricter and harsher, believing that this stance is ‘genuine’ and ‘true’.
As always, the truth is in between these two extremes. Sh. Dr. Abd al-Aziz al-Fawzān (someone whom I have the great honor of considering a mentor and a friend), a Professor of Fiqh and former Dean of the Faculty of Fiqh at the Institute of Higher Judicial Studies in Riyadh (meaning: he teaches and trains actual qāḍīs [judges] and has worked as an actual judge in an Islamic framework), writes, “The ultimate goal (al-ghāya al-kubrā) of all of these punishments is to frighten people into not committing these crimes in the first place (al-takhwīf wa-l-rad`). And in practice these punishments are rarely applied, in the most narrow of circumstances, upon a very few individuals immersed in corruption, rooted in evil and depravity, harming society and disturbing its security and stability.”
Had this statement not come from one of the most esteemed professors of actual Islamic judges, those with little wisdom and hasty impulses would have jumped at accusing him of being a liberal sell-out pandering to the kufars (or worse: a zindīq and a murtad)!
History teaches us that the prophets, and those who genuinely follow in their steps, will have antagonists from without the Ummah, and nuisances (and fanatics) from within the Ummah. Successful preachers and scholars need to balance between the hatred of those on the outside versus the foolishness (sometimes sincere, sometimes not so sincere) of those on the inside. When the leader of the hypocrites in the prophetic era committed yet another crime – and he definitely deserved to be executed – the Prophet (ﷺ) refused to allow his execution, and said, “No! Let not the people say that I kill my own followers.” In other words, he realized the PR damage that it would do to Islam, and took that into account, to stave off a punishment that hypocrite deserved. Ibn Mas’ud – someone who had to deal with the fanaticism of Khārijite Islam for many years – famously remarked, “Speak to the people at their level: do you wish that [because of your foolishness] Allah and His Messenger are rejected?!?”
The hallmark of wisdom is to use the right language in front of the right audience, and the hallmark of impetuousness is to have no concern for the implications of what you say, believing you are speaking the ‘ḥaqq’.
Scholars of intellectual history know for a fact that refuting a deviation without knowledge always leads to another deviation. Islam is not primarily about the ḥudūd. If someone doesn’t understand them from outside the faith, we contextualize and explain in broad terms, but we should never cause their misunderstanding to be a cause for their rejection of Islam (even as we should never say something about our faith that is not true). And if some overzealous youth want to seem like they are ‘the real deal’ by being strict and harsh, and rejecting the wisdom of major scholars of Islamic law, clamoring about the importance of ḥudūd without ever actually having studied properly, then such people should ask themselves which Islam are they defending? The real Islam that we learn from Allah and His Messenger and the people of knowledge (in which mercy and compassion and scholarship and wisdom are not mocked, but celebrated), or an ‘Islam’ that is constructed as a figment of their imagination (perhaps as part of an anti-liberal crusade)?
Stick with the mainstream jamā`ah and its `ulama, for indeed Allah’s mercy and support is upon the mainstream body of Islam.