Western critics of Islam decry the seemingly "medieval" punishments imposed by Islamic law like stoning for adultery and hand-cutting for robbery. But while these punishments are indeed mentioned in the Quran and other Islamic holy texts, they are not the essence of Sharia, or Islamic law.
First, it's important to know that the word Sharia does not actually mean Islamic law [source: ING]. Sharia is translated from the Arabic as "the clear-well-trodden path to water," and includes all teachings from the Quran and the life of the Prophet Muhammad that help guide Muslims down the straight path toward Allah. The legal interpretations of these teachings is called fiqh and largely follow the prophet's admonition to prize mercy over punishment [source: Brown].
Many Sharia teachings are designed to make life easier for the individual, the family and broader society. Those include prohibitions against adultery and premarital sex to strengthen the family, and admonitions against drinking alcohol or eating foods believed to be unclean to preserve health. Sharia teachings also include the ethical way to conduct business transactions to prevent fraud and promote justice.
The punishments for ignoring or flouting these teachings, some of which are laid out explicitly in the Quran and Sunnah, are meant to deter hurtful behavior that leads individuals and society away from God. Most punishments are mild and mainly focus on the right and wrong way to worship. But a small minority — 2 percent of Islamic law on the books — get all the attention [source: Brown].
According to the Sunnah, the prophet said that drunkenness should be punished by 40 lashings. Having sex before marriage, according the Quran, merits 100 lashings. Thieves are to have their hands cut off, and adultery is punishable by death by stoning.
It sounds cruel and unusual, but historians point out that stoning, flogging and other physical punishments were commonplace before the Western idea of prison took hold. Also, Islamic scholars and judges built layers and layers of "ambiguities" into the law to reserve such harsh punishments for only the most extreme cases [source: Brown].
For example, for someone to be stoned for adultery, Sharia courts require four witnesses to the actual sexual act. If someone makes a false accusation of adultery, they could receive 80 lashings — a major deterrent to making such a claim [source: Brown].
Stonings and floggings still occur in some fundamentalist corners of Islam (for instance Aceh province in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Sudan), but these practices are not embraced by mainstream Islam. However, Sharia does form the basis of law for many Muslim-majority countries.