msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 7/8/2010 11:04:35 AM ET 2010-07-08T15:04:35

The imminent execution of an Iranian woman by stoning has turned a spotlight on an ancient — and controversial — method of capital punishment that is still used in some parts of the world today.

In the Muslim world, stoning is a relatively rare means of punishing those who commit adultery (zina al-mohsena) under Islamic Law. It is considered a form of community justice and has its fair share of critics both among human rights groups and Islamic clerics.

Those sentenced to stoning, or “lapidation” as it is also called, are buried in a hole and covered with soil (men up to their waists; women to a line above their breasts), according to Article 102 of the Islamic Penal Code. A selected group then executes the alleged adulterers using rocks and sticks. Those able to escape the hole during stoning can be freed, according to Islamic law, a feat that is much more difficult for women than for men because so much more of their body is covered during lapidation.

The law specifies the size of the stones in Sharia Law in Iran to ensure the execution does not take too long or occur too quickly. When Iranian officials have faced substantial public outcry over a stoning sentence, as was the case in the case of Makarrameh Ebrahimi in 2007, they have freed accused adulterers, according to the Human Rights Watch.

In order to be convicted of adultery, judges can rely upon eyewitness accounts and evidence, or, under Article 105 of the Islamic Penal Code, their “judicial knowledge." Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, 43, whose execution by stoning is expected any day now, was convicted on judicial knowledge.

The use of stoning as a method of execution finds its roots in ancient Greece and in Judeo-Christian religious texts, and has been used to punish those accused of adultery, prostitution, murder, and blasphemy. It is referenced in the Torah and Old Testament, but has no explicit mention in the Quran.

It still exists on the law books in Afghanistan, Iran, sections of Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates.

In addition to myriad human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, a number of Islamic authorities have denounced stoning, including Ayatollah Shahroudi, the head of Iran’s judiciary, who in 2002 said stoning should no longer exist in Iranian law.

Despite Shahroudi’s stance, stoning continues to remain on the law books in Iran and lower judges are free to sentence adulterers to that method of punishment.

Msnbc.com's Ryan McCartney contributed to this report.

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