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Written Word > Articles & Commentaries > July 2009 > “The Stoning of Soraya M.” and the Figure of Christ
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“The Stoning of Soraya M.” and the Figure of Christ
By Rev. Robert Barron

I first became acquainted with the barbarism of certain aspects of Shari’a law through an article published a few years ago in the New Yorker magazine.  The author detailed how, in many middle eastern countries, Muslim men use the prescriptions in the traditional Islamic legal code to terrorize, brutalize, and in extreme cases, kill women who, they claim, have committed sexual offenses.  He specified that some of the victims are put to death by their own brothers and fathers! I remember being appalled by this article, but I confess that its impact was short-lived.  It came roaring back to me the other night when I saw the devastatingly powerful film “The Stoning of Soraya M.”  The movie is based on the true story of a young woman who lived in a small Iranian village during the years just following the Khomeini revolution of 1979.  Soraya was caught in a dreadful situation:  her husband, who beat her regularly and cheated on her, wanted to put her away and marry another woman.  When Soraya refused to grant him the divorce, her husband conspired with the mullah of the village, the mayor, and several other men to accuse her of adultery, though she was utterly innocent of the charge.  When the accusation became public, Soraya raised her voice in protest, but her complaint carried no legal weight, and the council of the village, composed exclusively of men, condemned her, in accordance with Shari’a law, to death by stoning.  The depiction of Soraya’s execution is overwhelming.  She is buried to her waist and her hands tied behind her back.  The first stones are thrown by her own father and by her two pre-adolescent sons.  Next, her husband attacks her and then all of the men of the town rain stones upon her, as they chant Allahu akhbar (God is great).

Now I realize how dangerous and delicate it is to raise a matter such as this.  It is extremely easy to fall into the trap of tsk-tsking and tut-tutting at the objectionable practices of another religion without admitting to the outrages of one’s own.  I fully admit that our own religious traditions are anything but blameless.  The most casual glance at the book of Leviticus discloses that ancient Israel certainly accepted a legal code that sanctioned lethal violence—burning and stoning—for various offenses.  And I humbly confess that Christians, over the centuries, have done terrible things in the name of Christ:  the burning of witches, the torturing of heretics, the slaughter of non-Christians, etc.  Nevertheless, the events described in “The Stoning of Soraya M.” are not from ancient history; they took place a few decades ago.  And the imposition of Shari’a law is a lively issue in a number of countries today.  So what do we do with a movie such as this?
I am convinced that, though Christians rarely have lived up to it, there is an ideal at the heart of the Gospel that represents a permanent challenge to the travesty of justice on display in the story of Soraya.  As the film came to its bloody climax, I found myself haunted by the story told in the eighth chapter of John’s Gospel of the woman caught in adultery.  Many of the dynamics of the Soraya narrative are evident in this account:  a woman accused of a sexual offense, the formation of an angry mob, the sanctioning of violence through religious authority, the thrill that comes through scapegoating.  But then there is the decisive difference.  When the religious leaders of the mob—thirsty for blood and confirmed in their self-righteousness—inquire of Jesus what he would recommend, the young rabbi bends down and writes on the ground.  Then he stands up and says, “let the one among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her” (Jn. 8: 7).  This devastating one-liner causes the elders to drop their stones and prompts the crowd to dissipate like a summer cloud.  Jesus doesn’t sanction scapegoating violence; he interrupts it.  He demonstrates that God stands, not on the side of victimizers, but of victims.  And this divine solidarity with victims comes to its richest expression when Jesus becomes himself an innocent victim of a religiously sanctioned scapegoating mob. 

The French philosopher Rene Girard has argued that all dysfunctional human societies—from coffee klatches to nation states—are predicated upon the scapegoating mechanism, that is to say, the tendency to find someone or some group to blame.  In its shared hatred, the group finds a satisfying, though ultimately unstable, unity.  One of my colleagues at Mundelein Seminary has summed up the Girardian insight as follows:  “wherever two or three are gathered, look for victims.”  Girard identified the first revelation (unveiling, re-velatio) of Christianity as precisely this uncovering and de-legitimizing of the scapegoating mechanism, and the second as the manifestation of the God who is friend to the victim.
What particularly gripped me as the movie came to its conclusion was this:  Saraya, devout Muslim and innocent victim of mob violence, lying dead in a pool of her own blood, is one of the most powerful Christ figures in recent cinema.

Visit the Official Website of "The Stoning of Soraya M."
Posted: 7/2/2009 9:15:11 AM by Word On Fire Admin | with 7 comments
Filed under: Shari’aLaw, TheStoningofSorayaM.

Michael Jaffray King
I haven't seen this movie but I am struck by 2 points. The fact that this woman is a figure of Our Saviour and very Christ like and that this stands out so clearly in this horrific movie and then another point which came to me recently on reflecting about the Muslim phenomena. The Western world has largely turned its back on real Christianity and embraced atheistic secularism. OK so when we turn our backs on such a wonderful way of salvation as offered through faith in Jesus Christ with a New covenant, God will allow Old Covenant religion to come back in all its ferocity and justice and injustice but in the form of Sharia Law. This is an inevitable consequence of turning our backs on such a wonderful and merciful way of salvation. If I am a drowning man, and you jump in to save me and all I do is continue to beat on you with my fists and shout at you to go away, then I must be left to drown.
7/3/2009 1:44:42 PM
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Hi Fr Bob,
I did see this movie and I was also very moved by Shari'a Law and how her own father threw the 1st stone. As a mother of four children with three sons the scene with her one son before she was sent to be stoned broke my heart!!!!I do agree she was a Christ figure and the movie was so graffic I had turn my head. I had a dream that night about that woman. I woke up and was praying for her. I'm sure she went straight to heaven. The scenery in the movie reminded me of my trip to Israel when I visited Masada where the dead sea scrolls are kept. I still can't believe that this happened in the 1980s!!
7/3/2009 9:20:14 PM
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Brenda Worrell
OH come on! Her husband beat her regularly and cheated on her and she refused to divorce him? WHY? In Shariah law, if the woman is divorced there is no shame and her husband must support her until she remarries. If he remarried, maybe he would turn his aggressions on the new wife and leave her alone. ALready I don't believe this story and i am living in the Middle East.
7/5/2009 12:03:17 AM
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Patricia Fulton
It is my understanding that under Shariah law, if a man divorces his wife, he must indeed continue to support her. What was demanded in this case was that she initiate the divorce, which would free him from supporting her, and leave her with no resources.
7/5/2009 3:01:47 PM
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Bobbi Hiltibidal
Since you are living in the Middle East, you may not have access to the book or the film. The husband in this case could not support two wives and their children. People in every culture sometimes turn to murder because divorce (and in this case polygamy) is a costly proposition. In this case, the murder was legally sanctioned, socially approved, and carried out by those with power in the community.
7/20/2009 11:16:53 AM
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I have not seen this movie, however, i have read what this movie is based on, well i would of been happy to give him a divorce, and celebrated with a big cup of wine, and would have rather lived on the streets instead of putting up with his bullsh*t. There is a place in hell for the ones who participated in this stoning, and her sons omg shame on them, this will haunt them for the rest of their lives. There is no way i could participate in such an act against my mother i would rather die first. I believe that evil lurks in this world. When the men chanted"Allahu akhbar" meaning god is great well my god do not have no part in the injustice against women. I believe this is a true story, because evil do exist in this world.
7/2/2010 5:27:06 PM
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if the wife hasnt married anybody then the husband has to support her wether they are divorced or not but as soon as the wife maries another man after the divorce all rights relinquised . & i have seen this movie its very heart touching n things like this do happen but the scene with her dumping near the river was very emotinal
8/2/2010 7:11:56 AM
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