Is adultery/fornication a sin in Christianity and Judaism?

The Details of the Question

- Is adultery/fornication a sin in Christianity and Judaism?
- It is shown as if it is not a sin in the films that we watch.
- Is adultery/fornication regarded a sin in all religions?

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

Fornication is sexual intercourse out of wedlock.

The lexical meaning of fornication as “illegitimate sexual relationship” is not essentially different from its meaning in religious terminology.

However, definitions of fornication that are rather different from one another are seen due to the usage of this concept in literal or figurative meaning, holistic or technical outlook from the viewpoint of only penal law, efforts of including the elements of the crime in the definitions, including the deeds that lead to fornication in the scope of fornication or the usage of rather inexplicit expressions acting upon the fact that it is a concept known by everybody.  

Fornication, which is regarded as a major sin and crime by the other heavenly religions and by the shared culture of humanity, is also rendered haram and regarded as a major sin by Islam; Islam also imposed some worldly-penal sanctions for those who commit this crime.

The word fornication is mentioned in five places in the Quran:

- In one of them (al-Isra, 17/32), it is stated that one should not approach fornication and that it is a shameful deed and an evil, opening the road to other evils.

- In two of them (al-Furqan, 25/68; al-Mumtahina, 60/12), fornication is mentioned among major sins like polytheism and murder.

In the other two verses (an-Nur, 24/2-3), the woman and the man guilty of fornication are ordered to be flogged with a hundred stripes and it is emphasized that a person who commits fornication can marry only a person who commits fornication or a polytheist.

The word fahsha (plural fawahish) meaning “open obscenity” mentioned in the Quran is defined as the deeds that can be committed only by the people that follow Satan and that are condemned and forbidden clearly; it is used in the sense of fornication in several verses (an-Nisa, 4/15, 25; al-An‘am, 6/151; al-Ahzab, 33/30) or in a way that expresses fornication primarily. (al-Baqara, 2/169; an-Nahl, 16/90; an-Nur, 24/21; an-Naml, 27/54)

The decrees about qazf (accusation of fornication) and preserving good manners, modesty, honor and chastity in the Quran express from different viewpoints that fornication is among major sins.

There are a lot of hadith narrations stating that fornication is a major sin and a big crime and showing the practices of the Prophet (pbuh) regarding the issue.

Fornication in other religions

In all religions, from the most primitive one to the most advanced one, the definition of the concept fornication consists of similar elements. All of the intercourses carried out secretly apart from the ones approved by the community or accepted officially and attempts like rape have always been regarded as a crime and sin.

Although it is not seen very much in primitive communities, all kinds of illegitimate intercourses that caused the taboos to be violated were punished. This punishment took place in the form of both the legal norms of the community and religious beliefs.

Those who committed the crime of fornication were killed legally, excommunicated or some temporary signs were made on their bodies. For instance:

In the Wydot tribe of the North American Indians, the hair of the woman who committed fornication was cut very short or her left ear was torn off.

In the Bushmen of Africa, visible places of the bodies of the men and women who committed fornication were cauterized.

The result of the religious sanctions was to be damned by supernatural powers. It is regarded that this damnation caused diseases in the fornicators, impoverish them or killed them.  

The first data reached about fornication are seen in the cuneiform scripts of Mesopotamia. There are various decrees about fornication in the legal code of Ur Nammu and Eshnunna belonging to Sumerians and Hammurabi belonging to Babylonians.

If both parties condemned for the crime of fornication were married, they would be killed. They would be drowned in water, impaled or thrown from a high place.  

If the man claimed and proved that he did not know that the woman was married, he could get away with a slight punishment. Rape was also regarded as fornication.

The intercourse of the people who were not married was punished slightly.

Along with worldly penalties, they would inevitably be damned by gods.

In Roman law, the penalties for the crime of fornication underwent various phases from the early times to late times.

The deed of fornication mentioned as “adulterium” in Roman legal texts was punished by deprivation of certain rights.

When Konstantin accepted Christianity, the penalty for fornication was determined as death.

According to Zoroastrian texts, fornication is the biggest sin that hurt Ahura Mazda (Vendidad, 18:61-62) and it causes the generation to be spoiled. (Dadistani Dinik, 77)

Man should keep away from committing fornication with another person’s spouse, seducing him/her and causing his/her spouse to leave the bed. (Sad Dar, 305, 324)

In Zoroastrianism, fornication is regarded as a disgusting and mean crime and it is stated that this was committed for the first time by Zahak, the symbol of despotism in Persian mythology; the bad results originating from fornication are listed and people are asked to avoid them. (Dadistani Dinik, 71, 77)

According to the religious texts of this religion, a woman who commits fornication will be hanged from her chest in Hell and the man will be eaten by snakes. (Arda Viraf, 171, 188, 191, 194-195, 197)

Buddhism generally views sexuality negatively and it encourages singleness because sexuality prevents one from getting rid of “samsara” circle.

In Buddhism, the third one of the Five Commandments, which are basic ethical norms, is related to sexual ethics and it includes the issues like prostitution, incest relationship, rape and masturbation along with fornication. If man does not obey this commandment, he falls down spiritually. 

In Buddhism, fornication is limited to adultery, that is, intercourse with a married woman; an intercourse with a single girl is not regarded as crime of fornication. (Anguttara Nikaya, I, 189; Sutta Nipata, 396)

No penalty for women is mentioned in fornication in the religious decrees of this religion; there are penalties for men and they can be executed in various ways. Fornication is regarded as a sin toward both the state and the honor of the family; therefore, the criminal was given penalties from imprisonment to death.

In Hinduism, the absolute loyalty of a woman to her husband is emphasized; fornication is dealt with in this context.   

In this religion, fornication (samgrahana) is limited to sexual relationship with a married woman; to give a give a gift to a married woman, to touch her dress or embellishments and to sit on her bed are also regarded as fornication. (The Laws of Manu, 8:357-358)

Since fornication can harm Hindu family structure and spoil the cast system (Bhagavad Gita, 1:41-43; The Laws of Manu, 8:353), it is dealt with in a detailed way in the resources of this religion.

Accordingly, the days of a person who commits fornication will shorten, he will go to Hell after death and a person who is thinking of having a sexual intercourse with the wife of somebody else will be born as a reptile in the future. (Vishnu Purana, 3:11)

In Hinduism, the cast to which the parties belong has an important place in the determination of the crime

Various sanctions and penalties were applied for this crime like paying a fine, beating with an iron rod, cutting two fingers off and placing on a donkey to ride, imprisonment, confiscation, cutting of the genital organ, burning, shaving his hair and being savaged by animals (The Laws of Manu, 8:364-385).

In the former Turks, fornication was a rather severe crime. The parties that were proved to have committed fornication were tied to two animals (generally cows, buffalos and horses); when the animals were drawn to different directions, the body of the fornicator would be torn apart.

In Kutluk Turks, the fornicators were burnt.

In Judaism, fornication, which is given Hebrew names like “niuf, zenut”, is one of the biggest crimes.

In the early periods, the concept fornication were generally related to the concept of the woman belonging to the man. Since the woman was the private property of the husband, fornication meant trespassing one’s property. (Exodus, 20/13; Deuteronomy, 5/17)

Along with this legal understanding, a fornicator was regarded as impure in terms of religion. (Leviticus, 18/20)

After the exodus, fornication, which assumed a more theological meaning, was regarded as a crime against God (Genesis, 20/6; 39/8-9) and as paganism. (Joshua, 1-3; Jeremiah, 3)

That fornication is forbidden in the Ten Commandments (Exodus, 20/13; Deuteronomy, 5/18) is probably the product of the same period.

The Jews who committed fornication were stoned to death. (Deuteronomy, 22/24)

There are also references that they were burnt (Deuteronomy, 38/24) and left on the street naked. (Joshua, 2/5)

It is stated in the Torah that if somebody committed fornication with an engaged girl, he would be stoned (Deuteronomy, 22/13, 20-21, 23-25) and if he committed fornication with a married woman, he would be killed. (Leviticus, 20/10; Deuteronomy, 22/22)

Rabbinic tradition demands that a married woman who committed fornication and who was an oracle’s daughter, she be punished by being burned. (Leviticus, 21/9; Sanhedrin, XV/13; the Code of Maimonides, “Holiness: Forbidden Intercourse”, 1/6)

In Christianity, fornication was taken from the shari’ah of Judaism and continued in terms of concept and decree (Mark, 10/19; Luke, 18/20; Acts, 15/19-20), but the scope of this concept was expanded by Hz. Isa (Jesus):
- man’s looking at a woman lustfully is regarded as fornication in his heart (Matthew, 5/27-28).
- Marrying after divorce is regarded as fornication for both parties (Matthew, 19/9; Mark, 10/11-12; Luke, 16/18).
- Fornication and similar sexual crimes are reviled as a whole (Matthew, 15/19; Mark, 7/21; Galatians, 5/21).

When the advice “Avoid the lusts of the body in the struggle against the soul” (I Peter’s Letter 2/11) is taken into consideration, it can be said that the concept fornication is used in the sense of “all mental or physical lustful phenomena and immoral things”.

There is no penalty determined for fornication in the Gospel but it is stated
- that those who commit fornication will be judged (Hebrews, 13/4),
- and that people like that will not inherit the kingdom of God (I Corinthians, 6/9-10).

According to what is understood from sacred texts, Hz. Isa did not apply the penalty of stoning on a woman who was caught fornicating (John, 8/3-11) but he emphasized that fornication was the only reason for divorce. (Matthew, 19/9; Mark, 10/11-12; Luke, 16/18)

Besides, Paul advises to excommunicate those who commit fornication. (I Corinthians, 5/1-2, 9-13)

In the following periods, the churches made some legal arrangements regarding the issue like atonement, temporary or permanent excommunication with varying time periods. (see TDV İslam Ansiklopedisi, Zina item)

To sum up, fornication is a major sin in all heavenly religions and in the shared culture of humanity; it is also a crime that is punished in the world. 

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