Are Zina and Fornication Different Things?

Within the Islamic tradition, the sin of zina is classified as both “adultery” and “fornication.” Now make no mistake, in this blog entry I’m not trying to make some argument that fornication is acceptable. I’m simply asking the question, does zina always include fornication, or is zina specifically adultery? 

Here are some verses that might highlight this point. 

#1) The punishment for women who commit fahisha (general sexual indecency) and zina in the Quran are different. 

Here is the punishment for women who commit fahisha: 

If any of your women are guilty of fahisha, take the evidence of four (Reliable) witnesses from amongst you against them; and if they testify, confine them to houses until death do claim them, or Allah ordain for them some (other) way. (4:15)

Here is the punishment for women who commit zina: 

The woman and the man guilty of zina,- flog each of them with a hundred stripes: Let not compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by Allah, if ye believe in Allah and the Last Day: and let a party of the Believers witness their punishment. (24:2)

The punishment of a man for both things is lashing, but for a woman the punishments are different. If all lewd sexual conduct was zina, then why are the punishments for fahisha and zina different?

There are also a lot more instances of fahisha used in the Quran, to refer to various types of sexual lewdness. And much less use of the word zina.  If they both meant the same thing, wouldn’t they be used with similar frequency? 

#2) The 11th-century Islamic scholar, Al-Thaʿlabi wrote that verses 17:22-39 of the Quran refer to the ten commandments. Zina is mentioned in these verses. And the ten commandments forbids adultery specifically. 

And do not approach zina. Indeed it is ever an immorality and is evil as a way. (17:32)

#3) Bishop Sebeos, Bishop of the Bagratunis stated the following about Mohammad in 660 AD:  “Muhammad legislated that they were not to eat carrion, not to drink wine, not to speak falsehoods, and not to commit adultery.”

This is not exact proof that zina is specifically adultery. But it certainly raises questions. Zina is spoken of in the Quran much more harshly than fahisha and even punished more severely. Therefore, I’m inclined not to think that all fahisha is zina. But rather zina is a type of fahisha (most likely adultery given the contextual and historical evidence). 

How did zina come to be associated with fornication? I believe that over time, as people tried to justify the punishment of hadith for adultery (stoning) they skewed the meaning of adultery in the Quran. Because the punishment for adultery or zina in the Quran is clearly described in Surah An Nur (Chapter 24), and it isn’t stoning to death. However, if scholars could make some claim that the punishment of Surah An Nur was fornication, then they could keep the stoning for adultery and do lashings for fornication. 

Also, the word zina may have changed over time due to Persian influence. Just as English words change. For instance, if I called you a “villain” today, it would mean something different than if I called you a “villain” in Shakespearean England. 

Different Meanings of Zina in Arabic and Persian

Here’s something interesting from Dr Kashif Khan

Quranic word “زنا” (zina) is an active participle of Arabic verb “زَنَ” (zna) which is derived out of proto root “زن” (za nun) and correctly means: suppressing, pressing with weight, pressurising or retaining someone by force or restricting someone, droning, buzzing, rushing over, disturbance, uproar, purgatory, making hell and gehenna etc.

Hence, Arabic word “زن” (zan) means “weight”, which is seen in the word “وزن” (wazan) and popular Arabic idiom “زن زائد” (zan zaid) is taken to mean “overweight” in everyday Arabic language.

Whereas, similar Persian word “زن” (zan) means “woman” in Persian language, from where “زنا” (zina) becomes “womanize” or “womanizing” to mean “engaging in sexual affairs” and under the Persian influenced Islamic Caliphates the Persian Imams replaced Arabic word “زنا” (zina) with Persian word “زنا” (zina) in the understanding and translation of Arabic Quran. Since then Quranic word “زنا” (zina) is falsely taken to mean: fornication, adultery, extramarital sexual relation or sexual intercourse outside marriage etc.