National Security & Defense

Flogging Through the Centuries

Detail of 1844 woodcut of a British military flogging. (Hulton Archive/Getty)
Saudi Arabia’s method of punishment is certainly barbaric, but far from rare historically.

One does not acquire the monicker “The Hanging Judge” by chance. In the late 17th century, George Jeffreys, of Welsh provenance, earned his pendulous reputation — and it extended beyond the gallows. Having sentenced a young woman to lashing at the rear of a cart, he advised the executor of the punishment, “Hangman, I charge you to pay particular attention to this lady! Scourge her soundly, man. Scourge her till her blood runs down! It is Christmas, a cold time for madam to strip in! See that you warm her shoulders thoroughly.”

Public floggings have gone out of fashion in the West, but the subject has garnered renewed interest in recent days with the sentencing of Raif Badawi, a Saudi Arabian activist who was given ten years in prison, a 1 million riyal ($267,000) fine, and 1,000 lashes for founding a blog called Free Saudi Liberals, which criticized Saudi Arabian clerics — or, in Saudi Arabian legal parlance, “insulted Islam.” He was originally sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes, but succeeded in securing a retrial — to his detriment. His wife and three children have fled the country.

The case has prompted an international outcry, with particular attention devoted to the lashes, the first 50 of which were administered last Friday. Cell-phone footage purportedly shows Badawi suffering the first round of his sentence. In front of the al-Jafali mosque in the city of Jeddah he stands, in pants and shirt, as a Saudi official strikes his back, buttocks, and legs with a long switch, quickly and repeatedly. According to eyewitness accounts, Badawi remained silent.

Those inclined to watch the video might find the event rather tame. Indeed, it is certainly so when considered historically.

Flogging has a long and varied history. Laying forth the procedures for the judgment of disputes, the sons of Abraham are told: “It shall be, if the wicked man be worthy to be beaten, that the judge shall cause him to lie down, and to be beaten before his face, according to his fault, by a certain number. Forty stripes he may give him, and not exceed.” “Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one,” Paul recounts to the Corinthians.

The Romans meted out whippings with particular zeal, inventing new tools to increase the misery: on the mild end, a flat leather strap; on the mortal end, long whips with, at their ends, balls of metal with protruding metal fragments or pieces of bone. It was not uncommon for the scourging that preceded a crucifixion to prove fatal.

Fifteen centuries later, Tartars introduced into Russia their own variation, the knout, which frequently featured metal wire or hooks at the end. “The knout! There is not in the language of any civilised people, a word which conveys the idea of more cruelties and more atrocious and superhuman suffering,” wrote Germaine de Lagny in 1854:

The knout! On hearing this single word, a Russian is seized with an icy shudder, he feels the cold invade his heart, and the blood coagulate in his veins; the word produces fever; it confuses the senses, and fills the mind with terror: this single word stupefies an entire nation of 60,000,000 souls. Reader, do you know what the knout is? You will answer, perhaps, that it is death. No, it is not death; it is something a thousand times worse.

Of course, as the Reverend William M. Cooper observes in his amusing if grim 1877 History of the Rod, which surveys the practice of flogging in times ancient and modern, flogging was not just a practice of the formal judiciary. Stripes were to be expected by servants (especially slaves) at home and students at school. The fathers of St. Lazare’s school for boys in Paris “not only inflicted flagellations on their pupils, but on any strangers that might be recommended to them for that purpose. A note, such as ‘M. So-and-so presents compliments to Father —, and begs him to reward the bearer with twenty stripes well laid on,’ if accompanied with the proper fee, was sure to be promptly honored.” A “very extensive whipping business” was the result.

Flagellation was also embraced by many of the religious. There were Christians, of course, both orthodox – such as King Louis IX of France, later St. Louis — and heretical — the Flagellant sect, later condemned by the Catholic Church. But a millennium prior to self-mortifying monks, Cooper notes, the ancient Spartans had held a “‘Day of Flagellations,’ the chief ceremony being the whipping of boys before the altar of Diana. . . . These flagellations were often so severe that the blood gushed profusely from the wound, and many expired under the lash without uttering a groan, or betraying any marks of fear. Such a death was reckoned very honourable.” Dr. Livingstone, the great explorer, reported something similar among tribes in southern Africa.

In light of this anthropology, Saudi Arabia’s practice begins to look less outré. It is hardly even anachronistic: Delaware did not outlaw flogging until 1972 (though the last instance took place 20 years earlier).

No, the problem — in Saudi Arabia, and in many of the other thirty-plus countries that permit judicial corporal punishment — is the unconscionable “justice system” that metes out lashings — and many other punishments far more upsetting (Saudi Arabia has, as punishment, chopped off hands, gouged out eyes, and executed by beheading, public stoning, and crucifixion).

Badawi’s case is a perfect example of the “justice” at work in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, and similar countries. Under sharia law as it governs criminal cases, a single judge can determine guilt and a “proper” punishment based on his own personal interpretation of the Koran — a sure program for combining unchecked plenipotentiary power with religious zealotry. For Badawi, that meant not just a trial for his political speech (freedom of which is, as recent events in Paris have reminded many, an indispensable principle of Western liberalism), but a conviction — or, more accurately, two convictions, and an inexplicably increased punishment on the second occasion.

And to further prove that its system is a slough of intolerance and caprice, Badawi’s attorney (and brother-in-law) Waleed Abu al-Khair was sentenced to ten years in prison in July — for “inciting public opinion,” “insulting the judiciary,” and “undermining the regime and officials.” On Tuesday of this week, five years were added to his sentence for his failure to express remorse.

But in Saudi Arabia and similar societies, the law and the people are in accord: “He was speaking about Allah and his messenger [Mohammed],” says a spectator, explaining Badawi’s offence to a companion, according to a translation of the lashing video. “[It should have been] decapitation,” says the friend. “Yes,” the other agrees, “it should.”

Badawi will endure his lashings. Far more dangerous is the religious totalitarianism that administers them, and much worse.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.


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