Sharia is generally interpreted to offer death by stoning (capital lapidation) as a punishment in some cases of fornication (zina). Zina is sexual intercourse outside of a valid marriage or lawful ownership. Other, related activities may be punishable in other ways, but they are not classified as Zina. In order for someone to be guilty of zina, they must either confess the crime or be accused in a very specific way. Accusation requires that four reputable men describe the fornication in literal terms as direct witnesses. The witnesses must have witnessed the act from different angles or different areas of a room. If the witnesses fail to meet the requirements for accusation, the accused fornicator is not guilty and the witnesses become guilty of a separate crime. Therefore, accusations of zina are not made lightly.
If someone becomes guilty of zina, they are liable for punishment dependent on whether they are free and whether they are or have been married. Virgins (those who have never been married) are liable for lashes. Free virgins receive 100 lashes while slaves receive 50. Non-virgins (anyone who is or has been married) are liable for stoning. There are some jurists who claim that exile is a viable punishment in some cases. Other schools argue about details such as whether or not stoning should occur in a pit, etc.Zina is considered part of the hudud crimes of Sharia. These five crimes (apostasy, theft, fornication, intoxication, and highway robbery) are breaches of God’s “limits” and they are considered to be extremely reprehensible crimes. Non-virgins guilty of zina are liable for stoning because the Quran (one of the primary sources from which Islamic Law is derived) is explicit in saying so. Jurists have interpreted the pertinent passages in different ways, but the orthodox view is that non-virgins must be stoned to death.
Stoning as a punishment has gained contemporary notoriety in cases in which women are perceived as victims of a draconian legal code. In theory, men face the same punishment as women and are held to the same standards. However, due to sociopolitical norms and the patriarchal nature of most Muslim societies, women seem more likely to face punishment for zina. The world has turned its attention towards stoning only recently, though it has existed as a viable punishment for hundreds of years. Moreover, Sharia is not unique in its use of stoning.
Fornication and its punishments are a hot topic in Muslim communities because these communities are historically built around paternal lineage, honor systems, and post-tribal chaos. Because of the sensitivity of the topic, and the rich and varied history of Sharia, the above question is both pertinent and inadequate. To truly tackle the topic at hand requires an understanding of Sharia as a very old, ever-changing, living legal system rather than a stagnant, detailed, code of law.
Sharia has governed and continues to govern a multitude of communities and its interpretations vary accordingly. The complications of Sharia are magnified when studied in contemporary societies. I have supplied the most common answers to the question and would urge anyone unsatisfied with what I have provided to seek academic and primary sources for further answers.