How many lashes can someone endure before dying?

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Nov. 14 2008 3:42 PM

How Many Lashes Can One Man Take?

Thousands, if they're performed correctly.

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How many lashes does it take to kill someone?

There were protests in Egypt this week after an Egyptian doctor was sentenced to 15 years in prison and 1,500 lashes by the Saudi Arabian government for prescribing medicine to a princess that "drove her to addiction." The wife of the convicted doctor worried publicly that the sentence would kill him. How many lashes can one man stand?

It depends on how you're lashed. It's very unlikely that the doctor will die from his sentence if it is administered in the usual Saudi Arabian way—i.e., broken up into weekly bouts of 50 lashings each. (Women are given 20 to 30 at a time.) But a string of regular punishments administered over a span of seven months could still be dangerous. After just one round of lashings, he could suffer lacerated or bruised skin. More serious problems are likely to arise after repeated, weekly abuse—including nerve damage and infection.

Saudi Arabia does have some safeguards to protect the health of the person being lashed. For example, doctors inspect the medical condition of a prisoner ahead of time to determine whether he or she is fit to be lashed. (There tends not to be a post-lashing inspection.) And according to Islamic law, a flogger is supposed to hold a copy of the Quran under his arm to curb his range of motion and ensure that the strokes are not too powerful. Usually, the lashes are applied to the back, but they can also land on the legs and buttocks, according to firsthand reports. (The more varied the blows, the less likely they are to cause serious damage; hitting the same spot over and over increases the likelihood of breaking skin and causing infection.)

More forceful whippings, like those often administered to slaves in pre-Civil War America, are much more dangerous. Lashes with a leather instrument or paddle and a full range of motion have the potential to cause permanent damage to the internal organs and muscles, severe blood loss, shock, and maybe death. If the doctor received his 1,500 weaker strokes all at once, rather than over a seven-month stretch, the outer layer of his skin would be shredded, and he'd be at even greater risk for serious infection.

Few cases of death by lashing in the Muslim world have been reported. (People are lashed in non-Muslim countries as well—for instance, the Bahamas reinstituted flogging in 1991.) In 2004, a 14-year-old Iranian boy was killed while serving a sentence of 85 lashes; the person in charge of the punishment misfired, striking his head rather than his back, causing a brain hemorrhage. (A metal cable was used for the lashing in that case.) And in 1998, a Sudanese man was flogged to death by public-order police, but it's unclear how many lashes were administered and with what force.

Saudi Arabia metes out by far the strictest lashing sentences in the Muslim world. Both Sudan and Iran employ the practice but usually stick to the more moderate 40 to 80 strokes prescribed in the Quran. The most severe lashing assigned by a modern Saudi Arabian judge took place in 2007, when two men received 7,000 strokes each as punishment for sodomy.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Ali Al'Ahmed of the Gulf Institute, Dr. Vincent Iacopino of Physicians for Human Rights, and Christoph Wilcke of Human Rights Watch.

Noreen Malone is a senior editor at New York magazine.