The Qoran and Abolition of the Death Penalty
IV. The Koran and the Right to Life
The Koran values nothing more than it does the right to life. The Koran considers the unjust killing of one human being equivalent to the killing of all human beings, and considers giving life to a human being equivalent to giving life to all human beings; this is a unique and exceptional perspective on the value of human life.
“Because of that, We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption [done] in the land - it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one - it is as if he had saved mankind entirely. And our messengers had certainly come to them with clear proofs. Then indeed many of them, [even] after that, throughout the land, were transgressors.” (Maidah, Verse 32).
The following is what can be ascertained from the above verse:
1. No one has the right to take another’s life except in two cases (Qesas (“retribution”) and Efsad fel-Arz (“Spreading corruption on Earth”)).
2. The killing of one human being is the equivalent of killing all mankind and saving one human life is the equivalent of saving all of humanity.
3. This is God’s teaching to all His Messengers.
4. In spite of God’s decree, human society will exceed its limits (Esraf (“squander”)) in depriving human beings of their lives and carrying out the death penalty.
V. The Possibility of Taking a Life in Two Cases
The Koran has allowed the possibility – not the necessity – of taking another’s life in only two cases (Qesas (“retribution”) and Efsad fel-Arz (“Spreading corruption on Earth”)). Therefore, punishments such as [the death penalty for] apostasy and stoning which are not rooted in the Koran but are unfortunately used in Islamic societies by the custodians of religion – who are either rulers themselves or have influence over the rulers – emanate from their egotism and selfishness. This is the fulfillment of the Koran’s prophecy in the last sentence of the above verse (“Then indeed many of them, [even] after that, throughout the land, were transgressors.”)
VI. Advising to Not Take a Life through Qesas and Leaving Open the Possibility of a Reduced Punishment for Efsad fel-Arz
If God has allowed the taking of a human life in two cases (Qesas and Efsad fel-Arz), it is because of human nature, not what is desired by God.
One must be mindful of the circumstances in which the Koran was descended [from God] and of what was customary at the time in terms of social behavior. In an environment where an entire tribe would attack the murderer’s tribe to avenge the blood of a [single] murder victim, and would not rest until they had killed to their heart’s content, God had no choice but to limit this ugly and unacceptable behavior and prescribe a life for a life (and only the murderer’s life), an ear for an ear, an eye for an eye, and a nose for a nose. Therefore, God considers Qesas to “create” life in that society, and it was effectively so, because, at least the taking of one life in return for one life, prevented taking additional lives; that is why Qesas is named as a factor “creating” life. But what He does also state is that it is better for the “next of kin” to forego Qesas, that is, [He] wants you to know that God is approving when you forgive, not when you take revenge.
In other words, God, who has created man and knows what is best for him, does not approve of Qesas, but He knows human nature and it is He, Himself who has instilled the instinct of anger in man and has asked him to control that instinct. [Indeed], He says that the path to being a true human being and reaching perfection is controlling one’s physical and instinctual passions and desires.
“O you who have believed, prescribed for you is legal retribution for those murdered - the free for the free, the slave for the slave, and the female for the female. But whoever overlooks from his brother anything, then there should be a suitable follow-up and payment to him with good conduct. This is an alleviation from your Lord and a mercy. But whoever transgresses after that will have a painful punishment. (Baqara, Verse 178). And there is for you in legal retribution [saving of] life, O you [people] of understanding, that you may become righteous.” (Baqara, Verse 179).
“And We ordained for them therein a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and for wounds is legal retribution. But whoever gives [up his right as] charity, it is an expiation for him. And whoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed - then it is those who are the wrongdoers.” (Maidah, Verse 45).
2. Corruption on Earth
The other instance where God has allowed the life of a human being to be taken is in the case of spreading corruption on Earth along with waging war against God and His Messenger. In the Article entitled “Mofsed fel-Arz and Mohareb (“one who wages war”) with God and His Messenger in the Koran”, I have addressed this subject in detail. In brief, a Mofsed fel-Arz and Mohareb with God and His Messenger is an armed individual who endangers public safety, whose intention is not just to kill and harm a particular person but to cause fear and terror and deprive people of their safety and security. Bandits and rioters and seditionists who endanger public safety in an armed fashion fall under the provisions of the verse; extreme examples are the armed attack on a school in America, or the armed attack in Norway; other less harsh examples are what the Somali pirates do, and other acts that do not result in the killing of anyone but cause public fear, such as armed robbery of a bank or armed attack of a commercial center for the purpose of theft; another example is people who indiscriminately attack passersby with machetes and injure a number of them. The important point here is what a society’s customs consider a behavior to be depriving people of their social and public safety and an act of creating fear and terror among the public, provided the act is an armed one. For the purpose of determining the application of the rule, it is important to determine resorting to what means is considered armed action in the customs of a particular society.
The Koran prescribes one of four types of punishment for the person who disturbs public safety in an armed fashion, the selection of which is up to the judge (or the jury) in accordance with the gravity of the crime: 1. Killing; 2. Crucifixion; 3. Amputation of an arm and a leg in opposite directions; and 4. Exile. The harshest punishment is killing and the lightest one is exile; the other two punishments must be defined in a way which would logically justify the decreasing level of punishment.
An individual’s repentance and expression of regret is sufficient for the decree not to be carried out, which indicates that an individual who has disturbed public safety in an armed fashion but regrets his/her action after before being arrested will not even be exiled, let alone killed; and he/she doesn’t even need a witness [to that effect]. [So] as long as he/she declares at the time of arrest that he/she regretted his/her action before being arrested, it is sufficient for the rule not to apply. In other words, it appears that God’s insistence is not upon carrying out the decree, but to keep that group of individuals in society who have corrupt tendencies in a state between fear and hope so that the evil and corrupt act of terrorizing and disturbing public safety is not repeated.
“Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth [to cause] corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land. That is for them a disgrace in this world; and for them in the Hereafter is a great punishment, (Maidah, Verse 33) Except for those who return [repenting] before you apprehend them. And know that Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.” (Maidah, Verse 34).
The verse on repentance is an extremely valuable guide in showing the direction in which this divine decree is going. In fact, any fool, who has endangered public safety and created fear and terror in society, would be willing to express regret at the time of his/her arrest, so that he/she would be exiled (as the lightest punishment), not to speak of one who has committed banditry, has caused serious bodily harm to people, and has even killed and stolen their property; such a person would repent no matter how stupid he/she might be, so that he/she would not be subject to the verse, and so that only the Qesas decree which is the right of the next of kin (and hence there is the possibility of obtaining their forgiveness and pardon [and forego the death sentence]) would apply to him/her, and ultimately, [force him/her to] return the stolen property.
The verse does not, therefore, seek to implement the decree; [on the contrary’] it has prepared the ground so that the criminal act is not repeated. In other words, the verse intends to deter rather than insist on its own application.
VII. The Koran and Promoting the Abolition of the Death Penalty
What we deduce from the Koran is that it provides us with possibility of approving the abolition of the death penalty without worrying about disobeying God’s decree and feeling like we have opposed Shari’a and sinned. In fact, we can consider the abolition of the death penalty as something that will make God happy with our deeds, strive to abolish capital punishment, and consider our activity in this regard as one that pleases and is approved by God.
One point worthy of reflection is that the government can disregard the death penalty as punishment for Mohareb and Mofsed individuals because, first, it is a public crime and as such, the government has the authority to regulate it, and secondly, it is only one of the prescribed forms of punishments and the government can apply the lightest punishment, exile, instead. In the case of intentional murder, however, the issue involves a private right; some might therefore say that the Koran has nevertheless recognized Qesas as a private right of individuals even though not implementing Qesas pleases God. Hence, we cannot take away by force the right created by God for the next of kin, but we can, through cultural activities, work toward guiding society to forgiveness in order to minimize Qesas. Therefore the complete abolition of the death penalty is against Islamic law.
There are numerous cases where God has recognized private rights for individuals but Islamic governments have either limited or abolished those rights:
1. The right to carry arms. God orders [Moslems] to equip themselves with weapons of War as much as possible. At the time of the Prophet Mohammad, everyone had the right to purchase, sell, and/or carry weapons of war; he did not prohibit possessing and carrying swords, spears, or bows and arrows. Today, however, one cannot find a single Islamic country where people would be allowed to carry even that same sword and bow and arrow, let alone modern weapons of war.
2. The right to exploit natural resources and mines. The right to exploit natural resources, to use prairies for animals to graze, to exploit forests for wood, and to exploit mines for their minerals, has been reserved for Moslems in the laws of all Islamic creeds. Today, however, all rulers of Islamic countries have either limited this right of Moslems or have sole rights thereto.
3. The right to travel. The Koran considers God’s Earth as vast and has imposed no limitations on Moslems to travel to other Islamic or non-Islamic lands. But what Islamic government [is there that] has not limited this right for its Moslems? Not only have they limited travelling to other Moslem lands for Moslems in their own territory, they have even banned it at times.
One would need a very detailed book to list all the rights prescribed for Moslems in the Koran which have now been taken away. How is it then, that this one right (Qesas) and its implementation as a religious right, has become so important that non-implementation thereof is considered taking away the right of the next of kin?
Conclusion: Not only is the abolition of the death penalty not against Divine Law, but it would please God, and the ground for acceptance of such abolition must be prepared through cultural work. I will conclude the article with the words of Imam Ali. He said: “I advise you to [follow] the Koran, lest others (non Moslems) overtake you in applying it.” And unfortunately, they have. Indeed, why is it that Moslems, followers of the Koran, were not the forerunners of the abolition of the death penalty?