Islam's View Capital Punishment

Islam and the Death Penalty

Sniper John Muhammad Is Sentenced To Death
Brendan Smialowski / Stringer/Getty Images News/Getty Images

 

The question of whether to apply capital punishment for especially severe or heinous crimes is a moral dilemma for civilized societies across the world. For Muslims, Islamic law guides their views on this, clearly establishing the sanctity of human life and the prohibition against taking a human life but making a clear exception for punishment enacted under legal justice.

The Quran clearly establishes that killing is forbidden, but just as clearly establishes conditions under which capital punishment may be enacted: 

...If anyone kills a person—unless it is for murder or for spreading mischief in the land—it would be as if he killed all people. And if anyone saves a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all people (Quran 5:32).

Life is sacred, according to Islam and most other world faiths. But how can one hold life sacred, yet still support capital punishment? The Quran answers:

...Take not life, which God has made sacred, except by way of justice and law. Thus does He command you, so that you may learn wisdom. (Quran 6:151).

The key point is that one may take life only "by way of justice and law." In Islam, therefore, the death penalty can be applied by a court as punishment for the most serious of crimes. Ultimately, one's eternal punishment is in God's hands, but there is a place for punishment enacted by society in this life as well. The spirit of the Islamic penal code is to save lives, promote justice, and prevent corruption and tyranny.

Islamic philosophy holds that a harsh punishment serves as a deterrent to serious crimes that harm individual victims or those that threaten to destabilize the foundation of society. According to Islamic law (in the first verse quoted above), the following two crimes can be punishable by death:

  • Intentional murder
  • Fasad fil-ardh ("spreading mischief in the land")

Let's consider each of these in turn. 

Intentional Murder

The Quran legislates that the death penalty for murder is available, although forgiveness and compassion are strongly encouraged. In Islamic law, the murder victim's family is given a choice to either insist on the death penalty or to pardon the perpetrator and accept monetary compensation for their loss (Quran 2:178).

Fasaad Fi al- Ardh

The second crime for which capital punishment can be applied is a bit more open to interpretation, and it is here that Islam has developed a reputation for harsher legal justice than what is practiced elsewhere in the world. "Spreading mischief in the land" can mean many different things, but it is generally interpreted to refer to those crimes that affect the community as a whole and destabilize society. Crimes that have fallen under this description have included:

  • Treason/ Apostacy (when one leaves the faith and joins the enemy in fighting against the Muslim community)
  • Terrorism
  • Land, sea, or air piracy
  • Rape
  • Adultery
  • Homosexual behavior

Methods for Capital Punishment

Actual methods of capital punishment vary from place to place. In some Muslim countries, methods have included beheading, hanging, stoning, and death by firing squad.

Executions are held publicly in Muslim countries, a tradition that is intended to warn would-be criminals. 

Although Islamic justice is often criticized by other nations, it is important to note that there is no place for vigilantism in Islam—one must be properly convicted in an Islamic court of law before the punishment can be meted out. The severity of the punishment requires that very strict evidence standards must be met before a conviction is found. The court also has the flexibility to order less than the ultimate punishment (for example, imposing fines or prison sentences), on a case-by-case basis.

Debate

And although the implementation of capital punishment for crimes other than murder is a different standard than that used elsewhere in the world, defenders can argue that the Islamic practice does serve as a deterrent and that Muslim countries as a result of their legal strictness are less troubled by the routine social violence that plagues some other societies.

In Muslim countries with stable governments, for example, murder rates are relatively low. Detractors would argue that Islamic law borders on the barbaric for imposing death sentences on so-called victimless crimes such as adultery or homosexual behavior. 

Debate on this issue is ongoing and not likely to be resolved in the near future.