Crimes and Capital Punishment in Islam

Islam and the Death Penalty

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

"...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" (Qur'an 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 Qur'an 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" (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 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 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")

Intentional Murder

The Qur'an legislates the death penalty for murder, although forgiveness and compassion are strongly encouraged.

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 (2:178).

Fasaad fi al-ardh

The second crime for which capital punishment can be applied is a bit more open to interpretation. "Spreading mischief in the land" can mean many different things but is generally interpreted to mean those crimes that affect the community as a whole and destabilize the 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

Actual methods of capital punishment vary from place to place. In some Muslim countries, methods have included beheading, hanging, stoning, and firing squad. Executions are held publicly, to serve as warnings to would-be criminals.

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.