Shariah Law

Shariah Laws

Are they really harsh?

Many people today have lost sight of why punishments for serious offences need to be in place. Little do they realize that if there were no punishment, people could get away with anything, and worse still prey on the weaker sections of society and thrive at their expense. Punishment establishes the boundaries for what is right and what is wrong.

People nowadays often think that Islamic laws are harsh. Little is it known that until very recent times, Shariah law was one of the most lenient legal systems in the world, stipulating capital punishment for just three very serious offences and laying down other punishments such as amputation of hands for theft by attaching so many conditions that it was no easy task to apply them, so very mild compared to say the Common Law of England which stipulated death for even the most trivial of offences.

But that’s the difference between Islamic and secular laws. Islamic law is for all time and as such cannot change according to the whims of men. It is firm when it has to be and soft when it has to be. Since God is the Creator, He best knows His Creation and is obviously the most qualified to lay down laws for His Creatures. Just to give you an example. As a parent, you know what’s best for your child. You draft a set of ‘house rules’ for them not to break, like opening the door for strangers when you’re away or playing with fire. Why, because you know what’s best for them.

That is why it is best to leave the laws to God, to ensure that our laws are in accord with what God has revealed. This leaves no room for a dictator or legislature to enact laws contrary to God’s Wise Laws. In this way, Islam ensures that justice will reign for all time and not be swayed by petty-minded men with vested interests and that it will not be subjected to the whims of tyrants or short-sighted legislators. By doing so, it ensures that the weaker are not oppressed by the stronger, that women are not enslaved by men, that the poor are not exploited by the rich and that the minorities are not tyrannised by the brute will of the majority. What history has thought us throughout is that when man writes down laws, they more often than not become nightmares that go against their own nature and the rest of creation. As God says in the Qur’an:

We made for you a law, so follow it,

and not the fancies of those who have no knowledge

(The Kneeling Down: 18)

The word used here for ‘law’ Shariah literally means ‘path (to a waterhole in the desert)’. So just as water and knowing the way to it is vital for survival in the desert, so is following the Law of God necessary for peace in the world. To achieve such peace, the larger interests of society necessarily have to take precedence over the interests of the individual and this is what Islamic law is all about.

The primary source of the Shariah is of course the Word of God, the Qur’an which is supplemented by the Sunnah or Prophetic tradition incorporating the words and deeds of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). The practice of his close companions including the rightly guided Caliphs and consensus of opinion of the community are also taken as complementary sources of law so long as they conform to the Word of God and the practice of His Prophet. State authority can in no way supersede the Law of God. This is precisely why Islam qualifies obedience to established authority. As the Prophet declared: “No creature is to be obeyed if it involves disobedience to the Creator” (Ahmad).

Proportionate Punishment

When we dwell deep into the rationale behind Islamic punishments, we would find two basic principles. One is that the punishment has to be proportionate to the offence. As God says in the Qur’an:

And if you punish, let your punishment be proportionate to the wrong that has been done to you; but if you show patience, that is indeed the best course

(The Bee:126)

Thus Islam’s penal system can never agree with the likes of the Greek Lawgiver Draco who equally punished with death the pettiest theft and the most atrocious murder, nor can it agree with the laws of England or the ways of the American Wild West a couple of centuries ago where one could be killed for theft. Nor can it agree with the laws of modern day China which punishes with death nearly thirty offences including corruption and theft or smuggling of cultural items and where there have even been cases where accountants have been shot for embezzling funds to pay their gambling debts and thieves executed for stealing ancient relics from museums.

Under Islam, such a one may be deprived of the offending organ but that too only when certain conditions are met such as the stolen item being of significant value and that it be stolen from a place of safekeeping.

Prevention of Evil

The other is that punishment is imposed not to humiliate the individual, but to prevent sins and crimes being looked upon lightly, to impress on the offender and the rest of society the seriousness of the offense. Once when a drunkard had been lashed, somebody remarked: “May God disgrace you!” whereupon the Prophet remarked: “Don’t utter these words, don’t let the devil overwhelm him, but say O God! Show mercy to him and return to him!” (Jamia ul Usul, Ibn Athir). In fact the Prophet enjoined us to fend off punishment as much as we can, like when he pronounced: “If you find any way out for him, let him go. It is better for the judge to err in forgiveness than to err in punishment” (Tirmidhi). To give the benefit of the doubt is as much a principle in islam as it is in modern legal systems of the West.

So you will see that in Islam the purpose of punishment is not to debase people but to prevent serious offences being accepted and perpetrated in the public domain. Take the case of adultery. True, Islam lays down stoning to death, but at the same time qualifies it with the condition that four witnesses catch the offenders in the act of penetration itself, making it very difficult to prove. The idea here is not to make a public show of your sins. Whatever sins you commit is between you and God, but expose it to the public and you create mischief, prompting others to do the same thing without a care for the world.

This is why God says:

Your Lord hath inscribed for Himself Mercy; verily if any of you did evil in ignorance and thereafter repented, and amended (his or her conduct), Lo! He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful

(The Cattle:54)

And why His Prophet said:

Stay away from those loathsome evils, which God has forbidden you from. If someone through a slip indulges in any such act then he should remain concealed behind the veil of God  and ask forgiveness of Him. But if someone will produce his neck before us (i.e. stick to the sinful activities unashamedly and boldly) then we shall enforce the code over him

 (Kitabul Hudood; Ibn Hajar Asqalani)

The Prophet’s companions understood the rules very well. A man was once brought before the well known companion and judge of Kufa, Abdullah Ibn Masood in such a state that his beard was ‘dripping with wine’. Abdullah casually responded: “We have been forbidden to seek out faults. But if he does something openly before us, we will hold him responsible for that“(Abu Dawud).

Equality in Punishment

Besides these, Islam lays down some general rules regarding punishment, which is that all are equally liable to be punished for their crimes, be they rich or poor, man or woman, ruler or ruled. See the beauty of it, even a ruler has to be punished for his offence. It once happened that the Prophet’s friend and successor, the Caliph Umar addressed the community: “Put me right if you discover any crookedness in me” only to have one from the assembly retort: “By God Almighty if we had found any crookedness in you, we should have put you right with our swords!”.

On another occasion, a man came complaining to him about a petty grievance while he was busy with some important work and the caliph in his anger laid a lash on him. The man walked away, but Umar sent for him, and handing his whip over to him said: “You now lash me to even the matter.” The man refused, saying: “I forgive you for the sake of God.“. The Caliph then went home, prayed to God in repentance and upbraided himself saying: “0 Umar, You were low but God elevated you. You were wandering astray but God guided you. You were base but God ennobled you and gave you sovereignty over His people. Now one of them comes and asks you for redress of the wrong done to him, and you beat him? What answer have you to give before God?

This was so unlike the laws of mediaeval Europe which held royalty and the nobility to be above the law, an idea that survived well up to the eighteenth century in countries like France whose pre-revolutionary constitution declared the King ‘Sacred and Inviolable’ and hence immune from prosecution for whatever crimes he committed.

Once, when a woman of a noble clan known as the Makhzoom committed theft, some of his companions were deeply agitated and got the Prophet’s close friend Usama to intercede. The Prophet would have none of it. He addressed his people:

O people! The nations before you went astray because if a noble person committed theft, they used to leave him, but if a weak person among them committed theft, they used to inflict the legal punishment on him. By God, if Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad committed theft, Muhammad will cut off her hand!

(Saheeh Al-Bukhari)

The same hold true of the sexes, both of whom are equally liable to punishment for their misdemenours, whether it be for fornication for which they are whipped or adultery for which they are stoned. Such a notion was strange to the peoples of old who often punished a woman for her faults while turning a blind eye to the faults of men. You have only to read the Bible to see how unfairly women were treated, to the extent if a bride did not bleed from a rupture to her hymen on her first night – the so-called token of virginity – she would be killed if her husband accused her of not being a virgin before marriage:

But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found in the damsel: Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father’s house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you

 (Deuteronomy 18-21)

In Islam however, there can be no such injustice. Male and female have to be treated alike. As the Prophet said when it came to the punishment for illicit sex, which of course had to be proved by four witnesses who caught the couple in the act of penetration itself and not by a virgin’s blood or a husband’s rash accusation:

Take it from me. Verily God has ordained a way for them (the women who commit fornication): (When) a married man (commits adultery) with a married woman, and an unmarried male with an unmarried woman, then in case of married (persons) there is (a punishment) of one hundred lashes and stoning. And in case of unmarried persons, (the punishment) is one hundred lashes and exile for one year

(Saheeh Muslim)

Thus in Islam, all are equal before the law – from prince to pauper. This ideal of equality was never taught by any religion before or after Islam. It is a very modern idea that took root in the West with the Age of Enlightenment through the writings of men like Rousseau and Voltaire. And to think Islam made equality before the law a cornerstone of the faith more than fourteen centuries ago.

This is what prompted French Philosopher Lafayet to declare:

O Muhammad, no one reached to your level in bringing justice among people

And the same that spurred Edmund Burke to observe:

The Muhammadan Law which is binding on all- from the crowned head to the meanest subject is a law interwoven with a system of the wisest, the most learned and the most enlightened jurisprudence that ever existed in the world

Other General Rules

Another general rule of Islamic justice is that actions are to be judged by their intentions. Thus if you got mugged and struck someone in self-defence and he died, you will not be charged for murder. This is in keeping with the Prophet’s words:

Actions are judged according to intentions,

and everyone will get what they intended

(Saheeh Muslim)

The Prophet also refused to impose any liability on a person who in the course of a struggle, while pulling out his hand from the mouth of another who was biting him, pulled out his tooth in the process (Sayd Ibn Zayd). In normal circumstances pulling out another’s tooth would be punished by the law of like for like, tooth for tooth, but here since the act was not deliberate and done in self-defence, there was to be no retaliation or compensation.

Yet another general rule is that a child or insane person or a sleepwalking person cannot be penalized for any offence inviting such punishment such as theft, apostasy or fornication. This is based on the Prophet’s saying: “The pen is lifted from three. The child until he matures, the sleeping person until he awakes and the insane person until he comes to his senses” (Aboo Dawood). This too is in the fitness of things. Islam penalizes only those who are mentally fit to comprehend the nature of their offense, so unlike other law systems that never took this factor into consideration when awarding punishment, for instance the laws of England that even condemned little children to death for trivial offences.

Nor does Islam penalize one for the crimes of another. Indeed it even made provision to save the life of the unborn in case its mother had committed a capital offense. As the Prophet said: “If a woman kills intentionally, she is not to be killed until she gives birth to what is in her womb and until she has nursed it after birth” (Ibn Majah).

Thus you will see that Islam did not want a child to suffer on account of its mother, for not only did it lay down that a pregnant woman could not be killed, but even ordained that the mother not be put to death until she had nursed the child, the period for which alone is two years. This principle was not recognized in the West until very recent times. After all, as late as the eighteenth century, an American woman named Bathsheba Spooner was hanged for murdering her abusive husband despite pleading for a stay of execution to deliver her baby. The Massachusetts Council rejected the petition and she was promptly hanged before a crowd of 5,000 people. She was five months pregnant.

Leniency of Islamic Law Compared to Western Laws

So now to get on with the punishments like beheading for murder, stoning to death for adultery and amputating hands for theft that today have Westerners cringing in fear, but would have been laughed at by their ancestors for their mildness. You have only to compare these with the kinds of punishments that existed in Europe until fairly recent times such as pre-eighteenth century England when a teenager could be put to death for stealing something as trivial as a loaf of bread out of hunger.

Did you know that as late as 1810, there were no less than 222 individually defined capital crimes in England including “being in the company of Gypsies for one month”, “strong evidence of malice in a child aged 7–14 years of age” and “blacking the face or using a disguise whilst committing a crime”. Among other crimes punishable by death were stealing from a house the amount of forty shillings, stealing from a shop the value of five shillings, robbing a rabbit warren, poaching fish from another’s fishpond, cutting down a tree, stealing firewood and counterfeiting tax stamps and clipping coins.

The Black Act prescribed capital punishment for as many as 50 offences concerned with theft and poaching. So harsh were these laws that Sir Samuel Romilly campaigned to have the death penalty removed for minor crimes such as shoplifting and in 1813 introduced a Bill in the House of Commons to repeal the law “as punishes with death the offence of stealing privately in a shop, warehouse or stable, goods of the value of 5 Shillings“. The Bill was thrown out by the House of Lords. The archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Manners-Sutton even teamed up with six other bishops to defeat this bill that would have abolished the death penalty for stealing five shillings or less. Such was the harshness of Europe’s man-made laws until recent times.

The American colonies were no less severe. Under the Capital Laws of New-England in the 17th century, the death penalty was imposed for pre-meditated murder, sodomy, witchcraft, adultery, idolatry, blasphemy, assault in anger, rape, statutory rape, manstealing, perjury in a capital trial, rebellion, manslaughter, poisoning and bestiality. Virginia’s governor, Sir Thomas Dale, implemented the Divine, Moral, and Martial Laws that made death the penalty for even minor offenses such as stealing grapes or trading with Indians.

New York colony’s Duke’s Laws of 1665 stipulated the death penalty for denial of the true God, pre-meditated murder, killing someone who had no weapon of defense, killing by lying in wait or by poisoning, sodomy, buggery, kidnapping, perjury in a capital trial, traitorous denial of the king’s rights or raising arms to resist his authority, conspiracy to invade towns or forts in the colony and striking one’s mother or father. In fact by 1776 when the American Revolution began, most colonies had the death penalty for arson, piracy, treason, murder, sodomy, burglary, robbery, rape, horse-stealing, slave rebellion, and counterfeiting. Indeed even as late as 1837, North Carolina had the death penalty for as many as 14 offences including murder, rape, statutory rape, slave-stealing, stealing bank notes, highway robbery, burglary, arson, buggery, bestiality, hiding a slave with intent to free him and bigamy.

Many of these harsh laws continued in the US until very recent times. For instance in 1822 Thomas Davis was executed in Alabama for counterfeiting while in 1852 Theodore Velenquez was executed for horse stealing in California. More recently, in 1941 Frank Bass of Alabama was hanged for burglary. In 1964 Ronald Wolfe was executed for rape in Missouri and the same year James Coburn was executed in Alabama for robbery. As recently as 1945 Eddie Slovak was sentenced to death for desertion of the US army.

The Church of England and the Puritans in America were not alone in supporting such harsh laws. Much of Europe had similar and even harsher laws, for blasphemy and other offences, inspired little doubt by the Biblical laws of the Israelites which they were not bound to follow but which nevertheless affected their attitude towards punishment. So let’s have a look at just some of the offences inviting capital punishment found in the Bible:

Whoever strikes a man a mortal blow shall be put to death

(Exodus 21:12)

Whoever strikes his father or mother shall be put to death

(Exodus 21:15)

Whoever curses his father or mother shall be put to death

(Exodus 21:17)

A man or woman who acts as a medium or fortune teller

 shall be put to death by stoning

(Leviticus 20:27)

A priest’s daughter who loses her honour by committing fornication and thereby dishonours her father also, shall be burned to death

(Leviticus 21:9)

If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife- both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death

(Leviticus 20:10)

Six days there are for doing work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of complete rest, Sacred to the Lord. Anyone who does work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death

(Exodus 31:15)

Whoever blasphemes the Name of the Lord shall be put to death. The whole community shall stone him; alien and native alike must be put to death for blaspheming the Lord’s Name

(Leviticus 24:16)

If there is found among you, in any one of the communities which the Lord, your God, gives you, a man or a woman who does evil in the Sight of the Lord, your God, and transgresses His Covenant, by serving other gods, or by worshipping the sun or the moon or any of the host of the sky, against My Command; and if, on being informed of it, you find by careful investigation that this abomination has been committed in Israel, you shall bring the man (or woman)who had done the evil deed out of your city gates and stone him to death

(Deuteronomy 17:2-5)

Contrast this with the Islamic approach to capital punishment which prescribes capital punishment for three offences, namely, murder, adultery and apostasy. But even in the case of so vile a deed as murder, the Qur’an though threatening Divine Punishment for the offender in the hereafter allows him or her a reprieve if the relatives of the victim are willing to forgive him and in lieu of putting him or her to death accept blood money for the crime.  In the case of apostasy or blasphemy, true Islam prescribes the death penalty, but tempers this with the provision that the offender be given the opportunity to repent. So even when you compare the Bible and the Qur’an you will find how lenient the laws of Islam really are.

Punishment for Theft

Let us first consider the punishment for theft for which crime an English teenager could be executed as recently as couple of centuries ago just for stealing a loaf of bread, the rigour of which went even beyond Jesus’ prescription: “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna” (Matthew 5:29-30).

Islam it is true prescribes the amputation of the hand for theft. As God says in the Qur’an:

Cut off the hands of the thief, male or female, as a recompense for that which they committed, a punishment by way of example from God. And God is All-Powerful, All-Wise

(The Repast:38)

It is however established in the practice of the Prophet that only the right hand from the wrist joint would be removed for the first offence, the left foot for the second, the left hand for the third and the right foot for the fourth. This rule has its basis in an incident that took place in the lifetime of the Prophet. When a thief was brought to him, he ordered Cut off his hand. So his right hand was cut off. He was brought a second time and he said: Cut off his foot.  So his left foot was cut off. He was brought a third time and he said: Cut off his hand. So his left hand was cut off He was brought a fourth time and he said: Cut off his foot. So his right foot was cut off (Abu Dawud).

This was of course the fate of habitual thieves who in spite of all the conditions that tempered the penalty got caught and despite being punished, persisted with their crimes. It was out of consideration for the thief that the law laid down that for the second offense that the foot rather than the other hand be taken off since it would have been tragic for the thief to be deprived of the use of both his hands.  Besides, a second or third punishment could not be inflicted for previous thefts, but only after a thief has been caught and punished by amputation of his or her right hand.

What all this shows is that Islam aims at reforming the individual with its punishments, but if they are unrepentant and persist with their crimes, they would have to pay the price for it. Repentance wipes out the sin of theft, which is why God says:

Cut off the hands of the thief, male or female, as a recompense for that which they  committed, a punishment by way of example from God. And God is All-Powerful,  All-Wise. But if the thief repents after his crime and amends his conduct, God turns to him in forgiveness, for God is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful

(The Repast:38-39)

However repentance here is possible only after the punishment has been meted out. A woman who had committed theft and whose right hand was cut off once came to the Prophet and asked: “O Messenger of God! Is there a chance for me to repent”. “Yes” he replied “This day, you are free from your sin just as the day your mother gave birth to you” (Ahmed). The Prophet’s wife Ayisha says about her: “Hers was a sincere repentance, and she later on married and used to come to me after that, and I conveyed her needs to God’s Messenger (so that he could help her) (Saheeh Muslim).  That theft is a very serious sin was even said by Jesus when he declared:

If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna

(Matthew 5:29-30)

Thus it is not surprising that repentance could only be possible after the punishment has been awarded to remove the stain of the sin that in itself could drag one to the hellfire. Why, because theft is not a crime that can be taken lightly. A thief is like a parasite draining away the life blood of society, thriving at the expense of others by depriving them of their hard earned money or possessions and often disposing of it for a trifling price, not giving as much as a thought for the poor victim for whom the stolen item could be of great necessity or have sentimental value. Theft also creates suspicion of others which has to be shunned at all costs, but which cannot be easily erased from the victim’s mind.

Needless to say, it creates unpleasantness in society and tends to harm its moral fabric. That’s not all. Theft also harms the perpetrator of the deed. Thieves it is well known graduate from the petty to the deadly. They start off as petty thieves, graduate to more serious crimes like armed robbery and eventually end up as kidnappers and murderers. Very often, that’s how most serious criminals start their lives.

Considering all this, don’t you think it’s better that a thief is punished as such before he becomes a scourge to society like we often see happening in countries like the US where crime is so rampant that even movies trivialize and glorify criminal acts like armed robbery.

At the same time Islam does not lay down the punishment for each and every act of theft. Rather, it lays down a combination of conditions that need to be met for the full rigour of the law to be applied. As in any other offense, a minor, a lunatic or sleepwalker is exempt from the penalty. But that’s not all. It cannot be applied to one stricken by poverty who steals out of hunger or in a time of famine. It once happened that a poor man named Abbad Ibn Shurahbil stole some dates from a garden. The owner caught him and beat him soundly. Abbad complained to the Prophet who called the owner of the garden and told him: “He was hungry, you should have fed him” whereupon the owner gave the poor fellow dates along with two sacks of wheat (Nasai).

Nor can it apply to dependent family members. Hind, Abu Sufyan’s wife once complained to the Prophet about her husband: “You know Abu Sufyan is a miser, he does not give enough provision for me or my children. Is it a sin for me if I take from his property for our maintenance?” . The Prophet replied: “There is no blame on you if you do that reasonably”. (Saheeh Muslim)

But that’s not all. The penalty cannot be applied in times of war where there is great chaos and people often lose their sense of reason, which could also be expanded to any calamitous situation. As the Prophet said very clearly: Hands are not to be cut off during a warlike expedition (Abu Dawud). It is also understood that stealing from public property will not incur the penalty since it is meant for all members of society in common including the thief himself.

Further, the intention of stealing should be clearly established as per the Prophet’s saying: Actions are judged according to intentions (Saheeh Muslim).Thus if a person claims that he took an item thinking it was genuinely his and there is no evidence to the contrary, he is to taken at his word and let go. If he claims to have taken it to have a look at it and return it, he is to be taken at his word and let go.

But that’s not all. The item stolen must also have a considerable value, which is to say that it should be worth a quarter of a gold dinar, in other words the equivalent of a little over a gram of gold which in today’s context would be an item worth over 30 US Dollars or its equivalent in other currencies. However there are also scholars who argue that the stolen item should be worth a full dinar or over 4 grams of gold, the equivalent of over 100 USD, for the punishment to be applicable. Both these views have their grounding in the Prophet’s sayings and doings.

The first view that the stolen item be worth at least a quarter gold dinar is based on the saying of the Prophet: “The hand of a thief should be cut off for a quarter of a dinar and what is above that.” (Saheeh Muslim).  The Prophet had a man’s hand cut off who had stolen from the place reserved for women a shield whose price was three silver dirhams (Abu Dawud). Now, the rate of exchange at the time was twelve dirhams for the dinar (Muwatta), showing that a quarter dinar was the equivalent of three dirhams, so that there is no contradiction in what the Prophet said and did. However since what he mentioned explicitly was the quarter dinar, it is the gold value that will determine the minimum amount that invites the punishment.

However, there are also indications that the stolen item must be worth a gold dinar to implement the penalty. Now, a dinar, a word taken from the Roman denarius, was not a small sum, It could buy a shield, which in the olden days was quite a dear item which many could not even afford, considering the resources and labour that went to the making of one. That the stolen item must be worth at least a dinar to apply the penalty is based on an observation of the Prophet’s wife Ayisha: “The hand of a thief was not cut off during the lifetime of the Messenger of God except for stealing something equal to a shield in value” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari) and a shield according to a companion named Al Abbas was worth one Dinar at that time (Nasai). The Prophet also said: “There is no cutting (of hands) for stealing what is less than ten dirhams” (Musnad Ahmad) bringing it close to its equivalent of a dinar which was twelve dirhams, but could have fluctuated a bit as sometimes happens. As a result there are Islamic Jurists who argue that the minimum value of a stolen item the penalty would be applicable is one gold dinar which is the equivalent of over 100 US Dollars, quite a considerable sum.

But that’s not all. The stolen item should have been removed from the secure custody of its owner, in other words a place meant for safekeeping such an item such as a safe or cupboard in the protection of one’s home. For instance, a safe would be an appropriate place to keep cash, a drawer in a cupboard would be an appropriate place to keep jewellery while a fenced enclosure would be an appropriate place to keep livestock.  This is based on the Prophet’s statement: The hand is not cut off for fruit hanging on the tree and for sheep kept in the mountains. So when they are taken from the fold or the place where the fruit is dried, a hand is cut off for whatever reaches the price of a shield (Muwatta).

What this means is that for the punishment to be applicable, the item must have been kept in a place of safekeeping where the owner has taken every possible step to protect his property and is not guilty of its negligence by leaving it in an area that is easily accessible to the public. Thus one who steals jewellery left unprotected in a public place or an animal straying out of its pen cannot be subjected to the punishment. By extension, those who share a common residence thereby having access to an item of value such as family members whether they be one’s child or spouse or even a servant or guest will not be liable to the punishment. Indeed even an employee who in the ordinary course of his work has access to such goods cannot be subjected to the punishment.

Furthermore, the theft should have been committed by stealth when no one was around. This is based on the strict lexical meaning of the Qur’anic terms used to define the thief to whom such punishment would be applicable, sariq for the male thief and sariqa for the female thief, that is persons who commit theft by stealth with the element of secrecy figuring in it. As such, thefts in public places in broad daylight even when no one is looking around at that particular time will not incur the punishment.

Appropriating an item by force – except in cases of armed robbery when the perpetrator will be treated as a rebel and subjected to the amputation of the right hand and left foot as prescribed in the Qur’an –  will also take invite the punishment. Why, because in the first place it does not meet the condition of stealth and because plunder in itself does not invite the prescribed penalty based on the Prophet’s saying: “The cutting of the hand is not to be inflicted on one who plunders, but he who plunders conspicuously does not belong to us” (Abu Dawud).

Although this might strike one as surprising, the fact is that the one who seizes an item forcibly could be identified and the item recovered either by enlisting the help of others in the vicinity or by resorting to the strong arm of the law. The point here is that the perpetrator can be identified and the goods recovered without much difficulty unlike in the case of a thief who steals by stealth and whose identity remains unknown.

In addition, to prove the theft, two witnesses are required, though a confession from the thief would suffice. Even at this stage, the victim could pardon the thief by gifting the stolen item to him or her before he or she is taken to the judge or legal authorities for redress. This is based on an incident that took place in the Prophet’s lifetime. A companion of the Prophet named  Safwan was sleeping in the mosque in Medina with his cloak as a pillow. A thief took his cloak but Safwan grabbed hold of him and brought him to the Prophet who asked the thief: “Did you steal this cloak?” He said, “Yes” So the Prophet ordered that his hand be cut off. Safwan said to him, “I did not intend this. It is his as charity.” The Prophet told him: “Why didn’t you do it before bringing him to me?” (Muwatta).

What this establishes is that if the owner of the item gifts the item to the thief, or does not claim it back or does not press charges, the hand of the thief does not have to be cut off. However if he is taken to court, the punishment will be meted out so long as it meets all the other conditions. In fact, throughout the nearly four centuries of Islamic rule in the Ottoman Empire which encompassed a good part of the Muslim world before the First World war there were only a handful of cases of amputation for theft which needless to say applied to habitual hardcore thieves who have persisted in their crimes at the expense of innocent people.

Even in a country like Saudi Arabia where the Sharia applies to this day, out of an average of about 2000 convictions for theft, only a single thief would end up having his or her hand cut off when all possible recourses to spare him or her the penalty have been exhausted.

But this does not mean that thieves who do not meet the criteria such as petty thieves, pickpockets or shoplifters should be allowed to get away with their crimes. What they do is obviously wrong and so discretionary punishment at the instance of the courts, either a jail term or corporal punishment by whipping could be inflicted to serve as a deterrent to them and others aware of the leniency of the law.

If you still think the Islamic penalty for theft is harsh, you only have to look at your own laws a couple of centuries ago, like how in England, as recently as 1772, a young mother named Mary Jones was hanged for theft, her child being plucked from her breast as she ascended the scaffold. Her crime: stealing bread to feed her two little children after her husband had been pressed into the navy. And if you care to look into Old Bailey records, you’ll find that a young boy of nine years was sentenced to death in 1833 for stealing two penny-worth of paint. Islamic punishments are too good don’t you think?

Punishment for Murder

And now to the laws that involve the death penalty which many in our modern times think are rather harsh. Islam knows of only three offences that invite capital punishment, namely murder, for which the punishment is beheading, adultery for which the punishment is stoning to death and apostasy who also have to pay the ultimate price if they are unrepentant. This is based on the saying of the Prophet:

It is not permissible to shed the blood of a person who bears witness that there is no god but God except in three cases: a life for a life, a previously married person who commits adultery, and one who leaves Islam and forsakes the community

(Saheeh Muslim)

So let’s first start with murder, the killing of man by man, the oldest of the crimes that go back to the days of Adam. As you would have read in the Bible, Adam had two sons Cain and Abel whom we Muslims call Qabeel and Habeel.  Both of them were asked to offer a sacrifice to God. While Cain chose  Abel offered his  and so earned God’s Favour. Cain out of jealousy killed his brother, becoming the first murderer to walk the face of the earth. The Qur’an too relates this story with a moral to go with it:

Recite to them the truth of the story of the two sons of Adam. Behold! They each presented a sacrifice (to God). It was accepted from one, but not from the other. Said the latter:“Be sure, I will slay you”. “surely” said the former “God accepts the sacrifice of the righteous. If you stretch your hand against me to slay me, it is not for me to stretch my hand against you to slay you, for I fear God, the Cherisher of the Worlds. For me, I intend to let you draw on yourself my sin as well as yours, for you will be among the Companions of the Fire, and that is the reward of those who do wrong”. The (selfish) soul of the other led him to the murder of his brother. He murdered him and became one of the lost ones. Then God sent a raven who scratched the ground, to show him how to hide the shame of his brother. “Woe is me!” said he “Was I not even able to be as this raven, and to hide the shame of my brother?”. Then he became full of regrets. On that account We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people. And if anyone  saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people

(The Repast:27-32).

In God’s Sight this primeval murder, the work of the devil himself, risked putting His favoured creation into the path towards extinction. Why because there so few humans around at the time who could perpetuate their race. Thus God ordained that if anyone slew a fellow human, it would be as if he had slain all mankind and that if he saved a life it would be as if he saved all mankind. Get the moral of it!

The Bible clearly lays down the death penalty for murder:

Whoever strikes a man a mortal blow shall be put to death

(Exodus 21:12)

It also upholds the law of equality, like for like which amounts to the same thing:

You shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth

(Exodus 21:23-24)

This is of course in the fairness of things. But men must also learn how to forgive, especially if a murder was committed in anger or under great provocation. The Old Biblical Law of course did not make any allowance for forgiveness, either by the next of kin for a murder or by the victim himself if he had suffered grievous injury at the hands of the perpetrator. Then came Jesus who declared:

You have heard that it was said ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. But I say to you offer no resistance to one who is evil-when someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well

(Matthew 5:38-39)

Jesus was only trying to impress on his fellow Jews the need to be forgiving and repel evil with good so that the evil-doer realizes the gravity of his offense and becomes ashamed of it. His was an appeal to one’s innermost conscience, to leave justice to God and be content with one’s lot. But the Jews would have none of it. They preferred the application of the full rigour of the Law.

Islam as always takes the middle path, allowing the victim of an injury to wreak vengeance or pardon the offender for a consideration of a sum of money and giving his or her relatives the right to condemn or pardon the perpetrator in lieu of compensation if he or she be murdered. This is a combination of the law of like for like known to the Romans of old as Lex talionis, with the alternative of compensation to the next of kin, by the payment of blood-money,   which the German tribes of old called weregeld. Rather than adopt one or the other Islam combined the two to ensure two things, retaliation to assuage the sense of vindictiveness of aggrieved next-of-kin who have been unjustly deprived of a loved one, or in the alternative to settle for monetary compensation if they thought fit to spare the life of the offender

Thus one who is murdered wrongfully can thus be avenged by his or her next of kin:

O ye who believe, prescribed for you is the law of equality

in cases of murder

(The Heifer:178)

When Islam enjoined life for life, it recognized that it would have a deterrent effect:

In retribution, there is (preservation of) life, O men of sense,

that you may haply take heed

(The Heifer:179)

But there’s another reason for the law of like for like, and that was to ensure that only the murderer pays the price for his crime and not his kith or kin. It has been a tendency in tribal societies for people to blame an entire clan for the sins of one, which is why you find that even in some so-called civilized societies children could be killed for the sins of their parents. If you think its savage, read Dickens Tale of Two Cities where the young French noble Charles Darney is sentenced to be guillotined by a French revolutionary tribunal for the crimes of his father and uncle, the oppressive Evremonde brothers ‘Them and their descendants to the last of their race’ to put it in the words of Alexandre Manette.

This was also a common practice in ancient Arabia. In the year Mecca was conquered, a man from the Banu Layth was killed in retaliation for a murder committed by a member of his tribe before the coming of Islam. The Prophet forbade such acts of aggression: “It is not allowed to kill a person other than the murderer. Whoever kills intentionally should be surrendered to the heirs (of the deceased), and they have the option of either retaliating or taking blood money from him” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari). Thus this law restrained wanton killings that had plagued the Arabs of Pre-Islamic times.

The Prophet made it clear that it mattered not if the murdered one was a man or woman, a child or adult or a Muslim or non-Muslim. The offender was liable to the punishment for killing a human being, not just a Muslim. In his words:

The life of a Muslim may be taken in three cases only – in the case of a married person who commits adultery, one who has killed a human being and one who has forsaken his religion and separated himself from the community

(Bukhari, Muslim)

The term used for murder of a human being here is qutal nafsan literally meaning ‘killing of a soul’ which shows that it need not be confined to a Muslim victim in particular. Any victim of a murderer regardless of his or her religious affiliation could be avenged in keeping with the law. It is up to the heirs of the victim to decide that and even a court of law cannot interfere in the exercise of this right:

Nor take life-which God has made sacred- except for just cause. And if anyone is slain wrongfully, We have given his heir authority (to demand retaliation or forgive),but let him not exceed bounds in the matter of taking life

(The Night Journey: 33)

How fervently the early Muslims followed God’s Word could be seen from the last wishes of the Caliph Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law who became the head of the Islamic Commonwealth a few decades after the demise of the Prophet. When felled by an assassin, he said that if the wound did not prnstable Robert Damiens who had lightly stabbed him with a penknife inflicting a slight wound, tortured to death, first with red hot pincers; the hand with which he held the offending object burned using sulphur and molten lead and boiling oil poured into his wounds, after which he was quartered by harnessing horses to his arms and legs to be dismembered, and his joints broken with an axe to the applause of the maddening crowd before his still living torso was burnt at the stake. And all this in the middle part of the eighteenth century. Had it been a Muslim Caliph he would have simply brushed him aside as a madman and at the most had him inflicted with a similar wound in keeping with the law of like for like and dismissed him.

But as I said, the aggrieved party could rather than demanding that the murderer be put to death, demand compensation from him or her. As the Prophet said:

The legal heirs have two options to make against the murderer, to exact retaliation or pardon him upon blood money

(Saheeh Al-Bukhari)

Both men and women are equally entitled to demand the right to retaliation or pardon the offender, for the Prophet made it very clear:

The legal heirs are to abide by their order of priority in inheritance in demanding retaliation, even if such priority vests in a woman from among them

(Abu Dawud)

Now, you may wonder if this is fair, making the victim’s family the judge and jury rather than letting the course of normal justice operate with a judge deciding whether the murderer is guilty and deserves the ultimate penalty? The fact of the matter is that the victim is no longer among the living and is in no position to give his opinion, whether to forgive the offender or not. As such it is only prudent that this right be transferred to the next of kin who would be the most grieved at the loss of a family member and at the same time would also have an idea whether the victim would have wished that the offender be punished. Since all close family members of the victim, both male and female kin, are given the discretion to decide, they all have an equal say and the decision must be unanimous.

If they decide to forgive the offender, he or she is obliged to pay blood money, a sizeable compensation to the victim’s family, which they could use for their upkeep, especially if the victim is the breadwinner of the family or donate to charity or some worthy cause. Surely this is a better option than sending the perpetrator to jail or executing him without any compensation for the family for the loss as happens under Western Law.

If the family decides on the execution of the killer, that is their right, if they feel that the killing of the murderer is the only way their overwhelming grief could be assuaged. Fair enough, because they feel that grief more than you or I!

It is by no means a license to kill by paying blood money since the killer does not know that the family of the victim will accept blood-money and forego their right to retaliation. Even if they accepted it, the right of the murdered one to seek justice from God still remains, for as the Prophet said: “On the Day of Resurrection the slain will bring the slayer with his forelock and his head in his hand, his own jugular vein meanwhile dripping with blood, and he will say, ‘O My Lord, ask him why did he kill me?, till he brings him near the throne.”(Nasai).

And of course who can escape the Wrath of God who promises eternal punishment to murderers of innocents:

And whoever kills a believer intentionally, his recompense is Hell to abide therein, and the Wrath and the Curse of God are upon him, and a great punishment is prepared for him

(The Women:93)

If the heirs demand retaliation, the murderer is surrendered to them on condition that they would put him to death the way he had done their loved one to death, for as the Prophet said: “Whoever burns, we will burn him, and whoever drowns we will drown him” (Nasb Al Rayah, Al Zaylai). There is also the story of the Jew who crushed a girl’s head between two stones, and while she was still conscious she was asked about the murderer. Since she was unable to speak, they continued to mention names to her until the name of the killer was mentioned and she nodded. The Jew was brought and confessed to the killing, and so the Prophet ordered his head to be crushed with a stone (Saheeh Al-Bukhari).

However, the Prophet preferred beheading as a more merciful expedient, such as when he declared: There is no punishment except with the sword” (Ibn Majah) and “if you kill, then kill with propriety” (Tirmidhi). Thus the Prophet clearly preferred beheading the murderer, and it is this method of execution that strict Muslims still prefer. Very often than not, it is the state that carries out the execution on behalf of the victim’s family by getting a skilled executioner to do the job. If you think beheading is cruel, it’s not. It is as humane or even more so than any modern method of execution practised in the West. A single blow of the sword is all it takes to completely decapitate the offender. Even in the West until very recent times, it was the preferred method of executing murderers and what is supposed to be its more refined version, the guillotine of the French lasted until the Second World War till the invading Nazis abolished its use, preferring a shot to the head instead. At any rate beheading is certainly a better expedient than hanging, quartering and burning at the stake which were all well known ways of putting people to death in mediaval England which with time only became more cruel with boiling to death being approved in 1531, so horrible a punishment that some people boiled for up to two hours before death came to them. Islam, by stipulating a single stroke of the sword did away with all the forms of torture aimed at a slow, lingering death which the wicked minds of men could conceive of.

In Islamdom, all persons, regardless of faith are given equality in demanding retaliation and this necessarily includes Dhimmis or persons protected by Islam who have submitted to the rule of the Islamic state.  As the Caliph Ali said of the Dhimmis: “Their blood is like our blood and their property likewise” (Ahkam Al Qur’an, Al Jassas).  The Prophet himself ordered a Muslim to be executed in retaliation for murdering a Dhimmi (Ibn Al Bilmani), and this practice was continued by the Caliphs Umar (Fatawa Al Uqdiya, Al Halawi) and Uthman (Nasb Al Rayah, Al Zaylai), showing that it was widely accepted by the early Muslims that the life of a Dhimmi was equal to that of a Muslim. Indeed, even one to whom a pledge of protection had been given even in a war situation was to be protected thus. The Caliph Umar once wrote to the commander of his army: “I have heard that it is the habit of some of your men to chase an unbeliever till he takes refuge in a high place. Then one man tells him in Persian not to be afraid, and when he comes up to him, he kills him. By He in Whose Hand my Soul is, if I knew someone who had done that, I would strike off his head” (Muwatta).

The same holds true of their right to demand blood money if they so wish. The Prophet clearly said: “the blood money for the People of the Book is equal to that of their Muslim counterparts” (Badai al Suna, Al Kasani). It is also known that Umar awarded a thousand dinars in compensation for the killing of a Dhimmi named Rifa Ibn Shamul in Syria (Ahkam Al Qur’an, Al Jassas).

In like manner a man could be killed for murdering a woman or vice versa. The Prophet made this clear when he pronounced: “A man can be put to death for killing a woman” (Nayl Al Awtar, Al Shawkani) which is also supported by his ordering the killing of a Jew for the murder of a slave girl (Nasai). Even the Caliph Umar ordered retaliation for as many as seven men who were found guilty of murdering a woman (Al Jassas).

Some Jurists of the olden days were of the view that the only exception to this process was when parents were involved in the killing of their children, arguing that a parent cannot be executed for murdering his or her child on the basis of a saying attributed to the Prophet: “A father should not be killed for (the killing of his) son” (Tirmidhi).

The authenticity of this alleged saying is however doubtful as even Tirmidhi who recorded it denied its authenticity since it had been related by untrustworthy people including the fraudulent Hajjaj Bin Artah. A weak tradition like this cannot abrogate the generality of the Quranic principle which does not make any distinction between offenders based on their relationship to the victim and which in fact penalizes the offense both in this world and in the hereafter

O ye who believe, prescribed for you is the law of equality

in cases of murder

(The Heifer:178)

And whoever kills a believer intentionally, his recompense is Hell to abide therein, and the Wrath and the Curse of God are upon him, and a great punishment is prepared for him

(The Women:93)

Added to this is the saying of the Prophet:

The believers are equal (in their rights to demand) blood

 (of the one found guilty of premeditated murder)

(Musnad of Ahmad & Nasai)

Even if a parent has killed his or her child and is not given the death penalty by a court, he or she is still obliged to pay blood money to the killed offspring’s other kin as related in the tradition:

Abu Qataadah, a man from Bani Mudlij, killed his son and (Caliph) Umar took from him 100 camels (as blood money)

(Ibn Majah)

In this case, the killer had thrown a sword at his son that struck his thigh, the wound bleeding so profusely that he died. Even though this was not a deliberate act of killing, but one done in anger, Umar fined the man severely. One can only guess how a parent deliberately killing his or her child should then be penalized. Should not it be more than for mere manslaughter?

Such a one neither inherits from the estate of such offspring nor gets anything from the blood money, since all companions of the Prophet including the Caliphs Umar and Ali were agreed on this based on the Prophet’s Command:

The killer does not inherit from the one whom he killed

(Daraqutni & Bayhaqi)

There are even countries that penalize the crime of killing one’s offspring by more than demanding they pay blood money. Killing one’s children after all is a most foul deed and considered one of the grave crimes of Islam absolutely prohibited in the Qur’an:

Kill not your children for fear of want. We shall

provide sustenance for them as well as for you.

Verily the killing of them is a great sin

(The Night Journey:31)

Thus in Islam there can be no right of Patria Potestas like the Romans of old had, where a father had the right of life and death over his children including the grown-up ones. Rather in Islam duties of one to the other are reciprocal. As God tells us of our duty to parents who have reached old age: “And out of kindness lower to them the wing of humility, and say: “My Lord! Bestow on them Your Mercy even as they cherished me in childhood” (The Night Journey:24). It follows then that parents are expected to be merciful to their children and harming them in any way except to discipline them by way of light punishment is prohibited.

Now, something that is prohibited must of necessity be prevented even by using punishment as a deterrent, which is why a court of law that may not mete out the death penalty for a parent who kills his or her offspring, besides ordering the payment of blood money to the kin, usually awards discretionary punishment such as a long jail term, a certainly more punishing sentence than in Western countries where parents can get away with a couple of years or even a few months for killing their children on a plea of diminished responsibility, especially if they happen to be disabled.

At the same time, Islam makes it very clear that unintentional murder or manslaughter cannot be penalized with death. The Prophet ordained:

If anyone is killed blindly, when people are throwing stones, or by beating with whips, or striking with a stick, it is accidental. Blood money is due. If anyone is killed deliberately, retaliation is due

(Abu Dawud)

Umar even went to the extent of exonerating a girl from retaliation for killing a man who tried to rape her (Bayhaqi). Thus killing in self-defence is valid grounds for not being liable to the death penalty though the one who does so may be liable to paying compensation to the next of kin depending on the circumstances of the case.

Punishment for Adultery

We next come to the crime of adultery which is the second offense that calls for the death penalty in Islam. I say crime and not sin when I speak of adultery because this is exactly what it is. It is a crime because it is a betrayal of the marriage bond, marital treachery, infidelity at its worst. God says in the Qur’an:

Nor come nigh to adultery. For it is a shameful (deed),

and an evil, opening the road (to other evils)

(The Night Journey:32)

God here is telling us not to even come near to adultery, why because it is such a great sin. Islam condemns all those avenues that could lead to adultery including the wanton display of one’s physical charms. As God says in the Qur’an:

Say to the believing men to lower their gaze and guard their modesty. That is purer for them, Lo! God is aware of what they do. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their modesty and not to display of their adornment except that which is apparent

(The Light: 30-31)

It’s not only Islam that regards adultery as a sin. All major faiths do. The Bible for instance lists it as one of the Great Sins forming part of the Ten Commandments. The Seventh Commandment laid down: ‘Thou shall not commit adultery’ (Exodus 20:12).  Jesus went even further, announcing:

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time: ‘Thou shall not commit adultery’. But I say unto you, that whosoever looks on a woman to lust after, he hath committed adultery with her already in his heart

(Matthew 5:27-28)

Paul, an early Church father to whom much of Christianity as we know it today has its origins went still further, lumping together not only adulterers, but also fornicators, with idolators and suggesting that there could be no repentance for them:

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites none of these will inherit the kingdom of God

(Corinthians 6:9-10)

It was in keeping with this attitude that the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine imposed the death penalty for adultery while later emperors like Marcian and Leo changed it into life imprisonment. Justinian modified it further to flogging the woman and forcing her into a monastery, with the husband having the right either to get her out within two years or confine her there for the rest of her life. In fact. adultery still very much remains illegal in many Western countries including the US where a good number of states have laws against it.

One may wonder why in Islam adultery is looked upon by God as such a serious offence? For instance, a murderer may be spared death by the next of kin by paying blood money and a thief may not have his hand cut off if the victim chooses to gift the stolen item to him, but for adultery once proven there is no forgiveness even by the spouse of the offender. So heinous is it in the Sight of God.

The answer’s simple. God does not like infidelity, which is why He calls unfaithful Israel when she had taken to idolatry, a harlot. Why because harlotry is a metaphor for idolatry. This is why we find James, in typical Biblical style using the word adulterers to describe those who are unfaithful to the covenant between God and man, the covenant being likened to the marriage bond: “Adulterers! Do you not know that to be a lover of the world means enmity with God? Therefore whoever wants to be a lover of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4).

So just as humanity must be faithful to the covenant of God to worship Him and Him alone, without taking other gods beside Him, so must men and women be faithful to the marriage tie, loving their husband or wife as the case may be and not taking paramours. Faith is after all fidelity and disbelief infidelity. This is why Islam views marriage as an inviolable bond so long as it subsists.

But there’s also a more practical reason. Why, because marriage is the very bedrock of society, the one institution established by God for the perpetuation of the human race. It lays the foundation for a family and a healthy society. Take it away and humanity will sink into chaos without the love of a mother or the protection of a father. Could such a promiscuous society survive for more than a generation or two I ask you?

This is why the marriage bond has to be guarded at all costs. Quite naturally infringing on this bond should invite punishment to safeguard its sanctity. If not, breaking this bond, sundering what God has joined together, will be taken lightly so that adultery becomes a very casual affair, threatening the very foundation of society as we know it. Even in the civilized West where men and women marry and lead faithful lives, would they with all their liberality, brook another mate coming in between them and spoiling that beautiful relationship? Certainly not! That is in the nature of things God has created for the good of humanity.

True, man has been created weak in the flesh, but this is nothing compared to the rest of creation who are slaves of their instincts, whose sex lives are governed by pheromones, strong body odours and keen sense of smell that man lacks, allowing him to live an ordered married life and withstand the sexual pressures of communal living, the only mammal of over 5000 mammal species to be able to do so. This itself shows that man unlike other animal species has a higher purpose in life, bound to control himself for the good of his kind so that they all have a good foundation to realize the purpose of their existence, which is to serve God and God alone. To remind man of it, God also sends down diseases upon promiscuous people. We know not what kind of venereal diseases affected the men of old, but in Victorian times there was Syphilis and Gonorrhea and in our times there is AIDS, just as the Prophet prophesied:

Sexual immorality never appears among people to such an extent that they commit it openly except that they will be afflicted by plagues and diseases unknown to their forefathers

(Ibn Majah)

This does not mean that Islam advocates repression of the sex urge, but rather control of it in such a manner as will satisfy the individual, perpetuate the species and bring stability to society. Control, after all, is the first impulse of civilization. Without it man is a mere animal. So I ask you, what better way than marriage to regulate our lives. Indeed in Islam lawful sex within marriage is even rewarded by God. The Prophet once said: “A man is rewarded for the sexual act he performs with his wife!”. Some companions asked quite surprised: “Is a man rewarded for satisfying his passions?” and the Prophet answered: “Do you not see that if he were to satisfy it in a prohibited manner, he would be committing a sin? So if he satisfies it in a lawful manner, he will be rewarded” (Saheeh Muslim).

Although the Qur’an warns us to keep away from adultery, it does not ordain that the violators be stoned to death. That comes from the practice of the Prophet. However it does prescribe a punishment for the offence of Zina which is a general term covering illicit sex and used indifferently for both adultery, which is sexual intercourse outside marriage and fornication, which is pre-marital sex. The offenders in this case are called the Zaani in the case of the male and Zaaniya in the case of the female. This is what it says:

The Zaaniya and the Zaani, flog each of them with a hundred stripes. Let not compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by God, if ye believe in God and the Last Day. And let a party of the believers witness their punishment

(The Light:2)

However all are agreed that such corporal punishment by whipping is applicable only to unmarried offenders, in other words fornicators because the Prophet very clearly laid down that the punishment for married offenders or adulterers was stoning to death:

Take it from me. Verily God has ordained a way for them (the women who commit fornication): (When) a married man (commits adultery) with a married woman, and an unmarried male with an unmarried woman, then in case of married (persons) there is (a punishment) of one hundred lashes and then stoning (to death). And in case of unmarried persons, (the punishment) is one hundred lashes and exile for one year.

(Saheeh Muslim)

However it is no easy task proving illicit sex – whether adultery or fornication. The Qur’an stipulates that four witnesses witness the act while it is being committed, meaning the act of penetration itself:

Those who launch a charge against chaste women, and produce not four witnesses, flog them with eighty stripes, and reject their evidence ever after

(The Light:4)

A man once came to the Prophet and asked: “Can I kill a man if I see him committing adultery with my wife, or should I produce four witnesses to prove his guilt?”. The Prophet responded that he ought to produce four witnesses (Aboo Dawood). Furthermore the Prophet made it clear that witnesses could simply not assume sex was taking place since they could have simply been embracing or lying on top of one another. Rather he required witnesses to testify that they had seen “his penis enter into her vagina like an eyeliner applier entering into its container” (Aboo Dawood).

These conditions make proof of adultery a very difficult one to establish and one cannot escape the feeling that it is mainly intended as a deterrent to impress on those who ever think of indulging in it the seriousness of the offence and to prevent its getting public acceptance and being indulged in freely. This is compounded by the fact that those accusers who cannot produce reliable witnesses are themselves to be penalized with as many as 80 lashes. Although the verse lays down the punishment for slandering chaste women, by consensus of opinion it also covers slandering chaste men. But what of spouses who accuse one another of adultery. The Holy Book does not take this as slander but has another solution for it:

As for those who accuse their spouses but have no witnesses except themselves; if they bear witness four times (with an oath) by Allah that they are solemnly telling the truth And the fifth (oath) (should be) that they solemnly invoke the curse of God on themselves if they tell a lie.  But it would avert the punishment from the wife if she bears witness four times (with an oath) by God that (her husband) is telling a lie. And the fifth (oath) should be that she solemnly invokes the wrath of God on herself if (her accuser) is telling the truth

(The Light: 4-9)

Needless to say, such couples who accuse each other are divorced since after such accusations it would be difficult for them to live with each other. Still one has only to look at how well the Prophet himself handled an allegation of adultery alleged to have been committed by his own wife Ayisha. It once happened that Ayisha, while travelling, discovered she had lost her necklace. She went to look for it and got lost. A young man named Safwan came across her and placed her on the back of his own camel. When they returned the tongues started to wag. The Prophet himself did not know what to make of it and became cold with her as a result of which she returned to her parents home. The incident, needless to say, caused a scandal in the young Muslim community and even threatened to split it into two with two camps, one for Ayisha and the other against her.

So delicate was the situation that the Prophet went to confront Ayisha herself. The girl, then about fourteen years old was inconsolable. Her mother Umm Ruman had brushed it aside telling her that all beautiful women could expect this sort of trouble while her father Abu Bakr was at a loss of what to make of it. The Prophet urged her to confess her sin, saying that if she were guilty God would forgive her.  The girl looked straight at her husband and said that she would never admit something she had not done. The Prophet then went into a trance and in spite of being a cold day, he sweated so profusely that Abu Bakr rushed to cover him with a mantle. “Good news Ayisha!”, he called out to her “God has sent down word about your innocence”.  Her relieved parents urged her to come to Muhammad, but all she said was: “I shall neither come to him nor thank him. Nor will I thank the both of you who listened to the slander and did not deny it. I shall rise to give thanks to God alone”. She soon regained her place in the Prophet’s heart and that was it.

Just look at the example of the man. What a far cry from other, lesser men, like the founder of the Church of England, that impulsive wretch of a king named Henry VIII who beheaded one wife after the other on the slightest suspicion of adultery. If you think King Henry’s act was an exception, you’re sadly mistaken. It was a fairly common practice for European men in the middle ages to resort to the charge to get rid of a wife and take another in her place. A mere allegation of adultery by the husband could be penalized with death while it was unheard of for a wife to make such a charge against her husband. Even if she did it did not count. After all, was it not the Bible that laid down:

If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife- both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death

(Leviticus 20:10)

Strangely this Biblical punishment depended on the marital status of the woman, not the man. Nothing was said about a married man committing adultery with an unmarried woman whereas the man who committed the offense with a married woman was penalized, whether he was married or not. Thus in Biblical terms, adultery meant extramarital sexual intercourse involving a married woman, not a married man. This of course reflected the rigidly patriarchal customs of the Jews that considered woman to be the property of man.

This double standard also crept into mediaeval European society. In 14th century Vienna for example a man and a woman married to another caught in adultery could be impaled, with their bodies pressed against an iron pole to die a painful death while it did not count at all if a man cheated on his wife by cohabiting with an unmarried woman. Many were the cases where ruthless husbands resorted to the expedient of adultery to rid themselves of their wives. Take Maria of Brabant, Duchess of Bavaria who was beheaded in 1256 after being accused of adultery by her husband on the basis of an alleged love letter she wrote, Then there was Agnese Visconti, another nobleman of Italy put to death in 1391  after being falsely accused by her husband who wanted to end all relations with her father and Beatrice Lascaris di Tenda, yet another Italian noblewoman whose husband Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, grew averse to her as he favored his mistress, the much younger and accused her of adultery because she was apparently seen sitting on the bed with a young troubadour who entertained her with song. Poor Beatrice was beheaded as was the young troubadour and two innocent handmaidens who were accused of complicity to the act. And who can forget Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife who was convicted on trumped up charges of adultery and beheaded without even having a proper hearing. And these were of course high born women who made the news of the day. One can only imagine the plight of ordinary women who would have been at the mercy of capricious husbands who could use adultery as and when it suited them to get rid of them.

How remote this hypocritical attitude was from the Muslim world is seen from the story of Caliph Harun Al Rashid of whose wife many tales were told but who tolerated her, without as much as lifting a finger to obtain a confession. There is this story in the Arabian nights that the suspicious Caliph once found man’s semen on his wife’s bed and summoned his judge to take a good look at it. The judge looked around, saw a bat hanging above and promptly despatched it, saying that it was the bat that was the culprit as its semen looked very much like human semen. Who was to know! What’s more, in the nearly five hundred years that the Ottoman Empire ruled Istanbul, we hear of only a single instance of stoning to death for adultery taking place!

Punishment for Apostasy

And now we come to the third and last of the offences that invite the death penalty in Islam and that is apostasy or leaving the faith for another. There can be no doubt that in Islam, apostasy is a great sin. The Arabic term for apostasy, riddah literally meaning ‘turning back’ means desertion of Islam or conversion from Islam to another faith. The Qur’an says about such persons in very telling terms:

The Qur’an says about such persons in very telling terms: “And whoever of you reverts from his religion and dies while he is a disbeliever, for those, their deeds have become worthless in this world and the hereafter, and those are the companions of the fire, they will abide therein” (The Heifer:217). Besides severing the bond with God and inviting Divine retribution, apostasy involves another dimension which is not strictly spiritual, but rather temporal in character, and that is desertion of the Muslim community which is regarded as a form of treason.

Treason means different things to different cultures and even in modern democratic countries of the west we still come across an offense called treason which is heavily penalized, sometimes with death. In Britain for instance young soldiers who deserted the army out of cowardice were until very recently condemned as traitors and executed by their own. In this manner, hundreds of British soldiers, some still in their teens and suffering from shellshock or simply unable to bear the carnage they saw in the battlefield were shot during the Great War from 1914-1918. One young fellow’s crime was to hide in a barn to escape the horrors of war while another’s was to leave his post to comfort a recently-bereaved friend stationed nearby. This was how the British viewed treason and to think that Islamdom did not even have a punishment for deserters in Holy War fought for the defence of the faith, though they would have to account to God for that. The fact is that the citizens of a country are simply expected to be loyal to it even though they may dislike their country for some reason or other. In this they do not have much of a choice. Working against a country in which they happened to be born and are citizens of, can have severe repercussions and so it is with Islam which is not simply a faith, but also a whole way of life encompassing political, social, cultural and economic spheres among others.

When one is born or becomes a Muslim, he or she also becomes a member of the Islamic fraternity and as such is required to be loyal to it and protect it from destruction, disorder and division. Leaving Islam means not just forsaking the Muslim community, but also hits at the very heart of the community, so that it could even be viewed as an attempt to split its ranks. And just as a deserter is a danger to an army, so is an apostate a danger to the faith. This was all the more so in the early days of Islam. During the Prophet’s lifetime when a nascent Islamic society and polity was vulnerable to hostile forces, apostasy seems to have been inextricably linked to treason, hence the Prophet’s definition of an apostate as one who leaves Islam and forsakes the community. Such treason often meant the redirection of one’s loyalty to those enemies of Islam who were constantly conspiring and attempting to destroy the emerging community. Such people could not only support the enemy, but also side with them in battle. They also posed the very real danger of sowing discord within the community itself. Thus apostasy was not simply a matter of individual choice or free-will. It had other damning consequences as well, including political implications.

Apostasy laws also prevent people from forming cults, like we saw in America when too much freedom of religious conscience was given. Take Mormonism whose founder Joseph Smith claimed he had been commanded by God to take additional wives after his first wife caught him having sex with their teenage maid in the barn, so that before he died, he had married nearly forty women. Brigham Young revered by Mormons as their second prophet was even worse, ordering that those whites who married blacks should be executed: “Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain (those of African descent), the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot”. And who can forget cult leader Jim Jones of Jonestown who called on his followers to commit mass suicide, who not only took their accursed lives but also those of their children with over three hundred of the little ones murdered by cyanide poisoning.

There are a few traditions that suggest that apostasy from Islam carries the ultimate penalty. One such is the statement of the Prophet that one of the reasons for which one who has testified to the Oneness of God, in other words a Muslim could be killed for if he leaves Islam and forsakes the community (Saheeh Muslim). Another tradition has it that there was a man in fetters beside Abu Musa. Mu’adh asked, “Who is this?” He answered “It is a Jew who became Muslim and then reverted to Judaism”. He added “Sit down”.  Mu’adh said. “I will not sit down until he has been killed. It is the judgment of God and His Messenger” and repeated it three times. So Abu Musa commanded that he be killed. The Jew was asked to repent and when he refused he was killed (Abu Dawud). Yet another tradition has it that some Zanadiqah (heretics) were brought to Ali and he burnt them. This reached Ibn Abbas and he said: “I would not have burnt them because of the prohibition by the Messenger of God: ‘Do not punish with the punishment of God.’ I would have killed them in accordance with the word of the Messenger of God: ‘Whoever changed his (Islamic) religion kill him’ ” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari).

However just as Islam lays down the death penalty for the apostate, it has also given ample scope for the offender to repent, thus saving him or her not only from the Wrath of God, but also from the prescribed capital punishment.

The Qur’an clearly suggests that Divine Punishment will fall upon those apostates who do not return to Islam, showing that the repentance of apostates is possible. For instance, we have the statements:

Those who believe, then reject faith, then believe (again) and (again) reject faith, and go on increasing in unbelief. God will not forgive them nor guide them on the Way

(The Women: 137)

How shall God Guide those who reject Faith after they accepted it and bore witness that the Messenger was true and that Clear Signs had come unto them? But God guides not a people unjust. Of such the reward is that on them (rests) the curse of God, of His angels, and of all mankind. In that will they dwell; nor will their penalty be lightened, nor shall they be respited. Except for those that repent (Even) after that, and make amends; for verily God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful

(Family Imran: 86-89)

These verses imply that just as there is repentance with God for apostasy in the spiritual sphere, the community of Muslims should also give him or her an opportunity to repent before putting him or her to death. This is also supported in the Prophetic tradition. For instance we have the tradition where the Caliph Umar asked a man whether he had any news. The man replied “Yes, a man apostatized from Islam, so we killed him“. Umar said: “Why did you not lock him up for three days, and feed him on each day a loaf of bread and urge him to repent?” and he then said: “ O God- you are a witness- I was not there, Nor did I command it, and when the news reached me, I did not approve” (Muwatta). Umar no doubt had good reason to disassociate himself from the act, for the Prophet himself gave apostates an opportunity to repent like when he offered Islam to a woman who had apostatized. He said: “It is good if she repents. If she does not, she is to be killed” (Daruqutni).

In fact even the great majority of Classical Islamic Jurists were agreed that the apostate must be given an opportunity to repent before he or she is put to death. Most however felt that the grace period should be three days, after which the penalty ought to be carried out. A  vocal few were however of the view that the invitation to rejoin Islam should continue for as long as there is hope that the apostate might change his mind and repent. There were even those who did not prefer instant execution, but rather that the apostate be beaten to death with a stick, a slow method that might provide him greater opportunity to repent.

Another more serious aspect of apostasy is blasphemy or speaking out openly against the faith which all jurists are agreed also invites the death penalty. Why, because blasphemy is apostasy as the one who speaks ill of God or His Messenger cannot fail, at the same time, to renounce Islam. Some jurists however go to the extreme of arguing that the blasphemer, unlike the apostate, should have no option of repentance because he or she openly places himself or herself on a war footing with the community. Strangely, they argue that blaspheming against God can be pardoned by repentance since it is between God and the man concerned, but blaspheming against the Prophet cannot be pardoned under any circumstances as the Prophet himself would have to pardon the offender, and since he is no longer with us, such pardon is not possible. This is in spite of the Prophet’s character and way of life, for we know of numerous instances where he was subjected to verbal humiliation, but his reaction was one of patience, whether he was in power or not. Even when he gave the order for those who lampooned him to be killed, he forgave them when he heard of their repentance.

But first let’s see what the Qur’an, the Word of God has to say about it:

To God belong the Most Beautiful Names. So call on Him by them.

But shun such men who profane His Names

(The Heights:180)

When you hear the Signs of God held in defiance and ridicule, you are not to sit with them unless they turn to a different theme. If you did, you would be like them

(The Women:140)

In these verses, God warns the believers to stay away from those who ridicule His Holy Names or Signs lest they become like them. It lays down no punishment for those who indulge in their blasphemies. Then there’s the verse:

They swear by God that they said nothing (evil). But indeed they uttered blasphemy and they did it after accepting Islam; and they mediated a plot which they were unable  to carry out; this revenge of theirs was (their) only return for the bounty with which  God and His Messenger had enriched them! If they repent, it will be best for them, but if they turn back, God will punish them with a grievous punishment in this life and the hereafter

(The Repentance: 74)

In this verse, God warns the unbelievers who blaspheme that if they don’t repent, they’ll have to pay a heavy price both in this world and in the hereafter. Indeed even if we take blasphemy to be tantamount to waging war against God and His Messenger, we will still find that the option of repentance is always open before they fall into the hands of the believers:

The punishment of those who wage war against God and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land. That is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the hereafter; except those who repent before they fall into your power. In that case, know that God is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful

(The Repast: 33-34)

As for those who cursed and uttered blasphemies against the Prophet, we would find that despite being the chosen one of God to convey His Message to all mankind, he conducted himself with great forbearance which certainly cannot be said of other men. It once happened that two men espied the Prophet with a leather shield in his hand with which he covered himself as he urinated. They said: “Look at him, he is urinating like a woman”. The Prophet heard this and said: “Do you know what befell a person from the Children of Israel? When urine fell on them, they would cut off the place where the urine fell, but he forbade them (to do so) and he was punished in his grave” (Abu Dawud).

Here we have some Muslims, in their ignorance, comparing the noble Prophet’s actions to that of a woman’s and having the temerity to use this kind of language before the Prophet of God and the Ruler of the Community. But did the Prophet pronounce that they be killed for blasphemy? Nay, rather he explained himself and that was the end of the matter.

There were also other more serious cases of blasphemy to which the Prophet turned a blind eye. The Prophet’s wife Ayisha relates one such incident:

A group of Jews entered upon the Prophet and said “As-Samu alaikum’ (Death Be Upon You)”. I understood it and said “Wa alaikum As-Samu wal La’an” (And upon you be Death and the Curse of God). God’s Messenger said: “Be calm O Ayisha! God loves that one should be kind and lenient in all matters”. I said: “O God’s Messenger, didn’t you hear what they (the Jews) said?”. God’s Messenger said: “I have (already) said (to them) “And upon you (be the same)!”  (Saheeh Al-Bukhari)

Then there’s the case of the Jewish poet Ka’b who composed poems denigrating the person of the Prophet. Ka’b not only composed poems lampooning the Prophet, but also tried to provoke the Quraysh against him. He therefore showed open hostility to the Muslims. As the Prophet later observed of him: “He has openly assumed enmity to us and speaks evil of us and he has gone over to the polytheists (who were at war with Muslims) and has made them gather against us for fighting”. (Zurqani) Ka’b’s blasphemous poetry was nonetheless a serious offence and caused a scandal in the young Muslim community which only ceased when the Prophet ordered him assassinated. When the Jews complained about his assassination, the Prophet told them: “If he had calmed down, like others who follow his opinion or are of the same opinion as his have calmed down, he wouldn’t have been assassinated!

The Prophet’s words show that Ka’b was assassinated not just for a few words he uttered against the Prophet but for the vigorous and continuous campaign of hate speech engaged in. As the Prophet himself explained, if he had calmed down like the others, he would not have been assassinated. But Ka’b would not stop, he continued to lampoon the Prophet, which was an attack not only against his person, but also the young Muslim community he led.  Slanderous poetry is by no means casual comment. It was much more than that and intended to get the maximum effect by catering to the lower instincts of men by attacking a man’s honour. What Ka’b wanted was to make the Prophet an object of ridicule and demean him in the eyes of other men. Ka’b’s actions were also a threat to the Prophet’s mission, for to attack him verbally was also to attack his mission which was one of salvation for all mankind. To leave it unpunished would only have encouraged others to engage in this type of lowly character assassination, posing a threat to his mission as well. Such persons were placing themselves on a war footing against the Muslims. Their role in the anti-Islamic struggle was similar to that of the war-bards of old who were a rallying point for combatants. And all this at a time Islam was still weak in the young state of Medina. Had the Prophet looked the other way, who knows, he would have been thought of as a lesser man and his noble mission would have suffered in the process.

Thus Ka’b’s assassination cannot be taken as evidence for not giving the opportunity for blasphemers to repent of their deed. Had Ka’b relented, the Prophet would have forgiven him as he himself indicated, for did he not say: “If he had calmed down, like others who follow his opinion or are of the same opinion as his have calmed down, he wouldn’t have been assassinated!

This is also proven by the fate of his namesake, Ka’b ibn Zuhayr who had a death warrant on his head for composing poems against the Prophet and was on the list of Meccans to be denied the general amnesty given by the Prophet on the occasion of the conquest of the city. Although a general amnesty had been given to the inhabitants of the city, it was not to be applicable to six men and four women “even if you see them hanging to the cloths of the Ka’bah” though many of them were later pardoned by the Prophet.Ka’b was among them. Ka’b lost no time coming to the Prophet to make the declaration of faith, which he followed by a few lines in praise of the Prophet:

Inna rasula lasaifun yustadaau bihi

Muhannadun min Suyufillahi maslulu

(The Messenger, a light is he, source of light,

An Indian sword among the swords of God)

Hearing this, the Prophet took of his cloak and clothed him with it. When Muawiya, the son of the Prophet’s erstwhile foe Abu Sufyan became Caliph, he wanted to have the cloak for himself and offered Ka’b a handsome sum of money but Ka’b would not part with it for all the money in the world.

Then there’s the case of the two singing girls who also had their names on the black list of persons to be killed along with their master, a man named Abdullah ibn Khatal who used to be a Muslim but apostatized and reverted to idolatry after killing a servant of his for a trivial reason. The man had these women sing for him and for his companions songs abusive of the Prophet. The Prophet’s instructions specified that the two slave girls were also be killed. The man was killed as he was holding on to the coverings of the Ka’aba and killed along with him were one of his slave girls. The other managed to flee until someone sought a special pardon for her from the Prophet, which he granted (Sirat Rasulullah. Ibn Hisham).

What we find here is a case similar to that of Ka’b. Songstresses who engaged in hate speech attacking the honour of an innocent man and a Prophet of God at that. Songs, like poetry, have a profound impact on human minds and the danger posed by such singers could not be underestimated, especially in an age of ignorance where men could easily be misled by them instead of seeing reason. A message had to be given. But here too we find that it was a vigorous campaign of disparaging poetry that earned the Prophet’s ire and not a few plain words uttered against him. And despite all this, the girl who fled and later sought the Prophet’s forgiveness, was pardoned. If indeed, attacking the Prophet verbally was a punishment with no possibility of repentance, we may ask why the Prophet himself forgave the girl concerned. Surely, the Prophet would never have gone against God’s Law, and to argue otherwise would only be heresy.

Then there’s the case of the blind man who had a slave woman by whom he had children. She used to curse the Prophet and he would warn her to stop, but she wouldn’t. One night she was carrying on with cursing the Prophet and so he took a dagger, put it in her stomach, pressed it in and killed her. In the morning, the news reached the Prophet and so he gathered the people and asked: “I ask you in the name of God who ever did that to stand up”. So the blind man stood up and came walking to the Prophet until he sat in front of him and said ”O Messenger of God I am the one who did that, she used to curse you and I used to tell her to stop and she would n’ t stop! I have from her two children like pearls and she was very kind with me. But last night she started cursing you so I took a dagger and I stuck it in her and killed her! ”. To this the Prophet replied “Bare witness that her blood is invalidated!” (Aboo Dawud) meaning that there was to be no punishment for the blind man for his act.

Firstly, what has to be borne in mind here is that the Prophet did not order the woman’s killing. She was killed by an over-zealous follower of his who had beseeched her to cease her blasphemies again and again and only took her life when she refused to do so. Could we infer from this that the blind man was wrong in giving the woman several opportunities to cease her blasphemies? Certainly cannot, for the Prophet’s companions knew Islam better than those who in their misguidance declare that even repentant blasphemers should be executed. So here again what we infer is that a blasphemer has an opportunity to repent from the act of reviling the Prophet and that he or she should be meted out the punishment only when they are unrepentant.

This is only in keeping with the way the Prophet would have liked us to behave. His wife Ayisha says of him: “He never spoke ill of anybody. Instead of returning evil for evil, he used to forgive those who gave offence to him. He was always clear of injustice and never took his revenge. He never hit any maid, or slave or servant or even a dumb creature”. Hind, son of his wife Khadija through an earlier husband tells us: “Kind of heart, he was nice and sweet-tempered. He never liked to displease or cause offence to anybody. He thanked others even for trifling favours. He took whatever food was placed before him without criticizing it. He never got any for anything concerning his own person, nor did he contemplate revenge or letting down anybody. But if anyone opposed what was just and right, he used to get sore and helped the right cause with all his might” (Tirmidhi).

Thus, those who say that the blasphemer should be killed even when he or she repents are not the worshippers of the True God who accepts the repentance of all and sundry, nor the followers of the Prophet of  Mercy who accepted the repentance of all those who sought his forgiveness, but the devotees of the unrepentant devil himself. Why, because Satan is unrepentant and does not believe in repentance. So it is only natural that those whom he has poisoned with his venom, should act likewise and not believe in repentance!

Islam’s apostasy and blasphemy laws with its stress on repentance was far more lenient than the blasphemy laws that prevailed in Christian nations like Britain until fairly recent times. Take the English Criminal Code which as late as the 18th century, inflicted some terrible punishments on those found guilty of high treason which also meant adhering to a form of Christianity other than the established Anglican Church. With the profession of their faith declared as high treason many Catholics in England and Ireland suffered a very painful death. The unfortunate victims would be hung by the neck from a scaffold, being cut down and disemboweled while still alive after which their heads would be severed from their bodies and their corpses divided into four quarters.

Blasphemers also faced death without clemency like Thomas Aikenhead, a young twenty year old medical student at the University of Edinburgh was hanged in 1697 for making blasphemous statements such as calling the Old Testament ‘Ezra’s fables’, and the New Testament ‘the History of the Imposter Christ’ based upon the evidence given by his erstwhile friends. The prosecution was told that Aikenhead ‘preferred Mahomet to the blessed Jesus’. He was charged under Scotland’s blasphemy act which mandated death for one who ‘not being distracted in his wits shall rail upon or curse God, or any of the persons of the blessed Trinity’. Aikenhead was found guilty of cursing and railing against God the Father and the Son, denying the incarnation and the Trinity, and scoffing at the Scriptures. Despite submitting a petition for leniency he was hanged and buried on the road to Leith.

Medieval European countries’ harsh blasphemy laws were no doubt inspired by the Old Testament which lays down that those who speak blasphemy “shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 24:16). The early church fathers went even further, like Paul who wrote many books that form the present New Testament, in one of which he says: “Anyone who rejects the Law of Moses is put to death without pity on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Do you not think that much worse punishment is due the one who has contempt for the Son of God, considers unclean the covenant blood by which he was consecrated, and insults the spirit of grace?” (Hebrews 10:28-29). So going by all counts, whether in its capital punishments for murder, adultery or apostasy or other punishments such as for theft or fornication, Islam’s was until very recent times an extremely lenient penal code. If it seems harsh today, it’s because modern western society with its focus on this fleeting material life perceives it to be so!

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