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Islam recognizes that morality and ethics are the roots of every good society. One finds abundance of social and spiritual traits in the fabric of Islam geared for producing a better social living. These traits, however, are not enough insurance against misconduct. Shari’ah, the Islamic Law, is a community moral law used to manage and govern a Muslim society and to control the behavior of its members to ensure its safety. Shari’ah is backed by the power of the state that enforces the law by means of appropriate penalties or remedies. In modern societies, authorized bodies, such as a legislature or a court create the law. While this is also true in Islam, however, the basic rules of Shari’ah are divine in nature.


As Karen Armstrong stated, in her book, Muhammad A Biography of the Prophet, “Unlike Christianity, which came to birth under the Roman empire, where the social and political order were already established and Jesus and St. Paul had to mainly worry about the spiritual order,” Muhammad (peace be upon him), on the other hand, had to build a society from point zero. Besides establishing the spiritual aspects, he had to erect the social and political aspects as well. Hence, the affairs of the state, the civil, social and political aspects of Muslims’ lives are considered as divine as the spiritual aspects. This makes obedience of the rule an act of worship that the individual will be rewarded for.




Islam’s philosophy with respect to the spread of misconduct is prevention. Part of the prevention mechanism is severe penalty. The severity of punishment of a Muslim serves as a giant deterrent to committing a crime. Because of the severity of punishment, the majority of people would not commit the violation or even begin to think of carrying it out. The likeness of this policy is much like the common practice of law-suits in the United States that are costing violators millions of dollars in penalty, which has effectively kept many violators away from committing a violation. An example of this is the multi-billion law suit case against the Tobacco companies, Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Brown and Williamson, Lorillard, the Leggett Group and Brooke Limited charged with reckless disregard to misrepresenting information relating to health cost them over 200 billion dollars to a class case and over 246 billion dollars to 46 states’ case.


Similar to the common expensive lawsuits are the stiffer penalties in traffic laws that are implemented to reduce accidents and death. In the same way, today’s courts of law are stiffening the penalties and sentences to limit violations. For example, a traffic citation point in 2003 requires eighteen months to be removed off the driver’s record versus six months requirement in the middle of 1980s. Similarly, the level of intoxicant found in drunk-driving citations has risen from 0.12% in the mid seventies to 0.1% to 0.08%in the 2000’s. This restriction has saved thousands upon thousands of lives from death in drunk-driving accidents.   


Let us illustrate the psychological effect of the severity of punishment on people’s behavior. According to Islamic law, the maximum penalty for professional theft is the cutting of the right hand. It should be understood that this policy does not mean that for every theft there is a hand to be cut. The judge exercises other forms of penalties such as imprisonments or fines. With the mere existence of the hand-cutting rule, however, theft in Muslim societies never grew to the level of proficiency and organized crime. The effect of severity of hand cutting as a punishment for theft, and the shameful impact on someone with his hand cut has almost completely eliminated this social disease in Muslim societies governed by Islamic Shari’ah.  


Similarly, the penalty for a murder in the Islamic Law is death (Capital Punishment). The wisdom in the severity of penalty is saving lives. The Qur’an states:


 “And there is (a saving of) life for you in al-Qisas (the law of equal penalty), O you men of understanding, that you may restrain yourselves.” (Qur’an, 2:180)


Since people are afraid to die or be executed, it would be enough deterrent for a person to learn that if he or she has slain a person that death would be his or her punishment. Thus, in setting this equal punishment, many lives are saved, and sorrow and sadness for missing loved ones is eliminated.


When a Sentence is Carried Out


The maximum sentence of any violation of law is not applied in every case. In robbery and theft cases for example, the maximum penalty of hand-cutting applies after the consideration of many factors such as track record and whether the theft was made for profit. In some cases, such as stealing food because of severe hunger or to prevent death, there may not be a penalty. An actual example that took place during the Rule of Caliph Umar can be helpful to illustrate this fact.


A master brought his servant to Caliph Umar to cut his hand for stealing. Umar asked the defendant whether he stole from his master’s property. When the servant did not deny the accusation, Umar asked him why he did it. The servant explained that he did it because his family had nothing to eat. Upon this, the plaintiff concurred that the defendant’s claim was true. Further questioning of the plaintiff led Umar to determine that the plaintiff was at fault for not providing his servant adequate food, labor and shelter. Then, Umar ordered the plaintiff to adequately provide his servant’s needs and the case that was against the servant turned out to be a case against his master. This example is asserts that Shari’ah is a community law based on fairness and justice.


Alternatives for a Capital Punishment


The penalty for a murder is death. However, depending on the circumstances, the Islamic judicial system permits settlements and forgiveness. Thus, there is a substitute for the capital punishment in the Islamic Law. Allah makes it more rewarding to the slain family to forgive than to execute the sentence of death on the murderer.


“O you who have believed, prescribed for you is legal retribution for those murdered - the free for the free, the slave for the slave, and the female for the female. But whoever overlooks from his brother anything, then there should be a suitable follow-up and payment to him with good conduct. This is an alleviation from your Lord and a mercy. (Qur’an, 2:178)


In regard to forgiveness, Dr. Ingrid Mattson of Hartford Seminary states,


“Because forgiveness itself is an act that free the people who have been harmed from the sense of anger and the sense of victimization, it empowers them to have some control of the situation by giving that act of forgiveness.”


Flexibility and Ambiguity


Relaxing or stiffening a penalty for a particular violation is an integral part of the Islamic Law. Penalty in the Islamic Law is dependent on the nature of the crime. Factors such as severity of damage, the background of the violator, his or her intent and repeatability, play a major role in determining the extent of the penalty.


Furthermore, The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Avoid (the maximum) penalty on the account of ambiguity.” Since the punishment is mainly used as deterrent, if the intent of the law in a particular case is fulfilled, the judge then has the discretion to apply a lower sentence and avoid the maximum penalty.


Similarly, the judge may increase the penalty for a particular case if he or she found it necessary to do so. The judicial Islamic record is full of cases illustrating how justice was served by the Islamic law.


The Spread of Vice


Islam sets vigorous control to minimize the publicity of vice in a community. Publicity of vice leads to its acceptance and acceptance of vice leads to the degeneration of the entire society. The Qur’an clearly states:


“And do not approach (avoid all situations that might possibly lead to) unlawful sexual intercourses. Indeed, it is ever an immorality and is evil as a way.” (Qur’an, 17:32)


“O you who have believed, indeed, intoxicants, gambling, (sacrificing on) stones alters (to other than Allah), and divining arrows are but defilement from the work of Satan, so avoid (distance yourself from anything remotely related to) it that you may be successful.” (Qur’an, 5:90)

“Say: My Lord has only forbidden immoralities – what is apparent of them and what is concealed – and sin, and oppression without right..” (Qur’an, 7:33)

“Indeed, those who like that immorality be spread (or publicized) among those who have believed will have a painful punishment in this world and the Hereafter.” (Qur’an, 24:19)


For this reason of limiting the news of vice and corruption, Islam made it particularly difficult to prove fornication or adultery cases. Let us read what Allah said in this regard:


“The woman and man found guilty of sexual intercourse lash each one of them with a hundred lashes, and do not be taken by pity for them in the religion (i.e., Law) of Allah…and those who launch a charge against chaste women, and produced not four witnesses (to support their allegation), flog them with eighty stripes; and reject their evidence…” (Qur’an, 24:2-4)


The penalty for adultery (made for mischief in the land) is death and for fornication it is 100 lashes. The penalty purifies the person from the sin in this world and saves him or her from the punishment in the Hereafter. One can imagine the lesson a particular Muslim society learns from the execution of a case of adultery to one of its members. This lesson is certain to make each member stay as far away as possible from even thinking of committing such a mischief.


To prove the crime in either of fornication or adultery cases, however, it is required from the accuser to bring four witnesses. Each witness must testify that he or she saw the act being committed. If one of the witnesses was not sure of this act, then all four witnesses must be lashed eighty times for false accusation and for the spread of undesired news. The possible penalty for conveying the fornication news and the condition of four witnesses severely restricts the legal cases in the court of law. These restrictions in turn help contain the spread of false news from becoming common occurrence which may ease its acceptance in the community.


While Islam made these severe restrictions for a fornication case to reach the legal system, it has left the door wide open for sinners of such crime to repent and change their bad habits privately.

Justice and Guarding Safety not Penalty


The intent of the Islamic law is to prevent crime and establish justice and fairness, not simply to impose stiffness and rigidity. Avoiding execution of penalty is recommended even when an actual sin is committed. To substantiate our claim, let us examine an example taken from the days of the Prophet (peace be upon him).


A lady by the name of al Ghamediyah came to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and said: “O Prophet of Allah, purify me from my sin, I have committed fornication.” He said: “Maybe you kissed.” She said: “No, O Prophet, I committed fornication.” He said: “Maybe you touched.” She said: “No, O Prophet I committed fornication.” At this point, the prophet told her to come back after three months. Three months later, al Ghamidyah came back to the Prophet (peace be upon him). He asked her if she was carrying a baby in her womb. Her answer was positive and that she has a baby in her womb. He then sent her away telling her to come back after she bears the child. When she had the child, she came back to the Prophet (peace be upon him) asking him to execute the penalty. Again, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) sent her away saying: “Go breast feed the child for two years.” When the two years were over al Ghamidyah was at the doorsteps of the Prophet and again asked him to apply the rule on her. At this point, the Prophet (peace be upon him) ordered that she receives the punishment. (Reported by Muslim)


From this example, one needs not to look hard to figure out the many ways that the Prophet (peace be upon him) allowed this lady to go away and seek repentance on her own and avoid the penalty. One can also see that the Prophet (peace be upon him) was not eager to execute her sentence, especially when she had a fetus in her womb. Preserving souls, after all, is a sacred rule in Islam. Furthermore, the Prophet (peace be upon him) did not order the lady into prison or issued a warrant to capture the one who committed the sin with her to carry out the penalty on him since he had committed the sin as well.


The spirit and essence of the Islamic Law in its severe penalty is to save lives, stop corruption, disallow mischief, serve justice, build a safer society and apply little or no penalty.



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