Thursday, February 19, 2009

An eye for an eye: a look at Islamic legislation

Iran has been gripped recently with the story of a woman who was disfigured and blinded with acid by an obsessed man who wanted her to marry him. What has surprised many people around the world is that she has demanded that they obtain justice for her in an unusual way, invoking the Islamic belief of "an eye for an eye". After a trial, the court sentenced the man to be blinded with drops of acid into his eyes and his recent appeal has been rejected.

Many people I've spoken with about this have been very uncomfortable about this in a number of ways, understandably. The first is that the state is the one which will be carrying out this extremely harsh sentence, the second is that this whole affair seems so utterly brutal and surreal. Still, I would argue that this isn't actually the case. Firstly Iran is an Islamic republic, which means that it's legislation is derived primarily from the Qur'an. The goal of the Islamic republic is to have a country which is run as closely as possible according to the laws as they believe were laid down by Allah (God) and so it is a country where Muslims have the opportunity to live according to their faith fully and entirely according to Islamic law, which is synonymous with justice. Based on this understanding, there is no law which is finer for a Muslim to adhere to than that which is laid down in the Qur'an, for it would preserve their rights and take into account their grievances to the full. Universal human rights, accepted by secular countries to varying extent throughout the world, is similar in form but not in content and it, according to a Muslim, leads to more injustice since it is clumsy and childish. Therefore, they believe it is Islamic law which would guarantee that the victim is fully compensated and that the criminal would receive the punishment due to them. Notions of reforming criminals are not alien to Islamic law, but they are within the framework of the limits set by Islamic jurisprudence and legislation. This brings us to a key point to remember about Islamic law. The transgressing of boundaries to do with a Muslims obligations towards Allah have, throughout the history of Islam and since the days of the Prophet Muhammad himself, been mostly forgiven and dealt with leniently, for God is forgiving. It is where the transgressions have infringed on other Muslims that the punishment has been harshest and the enforcement the most stringent. What good is justice if the victim is told their recompense is in the after life? This did not mean that there were not ways around it, for blood libel is accepted in cases of murder or accidental killing or for serious punishments.

When it comes to prescriptions for transgressions and harms that a person suffers from the hands of another, the Qur'an is clear about to what extent justice can be pursued and extracted, outlining the limits and options available. The media have latched onto the catchy "An eye for an eye" hadith, but there is much in the Qur'an which also confirms this view and in fact makes the enforcing of it a duty upon Muslims to enact in accordance with the limits set. For example:

al Shura 42:40 

"and the punishment for a harm is a harm like it and who forgives and reconciles, his reward will be with Allah, He does not like the unjust."

The meaning of this is clear, though it is important to point out that when the Qur'an says, "He does not like the unjust", that does not mean that should a person choose to inflict a harm similar to the harm they suffered then they are unjust, but whosoever exceeds that would then be unjust.

al Nisa 4:92

وَمَا كَانَ لِمُؤْمِنٍ أَنْ يَقْتُلَ مُؤْمِنًا إِلا خَطَأً وَمَنْ قَتَلَ مُؤْمِنًا خَطَأً فَتَحْرِيرُ رَقَبَةٍ مُؤْمِنَةٍ وَدِيَةٌ مُسَلَّمَةٌ إِلَى أَهْلِهِ إِلا أَنْ يَصَّدَّقُوا فَإِنْ كَانَ مِنْ قَوْمٍ عَدُوٍّ لَكُمْ وَهُوَ مُؤْمِنٌ فَتَحْرِيرُ رَقَبَةٍ مُؤْمِنَةٍ وَإِنْ كَانَ مِنْ قَوْمٍ بَيْنَكُمْ وَبَيْنَهُمْ مِيثَاقٌ فَدِيَةٌ مُسَلَّمَةٌ إِلَى أَهْلِهِ وَتَحْرِيرُ رَقَبَةٍ مُؤْمِنَةٍ فَمَنْ لَمْ يَجِدْ فَصِيَامُ شَهْرَيْنِ مُتَتَابِعَيْنِ تَوْبَةً مِنَ اللَّهِ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ عَلِيمًا حَكِيمًا

"Never should a Believer kill a Believer; but (if it so happens) by mistake, (compensation is due); if one (so) kills a Believer, it is ordained that he should free a believing slave, and pay compensation to the deceased's family, unless they remit it freely. If the deceased belonged to a people at war with you, and he was a Believer, the freeing of a believing slave (is enough). If he belonged to a people with whom ye have a treaty of mutual alliance, compensation should be paid to his family, and a believing slave be freed. For those who find this beyond their means, (is prescribed) a fast for two months running: by way of repentance to Allah; for Allah hath all Knowledge and all Wisdom."

al Baqarah: 178,179

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الْقِصَاصُ فِي الْقَتْلَى الْحُرُّ بِالْحُرِّ وَالْعَبْدُ بِالْعَبْدِ وَالْأُنْثَى بِالْأُنْثَى فَمَنْ عُفِيَ لَهُ مِنْ أَخِيهِ شَيْءٌ فَاتِّبَاعٌ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَأَدَاءٌ إِلَيْهِ بِإِحْسَانٍ ذَلِكَ تَخْفِيفٌ مِنْ رَبِّكُمْ وَرَحْمَةٌ فَمَنِ اعْتَدَى بَعْدَ ذَلِكَ فَلَهُ عَذَابٌ

"O ye who believe! The law of equality is prescribed to you in cases of murder: the free for the free, the slave for the slave, the woman for the woman. But if any remission is made by the brother of the slain, then grant any reasonable demand, and compensate him with handsome gratitude. This is a concession and a Mercy from your Lord. After this, whoever exceeds the limits shall be in grave penalty."

"In the Law of Equality there is (saving of) Life to you, O ye men of understanding; that ye may restrain yourselves."

Islamic law clearly states the limits of applying retribution and extracting justice. For those who transgress, there are consequences. In the case of the man who has done such a horrible act on this woman, he has left her permanently scarred and with a burden that will last with her for the rest of her life. The injustice is already done and the focus now is on how best to address this imbalance whereby she has clearly, within the limits of the law of the land, as specified by the Qur'an, demanded that he suffer the same fate as she did. The court has obliged, since it does not contravene Islamic law, is within her right to request, and is therefore not unjust. Since it falls within the criteria of a just sentence, that is, it is fully deserved, then it is not unusual, since justice is not unusual for it is needed to maintain balance. Nor is it cruel, since cruelty is only when a person suffers undeservedly and this person, as mentioned above, deserves the sentence by virtue of the fact that he has done her grave harm out of malice and spitefulness and must be held to account. As a perpetrator of a crime in an Islamic state, subject to Islamic laws, justice has been exacted. If only Iran's Islamic authorities were this diligent in the application of the rest of Shariah law.


Lirun said...

why dont u mov to iran..

its a vastly beautiful country with a regime that would love your thought process..

would you ever consider it?

Yaman said...

Your argument here is extremely problematic.

"Based on this understanding, there is no law which is finer for a Muslim to adhere to than that which is laid down in the Qur'an, for it would preserve their rights and take into account their grievances to the full."

Excuse me, can you explain which law specifically is laid out in the Qur`an? At best, there are some principles. But Islamic jurisprudence is not based on the Qur`an only, but on Hadith, on centuries of other legal arguments, etcetera. You can't say that Islamic law is laid down in the Qur`an, that's absurd, Islamic law is made by states, governments, scholars, and jurists--even if it's based on their own perceptions/understandings of the Qur`an and other sources.

"Universal human rights, accepted by secular countries to varying extent throughout the world, is similar in form but not in content and it, according to a Muslim, leads to more injustice since it is clumsy and childish"

No, it's not according to a Muslim, it's according to YOU. Surely not all Muslims agree with you.

You can't make a fatwa or any legal decision based on 3 quotations from the Qur`an, with no reference to any other scholars over the past nearly 1500 years, and still call it "Shariah" or "Islamic law." You take both these words as given, with no explanation what it means or refers to.

G.Gar said...


I must admit that you have made very good sense here.

The contradictions between the Iranian and the Pan-Arab project are just too obvious.

It also seems to me that, ironically enough, Israel is the only believer in pan-Arabism now a day. It still percieves the Arabs as one bloc, and is very aware of the role of the Iran's proxies in making the Middle-East an Israel friendly playground. LOL

Maysaloon said...

Why on earth has this made you so on angry and on what basis are you disagreeing with me? When you ask me what law specifically is laid out in the Qur'an are you being serious? Read Surat al Baqara at least and there is everything in there from marriage and divorce to inheritance laws. What is absurd is that you say that Islamic law is not laid down in the Qur'an, this is like saying American laws are not based on the Constitution. Yes there has been much work since it was initially revealed but when you know the source, you know what comes with its essence too. Please don't try to drown out a specific issue with general and vague arguments. Besides, when did I say that Islamic law was not laid down by states, governments, scholars and jurists. If you read any of Khomeini's texts, even extracts, and from the sound of it you haven't, you would know what is meant when they made Iran an Islamic republic. The theoretical foundations of this country are very different to other forms of government which are more prevalent.

Also, I am sure that some Muslims would not agree with me, but then again getting Muslims to agree on anything is a mission in itself but what exactly is your point? That this position is according to myself as if I just woke up one morning and decided that this is the way it should be? No, I've looked at the problem, I've gone back to the source, as any Muslim should if they are not sure of something, and seen whether my opinion on the matter is for or against. I've tried to give an outline and view of why the judge would have decided what he did, why the victim herself asked for it, and in what context this is taking place. I did not say I was issuing any fatwa or legal decision, it is also ironic in that you demand that I should make some reference to 1500 years of Islamic jurisprudence, but you don't consider that the judge who issued the sentence has done precisely that, simply because that is his place to do so and not mine. Shariah and Islamic law are much more comprehensive in the areas they cover than you give them credit for, and much simpler in meaning and concept than you are claiming them to be.

If you feel that what I'm saying is wrong then feel free to back up your arguments with something of the Quran and the Hadith, or 1500 years of Islamic lawmaking, before attacking mine (all 3 of them) which are. I'm not having a go at you, but I get annoyed by assumptions that the Quran and the Hadith are this huge and inaccessible body of text which can only be dealt with by specialists, they are not. They are just waiting to be read and studied by anybody interested enough to make the effort and learn.

Anonymous said...

Assalamou alaikoum brother,

You have a brilliant way of analyzing things, I admire your mind very much.


Lirun said...

actually israel is very aware of this differences but i have no problem of you not realising this :)

Maysaloon said...

Wa aleikum al Salam!

Thank you Jnoubiyeh and thanks for stopping by! I assure you there is no brilliance involved and it's hardly working most of the time.

Lirun said...

i agree with maysaloon

no brilliance

Robert Elee said...

amre el-abyad... you are right, israel is the only believer in the pan arabism.. oops i forgot about the countless dumb arab despots who rule the arab masses like sheep.

lirun, instead of saying to maysaloon "why dont u mov to iran", you yourself should move to germany. have fun there!

Lirun said...

im sure that despite past differences the germans would treat me very nicely..

but alas it is not my home.. and i share no historical philosophical cultural or ideological affinity with germany so there is little reason for me to make it my home.. thanks for suggesting it though..

feel welcome to share more of your great ideas..