Islam’s Unjust Punishments

Examining the Quran’s Ruling on the Consequence of Premeditated Murder

Sam Shamoun

The Holy Bible speaks out against the mistreatment of slaves:

"You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not mistreat him." Deuteronomy 23:15-16

It even commands the fair treatment and love of non-Israelites, of Gentiles:

"You shall not pervert the justice due an alien or an orphan, nor take a widow's garment in pledge. But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and that the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing. When you reap your harvest in your field and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow, in order that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive tree, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not go over it again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing." Deuteronomy 24:17-22

The God of the Holy Bible also calls non-Israelites his people and the work of his hands:

"In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the LORD at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the LORD of hosts in the land of Egypt. When they cry to the LORD because of oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and deliver them. And the LORD will make himself known to the Egyptians, and the Egyptians will know the LORD in that day and worship with sacrifice and offering, and they will make vows to the LORD and perform them. And the LORD will strike Egypt, striking and healing, and they will return to the LORD, and he will listen to their pleas for mercy and heal them. In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and Assyria will come into Egypt, and Egypt into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.’" Isaiah 19:19-25

The Hebrew Bible goes so far as to say that God fought for and procured certain lands for the specific peoples whom he decreed should inherit them:

"Then we turned and journeyed into the wilderness in the direction of the Red Sea, as the LORD told me. And for many days we traveled around Mount Seir. Then the LORD said to me, ‘You have been traveling around this mountain country long enough. Turn northward and command the people, "You are about to pass through the territory of your brothers, the people of Esau, who live in Seir; and they will be afraid of you. So be very careful. Do not contend with them, for I will not give you any of their land, no, not so much as for the sole of the foot to tread on, because I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession. You shall purchase food from them for money, that you may eat, and you shall also buy water of them for money, that you may drink. For the LORD your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He knows your going through this great wilderness. These forty years the LORD your God has been with you. You have lacked nothing."’ So we went on, away from our brothers, the people of Esau, who live in Seir, away from the Arabah road from Elath and Ezion-geber. And we turned and went in the direction of the wilderness of Moab. And the LORD said to me, ‘Do not harass Moab or contend with them in battle, for I will not give you any of their land for a possession, because I have given Ar to the people of Lot for a possession.’ (The Emim formerly lived there, a people great and many, and tall as the Anakim. Like the Anakim they are also counted as Rephaim, but the Moabites call them Emim. The Horites also lived in Seir formerly, but the people of Esau dispossessed them and destroyed them from before them and settled in their place, as Israel did to the land of their possession, which the LORD gave to them.) ‘Now rise up and go over the brook Zered.’ So we went over the brook Zered. And the time from our leaving Kadesh-barnea until we crossed the brook Zered was thirty-eight years, until the entire generation, that is, the men of war, had perished from the camp, as the LORD had sworn to them. For indeed the hand of the LORD was against them, to destroy them from the camp, until they had perished. So as soon as all the men of war had perished and were dead from among the people, the LORD said to me, ‘Today you are to cross the border of Moab at Ar. And when you approach the territory of the people of Ammon, do not harass them or contend with them, for I will not give you any of the land of the people of Ammon as a possession, because I have given it to the sons of Lot for a possession.’ (It is also counted as a land of Rephaim. Rephaim formerly lived there--but the Ammonites call them Zamzummim-- a people great and many, and tall as the Anakim; but the LORD destroyed them before the Ammonites, and they dispossessed them and settled in their place, as he did for the people of Esau, who live in Seir, when he destroyed the Horites before them and they dispossessed them and settled in their place even to this day. As for the Avvim, who lived in villages as far as Gaza, the Caphtorim, who came from Caphtor, destroyed them and settled in their place.) ‘Rise up, set out on your journey and go over the Valley of the Arnon. Behold, I have given into your hand Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his land. Begin to take possession, and contend with him in battle. This day I will begin to put the dread and fear of you on the peoples who are under the whole heaven, who shall hear the report of you and shall tremble and be in anguish because of you.’" Deuteronomy 2:1-25

"When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the LORD's portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage." Deuteronomy 32:8-9

"‘Are you not like the Cushites to me, O people of Israel?’ declares the LORD. ‘Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir?’" Amos 9:7

"From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us." Acts 17:26-27

Returning to the issue of slaves, the Holy Scriptures plainly teach that if a slave happens to be mistreated, or even killed, then the person must suffer the just retribution of such an action:

"When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money. When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman's husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe." Exodus 21:20-25

The principle here is that the punishment matches the crime. This means that in cases where slaves, gentiles or women are murdered the murderer must be put to death, a point reiterated in other places of Scripture:

"But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image." Genesis 9:4-6

Since all human beings are image bearers of God:

"With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so." James 3:9-10

To therefore unjustifiably shed any person’s blood is a heinous crime, punishable by death:

"He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint you a place to which he may flee. If, however, a man acts presumptuously toward his neighbor, so as to kill him craftily, you are to take him even from My altar, that he may die." Exodus 21:12-14

"If a man takes the life of ANY HUMAN BEING, he shall surely be put to death." Leviticus 24:17 NASB

"Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death." ESV

"If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death at the evidence of witnesses, but no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness. Moreover, you shall not take ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death." Numbers 35:30

Thus, the murderer must be put to death irrespective of his social status, as well as the status or gender of his/her victim.

The Quran, in several places, seems to concur with the Holy Bible regarding this issue:

Therefore We prescribed for the Children of Israel that whoso slays a soul not to retaliate for a soul slain, nor for corruption done in the land, shall be as if he had slain mankind altogether; and whoso gives life to a soul, shall be as if he has given life to mankind altogether. Our Messengers have already come to them with the clear signs; then many of them thereafter commit excesses in the earth. S. 5:32 Arberry

And therein We prescribed for them: 'A life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and for wounds retaliation'; but whosoever forgoes it as a freewill offering, that shall be for him an expiation. Whoso judges not according to what God has sent down -- they are the evildoers. S. 5:45 Arberry

And slay not the soul God has forbidden, except by right. Whosoever is slain unjustly, We have appointed to his next-of-kin authority; but let him not exceed in slaying; he shall be helped. S. 17:33 Arberry

Remember that the recompense of an injury is an injury the like thereof; but whoso forgives and thereby brings about an improvement, his reward is with ALLAH. Surely, HE loves not the wrongdoers. S. 42:40 Sher Ali

The foregoing texts imply that the unjust killing of any person, regardless of gender or social status, must be punished accordingly.

We say seemingly since this next text contradicts the above passages:

O believers, prescribed for you is retaliation, touching the slain; freeman for freeman, slave for slave, female for female. But if aught is pardoned a man by his brother, let the pursuing be honourable, and let the payment be with kindliness. That is a lightening granted you by your Lord, and a mercy; and for him who commits aggression after that -- for him there awaits a painful chastisement. S. 2:178 Arberry

What exactly does this text mean? Does it mean that a freeman who wrongly kills a slave man will not be put to death for it, nor the man who kills a woman? If so, does this also apply in case of the reverse, i.e. a slave who kills a free man shall not be put to death nor the woman who kills a man? What happens if a woman kills a slave or vice-versa?

Does it mean that if a free man kills a slave unjustly then one of his slaves must be put to death for his crime? What if a man kills a woman, does this then mean that one of his women, i.e. mother, sister, wife, daughter etc., must be put to death for his crime? And does the reverse apply, i.e. if a slave man kills a free man then his free master must be killed for his crime, or if the woman commits murder should her father, brother, husband, son etc., be killed in her place?

And does this apply to believers alone, or does this also include unbelievers, i.e. a free Muslim man who kills a Christian or pagan slave etc.?

The commentators don’t help resolve the situation, but only compound the problem and complicate matters. Muslim scholar Mahmoud M. Ayoub writes:

(178) It is related by Wahidi that this verse was sent down concerning two feuding Arab tribes. The stronger of the two vowed to kill a free man for a slave, a man for a woman, and two men for only one man of the other tribe. This practiced continued until Islam came and the verse was sent down to regulate the practice of retaliation (Wahidi, p. 44; see also Tabari, II, pp. 99-100).

Jurists have, however, disagreed concerning the details of this law. Zamakhshari reports, according to 'Umar ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz, Hasan al-Basri, 'Ata, and 'Ikrimah, with whom both Malik and al-Shafi'i agreed, "A FREE MAN MAY NOT BE KILLED FOR A SLAVE, NOR A MALE FOR A FEMALE." They regarded the verse as explaining the ordinance (Q. 5:45): "A soul for a soul." On the other hand, according to Sa'id ibn al-Musayyab, al-Sha'bi, al-Nakh'i, Qatadah, and Sufyan al-Thawri with whom Abu Hanifah agreed, this verse was abrogated by God's saying: "A soul for a soul." Hence the law of retaliation applies equally to the slave and the free man and the male and the female. They base their argument on the Prophet's saying, "The lives [lit. bloods] of all Muslims are equal" (Zamakhshari, I, p. 331). (Ayoub, The Qur'an and its Interpreters [State University of New York Press (SUNY) Albany 1984], Volume I, pp. 185-186; underline and capital emphasis ours)

The renowned classical Sunni commentator Ibn Kathir noted:

The Command and the Wisdom behind the Law of Equality

Allah states: O believers! The Law of equality has been ordained on you (for cases of murder), the free for the free, the slave for the slave and the female for the female. Therefore, do not transgress the set limits, as others before you transgressed them, and thus changed what Allah has ordained for them. The reason behind this statement is that (the Jewish tribe of) Banu An-Nadir invaded Qurayzah (another Jewish tribe) during the time of Jahiliyyah (before Islam) and defeated them. Hence, (they made it a law that) when a person from Nadir kills a person from Quraizah, he is not killed in retaliation, but only pays a hundred Wasq of dates. However, when a person from Quraizah kills a Nadir man, he would be killed for him. If Nadir wanted (to forfeit the execution of the murderer and instead require him) to pay a ransom, the Quraizah man pays two hundred Wasq of dates [double the amount Nadir pays in Diyah (blood money)]. So Allah commanded that justice be observed regarding the penal code, and that the path of the misguided and mischievous persons be avoided, who in disbelief and transgression, defy and alter what Allah has commanded them. Allah said…

<Al-Qisas (the Law of equality in punishment) is prescribed for you in case of murder: the free for the free, the slave for the slave, and the female for the female.>

Allah's statement…

<the free for the free, the slave for the slave, and the female for the female.>

was abrogated by the statement life for life (5:45). However, the majority of scholars agree that the Muslim is not killed for a disbeliever whom he kills. Al- Bukhari reported that `Ali narrated that Allah's Messenger said…

<The Muslim is not killed for the disbeliever (whom he kills).>

No opinion that opposes this ruling could stand correct, nor is there an authentic Hadith to contradict it. However, Abu Hanifah thought that the Muslim could be killed for a disbeliever, following the general meaning of the Ayah (5:45) in Surat Al-Ma'idah (chapter 5 in the Qur'an).

The Four Imams (Abu Hanifah, Malik, Shafi`i and Ahmad) and the majority of scholars stated that the group is killed for one person whom they murder. `Umar said, about a boy who was killed by seven men, "If all the residents of San`a' (capital of Yemen today) collaborated on killing him, I would kill them all.'' No opposing opinion was known by the Companions during that time which constitutes a near Ijma` (consensus). There is an opinion attributed to Imam Ahmad that a group of people is not killed for one person whom they kill, and that only one person is killed for one person. Ibn Al-Mundhir also attributed this opinion to Mu`adh, Ibn Az-Zubayr, `Abdul-Malik bin Marwan, Az-Zuhri, Ibn Sirin and Habib bin Abu Thabit. Allah's statement…

<But if the killer is forgiven by the brother (or the relatives) of the killed (against blood money), then it should be sought in a good manner, and paid to him respectfully.> refers to accepting blood money (by the relatives of the victim in return for pardoning the killer) in cases of intentional murder. This opinion is attributed to Abu Al-`Aliyah, Abu Sha`tha', Mujahid, Sa`id bin Jubayr, `Ata' Al-Hasan, Qatadah and Muqatil bin Hayyan. Ad-Dahhak said that Ibn `Abbas said…

<But if the killer is forgiven by the brother (or the relatives) of the killed (against blood money)> means the killer is pardoned by his brother (i.e., the relative of the victim) and accepting the Diyah after capital punishment becomes due (against the killer), this is the `Afw (pardon mentioned in the Ayah).'' Allah's statement…

<…then it should be sought in a good manner,> means, when the relative agrees to take the blood money, he should collect his rightful dues with kindness…

<and paid to him respectfully.> means, the killer should accept the terms of settlement without causing further harm or resisting the payment.

Allah's statement…

<This is an alleviation and a mercy from your Lord.> means the legislation that allows you to accept the blood money for intentional murder is an alleviation and a mercy from your Lord. It lightens what was required from those who were before you, either applying capital punishment or forgiving.

Sa`id bin Mansur reported that Ibn `Abbas said, "The Children of Israel were required to apply the Law of equality in murder cases and were not allowed to offer pardons (in return for blood money). Allah said to this Ummah (the Muslim nation)…

<The Law of equality in punishment is prescribed for you in case of murder: the free for the free, the servant for the servant, and the female for the female. But if the killer is forgiven by the brother (or the relatives) of the killed (against blood money),>

Hence, `pardoning' or `forgiving' means accepting blood money in intentional murder cases.'' Ibn Hibban also recorded this in his Sahih. Qatadah said…

<This is an alleviation from your Lord> Allah had mercy on this Ummah by giving them the Diyah which was not allowed for any nation before it. The People of the Torah (Jews) were allowed to either apply the penal code (for murder, i.e., execution) or to pardon the killer, but they were not allowed to take blood money. The People of the Injil (the Gospel - the Christians) were required to pardon (the killer, but no Diyah was legislated). This Ummah (Muslims) is allowed to apply the penal code (execution) or to pardon and accept the blood money.'' Similar was reported from Sa`id bin Jubayr, Muqatil bin Hayyan and Ar-Rabi` bin Anas.

Allah's statement…

<So after this whoever transgresses the limits, he shall have a painful torment.> means, those who kill in retaliation after taking the Diyah or accepting it, they will suffer a painful and severe torment from Allah. The same was reported from Ibn `Abbas, Mujahid, `Ata' `Ikrimah, Al-Hasan, Qatadah, Ar-Rabi` bin Anas, As-Suddi and Muqatil bin Hayyan. (Tafsir Ibn Kathir on Sura 2:178; online source; underline emphasis ours)

According to Ibn Kathir, Sura 5:45 abrogated or canceled out the ruling of Suras 2:178, with the exception that a Muslim will not be killed for an unbeliever. What this basically means is that Allah originally allowed the unjust killing or pardoning of individuals due either to their gender or social status and only later rectified this mistake, provided that the murder didn’t involve a Muslim killing an unbeliever!

Ibn Kathir does not resolve the problem of how 2:178 could ever be put in practice. A free Muslim woman murders a male slave, or a male slave murders a free woman, or … Who has to be put to death now? Ibn Kathir only dwells on the issue that this verse is abrogated and then on the issue of blood money, but what exactly were the Muslims supposed to do in the time when this command had NOT YET been abrogated and the family of the murdered did not accept blood money? The supposedly divine rule is simply unworkable. No wonder it had to be abrogated. Moreover, if the injunction in S. 2:178 is called the law of equality (implying justice), does that mean that it was then replaced by a law of inequality and injustice?

In fact, this law is so bad that one must wonder how an omniscient and wise God would ever institute it (cf. Abolishing what Satan proposes? — A Fresh Look at the Reason for Abrogation in the Quran).

In any case, the Quran contains contradictory rulings on the prescribed punishment of murderers, which Muslim scholars tried to reconcile on the basis of abrogation.

In light of the foregoing, we are sure that our readers can more fully appreciate the following biblical statements:

"For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit." 1 Corinthians 12:13

"You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, FOR YOU ARE ALL ONE IN CHRIST JESUS. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise." Galatians 3:26-29

"Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all." Colossians 3:9-11

We can see from the foregoing that God loves and honors all true believers, irrespective of their gender, ethnicity or social status. We already examined biblical citations stating that ALL unjust murders must be punished in the same way, due to all human persons being image bearers of God irrespective if they are believers or not. Thus, according to God’s true Word murdering a slave or a woman is just as evil and unjust in God’s sight as murdering a rich free man since God doesn’t discriminate:

"For the LORD your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality nor take a bribe. He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt." Deuteronomy 10:17-19

"So Peter opened his mouth and said: ‘Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’" Acts 10:34-35

"There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality." Romans 2:9-11

"Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him." Ephesians 6:9

"And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one's deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile," 1 Peter 1:17

The Quran, however, contradicts both the Holy Bible and itself by making a distinction in the punishment of a murderer on the basis of gender and/or social status, and the Muslim jurists furthermore contradict God’s commands in the Holy Bible by making a distinction on the basis of religion due to statements made by Ali and even Muhammad himself.

Narrated Abu Juhaifa:

I asked 'Ali "Do you have anything Divine literature besides what is in the Qur'an?" Or, as Uyaina once said, "Apart from what the people have?" 'Ali said, "By Him Who made the grain split (germinate) and created the soul, we have nothing except what is in the Quran and the ability (gift) of understanding Allah's Book which He may endow a man, with and what is written in this sheet of paper." I asked, "What is on this paper?" He replied, "The legal regulations of Diya (Blood-money) and the (ransom for) releasing of the captives, and the judgment that no Muslim should be killed in Qisas (equality in punishment) for killing a Kafir (disbeliever)." (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 9, Book 83, Number 50; cf. Volume 1, Book 3, Number 111; Volume 4, Book 52, Number 283)

Narrated Ali ibn AbuTalib:

Qays ibn Abbad and Ashtar went to Ali and said to him: Did the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) give you any instruction about anything for which he did not give any instruction to the people in general?

He said: No, except what is contained in this document of mine. Musaddad said: He then took out a document. Ahmad said: A document from the sheath of his sword.

It contained: The lives of all Muslims are equal; they are one hand against others; the lowliest of them can guarantee their protection. Beware, a Muslim must not be killed for an infidel, nor must one who has been given a covenant be killed while his covenant holds. If anyone introduces an innovation, he will be responsible for it. If anyone introduces an innovation or gives shelter to a man who introduces an innovation (in religion), he is cursed by Allah, by His angels, and by all the people. (Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 39, Number 4515)

Narrated Abdullah ibn Amr ibn al-'As:

The Prophet (peace_be_upon_him) said: A believer will not be killed for an infidel. If anyone kills a man deliberately, he is to be handed over to the relatives of the one who has been killed. If they wish, they may kill, but if they wish, they may accept blood-wit. (Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 39, Number 4491)

It seems that Muhammad realized that the so-called "law of equality" in S. 2:178 was completely unworkable and so he replaced it with the S. 5:45, but then changed it again in the actual application (sunnah) to give Muslims a decisive advantage over non-Muslims.

Obviously, this encourages the mistreatment of non-Muslims by Muslims, if Muslims know that they will not be killed for killing their unbelieving neighbors, co-workers, employers, etc. To any person with a sound mind, it is obvious that such a law or practice is unjust.

Further reading

The law of retaliation in the Quran and early Islam

Articles by Sam Shamoun
Answering Islam Home Page