This post intends to shed light on facts about death penalty in Islam. There is a myth that seems unable to die, the myth that Islam endorses the death penalty. This may sound shocking to many. One of the few things everyone knows about Islam is that it encourages the beheading of people. Most non-Muslims would be hard pressed to explain what Asr is or where Mina is located yet, they know that Islam is the religion that advocates executions. Some Muslims also believe this myth; especially since the breakdown of the Muslim educational system dating back to colonialism that led to a downward spiral in Islamic education in most Muslim countries. This myth, no matter how unreasonable it is, seems to have no Achilles’ heel. Yet a myth it still is.
First let us remove cobwebs that cover this topic. The Qur’an never says that adulterers must be stoned to death. The Qur’an nowhere says that homosexuals should die. The Qur’an never said apostates must die. In fact, the opposite is true. The Quran says:
Those who believed then disbelieved then believed then disbelieved then increased in their disbelief-never will Allah forgive them or guide them to a way [4: 137]
Had Muhammad killed apostates, this verse would have not found its way to the Qur’an, except if we hypothesised that a 7th century Bedouin liberal tampered with the Qur’anic text to make it in line with 21st century political correctness.
Now the question arises “does the Quran mention the death penalty?” Of course it does. All legal texts from the Ancient Greeks till until recently mentioned death penalty. But do not judge before reading further. The Qur’an makes it clear that legal punishments are conditional on an impartial and just system of law. The Qur’an says
O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm for Allah, witnesses in justice, and do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness. And fear Allah; indeed, Allah is Acquainted with what you do [5: 8]
In Islam even if a judge hates someone, loathes him, he must keep his anger at bay and judge impartially according to the law, not according to his personal grudges. Does such an impartial and just legal system exist in any Muslim country? Sheikh Kishk, the renowned visually impaired scholar, told once of a poor Egyptian man who was bitten in the leg by a dog. The dog marred his leg and the man ended up with his flesh torn. The man took the owner of the dog to court. The owner happened to be rich. And powerful. The Egyptian court imprisoned the poor and bitten man for one year, because the court said the man maliciously attacked an innocent dog. The poor man stood up and said to all in the court: “This is the justice in our country. A dog is sanctified while a human being isn’t.” Is this the sort of legal system that Muhammad had in mind when he gave courts the right to decide on life and death? Muhammad said he would punish his own daughter Fatima in the same way he would punish anyone else if she broke the law (Bukhari, 3216). The death penalty cannot be implemented by any legal system that is corrupt. This is self-evident. In the hands of the corrupt, the death penalty becomes a means of playing god, of using judges as death-squads. This point of view is not new in Islamic discourse. In this regard, Karen Armstrong wrote, “The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, from a very early date condemned the Saudis’ use of Islamic punishments as inappropriate and archaic, especially when the lavish wealth of the ruling elite and the unequal distribution of wealth offended far more crucial Qur’anic values” (Islam: A Short History, 2002, p. 162). Tyrannical governments in Muslim countries send to death anyone who speaks out against them or who exposes their crimes to the media.
I do not want to be misunderstood. I am not saying that the death penalty will be implemented if a country has an Islamic government. I am not saying that a change of leadership or change of government will make the death penalty applicable. I am saying the death penalty has no place in the modern world. Murtaza Hussain mentioned some of the horrific routine torture that goes on in Egyptian prisons. The prisoners are beaten with whips, batons, fists, and have respite only when their torturers take a break to pray the five daily prayers (see: https://theintercept.com/2015/11/24/isis-recruitment-thrives-in-brutal-prisons-run-by-u-s-backed-egypt/). This pales in comparison to what Zainab Al-Ghazali experienced, of being beaten with whips immersed in boiling oil, of rats being poured into prison cells (Return of the Pharaoh, 1994).
Justice has a special place in Islam. Ibn Taymiya famously said that a non-Muslim country with justice is more beloved to God than a Muslim country without justice. Any Muslim is willing to admit that Western countries have more justice than Muslim countries. In Britain I cannot bribe the judge to save myself from charges of murder while in Bangladesh it is a common occurrence. In a society that follows Islamic law, the legal system will look inwards instead of outwards. The legal system will try to reform itself, rooting out corruption, putting checks against judicial manipulation. The legal system would not go around the country locking people up then behead them in mass parades. Yet it is exactly this process of reform that governments in Muslim countries abhor. Anyone seeking to reduce corruption in the courts is instantly arrested, tortured, and killed. That is why any ‘Islamic’ party or group calling for the establishing of more rigorous hudud (punishments) is betraying the very essence of Islamic law.
This myth is perpetuated because people look upon one aspect of Islamic law while neglecting the other aspects of it. The scholars of Islam have elaborated grand legal frameworks, but people take one branch of it (in Arabic furu’) and discard the other roots and branches involved in the legal frameworks. If we are going to talk about Islamic law, then let us talk about it without being monomaniacs or without affecting amnesia.
In the modern world, Islam is one of the strongest critics of the death penalty and instead advocates the reformation of the judicial system. You will not hear this from the media which like to portray Islamic law as some barbarian beheading cult or from Muslim governments who want to silence those who champion human rights and freedom of speech. You will hear this from the pages of the Quran, the life of the Prophet, and the history of Islamic Civilization.