When I tell people that I’m against the death penalty they often look at me with a completely shocked look on their face. “But doesn’t Islam support the death penalty?” The answer is not as easy as simply saying either yes or no because the concept of capital punishment goes way beyond just a few verses in the Quran. If someone only looks at the literal text you can’t argue that Islam permits the death penalty but it’s implications and and the principle of justice is Islam go much deeper than just a few scriptures.
Throughout this article I will linking other articles to support my point of view so I don’t have to copy and paste heaps of text here so I strongly suggest that you click on those and read them at the same time that you’re reading through my article.
One important thing to consider here is the social and cultural makeup of a person that will influence their beliefs in values, including their interpretation of Islam and their views on capital punishment. I must note that I writing this from a perspective of a person who was born and raised in Canada, a country that abolished the death penalty in 1976. As I’m writing this article, I’m doing so in the light of my own culture and society in the context of the North American society. This article I’m solely talking about the practice of the death penalty in my own part of the world, more specifically the United States, even if I believe that the principles behind my point of view can be applied universally.
Some 90% of the global Muslim population adhere to Sunni Islam, an interpretation of the Quran that is overwhelmingly in favor of the death penalty but the Quran still makes room for abolition and plenty of it. What many people get wrong when they think about Islam and capital punishment is that it’s not merely just about the death penalty, it’s about justice and society as a whole. All Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) allow the death penalty but it was a way to keep their societies moving along in a straight line at the time but can the same be said for modern society? This is what I meant by saying that the concept of capital punishment carries implications far beyond it being allowed certain circumstances. The circumstances of modern society are completely different than the ones during the time of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad and so is the application of capital punishment.
The first problem is the misconception about Sharia. To many Sharia Law is equal with oppression, violence and various abominations. Contrary to popular belief, Sharia is not a specific set of very strict laws handed down in the 7th century. Sharia is actually a set of principles (such as equality and justice for example) that are applicable to the law, not the law itself. For example, Canada and the United States do not “enforce Sharia” per se, yet the Constitutions of both these countries are 100% compliant with Sharia. Sharia Law isn’t set in stone, but the principles of Sharia Law are. That means that Sharia can take on many different forms throughout history and society. That greatly changes the implications of capital punishment in Islam doesn’t it?
One example of this is that many so-called Muslim countries (personally I don’t view them as Muslim nations more than I view Canada as a Christian nation) have laws which make homosexuality punishable by death when it fact such a practice is actually against Sharia. The same goes for apostasy, when the Quran explicitly states that there should be no compulsion in religion, whether that person rejects Islam or leaves it. While there are many arguments to abolish, or at least change, the practice of the death penalty in the Muslim world, in this article I will stick to the practice of capital punishment in the United States. Before I continue though, I should note that Turkey, a predominantly Muslim nation, has abolished the death penalty for all crimes in 2004.
In this amazing and impartial article we can all agree that despotic nations should not have the right to carry out the death penalty because they use it as a tool for oppression and pushing political agendas instead of its intended purpose of justice. Nations with widespread corruption or an inadequate legal system also shouldn’t practice capital punishment in any circumstances because their deficiencies would cause for an unfair process of justice and subsequently an unfair verdict. But what about a democratic nation such as the United States for example? Should the government have the right to take the life of another human being, regardless of what they might have done?
First, I want to look at the cold hard facts of the modern death penalty, impartial of the religious, cultural of social makeup of a person. This is an interesting slideshow about the global death penalty, but the Death Penalty Information Center provides factual and non-biased information about capital punishment in the United States. Let’s look about some of the issues surrounding the modern death penalty in my neighboring country:
- Studies suggest that 1 in 25 people in the United States condemned to death are actually innocent
- Death penalty trials are far more expensive than sentences of life without parole and with decades of automatic appeals and possibly retrials, the costs climb even higher
- Many trials are inadequately conducted, even in modern times, and corruption and errors are still factors in even the best of justice systems
- Race plays a factor in whether or not an accused with receive a death sentence, with people of color more likely to be executed than a white person, especially if the victim was a white person
- The death penalty is often applied at random, with the quality of legal representation often being a factor
- Those suffering from a mental illness or have an intellectual disability often fall prey to the justice system even if they cannot actually be held responsible for their actions since they don’t understand what they did
- The death penalty does not deter would-be criminals from carrying out their plans
- Not all execution protocols are adequate
- Many consider death penalty practices to be cruel and unusual punishment under the Eight Amendment
While there are many, many more issues when it comes to capital punishment in the United States, I will stop here so we can take a closer look at the above issues. With 2943 inmates on death row as of January 1st, 2016 and 1 in 25 said to be innocent, that is a staggering number of people wrongfully convicted and countless others with a sentence disproportionate to the crime. One very troubling case involving innocence is the one of Richard Glossip. His story was the subject of a Dr. Phil show that aired on August 31st, 2015 called Susan Sarandon Tries to Save a Man from Death Row.
In her book Death of Innocents, Sister Helen Prejean provides a haunting picture of the miscarriage of justice in many cases. Although she is a Catholic nun and makes her stance on execution in light of her own faith, it doesn’t change the fact that innocent people do get executed. Not to mention the countless other books about wrongful executions in the United States throughout history all the way to present day. You can exonerate a living person, but the death penalty does not permit such. It is permanent and irreversible and the fact that so many innocent people are convicted and subsequently executed is absolutely disgusting regardless of your stance on the death penalty.
My second problem is with money. During the time of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad money for murder wasn’t much of an issue. Nowadays a single execution costs millions of dollars and that doesn’t include the cost of trials, appeals, lawyers, the decades spent in prison and more. Back 1400+ years ago the economy was very different than today. The government wouldn’t deprive a school board of money to fund the police and the military, but today that is a very sad reality. When I see things like this I can’t help but ask myself why there is money for war and murder but none for education and healthcare.
In Muhammad’s day executions were carried out quickly (and in public) because the prison system could not house prisoners for very long periods of time. There was absolutely no need to choose between cutting the education and healthcare budget to fund an execution. It seems to be an obscure fact in modern times, but executions can cost up to four times more than keeping someone in prison for 40 years. Imagine what the government could do with all that money! God only knows how much our society is suffering with poverty and lack of opportunities for people who simply cannot afford them. The county or state’s budget is also a big factor when it comes to who is eligible to get the death penalty and who isn’t. Why should life have a price tag like that?!
I also have a problem with pushing political agendas. Nobody wants to be looked at as “soft on crime” but at what cost? I often wonder why the federal government dropped seeking the death penalty against the Benghazi Ringleader but instead chooses to push it when it comes to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Dylann Roof. All three have committed equally abominable crimes against Americans. In Tsarnaev’s case there easily could’ve been a plea deal which would’ve avoided a trial and automatically gave him a sentence of life without parole so why push for a death penalty trial when it wasn’t necessary in the first place? As a show of force? As vengeance? Because it’s better to put him to death than feed the homeless?
Even with modern technology, including DNA testing and security cameras being virtually everywhere, there are still many errors in the court of law. You don’t have to go very deep into a Google search to find incomplete investigations, corrupt judges, inadmissible evidence that could change the course of the trial, the innocent being imprisoned, the bias within the jury and so much more. Regardless of your position on the death penalty, you cannot say that there isn’t a lot of room for error and prejudice which would make a verdict a grave injustice, whatever it may be. Islam believes in fairness and equality for all and this would definitely not fall under that category. No human justice is system is perfect, but too many cases are carelessly handled and when it comes to the death penalty, a miscarriage of justice is permanent.
Nobody regardless of religion can tell me that justice is served when there is an obvious bias, like in the case of a person’s ethnicity but there are also many more. Just the fact that unarmed black people are as likely to be shot by police as armed white people. And this is just on the street, we haven’t even made it to the court of law yet. I’m not implying that abolishing capital punishment will solve all of society’s problem, but it would definitely be a step in the right direction when it comes to remedying the broken justice system and the people unfortunately caught in it. If Islam allows for the abolition of the death penalty In Islamic countries, why do we fail to realize the urgent need for reform here in North America, a paradise of human rights filled with humanitarians that the oppressed from other nations can only dream of?
You can read Emadeddin Baghi’s two letters here and here about the death penalty and human rights in Iran. Although they are in a different context of a different society, he still makes amazing arguments. So good that he was jailed.