The biggest misconception about the modern death penalty is that it’s a deterrent. It is not. It may have been once upon a time, but that argument is no longer valid today. In fact, States and nations (to the exception of a handful) with the death penalty have higher violent crime rates than areas who do not. There is no doubt in my mind that once upon a time this was an effective way to keep order in the land when considered in the proper historical, cultural and social context, but such is obviously outdated today. We do not live in the same type of society and hence it’s erroneous to think that we can continue to move forward with the same type of laws and mentality.
It’s interesting to note that al Qaeda has made threats of grave consequences against the United States if they went along with their plan to execute Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. If this teaches us anything it’s that violence + violence = violence. Look at it this way:
- America wages war on the Middle East
- The Tsarnaev brothers bomb Boston because they are angry about the Americans bombing Syria
- The United States handed Dzhokhar Tsarnaev a death sentence out of retribution for bombing the marathon because he was angry at the U.S. bombing Syria
- Terrorist group al Qaeda threatened the U.S. because they are angry that Dzhokhar got a death sentence because he was angry about Syria
And what will come next? Dzhokhar will be executed, al Qaeda will carry out their threats and in response the U.S. will wage war even more? What’s wrong with this picture? This further illustrates that the death penalty isn’t just retribution against one individual, it harms all of society. Some radical jihadis also believe that if he is executed, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will die a martyr for the cause. Regardless of what the experts have to say about it, they won’t be able to convince the radicals and terrorists otherwise. His death sentence verdict has not deterred would-be terrorists at all. The only thing it accomplished was create more looming threats and don’t underestimate what these people can carry out.
If we look at the pros and cons of the death penalty in Islam, you can clearly see that the argument of “well it’s been in scripture forever” is always quoted, yet none of these people look at any other facts like the context in which that was recommended or the principles of justice that can be applied to modern times. Now if you look at the commentators who are against the practice of the modern death penalty, they quote the same injustices and I have and there ought to be universal agreement from both Muslims and non-Muslims that such flaws and bias do not constitute as justice. Such injustices are indefensible in both Islam and the modern world no matter which way you put it. This article by Penal Reform also provides some interesting and unbiased perspectives on this issue.
Another issue is lethal injection, the current method of execution in the United States. Tied to botched executions, there’s also the issue of drug mix-ups and States being accused of illegally importing drugs to carry out their executions. Even if it’s not morally disgusting to you, it’s still against federal law and that is wrong. Furthermore, there is the never-ending debate over whether or executions consist of cruel and unusual punishment. Read Richard Glossip describe his experience on death row and a touching letter sent to him from Jannie Coverdale. On the last note, Islam calls us to be loyal to our country of residence, and in the case of the United States, there is room in the Constitution to outlaw the death penalty out of respect for human rights.
Let us look at the reality, as it exists. There is today a quadruple crisis of closed and repressive political systems, religious authorities upholding contradictory juristic positions and unknowledgeable populations swept up in remaining faithful to the teachings of Islam through religious fervor than through true reflection. The crisis cannot legitimize our silence. We are accomplices and guilty when women and men are punished, stoned or executed in the name of a formal application of the scriptural sources. It leaves the responsibility to the Muslims of the entire world…It thus becomes the responsibility of each ‘âlim (scholar), of each conscience, every woman and man, wherever they may be to speak up.
Regardless of where you stand on the death penalty debate or which God you believe in, I want you to ask yourself the following questions:
- Would God approve of the corruption that puts innocent people to death?
- Would God approve of using the valuable resource of money to fund executions but not healthcare and education among other things?
- Would God approve of sentencing someone to death where there is doubt or inadequate evidence or legal procedures?
- Would God approve of the implication that one life is more valuable than another?
- Would God approve of the executions of those who are not mentally competent?
- Would God approve of using this outdated practice when the facts clearly show that it does more harm than good?
The answer to all of these questions is NO! God’s attributes, in all Abrahamic religions are compassion, mercy and justice. The government has proved time and time again that it cannot properly carry out justice so therefore I must reject the application of the modern death penalty in all circumstances because it clearly goes against the Islamic concept of true justice applied to this society.
Before I move on to another point, I want to leave you with a few more though-provoking articles about the practice of capital punishment in general:
- Islam, justice and the death penalty
- Is There a ‘Moderate’ Islam?
- Islam and the death penalty
- Religious Views on Capital Punishment
- 7 Reasons why Pakistan should not have the death penalty
- Turkey’s child murders revive the death penalty debate
- Essay Against the Death Penalty
- The Death Penalty under International Law
- When Courts Are Used As A Weapon Against The Innocent
- Fell: death penalty views changing
- Editorial: Ensuring justice for all
- The priest, the exonerated death-row inmate and their continued battle against the death penalty
- The death penalty is largely driven by a small number of overzealous prosecutors
Wherever possible, do not inflict punishments (hudud; singular hadd) on Muslims; if there is a way out for someone, let him go. It is better for the ruler (al-imam) to err in forgiveness than for him to err in punishment.
As Muslims, we look to Muhammad as the perfect example of how we should conduct ourselves. It has been demonstrated time and time again that he was a man of noble character who did not promote violence, despite that so many today commit acts of terrorism in the name of God. That could not be farther from the true message of Islam, contrary to popular belief. Over the last 3000 words I’ve definitely made my case, but there are still a few other things I want to discuss in regards to Islam and the death penalty, especially in the context of Muhammad’s time.
Do not say, that if the people do good to us, we will do good to them; and if the people oppress us, we will oppress them; but determine that if people do you good, you will do good to them; and if they oppress you, you will not oppress them.
The death penalty was not something invented by Islam’s prophet, and even though he allowed it, he did not enforce it and never executed anyone. Apart from in the case of war, only one man (indirectly) died at Muhammad’s hands. In summary, the Holy Prophet only made a light scratch on the man’s neck and he died much later. This is recorded as one of the miracles in the Quran because nobody is supposed to die from such a superficial wound. This event isn’t generally highlighted as murder, but regardless of what you think of it, it most certainly wasn’t an execution. In fact, Muhammad followed in Jesus’ footsteps of mercy, forgiveness and compassion. We also should note that although Jesus preached non-violence just as Muhammad did, Jesus never explicitly said anything about abolishing the death penalty either even if the principle was definitely there.
In the case of the death penalty in Muhammad’s time, if a murderer was properly convicted, the victim’s family could choose one of three things:
- Monetary compensation
The court of law could also choose a lesser penalty, but in this context the Quran highly recommends forgiveness. In fact, the forgiveness part was almost mandatory. The Mayo Clinic lists the health benefits of forgiveness and I was honestly quite surprised at some of them. On the other hand, it comes at no surprise that the Quran considers the health benefits a scientific miracle. The Quran and Hadith both contain endless verses about forgiveness, both in us forgiving others and God forgiving us. My favorite ones are probably the following three:
They should rather pardon and overlook. Would you not love Allah to forgive you? Allah is Ever-Forgiving, Most Merciful. (Quran 24:22)
When we forgive others, God forgives us.
But if you pardon and exonerate and forgive, Allah is Ever-Forgiving, Most Merciful. (Quran 64: 14)
Forgiveness is the superior moral trait.
But if someone is steadfast and forgives, that is the most resolute course to follow. (Quran 42:43
Oh you who believe! The law of qisas has been prescribed for you in cases of murder: the free for the free, the slave for the slave, and the woman for a woman. But if there be forgiveness by a brother for his brother then adhere to fairness, and remit any rights with handsome gratitude. This is an alleviation and mercy to you from your Lord. Whoever transgresses after this, he will have a grave penalty (from God). Oh people of reason (and understanding), in qisas you will find (the saving of) life, so that you may (learn to) restrain yourselves. (Quran 2:178-9)
I do wish that the American justice system could incorporate the opinion of the family members of the victims. Although the U.S. allows victim impact statements, they are mainly to sink the defendant and they don’t get a say in the penalty phase of a trial. One juror in the Tsarnaev case said that if he had known that some of the victim’s families, including the Richard family whose son Martin Richard was killed, he would’ve changed his vote to life without parole instead. He wasn’t the first person to have second thoughts about a death penalty verdict either. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev did say he was sorry and ask for forgiveness after all, and my prayer for him if his change of heart is sincere is that instead of influencing terrorism, he may come to know what Islam really teaches and use it for good. He would definitely have the influence to change the hearts of many who are contemplating following in his footsteps.
The last thing I want to look at when it comes to modern society and the society in which the Quran was revealed some 1400 years ago are some other outlawed practices that were common back in the day. There are several obsolete traditions but the two big ones mentioned in the Quran are slavery and polygamy. While polygamy is still legal in a handful of countries, it’s rarely practiced legally and is most often looked down upon, and slavery has been downright abolished globally. Although Islam places very strict restrictions on these practices, it does not outlaw them. Why? Because they were beneficial to society at the time. Why did we in turn strike them down? Because they are no longer beneficial to modern society. It’s the same thing with the death penalty. I’ve made it abundantly clear that the benefits (which I believe there once were, just like slavery and polygamy) capital punishment are outdated, invalid, and no longer applicable.
Slavery was a valuable economic practice in the days of the Quran and the Bible, yet today both secular and Islamic law have completely struck down the practice and the principle of the abolition of slavery falls well within the bounds of scripture. Polygamy on the other hand is still legal in some places but no longer widely practiced, however it is illegal here in the West. This practice also had many benefits to the society at the time because women had little rights and few opportunities but the tables have definitely turned today. In Islam, just like in Judaism and Christianity, the ideal union is between one man and one woman and the abolition of this practice also falls well within scripture. More and more, the abolition of the death penalty is spreading throughout the Muslim communities around the world, and such would fall well within the boundaries of scripture too.
Just like the outdated practices of slavery and polygamy, capital punishment has overstayed its welcome in modern society and so I respectfully have to disagree with the death penalty. Personally, I don’t think I could call a court of law to put someone to death regardless of how much they “deserve” it. I would feel as if I had blood on my hands, even if it’s argued that that person put themselves there and decided their own fate when they chose to commit the crime. While such a perspective may be valid, there are no longer any valid reasons to put a person to death. I think I’m going to stick to Martin Richard’s words of no more hurting people, peace.
It is my prayer that this article was thought-provoking and well-researched and may God accept my endeavors to make my society, and the world at large, a better place. I thank God for allowing me to write and live in a society where I am allowed to express my honest opinion without fear and I am thankful for the opportunity I got to write this because I researched this issue for days on end and it took several more for me to put all of this together. May God be pleased with my efforts and may this affect society in a positive and constructive way! ❤