At a time of rampant death and destruction when human blood is flowing like rivers, we need to reflect on the verse on Qisaas in Surah Baqarah. Although this beautiful verse deals with murder and capital punishment, it actually has a very important message for us all on how to view and treat humans as humans. My intention is not to go into the legal rulings that are derived from this verse, but more to highlight a lesson on mercy and compassion that we learn from it.
The verse abolishes a pre-Islamic practice among Arab tribes whereby the tribe of a murdered person would seek revenge by killing more than just the murderer. For example, if they had one of their slaves killed, they would kill a free man from the tribe of the murderer. If they had a free man of their tribe killed, they would kill two free men from the tribe of the murderer. Such practice was based on a feeling of extreme pride in one’s own tribe such that they considered their lives more worthy than others.
“O you who believe, Qisaas has been prescribed for you in the case of murdered people: The freeman (will be killed) for the freeman, the slave for the slave, and the female for the female.” [2:178]
If a person is unjustly killed, retribution cannot be sought from other than the killer. A powerful tribe cannot just indiscriminately kill innocent people from a weaker tribe in order to avenge the murder of one of their own. Nor can a powerful nation bomb a weaker one to smithereens in order to avenge a “terrorist attack” on their soil. No soul is more or less worthy than another.
But the part of the verse that struck me most is this:
“”However, if one is somewhat forgiven by his brother, the recourse (of the latter) is to pursue the former (for blood money) with fairness, and the obligation (of the former) is to pay (it) to the latter in a nice way.” [2:178]
While the family or heirs of the murdered person can seek capital punishment for the killer, the verse encourages forgiveness. And not just that. To my amazement, the word “brother” is used, which adds an amazingly compassionate tone to the verse.
There is more than one way of doing i’rab (grammatically analysis) of the Arabic verse, each of which would translate slightly differently into English.
According to Imam Suyuti, the word “brother” here is referring to the person killed, which would roughly render the translation as such:
“But if anyone [of those who have slain] is pardoned any portion [of the blood] of his brother [the one slain], let the pursuing [of blood money] be honourable [without force].”
Regarding the use of the word “brother”, Imam Suyuti says, “…the mention of akhihi [his brother] is intended as a conciliatory entreaty to pardon and a declaration that killing does not sever the bonds of religious brotherhood.”
Abu al-Sa’ud understands the word “brother” to refer to the inheritors of the murdered person who receive the blood money. But Abu al-Sa’ud adopts an even broader interpretation of the word “brother” than Imam Suyuti, taking it to mean brotherhood in the sense that the murderer and the inheritors of the murdered both being from the children of Adam (may peace be upon him). Abu al-Sa’ud says that the word “brother” has been used in order to “trigger a series of acts of compassion”.
It is absolutely fascinating how this verse not only urges mercy and compassion in an occasion when people tend to be vindictive, but it also reminds them of their ties of brotherhood – of faith or, at least, of humanity – which is not severed even in the case of murder!
But how can a murderer deserve mercy? After all, doesn’t the Qur’an itself describe the killing of a soul as equivalent to the killing of all of humanity?
To me, this verse breaks down the good/evil binary through which we tend to judge people. That is not to say that good and evil don’t exist or that humans do not have ultimate realities – sa’eed (felicitous) or shaqiyy (wretched) – as we learn from a prophetic hadith. But that ultimate inner reality is for God to judge and not us, fallible humans. We don’t play God.
Rather our judgements are based on the outward and the apparent. In fact, we don’t judge humans at all. We judge actions. Ahkam Shar’iyyah, by definition, relate to actions. But whenever a judgement is made on a person – for example, upright or transgressor – even that is for practical purposes because it has real-life consequences in terms of the application of the Law, e.g. in determining if a person’s testimony can be accepted in a court of law. These are not judgements on one’s inner essence, nor an absolute verdict on the person as inherently good or evil.
From this angle, murder is a severe crime deserving severe punishment. Yet, the person guilty of this crime does not become a lesser human being and is still worthy of our compassion as far as our human interactions are concerned. Compassion does not mean leniency in applying Allah’s commands. Rather, it is about showing leniency when Allah has commanded or encouraged it.
At this point, I’d like to briefly touch upon a contrasting aspect of modern legal discourses, which should make us appreciate this verse even more. There are well-known academic works that have persuasively argued that in modern jurisprudence, often times, punishment bears upon the person, rather than the act. It bears upon the criminal rather than the crime. Without regurgitating any of the details found in those works, I would like to highlight a very recent and relevant example.
The ant-terror laws are a case in point. On many occasions we have seen that those convicted of terrorism charges had not actually planned to commit any act of “terrorism”. Rather, based on circumstantial evidences, they were deemed to be “extremists” capable of committing acts of “terror”. Thus it seems that the harsh prison sentences were not for a “terrorist” act – because there was, in fact, no act – rather it was for being a certain kind of person – an “extremist”, a “jihadi” etc. This fact becomes even more obvious when we see people of non-Islamic backgrounds getting away with much lighter sentences for much graver crimes.
When laws are formulated to make judgement upon mindsets and personality traits, entire communities can be stigmatised and even criminalised based on some shared attributes. In fact, many of the prejudices or discriminations we see in our societies today against any oppressed group perhaps stem from such attitudes. Perhaps, in the Qur’anic call to mercy and compassion for fellow human beings, lies the antidote to many of the different forms of oppression we see today.
Often times when the Shari’ah is discussed, it invokes images of brutality. But if we go beyond a superficial reading and study the Shari’ah with sincerity, we’ll be surprised to find that it is not a primitive set of laws unsuitable for our times, rather a divine code of living that has the solutions to the ills of our time.