FAQ (Frequently Argued Qualm) against Islam #3
3. The penal code in Islam is inhumane and unjust.
A valid concern, it’s important to consider this argument from both perspectives: Muslim and non-Muslim.From a Muslim perspective, Islam does not have any unjust punishments. However, it may be difficult to understand some laws if we measure them against our current environment, such as stoning people for adultery or fornication, chopping the hands of thieves (who do not steal out of necessity), or the death sentence for apostasy. Even to Muslims this can be a little difficult to comprehend at times, but the conviction in Islam enables Muslims to accept that the creator knows us better than we know ourselves. The conviction in accepting these punishments stems from the conviction in the source.
From a non-Muslim perspective, where there is no conviction of such a belief, these punishments are simply inhumane and unjust. Criminals should be punished, but a ‘civilised’ world should not kill another human being, regardless of the crime (a few exceptions apply here to some who believe in capital punishment as a legitimate punishment for murdering or killing another human being). Criminals receive prison sentences where the time spent in prisons is in proportion to the severity of crime committed. Adultery, fornication or apostasy are not crimes worthy of a death sentence and chopping the hands of a thief is an inhumane practice that may have existed in the past, but is no longer relevant to modern life.
The first point to consider here is that non-Muslims tend to view this debate from the perspective of the ‘individual’. This is understandable because this is what the modern world focuses on. The individual is the essential component, and as society is regarded as just a group of individuals, protection of society is merely protecting individual rights. The rights of the criminal and the rights of the victim are both considered from this perspective.
Islam does not view individuals as the be all and end all. Rather, the individual is a part of society where some rules exist to protect the individual and some for the protection of society. The primary function of the penal code in Islam is to act as a deterrent in society, whilst providing rights to the victim and the accused respectively.
If the function of any penal code is to act as a deterrent then a review of the rise in crime in the west would highlight that the punishment system is clearly not working. Crime is on the rise across the board, including violent crime, gun crime, knife crime, murders, sexual assaults, paedophilia and rape amongst others. Theft is rampant and not out of necessity. In most circumstances thieves never get caught, which only adds to the problem as western societies lack in providing effective deterrents that prevent people from stealing. Mental health problems are also on the increase in prisons whilst overcrowding in some prisons is becoming a serious area for concern. Whilst it is possible to highlight some areas of improvement, it would be a gross delusion to suggest any significant progress is being made.
When considering the criticism of the penal code in Islam, it is also important to note that the punishments are issued only after establishing that the accused is guilty of the crime without any doubt whatsoever as there is a very strict process involved before passing the guilty verdict. A principle often not known to non-Muslims is that according to the Islamic penal code, it is better to set a guilty person free than to punish an innocent human being. At the same time, the society under Islam does not allow glamourising crime through the media; gang culture, drugs, alcohol all of which directly or indirectly contribute to crime. Neverthelss, human beings make mistakes and crime is a part of human existence. Islam acknowledges this reality, and therefore the function of the penal code is to ensure that crime does not become an acceptable facet of society.
Under Islam, the guilty are punished and then given the chance to continue with their lives as normal (this is of course not for cases involving the death sentence). For example, if a person steals (but not out of necessity) and is found guilty (without any doubt), then the punishment is carried out and he is allowed back into society to continue living his life. The punishment of cutting the hands acts as an effective deterrent as it is a severe punishment. (Stealing to acquire basic necessities is treated as a different reality and not punishable in Islam as it is the responsibility of the Islamic system to ensure basic needs for each individual, regardless of faith, ethnicity or gender are provided by the state.)
If a person is found guilty of murder, the family of the victim is given a choice to take money from the guilty or authorise a death sentence. This allows both the victim and the criminal to move on, whilst also acting as an effective deterrent in curbing a rise in the number of killings in society.
Whilst the Islamic penal code is often regarded as inhumane it is worth considering that we are discussing appropriate punishments for criminals proven to be guilty without any doubt. The punishments should be viewed from the perspective of the victims and society, not from that of the criminal. Furthermore, the implications of the penal code that imprisons criminals for lengthy periods of time and sometimes even for life can also be regarded as inhumane as they deny the guilty to live a normal life, and move on. Whilst this is considered an appropriate response, why is the Islamic punishment regarded as inhumane?
A human being should be punished if he or she has wronged but it is important that all parties involved are quickly allowed to continue with their lives. This is beneficial for the society as a whole. Putting people away for life or several years, does not always result in a sense of justice for the family of the murdered victim. Those who lose their loved ones often want to see the perpetrators killed and in Islam, they are given a say in the punishment as they are those most affected by the crime.
The penal code of Islam, as strict as it may seem, effectively deters people from the crimes and provides the victims with a sense of justice. After all, is this not the function of an effective penal code or punishment system?
To the non-Muslim, the above arguments may apply to crimes we all accept as wrongs, e.g. murder, theft, rape etc. For non-Muslims punishments for adultery and fornication are often strongly contested aspects of Islam, especially as this is a commonly acceptable practice in the west. Once again, it has to be borne in mind that the punishments serve as a deterrent in Islam. The relationships between men and women are encouraged within the marriage contract and relationships outside of wedlock are considered illicit.
As the west views the relationship between men and women from the individual perspective, it does not feel that the state has a role to play in imposing laws in this regard. However, if we look at the wider implications of allowing relationships between men and women out of wedlock, we notice an increase in a culture of sexual promiscuity, adultery, teenage pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, backstreet abortions, distrust and lack of stability in marriages, illegitimate births where lineage is unknown, adoption etc. Although rape, paedophilia and prostitution are illegal in the west, the increases in such crime are also a consequence of a society or environment that widely encourages sexual relationships between men and women out of wedlock.
As Islam considers the protection of society crucial, it discourages this relationship between men and women through its punishments. Once again, to appreciate the Muslim perspective, the punishment should be viewed as a deterrent and in light of what is beneficial for society as a whole, rather than the perspective of the freedom of individuals.
The final strongly contested punishment is the death sentence for apostasy. What is interesting is that it is often the non-Muslims that are most vocal about this punishment, when it only applies to the Muslims who leave Islam. I can understand people feeling this as unjust as individual freedom is an important principle in their view and they find it very difficult to accept this as an offense or crime.
Often ignored however, is the fact that the Muslim must embrace Islam after rationally concluding that Islam is true. After embracing Islam through rational or intellectual conviction and not tradition, a very small number of Muslims abandon the belief. Nevertheless, in Islam this is regarded as a crime punishable by death. Whilst I still feel the uproar by non-Muslims regarding this punishment as a disproportionate response when considered in relation to many more unlawful deaths that exist around us, I will nevertheless attempt to explain this tenet in context of this article.
A parallel can be drawn with the western penal code with regards to treason. Treason is still regarded as a serious crime and in most countries a crime punishable by death as it is betrayal of the sovereignty of the government, crown or constitution – the sacred cows of the modern world. Quite fitting here are the famous words: ‘Remember, remember the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot, I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot’. Whilst the execution of Guy Fawkes is celebrated and remembered all across the UK today as a reminder to discourage the act of treason, the idea of punishing an apostate in Islam is constantly attacked. Does every nation not seek to protect itself from betrayal? Why is Islam not allowed this right?
However, apostasy in Islam is crucially different as it is apostasy from the creator and not betrayal towards another human being, man made system or value. Whilst punishments for treason are widely accepted and hardly criticised in the west, apostasy is an outrage for non-Muslims when it doesn’t even apply to them if they were to choose to live under Islam.
With the growing crime; social and moral decline; breakdown of family values and a general lack of security in western societies amongst a whole host of other problems, it’s time we started to think outside of the box before ruling out Islam as a viable alternative for modern civilisation.