In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful
Tafseer Al-Baqarah 178 (Part 1)
In the previous ayah, we learned that righteousness is not limited to turning our faces in a certain direction, dressing up a certain way or performing a few rituals. Rather, Al-Birr or righteousness is doing everything that Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala command us to do and staying from everything that He prohibits. The commands in the previous ayah were individual – those that each of us must act on to be called a true Muslim. In the present ayah, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala calls our attention to our collective duty as a Muslim community. He says,
Background of the Ayah
In the pre-Islamic era, the Jewish tribe Banu An-Nadeer invaded Qurayzah (another Jewish tribe) and defeated them. They made a law that when a person from Nadeer kills a person from Qurayzah, he is not killed in retaliation, but only pays a hundred wasq of dates. On the contrary, when a person from Qurayzah kills a Nadeer man, he would be killed for him. If Nadeer wanted to forfeit (the execution of the murderer and instead require him) to pay a ransom, the Qurayzah man pays two hundred wasq of dates [double the amount Nadeer pays in diyah (blood money)]. Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala commanded that justice be observed regarding the penal code, and that the path of the misguided and mischievous persons be avoided, who in disbelief and transgression, defy and alter what Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala has commanded them.
Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala gives us the law of Qisas [even retaliation] that is, the killer will be killed irrespective of the status of the parties involved. He says, “O you who have believed! Prescribed for you is legal retribution for those murdered – the free for the free, the slave for the slave, and the female for the female…”
The word al-qisas [الْقِصَاص] is from the root qaf-saad-saad it means “to follow one’s track, retrace or retaliate”. From the same root we have qisa [story/incident] where we follow the narrator or else we will not get the story. Qisas also means likeness. In usage, it denotes ‘even retaliation’ or to return like for like. In Islamic juristic terminology, qisas means the equal retaliation of an aggression committed against someone. This retaliation is allowed only with a condition that the principle of “like for like” is strictly observed.
The word al-hurru [الْحُرُّ] is from the root Ha-ra-ra and it means “to be free (slave), be freeborn, to emancipate or liberate a slave”. In the ayah it implies free.
In Al-Baqarah ayah 194, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala says,
“So, whoever has assaulted you, then assault him in the same way that he has assaulted you…” (2: 194)
And also in the concluding ayaat of Surah An-Nahl, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala says,
“And, if you punish [an enemy, O believer], punish with an equivalent of that with which you were harmed.” (16:126)
Therefore, as a term of the Shari’ah, the qisas is a punishment for killing or wounding in which the principle of equality or likeness is taken into full consideration.
- Islam is labeled as a barbaric religion because of its death penalty. Many so-called Muslims support this view and denounce such punishments. The reality is that Islam discourages crime and encourages equality. In the law above, notice that Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala says: the free for the free, the slave for slave and woman for woman. He does not tell us that the revenge can be taken from anybody. Many times, the murderer after killing a person escapes the scene. While he is away, the aggrieved party comes and annihilates the wife and children of the murderer or the murderer presents his servant to take the revenge from. Was the crime committed by the wife, the children and the servant? Why should they be harmed? Is it fair to take revenge from someone else while the murderer is set free? Islam tells us to take revenge from only him who has caused the harm and not hurt innocent lives.
- While the ignorant ones criticize the punishment they do not understand the wisdom behind it. Shouldn’t a guilty person be punished for his crime? Is it okay to kill an innocent person who has caused you no harm? No, we have to stand up for justice. However, please note the justice will only be carried out through proper judicial procedure. No individual is allowed to seek revenge on his own which means if someone has been killed the deceased’s heirs cannot go and kill the murderer or his family. The court is assigned the task to establish justice.
- In the ayah we are being addressed as a community: O you who believe. It means it is our communal duty to support the oppressed and fight against oppression. The oppressor should not be given any kind of protection until the oppressed are served justice.
- If the murderer is set free then no one will be safe. Others will take inspiration from him and kill innocent people. There will be widespread corruption and violence as we are seeing today in the world. Were the criminals being held accountable and justice was being served, there would not have been such widespread corruption. When the guilty is not punished his heart becomes hard and no more feels the guilt of his sins. Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala commands us to maintain the sanctity of human life.
We should remember that equal retribution is for three things:
- Life: that is if an innocent person has been intentionally killed then the murderer will be killed too.
- Limbs: that is if a person deliberately injures another’s limb such that it can no longer function or it has to be amputated then the one who caused injury will be harmed in the same way. For example, if the person’s eye was injured then the one who harmed his eye too will be injured. If an innocent person’s arm was damaged then the one who harmed will face similar retribution.
- Wounds: that is if the limb is not harmed such that it becomes non-functional but a wound has been inflicted on purpose, then the one who harmed will be inflicted with a similar wound.
Notice that the punishment here is for deliberate or intentional harm, whatever happens by accident is another matter.
However, this is one part of the ayah over which ignorant people raise havoc. Read what comes next.