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Why are Islamic punishments so strict?

The concept of punishment in Islam may be deemed harsh by some, but when the rationale behind it is understood, it becomes clear that it is not intended to impose baseless cruelty. It encourages a path away from deviance and advocates for the reformation of society as a whole.

The objective behind Islamic punishments is betterment of the individual. Rather than being slandered or tortured for their actions, they are told why their actions are deemed unacceptable and why they must not be repeated. There is no doubt that severity is a part of certain Islamic punishments and it is meant to deter or prevent others from committing criminal acts, so that a just and moral society can be established instead of a dark and evil one.

Allah says in the Holy Quran, “These are the limits set by Allah, so approach them not. Thus, does Allah make His commandments clear to men so that they may become secure against evil” (2:188). In this verse, Allah exhorts us to stay away from the limits so that we can secure ourselves against evil. The concept of punishment in Islam is described with certainty. This verse highlights that the intention is not to be cruel or unjust. If that was the case, this verse would mention something about how punishment is deserved, but rather it focuses on the protection and security of the individual and society as a whole.

In the Holy Quran, there are 4 major vices that carry a severe punishment: adultery, slandering, murder and theft. This is to ensure the protection of the family institution, property, honour and social order that is in place. That being said, Islamic punishments are applied in accordance with the circumstances where certain conditions must be met in order to constitute a punishment to that degree. For example, someone in a financially deprived country, with no other provisions, may resort to theft to satisfy their hunger. In this circumstance, the Islamic punishment designated to theft cannot be applied. The person in this situation did not steal to acquire worldly appreciation or to gain an unfair advantage over others; they stole in order to survive during a time of difficulty. In order for a punishment to be appropriately administered, it must first be proven that a deliberate effort was made to commit that crime.

However, taking the example of the same crime, if a theft or robbery is committed with the sole intention of selfish greed, it would be deemed a punishable crime. This is because, despite the many blessings they have been granted, their unjustified actions prove that they deliberately chose to do something that would cause the displeasure of God, harm to another individual or individuals, and fear in the society at large. Every time a severe punishment is administered, it serves as an example of the moral boundaries that Islam has established and emphasizes why we must refrain from engaging in deviant conduct.

The question then is: How are such severe punishments to be meted out? Are they given out randomly? Are they given out in each situation where the motives are evil? Are they given out rarely? The answer is provided by Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad(rh) in his book, The Relationship between Religion & Politics in Islam. For those interested in a thorough understanding of this topic, this book is strongly recommended for reading. In this book, Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad(rh) argues that imposing Shariah has practical issues that would need resolution. For instance, there are so many interpretations, of so many different sects. Whose interpretation would apply? In fact, most Shariah matters are confined to the individual with no government required to “impose” such requirements. They are a natural expression of the free individual’s devotion to his/her faith.

As far as the strict punishments are concerned, they first require an environment to be created as was done by every Prophet. Once a pious and healthy environment has been created, the society becomes ready for the imposing of certain strict rules. At such a time, strict punishments would be meted out very rarely, if at all, and would mostly serve as a deterrent.

Furthermore, the Quran lays out certain rules when giving out punishments. One is that absolute justice should be the moral compass based on which punishments are given, as the Quran states:

یٰۤاَیُّہَا الَّذِیۡنَ اٰمَنُوۡا کُوۡنُوۡا قَوّٰمِیۡنَ لِلّٰہِ شُہَدَآءَ بِالۡقِسۡطِ ۫وَلَا یَجۡرِمَنَّکُمۡ شَنَاٰنُ قَوۡمٍ عَلٰۤی اَلَّا تَعۡدِلُوۡا ؕ اِعۡدِلُوۡا ۟ ہُوَ اَقۡرَبُ لِلتَّقۡوٰی ۫ وَ اتَّقُوا اللّٰہَ ؕ اِنَّ اللّٰہَ خَبِیۡرٌۢ بِمَا تَعۡمَلُوۡنَ ﴿۹﴾

That is, “O ye who believe! be steadfast in the cause of Allah, bearing witness in equity; and let not a people’s enmity incite you to act otherwise than with justice. Be always just, that is nearer to righteousness. And fear Allah. Surely, Allah is aware of what you do” (5:9).

Second is the rule of thumb when deciding between punishing and forgiving any individual. The Quran says:

وَ جَزٰٓؤُا سَیِّئَۃٍ سَیِّئَۃٌ مِّثۡلُہَا ۚ فَمَنۡ عَفَا وَ اَصۡلَحَ فَاَجۡرُہٗ عَلَی اللّٰہِ ؕ اِنَّہٗ لَا یُحِبُّ الظّٰلِمِیۡنَ ﴿۴۱﴾

“And the recompense of an injury is an injury the like thereof; but whoso forgives and his act brings about reformation, his reward is with Allah. Surely, He loves not the wrongdoers” (42:41).

In other words, the punishment of a crime should be equal to it, and if forgiveness of the criminal would lead to rehabilitation, then that is the better way. The door to repentance is wide open, and the path to absolute justice is secured. In fact, this is such a beautiful teaching that it is only found in the Quran and no other religious scripture has such a teaching!

Commenting on the above verse, Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood Ahmad(ra) writes:

If there is hope of reforming [the criminal] by forgiveness, he should be forgiven and should not be punished merely out of revenge for the wrong done by him. If on the other hand, punishment would prove more salutary than forgiveness, then he should be punished, and not forgiven out of mere squeamishness, for, otherwise, he would be deprived of a chance of reforming himself, and it would be cruel and not merciful to forgive in such a case.[i]

In addition, it is narrated in a tradition by Hazrat Ayesha(ra) that the Holy Prophet(sa) said, “Avert the legal penalties from the Muslims as much as possible. If he has a way out then leave him to his way, for if the Imam makes a mistake in forgiving, it would be better than making a mistake in punishment”.[ii] This hadith further demonstrates that the teaching of Islam is to seek reformation and rehabilitation, not revenge. There is no place in Islam for holding a grudge.

The bottom line is this: If a strict punishment is given to a serial rapist of children where his crime has been proven without a shadow of doubt, it would become a deterrent and save hundreds of lives in an entire generation. However, if a soft punishment is meted out to such a dreadful criminal, some others may be motivated to follow him and hundreds, if not thousands, of lives may be destroyed along the way. This is such a straight-forward truth that no one can deny it. Whenever there is news coverage of a criminal who has committed a horrible crime, most people desire that their punishment is severe, and no one asks for a light punishment as it would obviously leave the door open for further crimes.


[i]. Ahmadiyyat or the True Islam, p. 172

[ii]. Jami at-Tirmidhi, Kitabul Hudood [The Book on Legal Punishments], Chapter: What Has Been Related About Averting Legal Punishments: https://sunnah.com/tirmidhi/17/2

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