New Age Islam
Tue Oct 04 2022, 08:16 PM

Islamic Society ( 28 Sept 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Crime and Islamic punishments

By Ishtiaq Ahmed

Most Muslims would like to believe that the 29 years after the demise of the Prophet (PBUH) was that golden age when severe punishments, faithfully enforced by the state, created an ideal society. If that were true then how do we explain that three of the four pious caliphs were brutally murdered?

My op-ed, ‘Stoning to death’ (Daily Times, September 14, 2010), received appreciative feedback from readers in Pakistan, which surprised me quite pleasantly. I think people are beginning to realise that the so-called Islamic punishments that General Ziaul Haq enforced failed miserably in creating a morally and ethically superior social order. On the contrary, the incidents of heinous crimes such as the attacks on religious and sectarian minorities, women and even against ordinary citizens such as the two brothers in Sialkot who were recently lynched by a mob, are ample proof of the fact that society has been increasingly brutalised.

However, some voices were raised in favour of severe and exemplary punishments as the antidote to crime. That is understandable; one of the constant themes in the history of ideas is the search for a state or a social order, a utopia, free of all bad people and the crimes they commit. However, the cumulative experience down the ages of attempts to create a perfect state or society have almost invariably failed.

Saudi Arabia is a very apt example. The Saudi elite is notoriously corrupt, followed by the Saudi middle class that too takes full advantage of the hundreds of thousands of maids and millions of Asian and African workers that work for them. Iran is the second worst case. The Iranian mullahs and moral police abuse their powers against their citizens with impunity. Both regimes have their hands sullied by the blood of their people through beheadings, stoning to death, whipping and much more. I will not mention the Taliban because that case is too grotesque to deserve special mention every time.

Most Muslims would like to believe that the 29 years after the demise of the Prophet (PBUH) was that golden age when severe punishments, faithfully enforced by the state, created an ideal society. I hesitate to endorse that point of view. If that were true then how do we explain that three of the four pious caliphs were brutally murdered? It proves, at least, that exemplary men did not exist even when exemplary rulers were in power, willing to impose severe punishments impartially. Nothing can be more revolting than to murder anyone and that too exalted leaders of the Muslim community. However, all that happened a very long time ago and I am not sure if we can replicate fruitfully the standards and practices of the 7th century in contemporary society.

Knowledge about crime and criminals — criminology — has grown enormously since then. We must take cognition of current discussion about crime and criminals. A simple definition of crime could be the following: an action that is considered injurious physically, mentally or morally to the public welfare or to the interests of the state and that is legally prohibited. Punishment then is a penalty inflicted on a person for committing a crime. It has a moral role because it is applied when a wrong has been done. In one sense it is a manifestation of justice. Although punishments can be meted out by private individuals and organisations, it is the state that enjoys the prerogative to impose legally binding penalties or punishments.

Three main moral positions on punishments exist in contemporary scholarly literature: retributive, deterrent and rehabilitative. It is possible to combine them and they are not necessarily exclusive of each other. Retribution is based on the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Capital punishment in case of murder is considered a case of retribution. Thus justice means that you pay for a crime you committed with the same being done to you. It is one of the oldest types of punishment, with sanction in many religious scriptures.

The deterrent theory seeks not only to punish the culprit but also to make him an example for others so as to deter them from committing crime. Stoning to death, cutting off the hand of a thief and whipping fornicators are instances of deterrent punishments. The death penalty is also deemed to be a deterrent punishment while also being a retributive punishment. Both the retributive and the deterrent theories of punishment have been criticised for holding the individual completely responsible for his actions. The social circumstances, the cultural and religious pressures and other such complexities of life that impinge upon the behaviour of individuals are not taken into account.

This is considered unsatisfactory by those who believe that the criminal is also a victim of circumstances; hence the rehabilitation theory on crime. An individual born in abject poverty, in a broken family, or who is the child of drug-addicted parents is likely to be more crime-prone than others who may have had a ‘normal’ upbringing. Such a person is considered to be ill in socio-psychological terms. Therefore, punishments that may take away his life or disfigure him are considered unjust. Such a person is considered entitled to rehabilitation therapy. It can include long detention in a prison or a hospital. The hope is to cure him and thus rehabilitate him. Critics of the rehabilitation school point out that rehabilitation therapy is not always successful. Hardened criminals only exploit such an opportunity and, as soon as they are released, they commit more heinous crimes.

In short, all three theories have different ideas on how to look upon crime and the criminal. Each of them represents an idea of justice, even when their notion of justice differs in many ways. As a matter of principle, one can say that punishments that are based on vindictiveness and raw cruelty cannot be justified. Open societies of the West do run the risk that some people will abuse their freedom and commit horrible crimes. Then, of course, raw capitalism encourages organised crime. Drug mafias, weapons dealers, prostitution syndicates and many other such elements constitute an underworld that is violent and brutal. The way to deal with such evil forces is to start a worldwide social democracy movement that creates a fairer world order. I believe in a strong state that can effectively weed out crime but without resorting to cruelty. However, whatever we may do, no society will ever be crime-free. So, we must be ready with adequate measures to deal with each situation as it arises.

The writer is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at

Source: Daily Times, Pakistan