One of the many objections levied against Islam is in reference to the system of crime and punishment in the Shari'ah. How are Islamic punishments and penal laws compatible with clemency and benevolence? Is it not considered violence to give one hundred lashes to one who has committed a sin? Is it compatible with Islamic benevolence to stone a person who has lost his/her chastity as a result of domination of sensual desire? Is cutting the hands and feet of thieves in accordance with religious clemency? Are severe and harsh punishments not considered to be a sort of violence?
There are subtle points in the "penal laws and punishments" which help us in replying to these questions. Studying these points, it is clear that penal laws and punishments too are another branch of Islamic clemency and benevolence, although they may at first seem violent to some.
Philosophy of Punishments
There are narrations about the philosophy of the execution of penal laws and punishments, clarifying our insight into these Islamic rulings. Consider the following two samples:
The Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him and his progeny) says, "Execution of any penal law or punishment is better than forty days of rainfall." (Wasail al-Shia)
As is apparent in this prophetic narration, penal laws and punishments are compared to the rain, and execution of any law (no matter how minor it seems) is better than forty days of rainfall. The narration implies that just as rain is a mercy of God, and He sends it down for the people of earth, divine penal laws too are a sort of divine blessing. In fact, execution of Islamic punishments washes away the society like rain, and purifies it from pollution.
If one were to disturb the public security in society, and violate people's soul, wealth and honor so that a part of society is threatened, he would be an outlaw – and outlawing the guilty will bring about more security in society. It washes away terror, fear and insecurity from the society like rain. Those who produce and distribute narcotics in an Islamic society – thus destroying the youth through this great crime and corrupting the country for achieving their own personal interests and profits – shall be punished for corruption on the earth.
We believe that such individuals and groups are liable to Islamic punishments. If they are not punished, God will not leave them and they will be involved in the consequences and adversities caused by their corrupt activities.
Commenting on verse 17 of Chapter 57 in the Qur'an ("Know that Allah gives life to the earth after its death"), Imam Musa al-Kadhim (peace be upon him) says, "It does not simply imply that He revives the dry lands with bountiful rain. Rather, it implies that He appoints (great, sincere and ambitious) men for reviving justice in the world, and revives land as a result of revival of justice. Undoubtedly, execution of penal laws and punishments on the earth is more beneficial than forty days of rainfall." (Ibid.)
As you can see, there is no trace of revenge, violence and any type of negativity in the traditions explaining the philosophy of penal laws. Rather, they are concerned with affection, clemency and the spread of justice in society.
Proving the Applicability of Punishments
Studying the ways of proving the applicability of penal laws displays other examples of Islamic clemency and benevolence.
The applicability of many penal laws is strengthened with four witnesses or four times of confession. That is to say, for application of penal law for adultery, four just men shall testify that they have seen a man or woman while committing adultery.
Is that even possible? We have not found even one case in the narrations and historical books where adultery is proved with the testimony of witnesses for the applicability of penal law. This way is practically impossible, and therefore this is a sort of Islamic clemency for such sinners.
There are numerous conditions in the case of the other way when the sinner confesses. For instance, he/she shall confess four times and each confession shall be in a different place – and even if one confesses four times in one place, it is counted as one time! (Ibid.) Moreover, if the sinner repents with the Islamic judge before the conviction, it is difficult to execute penal law for him or her. (Ibid.)
These points are mentioned in numerous narrations, one of which is referred to hereunder to see the Islamic benevolence and clemency of the real successor of Prophet (s.a.), extended to the sinner who had referred to him willingly for judgment:
An adulteress came to Imam Ali (peace be upon him) and asked him to purify her with execution of penal law for adultery, because the worldly chastisement is easier than the permanent and continuous punishment in the other world! The Imam told her to leave and to return after delivery has purified her. The lady went and later came back after childbirth, repeating her request. The Imam asked several questions from her (hoping to dissuade her and make her hesitate in what she says). He then told her to breastfeed her child, and then after infancy to come to be purified. The lady returned after two years and again repeated her request. Again the Imam asked several questions and the lady replied. Finally, the Imam told her to take care of her child so that the child could protect himself against the daily dangers. After that, she should return to be purified. The lady came back weeping. (Ibid.)
As you can see, it is not easy to prove guilt liable to penal law, and it is not possible to prove it as far as the sinner does not want execution of the penal law. This is an indication of Islamic benevolence.
If Islam was the religion of violence, would it be so fastidious in seeking the conviction of a sin?
Execution of Punishment
Even if the applicability of a penal law is proved and the Islamic judge decides to execute it, there are rules and instructions for how to do it. These rules are further indications of Islamic clemency and benevolence.
- The penalty of lashing shall not be executed at the beginning and end of the day in winter because the lash hurts the sinner too much at those times. Rather, it shall be executed in the middle of day when it is warmer.
- Contrarily, it shall not be done in the middle of day in summer, when it is too warm. Rather, it shall be done at the end of day (Ibid).
- The sinner shall not lie down when being lashed. Rather, he/she shall be sitting or standing, because the lash strokes are slower in this condition and the sinner feels less pain (Ibid).
- If the sinner is sick, execution of the penal law shall be postponed until recovery (Ibid).
- If she is pregnant, it shall be deferred until delivery (Ibid).
There are some other rules (32) which all indicate Islamic clemency even for a sinner (the details of which could be found in the books of jurisprudence).
Considering the above three points (the philosophy of penal laws, ways for proving the applicability of penal laws and punishments, and the rules for execution of penal laws and punishments), as well as reflecting upon the subtle points will compel any fair and impartial man to confess that Islamic clemency and benevolence exists even in the seemingly violent penal laws and punishments. On this account, execution of Islamic punishments is accompanied with so many blessings for society that its blessings exceed the blessings of forty successive days of rainfall!
Editor's Note: This article is an except from the author's book The Religion of Mercy, available online.