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"Removing the Middleman" Chapter 2: Surah Al-Baqarah (The Cow): Verses 178-179


Oh believers, just retribution is prescribed on you regarding the matter of killing— free for the free, slave for the slave, and female for the female (no substitution or excess). But if lesser punishment is acceptable to the heirs (grieving heirs in case of involuntary acts), the retribution can be reduced according to prevailing norms (agreed to by the community and put into practice) and executed in a good, honest manner.

 This is an acceptable alleviation from your Lord and a (sign of His) mercy. Whoever then exceeds the limits after this will face serious consequences. The rule of just retribution is to sustain life and help you guard yourself. Try to be responsible if you understand (the seriousness of the matter)!


In Islamic morals and ethics, the value of life is considered inviolable and cannot be violated without just cause; as such, any act of killing a human being is considered a grave violation of the sanctity of life. To preserve life is then the prime objective of just retribution for the killing of a human being. The punishment for a deliberate killing is the death penalty of the person guilty of such a crime, but this has to be proven in a court of law and be based on evidence and witnesses. Islam also does not accept the old custom of subjecting someone other than the person guilty to suffer the consequence. For example, in old times and in some tribal cultures, a slave could be substituted for the crime of a freeman. Islam says in no way is this acceptable, and the same ruling applies in the case of a female (e.g., wife) being subjected for the crime of a male.

It also states that the punishment of a female should be adequate if she is the convicted person. Islam considers the death penalty to be a life preserver as opposed to the termination of life. While it does result in the termination of the convicted person’s life, it sets in motion a security blanket that discourages others from taking this extreme measure of killing people and, hence, saves more lives in the long run. Islam also allows for reduction of punishment only if the killing was involuntary and if the heir of the person killed is willing to compromise and show mercy to the murderer. In such a case, the punishment will be based on the expectations of the victim’s heir as well as on the normal mode of exchange under the specific circumstances agreed to by both parties. At the end of verse 179, God appeals to the human understanding that responsibility and mercy go hand in hand and should be exercised in all matters of legal and moral codes (see also 4:29).


The death penalty is an important part of Islamic laws, whereby the sanctity of life is guaranteed based on moral grounds as well as on practical social and legal implications. But its execution must be in accordance with appropriate legal proceedings based on justice and fairness and not on whimsical or emotional grounds, and so-called king- or leader-appointed extra-judiciary bodies cannot be used to intimidate citizens under the pretext of exercising justice.


It is important for a Muslim to support this mode of punishment in their country whether or not the law is derived explicitly from Islamic jurisprudence. Under any legal system wherever we may be, we ought to work hard to implement the wisdom derived from the Islamic law and actively campaign to institute such rules. We need to make the case of the laws derived from Qur’anic principles based on their universal merit and fairness to individuals and societies. Muslim countries, however, must implement these legal requirements in their true spirit and wisdom and not pay lip service which leads to anarchy and favoritism toward family members, party officials, the wealthy class, etc. There also needs to be vigorous debates among the people to explore (either for or against) such injunctions from time to time so that we can better appreciate and gain confidence in the legal framework prescribed in the Qur’an. Such debates and discussions should happen freely and without any intimidation or fear of reprisal or punishment of Hellfire.

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