ISLAM AND THE CONCEPT OF PUNISHMENT
Some people often say, "Can we apply today the same barbarous punishments which were applied long ago in the desert? Is it permissible to cut a thief's hand for five shillings? Could such things take place in the twentieth century, which regards the criminal as the victim of society and maintains that he is entitled to medical treatment rather than punishment?" How is it that the twentieth century permits the slaughter of forty thousand innocent people in North Africa but forbids the rightful punishment of one single criminal!!
Woe to people from deceptive Words that often hide the truth!!
So much for the twentieth century civilization and its evils. Let us discuss the concept of crime and punishment in Islam.
Crime is often regarded as an individual aggression against the community. That is why the concept of crime and punishment is closely connected with a nation's concept of the individual-community relationship.
Individualistic countries-such as the capitalist western states go too far in sanctifying the individual; they regard him as the centre of all social life. Such countries straiten the state's right to restrict the freedom of the individual. This attitude is reflected in their conception of crime and punishment. They sympathize with criminals and treat them kindly because they are victims of corrupted circumstances, psychological complexes and nervous disorders which they could not overcome. Therefore such states are inclined to reduce penalties until--especially in moral offences they are no longer regarded as punishment.
At this stage psycho-analysis comes in to justify or explain away the crime. It will be noted that Freud was the champion of the historical change which regarded a criminal as the victim of the sexual complexes resulting from the repression of the sexual instincts by society, religion. morality and tradition. Later all schools of psycho-analysts followed Freud's example but many of them did not agree with him that sexual energy was the centre of life. All such schools regard a criminal as a passive creature who is the victim of general and personal circumstances amidst which he was brought up. They believe in what is called "psychological determinism" that is to say, a man has no freedom of will or action with respect to the psychological energy which acts according to a predetermined manner.
On the other hand, communist countries maintain that the community is a sacred entity against which the individual must not rebel. Therefore, such states inflict great penalties including death and torture on individuals who rebel against the state.
Communism refers offences to economic rather than psychological considerations--as Freud and other psychologists did. Communism holds that a society which suffers from economic disorder cannot foster virtues. Therefore criminals should not be punished. But can the communists explain why crimes arc committed, why prisons and courts are still in use in Russia where the economy is governed by the theory of absolute equality?
There is no doubt that both individualistic and communist conceptions are partly true. It is true that circumstances surrounding an individual have a great effect on his constitution and that the subconscious complex may sometimes lead to crime. But man is not a completely passive being in confronting such circumstances. The psycho-analysts commit this mistake: they concentrate on the dynamic energy in man but they ignore the controlling energy which is quite inherent in the human system. The energy which enables a child to control his secretive glands and avoid wetting his bed after a certain age is the same energy which can control his emotions and actions so that he may not continuously give in to his unruly passions and sudden whims.
On the other hand, economic conditions do have some effect on the feelings and actions of individuals. It is true that hunger, by disintegrating the spirit and breeding hatred, may lead to crime or moral corruption. But to say that only the economic factor influences human conduct is a half truth. It is belied by the facts of life in the Soviet Union which claims to have wiped out hunger and poverty.
The main question is this: before deciding whether or not a criminal should be punished, we must determine the extent of his responsibility for the offence he committed. It is to be noted that Islam takes this into account when it considers the question of crime and punishment.
Islam never prescribes punishments haphazardly nor does it execute these without due consideration. In this respect Islam has a unique theory which combines the best of both worlds: the communist as well as the individualistic theories. Islam holds the balance of justice in the right manner and insists on examining all conditions and circumstances connected with the offence. On studying a crime Islam takes into account two considerations at the same time; the viewpoint of the criminal and that of the community against which aggression took place. In the light of such considerations Islam prescribes the fair punishment which is in accordance with the dictates of sound logic and wise reasoning and which must not be affected by delinquent theories and national or individual whims.
Islam imposes preventive punishments which may appear cruel or coarse if viewed superficially or without proper consideration. But Islam does not execute such punishments unless it ascertains that the crime was not justifiable or that the criminal was not acting under any obligation.
Islam prescribes that a thief's hand should be cut, but such punishment is never inflicted where there is the slightest doubt that, he thief was impelled to crime by hunger.
Islam prescribes that both adulterer and adulteress should be stoned but it does not inflict such punishment unless they are married persons and upon conclusive evidence by four eye witnesses i.e. when two married persons flagrantly commit such a heinous crime.
It is to be mentioned that Islam took similar precautions with respect to all the punishments it had prescribed.
This is evident from a rule laid down by the third Caliph, Omar bin Al-Khattab who is considered as one of the most prominent legislators or Islam. Omar was known for his strict rigidity in enforcing the rules of Al-Sharia (law); therefore it cannot be said that he was lenient in the interpretation of the law. It should be remembered that Omar did not carry out the punishment prescribed for theft (cutting the hand) during the year of famine when there was some doubt that people might be impelled to theft by hunger.
The above-mentioned rule is best illustrated by the following episode:
"It was reported to Omar that some boys in the service of Hatib Ibn Abi Balta'a had stolen the she-camel of a man from the tribe of Muznah. When Omar questioned the boys they admitted the theft so he ordered their hands to be cut. But on second thoughts he said, “By God I would cut their hands if I did not know that you employ these boys and starve them so that they would be permitted to eat that which is prohibited unto them". Then he addressed their employer saying: “By God, since I have not cut their hands I am going to penalize you with a fine that shall pain you" and he ordered him to pay double the price of the she-camel".
This episode illustrates a. very clear and express principle; punishment win not be inflicted where there are circumstances which impelled the wrong-doer to commit the crime. This principle is supported by the saying of the prophet: “Avoid the execution of punishment by doubt".
If we study the policy adopted by Islam in prescribing punishment we shall realize that Islam tries in the first place to purify society from circumstances that may lead to crime. After taking such precaution Islam prescribes a preventive and just punishment which may be inflicted upon persons who have no reasonable justification for their crimes. Where the community is unable to preclude circumstances which may lead to crime or where there is some doubt regarding the crime, the punishment will not be inflicted and the ruler will set the criminal free or he may inflict on him a light punishment (beating or imprisonment) in proportion to his extent of responsibility for the crime.
Islam strives by various means to preclude circumstances that may lead to crime. It strives to ensure a fair distribution of wealth. It even managed to wipe out all poverty in the regime of Omar bin Abdul Aziz. The Islamic state is responsible for the support of every citizen, regardless of his religion, race, language, color or social status. The state is also responsible for ensuring decent work for all citizens. Where work is not available or if an individual is incapable of working, aid will be given to him from the public treasury.
Islam precludes all possible motives for robbery yet it examines all circumstances of a crime to ascertain, before the infliction of the punishment, that the criminal was not impelled to commit crime.
Islam recognizes the strength and importunity of sex but it tries to satisfy the sexual instinct through legal means i.e. marriage. Therefore Islam advocates early marriage and provides aid from the public treasury for those who wish to get married yet cannot afford to do so. On the other hand, Islam purifies society from temptations which excite the passions. It also prescribes lofty and noble ideals which exhaust excessive vitality and direct it into the service of public interest. It prefers that leisure time should be spent in trying to become closer and closer to God. In this manner Islam eradicates all motives that may lead to crime. Nevertheless, Islam does not hasten to inflict punishment unless the criminal has disregarded traditions and degenerated to animality by committing adultery so openly that he could be seen by four eye-witnesses.
It may be said that the present economic, social and moral conditions make it difficult for young men to get married and consequently they are led to adultery. There is some truth in that. But when Islam is truly applied there will be no maddening crazy temptations which lead young men to corruption, and there will be no pornographic motion pictures, newspapers or songs. No exciting temptation will be walking along the streets. There will be no poverty which prevents people from marriage. It is then and only then that people may be called on to be virtuous and they can be virtuous. In such a case punishment may be inflicted on offenders because they have no excuse or justification.
Before prescribing punishment, Islam tries in the first place to wipe out all circumstances and motives that may lead to crime. But even if after that a crime is committed Islam tries to waive the execution of punishment if there is any doubt about it. Could any other system match the justice of Islam?
It is because some Europeans have not studied the reality of the Islamic concept of crime and punishment that they consider the punishments prescribed by Islam as barbarous and degrading to human dignity. They wrongly imagine that such punishments like the-European Civil punishments-will be inflicted every day. They also fancy that the Islamic society indulges in daily executions of flogging, hand-cutting and stoning. But the fact is that such deterrent punishments have been executed very rarely. The fact that the punishment for theft has been executed only six times throughout a period of four hundred years is clear evidence that such punishment was primarily meant to prevent crime.
It should be remembered that Islam, before prescribing punishment, aims at the prevention of crimes. Even in the very rare cases when such punishments were inflicted we may be sure that they were quite just.
There can be no reason why some Europeans are afraid of the application of the rules of Islam except that they are criminal by nature and persist in committing crimes which lack all justification.
On the other hand, some persons imagine that such punishments have no practical significance. This is not true. These punishments were prescribed in order to frighten those individuals who have no reasonable motive for crime yet feel a strong desire for coIl1mitting crimes. However strong their motives may be, the punishment will surely make them think twice before committing any crime. It is true that some young men may suffer from sexual repression. But so long as the community works for the public good and cares for all its members, the community is entitled to full security with respect to persons and property.
On the other hand, those people who tend to commit crimes for no clear reason are not left to their fate. Islam tries all possible means to treat and restore them to normality.
It is to be regretted that some cultured youths and modem jurisprudents attack the punishments prescribed by Islam simply because they are afraid of being accused of barbarism by Europeans.
But I am sure that such people would benefit very much by studying the wisdom of the Islamic legislation.