‘Hanging’ as a Deterrent — A view from Islam

The demand for ‘hanging’ of condemned murderers has provoked many to respond negatively. The basic argument raised by the critics is that capital punishment does not function, or no longer functions, as a deterrent to the crime of murder. They argue that even if all those on death row were to be ‘hanged’, the killings and murders would still continue, and may very well increase despite the ‘hangings’. Since the impression was created that the decision to resume hangings was a political response to runaway crime (including murder), it was not unreasonable to infer the rationale for that decision, to wit, that a resumption of hangings would deter would-be murderers.

We write from the perspective of Islam to agree with the argument that while ‘hangings’ can still deter acts of terrorism, they do not deter today’s random murders or, at least, can no longer do so. From whence do we derive this view? Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) prophesied the coming of a Last Age (which would culminate with the return of Jesus, the true Messiah), with a momentous sign of ‘killing’ and ‘murders’ becoming so random, commonplace and senseless, that “… the one who was killed would not know why he was killed, and the killer would not know why he killed” (perhaps because the paymaster did not inform him). He also prophesied, “… each time would be succeeded by one that would be worse than the previous”. Hence murders would constantly escalate with governments helpless at that time to prevent that calamity. We now live in that Last Age in which Prophet Muhammad’s prophecies are constantly and dramatically being fulfilled to the ever-increasing dismay of those who rejected him and declared him to be an imposter and a false prophet. 

There is, of course, an explanation for today’s rampant crime, including killing. When a people forget Allah Most High (by ignoring His Laws, for example), they eventually forget their own (human) selves and live and die like animals. The present essentially godless age is waging war on religion in general, and on Islam in particular, and as a result sincere worship and obedience of the One God is constantly and ominously receding from the world. Secondly, values are collapsing around the world, and as they collapse injustice and oppression increasingly prevail. Those who today control power in the world use that power to oppress, to corrupt, and to wage war on the poor masses. They kill in the millions – while individual bandits, murderers and kidnappers merely walk in their bloodstained footsteps.

It was, perhaps, because of His pre-knowledge of the Last Age with its endless killings and murders, as well as adultery and fornication, that Allah Most High Himself recognized the need to abrogate His own Law concerning the use of capital punishment as deterrent punishment for adultery and fornication. The Law of the Torah, revealed to Moses (peace be upon him), had imposed ‘stoning to death’ as the divine punishment for adultery. But when the Qur’an was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that Law was abrogated and was replaced with a new Law of a ‘public flogging’. At the same time, however, the sacred law reaffirmed the validity of ‘deterrent’ punishment while retaining the law of ‘cutting off’ the hand of the thief, as well as instituting capital punishment for acts of terrorism, and the new law of ‘public flogging’ for adultery.

But ‘deterrence’ was recognized in the philosophy of punishment in Islam to be only one of at least three different functions of punishment. There is that punishment which is inflicted with the intention of ‘reforming’ someone’s conduct. Allah Most High sometimes punishes by taking away wealth or health in order that one might awaken to his evil ways and reform himself. Then, in addition to the ‘deterrent’ and ‘reformatory’ there is also ‘retributive’ punishment in the form of divinely ordained ‘punitive retaliation’ (al-Qisaas) that is inflicted in order to meet the demand for ‘equity’ in justice. Thus did the divine law prescribe ‘retaliatory’ punishment of ‘an eye for and eye’, ‘a tooth for a tooth’, and ‘a life for a life’. He, who, alone ‘gives’ life, promulgated that divine law which sanctioned the ‘taking’ of a life. The critics of capital punishment cannot give life – they cannot create even a housefly. And so, if ours is to be a just society preserving equity in justice, it must retain capital punishment, at least for murderers.

However, the divine law also made it possible for the life of the murderer to be spared if the family that lost a life willingly agreed to such. This sometimes entailed payment of compensation for loss to those dependents of the deceased. In the event that the murderer did not possess enough wealth with which to pay that compensation, then friends, family, and the tribe, nation or group to which he belonged were expected to contribute to the payment of the compensation. Also, once his life was spared the murderer was a free man and could himself contribute to compensation through his future earnings. If, on the other hand, the families of the deceased refused to show mercy and, instead, demanded justice in the form of ‘a life for a life’, the state was obliged to enforce capital punishment in order to conform with ‘equity’ in justice.

The divine law of ‘a life for a life’ limited capital punishment to the one who actually took a life. And hence an accomplice to murder would not be required to pay for that crime with his life. In addition those who enforced capital punishment had to take the greatest possible care to ensure that no innocent person was ever executed. Hence the divine ‘law of evidence’ never admitted ‘tainted’ evidence obtained from confessed criminals through the morally corrupt method of ‘plea bargaining’. Finally there is absolutely no justification for us to persist with ‘hanging’ when other less brutal forms of taking the life of a common murderer can easily be adopted without any infringement of the ‘life-for-a-life’ principle of equity in justice.