Sharia law, capital punishment, and forgiveness

Sharia law, capital punishment, and forgiveness April 21, 2014

Sharia law. The name conjures up images of barbaric practices like stoning women for adultery or chopping off the hands of thieves. Lawmakers in the US have passed paranoid resolutions against Sharia law ever being used in their states. But a recent story from Iran about a mother who forgave her son’s killer suggests that Sharia law may have something to teach us about capital punishment.

In the West, our understanding of justice is strictly retributive. Crime is turned into a matter of mathematics. A criminal accrues a debt to society with his/her crime and is punished accordingly. Criminal court cases are always defined as “the people” versus the plaintiff. There is no concern for restoring the well-being or dignity of the victim of the crime. Nor is there any interest in repairing the torn social fabric of a community where the crime has been committed. There are certainly initiatives undertaken to make crime-ridden communities healthy, but they are not understood to have anything to do with “justice.” Because in Western culture, justice can only be impersonal. As soon as it becomes personal, we presume that it has been corrupted with “bias.”

Our Western view of justice seems to be very informed by capitalism. In capitalism, the most important fundamental law is that default can never be allowed. Every debt must be measured and paid in order for the system to keep functioning. If banks started forgiving debts, then where would they stop? Analogously, our justice system could never allow for victims of crime to simply forgive criminals, because then the debt to society would remain unpaid and presumably other criminals would think they could get away with whatever they do (since people who comm1it crimes are watching the court system closely to calculate their actions, which are always perfectly rational and not at all the product of psychologically damaging things like substance abuse, rage, or the desperation of poverty).

Sharia law is apparently very different, in some cases. In the case that came to light last week, a man named Balal had gotten into a fight with another man named Abdollah when they were teenagers in 2007. Balal grabbed a knife and stabbed Abdollah, which killed him. Balal was arrested and sentenced to die. The way that this death sentence was to be carried out shows a completely different attitude about the victims of crime. Balal was put on a chair with a noose around his neck. The family of the victim were given absolute power over Balal’s life. They could kick out the chair and cause him to hang, or they could forgive him and remove the noose, which wouldn’t mean that he could go free but would commute his sentence to a prison term. The victim’s mother Maryam Hosseinzadeh gave a speech saying that she could not bring herself to forgive Balal, but then she changed her mind, slapped Balal in the face and declared him forgiven.

Imagine how different it would be if the families of murder victims had that kind of power in our justice system. We are insulated from the grave responsibility of ending another person’s life by the institutionalization of capital punishment. How many victim’s families would receive a greater healing from making the choice not to end the murderer’s life? I don’t know what it’s like to have a family member murdered. I cannot imagine that horror. I would probably consider myself religiously obligated to forgive the murderer if that responsibility were put on my shoulders, but I would resent that obligation. Could it be that Sharia law has something to teach us about capital punishment?

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  • Elizabeth Parkinson

    This is interesting to me as a British woman, because we don’t have capital punishment in UK. I don’t know how I would react in the situation you mention. There have over the years been some very well publicised murders in which the immediate kin of the murder victim have declared their forgiveness of the murderers within hours of it happening, often on prime time TV news; I think the majority, if not all, of these kin have given their Christian faith as reason for their forgiveness. I am sure that the murderers don’t care whether they are forgiven by victim’s family or not. But to me, it gives the families an opportunity to grieve, and to finally move on, without wanting vengeance or “justice” or any of the negative emotions which can eat away at someones very soul. Yes, anger is part of grief, but by forgiving they aren’t letting anger take over. And although the murderers here in UK with no death penalty may not care if they are forgiven or not, the families benefit greatly from doing the forgiving. There are also well publicised murders and accidents where the families “fight for justice for X” and are still fighting 20 or 30 years later because whatever justice is meted out, whatever inquest juries decide, those families are still angry and need someone to blame and their whole life is taken up with the obsession of getting what they consider to be justice.

    • MorganGuyton

      Very true!

  • jwlung

    We need more facts. It is rare in our legal system for a “crime of passion,” which this homicide most probably was, to be subject to a possible death penalty. Now only pre-meditated first degree murder can possibly be punished by death and then only after a jury determines that the extreme penalty is appropriate in the light of all the circumstances of the particular case.

    You are absolutely correct in pointing out that we the victim is many times left out of the process in our system. Our present system ignores the importance of restoration and reconciliation.

    Whether “sharia” has anything to teach us about application of the death penalty is, for me, an open question. To give the family of the victim of a homicide where the perpetrator was acting in the heat of passion seems to me to quite barbaric. If the death penalty serves any important public interest (a debatable proposition for sure) then to leave its final execution to the desire of the victim’s family for revenge is worse than crazy.

    • MorganGuyton

      I think putting the ball in the victim’s family’s court instead of sanitizing death by keeping it under the auspices of government bureaucracy is not crazy at all.