The death penalty generates a lot of discussion and evokes emotions in many societies for a number of reasons. There are often concerns whether there is a way to determine someone’s guilt with absolute certainty, as was the case with the recent execution of Troy Davis. Davis’s case prompted responses not only around the United States, but also within the Muslim community. Tariq Ramadan, a prominent Muslim scholar, wrote a response titled “On the Death Penalty” where he argues that cases like Davis’s are the reason that the death penalty should be stopped and, specifically in the Islamic context, that there should be a moratorium on the use of the death penalty for certain crimes like adultery and murder.
In Islamic law, the death penalty is applied for a limited number of cases, including murder and adultery. Adultery and murder fall into different categories of crime. Adultery is a hadd crime, the most serious type of crime because its punishment is clearly articulated in the Qur’an and thus there can be no leniency. However, with this type of crime, the burden of proof is incredibly high. Four people must witness the act of penetration and agree on all the details. Moreover, circumstantial evidence is not sufficient and pregnancy is not proof of adultery.
Murder, on the other hand, is a qisas crime, which means it involves retaliation. This is when there is intentional murder and the victim’s family has the right to ask for the like to be done to the murderer: an eye for an eye. Unlike a hadd crime, there is not one punishment. In other words, the death penalty can be applied, but it does not have to be. The murderer can pay money to the victim’s family called diya as a kind of compensation or they can forgive, leaving ultimate judgment to God, and this is the higher moral stance.
The judge has a heavy responsibility to determine without a doubt that the individual is guilty. Most often, this is impossible to do. The severe nature of the punishments in Islamic law indicate these punishments should act as deterrents, but in reality rarely are applied because of the burden of proof required. It is for this reason that in a hadith the Prophet Muhammad maintained that erring in forgiveness is better:
“Wherever possible, do not inflict punishments (hudud; singular hadd) on Muslims; if there is a way out for someone, let him go. It is better for the ruler (al-imam) to err in forgiveness than for him to err in punishment.”
For Ramadan, there is too much possibility for error in the current government systems both in Muslim majority countries and in the United States for the high level of proof to ever be attained. In Muslim majority countries, there are many examples of violations of Islamic law where punishments have been meted out haphazardly and unjustly, and thus, execution should be avoided until there is a guarantee that abuses will not occur.
What do you think of Ramadan’s position? Do you agree with his call for a moratorium on the death penalty? How have other faith traditions dealt with the death penalty? Please share your comments below.