Questioning the Death Penalty

Despite the view some people have of Islam as a strict and homogenous ideology, crimes that are understood to be punishable by death vary depending on who you speak to and where you are.

We should not wait for Turkey to lead us in understanding the diversity of Islamic thought on different matters. It is essential for Muslims to be aware of the many opinions that are out there and not assume that what they have been told by imams, scholars or their elders is the only option. Since there is no priesthood in Islam and no agency between the individual and God, it is vital for every Muslim to educate themselves and make up their own minds.

Take the death penalty, for instance, which is part of the legal code in some Muslim countries. Given that in the Koran God equates the taking of one innocent life with the killing all of humanity (Koran 5:32), it seems quite irresponsible not to clarify any potentially grey areas when it comes to taking someone's life.

The story of 23-year-old Pervez Kambaksh is a case in point. Kambaksh was tried and convicted for blasphemy in Afghanistan for distributing literature taken from the Web about women's rights. He will be executed if his appeal is unsuccessful and the campaign to save him does not succeed.

Despite the view some people have of Islam as a strict and homogenous ideology, crimes that are understood to be punishable by death vary depending on who you speak to and where you are. Even the four main schools of Islamic jurisprudence have different views on which crimes deserve the death penalty. The differences come largely from the various interpretations of the hadith, a collection of sayings and deeds attributed to the Prophet Muhammad.

Some people may think that Turkey's plans to revise the existing body of hadith—reinterpreting some while extracting those that are deemed inauthentic for having suspect sources—and to re-examine Islamic law for the modern age is an encouraging step. But can Turkey deliver an Islam that has universal application? And can the various hadith ever really be separated from the era and circumstances they were collected and written in?

I recently talked to a conservative and prominent Wahhabi scholar, Sheikh Suhaib Hasan, about the crimes punishable by death. He is a board member of the British Islamic Shari'a Council and has been accused of having extreme views; even he admits there is variation in opinion over which crimes are deserving of the death penalty: "There is a great debate amongst scholars about whether [for example] apostasy is punishable by death.… No one was killed for apostasy during the life of the Prophet."

Haroon Khan, cofounder of Free-minds.org, a Web site that seeks to promote the Koran as the only source of religious guidance for Muslims, explains, "The Koran tells us that the only crimes punishable by death are crimes against humanity. That is mainly for people like Slobodan Milosevic. [Even] in individual cases of murder, the option of compensation is given."

The verse from the Koran to which Haroon is referring states that the only crimes punishable by death are "murder or spreading mischief in the land" (Koran 5:32). The problem is how people choose to interpret these terms. Some consider "mischief" as large-scale corruption or sedition, while others, as in the case of Kambaksh, see it as handing out flyers from the Internet.

In the case of Kambaksh, who has not chosen to leave Islam but only to distribute information, talking about whether or not he is guilty seems almost like a diversionary tactic. Muslims must first try to raise awareness of matters of religious freedom within Islam and debate whether current interpretations that advocate the death penalty for those who challenge the authority of the state are valid.

Ayesha Khan is a documentary filmmaker based in London. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service.