Muhammad's 'aye' for an eye: law of retaliation in Islam
True Islam, the one taught by Muhammad, revives the law of retaliation or lex talionis. The Biblical "eye for an eye."
Traditional Muslims who understand the Quran and the hadith (reports of Muhammad's words and actions outside of the Quran) believe that Islamic law or sharia expresses the highest and best goals for all societies. It is the will of Allah.
In 2000, the law of retaliation (Arabic word is qisas) required an eye to be removed (scroll down to 2.5):
A Qisas [law of retaliation] punishment means causing injury to the offender similar to the injury caused to the victim. For example, in August 2000, the Saudi Arabian media reported that Abdel Moti Abdel Rahman Mohammad, a 37—year—old—Egyptian national was subjected to forcible surgical removal of his left eye at King Fahd Hospital in Medina. The operation was carried out as a judicial punishment of Qisas after he was found guilty of disfiguring Shahata Ajami Mahmoud, a 53—year—old Egyptian, by throwing acid at his face and damaging his left eye.
In 2003, in Saudi Arabia a man had two teeth extracted under the law of retaliation.
In May Awda al—Zahrani, a Saudi Arabian national, reportedly had two of his teeth extracted as a judicial punishment for having caused similar injury to someone during a fight. One press report suggested that the teeth were extracted by a dentist.
In 2003, a court in Pakistan sentenced a man to be blinded by acid after he carried out a similar attack on his fianc .
The court in the town of Bahawalpur, Punjab province, sentenced Mohammad Sajid under the Islamic Qisas law that matches crime and punishment.
Sajid blinded and mutilated his fiancée after her parents called off the couple's engagement.
A television presenter and mother of two, Rania al—Baz was attacked by her husband on 4 April at their home in Jeddah, apparently for having answered the telephone. She suffered 13 fractures to her face. Her husband then put her in his van and reportedly dumped her unconscious at a hospital in Jeddah, claiming that she was a victim of a traffic accident. He went into hiding before surrendering to the police on 19 April. He was reportedly charged with attempted murder but this was later reduced to severe assault for which he was convicted in May. He was sentenced to six months' imprisonment and 300 lashes. Rania al—Baz had the option of a civil action to seek retribution (qisas) in the form of compensation or corporal punishment commensurate with the harm she sustained, but apparently chose to pardon her husband in exchange for divorce and custody of her two sons. The husband served over half of his prison sentence. It was not known if he received the lashes.
Etemaad says the accused, identified only as Vahid, was 16 when he threw a bottle of acid at another man during a fight in a vegetable market in 1993. The top opened — Vahid insists accidentally — and blinded his victim in both eyes. A court said the crime should be judged as qisas, a category for which the Koran stipulates specific punishments, in this case an eye for an eye. The paper said the sentence was to pour acid on Vahid's eyes, but an appeals court ruled it should be done surgically so as not to harm other parts of his face.
The following articles in the law covering retaliation in Iran say that the instruments for carrying out the law must be sharp and sterile, and that a one—eyed man is still liable to have his good eye removed.
The instruments for carrying out the retaliation must be sharp and sterile, in accordance with the manner of retaliation, and be suited for such purpose. It is not allowed to inflict greater injuries on the wrongdoer than he caused.
If someone gauges [sic, gouges] out the eye of another, he can be condemned in accordance with the law of retaliation, even if he himself has only one eye and will be blind as a consequence. No reason exists for him not to pay compensation.
Eye and teeth removal come directly from the Quran, the eternal word of Allah, which must be imposed on humankind for its own good. Therefore, how can traditional and Quran—believing Muslims reform unless they leave behind their sacred book?
Here is how the eye—for—eye nightmare appears in the Islam that Muhammad taught—pure, true, and original Islam. First, a verse in the Quran, analyzed in its literary and historical context, explicitly orders this punishment. Second, the hadith (reports of Muhammad's words and deeds outside of the Quran) records reliable traditions that say to knock out teeth and poke out eyes. Third, later classical legal rulings, which are rooted in the Quran and hadith, follow this barbarity.
Finally, after analyzing the Torah on the law of retaliation, we contrast the way of Jesus with the way of Muhammad. Needless to say, Jesus tells us that it is better to forgive than to enact the law of retaliation literally. At least when Christianity reformed later on in history, the Reformers went back to the New Testament, which preaches divine peace and love.
This barbaric law should no longer exist after Jesus ushered in the new era of salvation. Fopr the record, that was six hundred years before Muhammad ordered the entire world to march backward to an old—new law in a distorted and haphazard way.
This translation of Sura (Chapter) 5:45 is done by Hilali and Khan and funded by the Saudi royal family (The Noble Qur'an, Riyadh: Darussalam, 2002).
This historical context of Sura 5 is discussed thoroughly in this article (scroll down to 'Historical and literary contexts'). Suffice it to say here that the sura is received from on high when Muhammad has established his authority in Medina and in many regions in the Arabian Peninsula. He lays down various laws for his community, and judging personal injury is one of them. The literary context (discussed in the same previously linked article) finds Muhammad rebuking and exhorting the Jews to listen to their own sacred Torah and to judge wisely, and they must not sell verses in it for a paltry price. Which verses? One includes the law of retaliation or lex talionis. Sura 5:45 speaks of the Jews ('them') and their Torah ('therein'). The law of retaliation is carried over to Islam.
5:45 And We ordained therein for them: Life for life, eye for eye, nose for nose, ear for ear, tooth for tooth and wounds equal for equal. But if anyone remits the retaliation by way of charity, it shall be for him an expiation. And whosoever does not judge by that which Allah has revealed, such are the Zalimun (polytheists and wrongdoers . . .).
Four facts must be considered from this verse. First, the Arabic word for 'equal for equal' is qiSaaS. The capital S's mean that the heavy Arabic 'S' or 'Saad' is used, and the double 'a' means the alim or long 'a.' For our purposes, this word will be transliterated as qisas. It means literal retaliation, physical eye for physical eye.
Second, the injured party has the option to remit or forego retaliation and take blood—wit or an indemnity or compensation in money or in goods or livestock in an agrarian economy. This option is known as 'diya.' So the 'charity' or sadaqa actually goes to the injured person.
Third, later jurists combine this verse with other verses and the hadith, and see a third option: forgiveness. This means that the injured party forgoes retaliation and monetary compensation. However, it is difficult to find this option actually being taken in the hadith and classical legal opinions, as we shall see in the next two sections.
Fourth, the last two options are reasonable and fair. A plaintiff or injured person should be compensated for his bodily injury, and he should have the option to forgive. But, as usual with Muhammad and Islam, they take things to extremes and impose the old law of retaliation. The introduction to this article and the next two sections demonstrate that the law is primitive and barbaric, especially when it is contrasted with the light of Christ, six hundred years before Muhammad came on the scene. Muhammad wants to revive the old law of retaliation, but this is excessive and therefore unjust.
If the readers would like to see other verses in the Quran on the law of retaliation, they may go to this website, and type in these references: Suras 2:178—179; 2:194; 16:126; 17:33; 22:60; 42:40.
Sura 2:178—179 is important because it speaks specifically of murder and the law of retaliation, as one of the clauses in Sura 5:45 does as well ('life for life'). In cases of murder, the victim's family has the same three options: qisas or life for life; compensation; or forgiveness. But this topic is a completely different article and is omitted here.
The hadith are the reports of Muhammad's words and actions outside of the Quran. The two most reliable hadith collectors and editors that we analyze for this article are Bukhari (d. 870) and Abu Dawud (d. 875). The Quran and the hadith are the foundations for later legal rulings.
We examine Bukhari's hadith first, and his examples show the problems that inhere in the law of retaliation, such as quenching the thirst for revenge under the guise of a divine law, and making irreversible mistakes in a courtroom overseen by a competent judge.
This incident is often cited as an example of how a victim should take compensation for an injury instead of retaliation. An aunt of Anas ibn Malik, one of the Companions of Muhammad, slapped a young girl from the Ansari (native Medinans who helped the Emigrants after their Hijrah from Mecca to Medina in AD 622) and broke her tooth. The girl's family demanded equal retaliation, tooth for tooth. But Anas exclaimed, 'O Allah's messenger! By Allah, her tooth will not be broken.' Muhammad replied, however, that this is the law of the Quran. Eventually, the girl's family gave up their claim and instead accepted payment (Commentary, vol. 6, no. 4611; cf. Ad—Diyat or Blood—wit, vol. 9, no. 6894).
Thus, this hadith is not a prime example of forbearance. Muhammad simply says that the law would be imposed, in his confrontation with Anas. The Prophet did not implore the family to take compensation. Moreover, Muhammad and his Companions did not always accept payment in lieu of bodily retaliation, as these next hadith demonstrate.
This following hadith shows Muhammad taking revenge on his household for forcing him to take medicine during a sickness. He told them not to give him the medicine (one tradition says he pointed this out without speaking). The members of his household misinterpreted his comment as a refusal for not liking the taste of the medicine. So they gave him more medicine, anyway. When he improved, he scolded them and laid down the law of retaliation: 'There is none of you but will be forced to drink medicine, and I will watch you' . . . (Ad—Diyat or Blood—wit, no. 6897; cf. no. 6886). That is, everyone will be forced to drink the bitter medicine, and Muhammad will watch them squirm as they taste the bitterness. This tradition shows Muhammad's law can be imposed for petty reasons. To be blunt, it also reveals a mean streak in him. One would expect more self—restraint and forgiveness from an Allah—inspired prophet. He should set the example and rise above such a petty thirst for revenge.
Outside of Muhammad's household, no one should doubt that the law of retaliation was actually carried out. These early Muslim leaders imposed the law, as follows:
Abu Bakr, Ibn Az—Zubair, Ali and Suwaid bin Muqarrin gave the judgment of Al—Qisas (equality in punishment) in cases of slapping. Umar carried out Al—Qisas for a strike with a stick. And Ali carried out Al—Qisas for three lashes with a whip. And Shuraih carried [it] out for one lash and for scratching. (Ad—Diyat, no. 6896)
Thus, for small offenses like slapping and hitting with a stick and scratching, the law of retaliation must be imposed. Islam means business.
One of the oddest traditions, recorded multiple times, says that if someone damages an eye of a 'Peeping Tom,' no payment or compensation is required. Says the Prophet:
'If someone is peeping (looking secretly) into your house without your permission, and you throw a stone at him and destroy his eyes, there will be no sin on you.'
This rule is not surprising because Muhammad aimed an arrow at the head of a Peeping Tom in order to hit him. Muhammad also said to another gazer that if the Prophet had been sure that 'you were looking at me [through the door], I would have poked your eye with this [sharp iron bar]' (Ad Diyat, no. 6888; cf. nos. 6889, 6902; Asking Permission, vol. 8, nos. 6241 and 6242; Dress, vol. 7, no. 5924).
At first, this retaliation may seem deserving or even humorous, but analyzed more deeply, it is serious and disproportionate. Anyone whose mind has not been clouded by a lifetime of devotion to Islam must conclude that 'destroying' an eye is not equal to looking into a house without permission. True, the violator should be punished, but excess is never just, and this punishment is excessive, not equal, as qisas implies. What does this vengeful violence and destruction say about Muhammad's capacity to be rightly guided? One would expect more self—restraint from the Allah—inspired prophet, instead of nearly poking a man's eye with sharp iron or with an arrow, though the man's act was wrong.
Sometimes the law of retaliation is irreversible and imposed wrongly. This is seen in the severe Islamic punishment for theft: cutting off the hand. Two men accused a man of theft. Ali, Muhammad's son—in—law and cousin, accepted their testimony and cut off the accused man's hand. Afterwards, a fourth man stepped forward and showed that the now disfigured man did not commit the theft. Ali accepted his testimony, but it was too late. The man's hand was already cut off. The punishment could not be reversed. Ali told the two accusers: 'If I were of the opinion that you have intentionally given false witness, I would cut off your hands.' But this second punishment would have been a mistake compounded on a mistake, even in a courtroom overseen by a competent judge. This is precisely why the law of retaliation should not even exist, not to mention this unjust punishment for theft. The law is irreversible and therefore excessive (Ad—Diyat, no. 6895).
Once again, Muhammad and Islam take things too far, especially when we compare him and his religion with Jesus and Christianity, in the section 'Christianity.'
The second hadith collector and editor is Abu Dawud.
An injured person, just like the heirs of a murder victim, can demand three things: retaliation, forgiveness, or compensation (vol. 3, no. 4481, vol. 3 is used throughout this section on Abu Dawud). So we divide our analysis into three aspects: retaliation, compensation, and alleged forgiveness.
First, we should have no doubt that early Islam actually carried out retaliation.
This one is stark and blunt. . . . If anyone cuts off the nose of a slave, we shall cut off his nose (no. 4501).
Abu Dawud mentions the same tradition as Bukhari's, concerning a woman breaking the tooth of an Ansari girl. The rest of the tradition informs us how the law of retaliation would have been carried out if the girl's family had forced the issue. 'Ahmad b. Hanbal . . . was asked: How retaliation of a tooth is taken? He said: It is broken with a file' (no. 4578). We can be sure that this punishment was literally done in early Islam. By rules of analogy, we can also be sure that it was done for other parts like eyes and ears, as we saw in the links in the introduction to this article.
Second, as for blood—wit or compensation for an injury, in a chapter titled 'Blood—wit for Limbs,' Abu Dawud records traditions that line up the amount of payment for injuring limbs and other body parts like teeth. The following amounts were altered in early Islam, for example, under the Caliphate of Umar (ruled 634—644), according to inflation (nos. 4526—4530), but they give us a rough estimate. Here are some examples of blood—wit payments:
(1) All fingers are of equal value (nos. 4540—4542), so the victim gets ten camels per finger.
(2) Teeth carry the same value as fingers, whether the teeth are molars or incisors, so the victim gets ten camels per tooth (nos. 4543—4544, 4547).
(3) This is also true of toes and fingers (no. 4545).
(4) Completely cutting off the nose requires one hundred camels (no. 4548, which covers the next rulings).
(5) Cutting off the tip of the nose requires fifty camels, or the equivalent in gold or silver, or a hundred cows, or a thousand sheep.
(6) Cutting off half a hand requires half the payment of no. four.
(7) For one foot, the payment is half of no. four.
(8) For a wound in the head, a third of the payment (of no. four) must be paid.
(9) 'For a head thrust that reaches the body, the same blood—wit must be paid' (no. eight).
It should be pointed out that later jurists impose a monetary compensation, instead of livestock. However, if the offender's assets consisted only in livestock, then this was the exchange.
The third aspect of Abu Dawud's hadith, for our purposes, shows Muhammad offering himself to be subjected to retaliation by a commoner, who forgives the Prophet.
When the Apostle of Allah . . . was distributing something, a man came towards him and bent down on him. The Apostle of Allah . . . struck him with a bough and his face was wounded. The Apostle of Allah . . . said to him: Come and take retaliation. He said: No, I have forgiven, Apostle of Allah! (no. 4521)
Ahmad Hasan, the translator of Abu Dawud, says in a footnote that if a ruler of Muslims wounds a man, he may take retaliation on the ruler. Hasan admits, however, that no Muslim 'could dare take retaliation from the Prophet' (note 3957). In reply, this hadith says just the opposite of equality, and Hasan alludes to it in his 'no Muslim could dare' comment. The commoner actually forgave Muhammad because he had no choice. He would never take legalized revenge on the Prophet, just as a commoner really would not dare to exact retaliation on a ruler. Class structure was too rigid for such equality. So this hadith does not show forgiveness and equality, but fear and social rigidity. If Islam had really broken down favoritism and class structure, this hadith would have shown the commoner wounding Muhammad like for like, and then the Prophet honoring the wounded man and decreeing in the clearest terms that no one should take revenge on him and that all his Companions and governors or newly conquered territories in Arabia should follow Muhammad's example.
To conclude this section, compensation for bodily injury is reasonable. And no one can quarrel with forgiveness, if the plaintiff or victim chooses this path. So the problem with Islamic law does not lie in these two options. The problem lies in retaliation, tooth for tooth and eye for eye—literally. Muhammad and his holy book take things too far. He is not above petty revenge, like forcing his household to drink bitter medicine or aiming an arrow or a sharp iron bar at a 'Peeping Tom.' This penalty should not exist, for it opens the door to many problems that are not found in the first two options.
The last option of retaliation is therefore primitive and must not be applied in the modern world, especially when we compare it to the way of Jesus (see below, the 'New Testament').
Classical legal opinions
Sharia is Islamic law embodied in the Quran and the hadith. Fiqh is the science of applying and interpreting sharia, done by qualified judges and legal scholars. Over the first two centuries after Muhammad's death in AD 632, four main Sunni schools of fiqh emerged, led by these scholars: Shafi (d. 820), who lived mostly in Mecca, Arabia, but who was buried in Cairo, Egypt; Malik (d. 795), who lived in Medina, Arabia; Abu Hanifa (d. 767), who lived in Kufa, Iraq; and Ibn Hanbal (d. 855) who lived in Baghdad, Iraq.
In this section we focus on retaliation (qisas), not on blood—wit or indemnities (diya). First, the Shafi School is examined.
The brief law book from the Medieval Age, A Sunni Shafi Law Code (trans. Anwar Ahmed Qadri, Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1984), goes over the list of indemnities for various bodily injuries, but the translator and commentator provides a footnote for how wounds must receive similar wounds. If eyesight is lost because of a head wound,
'a similar kind of punishment is prescribed . . . he should suffer a similar kind of punishment . . . which may be by having a red—hot iron held close to the eyeballs. Similar law[s] of talion [are] applied to other organs' (p. 116, note 17).
In the introduction to this article, we learned of eyeballs removed surgically. But here a red hot poker placed near or against the eyeball is equal punishment.
Either way, sharia in the matter of the law of retaliation is excessive by its nature, and excess is never just.
The following Medieval manual compiled by Ahmad ibn Naqib al—Misri (d. 1368), Reliance of the Traveler: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law, (rev. ed., trans. Nuh Ha Mim Keller, Beltsville, Maryland: Amana, 1994), summarizes rulings in the Shafi School of fiqh.
Retaliation of bodily injuries can be inflicted on the offender's body parts provided the punishment does not exceed the original injury. For example, nonfatal bullet wounds to the stomach or the chest are not liable to retaliation because the injury cannot be duplicated exactly. Also, there is no retaliation for breaking the bone. Thus, a payment is due for both injuries. However, these body parts are subject to retaliation: 'an eye, eyelid, the soft part of the nose, the ear, tooth, lip, hand, foot, finger, fingertip, penis, testicles, vulva, and the like' (p. 585, o3.2).
The same manual expands on the list of body parts that are liable for retaliation.
'Retaliation is also obligatory . . . for every wound that cuts to the bone, such as a cut on the head or face that reaches the skull, or a cut to the bone on the upper arm, lower leg, or thigh. To the bone means that it is known that a knife or a needle, for example, has reached the bone, not that the wound actually exposes the bone to view' (pp. 587—88, o3.13).
It is breathtaking to watch Islam in action. Does a judge or his representative take a knife or a needle and actually inflict the same wound by slicing and puncturing an arm or a leg? How is like—for—like punishment literally and physically applied to the sex organs? The answer is found in the hadith and in the modern examples in the introduction to this article. A judge or his representative actually applies the same wound on the offender as it the victim's wound.
Imam Malik, founder of another major school of law, gives us a different perspective on these questions. He composed a law book that is also considered a reliable collection of hadith: Al—Muwatta of Imam Malik ibn Anas: The First Formation of Islamic Law (rev. trans. Aisha Bewley, Inverness, Scotland: Madina Press, 1989, 2001).
The following case deals with murder, normally outside of the scope of this article, but it reveals one way of exacting retaliation. Malik records this tradition: 'Abd al—Malik . . . imposed retaliation against a man who killed a mawla [freed slave] with a stick—and so the mawla's patron killed the man with a stick' (p. 368, 43.20.15). So in this case the victim's patron hits the perpetrator with a stick until he dies. How many times did the patron have to hit the murderer before the criminal died?
How about domestic violence?
'Malik said, 'When a man intentionally goes to his wife and gouges out her eye or breaks her hand or cuts off her finger or such like, and does it intentionally, retaliation is inflicted on him.'
But when he hits her with a rope or a whip in a part of her body that he did not intend to hit, like the face, then he pays blood—money and retaliation is not inflicted (p. 370, 43.23). In the introduction to this article a Saudi husband beat his wife to a bloody pulp, and she did not exact revenge on him in a like—for—like way. Instead, she opted for an indemnity: divorce and custody of the children. For the mother, custody in Saudi Arabia is hard to win. Apparently, the judges made a deal with her since the light of the international community was beaming on the case.
For the other schools of law, we use the compendium of Ibn Rushd, known in the West as Averroës (d. 1198). He was a judge, medical doctor, and scientist, but he pursued his career mostly as a judge in Spain, where Islam ruled from the eighth century to the fifteenth. He was buried in Cordova. His two—volume work, The Distinguished Jurist's Primer, (trans. Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee, Center for Muslim Contribution to Civilization, Reading, UK: Garnet, 1994—1996), took over twenty years to write. Ibn Rushd provides a foundation in Islamic law for judges and legal scholars throughout the Islamic world, where it is still used today.
As it turns out, Ibn Rushd's assessment of the four main schools of law reveals that they parallel each other, except in some details that do not concern us here. We should note, however, some criteria that he lists for deciding whether the case merits retaliation or compensation, as follows: (1) legal age, determined by puberty (fifteen to eighteen years old); (2) sanity; (3) malice or intent. In cases of quasi—intentional wounds, when the offender struck the victim, but did not intend permanent injury, the punishment is compensation with an enhanced amount.
To sum up this section, classical legal opinions and rulings demonstrate beyond doubt that the literal punishment of retaliation was carried out. A court oversaw its execution, done by a qualified representative. In one instance the patron (former owner) of a slave carried out the punishment by hitting the offender with a stick until he died. Domestic violence is rife in Islamic countries, as the hadith from Malik and the Saudi woman's case demonstrate. Why should this surprise us when the Quran gives husbands permission to hit their wives? Though she may retaliate, what would happen to her when she got back home with her husband or even after a divorce?
Sharia generally and the law of retaliation must never be allowed to spread throughout the world, for both degrade and humiliate humans and their God—given dignity, six hundred years after Jesus came and showed us a better way.
Exodus 21:23—25 says straightforwardly:
23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (cf. Leviticus 24:17—22 and Deuteronomy 19:21)
The question is: should this punishment be applied literally or not? A case can be made either way, as seen in these four factors.
First, the historical context of the ancient Near East must be considered. The law of retaliation in the Code of Hammurabi, named after an emperor of Babylon (ruled 1792—1750), enlarged the scope of criminal law to include even the rich who had to suffer legally for their abuse of the lower classes or others of the same class (cf. Judges 1:6—7). This implies that the law was actually enforced.
So the law of retaliation in the Scriptures also leveled class differences and improved on Near Eastern culture, rather than degraded it.
Second, however, the cultures surrounding ancient Israel imposed monetary fines or indemnities, instead of demanding corporeal punishments like gouging out an eye. So it is possible that the ancient Hebrews adopted the same penalty, of which we see hints in Exodus 21:18—19, 32; Numbers 35:32; Deuteronomy 22:19, 29 (Bernard S. Jackson, 'The Problem of Exodus XXI 22—5 (Ius Talionis),' Vetus Testamentum 23 (1973), pp. 273—304).
Thus, the severe physical punishment should possibly be interpreted in light of the softer options, like an indemnity.
Third, it is highly likely that the punishment of an eye for an eye in ancient Hebrew society is 'a stereotyped formula that only states that the punishment must match the crime, but not exceed the damage done . . . 'An eye for an eye' might now read: 'a bumper for a bumper, a fender for a fender''. . . The punishment 'was not an authorization for individuals to tell their opponents to hold still while they tried to even the score and punch out an equal number of their teeth.' This physical punishment was not even literally carried out in the context of a competent judge, and especially not in a private settlement, where tempers may flare and so make the retaliation exceed the damages (W. Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics, Zondervan, 1983, p. 104).
The underlying principle, therefore, is not literally taking an eye or a tooth, but equal compensation.
Fourth, the vast majority of Rabbis throughout the formation of Talmudic literature argued for a non—literal interpretation of Exodus 21:23—24. The assailant could instead pay compensatory damages. For example, Rashi (so named after the initials of his name and title, Rabbi Shelomo Yizhaki, d. 1145), summarizes earlier traditions: 'If one blinded the eye of his fellow—man, he has to pay him the value of his eye,' which is calculated on the wounded man's being hypothetically sold as a slave before his injury. 'In the same way all other cases [of the law of retaliation] are to be dealt with, but it does not mean the actual cutting off of the offender's limb—just as our Rabbis have explained' in . . . B Kamma 83b, which is a tractate and chapter in the Talmud (Pentateuch with Rashi's Commentary, trans. and annotated by M. Rosenbaum and A. M. Silbermann, Jerusalem: Silbermann Family, 1972, (1930) vol. 2, p. 113).
Thus, a vast array of Rabbis interprets the verse non—literally, based, incidentally, on Biblical passages (see the second factor, above). This reasonable interpretation improves society, not degrades it.
To conclude this section, even if we assume that the law of retaliation was actually and physically carried out when it was first published in Exodus 21:23—25, Judaism later evolved towards the more humane monetary compensation, finding verses in the Torah that pointed in that direction. This improvement contrasts with the way of Muhammad, who orders all of humanity to march backwards to 1,400 years before Christ and carry out the physical punishment of an eye for an eye.
Muhammad's historical context came six hundred years after Jesus, who showed us a better way. Jesus did not interpret the law of retaliation in Exodus 21:23—25 literally, carrying out of the punishment of a physical eye for a physical eye.
Thus, both Judaism and Christianity move forward, whereas Islam goes backward.
The New Testament
Jesus corrects the literal interpretation of the passages on the law of retaliation. Matthew 5:38—39 says:
38 You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' 39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right check, turn to him the other also. (cf. Luke 6:29)
Jesus raises the stakes in personal injuries. He follows a command found in the Holiness Code, in which many verses have a universal application. Leviticus 19:18 says, 'Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.' This is the general principle behind Matthew 5:38—39. This background verse in Leviticus is supported by Matthew 5:42—45, which says to love one's enemies and to pray for them (cf. Luke 6:32). It is better to let go of the offense.
So to avoid misinterpretations or over—interpretations of the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:38—39, we should consider these five guidelines.
First, as usual with Biblical passages, they must be taken in historical context. Jesus lived in first—century Israel, and at that time the law of retaliation appears in a legal context, in a courtroom, not in a private dispute that was settled in private vendettas. The Mishnah, an early source of commentary on the Torah, was finalized in its written form at the end of the second century AD, but the oral traditions were transmitted long before that. This passage from this repository of wisdom, seen in the context of bodily injuries, says that all disputes of this kind must be heard in a court: 'Assessment [of injury] in money or money's worth must be made before a court of law' . . . (Baba Kamma 1.3, p. 332 in Danby's translation). At this time in Judaism, bodily injuries could be compensated with money. Also, verse 40 in Matthew chapter 5 confirms a legal context: 'if someone wants to sue you.' Finally, Matthew 5:25 says to be reconciled with an adversary who is taking you to court.
So Jesus' interpretation of the law of retaliation must be seen in a legal context. Thus, he proclaims in the two verses that it is better not to drag a neighbor, even an evil one, into court in a lawsuit. It is better to let the demand for retaliation go.
Second, the words themselves in the two verses appear in other contexts, and this can clarify their meaning. For example, the Greek word for 'strike' can mean to hit with the palm of the hand, as if the assailant is doing this deliberately but not in a brawl (A. B. Bruce, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 1, Eerdmann's, p. 112; cf. Matthew 26:67). This indicates formality or a ritual. (This also means that followers of Jesus still have the option to defend themselves if they are attacked in society, though this is not the main thrust of the Matthew 5:38—39.) Be that as it may, the offended party who follows Jesus should not retaliate even when formally opposed or insulted. It is better to let the demand for retaliation go.
Third, the two verses should not be over—interpreted. It is one thing to let go of an offense if it happens personally to you as an individual, but it is quite another to walk away if the insult happens to someone else. In that case no one who can offer help should ignore the plight of the weak and persecuted. In this context, one should resist an 'evil person' or 'evil,' depending on the translation of the word in v. 39.
Fourth, the command not to resist 'evil' should not be over—interpreted, either. It must be seen in a legal context in which the slapped follower of Jesus could demand redress of grievances in a court of law, not out in society where injustices may occur. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, sent by the risen Jesus, Paul tells the Christians in Rome that God himself has established law enforcement to bring about justice for those who do right as opposed to those who do wrong (Romans 13:1—5). So in Matthew 5:38—39, Jesus is merely saying that it is better to let an offense go, rather than drag the offender into court to demand compensation.
Five, the two verses must be interpreted in their literary context, or the verses surrounding the two target verses. One commentator paraphrases Christ's central idea within the textual context of 5:38—42. 'Though the judge must give redress when demanded, you are not bound to ask it, and if you take My advice you will not' (Bruce, p. 112). In other words, Christ does not deny that one has the freedom to sue for an offense, because he understood and respected the Torah, which allows for it, but he shows us a higher way: forgiveness and reconciliation. His disciples should not seek for revenge and retaliation, but obey Leviticus 19:18 and Matthew 5:42—45 which exhorts us to follow a better path.
To sum up this section, Christians interpret the Old Testament through the vision of Jesus. In Matthew 5:38—39, he corrects the literal interpretation of the law of retaliation. He raises the literal command and legal option up to pursing peace and forgiveness, following Leviticus 19:18. No one who follows him should seek revenge, and no one who offends should have his eye gouged out or his tooth knocked out. It is better to win the offensive neighbor with the peace and love of God. It is the kindness of God, in this case as expressed by his followers during insults, that win people to repentance (Romans 2:4).
This non—literal interpretation contradicts Muhammad's violent option when a personal injury occurs—literally gouging out an eye or knocking out a tooth. The first two of his options are reasonable: forgiveness and compensation. But the third is extreme, six hundred years after Christ ushered a new way of salvation and a better way to live with out neighbors. Once again, Muhammad takes an old law and goes too far with it.
The best way to apply the facts in this article is to look at two websites that defend the indefensible punishment of literal retaliation.
This website gives a useful mid—sized summary of Islamic law. Its theme is human rights and Islamic law. They link the two in all seriousness, but the article drips with irony. Sharia and human rights are opposites and antithetical. It blithely assumes that the law of retaliation (spelled 'Qesas' on this page) is the best for humankind. Most Muslims are convinced that the Quran came down directly from God, so they never challenge it.
This website is directed at young people, and it has another useful summary of sharia or Islamic law, which has been posted at Muslim websites at college campuses. Its conclusion:
The Shari'ah [including qisas] is an integrated homogenous whole. Once one understands its basic concepts, objectives and framework, one cannot but conclude that it is capable of creating the most human and just society, a peace and blessing for mankind. Difficulties only arise when critics try to measure the ocean of divine knowledge, wisdom and justice with their own thimble of pedestrian criteria and standards.
The quotation compares the 'ocean of knowledge, wisdom and justice' with 'the thimble of pedestrian criteria and standards.' This is one problem with Muslim leaders (among many other problems). They want humanity to take it on faith in Allah (an ocean), without using reason (a thimble), that sharia is good for society. However, sound reasoning (a gift of God), as well as the New Testament, inspired by God (an infinite being), demonstrates that sharia is bad for society.
Sharia is bad for society because it contains too many harsh rules and punishments promulgated many centuries after Christ came and showed us a better way. One of the most tragic and under—reported occurrences in the West in recent years is the existence of a sharia court in Canada. Muslims are pushing for a sharia divorce court in Australia, as well. Having a court of arbitration if it is based on western law and legal theory is legitimate, but sharia does not hold to this standard. So Canada should promptly shut down any sharia court, and Australia should never allow one.
Fortunately, the province of Quebec, Canada, rejected a sharia court. This is the right policy and direction. Such a court should never be permitted in the US, Europe, and elsewhere around the world. Sharia ultimately degrades society and diminishes freedom.
We on the outside of Islam are allowed to ask whether the Quran's punishments are better than the New Testament's policy of forgiving and restoring sexual sinners. Does the Quran guide society better than the New Testament does? Would the true God send Gabriel down to Muhammad with a violent and bloody message that comes six hundred years after Jesus? Should this message supercede the one proclaimed by Jesus?
Given the hard evidence, Bible—educated Christians answer no. The true God would not send down such extreme policies in the new era of salvation which Jesus ushered in. They realize that the Quran is empirically and factually worse than the New Testament.
Jesus Christ came with good news and the love of God. Muhammad came with poking and gouging. Christianity advances society forward. Islam drags society backwards.
Jesus saves. Muhammad retaliated.
James M. Arlandson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.