Why does Islam have violent punishments?

I received the following question:

I grew up in a predominantly Christian country, and as a Muslim, I have received several Islamophobic comments related to terrorism and similar topics. Initially, I wasn’t offended because I knew they were ignorant about Islam. However, over the past few years, I’ve begun to realize that these jokes are not entirely baseless. They stem from certain practices in Islam that I was previously unaware of, such as cutting off a thief’s hand, stoning homosexuals to death, jihad, and several other disturbing punishments.

For instance, I have seen footage of a man’s hand being amputated, surrounded by people urging him to say “Astaghfirullah,” and others proclaiming “Alhamdulillah” as his hand was severed from his arm. I’ve also witnessed terrorist groups exclaim “Allahu Akbar” before beheading their victims. My question is as follows: Fundamentally, why does Islam allow or support violence? Why are so many shootings and killings linked to Islam in one way or another?

The following is my answer to this question:

Bismillah, all praise belongs to Allah. When faced with such questions from non-Muslims it is always important for a Muslim to learn about his religion and why he believes it. So, he should learn the basics of what Islam actually teaches and claims to be and, most importantly, learn the reasons for why we as Muslims believe in Islam. We do not believe in Islam out of blind faith as some might imagine.

There are many resources for this purpose but Mohammad Elshinawy’s The Final Prophet: Proofs for the Prophethood of Muhammad (SAW) is excellent.

Without going into the details of that subject here, understand that Islam is the religion God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (SAW), placing guidance in the Quran and the Prophet’s practice to teach mankind how to best live all aspects of their life, ranging from their private religious practice to how their societies should function.

If you look at people without religious guidance, you will find them all confused and ignorant about how to govern society, without much agreement or consensus. If you asked them how society should punish murderers, they would not agree on a single answer. If you asked them how society should punish thieves, they would not agree on a single answer.

In addition to always being diverse and non-uniform, their beliefs change over time according to the trends of popular thought. In the past, they used to believe in many physical punishments, nowadays they prefer prison as punishment, and they claim the latter is more humane despite having no evidence for that except popular thought.

Because they base all this only on their opinions, they have no definite way to decide whether something is better than anything else. Society is too complicated to run statistical tests on different forms of punishment, how they affect criminals, and how they discourage crime. So, ultimately, their views come down to opinion and feelings.

How can we rely on that in this issue of utmost importance? These are matters of life and death. You are taking away decades of people’s lives through imprisonment, claiming that these punishments are good for society even though you do not know for sure they help improve society at all!

This is the context in which our Creator decided to teach us punishments for some major crimes, including murder, stealing, robbery, adultery, etc. He taught us these things along with the proper procedures of how to implement these punishments (not as vigilantes, but as a proper government), because it is not possible for us to fully comprehend best punishments on our own.

The punishments He taught include some corporal (physical) and capital (death) punishments. For example, the punishment of murder can be execution if the family of the victim refuses to forgive, but they are encouraged to forgive. The punishment of stealing (of a certain minimum amount that was not done out of necessity) can be to cut off a hand of the thief if the victim does not forgive. And there are others.

These punishments are what our Creator calculated in His infinite wisdom would improve society most efficiently with the least amount of harm. Since they were given by our Creator, them being implemented properly as He has commanded (and not improperly by vigilantes) will generally lead to the best outcome for human society in all times and places.

For more information in defense of corporal punishments as opposed to imprisonment, I would recommend watching this video lecture on the topic of corporal punishments by Bassam Zawadi:

All that being said, I made it a point to emphasize “proper” implementation and not vigilantism because a lot of uninformed non-Muslims point to instances of foolish or malicious Muslim groups who “implement” these punishments with no proper procedure or government as demonstration of Islam’s own understanding of punishments.

These instances they point to can be divided into three categories.

Sometimes, they show examples of people only acting on a culture that has no basis in Islamic law, like honor killings. Honor killing is when some people kill a woman for bringing shame to her family. Islam does not encourage or allow honor killing at all! Islam is a religion of law and order and absolutely does not tolerate tribal or mob actions.

To claim Islam encourages these non-Islamic behaviors only because Islam has actually legislated punishments that kind of look like honor killing if you close one eye and squint would be preposterous.

For example, some people point to the punishment of adultery as a comparison to honor killing. But, that is ridiculous since the punishment of adultery is not specific to women, nor is it implemented by a family because they feel dishonor, nor can it be implemented based on rumors. Adultery is famously almost impossible to convict in Islam because of the high standard of proof (four direct trustworthy witnesses to the act, which is almost impossible to find, or direct unforced confession repeated four times) and the encouragement to avoid punishment with the slightest iota of doubt[1]. In fact, accusations of adultery without the full standard of proof are themselves punished in Islam!

Allah says in the Quran: ⟪And those who accuse chaste women [of adultery] and then do not produce four witnesses – lash them with eighty lashes and do not accept from them testimony ever after. And those are the defiantly disobedient.⟫ (Quran 24:4)

Comparing this to honor killing done based on rumor just because a family feels dishonored is like comparing day to night.

It would be like someone saying Western societies encourage kidnapping someone if they annoy you because their countries have laws about imprisonment if someone assaults a person, and imprisonment is basically a form of kidnapping and annoying is basically a form of assault. It makes no sense at all!

The second category is when they give examples of some terrorist groups who do crazy actions. However, their craze started because of unstable political and economic circumstances that arose in their countries, and analogous craze would arise in any country that was invaded, bombed, and destroyed. And who was at fault for these invasions that destabilized the regions of Iraq and Afghanistan and pushed people into these groups? Definitely not Muslims!

Those people who acted like vigilantes without following proper procedure were obviously not acting according to Islam but used Islam as justification to do what they wanted to do because of their circumstances. They had political grievances that they wished to settle. We hope that Allah guides them to follow Islam properly, but blaming their actions on Islam is reductive and baseless.

The Prophet (SAW) himself predicted such ignorant groups arising in the area of Iraq (which is where groups like ISIS formed). While pointing his hand towards the direction of Iraq, he said, “There will appear in it (i.e. Iraq) some people who will recite the Quran but it will not go beyond their throats, and they will go out of (leave) Islam like an arrow darts through the animal’s body.” (Sahih Bukhari)

It is important at this point to note the difference between terrorist groups that targeted Muslim and non-Muslim civilians without care (like ISIS) from resistance movements who fought against oppressors and foreign invaders of their land, even if one finds some of the religious policies and opinions held by those movements to be distasteful or wrong.

The third category, which is rare, is when they show examples of actual and proper implementation of Islamic laws, like a thief being properly punished. In that case, if a thief was actually convicted under a Muslim government in a proper court and he was not stealing out of necessity or need and stole above a minimum amount, the government would indeed give him the punishment he is assigned by God. But, how is that a concern to other people?

Would they prefer that our countries follow their laws and instead put the poor man in jail for 10 years instead? Why should Muslims follow the beliefs of these non-Muslims when they do not have any evidence to show that their punishment is more beneficial for society than what we consider God’s punishment? Should we follow God’s law and wisdom or people’s whims, thoughts, and desires? The answer to this is obvious. We follow God’s wisdom over people’s desires.

A lot of the time, you get the question: Why don’t you keep your religion private since it is just your personal belief? Why would it be implemented on others?

We would respond: Then, why don’t you keep your own beliefs about what are good and bad punishments private since they are your own personal beliefs? Why the double standards? Do you get to tell others to follow your own personal beliefs but Muslims cannot follow their own beliefs about governance in countries they govern?

We as Muslims believe in Islam as actual truth. The idea that religion is only opinion arose due to secularists and Christians. We believe Islam is true not for amusement or tradition, but because it is proven by actual evidence that shows Islam to be true. So, when Muslims are in charge of their own societies, obviously, they will act on their beliefs about best punishments like you act on your beliefs about best punishments in the societies you are in charge of. Why would Muslims act on your beliefs?

Religion is not a flavor of ice-cream. It is something you believe out of real reflection and proof as mentioned in the beginning.

You also find a lot of them twist this to say: So, do you want to kill all non-Muslims and force them to be Muslim?? Then, why do you live with non-Muslims in their societies??

No part of Islam advocates killing individual non-Muslims besides bad misinterpretations by some anti-Islamic polemicists or terrorists of some verses in the Quran without context. In fact, Islam commands us to fulfill our contracts and agreements and also not to harm non-Muslim minorities living in Muslim lands with the permission of the Muslim governments. We cannot harm them or their families or their properties. That applies even more when living as a minority in a non-Muslim country.

Allah says about these non-Muslims: ⟪Allah does not forbid you from those who do not fight you because of religion and do not expel you from your homes – from being righteous toward them and acting justly toward them. Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly.⟫ (Quran 60:8) and ⟪There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion.⟫ Quran (2:256)

The Prophet (SAW) said, “Believers must honor their agreements” (Sunan Abi Dawud) and “Whoever kills a Mu’aahad (a non-Muslim with an agreement of peace with Muslims) will not even smell the smell of Paradise even though its smell can be noticed from forty years away.” (Sahih Bukhari)

In fact, under Islamic rule, minority religions are generally allowed to implement their own religious laws and Muslims are not to interfere in their internal affairs. This was the general practice of Muslim rulers from the time of the Prophet (SAW) until the modern period with few historical exceptions.

Then: Why do these terrorists say “Allahu Akbar” or other Islamic statements if they are not acting on Islam? Why are so many shootings and killings linked to Islam in one way or another?

We would respond: That is because they are people who believe they are doing the right thing in Islam or at least want to use Islam to legitimize what they are doing. That does nog make them correct in their claims.

As they say, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” A lot of people who do evil (past and present) think they are doing it for good causes, some say for the greater good, some say for the preservation of their people, and some say for the sake of their country.

In Muslim societies, “greater good” or “for the country” is just replaced with “for Allah,” because God is prominent in people’s minds and, as a consequence of that prominence, will be the first excuse they use to justify anything.

In the same way that finding a lot of people who did evil for the greater good doesn’t discredit the concept of “good” or “greater good,” it doesn’t discredit Islam if people do bad things claiming to follow it. People will justify evil actions in any way they want.

It is, however, jarring for someone in a non-religious society to see religious justifications because the evils done in their societies are usually justified with secular reasons. That is not because their religions are better or cannot be misused. It is only because their religions are irrelevant to the minds of most people, so they would never come to mind when justifying anything! They would use secular justifications instead because they are prominent in their minds.

In reality, the evils in secular society are no less (and arguably are more!) than the evils done in Muslim societies. It was not Muslims who conducted the Holocaust or caused the many deaths of communism and the major world wars. Those were all justified purely secularly, and those were the major evils of recent history.

Today, you do not need to look further for an example than the crimes of the state of Israel against the Palestinian people in the occupation and against the people of Gaza in this invasion, justified to the international community under the guise of safety and democracy. They kill civilians and children by the thousands, all while claiming to do good and protect their people. They declare the Palestinians inhuman animals to further justify their inhumane treatment of them. All of this, they justify in secular terms because that is what they care about. Although some religious Jews also justify it in religious terms, that is relatively rare at least in Israeli discourse with the international community. Should we take all of this as proof that democracy is evil and worrying about the safety of citizens is inherently barbaric? Of course not. Good things can be misused.

Thus, to reiterate, this phenomenon of Muslim terrorism in groups like ISIS is clearly contextual and caused by recent wars and political upheavals in these people’s societies, not something inherent to Islam or because of its laws and punishments. Muslims have been the most harmed by groups like ISIS, and they are the ones who most fought against groups like ISIS.

Then: Why does Islam allow or support violence?

Violence is not inherently good or bad as a whole. Whether a specific instance is good or bad depends on the context and situation the violence is being used in.

Islam teaches the proper limitations and procedures of punishments to have a good society. Going beyond that, as done by some incorrect groups, is wrong and problematic. It does not discredit the concept of violence as a whole. After all, no society would run without some violence. Every society needs government and enforcers that punish and implement laws in various ways.

Even something as simple as traffic laws are only enforced because of violence. Why does anyone follow traffic lights? Someone might say: They will be fined if they don’t. Then, why would they even agree to pay the fine? It’s just a piece of paper after all!

They only pay the fine and fear the fine because the government will enforce that fine violently if needed, either taking the money forcefully or violently arresting the one who does not pay voluntarily.

All societies require violence in proper measured amounts to work. The only questions are what, when, and how much, and those questions are best answered by the Creator of human societies. ⟪Doesn’t the one who created know [better] when He is subtly-acquainted and well-informed?⟫ (Quran 67:14)

And Allah knows best.

  1. It is narrated that Ali (RA) said: “Avoid the prescribed punishments if you find any excuse to avoid them.” (Sunan Ibn Majah) Although this hadith is weak, this maxim was accepted by all the Muslim scholars.

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