Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
You who believe, fair retribution is prescribed against you in cases of murder: the free man for the free man, the slave for the slave, the female for the female. But if the perpetrator is pardoned by his aggrieved brother, this shall be adhered to fairly, and the perpetrator shall pay what is due in good will. This is easing from your Lord and an act of mercy. If anyone then exceeds these limits, grievous suffering awaits him.
(Chapter 2: Verse 178)
When you hear Allah calling: ‘you who believe’ followed by a command to do so and so, you should remember that Allah is not forcing these commands on anyone. Rather, He is only calling on those who believed in Him and entrusted Him with their affairs. When you enter into the fold of faith and declare your belief in Allah and His messenger, you have made a conscious choice to listen to and follow God’s orders. Allah does not assign any obligation to those who do not have faith in Him; it is your faith that makes you subject to religious obligations. You are, in essence, one party of a contract and Allah is the other party.
Heavenly laws are not made for one person; they are legislated for entire mankind. When a ruling is made against someone such as the retribution for murder, then at the same time it is made for the benefit someone else such as the next of kin of the victim. In other words, the murderer should suffer the consequences of his or her actions, while the relatives of the victim benefit from seeing justice served.
In this verse, God says: “fair retribution is prescribed against you in cases of murder” then in very next verse He says: ‘And there is life for you in legal retribution, O people of understanding, that you may become righteous.’ Note that in the first verse, the phrase ‘against you’ is used as the punishment applies against the murderer; while in the second verse the phrase ‘for you’ is used because it benefits the relatives of the victim and the society as a whole. Thus, the legislation is fair because it is not on the account of one person or party, rather the situation of both parties is considered.
God says: ‘You who believe, fair retribution is prescribed against you in cases of murder: the free man for the free man.’ The word ‘free’ refers to a person who neither a slave, nor beholden to anyone. In fact, the free of things is considered the best of things. We say this person is debt-free, these animals are free-range, or I own this car free and clear and so on.
When you listen to this verse, the first question that may come to mind is: Why are people divided into classes? What if a woman kills a man or a slave kills a freeman? We answer that this verse was revealed to end unjust practices in the society. More specifically, the practice of revenge killing that was commonplace in Arabia before Islam, and sadly still exists in some areas of the world today. Allah wants to protect society from injustice and from the escalation that revenge produces. The core message of this verse is for the punishment to be of the same kind and at the same level as the crime.
Before Islam, fights would break out between tribes and some people would be killed. If a slave was killed, for example, his or her tribe would seek revenge, but rather than wanting to kill a slave in retaliation, they would seek and murder a prominent free person. Matters would naturally get worse between the tribes, and the blood keeps flowing through acts of revenge. God intended to settle the issue of revenge gradually; He said: “the free for the free, the slave for the slave, and the female for the female” This introduced a method which put an end to the extremism and escalation of revenge killings.
While this legislation came to specifically deal with the practice of revenge killing that existed before Islam, it should not be ignored today. There is no retaliation in Islam; there is no mutilation of bodies in revenge, nor punishment of an entire family or population for the crimes of one member. All these actions are against the rulings of legal retribution prescribed by God. Allah wants you to acknowledge that this sort of aggression does not produce any good; rather, it only ignites the fires of hatred and blood. Equality and justice are fundamental in all dealings.
More importantly, the ruling of ‘the free man for the free man, the slave for the slave, the female for the female’ was the first step in de-escalation. Allah wanted people to resort to the least sum possible when taking revenge. So if a tribe killed a slave then they were not allowed to kill a free man or woman in retaliation. Later, God introduced the concept of blood-money to be paid to the victim’s family, which, if the family agrees, presents another step in de-escalation and lays the foundation for a healthy society. God says:
But if the perpetrator is pardoned by his aggrieved brother, this shall be adhered to fairly, and the perpetrator shall pay what is due in good will. This is easing from your Lord and an act of mercy.
And in another verse:
In the Torah We prescribed for them a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, an equal wound for a wound: if anyone forgoes this out of charity, it will serve as atonement for his bad deeds. Those who do not judge according to what God has revealed are doing grave wrong. (05:45)
Thus, in cases of murder, justice is served not through revenge killing; rather it is served by killing the murderer. There is no distinction between a slave and a free person; rather it is a soul for a soul. More importantly, in order to cleanse malice and vengeful hatred from the hearts of the believers, Allah granted the victim’s guardian the right to either kill or pardon the murderer. In other words, the life of the killer is put in the hands of the victim’s guardian. If the guardian chooses to forgive, it won't be because forgiveness is mandatory, but rather it would be out of his or her own honourable choice.