Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
Verse 178..........Part 2
Verse 178, a continuation
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)
In the previous session, we discussed how Allah prescribed fair retribution in cases of murder and legislated against the practice of escalation through revenge killings. Moreover, He put the decision of killing the murderer or sparing his or her life in the hand of the victim’s guardians. This was specifically designed to remove hate and resentment from the hearts of the victim’s family; whatever happens to the killer was entirely up to them.
But Allah wants de-escalation of hostility in society, and He wants mercy to be the overriding quality of dealings between people, so He softens the heart of the victim’s guardian by saying: ‘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 phrase, and more specifically the use of the word ‘brother,’ is an invitation to move from blood-lust to pardoning. He Almighty is advising us not to forget the brotherhood formed through faith.
The word ‘brother’ in the Quran can carry one of two meanings. First, it may refer to siblings from one father as in chapter 12 where the Quran refers to prophet Joseph’s brothers. Second, there is a higher brotherhood which is the brotherhood of faith. God says:
The believers are brothers, so make peace and reconciliation between your brothers and be mindful of God, so that you may be given mercy. (49:10)
And in another verse regarding the tribes of Medina:
Hold fast to God’s rope all together; do not split into factions. Remember God’s favour upon you: you were enemies and then He brought your hearts together and you became brothers by His grace; you were about to fall into a pit of Fire and He saved you from it- in this way God makes His revelations clear to you so that you may be rightly guided.(3:103)
In order to highlight brotherhood through faith, let’s look at an example from the time of our beloved prophet. Mus’ab ibn Omair was a pampered young man from Quraysh who enjoyed the luxuries of wealth. He wore silk and put on exotic fragrances. However, everything changed when he embraced Islam. Faith took him out of the luxuries he enjoyed into poverty because his wealthy mother disowned for being a Muslim. He was left with the roughest of clothes and barely enough to eat. The Prophet peace be upon him would say adoringly: “look what faith has done to your brother.”
During the battle of badr between the Muslims and Quraysh, Mus’ab confronted his biological brother Abu Azeez who was still a follower of the religion of Quraysh. After the battle, Mus’ab saw his brother captive of one of the believers. Mus’ab yelled out to the man "Treat him roughly, for his mother is a wealthy woman. She will pay a huge ransom." Abu Azeez said "Brother, how can you give this advice?” Mus’ab replied pointing to the believer: “He is much more of a brother of mine than you ever were.”
This brings us back to the verse where God is reminding us of the strength of the brotherhood among the believers. He says “But if the perpetrator is pardoned by his aggrieved brother” as though Allah is encouraging the guardian of the victim to pardon and not forget the fraternity between the believers in faith. He is inviting the guardian of the victim to consider the bond of brotherhood even in the face of the bond of kinship and lineage. Allah used the word ‘brother’ to soften the feelings of anger and vengeance. While killing surely weakens the bond formed between you and those who share your faith, it should not completely sever this bond. This is how Allah elevates us to the peak of good conduct and generosity in society.
This is further evident as God helps the aggrieved family to cleanse anger by prescribing blood-money –deeya- which is a financial compensation as an alternative to the death penalty. 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.” The word ‘Pardoned’ suggests that if the heirs of the victim forgive, then there would be no more retribution or death penalty; the issue is resolved and blood-money is given. Take note that Allah did not want to prohibit the retribution of the death penalty, rather, He wanted to give the heirs of the victim the right to decide. And if the guardian chooses to forgive, he or she would have done the killer a huge favour, and at the same time, cleansed him or herself from hatred and animosity. In fact, these are the cases where the killer and the killer’s family show the most gratitude and remorse for the crime. Had the verse only prescribed the death penalty without giving the option of forgiveness, the hearts of one or both families might still hold a grudge.
Even today, we still see examples of this in some of the rural Muslim villages where a regretful killer would go to the parents of the victim carrying his or her own coffin as a sign that he or she is at peace with whatever the victim’s parents decide to do. The killer would ask the family for forgiveness and say: ‘I have come to you so you can take revenge, this is my coffin so do whatever you see fit.’ In such cases, the family of the victim would rarely choose death; rather they would pardon him or her because they feel that justice is served as they have full access to the life of the killer if they choose. Often in such cases, animosity turns into affection and vengeance turns into mercy. Moreover, the killer owes his or her life to those who pardoned, and the family of the killer acknowledge that the life of their relative is a gift from the family of the victim. This is how the circle of love enlarges in the society and the circle of hatred disappears. God says:
Good and evil cannot be equal. Repel evil with what is better or best and your enemy will become as close as an old and valued friend (41:34)
The verse continues with ‘and the perpetrator shall pay what is due in good will’. Does it make sense to call blood money an act of good will? We answer that the speaker here is God; the Quran is His words and it is precise and accurate. Allah reminds the murderer of the huge favour the victim’s guardians granted him or her by dropping legal retribution and accepting blood-money. Thus, this act should be returned with a favour and kindness at the highest level. The killer and his or her family should pay this money when it is due and grant the victim’s heirs the respect they deserve.
Let’s take a moment to compare legislation dealing with murder in the Quran to that in the Torah and Bible. The Torah commanded absolute justice: The killer must be killed in revenge; An eye for an eye. The Gospel elevated the children of Israel above the absolute materialism they were immersed in, so no legal retribution or blood money was prescribed, rather the followers of Jesus –peace be upon him- were advised to unsheathe the love of the world from their hearts. They were to live by the following principal: ‘If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek’
Islam was sent down as a universal, inclusive and comprehensive religion. It is a middle religion that commands justice but strives towards the betterment of humanity. Islam gave everyone his or her due right, thus, it retained the legislation of fair retribution through the death penalty. However, Islam left room for and encouraged kindness and courtesy. 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.’
The verse ends with ‘If anyone then exceeds these limits, grievous suffering awaits him.’ What limits is God referring to? They are the limits of abuse. More specifically, they are the limits of using God’s words to spread corruption and revenge, rather than justice and mercy. Take the example of a family of a murdered person who announce that they have forgiven the killer and will accept blood-money. But as soon as the killer emerges from hiding to pay the money they would kill him. God explains that doing so is a transgression that deserves painful punishment. It is a betrayal of God’s teaching which he ordained to spread justice, love and peace.