Quranic Reflection No 662. Āyat 2:179 – In Retaliation Lies Life

Bismillāh. 5 January 2024/22 Jumādā al-Ākhira 1445

وَلَكُمْ فِي الْقِصَاصِ حَيَاةٌ يَا أُولِي الْأَلْبَابِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ

There is life for you in retribution, O you who possess intellects! Maybe you will refrain!

(Sūrat al-Baqarah No. 2, Āyat 179)

Criminal law in the Islamic tradition differs substantially from that which is found in the Common Law or Civil Law systems adhered to by most nations today. In Islam, various categories of crimes are classified in different chapters of Islamic jurisprudence. At times specific sins have been allotted a certain punishment, discussed under the chapter entitled hudūd. The punishment for other sins has not been clearly mentioned, rather they are left up to the discretion of the judge to determine. Such punishments are known as ta’zīrāt. The focus in these two chapters is largely on immoral actions and public transgressions against God Almighty, whereas the two chapters of qisās and diyāt pertain more to crimes carried out against other individuals. Dyāt refers to situations wherein blood-money is to be paid to the victim or his heirs, qisās is when the victim or his heirs may choose to seek retribution against the criminal.

In the above verse from Sūrat al-Baqarah, the Noble Quran says that the laws of qisās are the cause of life. This may mean that the laws of qisās control the urge people must seek revenge, preventing it from going out of control. As opposed to taking revenge on an entire tribe for example, only the guilty individual who performed the crime can be retaliated against. Or perhaps the verse indicates that upholding these laws in society acts as a deterrence, preventing people from unjustly shedding the blood of others due to the fear of qisās. This understanding also fits well with the end of the verse if the word ‘tattaqūn’ is translated to mean refrain, as was done above. That is to say that the laws of qisās result in people refraining from killing one another. Note that the word tattaqūn is a verb derived from the noun taqwā. While this word is often used in the Quran to mean piety and God-wariness, it comes from a literal meaning of refraining and protecting and hence to translate it as such is appropriate.

Qisās is a right that a victim is given when certain body parts of his have been amputated or injured. Because of this right, the victim can choose to retaliate by himself injuring the criminal in the exact same way that he was injured. As mentioned in Sūrat al-Mā’idah, such rules were also prescribed in previous Divine religions:

وَكَتَبْنَا عَلَيْهِمْ فِيهَا أَنَّ النَّفْسَ بِالنَّفْسِ وَالْعَيْنَ بِالْعَيْنِ وَالْأَنفَ بِالْأَنفِ وَالْأُذُنَ بِالْأُذُنِ وَالسِّنَّ بِالسِّنِّ وَالْجُرُوحَ قِصَاصٌ ۚ فَمَن تَصَدَّقَ بِهِ فَهُوَ كَفَّارَةٌ لَّهُ ۚ 

In it [the Torah] We prescribed for them: a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, and an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and retaliation for wounds. But whoever foregoes it, that shall be an atonement for him. (Q 5:45)

According to this verse the victim or heirs who have this right do not have to exercise it. They can choose to forego it. They may altogether forgive the criminal, or they may come to a financial agreement, demanding blood-money instead of retribution.

Qisās is also a right given to the heirs of a victim of homicide, allowing one of these heirs to retaliate by himself executing the killer. Qisās has many conditions and details of how exactly it would be carried out that are mostly beyond the scope of this writeup. For example, it would only be carried out under the supervision and with the permission of a judge. Also, one of the key details to bear in mind is that qisās only applies when a crime has been carried out intentionally. Accidental crimes can only result in financial recompense, known as diyāt.

We pray to Allah that He gives us an understanding of the blessed sharī’ah. We ask Him by the sake of the Noble Quran to purify us and bless us with His servitude in our lives.

Sources: ‘Allāmah Tabātabā’ī, Tafsīr al-Mīzān; Shahīd al-Awwal, al-Lum’ah ad-Damishqiyyah.