‘Eye for an eye’: Does capital punishment do justice or encourage vengeance?

Published: February 26, 2014

If the fear of death deterred terrorists from carrying out terrorist activities and criminals from committing crimes, would the few, mostly developing countries which practice death penalty still have the highest crime rates?

Around 140 countries have progressed to becoming abolitionist states in the last 65 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was promulgated. Unsurprisingly, Pakistan oddly stands as a retentionist for over a dozen crimes including blasphemy, drug trafficking, kidnapping and adultery.

A sore reminder of this is the recent adjudication by an anti-terrorism court in Karachi that sentenced two men to seven and fourteen years imprisonment followed by a ‘to be hanged till death’ order. In a country that is deeply influenced by a strict and orthodox interpretation of the religion that the majority follows, are we ready for a debate on this controversy, let alone a moratorium or complete abolishment?

Champions of capital punishment often quote the ‘eye for an eye’ example. The criminal forfeits his right to life when he kills another man. It is assumed to be a deterrent in a society plagued by a flailing law and order situation enforced by faltering law enforcers. Closer to home, there is a certain interpretation of Shariah that governs not just the law but the society’s mind set at large. Questioning the man-made law and interpretation is tantamount to questioning God’s wisdom and dictate.

That the ‘eye for an eye’ mentality is hypocritical, even on the surface, is an understatement. By condemning a criminal to death for, say the ugliest crime of murder, the state acts no differently than him. He unlawfully takes the life of another for reasons he deems fit, while the state reacts similarly under the guise of ‘law’.

Resultantly, any chance of repentance is snatched from the criminal even before allowing it. The victim’s family may momentarily be satisfied by this ‘justice’ but does it not encourage vengeance and discourage tolerance and forgiveness? Under no circumstances can murder reproduce murder.

In an Islamic state like ours, capital punishment seems to have Shariah’s apparent nod to it. Several schools of thought exist to that effect and differences in the interpretation are many. Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at the Oxford University and Director of Research Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics (CILE) aptly raises this point in his call for a moratorium on capital punishment. A discussion on this is almost non-existent by people who matter but can our state sit paralysed and continue to callously take the life of its own citizens?

If the fear of death deterred terrorists from carrying out terrorist activities and criminals from committing crimes, would the few – mostly developing – countries like Bangladesh, Iran, Pakistan and Somalia which practice death penalty still have the highest crime rates?

In comparison, Europe despite being abolitionist has the lowest crime rate and Canada’s has actually decreased after getting rid of capital punishment. Punitive actions are a superficial and extreme understanding of crime prevention. Rather, states that work for the welfare of their subjects and provide them quality of life are known to have the least criminal activities.

Our dilemma is that the judiciary which sends criminals to the death gallows and ensures their execution seems as helpless as the lawmakers to guarantee an impartial, just and speedy criminal justice system. Clichéd but a necessary example is that of Raymond Davis and Shahzaib. Qisas and Diyat laws, meant to encourage the virtues of forgiveness and patience, are used by the rich and mighty after unabashedly killing the poor and weak, further eroding our social fabric.

Justice or its lack thereof is sold to people who can afford it.

Personal and political agendas are furthered through the manipulation of capital punishment. Killers like Mumtaz Qadri are hailed as heroes while victims of discrimination and soft targets like Aasia Bibi rot in the confines of prison cells as each day the noose around their neck tightens till it eventually strangles them to death.

Perhaps, a complete abolishment of capital punishment may be a far cry until a consensus is reached by all stakeholders and the dispensers of justice set their house in order.

But can we at least expect a moratorium on all death penalties till then?


Sabeer Lodhi

The author is studying at Monash University, Melbourne. He is a student and supporter of human rights with a focus on gender equality, minority rights and feminism. He tweets as @sabeerlodhi (twitter.com/sabeerlodhi)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • dudleysharp

    An “eye for an eye” is, often, misinterpreted, as you did.

    It is a demand for more merciful and proportiuonal punishments, as opposed to the wildly harsh punishments of the pas


    Immanuel Kant: “If an offender has committed murder, he must die. In this case, no possible substitute can satisfy justice. For there is no parallel between death and even the most miserable life, so that there is no equality of crime and retribution unless the perpetrator is judicially put to death.”. “A society that is not willing to demand a life of somebody who has taken somebody else’s life is simply immoral.”

    Pope Pius XII; “When it is a question of the execution of a man condemned to death it is then reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already, by his fault, he has dispossessed himself of the right to live.” 9/14/52.

    John Murray: “Nothing shows the moral bankruptcy of a people or of a generation more than disregard for the sanctity of human life.” “… it is this same atrophy of moral fiber that appears in the plea for the abolition of the death penalty.” “It is the sanctity of life that validates the death penalty for the crime of murder. It is the sense of this sanctity that constrains the demand for the infliction of this penalty. The deeper our regard for life the firmer will be our hold upon the penal sanction which the violation of that sanctity merit.” (Page 122 of Principles of Conduct).

    Plato: “Longer life is no boon to the sinner himself in such a case, and that his decease will bring a double blessing to his neighbors; it will be a lesson to them to keep themselves from wrong, and will rid society of an evil man. These are the reasons for which a legislator is bound to ordain the chastisement of death for such desperate villainies, and for them alone”

    William A. Petit, Jr.: “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions,” according to philosopher John Rawls. It transcends national borders, races and cultures. The death penalty is the appropriate societal response to the brutal and willful act of capital felony murder. Every murder destroys a portion of society. Those murdered can never grow and contribute to humankind; the realization of their potential will never be achieved. I support the death penalty not as a deterrent or for revenge or closure, but because it is just and because it prevents murderers from ever harming again. By intentionally, unlawfully taking the life of another, a murderer breaks a sacrosanct law of society and forfeits his own right to live. (In a home invasion, Dr. Petit was, severely injured, his wife Jennifer and their 11 year old daughter Michaela were raped and murdered. Both daughters, Michaela and Hayley were burned, alive.)
    John Locke: “A criminal who, having renounced reason… hath, by the unjust violence and slaughter he hath committed upon one, declared war against all mankind, and therefore may be destroyed as a lion or tyger, one of those wild savage beasts with whom men can have no society nor security.” And upon this is grounded the great law of Nature, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” Second Treatise of Civil Government.

    Saint (& Pope) Pius V: “The just use of (executions), far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this (Fifth) Commandment which prohibits murder.” “The Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent” (1566).

    Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “In killing the criminal, we destroy not so much a citizen as an enemy. The trial and judgments are proofs that he has broken the Social Contract, and so is no longer a member of the State.” (The Social Contract).

    3300 additional pro death penalty quotes


  • dudleysharp

    101 countries have the death penalty

    96 do not.Recommend

  • Ahmed

    I remember a few months back a guy put a six year old girl in a container filled with boiling water and killed her . I wonder if anyone would agree to not putting an end to this guy’s life. You may think that these are odd cases but every act of murder is a gruesome incident.

    This in the long run is an attempt to abolish the death penalty for blasphemy. All schools of Islamic Jurisprudence agree to these punishment . I doesn’t matter what any contemporary scholar says. These orders are explicit in the Quran and Hadith.Recommend

  • fze

    Before writing so ardently in favour of abolishment of death penality have you ever thought that the countries who don’t have death penality are the developed countries where people are more enlightened because of their high literacy rate e.g Canada. Countries like Bangladesh,Pakistan,India, Somalia are underdeveloped countries with high illiteracy rate. Here people are not that enlightened hence they cannot discern between right and wrong. You cannot let loose a herd of illiterate people in the society without any check and balance. Our society still practice tribal customs like wani, karo karri, jirga, panchayat which operate above law. There is a need to enlighten people to open up their horizon and that can only be achieved through literacy. Till we reach that stage we cannot give the wrong message to the masses that they can do whatever they like without serious consequences. What happened with taliban? We failed to give examplery punishment to the culprits, which raised their spirits and now they are openly threatening us.
    These modern ideas are all nice but we have to keep our ground realities in mind also.Recommend

  • Leila Rage

    The thing is, the law and order situation has become so awful that right now Pakistan NEEDS capital punishment in addition to proper investigations and the police actually catching criminalsRecommend

  • Hammurabi

    You are right. Capital punishment can be done away with,after we become enlightened.But it might take four centuries.Our culture is anti enlightenment.Recommend

  • Hammurabi

    Doors of Ijtihad are open.We have to redefine laws of tribal societies.Recommend

  • Parvez

    The argument that countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia have a high crime rate despite the death penalty and as such the punishment should be done away with, is not tenable. The rate is high because the justice system does not function, justice is selective and extremely slow and corrupt. The death penalty is simply a punishment and one can ask for its repeal or moratorium on moral grounds.Recommend

  • Sahrish Ahmad Gul

    That is the author’s argument or the source that he mentions. The society we live in is marked by anarchy, with many rites and norms present that pose a serious threat to any person’s mental health. In any such a scenario, questioning capital punishment is a sensible thing to do.Recommend

  • Sahrish Ahmad Gul

    “The caliph ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab established a moratorium towards thieves
    when he suspended the application of the punishment during a famine.
    Despite the Qur’anic text beingvery explicit on this, the state of the
    society meant it would have been an unjust literal application: they
    would have castigated poor people whose potential theft would have been
    for the sole purpose of surviving in a state of absolute poverty.”

    Source: http://tariqramadan.com/blog/2005/04/05/an-international-call-for-moratorium-on-corporal-punishment-stoning-and-the-death-penalty-in-the-islamic-world/Recommend

  • Lt Col Imtiaz Alam(retd)

    Being a Muslim I am only convinced by the Edicts of the Lord of the Universe. You are challenging something which is beyond your realm , capacity & wisdom. He has made the Rules & we are to obey it.”It is not to question why but to do or die”.Recommend

  • Nobody

    Capital punishment is largely abolished in developed nations. The US is the only developed country with capital punishment still used as a method of justice. Personally, I am not one to be soft on criminals, but the death penalty has certainly not proven a deterrent of any sort. If it were, the US would not have one of the highest murder rates among developed countries. It takes more than just capital punishment. That being said, yes, I firmly believe some murderers ought to be put to death, not as a deterrent to others (as that’s ineffective), but as a means of justice and doing away with one criminal who took the life of another.Recommend

  • Sahrish Ahmad Gul

    Hazrat Umer had done away with the laws regarding theft punishment during the days of famine. Although Quran mentions clearly as to what Muslims are to do to a thief. Still Hazrat Umer repealed the laws. Islam encourages the use of wisdom, and questioning the validity of its laws is in some cases the wisest thing to do.

    What we need to understand is that Islamic Laws were made during a specific period. They are to be ordained and interpreted within the context.Recommend

  • Sahrish Ahmad Gul

    @Sabir Lodhi: Questioning something that the society deems unquestionable is very courageous act. Your article opened my eyes. Well-written.

    I have one suggestion for you though. While discussing the matters of religion, keep your emotions at bay. Always try to defeat with logic. Change never forces its way into the society, it always nudges its way into. Politely suggested…

    Stay BlessedRecommend

  • Lt Col Imtiaz Alam(retd)

    Gul Sb. had you made this statement during the time of Hazrat Umar bin Khattab RA he would have chopped your head off. The last person on this Earth who dare tamper with Allah’s Laws let alone repeal a Law (Naezubillah). You cannot persecute a thief who is hungry. Likewise you can only spare a murderer if he is spared by the heirs( A single case). These are hardened criminals who have mercilessly killed not once but many times.Blasted away innocent women & children. No mercy.Recommend

  • Lt Col Imtiaz Alam(retd)

    It is not a simple punishment. It enjoin’s Allah’s wisdom.Recommend

  • imad uddin

    U write well bro.Recommend

  • Muhammad Afzal

    Its not the fault or
    shortcomings of capital punishment that it didn’t deter terrorists from carrying out terrorist
    activities and criminals from committing crimes, it is the fault of our state
    which has failed to provide timely justice or even justice at all. Secondly, u
    quoted few European countries and Canada for keeping crime rate low inspite of
    absence of capital punishment, I think in those countries Less Crime rate is
    just due to Social System equilibrium, provision of justice to all n
    availability of basic necessities of life to each citizen and it has nothing to
    do with the absence of capital punishment. If u quote Europe n Canada then y
    not to give xampl of Saudi Arabia where capital punishment is awarded yet it
    has one of the lowest crime rate in the world. Allah Bless U.Recommend

  • Sabeer Lodhi

    Dear Afzal and others who have talked about my choice to compare Pakistan with Canada and European countries, I think you have misunderstood my point. Taken in reference to the context and mentioned as well, what I am trying to say is that practicing capital punishment alone can not ensure a peaceful society. They have ensured peace by giving their citizens a right to life and liberty and working for their welfare. So when we demand capital punishment for Pakistan, we must also discern that this alone will not deter criminal activites. The more prudent approach for our state would be to work for the welfare of its subjects. Lets look at the bigger picture here and realize death penalty is obsolete and regressive and the state needs to work on bigger issues instead.Recommend

  • Shah Khan

    Dear Col Sahib,
    your point is valid regarding to the capital punishment ,but I am pretty sure that Hazrat Umar will not Chop off her head just because He/She wants to discuss or understand some thing.

    This is a basic problem in our society, answer to every thing is to kill the person. The person above you did not insult Islam, Prophet SAW or any other holy scripture. The Person above you has the right to discuss according to Islam.

    Islam was not spread by sword but with logic and love……dont try to change the scripture according to your choice…!!!!Recommend

  • Shah Khan

    Dear Col Sahib,

    your point is valid regarding to the capital punishment ,but I am pretty sure that Hazrat Umar will not Chop off her head just because He/She wants to discuss or understand some thing.

    This is a basic problem in our society, answer to every thing is to kill the person. Please quote a Quranic verse or Hadith in which Chopping off heads on discussion is allowed. The person above you did not insult Islam, Prophet SAW or any other holy scripture. The Person above you has the right to discuss according to Islam.

    Islam was not spread by sword but with logic and love……dont try to change the scripture according to your choice…!!!!Recommend

  • Ahab

    Capital punishment gives a closure to the victim or victim`s relatives..That is a simple absolute fact. You kill someone i hold dearly, then law should put you in a death row.Recommend

  • Necromancer

    Death Penalty!!!…… I would say first abolish blasphemy law that is the worst………executing people for having a idea of their own while death penalty although inhumane is required in PakistanRecommend

  • Waqas

    What is written in the Quran is forever, it is not limited to time.Recommend

  • Sahrish Ahmad Gul

    First of all with all due respect, I am a sahiba. I would rather be called Sahrish though. Secondly, I have specifically mentioned that he had invoked the law during famine period. He acted according to the context. Maybe you got the impression that I was saying that Hazrat Umer had permanently abolished the prescribed punishment for theft. In case of confusion, it is always imperative to ask for clarification rather than go all guns blazing.

    As far as head chopping goes, I don’t think someone with stature of Hazrat Umar would have even given a thought to chopping my head off let alone to doing it.Recommend

  • Lt Col Imtiaz Alam(retd)

    Lady, You better read the Biographies of the Prophet SAW & his Khalifa’s RA. Their is no parallel here. A thief who is hungry & has not been provided by the State. Here is a a man or Group who terrorize the whole state & kill innocent people. Can you state any incident during the time of the Prophet SAW or the Caliphs of Islam where such a man/group has been condoned.Recommend

  • Sahrish Ahmad Gul

    Your arguments are filled with assumptions. You have just assumed that I am ignorant about Islam. I had just stated an example in which one Islamic law had been reconsidered contextually by an eminent Islamic leader, which means there is room in Islam for debate and reconsideration of laws.

    Now, coming onto capital punishment. We live in a society where things are far less than perfect. The society is in a disarray. The justice system is flawed. Less influential people are treated unfairly on every step of their way. Disregard of fundamental human ethics are rampant. In such a condition, people may be compelled to take up violence to make up for the the time they think they may have been wrong.

    Secondly, the alternative to capital punishment is Diyat (compensation), which , courtesy our flawed judicial system is an option available to the rich and influential few. So in our society, the poor and marginalized are punished when they may even have been provoked by some not so ideal circumstances to commit a crime, while the rich usually always find a way to get away with even murders committed in cold blood.Recommend

  • Lt Col Imtiaz Alam(retd)

    Allah’s laws cannot be weighed with Logic. Only he alone knows its wisdom. His Edicts are final. If you question them then you are tempting Providence.Recommend

  • Sahrish Ahmad Gul

    Allah’s law are filled with wisdom because they are embedded in the context. They are logical because their context have been explained. Your comments make it seem like that Allah’s laws and logic do not gone hand in hand.
    The doors of ijtihad have been left open for a reason sir.Recommend

  • Your faith is personal to you and has nothing to do with the running of the state. We live in the 21st century; the only claim your faith has on the state is that the practice of it not be hindered. You can’t foist your opinion of what is good for the soul on those who don’t share either your faith or your opinion. In any case, the job of the state is to organize our existence in this world; it MUST not try to also win you heaven. That’s your own job.Recommend

  • Lt Col Imtiaz Alam(retd)

    You your self have asserted that Allah’s Laws are filled with wisdom, then how come you cannot see his wisdom & logic behind Capital punishment. Your logic in this case is lopsided. Learn to accept what the Creator has told you to follow. “It is not to question why but to do or die”.Recommend

  • Omair Shahid

    Sabeer sb firstly here you are saying practicing capital punishment alone can not ensure a peaceful society and in the heading you have
    written say no to capital punishment and secondly i agree capital punishment alone can not ensure peaceful society but you cannot say no
    to capital punishment as per the situation of Pakistan we need it badlyRecommend

  • Sahrish Ahmad Gul

    Yes, Allah’s laws are filled with logic and wisdom. They are embedded in a particular context as well. Therefore, room for discussion and possible alteration has been left behind because no two contexts are the same.Recommend

  • Ali Dude

    u dont u people give example od Saudi arab where capital punishment is and there is least crime in that stat
    and dont misguide people here capital punishment is a part of Islamic state and should never be abolishedRecommend

  • Private Name

    As long as criminals know they csn commit crimes and take the lives of others, with lityle punishment and know that they may once again walk among us, crime will continue.

    Let all know that taking a life means giving your own life, people are less likely to commit these unforeseen crimes…….Recommend