The Prophet Muhammad, Messenger of Mercy, turned a society that was plagued with crimes and injustices into one that Muslims believe was utopian. The Prophet achieved this by following God’s command, and by among other things, addressing the root ills of society and applying a just and working legal system.Let us take as an example the case of adultery and sexual promiscuity. When the Prophet arrived in Medina adultery was rampant and prostitution was a profitable business. First, he raised the moral consciousness of his people against such vices, which took him considerable time. Then he closed the doors of brothels and cleaned up the whole community.
To understand the Prophetic legal system, one must understand that the Prophet was concerned with all aspects of human life: from the personal to the societal realms, as well as the spiritual. The Prophet addressed the concerns of the individual’s and society’s worldly here and now as well as the spiritual hereafter.
With regards to this world, in analyzing the societal benefits of the legal system brought by the Prophet one realizes that at its core the Islamic legal system (Sharia) has much in common with most legal systems. For instance, in attempting to achieve safety and security in human societies, legal systems – including the Islamic one – employ the principle of deterrence. The idea being that by introducing a threat of punishment, the individual would be less likely to commit a specific crime.
Take, for example, the crime of murder. If a person knew nothing would happen to him if he were to kill someone, he would not be as deterred than if he knew that he would serve time in prison, or perhaps lose his own life as a consequence of his actions. By deterring an individual from committing heinous acts through punishment, more lives are saved and society is more secure. As the Qur’an states, “There is preservation of life for you in retribution, O people of understanding…” (2:179)
In attempting to balance the concerns of victims and society, legal systems, and the Prophetic legal system (Sharia) included, employ the principles of retribution and restitution. By retribution and restitution, the public takes back from the criminal the advantage he has unfairly taken by committing the crime in question from the public and the victim. Otherwise, leaving the criminal unpunished would leave the scales of justice unbalanced, and it would be unfair to both the rest of the law-abiding members of society and to the victims of crimes.
In relation to retribution, many would argue that the concept does little to help victims or criminals. For instance, killing a murderer cannot bring back the life of the victim and would only result in the loss of another life. Further, many argue that victims should be encouraged to forgive and not exact retribution – the understanding being that forgiveness being closer to civility and revenge more closely related to barbarity.
Indeed, Islamic law (Shariah) addresses these and other concerns by giving the victim options: to forgive or to exact retribution. The Qur’an in fact encourages the victim to forgive the wrongdoer for the benefit of both parties. However, in some instances victims and their family members can only feel pain as a result of the crime and see no solution except to exact revenge upon the criminal, or have the criminal pay for his crime in the form of financial compensation or through other means. In these instances the ideas of retribution and restitution seek to address the concerns of the victim and society at large. Not addressing this aspect of human social relations can result in injustices; today, certain legal systems are so lenient in their punishments that perpetrators of heinous crimes such as rape and child sexual abuse receive only a slap on their wrists, leaving victims tormented with the knowledge that their abusers remain unpunished while they must live with their suffering for the remainder of their lives.
Yet the Prophet, the Messenger of Mercy, did not leave the criminal himself out of the equation, and was concerned with the criminal’s spiritual reformation. The criminal was often given a second chance, for if he repented after the first act and mended his ways, he may have been allowed to go without punishment. In relation to the crime of fornication, the Qur’an states, “If they both repent and mend their ways, then leave them alone. Verily, God is acceptor of Repentance, the Merciful” (4:16).
Moreover, the punishment itself is seen as a form of spiritual purification for the criminal. Seen in this way, a criminal who is concerned about his spirituality and his life in the hereafter may even choose to be punished for his crimes.
The story of Maiz bin Malik is quite telling in this regard. Maiz committed adultery and came to the Prophet confessing to his crime and insisting on having himself purified by being punished, knowing fully-well the punishment for such a crime was stoning until death. The Prophet turned him away three times, and twice asked Maiz’s tribe if Maiz was sane or if there was anything abnormal with him. They insisted he was sane and that he was one of their pious men. Only after Maiz insisted on being punished the fourth time and after the Prophet was assured that Maiz was sane was his request accepted.
In a similar incident, a woman who committed adultery requested to be punished, and like with Maiz the Prophet turned her away. Only after she insisted on being punished was the woman punished. Even then, the Prophet highly praised her extraordinary repentance, prayed for her, and buried her. This shows the high degree of moral consciousness the Prophet nourished in the hearts and minds of his followers. The Prophet never implemented punishments before the society in which they were to be applied was ready for it.
It should be noted that the Prophet’s teachings with regard to criminal law was never meant to be applied without understanding the circumstances of the criminal. That is, the Prophet did not conclude that a given punishment is suitable in every circumstance.
The importance of context in applying corporeal punishment can be seen in the crime of theft. In any organized society, stealing is regarded as a punishable act. However, there may be instances when stealing can be understandable, and where the relevant punishment can be dispensed with. For example, during a period of famine in the reign of Islam’s second Caliph, Umar b. al-Khattab, the corporeal punishment for stealing, that is the amputation of the hand, was not applied since in those times of dearth and starvation, stealing could have been a crime of necessity rather than maliciousness.
Islamic punishments, especially those for adultery and theft are meant to be implemented only in an Islamic society where social justice and moral consciousness prevail and where there is no room left for the committing of crimes except as a result of human wickedness. The Prophet of Mercy never implemented even a single punishment in a context other than this.
It may be not out of place here to state that stoning to death as a punishment for adultery, while not practiced today by Jews and Christians, is commanded in the Torah, a scripture sacred to both religions.