On 14 October, Alison Hannah, PRI’s Executive Director, gave a presentation at a discussion hosted by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office on the abolition of the death penalty and Sharia Law. The aim was to explore the role of Sharia in the death penalty and the criminal justice systems of Muslim countries in the Middle East.
PRI’s publication Sharia law and the death penalty: Would abolition of the death penalty be unfaithful to the message of Islam? was disseminated at the meeting. In this blog, she introduces the report and explains why PRI published it.
PRI has been promoting death penalty abolition for over 25 years and has been working in the Middle East and North Africa on this issue for almost as long. Many people inside and outside the region think that countries that apply Sharia law must apply the death penalty for crimes specified in the Quran and other Islamic authorities. However, there are many different interpretations of Sharia, the death penalty is often not mandatory, and there can be uncertainty about whether execution is even an appropriate punishment for some offences, including zina (adultery).
Sharia law and the death penalty is based on research by Muslim scholars and provides explanation and interpretation of the application of Sharia to the offences of murder, apostasy, adultery and waging war against God and demonstrates that Islam takes a flexible and lenient position, with an emphasis on mercy and forgiveness. We hope it will be a contribution to the discussions, to demonstrate that the death penalty is not compulsory under Sharia law and abolition is not incompatible with Islam.
In reality, the issue of the death penalty in Muslim countries is more an issue of political choice than religious necessity. Throughout the MENA region there is a wide variance in the extent to which Sharia law is incorporated into criminal justice systems, with very few basing their laws exclusively on Sharia. In Tunisia, for example, Sharia is not applied: for example, a man can only have one wife unlike elsewhere in the region.
It is also a political choice whether to apply the death penalty, and there is significant variation between countries. Neither Morocco nor Algeria has executed anyone for over 20 years, though both still continue to impose death sentences, while Saudi Arabia has consistently been one of the top five executioners worldwide in recent years.
Policy and practice can change rapidly: Jordan ended an eight-year moratorium in late 2014 when it executed 11 people; the Egyptian authorities have passed hundreds of death sentences in mass trials since 2013. Many countries, not only in MENA, have decided to retain the death penalty for terrorism-related offences, without reference to Sharia. Some are committed to a traditional attitude towards Sharia and religious conservatism, fearing attacks from scholars supporting a harsh interpretation of the law.
However, many offences that carry the death penalty in Muslim-majority countries have nothing to do with Sharia law – for example drug offences. In Yemen, there are around 315 offences which carry the death penalty, only around two per cent of which relate to Sharia; Morocco has 365 crimes punishable by death, but most are not related to Sharia. All Muslim countries differ in the crimes for which the death penalty applies.
Despite the volatile situation in the Middle East, there are still many steps that can be taken to promote change in attitudes to the death penalty. When people are asked if they favour retaining the death penalty for the most serious offences, they often agree. But the more they know and understand about it, the more complex they realise the issue is and the less certain their views. Public opinion surveys and workshops held with journalists demonstrate that most people are not very well informed. For example, while there is no reliable evidence that shows that the death penalty has a deterrent effect, this is often cited as a reason for retaining it. Ironically, it is often retained for offences of terrorism, when in fact martyrdom is one of the aims of the terrorists concerned.
The argument is often made that in the Quran a life must be given for a life, eg. an eye for an eye. But Islam places a high value on the qualities of mercy and forgiveness and there is also the possibility of negotiating blood money to make reparation to the victim’s family.
When people are asked about the death penalty they often focus on the crime rather the trial process. But unless the person accused has had a fair trial, there is a high risk of a miscarriage of justice – and possibly an irreversible one. This is why legal aid and fair justice systems are essential in capital cases. It does not comfort the victims’ family if the wrong person is convicted and executed.
Prisoners on death row suffer psychological and physical damage as a result of their usually harsh conditions. There is no humane way for a person’s life to be taken by execution. Their families are shunned and ostracised, and the stigma suffered is particularly damaging to the children concerned.
For us, the abolition of the death penalty as a fundamental human rights principle. This report is intended to be a contribution towards the debate on the death penalty, providing information and context so that those uninformed about Sharia law are able to discuss this issue, and demonstrating that there are different interpretations of Islamic law that show that the death penalty is not universally agreed to be a mandatory requirement of Sharia and Islam.