Most Americans' impression of Islamic justice is a rather barbaric image of retribution harshly and violently administered. Ask even educated Americans to explain the law in Muslim countries, and they'll inevitably talk about hands and heads summarily being severed. In fact, Islamic justice shares much with Christianity and Judaism. As in the United States, Islam obliges the state to give defendants every right to defend themselves, without pressure to confess. Defendants have the right to deny the charges brought against them without retaliation. Everyone should be guaranteed a fair and free trial. In addition, judges are encouraged to err in granting pardon rather than taking a life. These similarities are not surprising, considering that our penal systems are influenced by common scriptural foundations. The Qur'an's most basic passage pertaining to punishment is a familiar one to Christians and Jews alike: "And We prescribed for them therein: The life for the life, and the eye for the eye, and the nose for the nose, and the ear for the ear, and the tooth for the tooth, and for wounds equality."

This is the basis of the Islamic principle of Qisas, which simply means "equality." In the penal sense, it means a victim or a victim's relatives are entitled to apply a violator's own means against him. Qisas is applied in cases of first-degree murder, where the killing was intentional, and when acts of organized crime result in serious injuries.

But like the world's other major religions, Islam preaches moderation, not harshness; forgiveness, not retribution. The passage from the Qur'an continues: "But who so forgives it in the way of charity, it shall be expiation for him. Who so judges not by that which Allah has revealed: such are wrong doers."

Equality, in other words, should work for the criminal as well as against him. A study released by the Justice Department this week shows that there's a strong argument that minorities in this country receive unequal treatment under the federal death penalty statute. Rather than act as a deterrent to keep us safe, the death penalty has become another area of concern for minorities and the poor, who make up a disproportionate percentage of those put to death by the state.

Equality should also be understood in a larger sense, since penal law doesn't operate in a vacuum. Islam makes social justice a top state priority. Ideally, everyone should have a proper source of income and opportunity for growth. An Islamic state is asked to make provisions for people who are in a crisis. Islam also encourages repentance, saying that it is better than punishment.

This is not to say Islam bans the death penalty. If a murderer presents a constant threat to public security and law, then the death penalty is preferred over forgiveness. The same is true when security and public order are not well maintained, and everybody feels threatened for his or her life. In this country, for instance, the presence of organized gangs with free access to firearms makes the need for effective deterrents more pertinent.

Putting a person in prison is one such deterrent. But deterrents don't always work: There's no guarantee imprisonment will rehabilitate a person to the point he or she ceases to be a threat to society.

But Islamic opinion on capital punishment comes down to is this: A criminal on death row probably committed the act in a state of anger, even calculated revenge; judicial institutions cannot afford to use the same logic.

Indeed, in the aftermath of a murder, the situation is charged with emotions, and facts are often ignored. Killing a criminal, or an alleged one, involves three parties: society, represented by the judicial and legislative systems; the victim's family; and the defendants. It is obvious that the defendant would prefer to stay alive and fight for his or her life. The victim's family, meanwhile, is discontent to see the person who murdered one of their own be allowed to live. And society is concerned with strengthening deterrents so that the crime isn't repeated. Islam gives thoughtful consideration to all three sides.

Islam cares for the victim by giving his family a say in the case. The family can forgive a defendant and settle for compensation. If the defendant is unable to pay, the state is asked to make the compensatory provisions.

These are some of the premises on which the issue of capital punishment should be studied. It should be kept in mind that capital punishment does not mean vengeance. On the contrary, it is an amputation. It is applied as a gesture of mercy to the violator and the victim.

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