The Ethical Brilliance of an Eye for an Eye

It’s all too common to view the Abrahamic injunction of an eye for an eye to be somehow barbaric or, at least, a regressive form of justice in this day and age. Most of us have heard Gandhi’s famous saying of an eye for an eye making the whole world blind. Critics of faith often cite this verse as a harsh even vengeful form of retribution, especially as it exists in the Old Testament:

“But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” (Exodus 21-24)

The Quran reaffirms the verse, but adds a crucial proviso in the form of mercy and forgiveness:

“And therein we prescribed to them: a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth…But whosoever forgoes it out of charity, it shall be an expiation for him.” (Quran 5:45)

Elsewhere in the Quran, retribution (Qisas) for murder is elaborated on further:

“O you who believe! Retribution is prescribed for you in the matter of the slain: freeman for freeman, slave for slave, female for female.” (Quran 2:178)

Now here’s why this is such a brilliant ethical construct. It’s not establishing a rule allowing for enmity and bloodshed it’s setting a limit to curb violence. God Almighty is not condoning vengeance He’s explicitly stating that one cannot exceed the limits set by the ruling:

“The broad legal, social, and cultural context of this verse is the system of tribal feuds and vendettas in the Arabia of the time, which, as the commentators describe, would often escalate to proportions way beyond the original crime. Thus one tribe might retaliate for the killing of a man by killing not only his murderer, but many other members of his tribe…”(Study Quran, 76)

In other words, before this revelation in both the Old Testament and the Quran, vengeance and retribution often existed on a level of unmitigated savagery.  The Abrahamic decree demands that if retaliation is necessary it can only be meted out in equivalent measure to the criminal act either by punishment or just recompense:

“Against the prevailing practice, the verse is understood to maintain that responsibility for a crime is dictated precisely by the nature of the crime. Hence the wording of the verse implies that retribution for a crime against a woman [or freeman or slave] could neither fall short of nor exceed the retribution appropriate to that crime…” (Study Quran, 76)

Rather than encouraging violence, enmity and bloodshed, both the Old Testament and the Quran discourage it while not disregarding the rights of victims either:

“Moreover, because the maximum revenge is limited to the execution of the perpetrator and vendettas are forbidden, it is a way of preserving life.” (Study Quran, 78)

While the New Testament asks that we nobly turn the other cheek, it’s fair to argue that Matthew 5:38-42 is directed at the individual on an existential level rather than a communal one:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42)

The Old Testament and the Quran are enacting a kind of legislation whereas Matthew 5:38-42 encourages magnanimity and forgiveness from the victim(s) not from those in authority. In that sense, one can argue that the latter part of 5:45 in the Quran echoes the sentiment found in Matthew 5:38-42.

Also, turning the other cheek is not always practical, wise or possible. For example, say an individual preyed upon children in a small village. There’s little recourse but to seek some form of justice for the safety and harmony of the community.  One cannot simply turn the other cheek and let the crimes go without putting the entire community in serious jeopardy.

Still, the Quranic injunction provides us with both the ability to seek retribution, but also the ability to forgive as a form of expiation. Herein lies perhaps the wisest form of justice.

 

 

 

Why are so many hadith so confusing?

Like many of you, my dear parents had a ornate, hardbound collection of Sahih al-Bukhari brought over from Saudi Arabia. Though this collection of hadith – the sayings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) – took up an entire row on a bookshelf in my dad’s study, it grew even more ominous and heavy as I entered adulthood.  Ultimately, it would be one of the reasons why I abandoned Islam as a young adult. All the confusing and seemingly contradictory statements attributed to our Prophet (pbuh) proved too much.

Worse, as I began exploring academic philosophy as an undergrad, the exceedingly dogmatic answer that only certain scholars could truly understand the hadith seemed a sad, fallacious appeal to authority never mind those that insisted that my very questioning demonstrating a weak iman.

I mean a multitude of hadith found in Sahih al-Bukhari that are vehemently defended by countless Muslims simply run counter to our Prophet’s (pbuh) perfect, noble character never mind the Quran itself. How could our Prophet (pbuh) be, at once, the embodiment of fairness, kindness and compassion, yet demand that camel thieves have their eyes branded, apostates beheaded, captives abused? More importantly, how could The Messenger of Islam be subject to black magic and other tall tales without calling into question the full scope of revelation? Bear in mind that I’m not doubting the words of our Prophet (pbuh), but whether he made such statements in the first place.  Upon finally returning to Islam some years later I confined most of my knowledge of hadith to a small, beautiful collection. I’ve turned to it innumerable times for well over a decade and still do to this day.

Recently, a somewhat caustic, but vitally important essay on Bukhari led me down a theological rabbit hole for some months. I sought more detailed information regarding the epistemological underpinnings used to gauge the veracity of hadith. More importantly, I was simply fed up and exhausted with all the dogmatic refrains online and elsewhere from fellow Muslims denouncing anyone who dared to question hadith.

A small, seemingly innocuous book written by Islamic Scholar Shayk Atabeck Shukurov entitled Hanafi Principles of Testing Hadith has proven invaluable to me in this quest. The book aims to revive the works of Abu Hanifa (681/62 AH), the founder of the Hanafi school of fiqh (jurisprudence). I say revive because, sadly, the Hanafi methodology for gauging the accuracy of hadith is buried beneath an avalanche of Salafi/Wahhabi rhetoric that remains the most prominent, often unfortunate voice of Islamic thought online and elsewhere.

According to Shayk Shukurov, one of the main reasons why Sahih al-Bukhari remains second only to the Quran and is treated as infallible is due to the determined efforts of Ibn Hajar (1372/773 AH). In fact, Ibn Hajar promulgated the notion that only heretics rejected hadith found in the collection – an accusation we now find ubiquitous among Muslims today. Not surprisingly, Ibn Hajar is held in high regard by Salafis/Wahhabis.

To be sure, it is the Shafi’i principles of hadith that have dominated for centuries not Hanafi ones. However, unlike the decidedly more dogmatic approach of the Shafi’i school of thought and the likes of Ibn Hajar regarding hadith, the Hanafi approach strongly advocates critical evaluation and prioritizing the Quran. In fact, as Shukurov explains, Imam Abu Hanifa was actively criticized, ostracized and, ultimately, assassinated for his studied approach:

“They disliked the fact that Imam Abu Hanifa had setup a school which respected rational thought. This is demonstrated by the statement of Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal (the famous muhaddith), where he said the reason for not accepting the narrations of Imam Abu Hanifa was because ‘he used his intellect too much.’” (Shukurov, 7).

Elsewhere in the book, Shukurov drives home a most compelling point:

“There are many hadith that can leave a person confused or make them feel that they are following a religion that does not make sense. This has sadly resulted in many people leaving Islam…[T]here are issues that need to be tackled such as stoning adulterers, killing apostates, the age of Aisha at marriage and rising violent extremism. Resolutely taking a Salafist or ‘no retreat, no surrender’ line on these questions and tacitly assisting the minority view of Salafi-Wahhabism to become ‘mainstream Islam’ by denouncing classical Islamic scholarship as ‘modernism’ or even worse, heresy, may make people feel better and continue to receive speaking engagements for already well-funded groups and individuals, but it does nothing to answer the genuine concerns of Muslims and others…The time has come…to go back to the past to help deal with the issues of the present, whether it is to combat Islamophobia, draconian rules, theological or philosophical issues.” (Shukurov, 248, 247)

To say I feel some vindication for my early doubts as a young man would be an understatement.  There is also a fair amount of anger in me knowing that so many have abandoned Islam due to the many egregious sayings attributed to the Prophet (pbuh).  While I’m certain Bukhari was a fine, well-intentioned soul, granting him the kind of infallibility we only allow for prophets seems to verge on blasphemy.

Echoing the likes of Abu Hanifa and Shayk Shukurov, we simply cannot abandon our critical faculties and yield to rote dogma out of fear or lassitude regarding hadith not to mention all other aspects of faith. We must face such theological challenges with courage, resolve and sharp minds. Otherwise, we are not only doing a disservice to ourselves, we are doing a disservice to Islam.

Amen.