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.

 

 

 

Dealing with Lust, Our Dumbest Desire

If we’re being honest with ourselves, sexual desire has reduced most if not all of us men to howling baboons at one point or another. Not to say that we’ve always acted upon it, but there’s a reason why even Sophocles, the ancient Greek playwright and contemporary of Socrates, referred to lust as the mad master. Sexual desire is a most powerful impulse. It’s compelled men throughout the ages to do great and terrible things. Certainly, it can reduce the best of us to ignoble bottom feeders:

“We have certainly created man in the best of stature; then We return him to the lowest of the low.” – Quran 95: 4-5

Now when I say lust is our dumbest desire, I mean dumb in a colloquial sense as in oxen, donkeys, Donald Trump, your typical seemingly mindless beasts. Rational thinking goes out the proverbial window.  So does our spiritual acumen.  Such desires consume us in a manner tragically similar to the vain attempts of your neighbor’s dog on your poor, innocent leg.

As Muslims our initial response to sexual desire is often complete denial as in, “Nope! Not me! I’m not horny at all! Never! Why am I sweating? Steam?” While this is noble it’s also a tad naïve. Denial then leads to sort of white knuckling of desire wherein we start to maniacally pray through grinding teeth to the point of lockjaw and tooth loss.

Of course, praying is necessary, but just throwing up haphazard duas while caroming about your family’s living room like some rabid bull half on fire is not exactly the best approach (And no one wants to end up like George Costanza in that fatal Glamour magazine incident).

Worse, self-flagellation rears its ugly, barbarous head. That devilish voice we sometimes confuse for our conscience begins to tell us how weak and useless we are, how ineffective our faith is and how damnation and ruin are surely upon us. Suddenly, we are drowning in two kinds of despair: Hapless lust and a foolish lack of faith.

Do not minimize God Almighty’s mercy and forgiveness because you are overwrought with shame, guilt and embarrassment. That is a serious transgression in and of itself. Often such despair leads you down even darker paths if you allow yourself to wallow in self-pity. Trust me :(:

“Say, “O My servants who have transgressed against themselves [by sinning], do not despair of the mercy of Allah . Indeed, Allah forgives all sins. Indeed, it is He who is the Forgiving, the Merciful.” Quran 39:53

Even if you acted upon your desire in some wild, illicit manner – pornography, a hookup, a trip to ye ol’ strip club or brothel – there’s no need to turn into some repentant 80’s televangelist. Don’t get me wrong. We’re reaching the peak of stupidity here, but you’re not allowed to curse yourself and the world around you either. Just because you’re on fire doesn’t mean you get to burn the entire house down too. Pray for forgiveness, counter your transgression with some bold act of goodness and learn to avoid temptations in the first place.

I know I know, avoiding temptation is easier said than done when you’re exhausted from studying at your local café and some pretty gal suddenly strides across your weary eyes adorned in Lululemon’s latest offering in yoga ‘pants’ a shade tighter than halal sausage casings:

“Then suddenly, as though a dry path appeared through the Red Sea, Satan saw the beauty of women, and he began to dance. ‘More! More!’ The hazy eyes, the fascination of a soft cheek, a cheekbone, a reddening lip, the glance that burns a man like a cumin seed on a hot fire-brick!” – Rumi

Perhaps, that first glance couldn’t be avoided, but the second, third and fourth certainly could have been. Never mind the fact that you’ve set yourself ablaze, you might even need a neck brace after all that gawking.

For men, especially young men, living in the modern world it can seem like just about everything is offering some kind of sexual fantasy – billboards, advertisements, commercials, cheeseburgers (I’m looking at you, Carl’s effin’ Jr.).  Even a trip to the gym is full of sexual provocation (Mind you all of this is as much the fault of men as it is women if not more in so many instances). Heck, some days when I go lift at 24 Hour Fitness I can’t tell if I’m at the gym or a strip club. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if they start offering lap dances in the squat racks either.

Still, we do have a choice, a better, higher and wiser choice:

“The kernel of true manhood is the ability to abandon sensual indulgences…These matters are as real as the infinite is real, but seem religious fantasies to some, to those who believe only in the reality of the sexual organs and the digestive tract.” – Rumi

Instead of caving to desire or self-flagellating about like some guilt-ridden idiot, learn to laugh a little. I mean it. Laugh at the impulse and how silly it actually is. You may die of hunger and thirst, but no one’s ever died from horniness. It certainly isn’t the end of the world either no matter the outcome.

We don’t overcome our impulses by denial, despair or indulgence, but through a healthy and wholesome discipline.  Discipline teaches us not to feed our desires in the first place. A spark is much easier to handle than a forest fire:

“Fiery lust is not diminished by indulging it, but inevitably by leaving it ungratified. As long as you are laying logs on the fire, the fire will burn. When you withhold the wood, the fire dies, and God carries the water.” – Rumi

Amen.