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.