According to Islam, Why is a Criminal Punished?

There have been various considerations about punishment throughout history and the purposes of punishments have been determined in the light of those considerations. In the previous ages (approximately until 18th century) in the West, the purposes of the punishments were to intimidate, to take revenge and to expose criminals. To burn, to crucify, to amputate an organ, to break bones, to sear by means of branding metals etc, were kinds of frequently applied punishments.
Moreover, there was not a correlation between crime and punishment in those ages. Capital punishment could be applied for the simplest crimes. In the English Criminal Law, capital punishment was applied approximately for 200 crimes until 18th century. As for the French Criminal Law, capital punishment was applied for 215 different crimes. Most of those crimes were summary offences.
In the course of time, social and divine revenge began to replace individual revenge. In social revenge, frightening and intimidation; in the divine revenge, atonement of the committed crime was the main purpose. After 18th century, Western scholars struggled against the purpose of revenge in punishments and they endeavored to replace it with different purposes.
Purposes of Punishments in Islam
The purpose of the punishment in the Islamic Criminal Law is neither to tyrannize, nor to torture the criminal nor to take revenge from him/her. Hazrat Prophet (PBUH) was not sent in order to terrorize people or to tyrannize thembut He (PBUH) was sent as a mercy to all of the worlds.
As it is understood from religious decrees (from the statements of verses and hadiths) and from the explanations of the interpreters of Islamic religious law, the principal purposes of punishment in Islam are as follows:
1. To Prevent Crime in General
In Islamic Law executing punishment is based on being exemplary and preventing committing the crime. That is to say, Islamic punishments have the characteristics of preventing to commit the crime before committing it and being exemplary, which will stop the inclination of others to commit crimes.
Therefore, severe punishments are executed in the presence of the public. Executing punishments openly before the public is closely connected with human psychology.
The purpose of being exemplary and suppressing the inclinations is fulfilled in the best way by exposing the punishment and executing it openly before the public. Thus, peoples feelings of hatred and condemnation of crimes are always kept alive. Nobody would like to be in the criminals state at that moment and be in an embarrassing position in the eyes of community. Those feelings suppress the inclination of committing crimes.

2. Specific Prevention
Islamic punishments aim to rehabilitate the criminal as well. Punishments are executed in order to improve the moral quality of the criminal, rehabilitate him in such a way that he will not commit crimes again.
Punishment in Islam is like how a fathers disciplining his child or doctors treatment of his patients. Otherwise, it is not for tyrannizing or torturing the criminal or taking revenge from him.
3. Atonement
Punishment in return for a crime is a required atonement of the absolute justice. Punishment carries out the absolute justice through making atonement for the crime. Thus, victims are consoled and calmed; peace and order are assured in the community. Allahs Messenger (PBUH) states the following in one of His hadiths:
An executed punishment for realizing the justice on the earth is more beneficial than the rain fall continuing thirty mornings for the people on the earth. Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, II, 402.

Retaliation with the same evil is a necessity of the justice. This issue is mentioned in the Quran as follows:
The recompense for an injury is an injury equal thereto (in degree): but if a person forgives and makes reconciliation, his reward is due from Allah: for (Allah) loves not those who do wrong. (ash-Shura, 40)

As it can be understood, punishing a criminal as much as he deserves is a necessity of justice. However, if the victim forgives the criminal, he will receive more rewards.

Equitability in punishing is imperative. That is to say, punishments must in accordance with and suitable to the committed crime. Heavier punishments in comparison to the committed crimes will become not the source of justice but the source of tyranny and discontent. That the punishment has the characteristic of expiation is a great favor and mercy for the criminal. According to the view of the most of the interpreters of Islamic law, the punishment of a committed crime in the world conceals the sin of that fault, and abolishes the punishment of that crime in the Hereafter.

In fact, Prophet (PBUH) stated the following:
ıf a person commits a crime and is punished for it, it will be his atonement. Omar Nasuhi Bilmen - Hukuki İslamiyye ve Istılahat-ı Fıkhiyye K. Vol: 1, P: 33.

Since rehabilitation is aimed through punishments, the punishment is not executed when possible if the criminal displays remorse after committing the fault. It is because the most important purpose of punishment has been realized.
The Prophet (PBUH) said to a man who came to him and confessed his theft I dont think you have committed theft. (1)
Similarly, when a man from the Companions of the Prophet (sahaba) whose name was Maiz came to Allahs Messenger (PBUH) and confessed with deep remorse that he had committed adultery, He said: Think carefully. You might have only kissed or done something similar instead of adultery. He (PBUH) wanted to make him withdraw his confession. However, Maiz insisted in his confession and consequently the punishment of adultery was applied. (2)
At this point, it is necessary to indicate that the crime did not become definite in those two occasions. There was no one knowing or witnessing the commitment of the crime. The criminal himself confessed and admitted his crime by being remorse what he had done. If his confession had not existed, it would not have been possible to attribute a crime to him legally.

Therefore, when the Prophet (PBUH) saw they were in a real contrite mood because of the crimes they committed, he did not want their crimes to be definite in terms of law through their confession. He (PBUH) found it enough for them to pledge and pray for forgiveness by themselves.

The situation in an incidence in which the crime is obvious in terms of evidence and witnesses without the need for the criminals confession is different from those examples. The remorse of the criminal is not considered in that occasion.

It is because in the punishment of defraud and similar crimes, the interest of the community is more important than that of the criminal. In order to prevent the spread of such crimes in the community and in order to prevent corruption and discontent, the punishment for the crime that is proved legally is applied whatever the situation of the criminal is. However, retaliation is an exception. In a retaliation incidence, the relatives of the victim have the right to forgive the criminal. And forgiving is encouraged in the Quran.
In the crimes called tazir the punishment is left to the judges discretion; here the situation of the criminal is considered. If the judge sees an attitude of the criminal that implies capability of being rehabilitated, he can abolish would lessen the punishment. The benefit of the community should be taken into consideration, too.

(1) Ahmad b. Hanbal, Baki Mus. Ansar, 21480
(2) Muslim, Hudud, 22; ash-Shawkani, Naylul-Ewtar, VII, 95,109; az-Zaylai, Nasbu'r-Raya, III, 314 etc.

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