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What does Islam say about killing an innocent person?
Oct 1, 2006

God Almighty declares that killing an innocent person unjustly is like killing all of mankind and saving a person’s life is like saving all of mankind. Could you please explain this?

In the preceding verse of the Qur’an (Maida 5:32), God Almighty commands the Prophet “Narrate to them (O Messenger) in truth the exemplary experience of the two sons of Adam…” and draws attention to the first murder committed on the earth.

The first murder and the master of murderers

Most Qur’anic interpreters say that the two sons of Adam are Cain and Abel and they give detailed information about the lives of these two brothers. Actually, their names are not mentioned in the Qur’an; but in the ancient scriptures and narrations the names of Adam’s sons are mentioned as Cain and Abel. It is for this reason that Muslim scholars have not found anything wrong in referring to the characters involved in the event by these names. At the same time, some have interpreted the “two sons of Adam” to be just two men from the Children of Israel. In truth, one doesn’t have to know their names in order to learn a lesson from the parable. What matters is the fact that this event did happen and the expression “in truth” mentioned in the verse shows that this is not a myth, but a true story.

As narrated in the Qur’an, they both offered a sacrifice to God; but only one of these was accepted. The brother whose sacrifice was not accepted told the other “I will surely kill you.” Despite the fact that killing a person, particularly killing one’s own brother, is a great transgression, the murderer, who had lost control due to jealousy, shed the blood of his innocent brother; this brother did not even attempt to struggle against his brother, and he was only a good-intentioned companion.

The first murderer of the earth whose unfortunate end is told in the verse (Maida 5:30) “His carnal, evil-commanding soul prompted him to kill his brother, and he killed him, thus becoming among the losers” became the trailblazer on a horrible path which leads to Eternal Fire; he virtually breached a dam that was to be followed by a great flood. For this reason, when God’s Messenger narrated this sad event he said: “The son of Adam has a share (of sin) from the blood of anyone unjustly killed; for he was the one who started killing the first time.”

After relating this tragic event and reminding us of the first murder, God Almighty sets the relative principle, He commands the following to show what a great sin murder is and how great the importance of human life is:

“It is because of this that We ordained for (all mankind, but particularly for) the Children of Israel: He who kills a soul unless it be (in legal punishment) for murder or for causing disorder and corruption on the earth will be as if he had killed all mankind; and he who saves a life will be as if he had saved the lives of all humankind.”

Killing unjustly and retaliation

The murder stated in the verse as equal to killing all of mankind is limited to “killing an innocent person who did not cause disorder or corruption on the earth.” This means that if a person sheds the blood of innocent people, there can be retaliation and that killer can face a penalty similar to his own crime. If such a person causes disorder on the earth and therefore causes people to die, if the killings follow one upon another without the killer thinking why they had taken a life and if the victims do not know why they are being killed-as is happening in some parts of the world today-the criminal or the group of criminals who cause such anarchy can be executed. The people who start wars against God and His Messenger, who cause disorder on the earth, who habitually transgress against people’s lives, properties, and chastity, thereby disturbing the order of society, corrupting the generation, should be executed or sent into exile in accordance with the gravity of their crime.

However, even if they have committed such crimes, if the transgressors are truly repentant then none of these punishments is to be carried out; rather the case becomes one of a violation of personal rights. That is to say, the people whose relatives have been killed or whose property has been damaged can forgive the perpetrators, or they can ask for retaliation and compensation for the damage if they wish. To express this in modern legal terms, a complaint can be made or it can be withdrawn. In other words, the punishment of intentional murder in this world is retaliation. The heirs of the deceased can withdraw the demand of execution and ask for compensation, or they can forgo this financial penalty as well. However-given that the killer does not repent after the murder and is not granted divine mercy-the punishment of such a great crime in the Hereafter is eternal hellfire.

Eternal torment because of committing murder might seem to be too great a punishment. In fact, the sin committed is also great; for to kill a person who does not cause disorder on the earth, who does not unjustly shed blood, and who does not cause corruption to necessitate their own execution is like killing all of humanity. This is because such a murderer has violated the right to live that is granted by God Almighty alone; the prohibition of shedding the blood of innocent people has been violated, an ugly deed has been initiated, and thereby the way for others to do the same has been paved and encouragement has been provided.

In addition, even if a murderer kills one innocent person, this murder reveals their personality; it shows that they are inclined to shed blood and commit murder. Someone who has committed one murder in practice has a personality that may potentially kill all people and now their identity in general is that of killer and murderer. Therefore, once having committed that fatal sin, killing another person will not be more difficult for them than the first time; in particular after a few murders, killing will become something ordinary and everyday to them. It is from this perspective that a person who has murdered an innocent soul can be viewed as a murderer of all mankind.

Saving a life…

Whoever saves a person’s life by changing their mind about a murder, by forgiving, or by withdrawing the right of retaliation, or by saving someone from danger, for example, from drowning or being burnt alive, or helping another to survive, is like one who has saved the lives of all people and one who has done that favor for all of mankind. The life-saving mentioned in the verse incorporates forgoing retaliation, not killing, or saving someone from disaster; for the one and only Owner of Life is God, He is the Giver of Life. No one has the power to kill or save in the real sense except for God. Human beings can only become a means for someone to live; they cannot be the true cause. In the Qur’an, Nimrod says: “I give life and make to die,” this is expressed with the word ihya (giving life), but his giving of life means only that he refrains from killing and murder.

Now, in this sense, a person who saves another’s life is-if they can-inclined and willing to save the lives of all mankind. In other words, wherever such a person witnesses injustice, they will immediately try to prevent it.

True, in the verse spiritual salvation is not mentioned literally; but if a believer who has faith in God, His Messenger, and the Hereafter speaks about God, His Messenger, and teaches about the faith, this act can in a way be considered to be ihya. Likewise in verses such as: “O you who believe! Respond to God and to the Messenger when the Messenger calls you (in the Name of God) to that which gives you life…” (Anfal 8:24) God Almighty uses the word ihya, in order to express human beings leaving behind the animal life and ascending to the level of spiritual life. Therefore, if a believing man helps a person who is slave to their carnal desires to ascend from a merely material life to a spiritual life, they can be considered to have brought the latter to life. In this respect, a believer who strives to inspire others to embrace the faith and tries to become a means for their salvation, in terms of their potential aim, can be considered as one who is ready to save all of mankind.

The Most Horrible Kind of Backbiting

On the other hand, we know that God made some things hidden among others: the Greatest Names (Ithm al-Azam) are hidden among the beautiful divine names, the acceptance of prayers (Waqt al-Ijaba) is hidden among Fridays, saints among ordinary people, the Night of Qadr among the last ten days of Ramadan, Doomsday within the life of the universe, and the moment of death within a person’s lifetime. Likewise, there are such transgressions hidden among sins and evil that they can suddenly topple one over and lead to disaster. As a result of this secrecy, which serves to make believers constantly alert, to watch their step, and to seek refuge in God, there are such types or degrees of sins in the same category that attract divine wrath which will strike like a poisonous snake.

As you know, talking about a person behind their back and uttering words that will not please them if they were to hear them is known as backbiting (ghiyba). If what has been said is true, then it is backbiting; if what has been said is a lie, then it is both backbiting and slander; this is several times a greater sin. Together with this, there are also different levels of backbiting (like stairs descending), worse and worse as they go downwards. Those close to God consider even an evil thought to be in the same category, calling it “backbiting of the heart.” Indicating somebody by pointing with your finger or making fun of them with facial gestures is also a form of backbiting. Saying such simple things as somebody is short, or their jacket does not suit them is clearly backbiting. Each of these types of backbiting is a sin; they spoil the goodness of this life and they cause trouble beyond the grave.

However, there is type of backbiting that is an incomparably dangerous and destructive sin. It is so great a sin that in a hadith it is stated that this kind of backbiting is a sin that is twenty times greater than fornication. For example saying things about a person who represents a group, movement, or a community is a sin of this kind, for the fate of that person is united with the community they represent. Therefore, saying bad things about such a person is saying bad things about an entire community.

Moreover, if such backbiting is committed not about an ordinary person but, let’s say, about a man of God like Sheikh al-Jilani, or for example, not about a movement or an ordinary community, but a community like the Naqshbandi order and, to make matters worse, if what started as a simple event of saying bad things becomes widespread through the mass media, if this then becomes a great slander campaign, this is such a horrible sin that it might lead to the loss of faith; there are ways in every sin that lead to unbelief. It is such a deadly crime that, if you were to speak against Sheikh Naqshbandi, you would slander the golden chain of saints of the Naqshbandi order. These people, with the light they received from their Sheikh, have enlightened the world since the time they lived up until our time. They have always been spiritual guides for people. Think how evil it is to destroy this light.

And if the transgressor makes the act even worse by labeling the people they are slandering with names that end in –ist… Then it would be very hard for the slanderer to enter Paradise without asking forgiveness from each member of that community; God’s Messenger said “Do not backbite, for backbiting is worse than fornication. If a person fornicates and repents (promising never to do it again) God Almighty accepts his repentance; but the sin of the backbiter will not be forgiven until he is forgiven by the person he has backbitten.” But it is possible that the All-Merciful Lord can grant extra blessings, allowing the transgressors to face the people they backbit and He may say “grant forgiveness to this servant of mine.” But such a fortunate event depends on a surprise blessing; servanthood is not built on extra blessings.

It is for this reason that believers should try to keep away from all kinds of backbiting, so that they will not face such a terrible end. They should free their tongues from such ugly words and purify their minds from evil thoughts and feelings. For the sake of avoiding a disaster worse than fornication, they should avoid even the most trivial negative utterance, saving themselves from committing the greatest of sins without being aware. To avoid having a share of the zaqqum tree in Hell, they should constantly seek refuge in God and be alert against all kinds of disasters of the tongue.

Such a degree of fitna

The same can be said about fitna, which is closely related to our topic. Actually the word fitna has meanings like “deviation, confusion of the mind, differing, falling for something, sinning, unbelief, dazzling beauty, property and children, testing someone, torture, misfortune, or trouble.” In nearly sixty verses of the Qur’an, either this word or another word derived from the same root can be found. While even a disagreement between two people can be called fitna, acts aiming to spread unbelief, turning people from God’s path, and causing terror in society are also categorized as fitna. Making two people dislike each other is fitna and it is an ugly sin; but fitna also has a type so bad that it invokes divine wrath; it cannot be regarded as equal to other types of fitna, for it can instantly make someone fall into a pitfall of Hell and finish their happiness in both worlds. Therefore, in order not to face such a terrible end, we need to keep away from even the pettiest kind of fitna and eliminate the words and actions that may lead to fitna at the very beginning before they become great crimes.

The Qur’an states “fitna is worse than killing…” (Baqara 2:191). That is to say, even if all kinds of fitna are not like killing, there is a type of fitna that is even worse than murder. For instance, trying to spread unbelief through brute force, alienating Muslims from their own values, and making younger generations strangers to their own spiritual values, thereby throwing them into a terrible torment in both worlds are all such grave offenses that they are far more dangerous than murdering an innocent person.

In some murders, there is fitna and murder intermingled. For example, somebody assassinates an important figure and disappears. Then an innocent person or a group is blamed for that murder. Therefore, the situation becomes a blood feud. Both the supporters of the victim and the slandered group suffer. Thus, the murder is not limited to a single event; it is followed by mutual accusations and it becomes a great fitna. Finally, an unstoppable chain of fitnas has been started, and results in a condition of anarchy where thousands of murders are committed.

Unfortunately this kind of fitnas has taken place in the history of Islam and such acts have yielded far worse results than a single murder. For instance, the assassination of the second Caliph, Umar ibn al-Khattab, was not just a simple murder; even more so since, as Hudayfa al-Yamani reported, Umar was a locked door against fitna. After his martyrdom, that door was opened; more correctly, it was broken down. Here we will examine this event in a bit more detail.

One day Umar ibn al-Khattab asked Hudayfa about the words of God’s Messenger describing fitna that surges like the waves in the sea. Hudayfa answered “O the chief of believers, there is no harm to you from this fitna; for there is a locked door between it and you.” When Umar asked “Is that door going to open or be broken down?” Hudayfa answered “It is going to be broken down.” Umar said “Then it will not be locked again until the end of the world.” When one of his friends asked about that door, Hudayfa’s answer was “that door is Umar himself.” In this respect, the assassination of Umar cannot be taken as an ordinary murder; it was the breaking down of the door that blocked against fitna, and the opening of way for fitnas to continue until the end of the world. The Qur’anic statement concerned with the murderer of an innocent person, stating that they will stay in Hell forever, must be concerned with murderers like Umar’s assassin.

What a terrible end!

Ibn Abbas and some of the imams from the generation following the Companions of the Prophet inferred from the following verse that somebody who committed murder will suffer eternal punishment in Hell:

“Whoever kills a believer intentionally, his recompense (in the Hereafter) is Hell, therein to abide; and God has utterly condemned him, excluded him from His mercy, and prepared for him a tremendous punishment.” (Nisa 4:93)

Some interpreters of the Qur’an have made a different comment: In the same way that a murderer deserves to be executed in return for the crime they have committed, the same punishment must be given to one who has killed all of mankind. There is no greater punishment to be given. Likewise, as the punishment of the murderer of a single person is eternal Hell, the punishment of one who has murdered all of mankind must be the same. Therefore, a person who has murdered a single person is like one who has murdered all of mankind.

The divine statement “Assuredly God does not forgive that partners be associated with Him; less than that He forgives to whomever He wills” (Nisa 4:48) limits the meaning of the verse we mentioned above. However, when we look at the issue on the whole, we will see that even if it is not true that every murderer will stay in Hell forever, there is such a type of murder that the one who commits it will suffer eternal torment.

To sum up, as there are degrees of sins, like backbiting and fitna, murder too has different degrees as an offense, depending on the identity and status of the victim, and the results it will bring about. Whoever the victim is, a murder is a grave crime, but assassinating the commander of an army or the head of a state is not the same as killing an ordinary citizen in terms of the chain of events that follow. Again, a murder committed in the Sacred Mosque in Mecca where it is even forbidden to kill an insect or pick tree leaves will not be equal to a murder committed somewhere else. It is for this reason that Ibn Abbas considers killing a Prophet or a leader of believers as equal to killing all mankind. Therefore, those who execute a person whose fate is united with a nation’s fate will have issued an execution decree for an entire nation. Those who poison a man of action who devoted himself to the salvation of all of mankind can be considered to have poisoned an entire nation; we can even say that they have poisoned Prophet Muhammad and his Companions. This is such great an atrocity that even if those who commit it are believers, they can never find their way to Paradise unless they are forgiven by all of mankind.

So, in order not to commit such a great crime, one should keep away from any type of murder. Similar dangers and the same principle still exist for today’s people. When Hasan al-Basri was asked, “is the same principle still valid for us?” he replied: “I swear by God Almighty apart from Whom there are no gods that yes, it is; for the blood of the Children of Israel is not more valuable than our blood.”

In conclusion, all kinds of unjust murders are great sins; but we can talk about different degrees, depending on the time, place, the identity of the victim, and his status.