Religious perspectives on capital punishment

Voices of Faith offers perspectives from religion columnists. This week’s question: How does your religion view capital punishment?

Positions for and against

Arvind Khetia, engineer: In Hinduism, God is not seen as the one handing out reward or punishment. However, there is a recognition of the universal law of karma, also known as the doctrine of justice.

The law of karma states that every event is a result of an unending chain of cause and effect. Thus, reward or punishment is nothing more or less than a result of our good or bad actions, because, the law of karma refutes any “arbitrary ruler.”

Therefore, one’s belief in the law of karma provides a moral incentive to act in a just manner.

With regard to the question of capital punishment, in Hinduism one can find an argument in favor as well as against capital punishment.

Although the law of karma would be operative regardless, the argument in favor of capital punishment recognizes that when one’s personal choice of action becomes harmful to society, a deterrent in terms of regulatory laws is necessary to maintain a safe social environment. In the present Indian penal code and the ancient Hindu law books (Dharma shastra), there are provisions for capital punishment for severe crimes.

The argument against capital punishment is motivated by the consideration of compassion and nonviolence (ahimsa). This is based on the recognition that a human birth is a blessing, because, only in a human birth is one endowed with free will to help one evolve toward liberation by ethical and spiritual living.

Therefore, capital punishment would deprive the chance to repent and redeem oneself.

For severe crimes

Professor Mohamed Kohia, Rockhurst University, Kansas City, Mo.: According to Islam, life is sacred. “If anyone kills a person – unless it is for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he killed all people. And if anyone saves a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all people.” (5:32).

The Quran legislates the death penalty for murder, although forgiveness and compassion are strongly encouraged. The victim’s family is given a choice to either insist on the death penalty or to pardon the perpetrator and accept monetary compensation for their loss (2:178).

Spreading mischief in the land can mean many different things, but is generally interpreted to mean those crimes that affect the community as a whole, and destabilize the society. Some examples include treason, terrorism, piracy of any kind and rape. Each case is regarded individually and with extreme care, and the court is fully able to impose more lenient sentences as and when they see fit.

The question is: How can one hold life sacred, yet still support capital punishment? The Quran answers, “Take not life, which God has made sacred, except by way of justice and law. Thus does He command you, so that you may learn wisdom” (6:151).

Therefore, the death penalty can be applied by a court as punishment for the most serious of crimes. The spirit of the Islamic penal code is to save lives, promote justice and prevent corruption and tyranny. Even though the death penalty is allowed, forgiveness is preferable.

It is very clear that compassion is the best choice (5:32). Forgiveness, together with peace, is a predominant Quranic theme.

The Divine Justice and Wisdom cannot be compared to the ever-changing manmade laws.