Collective punishment is a crime in Islam
Mohamad Mostafa Nassar
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
Among the remnants of ignorance afflicting societies today is the crime of collective punishment, wherein the innocent are punished for crimes committed by others. Islam has declared such crimes to be a violation of justice and has forbidden it absolutely.
وَلَا تَكْسِبُ كُلُّ نَفْسٍ إِلَّا عَلَيْهَا وَلَا تَزِرُ وَازِرَةٌ وِزْرَ أُخْرَىٰ
No soul earns anything except it is upon itself, and none shall bear the burdens of another.
Surat Al-An’am 6:164
Ibn Kathir explains this verse, saying:
إِخْبَارٌ عَنِ الْوَاقِعِ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ فِي جَزَاءِ اللَّهِ تَعَالَى وَحُكْمِهِ وَعَدْلِهِ ، أَنَّ النُّفُوسَ إِنَّمَا تُجَازَى بِأَعْمَالِهَا إِنْ خَيْرًا فَخَيْرٌ وَإِنْ شَرًّا فَشَرٌّ وَأَنَّهُ لَا يُحْمَلُ مِنْ خَطِيئَةِ أَحَدٍ عَلَى أَحَدٍ وَهَذَا مِنْ عَدْلِهِ تَعَالَى
This verse informs us about the occurrence of the Day of Resurrection in which is the recompense of Allah the Exalted, His judgment, and His justice, that souls will only be recompensed for their own deeds. If deeds are good then the reward is good, and if deeds are evil then the recompense is evil. No one will bear the burden of sin for anyone else, for this is the justice of the Exalted.
Source: Tafseer Ibn Kathir 6:164
As Allah only holds people accountable in the Hereafter for the sins they committed as individuals, likewise we have been prohibited from punishing an entire group for crimes committed by individuals within that group.
Abdullah ibn Mas’ud reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
لَا تَرْجِعُوا بَعْدِي كُفَّارًا يَضْرِبُ بَعْضُكُمْ رِقَابَ بَعْضٍ وَلَا يُؤْخَذُ الرَّجُلُ بِجَرِيرَةِ أَبِيهِ وَلَا بِجَرِيرَةِ أَخِيهِ
Do not return to unbelief after me by striking the necks of each other. No man is to be punished for the crimes of his father or his brother.
Source: Sunan An-Nasa’i 4131, Grade: Sahih
Aisha reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessing be upon him, said:
لَيْسَ عَلَى وَلَدِ الزِّنَا مِنْ وِزْرِ أَبَوَيْهِ شَيْءٌ
There is no burden upon the child of adultery for the sins of his parents.
Then the Prophet recited the verse:
وَلَا تَزِرُ وَازِرَةٌ وِزْرَ أُخْرَى
None shall bear the burdens of another. (6:164)
Source: Al-Mustadrak 7135, Grade: Hasan
Collective punishment, in fact, was a defining characteristic of the pre-Islamic ignorance (jahiliyya) practiced by warring Arab tribes. If the member of one tribe committed a crime, the victim’s tribe would retaliate by killing a random member of the criminal’s tribe. For this reason, the Arabs before Islam were trapped in a violent cycle of bloody revenge and retaliation.
For example, we read in the prophetic biography by Ibn Hisham:
وَكَانَتْ الْحَرْبُ الَّتِي كَانَتْ بَيْنَ قُرَيْشٍ وَبَيْنَ بَنِي بَكْرٍ كَمَا حَدَّثَنِي بَعْضُ بَنِي عَامِرِ بْنِ لُؤَيٍّ عَنْ مُحَمَّدِ بْنِ سَعِيدِ بْنِ الْمُسَيِّبِ فِي ابْنٍ لِحَفْصِ بْنِ الْأَخْيَفِ أَحَدِ بَنِي مَعِيصِ بْنِ عَامِرِ بْنِ لُؤَيٍّ خَرَجَ يَبْتَغِي ضَالَّةً لَهُ بِضَجْنَانَ وَهُوَ غُلَامٌ حَدَثَ فِي رَأْسِهِ ذُؤَابَةٌ وَعَلَيْهِ حُلَّةٌ لَهُ وَكَانَ غُلَامًا وَضِيئًا نَظِيفًا فَمَرَّ بِعَامِرِ بْنِ يَزِيدَ بْنِ عَامِرِ بْنِ الْمُلَوَّحِ أَحَدِ بَنِي يَعْمُرَ بْنِ عَوْفِ بْنِ كَعْبِ بْنِ عَامِرِ بْنِ لَيْثِ بْنِ بَكْرِ بْنِ عَبْدِ مَنَاةَ بْنِ كِنَانَةَ وَهُوَ بِضَجْنَانَ وَهُوَ سَيِّدُ بَنِي بَكْرٍ يَوْمَئِذٍ فَرَآهُ فَأَعْجَبَهُ فَقَالَ مَنْ أَنْتَ يَا غُلَامُ قَالَ أَنَا ابْنٌ لِحَفْصِ ابْنِ الْأَخْيَفِ الْقُرَشِيِّ فَلَمَّا وَلَّى الْغُلَامُ قَالَ عَامِرُ بْنُ زَيْدٍ يَا بَنِي بَكْرٍ مَا لَكُمْ فِي قُرَيْشٍ مِنْ دَمٍ قَالُوا بَلَى وَاَللَّهِ إنَّ لَنَا فِيهِمْ لَدِمَاءً قَالَ مَا كَانَ رَجُلٌ لِيَقْتُلَ هَذَا الْغُلَامَ بِرَجُلِهِ إلَّا كَانَ قَدْ اسْتَوْفَى دَمَهُ قَالَ فَتَبِعْهُ رَجُلٌ مِنْ بَنِي بَكْرٍ فَقَتَلَهُ بِدَمِ كَانَ لَهُ فِي قُرَيْشٍ فَتَكَلَّمَتْ فِيهِ قُرَيْشٌ فَقَالَ عَامِرُ بْنُ يَزِيدَ يَا مَعْشَرَ قُرَيْشٍ قَدْ كَانَتْ لَنَا فِيكُمْ دِمَاءٌ فَمَا شِئْتُمْ إنْ شِئْتُمْ فَأَدُّوا عَلَيْنَا مَا لَنَا قِبَلَكُمْ وَنُؤَدِّي مَا لَكُمْ قِبَلَنَا وَإِنْ شِئْتُمْ فَإِنَّمَا هِيَ الدِّمَاءُ رَجُلٌ بِرَجُلِ فَتَجَافَوْا عَمَّا لَكُمْ قِبَلَنَا وَنَتَجَافَى عَمَّا لَنَا قِبَلَكُمْ فَهَانَ ذَلِكَ الْغُلَامُ عَلَى هَذَا الْحَيِّ مِنْ قُرَيْشٍ وَقَالُوا صَدَقَ رَجُلٌ بِرَجُلِ فَلَهَوْا عَنْهُ فَلَمْ يُطْلِبُوا بِهِ
The cause of the war between the Quraish and the tribe of Bakr, as narrated to me, was due to a son of Hafs ibn Al-Akhyaf. He had gone out searching for a lost camel in Dajnan. He was a young man with flowing hair and wearing a robe, and he was a handsome and clean youth.
He passed by Amir ibn Yazid who at the time was the chief of Bakr. He saw the youth and was amazed by him. Amir said, “Who are you, O boy?” The boy said, “I am a son of Hafs ibn Al-Akhyaf from the tribe of Quraish.”
When the boy turned away, Amir said to his tribesmen, “O tribe of Bakr, do the Quraish owe you any blood?” They said, “Of course, by Allah, their blood is due!” Amir said, “Anyone who kills this boy for revenge will have fulfilled the blood that is due.”
So one of tribesmen followed the boy and killed him in revenge for the blood Quraish had shed. When the Quraish discussed the matter, Amir said, “You owed us blood, so what do you want? If you wish to pay us what you owe us, we will pay you what we owe you.
If you want only blood, man for man, then ignore your claims and we will ignore ours.” The boy was not very important to the Quraish, so they said, “All right, man for man.” So they ignored him and did not seek compensation.
Source: Seerah ibn Hisham 610
In this example, the tribe of Bakr and Quraish were locked in a bitter feud in which revenge against random members of the opposing tribe was considered a warranted response. The Prophet condemned this behavior as among the worst deeds of humankind.
Abu Shuraih reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
إِنَّ مِنْ أَعْتَى النَّاسِ عَلَى اللَّهِ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ مَنْ قَتَلَ غَيْرَ قَاتِلِهِ أَوْ طَلَبَ بِدَمِ الْجَاهِلِيَّةِ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْإِسْلَامِ
Verily, the most tyrannical of people to Allah the Exalted is he who kills those who did not fight him, or he demands the blood feuds of ignorance be settled by the people of Islam.
Source: Musnad Ahmad 15943, Grade: Sahih
At-Tabari comments on this situation:
فَلَا تَقْتُلُ بِالْمَقْتُولِ ظُلْمًا غَيْرَ قَاتِلِهِ وَذَلِكَ أَنَّ أَهْلَ الْجَاهِلِيَّةِ كَانُوا يَفْعَلُونَ ذَلِكَ إِذَا قَتَلَ رَجُلٌ رَجُلًا عَمَدَ وَلِيُّ الْقَتِيلِ إِلَى الشَّرِيفِ مِنْ قَبِيلَةِ الْقَاتِلِ فَقَتَلَهُ بِوَلِيِّهِ وَتَرَكَ الْقَاتِلَ فَنَهَى اللَّهُ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ عَنْ ذَلِكَ عِبَادَهُ
Do not kill in retaliation for an unjust murder anyone except the murderer himself, for the people of ignorance used to do that. If a man killed another man from an opposing tribe, the patron of the murdered man would kill a notable man from the other tribe. Thus, Allah the Exalted prohibited this for His servants.
Source: Tafseer At-Tabari 17:33
The tribal slogan in the time of pre-Islamic ignorance was, “Support your brother, whether oppressed or oppressor.” But the Prophet redefined the slogan according to the principles of justice in Islam.
Anas ibn Malik reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
انْصُرْ أَخَاكَ ظَالِمًا أَوْ مَظْلُومًا
Help your brother whether he is an oppressor or is being oppressed.
It was said, “O Messenger of Allah, we help the one being oppressed but how do we help an oppressor?” The Prophet said:
تَأْخُذُ فَوْقَ يَدَيْهِ
By seizing his hand.
Source: Sahih Bukhari 2312, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi
Thus, true loyalty in Islam was redefined as loyalty to truth and justice. Allegiance to tribe or family or party can only be fulfilled in so far as it maintains justice. If our group is committing injustice, then we have the duty in Islam to stop them.
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا كُونُوا قَوَّامِينَ بِالْقِسْطِ شُهَدَاءَ لِلَّهِ وَلَوْ عَلَىٰ أَنفُسِكُمْ أَوِ الْوَالِدَيْنِ وَالْأَقْرَبِينَ إِن يَكُنْ غَنِيًّا أَوْ فَقِيرًا فَاللَّهُ أَوْلَىٰ بِهِمَا فَلَا تَتَّبِعُوا الْهَوَىٰ أَن تَعْدِلُوا
O you who believe, stand firm in justice as witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both. So follow not your desires, lest you not be just.
Surat An-Nisa 4:135
In our times, the diseases of ignorance and passionate anger have clouded the judgment of many, leading them to accept collective punishment as appropriate justice. In so many contexts, we can see people rioting against their neighbors or punishing random members of a group because of what some other individual has done.
In its worst manifestation, the logic of collective punishment leads to terrorism and the killing of innocent civilians, women, and children. Their argument is that if the enemy kills our civilians, then we have the right to kill their civilians. This is simply “eye for an eye,” as they say. They quote the saying of Allah:
فَمَنِ اعْتَدَىٰ عَلَيْكُمْ فَاعْتَدُوا عَلَيْهِ بِمِثْلِ مَا اعْتَدَىٰ عَلَيْكُمْ ۚ وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ وَاعْلَمُوا أَنَّ اللَّهَ مَعَ الْمُتَّقِينَ
Whoever transgresses against you, then transgress against him in like manner. And fear Allah and know that Allah is with those who fear Him.
Surat Al-Baqarah 2:194
However, they have grossly misinterpreted these and similar verses. The truth is that collective punishment is not eye for an eye, but rather it is an eye for an innocent person’s eye.
فَمَنْ ظَلَمَكَ فَخُذْ حَقَّكَ مِنْهُ بِقَدْرِ مَظْلِمَتِكَ وَمَنْ شَتَمَكَ فَرُدَّ عَلَيْهِ مِثْلَ قَوْلِهِ وَمَنْ أَخَذَ عِرْضَكَ فَخُذْ عِرْضَهَ لَا تَتَعَدَّى إِلَى أَبَوَيْهِ وَلَا إِلَى ابْنِهِ أَوْ قَرِيبِهِ وَلَيْسَ لَكَ أَنْ تَكْذِبَ عَلَيْهِ وَإِنْ كَذَبَ عَلَيْكَ فَإِنَّ الْمَعْصِيَةَ لَا تُقَابَلُ بِالْمَعْصِيَةِ
Whoever oppresses you, then you may take your rights from him according to the measure of his oppression. Whoever abuses you, then you may respond similar to his saying. Whoever takes from your honor, then you may take from his honor. But do not transgress against his parents or his sons or his relatives. It is not your right to lie against him if he has lied against you. Indeed, a sin should not be met with another sin.
Source: Tafseer Al-Qurtubi 2:194
Rather, the Prophet set limits on lawful retaliation in his words and deeds. An evil deed should not be answered with another evil deed.
Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
أَدِّ الْأَمَانَةَ إِلَى مَنْ ائْتَمَنَكَ وَلَا تَخُنْ مَنْ خَانَكَ
Fulfill the trust of those to whom they are due, and do not be treacherous to the one who betrays you.
Source: Sunan At-Tirmidhi 1264, Grade: Hasan
Their argument is exposed as plainly invalid when considered from another angle. If the enemy rapes our women, then does this mean the heinous crime of rape becomes permissible against their women?
Ibn Taymiyyah refutes this argument:
كمن كذب عليك وزنى بأهلك ليس لك أن تكذب عليه وتزني بأهله لأن الكذب والزنا حرام لحق الله تعالى
If someone lies against you or commits adultery with your family, it would not be permissible for you to lie against him or commit adultery with his family. Adultery and falsehood are unlawful by the right of Allah.
Source: Ar-Radd ‘ala Al-Bakri 1/381
How can we say rape now becomes permissible if it is committed against us? Yet, killing is far worse than rape, so how can we say killing innocents could become permissible? Do the enemies of Islam decide for us what is lawful and unlawful?
This kind of shallow thinking will only lead to the justification of any abominable crime, far from the Quran’s concept of “eye for an eye,” that the punishment should fit the crime, no more, no less.
Instead, if we really intend to spread the message of Islam, to convey its noble teachings, and to defend it from those who would defame it, then we must respond to every evil with good, every injustice with justice.
وَلَا تَسْتَوِي الْحَسَنَةُ وَلَا السَّيِّئَةُ ۚ ادْفَعْ بِالَّتِي هِيَ أَحْسَنُ فَإِذَا الَّذِي بَيْنَكَ وَبَيْنَهُ عَدَاوَةٌ كَأَنَّهُ وَلِيٌّ حَمِيمٌ
Not equal are the good deed and the bad. Repel evil by that which is better, and thereupon the one whom between you and him is hostility will become as though he was a devoted friend.
Surah Fussilat 41:34
This is the way our religion should be defended and the hearts and minds of our enemies won over to Islam. In contrast, those who resort to petty revenge or even terrorism are not defending Islam at all, but rather they have been given over to their desires, their anger, and their ignorance.
We ask Allah to protect us from oppression and becoming oppressors, to open our hearts to mercy and truth, and to guide us to the straight path most pleasing to Him.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.