“Slave for Slave, Woman for Woman”: Qur’an 2:178 Explained
Mohamad Mostafa Nassar
Waqar Akbar Cheema
Qur’an 2:178 states;
يَاأَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الْقِصَاصُ فِي الْقَتْلَى الْحُرُّ بِالْحُرِّ وَالْعَبْدُ بِالْعَبْدِ وَالْأُنْثَى بِالْأُنْثَى فَمَنْ عُفِيَ لَهُ مِنْ أَخِيهِ شَيْءٌ فَاتِّبَاعٌ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَأَدَاءٌ إِلَيْهِ بِإِحْسَانٍ ذَلِكَ تَخْفِيفٌ مِنْ رَبِّكُمْ وَرَحْمَةٌ فَمَنِ اعْتَدَى بَعْدَ ذَلِكَ فَلَهُ عَذَابٌ أَلِيم
O you who have believed, prescribed for you is legal retribution for those murdered – the free for the free, the slave for the slave, and the female for the female. But whoever overlooks from his brother anything, then there should be a suitable follow-up and payment to him with good conduct.
This is an alleviation from your Lord and a mercy. But whoever transgresses after that will have a painful punishment.
This has led to confusion with many including Muslims, and the anti-Islamic polemicists have also picked up on it. One of them writes;
What exactly does this text mean? Does it mean that a freeman who wrongly kills a slave man will not be put to death for it, nor the man who kills a woman? If so, does this also apply in case of the reverse, i.e. a slave who kills a free man shall not be put to death nor the woman who kills a man? What happens if a woman kills a slave or vice-versa?
Does it mean that if a free man kills a slave unjustly then one of his slaves must be put to death for his crime? What if a man kills a woman, does this then mean that one of his women, i.e. mother, sister, wife, daughter etc., must be put to death for his crime?
And does the reverse apply, i.e. if a slave man kills a free man then his free master must be killed for his crime, or if the woman commits murder should her father, brother, husband, son etc., be killed in her place?
The confusion and deliberate misconstruction is due to ignorance or deliberate oblivion of the actual context in which this verse was revealed. Mufti Muhammad Shafi’ provides the due context:
On the authority of Ibn Abi Hatim, Ibn Kathir has reported that just before the advent of Islam, war broke out between two tribes. Many men and women, free and slaves, belonging to both, were killed. Their case was still undecided when the Islam period set in and the two tribes entered the fold of Islam.
Now that they were Muslim, they started talking about retaliation for those killed on each side. One of the tribes which was more powerful insisted that they would not agree on anything less than a free man for their slave and a man for their woman be killed from the other side.
It was to refute this barbaric demand on their part that this verse was revealed. By saying ‘free man for a free man, slave for a slave and female for a female’ it is intended to negate their absurd demand that a free man for a salve and man for a woman should be killed in retaliation, even though he may not be the killer. The just law that Islam enforces was that the killer is the one who has to be killed in Qisas.
If a woman is the killed why should an innocent man be killed in retaliation? Similar if the killer is a slave there is no sense retaliation against an innocent free man. This is an injustice which can never be tolerated in Islam.
This verse meaning nothing but what has been stated earlier, and we repeat, that one who has killed will the one to be killed in Qisas. It is not permissible to kill an innocent man or someone free for a killer, woman or slave.
Let us hasten to clarify that the verse does not mean that Qisas will not be taken from a man who kills a woman or from a free man who kills a slave. In the very beginning of the word كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الْقِصَاصُ فِي الْقَتْلَى “Qisas has been enjoined upon you in case of those murdered” (2:178) are clear proof of this universality of application. There are other verses where this aspect has been stated more explicitly, for instance in النَّفْسَ بِالنَّفْسِ “A life for life.” (5:45)
 Shafi’, Muhammad, Ma’arif al-Qur’an, Translated by Prof. Hasan Askari and Prof. Muhammad Shamim (Karachi: Maktaba-e-Darul-‘Ulum, n.d.) 447-448