What is the meaning of ‘eye for an eye’?
Mohamad Mostafa Nassar
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
The phrase “eye for an eye” refers to retributive justice (al-qasas) as a legal concept, known as the law of equality in punishment, otherwise stated as “let the punishment fit the crime.” In Islamic law, the punishment for a crime should be equal to the gravity of that crime, not greater or less.
وَكَتَبْنَا عَلَيْهِمْ فِيهَا أَنَّ النَّفْسَ بِالنَّفْسِ وَالْعَيْنَ بِالْعَيْنِ وَالْأَنفَ بِالْأَنفِ وَالْأُذُنَ بِالْأُذُنِ وَالسِّنَّ بِالسِّنِّ وَالْجُرُوحَ قِصَاصٌ ۚ فَمَن تَصَدَّقَ بِهِ فَهُوَ كَفَّارَةٌ لَّهُ ۚ وَمَن لَّمْ يَحْكُم بِمَا أَنزَلَ اللَّهُ فَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الظَّالِمُونَ
We ordained for them therein a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and for wounds is legal retribution. But whoever gives up his right as charity, it is an expiation for him. Whoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed, then it is those who are the wrongdoers.
Surah Al-Ma’idah 5:45
A person who is wronged by another reserves the right to demand equal legal punishment within due process of law, although Allah has encouraged the believers to show forgiveness.
Allah has said those who fail to implement the law of equality in punishment are oppressors. They are oppressors because they fail to treat everyone equal under law, punishing some people more or less than they deserve.
Ibn Kathir comments on this verse, saying:
لأنهم لم ينصفوا المظلوم من الظالم في الأمر الذي أمر الله بالعدل والتسوية بين الجميع فيه
They are called oppressors because they did not fulfill the rights of the oppressed over the oppressor in the matter in which Allah commanded them to be just and equal between everyone involved.
Source: Tafseer Ibn Kathir 5:45
The phrase “eye for an eye” does not necessarily mean the punishment should be literally the same as the crime. Under the doctrine of discretionary punishment (ta’zeer), the Islamic authorities may implement legal punishments such as fines, community service, or imprisonment which are judged to fit the given crime.
This is the phrase “eye for an eye” as it relates to doctrines of law and legal punishment, but this statement should not be mistakenly applied to the character and manners of a Muslim. Rather, Muslims have been commanded to forgive people for the abuse they endure from their bad behavior.
خُذِ الْعَفْوَ وَأْمُرْ بِالْعُرْفِ وَأَعْرِضْ عَنِ الْجَاهِلِينَ
Show forgiveness, enjoin what is good, and turn away from the ignorant.
Surah Al-A’raf 7:199
Allah’s statement “turn away from the ignorant” means we should not punish people for their bad character. Rather, we should be merciful, patient, and forgiving.
Abdullah ibn Zubair, may Allah be pleased with him, said:
أُمِرَ نَبِيُّ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم أَنْ يَأْخُذَ الْعَفْوَ مِنْ أَخْلاَقِ النَّاسِ
This means the Prophet of Allah was commanded to forgive people’s bad character.
Source: Sunan Abu Dawud 4787, Grade: Sahih
The phrase “eye for an eye” should be not used to justify wronging others in the same manner they have wronged us. We should not respond to an evil deed by committing another evil deed, but rather we should respond to people’s bad character by behaving with good character.
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
For this reason, Allah and His Messenger have encouraged the believers to forfeit their right to implement legal punishment on their oppressors and instead to forgive them.
Anas ibn Malik reported:
مَا رَأَيْتُ النَّبِيَّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ رُفِعَ إِلَيْهِ شَيْءٌ فِيهِ قِصَاصٌ إِلَّا أَمَرَ فِيهِ بِالْعَفْوِ
I never saw a case involving legal retaliation being referred to the Messenger of Allah except that he would command pardoning the criminal.
Source: Sunan Abu Dawud 4497, Source: Sahih
In fact, the Prophet strongly discouraged people from demanding punishment for the criminal.
Anas ibn Malik reported: A man came to the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, with the killer of his relative. The Prophet said:
But the man refused. The Prophet said:
Take the blood money.
But the man refused. The Prophet said:
اذْهَبْ فَاقْتُلْهُ فَإِنَّكَ مِثْلُهُ
Go and kill him, for you are like him.
Source: Sunan An-Nasa’i 4730, Grade: Sahih
So the man pardoned the criminal.
Nevertheless, the right to implement legal punishment remains as a means for society to deter criminals from violating the rights of others.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.