Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Qisaas means 'narrations', and in these narrations is life.

Following the atrocious slaughter of over 140 people, most of them children, in a school in Peshawar Pakistan, people were understandably angry, and the public of Pakistan called for a resumption of the death penalty. The terrorists who committed the attack had already been killed, but that wasn't enough to satisfy people's anger, so the execution of others on death row began again.

Whilst I understand the anger, I am firmly against the death penalty, in all circumstances, and I found the mass rage disturbing, since anger clouds the vision, and I fear what comes next as people and governments rush to act whilst still in a state of anger. Just today I learn that Pakistan now intends to execute 500 prisoners, and one of them that was due to be executed today (23rd Dec) has been on death row for nearly 11 years now, after being tortured into a confession at the age of just 14.

A never ending cycle of revenge attacks results in ever increasing bloodshed, but how can one call for reconciliation after such a crime? After spending some time in prayer, searching for some answers, I happened to come across a beautiful Arabic inscription from a museum, which caught my eye. On closer inspection I learnt that it read
"My intercession is for those of my community who have committed great sins."
For me it was the answer to my prayer. The best thing to do at such a time of anger, is to pray for those who sinned. I tweeted the image and was overcome with emotion when someone explained to me that these were actually the words of the Prophet Muhammad pbuh, narrated in a number of Hadith classed as "Sahih" (authentic).

It was then that I had someone tweet me a photo of one of the grieving mothers in Peshawar, with the message "she is calling for qisas", in addition to being sent extracts from translations of the Quran to apparently justify the call for the death penalty, which prompted me to write this response, in defence for the value of mercy.

Google 'Qisas' and the first thing you will find is the Wikipedia definition:
'Qiṣāṣ'  is an Islamic term meaning equal "retaliation" or revenge'.

But does it really? After much research and prayer regarding this matter, I am now certain that the verses in the Quran using the word ''Qiṣāṣ' (pronounced qisaas) were misunderstood, due to the misinterpretation of 'qiṣāṣ' as 'retribution', and this has resulted in a clouding over of the message of mercy that these verses were to reveal.

These are my findings (sorry this involves explaining a little Arabic grammar, I'll try and keep this simple!):

The word 'qiṣāṣ' is derived from the triliteral root qāf ṣād ṣād (ص ص ق). Words derived from this same route, according to the The Quranic Arabic Corpus project, appear in 30 instances in the Quran. You can see the list here:

In 24 of these instances they have been translated with the core meaning 'narration'/'to narrate', on 2 occasions they are interpreted as words deriving from the meaning 'follow'. In only 4 instances have these words been translated as 'retribution', but after my research I conclude that they should have all been translated as words related to 'narration'.

In all the 26 instances not related to retribution, the main body of the words sound like 'qasas' for the nouns and verbs in the perfect tense, and 'qussu' for verbs in the imperfect tense. However, in the 4 instances where the meaning 'retribution' is implied, they sound like 'qisaas'. Actually when written in Arabic, all the letters in the bodies of the words remain the same, which is that of the  trilateral root, it is only the vowels that differ, which are determined by marks above and below the words.

Some people argue that the words with the 'qisaas' sounds that are translated as 'retribution' are clearly different words from the 'qasas'/'qussu' words that have been translated as 'narration' or 'follow', hence the different meaning. Some people say that the word 'retribution' is derived from the word 'follow' since it is about following up the person who committed the crime and getting them to pay for their wrong. I read one argument that said the word literally means 'likeness', because you are getting the perpetrator to pay 'like for like'. Other people say that the word is related to 'cut off', as in cutting off a hand or a foot, since 'qas' means 'to cut'. None of these arguments makes a lot of sense, considering this:

" And We have not sent you, [O Muhammad], except as a mercy to the worlds." Quran 2:107

In addition, not only does the use of the word qisaas as retribution not fit in within the context of the message of mercy which the Prophet Muhammad pbuh was sent to bring, it also doesn't fit in with the clear message of mercy sent by the Prophet Isa/Jesus, who said regarding 'eye for eye' to 'turn the other cheek', 'love your enemies' and 'pray for those that persecute you'.

Let us recall some of these Quranic versus (which are just a few of those promoting the message of mercy and also confirmation of what was sent before):

"He has sent down upon you, [O Muhammad], the Book in truth, confirming what was before it. And He revealed the Torah and the Gospel before, as guidance for the people." HQ 3:3-4

"There was certainly in their stories a lesson for those of understanding. Never was the Qur'an a narration invented, but a confirmation of what was before it and a detailed explanation of all things and guidance and mercy for a people who believe." HQ 12.111

It is my conviction that the 4 instances of 'qisaas' that have been translated as 'retribution' should have been translated in accordance with the other instances, as 'narrations'. The only reasons that qisaas has different vowels from the 'qasas' instances is because qisaas is plural of qasas, following one of the common patterns to be found in Arabic 'broken plurals', which involves a change of vowel pattern.

For example:

mountain (singular) = jabal
mountain (plural) = jibaal

In the same way:

narration (singular) = qasas
narration (plural) = qisaas

An example where the word qisaas has been used as the plural for narrations, outside of the Quran, is in the term 'Qisaas Al-Anbiya' which means 'Stories of the Prophets'

I could find no example of the word 'qisaas' being used to mean 'retribution' outside of the Quran, except in reference to what was written in the Quran.

With the Quranic Arabic Corpus's 'Word by Word' facility it is now easy for even those with limited Arabic understanding to get a much clearer idea of the verses in their original form.

Below I list the four exceptions in the Quran where the word 'qisaas' had been translated as 'retribution', following which I have written my suggestions on alternative translations using the word 'narrations' instead (as well as some other differences that I feel are worthy of consideration).

For each verse I have written a translation as close as I could to the original wording, which can  sound a little awkward in English, but which allows room for individual interpretation, as I think it should. This is one of the beautiful things I have found in the Quran - its texts can mean different things to different people at different times - just so long as the spirit in which it is read is good, then what we come to understand will also be good. I find I'm constantly refining what I understand, so even after writing I may come back and amend what I have written here, and I welcome suggestions of refinement from those people of knowledge.


Instances 1 + 2 of Qisaas translated as 'retribution'

(I have underlined the 'qisaas' words in question.)

Translation from Sahih International:
"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. And there is for you in legal retribution [saving of] life, O you [people] of understanding, that you may become righteous." HQ 2:178-179

For other translations see

My translation:
"O you who have been faithful, prescribed (written) over you were the narrations regarding killing: the free man for the free man, the slave for the slave, and the female for the female. Then whoever was forgiven by his brother for anything, then [there is] a following with fairness, and [there is] a returning to him with goodness. This is a lightening [of load] for you from your Lord and mercy. Then whoever transgresses after that, then for him is a painful torment. And for you in these narrations is life, oh men of understanding, so that you may become righteous."

It's actually far more beautiful in Arabic, and I encourage you to have a look at the original, word by word, as I did, and also to listen to the recitation which you can do here:

The deeper meaning to this verse I feel is the wonder of life that is born out of forgiveness. The 'eye for an eye' narrative was brought to people through the Torah, to bring about the understanding of fairness - but it was also something that weighed heavy 'over' us, since in seeking retribution we do not fully understand mercy. Here God guides us towards mercy - hence a 'lightening', ie. a lifting of that which was written over us. When a perpetrator is offered forgiveness, what happens next is often remarkable: The  perpetrators frequently begin a truly good life, since they are so moved by the mercy they have been granted it brings them to a place of sincere repentance and a willingness to make up for the bad they have done.

There have been many instances where killers have met with the families of the people they have killed, and the families have offered forgiveness, and many of those forgiven have then gone on to put their efforts into good works to repair their damage.

Here are some wonderful stories of reconciliation following the Rwanda genocide:

This is the story of a lady whose father was killed by a bomb in a terrorist attack. She met with the man responsible after he was released from prison and now works with him on a reconciliation project for peace:

Now imagine these perpetrators, having been granted such great mercy, later returning to sin and committing a similar crime again - I don't know of any such cases, but wouldn't they feel terrible with themselves? This, in my understanding, would be the most painful torment for them of all - their own conscience.

The National Commission on the Status of Women completed a report in 2006 for the government of Pakistan entitled ‘The Concept of Justice in Islam: Qisas And Diyst Law'
On page14.b it states 'The Holy Qur’an has termed ‘Qisas,’ a ‘life’ for the humanity, as it is ordained that “in the law of equality there is (saving of) life to you, O, ye men of understanding; That ye may restrain yourselves.”'

But let me say without hesitation: There is no life in the death penalty, only death. And there is no mercy in the death penalty either - absolutely none. There is however new life in forgiveness. I say this before you and before God - and have pleaded my case in my prayers "God if you want me to punish someone with death, I refuse. And if you want to punish me for that, then go ahead, I won't do it, or support it, I can't, I just can't, and my conscience is clear."

Instance 3 of Qisaas interpreted as 'retribution' in the Holy Quran

Sahih International: [Fighting in] the sacred month is for [aggression committed in] the sacred month, and for [all] violations is legal retribution. So whoever has assaulted you, then assault him in the same way that he has assaulted you. HQ 2:194

My Translation: The sacred month is for the sacred month and The (Most) Sacred narrations. So whoever attacked you, then you can attack him in the same way that he attacked you.

You can check the word by word translation yourself here:

This verse was in guidance over what to do when they were attacked in the holy period in which there was to be no fighting (ie. guidance regarding self defence). The word "ḥurum" was translated as "violations" when it should have taken on the meaing "sacred"(as it does elsewhere in the Quran). The emphasis here is on 'The Sacred' narrations, that is to say, this sacred month has been designated for those narrations which are of the most sacred - and perhaps this revelation on being able to fight back in self-defence during the sacred month was therefore emphasising in particular the importance of defending these revelations (certainly nothing to do with retribution).

Instance 4 of Qisaas interpreted as 'retribution' in the Holy Quran

Sahih International: And 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. And whoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed – then it is those who are the wrongdoers. HQ 5:45

My Translation: And We wrote over them (prescribed) in it (in reference to the Torah - stated clearly in the previous verses): "the life for the life, and the eye for the eye, and the nose for the nose, and the ear for the ear, and the tooth for the tooth, and wounds" narrations. But whoever gives charity with it, then it is an atonement (smoothing over) for him. And whoever does not judge by what God has revealed, they are the wrongdoers.

The word by word translation can be found here:

I looked a long time at the grammar of these verses, and in this instance the word translated as 'is legal retribution' is clearly defined in the Quranic Arabic Corpus as the nominative (subject) of the phrase, which does not make sense. In my translation, the word 'qissaasun' which I have translated as 'narrations' is indeed the subject of the phrase. These verses clearly emphasise again that God brought mercy, and whoever does not judge with this message of mercy that has been revealed, they are in the wrong. It should also be noted that it states nothing about giving the families of the victim the authority to decide whether or not to permit mercy in judgement.

The next verses that follow this verse (I have not written them here) then go on to confirm that God gave Isa/Jesus the Injeel/Gospel as guidance and light. Now I understand that Muslims differ with Christians in regards to who Jesus was exactly, but there can be no dispute over his message of mercy - that would be contradictory of everything the Quran has to say about Jesus as well as mercy.

There are many accounts of great forgiveness in the Prophet Mohammed's life. One such account is that of the lady Hind, who was for so long full of hate for him and always wishing terrible things on him and the whole Muslim community. On the battlefield, she sent her slave to kill Hamza, who was Mohammed's foster brother and close friend. After he was killed, Hind, blinded by hatred, after previously losing some of her own family members who were at battle with the Muslims, is said to have then mutilated Hamza's body and ripped his heart out. Muhammad was devastated when he heard that Hamza had been killed and even more so when he saw his mutilated body. Can you imagine what Muhammad did to Hind and her slave later on when the Muslims came to (peacefully) conquer Mecca? He forgave them both. After that, he never had any further problem with either of them, in fact they both become devoted Muslims.

There are many more stories of forgiveness in The Prophet's life. Some of them are mentioned here:

There is a word for retribution in the Quran. That is 'intiqām'. After looking at the verses where this is used, I learnt that God is the master of retribution, not us.

Above all however, let us not forget, that He is The Most Merciful, something we are reminded of literally every time we recite the Quran.

You may also like to read this, another of my blog posts that discusses some interpretations of the Quran: The Quran Does Not Invoke Beheading.

1 comment:

  1. Simply wonderful, an eye opener. The results of this indepth research should be brought to the notice of Governments of countries with so called Islamic Law.