Talion Law

Setting the Price of a Human Life

Retaliation is a central theme of the Koran. Proportionate retaliation for wrongs done to the believers, brutal retaliation if the alleged crime is deemed to be a crime against Allah or His Messenger such as not believing in them, which makes every unbeliever a criminal deserving of the most brutal punishment.

2:179 In retaliation there is life for you, O people of understanding, that you may be God-fearing.

5:33 Indeed, the punishment of those who fight Allah and His Messenger and go around corrupting the land is to be killed, crucified, have their hands and feet cut off on opposite sides, or to be banished from the land. That is a disgrace for them in this life, and in the life to come theirs will be a terrible punishment.

Talion law is the "law of retaliation." It’s most common expression is "an eye for an eye." A revelation from Allah pertaining to retaliation in kind and the payment of blood-money:

2:178 O believers, retaliation for the slain is prescribed for you; a free [man] for a free [man], a slave for a slave and a female for a female. But if he is pardoned by his brother (the aggrieved), usage should be followed (capital punishment would be replaced by blood-money) and he should pay him (the aggrieved) liberally and kindly. This is remission and mercy from your Lord. He who transgresses after that will have a painful punishment.

But what should be the payment if the aggrieved chooses that option?

The Prophet's grandfather is credited with getting Allah to agree to camels as payment for a human life. Abd al-Muttalib was a man without sons. Desperate, in another variation of an old story, he promised Allah to sacrifice his tenth son if He gave him ten male heirs. Ask and you shall receive.

When the time came for Muttalib to keep his side of the bargain, he consulted a dervish to find out if he could fulfil his promise to God in some other manner that did not involve killing his tenth son, Abdullah, the future father of Muhammad of all people.

The dervish Muttalib consulted was no ordinary soothsayer; he was a dervish with jinns in his employ, jinns who specialized in eavesdropping on Allah’s conversations with his angels. They would fly as close as possible to the lowest of the seven levels of heaven, the one closest to the earth, dogging rocks i.e. meteorites thrown by the angels to keep them away, to find out what Allah had to say about was happening down below.

To try to answer his client’s question, the dervish, in a time honoured tradition, sent his jinns to eavesdrop on God.

One reported that Allah, in a conversation with an angel, had indicated that He would be happy with a sacrifice of camels. But how many camels?

The dervish then threw some dice (bone fragments of some type) to find out. The answer they gave was one hundred camels as the price of a human life.

The most important legal document in Islam, after the Koran, is the Prophet’s Last Khutba, his Farewell Sermon which he delivered a few months before he died.

In his final instructions for the believers, delivered on mount Arafat on the outskirts of Mecca, God's Messenger reminded the believers about Allah's declaration concerning talion law and the one hundred camels limit on the price of human life.

And intentional murder shall be punished according to talion law; where the murderess intention is not clear and the victim is killed using a club or a stone it will cost the perpetrator one hundred camels as blood money. Whoever demands more is a man from the time of ignorance.

From a translation by Islamic scholar and author Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah’s [1908-2002]

This payment cannot exceed the equivalent of 100 camels, that would be un-Islamic. For murdered females, 50 camels or less will usually get their murderer off the hook.

To simplify things for visitors to the Kingdom, the Saudis have prepared a "death compensation schedule." In 2002, the penalty for accidentally killing a male believer was 100,000 riyal (about $27,000 Canadian); a male Christian or Jew 50,000 riyals; practitioners of other religions a mere 6,666.66 riyal; a non-believing woman, a real bargain at about 3,333 riyal, half of the cost of killing the lowest man on the Saudi’s death compensation totem pole.

Author Yaroslav Trofimov, in Faith At War, A Journey On The Frontlines of Islam (Henry Holt, 2005) makes no mention of a monetary penalty for accidentally killing a believing woman.

What would be the point! The chance of a visitor to the Kingdom coming into contact with a Saudi woman or girl is almost nil as all women in the Saudi Kingdom are usually confined to their homes or in segregated workplaces or schools.

The recommended payment in the “death compensation scheduled” is just that, a recommendation; a recommendation if you want to avoid haggling over the monetary worth of a recently departed loved one.

If the deceased is a believer, and his death the result of negligence, the male head of the decease's household can refuse the money and instead request a life for a life. The Saudi authorities will usually oblige the family of the victim by separating the hapless klutz's head from his shoulders with a quick blow from a sharp sword.

In some countries governed by the Sharia, it's the hangman's noose. On December 1, 2010, at dawn, 40-year-old Shahla Jahed was hanged, with the son of the woman she is alleged to have killed doing the honours on behalf of the family, by pulling out the chair on which the woman was standing with a rope around her neck pleading for her life.

Taking a life for a life notwithstanding, in modern enlightened Saudi Arabia, and most other jurisdictions where the rule of law is Islamic capital punishment is usually reserved for:

1) those who would abandon the perfect religion (Islam) for one less perfect or no religion at all;

2) those who are alleged to have deliberately or even inadvertently insulted the Prophet, or expressed doubts about the Koran;

3) those who can’t afford to pay blood money;

4) those who would threatened the established order;

5) females in adulterous relationships, and females who indulge in pre-marital sex e.g. Iran: 15-year-old, Atefeh Rajabi hanged for having sex outside marriage; Somalia: 13-year-old Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow stoned to death for the same offence.

Bernard Payeur