The Right to Life in Islam: A God-given Gift?
The right to life is the most basic of human rights and an essential foundation for all others. The protection and sanctity of life is a non-negotiable principle because it is the pillar of civilization. In Islam, the sanctity of life is an inherent right for every human being because life is a God-given gift and a manifestation of His divine grace. Since God is the Creator and Grantor of life, any kind of aggression or violation of this right is considered a crime and a transgression against the rights of both God and man.
To emphasize the sanctity of human life, the Quran comprises numerous verses and unequivocal warnings addressed to those who deliberately kill and take other people's lives. God says, "We prescribed for the children of Israel that whosoever kills another human being without the latter being guilty of murder or corruption in the land, it would be as if he has killed all mankind, and whosoever saves the life of one person, it would be as if he has saved all of mankind" (Quran 5:32).
The mentioning of the laws of the Torah in this verse indicates the continuity of values in all divinely revealed laws. It is also worth noting that the wording of the verse was set in the broadest terms without any specification of race, religion, age or gender of either the killer or victim. The purpose is to demonstrate that any infringement of this right is tantamount to the destruction of humankind in totality.
During the early period of Islam, when Muslims were living as a minority in Mecca and facing all forms of persecution, God revealed two verses that addressed the unlawful killings committed against innocent humans. He says, "Slay not the life which God has made sacrosanct unless it be in the cause of justice. Whoever is wrongly slain, We have given power to his near kin, but let him not indulge in excess. He (the near kin) will certainly be helped (to seek redress)" (Quran 17:33) and, "Those who do not associate any other deity with God, nor slay life which God has made sacrosanct unless it be in the course of justice …" (Quran 25:68).
The order of precedence in the second verse accentuates the sanctity of human life since it comes as the next most important value after belief in God. At the time, Muslims in Makkah had no government or law enforcement power of their own, and so God revealed to them general rulings. This explains the near total reliance on private methods of punishing homicide such as the right to retaliation (qisas) of the near kin and the promise of justice.
When Muslims moved to Madinah, established their own city-state, and established a law enforcement apparatus, the Quranic verses addressing unlawful killing did not speak of retaliation but rather emphasized forgiveness ('afw). This illustrates that the law of retaliation was revealed in two stages. The first stage was in Makkah where the prohibition of unlawful killings was most clearly emphasized and retaliation was introduced as a means to maintain justice. Though retaliation was a tool for the victim’s near kin to punish the killer, God proscribed transgressing the limits. This period therefore provided moral guidance, prohibiting unlawful killing while maintaining justice. Respect for reciprocal justice, avoidance of excess in retaliation, and the principle of forgiveness were later developed in the legislation of Madinah.
It is worth noting that jurists are of the view that retaliation by the victim’s near kin is a matter to be decided by the courts. Retaliation in cases of intentional homicide fulfills the rights of both God and man. However, an individual may choose to relinquish his right to retaliation or opt to accept compensation (blood-money) instead.
Rulings and stipulations of retaliation, whether on the individual or community level, were set to preserve the sanctity of human life and prohibit any infringement upon it regardless of ethnicity, religion or gender. Even when retaliation for unlawful killing is due, it is important to avoid excess and forgiveness is highly recommended.
Islam even set the precedent for the moral guidelines of warfare. Islam forbids Muslims from:
- Killing anyone except active combatants.
- Killing women, children, or the elderly.
- Mutilating enemy corpses.
- Burning trees and destroying crops.
- Killing monks in monasteries or those sitting in places of worship.
In Islam, human life is a divine gift. As such, it is sacrosanct and therefore it is impermissible to kill others or even oneself.