The short answer is both. The Qur’an, the holy book of Islam, commands men to treat women with respect, enjoins the presumption of innocence and acknowledges a right to keep silent. It also mandates stoning, crucifixion and amputation. It sanctions slavery, so long as the slave isn’t Muslim. (Jews and Christians and many others in the seventh century also owned slaves.) I am indebted to British barrister Sadakat Kadri and his masterly book that explains shari’a and how it evolved over 12 centuries. Shari’a is “the way to salvation,” Islamic law derived from the Qur’an and the hadith (the deeds and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad).
In the beginning, Kadri writes, Islam’s penal code differed little from its contemporaries’:
Corporal punishments were a feature of the age, while crucifixion owed its popularity in the Middle East to centuries of Persian and Roman practice— and among Muslims, at least in later years, it was intended to be a nonfatal means of humiliation rather than a method of execution. Torture, which was routine under the Christianized Roman law of Byzantium, found no place in the Qur’an…. Repentance was often reason enough to exclude punishment … The Qur’an urges victims of violence to accept compensation or exercise mercy instead of retaliating in kind as they had a right to do.
Just as most Christians and Jews accept that parts of the Bible are allegorical and they don’t believe in the literal meaning, most Muslims do not observe every detail of the Qur’an, which was meant to guide the people of small desert communities in Arabia more than 1,200 years ago. Seventh-century measures such as amputation were almost unheard of in the world’s 49 majority Muslim countries until about 35 years ago. (During the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini revived the ancient customs.) In the 500 years of the Ottoman Empire, for example, there was just one stoning. Except for 11 of the 49 majority Muslim countries, the vast majority of Muslims joins the rest of the world in denouncing ISIL’s extremist ideology and brutal atrocities.
All texts are subject to interpretation, and the Qur’an is no exception. Interpretation changes over time as conditions change and societies evolve. Texts can also be self-contradictory. Kadri compares the condoning of slavery to the advocation of emancipation.
It would be futile to argue that slavery does not at some level form part of the shari‘a, because no one has the authority to erase revelations from the Qur’an. It is entirely proper, however, to consider that verses justifying manumission point the way to behavior more in accordance with God’s long-term aims. And what is true of slavery might also be true of other aspects of the divine law.
Muhammad repeatedly made clear that emancipation was among the most meritorious acts that anyone could undertake.
Men everywhere interpret and even pervert God’s will as they see fit. Despite the widely held conviction that God is the final arbiter of sins, radical Islamic clerics believe it is sinful even to pity, let alone pardon, someone convicted of a capital offense like apostasy or murder:
They claimed that God obliged humanity forever to flog, amputate, and stone convicts, reserving for Himself alone the power to extend mercy. In a country not lacking for injustice, they dreamed of a world in which judges were required to punish but forbidden to forgive.
Crime and Punishment
The Qur’an authorizes physical penalties just five times. They correspond to the four most serious sins. Theft is punished by the amputation of the right hand, fornication by 100 lashes and false accusation of fornication, 80 lashes. Worst of all is waging war against Islam or spreading disorder in the land. These crimes merit exile, double amputation, crucifixion or decapitation. And what about murder? Victims of violence or their families had the right to exact retribution personally. The Qur’anic passage comes straight from the Hebrew Bible: “A life for a life, an eye for an eye ….”
While it is clear that the ISIL’S brand of Islam is not that of Turkey or Jordan or Bangladesh, its vengeful malevolence is a force the world must reckon with. ISIL can and does construe almost any activity as apostasy or acts against Islam; that’s why it feels justified to behead non-believers as well as Muslims who challenge them and don’t embrace their ideology.