In an early battle in defense of Islam’s still-struggling first community in Medina, the prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali brought a traitor to his knees and was about to kill him when the man spat in his face. Ali sheathed his sword, knowing that to strike out of anger rather than out of acting for justice would be a sin.
Don’t strike out of anger.
Next Sunday, I will join an interfaith moving vigil in Hampton to support New Hampshire’s death penalty repeal effort. HB 1170 has passed the House and it’s now with the Senate — please join us!
Many people of good will are engaged in this struggle, Understandings of law, scripture and personal history color our attitudes and responses, and in engaging this debate we must be willing to honor opposition voices even when we don’t agree with them.
For the families of murder victims there must be compassion and understanding — even an understanding that they may wish society to execute the person that killed their loved one. There are few callings as noble, I think, as those which call upon others to sacrifice themselves to protect our communities like the military, firefighters and police. Today, I’ve come to believe that the best way for New Hampshire to honor their sacrifices is not by blood but by further protecting that which they volunteered to protect — justice.
Today, I speak as a Muslim — not for all Muslims — but for myself. I believe we are all called to challenge any state’s assumption that it has the right to extinguish the most precious gift anyone will ever receive — that of life. Reaching this position of support has not been easy and my decision is not supported by some of my co-religionists, whose understanding the Quran may be wiser than mine.
There’s a path scholars, students and believers use in trying to understand God’s revelations. Muslims, for example, consider several steps, like the Quran, Sunnah, Hadith, analogy and precedent, to try and understand God’s message.
We are also guided by reaching into ourselves to connect with our “fitra,” the innate sense of goodness with which all humankind is endowed.
Today, I humbly offer my understanding of what I believe we’re called to do.
God commands us to seek justice and that we should strive for justice to assure that all humanity is judged equally, without regard for riches, religion, status, color, nationality, ethnicity or gender. Justice should be based on forgiveness, mercy and compassion, not on vengeance and retribution. When one is denied justice we are all denied.
Islamic law divides crime into three categories, hudud, qisas (retaliation in kind) and ta’zir (discretionary punishments left to the judge). The hudud are the few crimes specifically mentioned in the Quran and/or Hadith and are generally considered mandatory sentences.
Yet, according to my humble understanding, application of hudud is to be suspended wherever there is doubt or whenever society is destabilized by inequality and injustice.
“Be just: This is closest to being God-conscious.” In speaking of the death penalty for murder, the Quran offers three paths.
First, is execution — an eye for an eye.
Second, blood money, where the murderer’s family offers compensation to the victim’s family. If a sum is agreed upon, the murderer escapes the death penalty but is sentenced to prison by a judge — who may consider mitigating circumstances.
A personal reflection about “blood money.” If the aggrieved family is willing to accept blood money and have the death penalty set aside, it seems to me that rich murderers have a better chance of avoiding a lethal injection or the gallows than a poor person — and that seems to me unjust — not unlike rich murderers (i.e. John Brooks) who have better defense lawyers while poor murderers (i.e. Michael Addison) must be defended by public defenders.
Such inequities result in injustice and imbalance, which is why God offers us a third choice.
Third is forgiveness and reconciliation. The Quran is clear that this is most desired. God tells us in the Quran that those who forgive are higher in the sight of God.
“We sent down the Book and the Balance so that mankind might uphold justice.” Forgiveness, in Michael Addison’s case, means life imprisonment without parole.
If we truly believe in the sanctity of human life then we must accept that life and death decisions are God’s decisions. While some believe that certainty can be reached to justify the death penalty, I believe that God has expectations of evidence and certainty far above our earthly standards — and that our Creator’s levels of certainty are impossible for humans to attain.
There is an important tension between man’s rights and man’s obligations: If a society is unable to, neglects or is unable to provide security and fulfill its duties with regard to each of its members, it has no right to invoke the full sanction of hudud against lawbreakers because the state has failed them and must confine itself to lesser forms of punishment — imprisonment. While this should be true globally, I can speak only for where I live — here in America — where expectations for justice are high.
This is not about convicted cop killer Michael Addison.
It’s about justice. It is about New Hampshire where a white millionaire can order a murder-for-hire and get life in prison and where a poor, uneducated black man is sentenced to die.
Ex-Manchester police officer John Breckinridge, who was slain officer Michael Briggs’ partner, initially supported the death penalty. He changed his mind and recently wrote, “It has not been an easy journey and ultimately I didn’t make the change. I just descended until I hit a humble enough spot in life where all I could do is ask God for forgiveness. He gave it unconditionally. As the receiver of that gift, who am I rob it from someone else? Even my worst enemy.” I cannot with moral certainty find an instance, other than in self-defense, where the state-sanctioned taking of the breath of God is justified.
The Prophet Muhammad said, “When God completed the creation He wrote the following, which is with Him above His Throne: My Mercy takes precedence over my Wrath.”
Let our mercy take precedence over our wrath. We humans, fallible, ourselves awaiting mercy, should be very careful each time we presume to judge the value of another life.
The breath of God sustains us.
Together let us sustain life.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.