Hudud: The Limits of Punishment

Hudud punishments are a widely misunderstood concept in Islam and have been wrongly enforced by extremist groups and countries like Saudi Arabia alike. Hudud (singular hadd) in Arabic means limits or boundaries. Hudud Allah (Divine Limits) in the Qur’an refer to a general set of moral, legal and religious guidelines of acceptable behavior prescribed by God. Over time, hudud replaced the intended Qur’anic meaning with “fixed punishment,” a concept that originated in Islamic law, not the Qur’an. [i]

Extremist Interpretation

The Islamic State’s (IS) executions and its barbaric punishments are no secret to most people. The group is known for placing a heavy emphasis on punishments in its online magazines and videos and is notorious for its merciless enforcement of hudud. In 2014, IS published a penal code “Clarification Regarding the Hudud (a set of fixed punishments),” which included 80 lashes for drinking alcohol, death for apostasy, blasphemy and homosexual acts, amputation of a hand and foot for thieves, and, ironically, exile for those who terrorize people! You get the picture—a lot of violence that seems to have some basis in the Qur’an, but we all know better than to trust an extremist group’s interpretation, right? Let’s take a deeper look:

Historical Context

In Islam, there’s a difference between what’s written in the Qur’an and Islamic law. The Qur’an is more concerned with setting a moral tone for the Muslim community and identifying what is good than it is with punishments. Traditional Islamic law, on the other hand, focuses almost exclusively on enforcing punishment. However, hudud simply aim to provide a basic framework for Muslims to lead a balanced and moderate life and to set limits that separate between acceptable behavior and criminal activity. [ii]

The Breakdown

First, the Qur’an lays out punishments for four offenses: adultery, theft, slanderous accusation and highway robbery. Islamic law added two more to the list: consuming alcohol and apostasy.[iii] While the Qur’an prohibits those two offenses, no punishments are mentioned.

Second, hudud are only mentioned 14 times in the Qur’an. Fourteen times! For context, that’s 14 out of roughly 77,900 words in the Qur’an, but who’s counting. Six of the 14 discuss marriage and divorce and occur in just one passage (al-Baqarah, 2:229-30), and fixed punishments aren’t mentioned once. Hudud in this context refers to maintaining “good custom” in marital relations, which isn’t an entirely absurd request.

Third, and most importantly, the Qur’an focuses equally on both punishment and repentance. Each offense is immediately followed by a verse on repentance, forgiveness and reformation: “except for those who repent thereafter and reform themselves.”[iv] However, traditional Islamic law ignores this and treats hudud as fixed and mandatory, making no room for repentance. Just to be clear, there are absolutely no exceptions when it comes to providing offenders with a chance to repent, and any effort to deny these rights violates the Qur’an.

Final Thoughts
It’s important to be skeptical of those who claim to be taking the law of God into their own hands to implement it literally because those are typically the ones who understand the Qur’an the least.[v] Formulating law in Islam wasn’t intended for individuals, it was meant to be a communal effort that reflects the religion’s moral and compassionate spirit. So the next time you hear or read about Islam being a bloody religion that calls for barbaric punishments, think again and question the interpretation and the source of information.

References

[i] Mohammad Hashim Kamali, “Are the Hudud Open to Fresh Interpretation?” Islam and Civilizational Renewal, March 2010

[ii] Fazlur Rahman, “The Concept of Hadd in Islamic Law,” Islamic Studies, Sept 1965

[iii] Mohammad Hashim Kamali, Punishment in Islamic Law: A Critique of the Hudud Bill of Kelantan, Malaysia,” Arab Law Quarterly, 1998, p 220

[iv] Kamali, “Punishment in Islamic Law: A Critique of the Hudud Bill of Kelantan, Malaysia.”

[v] Rahman, “The Concept of Hadd in Islamic Law.”