Surah Al-Isra (The Night Journey ) 17 : 33

وَلَا تَقْتُلُوا۟ ٱلنَّفْسَ ٱلَّتِى حَرَّمَ ٱللَّهُ إِلَّا بِٱلْحَقِّ ۗ وَمَن قُتِلَ مَظْلُومًا فَقَدْ جَعَلْنَا لِوَلِيِّهِۦ سُلْطَٰنًا فَلَا يُسْرِف فِّى ٱلْقَتْلِ ۖ إِنَّهُۥ كَانَ مَنصُورًا

Translations

 
 Muhsin Khan
 Pickthall
 Yusuf Ali
Quran Project
And do not kill the soul [i.e., person] which Allāh has forbidden, except by right. And whoever is killed unjustly - We have given his heir authority, but let him not exceed limits in [the matter of] taking life. Indeed, he has been supported [by the law].

1. Lessons/Guidance/Reflections/Gems

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Explanatory Note

The sūrah follows this with a prohibition of killing anyone, except for a valid reason:

“Do not kill anyone, for God has forbidden killing, except in [the pursuit of] justice. If anyone is slain wrongfully, We have given his heir authority [to seek just retribution]. He [i.e. the heir] must not exceed the bounds of equity in [retributive] killing. He is given help.” (Verse 33)

Islam is a religion which preserves life and ensures peace. Hence it considers the killing of any human being to be a crime of the highest order, ranking next to associating partners with God. It is God who gives life. Hence, no one can take life away except by God’s permission and within the limits which He has allowed. Every human life has a sanctity which cannot be violated. The limits which God has allowed for the infliction of capital punishment are very clear. They are not subject to any influence by prejudice or personal view. A highly authentic ĥadīth related by al- Bukhārī and Muslim quotes the Prophet as saying: “No Muslim person who bears witness that there is no deity other than God and that Muĥammad is God’s Messenger may be killed except for one of three reasons: a life for a life, a married adulterer and a rebel who renounces his faith and abandons his community.”

The first of these three legitimate ways to inflict capital punishment ensures fair retribution. It allows the killing of one person in order to guarantee life for many others. God tells us that “There is life for you, men of understanding, in this law of just retribution, so that you may remain God-fearing.” (2: 179) Human life is thus preserved by stopping those who are intent on assaulting and killing others for no reason. When someone intent on killing another realizes that just retribution will make him pay for his ghastly crime with his own life, he will stop short of killing. Again there is life for the community as the law of just retribution stops the relatives of the victim from vengeance killing, which often goes beyond just killing the offender. When vengeance killing is allowed free reign it leads to the killing of innocent people as the family feud ensues. On the contrary, just retribution gives security to all, making sure that no one other than the offender is threatened. Thus, everyone goes about his life in peace and security.

The second reason for executing an offender is to prevent the spread of immorality which threatens the life of the community, as we have already explained.

The third justification seeks to repel spiritual corruption which leads to chaos within the Muslim community, threatens its peace and security and destroys the system God has chosen for it. The one who rebels, renouncing his faith and abandoning his community condemns himself by his own action. He adopted Islam by choice, under no compulsion, and became a member of the community, aware of its secrets. Hence, when he abandoned it, his action constituted a threat to it. Had he remained a non-Muslim, no one would have compelled him to adopt Islam. Indeed Islam would have ensured that he remained safe and secure if he belonged to another divine religion, or that he was protected and given safe conduct to reach his own community if he was a pagan. This represents complete fairness with those who belong to any faith other than Islam.

“Do not kill anyone, for God has forbidden killing, except in [the pursuit of] justice.” (Verse 33) These are the only three reasons which justify capital punishment in Islamic law. Otherwise any killing is considered wrongful, bringing other provisions of Islamic law into operation: “If anyone is slain wrongfully, We have given his heir authority [to seek just retribution]. He [i.e. the heir] must not exceed the bounds of equity in [retributive] killing. He is given help.” (Verse 33) Thus wrongful killing gives the victim’s heir, or his next of kin, an authority to seek the implementation of the law of just retribution. It is up to the next of kin to demand that the killer pays with his life for his crime, or to spare his life in return for the payment of blood money, or to forgive the offender altogether, demanding no compensation. This authority over the killer is given to the victim’s next of kin because he is in possession of the killer’s blood, as it were.

In return for this authority, Islam prohibits the victim’s relatives from going too far in exercising their authority. This may take the form of exceeding their limits, killing others in addition to the actual killer of their relative. This is the way vengeance killing works in non-Islamic communities where the killer’s close relatives may be murdered in revenge. They may be free of all guilt, but they are killed simply because they are relatives of the first killer. Another aspect of exceeding one’s limits is to disfigure the killer when his life is taken in just retribution. The victim’s next of kin may insist on the killer being executed, but he has no justification to resort to disfigurement, which is totally prohibited in Islam.

“He [i.e. the heir] must not exceed the bounds of equity in [retributive] killing. He is given help.” (Verse 33) That help is given in the fact that God’s law judges in his favour and the ruling authorities ensure that justice is done. Hence, he is required to remain within the confines of justice so that he receives the help he needs in order to obtain what rightfully belongs to him.

Giving the next of kin of a murder victim authority to exact just retribution, and assuring him of the help of the law and the authorities, constitutes a fair response to the demands of human nature. Relatives may be highly agitated, and even blinded by their desire for revenge. In their anger they may lash out against the innocent. But when they realize that God has given them authority to exact just retribution, and that they may demand that the killer should pay with his life for his crime, and that the ruler is required to help them achieve justice, they may well be pacified. This makes it easier for them to stop at the proper legal limits in this case. They are assured of justice.

It is inappropriate to require people to go beyond their nature so as to stifle their burning desire for revenge. Islam acknowledges this fact and meets the demands of human nature in a way which ensures safety for the individual and the community. It does not try to impose forgiveness and reconciliation by force. Indeed it urges such forgiveness and clearly makes it the better option, assigning rich reward for forgiveness but only after it states legal rights. Thus the relatives of a murdered person may seek punishment of the killer, or they may pardon him. That they have the option is more likely to encourage them to forgive. To try to force forgiveness could be counterproductive. It could even make them more violent in seeking retribution.

 

2. Linguistic Analysis

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3. Surah Overview

4. Miscellaneous Information

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5. Connected/Related Ayat

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6. Frequency of the word

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7. Period of Revelation

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The very first verse indicates that this Surah was revealed on the occasion of the ascension (Mi’raj). According to the narrations (hadith) on the life of the Prophet, this event happened one year before migration (Hijrah). Thus this Surah was revealed in the last stage of Prophethood in Makkah.

8. Reasons for Revelation

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The Prophet had been propagating Monotheism (Tawhid) for twelve years now. In spite of all the opposition, Islam had spread to every corner of Arabia and there was hardly a clan which had not been influenced by the invitation. In Makkah itself, the true Believers had formed themselves into a small community.  A large number of the people from the Aws and Khazraj tribes (two influential clans of Madinah) had also now accepted Islam. Thus the time had come for the Muslims to emigrate from Makkah to Madinah, at behest of the Aws and Khazraj to establish an Islamic state.

9. Relevant Hadith

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