Updated: Jul 24, 2022
Most monotheistic religions, primarily Judaism then Christianity (excluding some evangelical churches), have a very clear stance against the death penalty. That certainly hasn’t always been the case in the past. But opinions change. Nowadays, there’s no denying that the idea of capital punishment as an instrument for justice has been very firmly rejected as“Neither divine, nor human”,particularly by the Catholic Church (since the “VaticanII” reform then with Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis). Pope Francis made the cause a key part of his vision for the Church’s doctrine on social justice and set several countries on the path towards abolition.
The Islamic world is in a slightly different, yet contradictory, situation on this issue. When we talk about the death penalty worldwide, we automatically think of countries such as Saudi Arabia (a country famous for execution methods that are often said to be “medieval”: public beheading with a sword, crucifixion, flagellation). Other countries that come to mind are Iran (the most reported executions per inhabitant), Egypt (countless political prisoners sentenced to death), Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan (where executions were reinstated in 2016 to combat terrorism yet the death penalty is actually mainly imposed for other crimes or accusations of blasphemy).
The reality we’re all aware of stops us seeing another equally meaningful and illustrative reality of the Islamic world that many don’t want to see: most of the Islamic world has abolished the death penalty in law or fact! In other words, countries with Muslim cultures are on the path to universal abolition just like the rest of the world. The Saudi or Iranian trees mustn’t stop us seeing the forest.
The right to life is a universal value widely shared by countries with Muslim traditions or cultures, be they Sunni or Shia. Several Islamic thinkers or religious leaders put the spotlight on values of mercy and redemption, the constant quest for justice (particularly social justice) and a positive interpretation of“an eye for an eye”.