In Theory: On crime and punishment and Sharia law

The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, known as PAS, a political party with a strong base in the Malaysian state of Kelantan, pushed through the Sharia Criminal Code Enactment (II) 1993, which calls for hudud, or extreme corporal punishment when there is strong evidence of a crime to insure "justice and equality."

Only Muslims convicted of the crimes would pay with punishments that include, for example, the amputation of a thief's hand. So far, the federal constitution has delayed enactment of the law, but its backers aim to remove all obstacles to its implementation in Kelantan by next year.

Q: Tell us your thoughts about religious texts and beliefs being incorporated into civil laws.


In his text, "Disability in Islamic Law," author Vardit Rispler-Chaim defines Hudud, or Hudud Allah, as the collective title for severe crimes, the punishments of which are laid down in Qur'anic verses. The crimes include fornication, slandering a woman for immoral sexual conduct, alcoholic consumption, theft and highway robbery. Rispler-Chaim says while these punishments are an affront to Allah, they serve the ancillary purpose of protecting society at large. Further, Victor Valley College professor James M. Arlandson writes that when such crimes are committed true Islam supports the principle of "lex talionis," or, "an eye for an eye."

However, Jesus' words and actions, telling an adulterer to "go and sin no more," or having dinner with a thieving government official, has affected western law in such a way that ideally, some emphasis is placed on the rehabilitation of those who must be punished and incarcerated for breaking the law. Prisoners can learn trades, and achieve scholastic degrees. Counselors and probation officers work with ex-convicts to find employment and fit back into society. In an increasingly diverse society where more severe penalties are nevertheless still meted out on the basis of race, and white-collar crime is seen as less invasive than other forms of corruption, compassion must be in conversation with correction.

The Rev. Dr. William Thomas Jr.
Little White Chapel


Before we in America criticize other cultures (specifically Muslim cultures) for incorporating religious laws into civil ones, we should take a good hard look at our own society, which claims to spring from Judeo-Christian values, and I do not disagree. However, take a look at Exodus 20 (the Ten Commandments), and then Exodus 21:12, which says, "Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death."

We have capital punishment in this country — in some states, anyway — and a good argument could be made that we kill killers because the Bible says to do so. (Incidentally, in Exodus 21:13, a proviso is in place in case the killing wasn't premeditated. If it wasn't, that verse says there should be a place the killer can go and, presumably, be safe. So even way back then, more than 1,000 years BCE, there were "extenuating circumstances," and not all killing was avenged by another killing.)

I think it can be said that we in America have already incorporated some of our religious laws into our civil law code. So let's give our non-Christian brothers and sisters in other countries some slack. We did it, so why shouldn't they? I mean, I would hope that other cultures would include the concept of "extenuating circumstances" into their laws — but it would be absolutely unfair and hypocritical of us to criticize them for what we have already done. Or, to paraphrase Jesus in John 8:7, let whoever is without sin cast the first stone. Oh, by the way, nobody did!

The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge


I think there is a real danger when religious texts are taken literally and are not properly interpreted — especially if they are to become law. The Bible famously states that when punishing a person for a crime, it should be "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, and a foot for a foot." A simplistic interpretation of this verse would render us a rather barbaric society. However, rabbinical analyses of these lines explicitly assert that this phrasing is not to be taken literally. Rather, the words are a reference to financial compensation: If someone harms another person, Biblical principles require monetary compensation for the victim. Understanding this verse in any other way and then establishing it as law would create an extremely severe system of punishment that would be untenable and counterproductive.

Furthermore, based on the track record of Sharia law in other Muslim countries, I would be very wary of implementing these laws for fear of unintended consequences. Although current lawmakers may try to limit the extent of this corporal punishment, in reality there is a danger that it could ultimately spiral out of control and radicalize an entire nation. Therefore, I truly hope that the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party does not make this radical change and will instead maintain sensible laws that avoid brutality and focus on appropriate punishment, compensation and rehabilitation.

Rabbi Simcha Backman
Chabad Jewish Center


I've never lived in a country where religion and the state are merged; I know next to nothing about Islamic law (neither the spirit nor the letter of it), and nothing about the state of affairs in Malaysia. Those qualifiers given: I think this is a pretty horrifying thing.

Since I can't speak to Islamic faith, I'll just say that I cannot fathom a modern society which would enforce the ancient laws of my own faith. In the sacred texts of my tradition (which we share with Muslims), here are a few things that you could be stoned to death for doing:

Gathering sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36); taking the Lord's name in vain (Leviticus 24:10-14, 23); cursing the king (1 Kings 21:13); striking or cursing your father or mother (Exodus 21:15-16); losing your virginity before marriage, or being raped inside the city, where you could have called for help (Deuteronomy 22:13-30). If you were raped outside the city, by the way, all that would happen to you is that you'd be forced to marry your rapist, and never allowed to divorce him.

In one extreme example, a man who stole some valuables was stoned to death — and all his sons and daughters, oxen, donkeys and sheep were burned to death (Joshua 7:20-26).

The Rev. Amy Pringle
St. George's Episcopal Church
La Cañada Flintridge


I write this the day after an execution in Oklahoma was so botched that medical personnel at one point considered trying to revive the prisoner. He died of a heart attack after 40 minutes of writhing, gasping, trying to sit up and crying out. Witnesses used the words "agonizing" and "torture" to describe it.

This is not rare — recently a convict in Ohio gasped for over 10 minutes before dying and another inmate's last words were "I feel my whole body burning."

Please do not defend this horror by invoking the undeniable suffering of the criminals' victims and the anguish of their survivors. Our justice system should not replicate the worst of human behavior under cover of authority.

So my first thought is that the "extreme corporal punishment" proposed in Malaysia is no more barbaric than our frequent, seemingly casual, use of capital punishment, a practice which sets the U.S. apart from the rest of the developed world.

Likewise our lengthy sentences, even for nonviolent crimes, pervasive solitary confinement, and the paucity of rehabilitation in our prisons means we have no reason to feel superior to countries with supposedly less-enlightened systems.

Fortunately our constitutional ban on the establishment of any religion keeps personal beliefs out of our civil laws. But we have our own form of hudud to acknowledge and end.

Roberta Medford


Muslim officials in the state of Kelantan want to enforce a criminal code passed over 20 years ago that would establish Sharia law, including extreme corporal punishment or hudud. While proponents of the law state that it would only apply to Muslims, other members of the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) state that this would be in equitable and the law should apply equally to all.

As a complete outsider viewing the situation, I have several major concerns. Reportedly, the criminal code has never been enacted because it is in conflict with the federal constitution of Malaysia. If individual states can establish laws in direct violation of their federal government, I wonder about the viability of that government.

There is no agreement that the public supports Sharia law. Those who favor Sharia state that the criminal code was enacted by the Kelantan assembly 20 years ago, supposedly indicating public support at that time. Even if that is the case, which would be difficult to prove, public opinion can change dramatically in 20 years. Opponents urge a public referendum to determine current attitudes, which seems prudent.

One statement I found particularly troubling was the "assurance" that implementation of hudud would require "strong and sufficient evidence." When such evidence was lacking, lesser punishments of fines or jail sentences would be imposed. Establishing such "degrees of guilt" could be open to all types of political influence and corruption.

While I personally am against Sharia law because I feel it is founded on inaccurate religious ideology, my concerns with this situation in Malaysia have nothing to do with religion. Establishing Sharia law in Kelantan would violate the nation's constitution, establish inequality of justice; and there is no credible data to indicate it represents the will of the citizens in Kelantan.

Pastor Ché Ahn
HRock Church


There's no sense amputating a criminal's limbs, especially if they're expected to ever serve some means of reparation for their offense. I believe in corporal, public chastisement for those who would rob, rape, and abuse our normal, Christianized sensibilities of modern civilization, but chopping parts from the body of a person guilty of a misdemeanor is a barbaric, medieval, desert-nomady sort of behavior that's not acceptable here, or anywhere in the Christian-informed West. How can a thief work off his debt if his means of doing so have been dissected?

While I'm no fan of Vladimir Putin, especially with current news issues, I am reminded of something he supposedly said in a speech that sounded more corn-bread America than Soviet. He announced, "In Russia live Russians. Any minority, from anywhere, if it wants to live in Russia, to work and eat in Russia, should speak Russian, and should respect the Russian laws. If they prefer Sharia Law, then we advise them to go to those places where that's the state law. Russia does not need minorities. Minorities need Russia, and we will not grant them special privileges, or try to change our laws to fit their desires, no matter how loud they yell 'discrimination'."

Now I've learned that Putin probably never made that speech, but it riled many Americans who felt exactly the same regarding the USA. And may I say that anywhere experiencing an imposition of foreign entities which demand special privileges of their former homelands, should encourage their return, otherwise expect the worst.

Having said this, recognize that Malaysia is now over half Muslim, so perhaps they are only considering concessions that they would eventually make anyway. Religious belief always informs civil law, and that's how a nation's morality is defined. What's ours, again?

The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church


It has been clearly demonstrated that severe punishment, including death, has not been shown to deter crime. So the argument that such punishment would serve any practical purpose is absolutely unfounded. And the fact that only Muslims would be subject to the penalties of hudud would cause a plethora of unequal punishment when a crime was committed by people of Muslim and other religions against each other.

In addition, this law has not been voted into existence by the population of Kelantan. So it is imposing a religious doctrine, not a secular law, on those who oppose it as well as those who agree. It is also condoning irrevocable and horrific damage to person's body when it may later be found that the person was innocent but cannot be restored to his or her previous state.

As a part of a religious tradition that abhors violence toward any person, I find it hard to imagine any government trying to justify brutal punishment such as hudud as a part of religious practice. As a member of our clergy, I support our Unitarian Universalist affirmation of the "inherent worth and dignity of every person" and "reverence for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." So I cannot imagine the use of this segment of Sharia law to support the kind of cruelty that is being proposed in Kelantan, Malaysia, as punishment for crime, whether for Muslims or the whole population.

Let us hope that this law does not prevail.

Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
La Crescenta


This may be shocking to many nonreligious Americans, but religious texts and beliefs have already been inextricably incorporated into our own laws. "You shall not murder…you shall not steal…you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" are cornerstones of our civil laws and they are taken directly from the Ten Commandments. God established those laws, mankind didn't. While "you shall not commit adultery" isn't included in our laws, it remains a legal basis for divorce. The Bible is truth, it is the very word of God who is omniscient and who cannot lie, and the truth works in real life. That's why civil law that functions effectively will always reflect biblical principles.

Religious laws are only as good and valid as the religion from which they're taken. Sharia laws don't introduce new moral principles. They don't improve upon the Law of Moses. One may argue that they are, in fact, inferior to it. In the Law of Moses a thief was required to repay up to five times the value of what he had stolen. This is justice with mercy. Under Islamic law the thief's hand is permanently taken from him. This is justice without mercy. Under which would you rather live? I find it interesting that under the proposed Malaysian laws only Muslims would be subject to certain punishments. That sounds neither "just" nor "equal" to me. God's true moral principles apply to all people equally and they work for (or against) all equally.

Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church

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