Islam takes the law of retaliation literally. Not even the Old Testament does that.
True Islam, the one taught by Muhammad, revives the law of retaliation or lex talionis, best known from the formulation “an eye for an eye” in the Torah.
Here are the four sections in this post.
First, a verse in the Quran, analyzed in its textual and historical context, orders explicitly this punishment.
Second, the hadith (reports of Muhammad’s words and deeds outside of the Quran) records reliable traditions that say to knock out teeth and poke out eyes.
Third, later classical legal rulings, which are rooted in the Quran and hadith, follow this barbarity.
Finally, after analyzing the Torah on the law of retaliation, we contrast the way of Jesus with the way of Muhammad. Needless to say, Jesus tells us that it is better to forgive than to enact the law of retaliation literally. At least when Christianity reformed later on in history, the Reformers went back to the New Testament, which preaches divine peace and love.
To see the historical and textual context of Chapter 5, click on Maududi’s commentary:
This translation of Sura (Chapter) 5:45 is done by Hilali and Khan and funded by the Saudi royal family (The Noble Qur’an, Riyadh: Darussalam, 2002).
5:45 And We ordained therein for them: Life for life, eye for eye, nose for nose, ear for ear, tooth for tooth and wounds equal for equal. But if anyone remits the retaliation by way of charity, it shall be for him an expiation. And whosoever does not judge by that which Allah has revealed, such are the Zalimun (polytheists and wrongdoers . . .).
Four facts must be considered from this verse.
First, the Arabic word for “equal for equal” is qiSaaS. The capital S’s mean that the heavy Arabic “S” or “Saad” is used, and the double “a” means the alim or long “a.” For our purposes, this word will be transliterated as qisas. It means literal retaliation, physical eye for physical eye.
Second, the injured party has the option to remit or forego retaliation and take blood-wit or an indemnity or compensation in money or in goods or livestock in an agrarian economy. This option is known as “diya.”
Third, later jurists combine this verse with other verses and the hadith, and see a third option: forgiveness. This means that the injured party forgoes retaliation and monetary compensation. However, it is difficult to find this option actually being taken in the hadith and classical legal opinions, the next two sections.
Fourth, the last two options are reasonable and fair. A plaintiff or injured person should be compensated for his bodily injury, and he should have the option to forgive. But, as usual with Muhammad and Islam, they take things to extremes and impose the old law of retaliation. The introduction to this article and the next two sections demonstrate that the law is primitive and barbaric, especially when it is contrasted with the light of Christ, six hundred years before Muhammad came on the scene. Muhammad wants to revive the old law of retaliation, but this is excessive and therefore unjust.
If the readers would like to see other verses in the Quran on the law of retaliation, they may go to this website, and type in these references: These references are found in the Medinan suras, after Muhammad’s Emigration from Mecca to Medina in AD 622: 2:178-179; 2:194. It is in this period that Muhammad becomes harsh and war-like. These references are found in the Meccan suras before the Emigration, so they reveal a more patient aspect: 16:126; 17:33; 22:60; 42:40.
Sura 2:178-179 is important because it speaks specifically of murder and the law of retaliation, as one of the clauses in Sura 5:45 does as well (“life for life”). In cases of murder, the victim’s family has the same three options: qisas or life for life; compensation; or forgiveness. But this topic is a completely different article and is omitted here.
The hadith are the reports of Muhammad’s words and actions outside of the Quran. Two reliable hadith collectors and editors that we analyze for this article are Bukhari (d. 870) and Abu Dawud (d. 875). The Quran and the hadith are the foundations for later legal rulings.
We examine Bukhari’s hadith first, and his examples show the problems that inhere in the law of retaliation, such as quenching the thirst for revenge under the guise of a divine law, and possibly making irreversible mistakes in a courtroom overseen by a competent judge.
This one is often cited as an example of how a victim should take compensation of an injury instead of retaliation. An aunt of Anas ibn Malik, one of the Companions of Muhammad, slapped a young girl from the Ansari (native Medinans who helped the Emigrants after their Hijrah from Mecca to Medina in AD 622) and broke her tooth. The girl’s family demanded equal retaliation, tooth for tooth.
But Anas exclaimed, “O Allah’s messenger! By Allah, her tooth will not be broken.” Muhammad replied, however, that this is the law of the Quran. Eventually, the girl’s family gave up their claim and instead accepted payment (Commentary, vol. 6, no. 4611; cf. Ad-Diyat or Blood-wit, vol. 9, no. 6894).
Thus, this hadith is not a prime example of forbearance. Muhammad simply says that the law would be imposed, in his confrontation with Anas. The prophet did not implore the family to take compensation. Moreover, Muhammad and his Companions did not always accept payment in lieu of bodily retaliation, as these next hadith demonstrate.
The following hadith shows Muhammad taking revenge on his household for forcing him to take medicine during a sickness. He told them not to give him the medicine (one tradition says he pointed this out without speaking). The members of his household misinterpreted his comment as a refusal merely for not liking the taste of the medicine. So they gave him more medicine, anyway. When he improved, he scolded them and laid down the law of retaliation:
“There is none of you but will be forced to drink medicine, and I will watch you” . . . (Ad-Diyat or Blood-wit, no. 6897; cf. no. 6886).
That is, everyone will be forced to drink the bitter medicine, and Muhammad will watch them squirm as they taste the bitterness. This tradition shows Muhammad’s law can be imposed for petty reasons. To be blunt, it also reveals a mean streak in him. Acting kindly, his household was trying only to help him, not harm or torture him. His household’s goodness exceeds his goodness. One would expect more self-restraint and forgiveness from an Allah-inspired prophet. He should set the example and rise above such a petty thirst for revenge.
Outside of Muhammad’s household, no one should doubt that the law of retaliation was actually carried out. These early Muslim leaders imposed the law, as follows:
Abu Bakr, Ibn Az-Zubair, Ali and Suwaid bin Muqarrin gave the judgment of Al-Qisas (equality in punishment) in cases of slapping. Umar carried out Al-Qisas for a strike with a stick. And Ali carried out Al-Qisas for three lashes with a whip. And Shuraih carried [it] out for one lash and for scratching. (Ad-Diyat, no. 6896)
Thus, for small offenses like slapping and hitting with a stick and scratching, the law of retaliation must be imposed. Islam means business.
One of the oddest traditions, recorded multiple times, says that if someone damages an eye of a “Peeping Tom,” no sin is accrued.
Says the prophet: “If someone is peeping (looking secretly) into your house without your permission, and you throw a stone at him and destroy his eyes, there will be no sin on you.”
This rule is not surprising because Muhammad aimed an arrow at the head of “a Peeping Tom” in order to hit him. Muhammad also said to another gazer that if the prophet had been sure that “you were looking at me (through the door), I would have poked your eye with this (sharp iron bar)” (Ad Diyat, no. 6888; cf. nos. 6889, 6902; Asking Permission, vol. 8, nos. 6241 and 6242; Dress, vol. 7, no. 5924).
At first, this retaliation may seem deserving or even humorous, but analyzed more deeply, it is serious and disproportionate. Anyone whose mind has not been clouded by a lifetime of devotion to Islam must conclude that “destroying” an eye is not equal to looking into a house without permission. True, the violator should be punished, but excess is never just, and this punishment is excessive, not equal, as qisas implies. What does this vengeful violence and destruction say about Muhammad’s capacity to be rightly guided? One would expect more self-restraint from the Allah-inspired prophet, instead of nearly poking a man’s eye with sharp iron or with an arrow, though the man’s act was wrong. He should have been arrested and warned. If he had persisted, he should have spent some time in jail.
Potentially, the law of retaliation is irreversible if it is wrongly applied. This is seen in the case of two men mistakenly accusing a man of theft, which is penalized by cutting off the hand. Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin, accepted the two men’s testimony and cut off the accused man’s hand. Afterwards, a fourth man stepped forward and showed that the now disfigured man did not commit the theft. Ali accepted his testimony, but it was too late. The man’s hand was already cut off. The punishment could not be reversed.
Ali told the two accusers: “If I were of the opinion that you have intentionally given false witness, I would cut off your hands.”
This hadith is found in the context of the law of retaliation, which would have been like-for-like mutilation of the two accusers. But this second punishment would have been a mistake compounded on a mistake, even in a courtroom overseen by a competent judge. This is precisely why the law of retaliation should not even exist, not to mention this unjust punishment for theft. The actual imposing of the law is irreversible and therefore excessive (Ad-Diyat, no. 6895).
The second hadith collector and editor is Abu Dawud.
To begin with, an injured person, just like the heirs of a murder victim, can select three options in the law, of which the judge informs him: retaliation, forgiveness, or compensation (vol. 3, no. 4481, vol. 3 is used throughout this section on Abu Dawud). So we divide our analysis into three aspects: retaliation, compensation, and alleged forgiveness.
First, we should have no doubt that early Islam actually carried out retaliation.
This one is stark and blunt.
. . . If anyone cuts off the nose of a slave, we shall cut off his nose (no. 4501).
Abu Dawud mentions the same tradition as Bukhari’s, concerning a woman breaking the tooth of an Ansari girl. The rest of the tradition informs us how the law of retaliation would have been carried out if the girl’s family had forced the issue.
“Ahmad b. Hanbal . . . was asked: How retaliation of a tooth is taken? He said: It is broken with a file” (no. 4578).
We can be sure that this punishment was literally done in early Islam. By rules of analogy, we can also be sure that it was done for other parts like eyes and ears, as we saw in the links in the introduction to this article.
Second, as for blood-wit or compensation for an injury, in a chapter titled “Blood-wit for Limbs,” Abu Dawud records traditions that line up the amount of payment for injuring limbs and other body parts like teeth. The following amounts were altered in early Islam, for example, under the Caliphate of Umar (ruled 634-644), according to inflation (nos. 4526-4530), but they give us a rough estimate. Here are some examples of blood-wit payments:
(1) All fingers are of equal value (nos. 4540-4542), so the victim gets ten camels per finger.
(2) Teeth carry the same value as fingers, whether the teeth are molars or incisors, so the victim gets ten camels per tooth (nos. 4543-4544, 4547).
(3) This is also true of toes and fingers (no. 4545).
(4) Completely cutting off the nose requires one hundred camels (no. 4548, which covers the next rulings).
(5) Cutting off the tip of the nose requires fifty camels, or the equivalent in gold or silver, or a hundred cows, or a thousand sheep.
(6) Cutting off half a hand requires half the payment of no. four.
(7) For one foot, the payment is half of no. four.
(8) For a wound in the head, a third of the payment (of no. four) must be paid.
(9) “For a head thrust that reaches the body, the same blood-wit must be paid” (no. eight).
It should be pointed out that later jurists impose a monetary compensation, instead of livestock. However, if the offender’s assets consisted only in livestock, then this was the exchange.
The third aspect of Abu Dawud’s hadith, for our purposes, shows Muhammad offering himself to be subjected to retaliation by a commoner, who forgives the prophet.
When the Apostle of Allah . . . was distributing something, a man came towards him and bent down on him. The Apostle of Allah . . . struck him with a bough and his face was wounded. The Apostle of Allah . . . said to him: Come and take retaliation. He said: No, I have forgiven, Apostle of Allah! (no. 4521)
Ahmad Hasan, the translator of Abu Dawud, says in a footnote that if a ruler of Muslims wounds a man, he may take retaliation on the ruler. Hasan admits, however, that no Muslim “could dare take retaliation from the Prophet” (note 3957). In reply, this hadith says just the opposite of equality, and Hasan alludes to it in his “no Muslim could dare” comment. The commoner actually forgave Muhammad because he had no choice. He would never take legalized revenge on the prophet, just as a commoner really would not dare to exact retaliation on a ruler. Class structure was too rigid for such equality. So this hadith does not show forgiveness and equality, but fear and social rigidity. If Islam had really broken down favoritism and class structure, this hadith would have shown the commoner wounding Muhammad like for like, and then the prophet honoring the wounded man and decreeing in the clearest terms that no one should take revenge on him and that all his Companions and governors or newly conquered territories in Arabia should follow Muhammad’s example.
To conclude this section, compensation for bodily injury is reasonable. And no one can quarrel with forgiveness, if the plaintiff or victim chooses this path. So the problem with Islamic law does not lie in these two options. The problem lies in retaliation, tooth for tooth and eye for eye—literally. Muhammad and his holy book take things too far. He is not above petty revenge, like forcing his household to drink bitter medicine or aiming an arrow or a sharp iron bar at a “Peeping Tom.” This penalty should not exist, for it opens the door to many problems that are not found in the first two options.
For more hadith about cutting off the hand, see this commentary by Ibn Kathir (d. 1373), a highly respected Sunni commentator.
Classical Sharia Law
Sharia is Islamic law embodied in the Quran and the hadith. Fiqh is the science of applying and interpreting sharia, done by qualified judges and legal scholars. Over the first two centuries after Muhammad’s death in AD 632, four main Sunni schools of fiqh emerged, led by these scholars: Shafi (d. 820), who lived mostly in Mecca, Arabia, but who was buried in Cairo, Egypt; Malik (d. 795), who lived in Medina, Arabia; Abu Hanifa (d. 767), who lived in Kufa, Iraq; and Ibn Hanbal (d. 855) who lived in Baghdad, Iraq.
In this section we focus on retaliation (qisas), not on blood-wit or indemnities (diya). First, the Shafi School is examined.
The brief law book from the Medieval Age, A Sunni Shafi Law Code (trans. Anwar Ahmed Qadri, Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1984), goes over the list of indemnities for various bodily injuries, but the translator and commentator provides a footnote for how wounds must receive similar wounds. If eyesight is lost because of a head wound,
“a similar kind of punishment is prescribed . . . he should suffer a similar kind of punishment . . . which may be by having a red-hot iron held close to the eyeballs. Similar law[s] of talion [are] applied to other organs” (p. 116, note 17).
In the introduction to this article, the eyeballs were removed surgically. But here a red hot poker placed near or against the eyeball is equal punishment. Either way, sharia in the matter of the law of retaliation is excessive by its nature, and excess is never just.
The following medieval manual compiled by Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri (d. 1368), Reliance of the Traveler: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law, (rev. ed., trans. Nuh Ha Mim Keller, Beltsville, Maryland: Amana, 1994), summarizes rulings in the Shafi School of fiqh.
Retaliation of bodily injuries can be inflicted on the offender’s body parts, provided the punishment does not exceed the original injury. For example, nonfatal bullet wounds to the stomach or the chest are not liable to retaliation because the injury cannot be duplicated exactly. Also, there is no retaliation for breaking the bone. Thus, a payment is due for both injuries.
However, these body parts are subject to retaliation: “an eye, eyelid, the soft part of the nose, the ear, tooth, lip, hand, foot, finger, fingertip, penis, testicles, vulva, and the like” (p. 585, o3.2).
The same manual expands on the list of body parts that are liable for retaliation.
“Retaliation is also obligatory . . . for every wound that cuts to the bone, such as a cut on the head or face that reaches the skull, or a cut to the bone on the upper arm, lower leg, or thigh. To the bone means that it is known that a knife or a needle, for example, has reached the bone, not that the wound actually exposes the bone to view” (pp. 587-88, o3.13).
Does a judge or his representative take a knife or a needle and actually inflict the same wound by slicing and puncturing an arm or a leg? How is like-for-like punishment literally and physically applied to the sex organs? The answer is found in the hadith and in the modern examples in the introduction to this article. A judge or his representative actually applies the same wound on the offender as it was done to the victim.
Imam Malik, founder of another major school of law, gives us a different perspective on these questions. He composed a law book that is also considered a reliable collection of hadith: Al-Muwatta of Imam Malik ibn Anas: The First Formation of Islamic Law (rev. trans. Aisha Bewley, Inverness, Scotland: Madina Press, 1989, 2001).
The following case deals with murder, which is outside of the scope of this article, but it is included here because it reveals one way of exacting retaliation. Malik records this tradition:
. . . “Abd al-Malik . . . imposed retaliation against a man who killed a mawla [freed slave] with a stick—and so the mawla’s patron killed the man with a stick” (p. 368, 43.20.15).
So in this case the victim’s patron hits the perpetrator with a stick until he dies. How many times did the patron have to hit the murderer before he died? Where? On the head? Islam takes things too far.
How about domestic violence?
“Malik said, ‘When a man intentionally goes to his wife and gouges out her eye or breaks her hand or cuts off her finger or such like, and does it intentionally, retaliation is inflicted on him.’”
But when he hits her with a rope or a whip in a part of her body that he did not intend to hit, like the face, then he pays blood-money, and retaliation is not inflicted (p. 370, 43.23).
In the introduction to this article a husband beat his wife to a bloody pulp, and she did not exact revenge on him in a like-for-like way. Instead, she opted for an indemnity: divorce and custody of the children. For the mother, custody in Saudi Arabia is hard to win. Apparently, the judges made a deal with her since the light of the international community was beaming on the case.
For the other schools of law, we use the compendium of Ibn Rushd, known in the West as Averroës (d. 1198). He was a judge, medical doctor, and scientist, but he pursued his career mostly as a judge in Spain, where Islam ruled from the eighth century to the fifteenth. He was buried in Cordova. His two-volume work, The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer, (trans. Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee, Center for Muslim Contribution to Civilization, Reading, UK: Garnet, 1994-1996), took over twenty years to write. Ibn Rushd provides a foundation in Islamic law for judges and legal scholars throughout the Islamic world, where it is still used today.
As it turns out, Ibn Rushd’s assessment of the four main schools of law reveals that they parallel each other, except in some details that do not concern us here. We should note, however, some criteria that he lists for deciding whether the case merits retaliation or compensation, as follows: (1) legal age, determined by puberty (fifteen to eighteen years old); (2) sanity; (3) malice or intent. In cases of quasi-intentional wounds, when the offender struck the victim, but did not intend permanent injury, the punishment is compensation with an enhanced amount.
To sum up this section, classical legal opinions and rulings demonstrate beyond doubt that the literal punishment of retaliation was carried out. A court oversaw its execution, done by a qualified representative. In one instance the patron (former owner) of a slave carried out the punishment by hitting the offender with a stick until he died. Domestic violence is rife in Islamic countries, as the hadith from Malik and the Saudi woman’s case demonstrate. Why should this surprise us when the Quran gives husbands permission to hit their wives? Though she may retaliate, what would happen to her when she got back home with her husband or even after a divorce?
Sharia generally and the law of retaliation specifically must never be allowed to spread throughout the world, for both degrade and humiliate humans and their God-given dignity, six hundred years after Jesus came and showed us a better way.
Old Covenant Scriptures: The Torah
Exodus 21:23-25 says straightforwardly:
23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (cf. Leviticus 24:17-22 and Deuteronomy 19:21)
The question is: should this punishment be applied literally or not? The preponderance of the evidence suggests a non-literal application.
First, the historical context of the ancient Near East must be considered. The law of retaliation in the Code of Hammurabi, named after an emperor of Babylon (ruled 1792-1750), enlarged the scope of criminal law to include even the rich who had to suffer legally for their abuse of the lower classes or others of the same class. Judges 1:6-7 speaks of a petty king getting the same punishment that he imposed on other small kings he conquered. This implies that the law was actually enforced. However, he was not a Hebrew and was at war. Also, this passage lies outside of the Torah, a legal context. And in the code of Hammurabi, it is not known whether the rich really died for the poor, when an indemnity was open to them. So it is likely that the law of an eye for an eye in ancient Near Eastern cultures was not actually carried out.
“It remains unclear whether talion [eye for eye] was ever intended to be used in practice anyway” in Hammurabi’s Babylon. Monetary compensation was more frequent, especially when an upper class man (e.g. a freeman) attacked a lower class man (e.g. a slave). Also, in other talion laws of surrounding cultures, a monetary fine is the only penalty. It seems more likely, then, that the law of retaliation in the Torah was not carried out literally, but it reflects an underlying principle of equal damages, a strong word picture that communicates that the compensation must be proportionate to the injury. It is clear from an overall reading of the Bible that forgiveness was always an option (Leviticus 19:18 and Matthew 5:42-45). An eye for an eye stops the cycle of revenge that ruled in the ancient Near East.
Second, besides the larger historical context of the ancient Near East, passages in the Torah itself suggest an indemnity, not corporeal punishments. Hints are seen in Exodus 21:18-19, 32; Numbers 35:32; Deuteronomy 22:19, 29. This is especially clear in the third version of the law of retaliation found in Deuteronomy 19:21. In this context, the case involves a man who was falsifying his testimony. Since the lying witness did not literally injure the eye of the accused, his punishment should not be taken literally, either (Bernard S. Jackson, “The Problem of Exodus XXI 22-5 (Ius Talionis),” Vetus Testamentum 23 (1973), pp. 273-304; M. J. Selman, “Law,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, InverVarsity Press, 2003).
Thus, the severe physical punishment in the Torah should possibly be interpreted in light of the softer options, also found in the Torah, like an indemnity.
Third, it is highly likely that the punishment of an eye for an eye in ancient Hebrew society is “a stereotyped formula that only states that the punishment must match the crime, but not exceed the damage done . . . ‘An eye for an eye’ might now read: ‘a bumper for a bumper, a fender for a fender’”. . . The punishment “was not an authorization for individuals to tell their opponents to hold still while they tried to even the score and punch out an equal number of their teeth.” This physical punishment was not even literally carried out in the context of a competent judge, and especially not in a private dispute, where tempers may flare and so make the retaliation exceed the damages (see Genesis 4:23-24; W. Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics, Zondervan, 1983, p. 104). This is again seen in Deuteronomy 19:21, the third version of lex talionis. The false witness did not literally maim the accused, but v. 21 mentions eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, or hand for hand. This means that the clause had become automatic and formulaic, without actually imposing the penalty.
The underlying principle of the words in the law of retaliation, therefore, is not literally taking an eye or a tooth, but equal compensation.
Fourth, the vast majority of Rabbis throughout the formation of Talmudic literature argued for a non-literal interpretation of Exodus 21:23-24. The assailant could instead pay compensatory damages. For example, Rashi (so named after the initials of his name and title, Rabbi Shelomo Yizhaki, d. 1145), summarizes earlier traditions: “If one blinded the eye of his fellow-man, he has to pay him the value of his eye,” which is calculated on the wounded man’s being hypothetically sold as a slave before his injury. “In the same way all other cases [of the law of retaliation] are to be dealt with, but it does not mean the actual cutting off of the offender’s limb—just as our Rabbis have explained” in . . . B Kamma 83b, which is a tractate and chapter in the Talmud (Pentateuch with Rashi’s Commentary, trans. and annotated by M. Rosenbaum and A. M. Silbermann, Jerusalem: Silbermann Family, 1972, (1930) vol. 2, p. 113).
Thus, a vast array of Rabbis interprets the verse non-literally, based, incidentally, on Biblical passages (see the second factor, above). This reasonable interpretation improves society, not degrades it, unlike Muhammad’s situation.
Fifth, it must not be overlooked that the punishment of physical retaliation, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, is never depicted in the Torah as actually being carried out. This is significant because on at least two occasions people were stoned for violating other laws (Leviticus 24:10-16 and Number 25:1-16). This silence on retaliation being carried out, when combined with the first four factors, may be enough to argue for a non-literal meaning of the words. That is, the words may express a formula or a principle of equal damages.
To conclude this section, even if we assume, contrary to the bulk of the evidence, that the law of retaliation was actually and physically carried out when it was first published in Exodus 21:23-25, Judaism later evolved towards the more humane monetary compensation, finding verses in the Torah that pointed in that direction. However, the evidence suggests that the three passages laying out the law of retaliation were not literally carried out; rather, the words stand for equality in punishment and damages.
This improvement in Judaism contrasts with the way of Muhammad, who orders all of humanity to march backwards to 1,400 years before Christ and carry out the physical punishment of an eye for an eye. Muhammad had a distorted and incomplete knowledge of the Torah. He did not understand that the law of retaliation was a principle and not taken literally. His understanding of such matters was crude.
New Covenant Scriptures: Jesus
Jesus corrects the literal interpretation of the passages on the law of retaliation. Matthew 5:38-39 says:
38 You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” 39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right check, turn to him the other also. (cf. Luke 6:29)
Jesus raises the stakes in personal injuries. He follows a command found in the Holiness Code, in which many verses have a universal application. Leviticus 19:18 says, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.” This is the general principle behind Matthew 5:38-39. This background verse in Leviticus is supported by Matthew 5:42-45, which says to love one’s enemies and to pray for them (cf. Luke 6:32). It is better to let go of the offense.
So to avoid misinterpretations or over-interpretations of the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:38-39, we should consider these five interpretive guidelines.
First, as usual with Biblical passages, they must be taken in historical context. Jesus lived in first-century Israel, and at that time the law of retaliation appears in a legal context, in a courtroom, not in a private dispute that was settled in private vendettas. The Mishnah, an early source of commentary on the Torah, was finalized in its written form at the end of the second century AD, but the oral traditions were transmitted long before that. This passage from this repository of wisdom, seen in the context of bodily injuries, says that all disputes of this kind must be heard in a court: “Assessment [of injury] in money or money’s worth must be made before a court of law” . . . (Baba Kamma 1.3, p. 332 in Danby’s translation). At this time in Judaism, bodily injuries could be compensated with money. Also, verse 40 in Matthew chapter 5 confirms a legal context: “if someone wants to sue you.” Finally, Matthew 5:25 exhorts Jesus’ disciples to be reconciled with an adversary who is taking them to court.
So Jesus’ interpretation of the law of retaliation must be seen in a legal context. Thus, he proclaims in the two verses that it is better not to drag a neighbor, even an evil one, into court in a lawsuit. It is better to let the demand for retaliation go.
Second, the words themselves in the two verses appear in other contexts, and this can clarify their meaning. For example, the Greek word for “strike” can mean to hit with the palm of the hand, as if the assailant is doing this deliberately, but not in a brawl (A. B. Bruce, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, vol. 1, Eerdmann’s, p. 112). This Greek word is found in Matthew 26:67, Mark 14:65, John 18:22 and 19:3, all of which speak of a legal context, after the trial of Jesus. This indicates formality and almost a ritual. (This also means that followers of Jesus still have the option to defend themselves if they are attacked in society, though this is not the main thrust of the Matthew 5:38-39.) Be that as it may, the offended party who follows Jesus should not retaliate when formally opposed or insulted. It is better to let the demand for retaliation go.
Third, the two verses should not be over-interpreted in the defense of the helpless. It is one thing to let go of an offense if it happens personally to you as an individual, but it is quite another to walk away if the insult happens to someone else. In that case no one who can offer help should ignore the plight of the weak and persecuted. In this context, one should resist an “evil person” or “evil,” depending on the translation of the word in v. 39.
Fourth, the command not to “resist” evil should not be over-interpreted, either. It must be seen in the larger legal context in which the slapped follower of Jesus could demand redress of grievances in a court of law. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, sent by the risen Jesus, Paul tells the Christians in Rome that God himself has established law enforcement and the authorities (read: the courts) to bring about justice for those who do right as opposed to those who do wrong (Romans 13:1-5). Thus, Jesus does not necessarily oppose justice in such a civil court, if that is the only way to go. But 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 counsels Christians to let the church authorities judge lawsuits between brothers in Christ. In either setting, Jesus is not condemning courts for settling disputes.
Moreover, still under the fourth point in our analysis, the Greek word translated here as “resist” has other nuanced meanings, as well. Matthew 5:25-26 says to settle a dispute peacefully on the way to court, when an opponent has something against the follower of Jesus. But in Matthew 5:38-39, the follower of Jesus has a grievance against a neighbor. Either way, Jesus is merely saying that it is better either to pursue peace (vv. 25-26) or to let the offense go (vv. 38-39), rather than drag the offender into court to demand an eye for an eye, and never in a literal way, and rather than let the opponent drag the Christian into court. Therefore, the key word “resist” in v. 39 must be interpreted as “standing against” or “withstanding” or “opposing” a human enemy or “bad person” with the aim of retaliation in a court of law. Instead of the disciples of Christ taking an adversarial position, Jesus counsels them to see the evil person as a future friend and brother outside of a court of law, while they love their enemy and pray for him (vv. 43-48). This is sound advice to his followers who are called to minister life in Christ, rather than demand their rights.
Fifth, the two verses must be interpreted in their literary context, or the verses surrounding the two target verses. One commentator paraphrases Christ’s central idea according to the entire context of 5:38-39 in this way: “Though the judge must give redress when demanded, you are not bound to ask it, and if you take My advice you will not” (Bruce, p. 112). In other words, Christ does not deny that anyone has the legal freedom to sue for an offense, because he understood and respected the Torah, which allows for it, but he shows us a higher way: forgiveness and reconciliation. His disciples should not seek for revenge and retaliation, but obey Leviticus 19:18 and Matthew 5:42-45 which exhort us to follow a better path.
To sum up this section, Christians interpret the Old Testament through the vision of Jesus. In Matthew 5:38-39, he corrects the literal interpretation of the law of retaliation. In this he follows the majority of Rabbis who did not interpret this law literally. He raises the literal command and legal option up to pursing peace and forgiveness, following Leviticus 19:18. No one who follows him should seek revenge, and no one who offends should have his eye gouged out or his tooth knocked out. It is better to win the offensive neighbor with the peace and love of God. It is the kindness of God, in this case as expressed by his followers during insults, that win people to repentance (Romans 2:4).
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We on the outside of Islam are allowed to ask whether the Quran’s punishments are better than the New Testament’s policy of forgiving and restoring sinners. Does the Quran guide society better than the New Testament does? Would the true God send Gabriel down to Muhammad with a violent and bloody message that comes six hundred years after Jesus? Should this message supersede the one proclaimed by Jesus?
Given the hard evidence, Bible-educated Christians answer no. The true God would not send down such extreme policies in the new era of salvation which Jesus ushered in. They realize that the Quran is empirically and factually worse than the New Testament.
Jesus Christ came with good news and the love of God. Muhammad came with gouging and chopping. Christianity advances society forward. Islam drags society backwards.
This law should no longer exist after Jesus ushered in the new era of salvation. For the record, six hundred years after this new and uplifting era, Muhammad ordered the entire world to march backwards to an old-new law, in a distorted and haphazard way.
This post updates the earlier one, offsite and written by yours truly, and titled Muhammad’s Ire for Your Eye: The Law of Retaliation in the Quran and Early Islam