Islam and the Concept of Punishment
Before deciding whether or not a criminal should be punished, we must determine the extent of his responsibility for the offence he committed. It is to be noted that Islam takes this into account when it considers the question of crime and punishment.
Islam strives by various means to preclude circumstances that may lead to crime..
Islam imposes preventive punishments, which may appear to be cruel or coarse if viewed superficially or without proper consideration. But Islam does not execute such punishments unless it ascertains that the crime was not justifiable or that the criminal was not acting under any obligation.
Islam prescribes that a thief's hand should be cut, but such punishment is never inflicted when there is the slightest doubt that the thief was impelled to crime by hunger. It can only be applied if goods stolen are over a set value and consideration is given to whether this is a first offence or the person is a compulsive thief. Its effectiveness as a deterrent can be demonstrated in that in a 400 year period when it was applied 6 people had their hand cut off.
Compare this with the rampant crimes being committed every day in modern society, where houses are broken into every few minutes and cars are stolen with such frequency that police find themselves in a vicious circle of car chases, leading in most instances to damage to property and in some cases death of innocent people. Police are also finding that in many instances it is repeat offenders who have scant regard for people's property and less regard for the judicial system. In America many dozens of people are killed every day because of petty theft.
Islam prescribes that both adulterer and adulteress should be stoned but it does not inflict such punishment unless they are married persons and upon conclusive evidence by 4 witnesses who saw everything with complete clarity. Any doubts and the sentence would be commuted. This principle is supported by the saying of the Prophet (s.a.w);
"Avoid the execution of punishment by doubt".
Islam does not hasten to inflict punishment unless the criminal has disregarded traditions and degenerated to animality by committing adultery so openly that he could be seen by 4 eye-witnesses.
Islam has a unique system in that the relatives can have a say in the sentence of a murderer, and when taken in perspective it makes such obvious sense as the relatives are the people most affected by such a crime.
If the evidence is conclusive the relatives have the right to either ask for capital punishment to be carried out or to commute the sentence to a jail term with the murderer also having to pay compensation to the victim's family.
If we study the policy adopted by Islam in prescribing punishment we realise that Islam tries in the first place to purify society from circumstances that may lead to crime. After taking such precautions Islam prescribes a preventive and just punishment which may be inflicted upon persons who have no reasonable justification for their crimes.
Where the community is unable to preclude circumstances which may lead to crime or where there is some doubt regarding the crime, the punishment will not be inflicted and the ruler will set the criminal free or he may inflict on him a light punishment (beating or imprisonment) in proportion to his extent of responsibility for the crime.
These punishments were prescribed in order to frighten those individuals who have no reasonable motive for crime yet felt a strong desire for committing crimes. However strong their motives may be, punishment will surely make them think twice before committing any crime. So long as the community works for the public good and cares for all its members, the community is entitled to full security with respect to persons and property.
On the other hand, those people who tend to commit crimes for no clear reasons are not left to their fate. Islam tries all possible means to treat and restore them to normality.