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Victim Rights in Islam and Western Legal Systems: A Comparative Anlysis
Jan 1, 1999

1. Individual and society as victim

While it is true that crimes committed against an individual usually affect society as well, in many cases it is the victims whose rights are directly violated (Udeh 1990, p.l94). Since they suffer directly from the crime, they should have a role in the process of ‘punishment’ or ‘pardoning’, a process which concerns them, both physically and emotionally, at least as much as it concerns society. In modern Western legal systems, consideration of victims’ rights is a separate procedure from the punishment process. But a legal system that aims to compensate victims needs to consider ‘emotional’ as well as ‘material’ suffering.

Involvement of the victims in the punishment process should not be regarded simply as a means of giving them access to retaliation or retribution; it is also a highly effective means of emotional release for victims. Whatever punishment is decreed by the court, if the victims are not consulted, they may feel ‘let down’ by the system. Involving them can help restore credibility to the legal system, as well as having, in certain cultures, an extra deterrent affect on potential criminals.

2. Offender and victim

The concept of victim involvement is well established in the Islamic system, but is relatively new in the West and has not yet been systematically worked out. Until the 1990s, Western legal systems were primarily concerned with the rights of suspects and offenders. Since then, attention has increasingly been drawn to direct involvement of victims. A revised and strengthened Victim’s Charter was published in 1996 along with Guidance to Services from the Association of Chief Officers of Probation (ACOP, 1996). It envisages consultation of the victims before decisions are made about release conditions of offenders serving long sentences (see Nettleton et al., 1976, p.3). Some argued that providing information to victims about release plans for offenders could open the latter to (possibly violent) reprisal, (Kosh and Williams 1995, p.15) and in any case, had the offender not been punished already? On the victims’ side, Nettleton et al. (1997a) noted that: ‘... it was not uncommon for victims of serious offences to move house, even moving to a completely new area, on hearing that an offender was likely to be allowed to resettle in their mutual home area.’ In such a case the law effectively allows an offender to once more offend against the same victim.

3. Crimes committed against individuals and society

Every crime which harms an individual may also harm the society. Depending on the level of injury to the individual or society, the punishment in the Islamic legal system is classified under three broad categories as hadd, ta’zir and qisas or diyya.

3. 1. Hadd, (‘limit’, ‘restrictive ordinance’) refers to the five offences of zina (‘fornication’ or ‘adultery’), ‘false accusation, ‘wine-drinking’, ‘theft’ and ‘highway robbery’ for which fixed penalties are laid down in the Shari‘a. Such acts are essentially regarded as crimes against God (Heyd, 1973, p.340). The punishment prescribed by the Law cannot be reduced or increased even in response to the promptings of compassion (Siddiqi 1979, p.8).

3. 2. Ta’zir is a discretionary punishment aimed at deterrence and, where that is appropriate, reform of the offender.

3. 3. Qisas is a divine ordinance restricting retribution to parity with the crime (life for life, injury for injury, etc.). Right of retribution may be waived in favour of blood-money or diyya (Heyd 1973, p.339); further, even this compensation may be waived by the victim in favour of outright forgiveness.. Yusuf Ali (1989, p.71) states that the translation ‘retaliation’ for qisas is incorrect. Retaliation carries the sense of returning evil for evil, which is what happened in the blood-feuds of the pre-Islamic period: the crime and its consequences were kept going by the feuds, not resolved and put an end to. Qisas means that one who has committed a particular crime may be lawfully punished in the same way and to the same degree as his crime, unless the victim (or representative of the victim) accepts compensation, or chooses outright forgiveness. Whether retribution or forgiveness is chosen, the aim is to close the circle on the crime, and not to let it persist.

4. The involvement of the victim in the punishment process

Of the three choices open to the victim, retribution, compensation, outright forgiveness, the Qur’an commends the Muslims to agree a settlement or to forgive the offender. The injured party (plaintiff or victim’s next of kin) is permitted to pardon the culprit altogether or to make a ‘settlement’ (sulh) with him (Heyd 1973, p.339), but retribution remains a legal right.

Western discussions of qisas translate it as retaliation, which connotes vindictiveness or revenge rather than redress of a wrong by equalizing the harm (Bassiouni 1982, p.203).

The Qur’an in this matter continues the tradition of the Judaeo-Christian teachings concerning law of eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. As we noted, this law forbids the victim or victim’s family to demand more in punishment than was suffered. This practice proved its effectiveness in preserving social order in the early period of Islam when there was no organized system of criminal justice and penalties were carried out by the victim or victim’s family rather than by institutions and their official personnel (Bassiouni 1982, p.204).

One of the aims of qisas is to limit the consequences of certain categories of wrongdoing. Furthermore, some provisions in the Qur’an indicate that the retributive punishment must be inflicted in the manner least likely to aggravate the situation. The principle satisfies the general human need to have justice done on the perpetrator of crime while precluding unnecessary harm. That general human need can also be satisfied by the state or community acting for and on behalf of the victim, as most contemporary systems of criminal justice aspire to do.

The alternative penalty called diyya (or compensation) to be paid by the wrong-doer or his family to the victim or his/her family. Diyya is payable in certain cases of homicide and bodily harm upon a scale proportionate to the degree of incapacity or injury caused (Heyd, 1973: 338). The principle of diyya finds analogous expression in the contemporary science of victimology, whereby compensation emphasizes decriminalization of the act and compensation of the victim as an alternative to the traditional punishment of incarceration. As

between qisas and diyya, the Qur’an clearly commends the latter and forgiveness (2.178). The preference illustrates the bond of continuity between temporal law and religion since the forgiver will be rewarded in heaven, which, for a Muslim, is a much greater reward than any other. Thus, the combination of diyya and forgiveness produces a powerful material and spiritual inducement to forgo retribution (Bassiouni 1982, p.205). When the victim has the right and the choice to demand punishment or pardon the offender, in many cases, the victim chooses to forgive. One of the reasons behind this preference is that the victim believes that he will be rewarded by the God for his forgiveness.

Finally, critics of Islam wrongly imagine that punishments must be inflicted every day and on a mass scale. They also fancy that Islamic societies daily witness flogging, hand-cutting and stoning to death. The fact is that such deterrent punishments have been executed very rarely. For example, the punishment for theft was carried out only six times over a period of four hundred years-clear proof that such punishment was primarily meant to prevent crime (Siddiqi 1979, p.40).

5. The effects of the involvement of the victim

The systematic involvement of the victim in the punishment process is unique to Islam. It makes two important contributions in the criminal justice field. Firstly, involvement of the victim appeases the victim who otherwise feels shunned or ignored by the legal system. It is the victim who suffers from the crime first, and therefore must have a say in the punishment or pardoning of the offender.

Secondly, the involvement of the victim in the punishment process may also have a deterrent effect on likely offenders. Some offenders may be happy to commit certain acts and face the legal punishment which sometimes, for them, may be a very short imprisonment. But if they believe that their victim(s) might have a say in the punishment which they face, this may deter them. We may also add, here, the spiritual and moral force of forgiveness, if that option is chosen by the victim or victim’s party, in inwardly reforming the offender through practical demonstration of unselfishness.

6. Forgiveness as an option

There are many verses in the New Testament which urge, if not quite require, the victim to forgive the offender (Matthew 18. 21-35; Acts 13. 26- 39; Ephesians 4.32-32; Luke 6.27-31): ‘But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him taking your tunic’ (Luke 6. 27-29).

By contrast, the Qur’an commends but does not require the victim to forgive the aggressor: ‘O you who believe! The law of equality is prescribed to you in cases of murder; the free for the free, the slave for the slave, the women for the women, but if a remission is made by the brother of the slain, then grant any reasonable demand and compensate him with handsome gratitude. This is a concession and a mercy from your Lord. After this whoever exceeds the limits shall be in grave chastisement.’ (2.178)

The option to forgive is a right that belongs to the victim, not to the court. Most legal systems, if not all, do countenance, for particular reasons and in different ways, a reduction or even suspension of punishment. My argument, based upon the Qur’an, is that, just as victims may not demand a punishment greater than is prescribed by law, so too the court may not deny their right to either reduce the punishment prescribed or forgive the crime outright.

The New Testament, as we saw, requires Christians to forgive; no other option is sanctioned by the religion-not retribution, nor compensation-only forgiveness. In a famous text the ancient lex talionis is almost explicitly abrogated: ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.” But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too. And if someone takes you to court to sue for your shirt let him have your coat as well.’ (New Testament, 1976, p.14).

Is this a sustainable way for society to deal with crime, or to restore the moral and emotional order which crime violates? Legal punishment has its root in the natural impulse to revenge a wrong suffered. The impulse is gratified through retaliation by or on behalf of the victim. Later, this retaliation is taken on by the state on behalf of society in general and the victim in particular. Indeed, it has been argued that the state’s assumption of the function of revenge is what constituted the beginning of criminal law (Dakkak 1994:88).

Requiring the victim to forgive the aggressor outright without the option of a measured, legally defined, retribution, goes against human nature. It denies a vital need, individual and collective, for redress which has a deterrent function as well as a role in restoring a violated moral and emotional equilibrium. In sum, the human need for redress should not be left out any more than the human desire to forgive should be left out.


Modern Western legal systems are adapted to a philosophy that regards the individual’s life in this world as the be-all and end-all. Very often criminals are treated very leniently because, it is argued, they are victims of circumstances, psychological complexes, nervous disorders, beyond their control. This attitude is contrary to natural justice insofar as it denies to the victims of crime their need to forgive if they choose and are able, or to agree to a compensatory settlement, or to demand the prescribed punishment. Giving the victims a say in the punishment process, according to the Islamic pattern described above, returns to victims their rights and duties in a matter that directly concerns them, and concerns them most. It constitutes a major contribution to the field of victimology and is, characteristically of Islam, a supremely well-balanced approach. It is high time Western legal philosophy and procedures took note of it and learnt from it.


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