SE40 Week 2 – A Spine For A Spine, Literally

In Week Two we learned about the Islamic concept of hudud, which is the highest-order banning of certain really bad activities in Islam. It’s very helpful of religions to have such crib lists – like the Seven Deadly Sins – to help potential sinners understand which transgressions they can maybe get away with, and which ones might see them wind up being eviscerated by Satan unto infinity in a pit of fire and salt.

Christianity’s Seven Fun Activities are primarily for instructive purposes, and don’t actually represent a different class of moral crime requiring special punishment. Plus you can always buy an indulgence or start your own offshoot protestant sect to get around them, so they’re not that big a deal. Islam, however, works quite differently. Christianity has maintained (or for long periods at least pretended to) a separation of church and state, rendering unto Caesar pedestrian things like noise bylaws and murder trials.

Except for that one time that Jesus wrote the U.S. Constitution
Except for that one time that Jesus wrote the U.S. Constitution

Muslims, however, have a strong history of integrating their religion into the whole of their society, with sharia law being a prime example of how this works in practice. Sharia law – and this is the kindergarten level explanation here, so don’t freak out – holds that law can be derived from and administered according to scripture and the reported words of Muhammed (and not exclusively Islamic texts – Jewish law is included too). Thus there exists an Islamic body of law regulating all kinds of things, from family law, to property crime, to warfare, and even personal conduct. And yes it’s argued over and interpreted differently all over the place. What’s probably more surprising (and indicative of the nature of power, perhaps) is that religions don’t more frequently at least attempt to graft themselves onto the legal systems of the places in which they are practiced. Thinking broadly, the idea that you could have a dominant religion of any type in a society, which includes very specific rules and prohibitions, but that another, more permissive secular law might actually hold sway, is a pretty nifty concept. “Yes usury is definitely wrong, but man, look at these rates I can get here! Let’s just tweak the rulebook a little bit… No, no, don’t change the bible, I’ll just, uh, create my own laws”.

Uhhhh... why is everyone looking at me?
Uhhhh… why is everyone looking at me?

Anyways, Islamic law helpfully defines three classes of crimes for us, which guide how each kind of infraction is dealt with and punished. They are:

  • Hudud – the worst and in some cases most fun crimes such as adultery, homosexuality, gambling, boozing, and becoming un-Muslim (apostasy). Punishments for these crimes are fixed by god: flogging, amputations, stoning, etc.
  • Qisas – the vengeance crimes! Basically, if you are convicted of doing one of these things – murder, theft, and so on – that very thing will be done to you. This is old school eye for an eye justice.
  • Tazir – various other crimes not covered above, like espionage, being rude to your husband, or messing with grocery scales (amongst many others). Here a judge can decide your fate or have mercy on you, or basically do whatever he thinks is wise.

My favourite hudud crime is accusing someone of illicit sex without presenting four male witnesses. Yes that is correct, if you’re going down on a sex charge you have to either confess or have four adult males testify to having seen the deed. I suppose this bespeaks the terrible lack of privacy you’d have had as an eighth century desert nomad, but the widespread adoption of walls and curtains will have made this at least a little difficult to enforce. Fun fact: Bill Clinton briefly tried to institute sharia law in the U.S. in 1998 but was foiled when he learned that the chickens used to make McNuggets are not hand slaughtered.

Qisas, though, is the most interesting of these categories. You know how you sometimes talk to people in the wake of some particularly scandalous crime, and they say something like, “well I think they should do to him what he done to those kids?” Well in some places in the world that can actually happen! Qisas more or less holds that the punishment for a crime is direct proportionate retaliation. That means that if you kill someone their family gets to kill you. Steal their car? They get your car. Behead their goat? It’s chopping time, and so on. There’s a brutal simplicity to it that I can imagine would be appealing to a great many folks. But don’t worry, cash is still king. You can sometimes get out of your pickle by paying a prescribed amount of money to your victim provided that she/he accepts it. I found an example of a man who lost an eye in an acid attack in Egypt. He was offered a nice cash settlement, but the scarred side of his two headed coin came up so he refused the money and the attacker had his own eye surgically removed. Hardcore. Another guy in Saudi Arabia stabbed his friend with a machete when he was 14 years old, paralyzing him. Upon conviction a judge ordered that the criminal have his own spine surgically severed. Whoa. However, through donations his mom was able to raise the $300,000 dollars or so necessary to avoid the punishment; and you think you’re doing good on Kickstarter donating five bucks to the Fun Run to Stop Windmills Ruining Our View. Note to self: do not commit crimes in Saudi Arabia, ever.

It must be a weird thing to get through med school, help all sorts of people, and then one day have the government order you to maim someone irrevocably for the purposes of revenge.

One very convenient wrinkle is that qisas does not apply if you murder your own children or grandchildren, or your spouse. You can be punished financially but not revenged upon. Somehow I have a feeling that it was women and children who were behind these exceptions.

Oh god… I just did a “qisas” image search and yikes. It’s just awful. Sorry, I don’t feel like wading through that to find pictures for you. If you think a judicial system based on revenge sounds good, taking a lovely stroll through that photo gallery of horrors might just change your mind.


Can you name the Seven Deadly Sins? See below for the answer. Hint: impaling a trout on a tree branch is not one of them. I like that they put a longship on top of two casks, which is the olde timey equivalent of putting a car on blocks on your lawn. Peter Bruegel the Elder, if you need him.


Those sins are: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. For whatever reason there are a lot of people online rendering those sins as Disney princesses. Here you go. I guess Ariel couldn’t properly be Lust, because, you know…the_seven_disney_sins_by_chill07-d36bb4l

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