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Opinion | Where the Powerful Can Kill the Weak, as Long as They Pay

The more usual scene in Saudi Arabia is that a wealthy killer saves himself by offering the victim’s family big sums of blood money while raising the money from relatives as an act of “charity” and creating a lucrative business for middlemen. The overall result is a culture that “mitigates the atrocious behavior of killers and criminals,” as a Saudi journalist, Hani Alhadri, described last year.

In 1990, the problem was exported to Pakistan, with its Qisas and Diyat Ordinance, a law that made blood money a legal option to close cases of murder. It soon proved to be a perfect cover for so-called honor killings: Once a family decided to kill their daughter for their twisted notion of “honor,” the brother could do the job, and the father could simply “pardon” him.

In 2012, Pakistan was shocked by the story of Shahzeb Khan, a young university student who protected his sisters from drunken thugs, only to be killed by them. But the thugs’ powerful family threatened Mr. Khan’s poor family that they would kill the Khan daughters as well unless the Khans accepted blood money to close the case.

Cases like those have led a Pakistani scholar, Hassan Javid, to call for ending all blood money laws, which are in effect in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran, because they “provide the rich and powerful with the means by which to evade responsibility for any crimes that they might commit.”

However, there is a major obstacle to such legal reform: the notion of blood money comes from the Quran, and for some Muslims, that ends any discussion. But those Muslims are missing something important: The Quran, a scripture with a human context of the seventh century, appealed to a very different society, in which blood money served a very different purpose.

We can understand this context through The Great Exegesis by the 12th- century Sunni scholar Fakhr al-Din al-Razi: Before Islam, Arabia was a war zone of tribes, lacking any central authority, police force or court system. Murder among these tribes was punished with “qisas,” the principle of “life for a life, eye for an eye.” However, tribes had different claims to “honor,” and the haughtier ones demanded two or more lives for one of their fallen. This led to disputes and blood feuds that went on for generations.

That is why, as the Islamic history expert Montgomery Watt, alluding to a custom among early Anglo-Saxons, noted: “The wiser and more progressive men of the time seem to have recognized the advantages of substituting a blood-wit for the actual taking of a life.” Which is exactly what the Quran did. It authorized the law of retaliation, but also added:

“But if any 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.” (2:178)

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