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Extraordinary Value of Human Life in The Qur`an

By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat

(APRIL 2007)



In Surah 5, verse 32 we read:

On that account We ordained for the Children of Isra`il that if any one slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land - it would be as if he slew the whole humanity: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the whole humanity. Then although there came to them Our messengers with clear (guidance), yet, even after that, many of them continued to commit excesses in the land. (5:32)

This verse has recently been quoted by political leaders such as war-mongering American President and his colonial-minded follower, the British Prime Minister, in order to encourage Muslims to abandon all resistance to the aggression and slaughter they and their ally Israel inflict on Muslims day after day. The verse is also often quoted by “moderate” Muslims when they want to show that Islam does not teach terrorism, as if the point needs to be proved and as if any of the enemies of Islam and Muslims are listening to them. Indeed, some of the Christian Evangelical missionaries completely ignore what the moderate Muslims say and have their own way of reading the verse. According to them this verse proves that Muhammad (may God honor and bless him evermore) made up the Qur`an using Jewish sources and that the next verse (5:33) shows that Muslims can kill anyone who does not accept Islam!

In reality the verse, like all other passages of the Qur`an, is a miracle in knowledge and goodness. It gives human life a value not given to it before or after Islam and it provides a powerful evidence that the Qur`an continues, corrects, completes and perfects earlier religions. Let us study the verse phrase by phrase to see how this is so.

“On that account” This refers back to the story in the previous verses (5:27-31) of the two sons of Adam (may peace be upon him), one of whom, Qabil (called Cain in English), murdered the other, Habil (called Abel). This was probably the first human death and murder in history, since Qabil did not know what to do with the dead body of his brother and had to learn it from a crow (5:31).

“We ordained for the Children of Isra`il” After this first murder in history God prohibited the killing of a human being, which shows that God generally gives laws after they have become necessary. The prohibition must have been done soon after the murder but the Qur`an takes us many ages forward in time to the time of the Children of Isra`il. This is because the verse is revealed in the context of Islamic message directed towards the people of the book. Many verses that precede and many verses that follow 5:32 concern the Jews and Christians. Indeed most of the Surah is about them and even its name al-Ma`idah (The Table) is derived from a story about Christians and the Prophet ‘Isa (5:112-119). The words “We ordained for the Children of Isra`il” may also reflect the fact that the particular form of the prohibition of murder mentioned in the verse found its first expression, albeit an imperfect one (see below), in the Israelite tradition.

“if any one slew a person … it would be as if he slew the whole humanity: and if any one saved a person, it would be as if he saved the whole humanity”.

This is part of what was ordained for the Children of Isra`il. It is natural to ask where in the Isra`ili writings the principle equating the killing/saving of one person with the killing/saving the whole humanity is found. The principle is not found in the Bible but we do find it in the Talmud, a collection of Rabbinical legal and exegetical opinions considered by Jews almost as sacred as the Bible itself. The tradition is found in two versions, one is somewhat universal and the other is ethnocentric.

The universalist version, which is rather late, reads:

… For thus we find in the case of Cain, who killed his brother, that it is written: 'The bloods of your brother cry unto Me' (Genesis 4:10). It is not said here blood in the singular, but bloods in the plural, that is, his own blood and the blood of his seed. Therefore was Adam created alone, to teach us that whoever destroys a single life, the Scriptures considers it as if he destroyed a whole race (or world). And whoever saves a single life, the Scriptures considers it as if he saved a whole race (or world). (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4.5)

Here we find a principle similar to the one given in the Qur`an, although the Qur`an takes it to new heights. As in the Qur`an, so also in the above Talmudic passage the principle is connected with the story of the murder of Abel by his brother Cain.

The second version, which is ethnocentric is earlier. It is found in the Babylonian Talmud:

Therefore was man created singly, to teach that whoever destroys a single life from Isreal is considered by Scripture as if he had destroyed an entire world and that whoever preserves a single life from Israel is considered by Scripture as if he had preserved an entire world1.

Here the words “from Israel” give to the passage the ethnocentric meaning that a single Israeli life is so valuable that destroying/saving it is tentamount to destroying/saving an entire world.

Which of the two versions is original?

In modern times many Jews favor the first universalist version. Thus in the famous movie, Schindler’s List by the director Spielberg, it is the first universalist version that is quoted, although its application is made to Jewish lives, since Schindler is turned into a hero for saving some Jews from the Nazis. It is not conceivable that a popular American movie will view in the same manner someone who tried to save Palestinians from the Zionists. The same Spielberg has now made a movie Munich about the Israeli revenge against those Palestinians they suspected of killing the Israeli athletes in 1972. The movie honors and legitimizes Israeli state-ordered murders of the Palestinians on mere suspicion, not only of those who were suspected of taking part in the Munich attacks but also of all the Palestininias that the Zionist regime kills on a daily basis. It is also doubtful whether the Spielbergs of the movie industry will make a movie about the Muslims who protected the Jews from the Nazis, except if and when Muslims become wealthy and powerful.

But which of the two versions is original? In favor of the second version there is the fact that it is attested earlier. In favor of the first version there is the argument that it fits better the reasoning behind the passage. This reasoning seems to be as follows: human beings were not created all at the same time but as offspring from individual men. If an individual man lived the whole tribe or race that descends from him came into existence and if that individual man died then a tribe or race that could have descended from him is also killed. This teaches us that the killing of one man is like killing a whole tribe and saving one man is like saving a whole tribe.

The above argument in favor of the universalist version can be countered by saying that numerous very explicit statements in the Talmud state that non-Israelites are not really among the children of Adam. Restricting the above reasoning to the Israelites as the only children of Adam gives the ethnocentric formulation we find in the Babylonian Talmud. Thus there may be no real difference between the two versions. The second simply makes explicit what is implicit in the first.

There is also the possibility that the universal version entered Judaism under the influence of Islam, since that version is not attested with certainty before Islam.

In any case, the Qur`an not only corrects the ethnocentric version but also improves the “universalist” version. In the latter, killing/saving a single person is like killing/saving a whole tribe or race that descends or could have descended from him. In the Qur`an the killing/saving a single person is like killing/saving of the whole humankind and not just the tribe or race descending from him. In this way the Qur`an takes the value of an individual human life to a new height. Some Christian missionaries and other prejudicial Jews and Christians fail to recognize this. They use the similarity between the Talmudic and Qur`anic passages to assert rather that the Prophet Muhammad took ideas from Jewish, Christian and other earlier sources and passed them on as divine revelation. For a more detailed discussion of this type of error, see my article, “The Prophet Muhammad and Earlier Religions, Especially Judaism and Christianity”.

In its Qur`anic, truly universal form, the principle of equality of killing/saving one man with killing/saving of all humanity has the following meaning: You are either the sort of person who can murder no human being or you are the sort of person who can kill anyone who stands in your way. You either value all human life or you do not value human life at all.

It is interesting that the principle being discussed here is found in one rabbi’s comments on the Bible and yet it finds a place in the Qur`an, while there are many mainstream Jewish traditions, widely encountered in the Bible and the Talmud, that are not referred to in the Qur`an. The reason is that the Qur`an generally retains from earlier traditions what can be given continued and universal relevance. Also, the fact that a tradition is found in one rabbi’s view in the Talmud does not mean that the tradition was rare. The Talmud represents oral traditions and it is possible that a tradition was widely circulated orally but found written expression only rarely.

That the principle is said to be ordained by God does not necessarily mean that God revealed it through one of his prophets. God may ordain something by revealing it though a prophetic revelation or approving it after it has been established by some normal human processes, which also take place by God’s will. This is supported by 3:93 and 6:146. In the first of these two verses it is said that all foods (generally eaten by human beings other than those mentioned in 6:145) were permissible for the Israelites except those that they prohibited for themselves before the Torah was sent down. In the second verse it is said that God forbade to the Jews a number of foods in order to punish them for their rebelliousness. This probably means that many of the foods prohibited in Judaism were not initially forbidden by a prophetic revelation but were prohibited by the Jews themselves, but later God confirmed the prohibition as a punishment for their rebelliousness. The point can be further elucidated by the example of the call to prayers (adhan) in Islamic tradition: adhan was first started by Muslims and then accepted by Qur`anic revelation.

“unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land”. These conditions under which execution of a person is justified are not part of the Talmudic passage where equality of killing/saving one person and of killing/saving a race is mentioned. The Qur`an tends to give us as balanced statements as is possible without making the statement unusually long and clumsy.

In the Qur`an there is no mandatory death penalty even for these two crimes (5:33, 45, 2:178). In any case they are far more restrictive than in the Jewish tradition, which not only allows but requires death penalty for many more cases. In this way, the Qur`an makes another improvement over the earlier traditions.

Here is a long list of deeds punishable by death in the Bible, as against the two in the Qur`an:

  • Cursing or disobeying parents (Ex 21:17, Deut 21:18-21)
  • Murder (Ex 21:12, 21:15) And he that smites his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death.
  • Adultery (Lev 19:20, 20:10)
  • Kidnapping and enslaving a man (Ex 21:16)
  • Beastiality (Lev 20:15-16)
  • Abominations (Lev 20:2)
  • Blasphemy (Lev 24:16)
  • Incest (Lev 20:11-14)
  • Witchcraft (Ex. 22:18, Lev 20:27, Num 3:10)
  • False Prophecy (Deu 13:5)
  • Rebellion (Josh 1:18, 2 Chr 15:13)
  • Lying with a woman having her menstruation (Lev 20:18)
  • Working on the sabbath day (Ex 16:25, 29, 31:14-15,35:2-3, Num 15:32-36)
  • Losing virginity before majority (Deut 22:21-24)
  • Worshiping or enticing others to worship gods of non-Jews (Deut 13:6-10, 17:2 -5)

Other pre-Islamic traditions are also full of mandatory death penalties. By totally doing away with mandatory death penalty for all crimes the Qur`an further raises the value of human life in comparison to other religions.

Another striking feature of the Qur`anic verse is that it does not make explicit the link between the story of Abel and Cain and the principle stated in the verse. This is probably because that link is not important. What is important is the principle to which the link led.

“Then although there came to them Our messengers with clear (guidance), yet, even after that, many of them continue to commit excesses in the land.” 

This refers to the numerous prophets sent to the children of Isra`il, from Musa to ‘Isa followed by Muhammad (peace be upon them all) who affirmed righteous conduct, including regard for human life. But despite all these messengers from God, many of the Jews, whenever they have the power, continue to show violence to others especially to non-Jews, as has been demonstrated often in Palestine and Lebanon and other neighboring countries.

IN SUMMARY, the Qur`an continues, corrects, completes and perfects earlier religious traditions. This is illustrated by the verse discussed in the article. The verse continues earlier tradition by building on a principle found in the Talmud. It corrects earlier tradition by rejecting the ethnocentric version of the principle which talks only of saving/killing an Isra`ili life. It completes the earlier tradition by mentioning the important exceptions under which the life of a human being can be taken. Finally, it perfects the earlier tradition by improving even the universalist version in the Talmud. In the Talmud the killing/saving of a man is like killing/saving of all his descendents. In the Qur`an the killing/saving a man is like killing of the whole humanity, regardless of whether they descend from him or not, thus greatly increasing the value of a human life. Moreover, the Qur`an reduces the crimes punishable by death to only two very basic crimes2 and even in these cases the death penalty is not mandatory.



1 The passage is quoted in www.geocities.com/noorullahwebsite with original Hebrew and English translation as follows:


(Rabbi H. Goldwurm (ed.), Talmud Bavli: The Schottenstein Edition, 1993, Tractate Sanhedrin, Volume 1, Mesorah Publications, Ltd.: Brooklyn, New York, p. 37a3).


2 The death penalties for adultery and apostasy prescribed in some traditions can be seen to be later un-Qur`anic fabrications. (See PUNISHMENT FOR ADULTERY IN ISLAM, THE PUNISHMENT OF APOSTASY IN ISLAM).


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