Higher Objectives of Shariah

Preservation of Life in Islam: Theory and Practice

Part 1 | Part 2

Previously, we explained that the teachings of Islam aim to preserve five things for the benefit of people: human life, intellect, property, family, and religion.

The protection of human life is the first element. Allah says,

{Do not kill the soul which Allah has forbidden [to be killed] except by [legal] right. He has taught you this so that you might think properly.}Al-An`am 6:151

Life is a gift

Life is a gift from Allah; no one can take it away except in extreme circumstances such as a legitimate war against oppression. Taking the life of another is so evil in Islam that Allah described it as follows: 

{That is why We ordained for the Children of Israel that whoever takes a life—unless as a punishment for murder or mischief in the land—it will be as if they killed all of humanity.} (Al-Ma’idah 5:32)

Therefore, it is important to realize that the previous verse did not specify a religion. It does not matter whether the person is a Muslim, Jew, Christian, or even an Atheist. Their life has the same value as anyone else as far as Islamic Law is concerned. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) gave a severe warning of not smelling the fragrance of Paradise for killing a non-Muslim. (Al-Bukhari)

Islamic law and preserving life

Many rules in Islamic law manifest the principle of preserving life. For example, if someone is starving to death they may even consume prohibited food to survive:

{…but if any of you is forced by hunger to eat forbidden food, with no intention of doing wrong, then God is most forgiving and merciful.} (Al-Ma’idah 5:3

This means that if pork or alcohol were the only things available when starving, it is better to consume that filth than to die.

Even when it comes to uttering words of disbelief, Allah gave an exemption. We read in the Quran

{Those who reject Allah after believing in Him, with the exception of those who are forced to say they do not believe, while their hearts remain firm in faith, those who open their hearts to disbelief will have the wrath of Allah and a grievous punishment awaiting them.} (An-Nahl 16:106

Some of the Companions of the Prophet were being tortured for being Muslim. Ammar ibn Yasir was one of them. In a moment of weakness, while being tortured, he rejected Islam and pledged his loyalty to the idols. His tongue contradicted what was really in his heart. 

He went to the Prophet and told him what had happened. The Prophet consoled him and explained that true belief lies in the heart. Based on the principle of preserving life, he had the license to say words he did not mean.

Another manifestation of a rule in Islam that preserves life is retribution. Allah has prescribed a heavy punishment for murder to make society safe. The Quran indicates the wisdom behind the rule of potential retaliation for murder: 

{Fair retribution saves life for you, people of understanding, so that you may guard yourselves against what is wrong.} (Al-Baqarah 2:179

The verse makes it clear that the underlying reason for the threat of the death penalty is to protect the lives of others. By being soft on crimes such as murder, it would put other lives in danger.

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