On March 12th Saudi Arabia executed a staggering 81 prisoners all at once. The Saudis claim each of them had been duly sentenced to death according to its judicial process for crimes ranging from murder to joining terrorist organizations.
Even for those who agree with judicious use of the death penalty, the sheer number of executions in Saudi Arabia is shocking. Saudi Arabia, with its relatively small population of 35 million, executes hundreds of people each year, making it one of the top five countries annually for executions. By comparison, the United States, in which many states and the Federal government do allow the death penalty, executed only 11 people total in 2021.
Human rights groups have long complained about Saudi Arabia’s use of the death penalty for other reasons too. They allege that Saudi Arabia executes not just murders and terrorists, but also political and religious dissidents. Minors are executed as well as adults, and executions are based on confessions extracted by torture. There is also objection to Saudi Arabia’s method of carrying out executions, which is frequently beheading by a swordsman. By contrast, in the U.S. courts struggle with whether lethal injection that includes a sedative is gentle enough. Read more from Human Rights Watch, or from the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights.
But even if all that could be resolved (and these are important issues), just the Saudi explanation for executing so many regular criminals that have been convicted in court is itself still troubling.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman says executions mandated by the quran
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman claims he is attempting to increase freedom and religious tolerance in his country. For example, in recent years women have been given more freedom to drive and work outside the home, and social media has been accessible to Saudi citizens. Read more about this from Arab News. But he claims that this extensive use of the death penalty is something Saudi Arabia can’t get away from due to the country’s Islamic character.
In an interview with Graeme Wood of the Atlantic Magazine, Bin Salman stated, “. . . we cannot do anything about it, even if we wished to do something, because it is clear teaching in the Quran. If someone killed someone, another person, the family of that person has the right, after going to the court, to apply capital punishment, unless they forgive him. Or if someone threatens the life of many people, that means he has to be punished by the death penalty. That’s a teaching in the Quran. Regardless if I like it or not, I don’t have the power to change it.”
In other words, Bin Salman says that since his kingdom is founded upon Islam, according to him the number of executions is decided by solely by facts. The Quran calls for the death penalty in certain situations, and so if those circumstances occur an execution must follow. He is powerless to change the Quran.
Death Penalty in the torah
The death penalty is also very common in Jewish law. The Torah itself says clearly that numerous crimes are punishable by death. For example, in addition to murder, adultery (along with many other forbidden sexual relations), idol worship, cursing a parent, and violating the Sabbath are all on the very long list of capital offenses. This means that according to the Torah, someone who lights a fire, cooks food, or uses a pen and paper on Friday night or Saturday must be stoned to death.
But Jewish law is also guided by the oral tradition recorded in the Talmud. The Rabbis of the Talmud never outright contradict the Torah, but they frequently interpret and flesh out the law in ways that dramatically affect how it is applied. There is no greater example of this than Rabbinic treatment of the death penalty.
For example, based on other verses in the Torah, the Rabbis ruled that to carry out the death penalty the testimony of two firsthand witnesses is required. No circumstantial evidence can be accepted. So even if witnesses see a man brandishing a knife chase his fellow into a house, then emerge moments later with the knife bloody and the chased person bleeding from a stab wound in his back, the killer is not eligible for the death penalty according to Jewish law. Eye witnesses to the actual crime are required, no matter how obvious it may be what happened. (This is codified by the Rambam in sefer hamitzvot, negative commandment 290.)
The Rabbis also determined that the death penalty can only be carried out if the witnesses explicitly warned the perpetrator immediately before the crime. The witnesses have to say, ‘Stop! Don’t do that, because what you are about to do is a crime and if you commit it you will be liable the death penalty!’ Then the person receiving the warning has to acknowledge it and say ‘Yes, but I do this nevertheless.’ Otherwise it is always possible that the defendant didn’t understand the consequences of their actions, so the death penalty is spared. (This is codified by the Rambam in Hilchot Sanhedrin chapter 12.)
All this has the effect of making the death penalty, while common in Torah law, extremely rare in practice. In fact, the Talmud (Makot 7a) states that a Jewish court that carries out an execution more than once every seven years should be called ‘a killer court.’ Rabbi Eliezer ben Azarya says once in seventy years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva state that if they had been judges on the Sanhedrin, no execution would ever have taken place, presumably because they would have used legal technicalities to always avoid having to sentence a defendant to death.
Of course, sparing the death penalty leaves the question of how these crimes should be punished. Halacha relates to that in other ways. But the point is that just because the Torah commands capital punishment for numerous, frequent crimes doesn’t mean that is what Halacha calls for in practice. The tremendous gap between the plain meaning of the Biblical verses and what has become accepted as Jewish law is based on how the Rabbis have interpreted the Bible.
all religious texts require interpretation
So too for Islam. In other parts of his interview, Bin Salman himself shows great familiarity with the process of interpreting Islamic teachings to address current questions. All ancient texts require this, both to clarify and resolve internal contradictions as well as to apply them to changing times. Even if the Quran seems to call for capital punishment, all the details of the judicial process still have to be worked out. A simple, literal interpretation of the text, while possible, may not be the best, or even the most authentic choice.
A statement that such and such current policies or actions are mandated by an ancient text necessarily depends on one’s interpretation. Interpretation is guided by our own values. So when we decide religious laws, we cannot shrug moral responsibility off onto the Quran or the Bible. We are choosing to interpret the text in a certain way, based on our values, and those choices are ours.
If a Jewish sect would decide today to go back to stoning Sabbath breakers to death, they could legitimately claim to be following the Bible. But mainstream Rabbinic Judaism, which no longer does this, has just as strong a claim to following the Bible as well. The Bible itself cannot tell us whether to follow the path of the literalists or the path of the Rabbis. That decision is ours.
Bin Salman says Saudi mass executions are following the Quran. A more accurate statement is that these executions accord with his opinion of how the Quran should be followed in Saudi Arabia today. The various allegations human rights groups level against Saudi Arabia are indictments of decisions made by its leaders, and their responsibility to resolve. Saudi leaders are just as responsible for the overall number of executions- regardless of what it says in the Quran.
Photo by Anis Rahman on Unsplash