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  • Retribution in Islam (Qur’an 2:178):Fact and Fiction in Victorian Literature
  • Clinton Bennett (bio)

The Number of non-fictional works on Islam increased dramatically during Victoria’s reign. In fiction, though, reference to specific texts is rare, perhaps even absent. Yet whole novels were set in Islamic contexts, with plots presenting ideas and images of Islam. Many such images bore little or no relationship to what Muslims believe or how they behave. Among common misconceptions, indeed one of the “most widely prevalent” was the notion that Islam demands retaliation or retribution (qisas), that it is a duty to take an “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Khattak 117). Several verses in the Qur’an refer to the Lex Talionis (see 2:178, 4:92, 5:45). Verse 5:45 says that this was ordained for Jews but that Allah prefers forgiveness. Verse 2:178 refers to qisas as a right. However, a “suitable payment” is better, since Allah loves mercy. Later, Islamic law recognized that victims or their relatives have a right to financial compensation or to demand an “eye for an eye” penalty, but encouraged them to consider a less severe punishment, so that in Islam “retribution” becomes “subordinate to forgiveness” (Pal 21). The emphasis has been on “forgoing retribution” to end the cycle of violence. Many think that retributive justice should be pursued only if it results in a type of healing, in reconciliation between victim and wrongdoer (Lakhani, Shah-Kazemi, and Lewisohn 127). In fact, Islamic law elevates restorative over retributive justice. When the Qur’an does speak of qisas, it is within a judicial, not a personal, setting. Even in non-Muslim judicial contexts, however, restorative justice has started to be featured, notably as pioneered in Canada in the 1970s.

For many Victorians, however, retribution represents the very “epitome of Muslim behavior” (Khattak 117). Three writers who refer to retribution are [End Page 13] Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936), Lillias Hamilton (1858–1925), and James Morier (1780–1849). Kipling was born in India. Hamilton worked in Afghanistan, where she was physician to Emir Abdur Rahman (1840–1901). Morier, born in Turkey, was a British diplomat in Iran involved in negotiating peace with Russia from 1810 to 1816. All three were distinguished Victorians, although Morier was near the end of his career when Victoria ascended. Hamilton qualified as a doctor in Scotland in 1890, then went to India privately (not sponsored by any official agency). After working in a Zenana hospital in Calcutta, where she also ran her own medical practice, she accepted an invitation to treat the emir’s wife in Kabul. She stayed on as the emir’s personal physician. Initially invited for six months, she remained for almost three years. All three knew Muslims and experienced life in Muslim contexts or in societies in which Muslims had a considerable presence.

Kipling is perhaps the quintessential Victorian in terms of his attitude of effortless superiority and racial stereotyping, giving us the “White Man’s Burden” (Verse 371) or the so-called moral mission of civilizing the non-Western world. The idea that east and west are irreconcilably and inalienably different owes much to his writing. Yet in “The Ballad of East and West,” the Kipling poem from which an east-west polarization is derived, he implies an exception to this rule: “There is neither East nor West … / When two strong men stand face to face” (Verse 268). It is in this poem that Kipling refers to qisas. In the ballad, an Afghan chief, Kamal, steals a horse from a British colonel, who sends his son to recover it and punish the chief. The son shoots at Kamal but misses. Subsequently, the chief challenges him to a race across rocky terrain. The son’s horse stumbles. Kamal might easily have shot him; “twas only by” his “favour” that the son had “rode so long alive” (270). However, instead of killing him, Kamal cites qisas, “a limb for the risk of a limb” then sends him back to the colonel with his own son, who was to “ride at his side” (271). The colonel had sent his son to Kamal so he sent...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 13-16
Launched on MUSE
2014-05-24
Open Access
No
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