Forgiveness Work (Arzoo Osanloo, 2020)

Photo taken from medieval manuscript by Qotbeddin Shirazi (1236–1311), a Persian Astronomer. The image depicts an epicyclic planetary model.

In Forgiveness Work, Arzoo Osanloo offers ways of understanding an Islamic notion of justice by looking closer at experiences and infrastructures that illustrate the centrality of compassion and mercy in Iranian criminal law. She argues how the compulsion to forgive is rooted in the Qur’an and in the teachings of the Muhammad especially regarding the prescription of punishment in the Sunnah. In so doing, she traces the shifts that have taken place in Iranian society from an economy of debt to a morality of suffering; showing how the former has not completely disappeared as a consequence of the latter. For example, according to Islamic law, provided that a crime has not been committed against God, the judge offers the victim’s family an alternative: either qisas, a punishment imposed on the basis of the law of retaliation, thus implying death in case of murder; or the diya, reparation by a sum of money determined by the magistrate. According to Osanloo, the second formula is more often used than the first, but the judge often adds a prison sentence to the payment of the damage. (42)
In view of this amalgamated practice of justice that has just been described, one might ask how does one rationalize the infliction of suffering in an Islamic notion of justice? Osanloo shows one stream of moral philosophy through an account of how Shahriyari appropriates Immanuel Kant who affirms that suffering is only justified insofar as it expiates the reprehensible act committed, independently of any social consequence, positive or negative. The penalty thus imposed is retributivist and must in principle be equivalent to the violation of the law or the norm (even execution in the event of murder). Another view of suffering which might have enhanced Osanloo’s discussion by drawing a contrast is one that follows Jeremy Bentham (of Panopticon fame) who posits that the suffering of the perpetrator of a crime is justified only insofar as it increases happiness in society, in other words, that it reduces crime. This can be by effect of neutralization (execution, imprisonment, exile), deterrence (for the individual and the community) and rehabilitation (through moral reform or social reintegration). The focus on the punitive aspect of Islamic justice during the last decades shows a shift in how justice is viewed or administered in the Western world which obscures the fact that provisions for the death sentence and also forbearance and compassion are systematically placed in the justice systems of modern nation-states (131). In fact, both the punitive and the merciful aspects exist in the juridical scaffoldings of the United States, albeit with key differences. Perhaps a minor note but one that illuminates so much about the importance of Osanloo’s scholarship is her observation that in Iran the right of retaliation belongs to the victim and their family, unlike in the United States where the state assumes this right. 

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