Confining an individual to jail for a period of time that can extend to his whole life has become a normal means of punishment worldwide.
Does Islam recommend any punishments of this nature? At times, it seems to be more humane to cut off a person’s hand or even to kill him (for murdering someone) than to confine him to a cage for any length of time, especially if that time translates to decades or his whole life.
Has Islam only prescribed punishments for certain acts, or has it covered all possible grounds, allowing us to derive punishments for certain acts (e.g., Punishment of death for dealing in drugs because of its potential to kill at the individual scale and greatly harm the social fabric on a larger scale)? If the answer to this is the latter, then one could extrapolate it to mean that punishment by confinement to jail is bida’ah, and should be replaced by punishments derived from those recommended by Islam.
I myself tend to favor the abolition of punishments by confinement (when such punishments are of a very long duration). It seems inhumane to place a person in an environment like a prison where the concentration of a large number of criminals could cause an individual be corrupted to a greater extent than what he was when he first entered that place.
I suggest that you take a look at a previously answered question titled ‘Punishments in Islam‘, that falls in the same category as your question. I’ll quote a snippet from it:
Before commenting on the nature of punishments prescribed by the Shari`ah, it seems necessary to understand that the punishments prescribed by the Shari`ah are, in fact, the ultimate or the final punishments prescribed for the respective crimes. That is, these punishments are actually meant to be administered in cases, where the perpetrator does not deserve any mercy and should, therefore, be subjected to the severest of punishments, allowable for that crime. This really implies that if, for instance, a person has stolen bread in times of extreme hunger or has committed a crime under extremely enticing circumstances, then it would only serve justice that the perpetrator is dealt with in a softer manner and not subjected to the prescribed punishments.
In this perspective, we find that the prescribed punishments in the Shari`ah can be placed in two broad categories:
Punishments for those criminals who simply commit a despicable crime.
Punishments for those criminals who become a challenge for the state in that their method of committing a crime, by its very nature, threatens the collectivity and creates a grave law and order situation for it.
With regard to the first category, the Shari`ah has established punishments for four major crimes that are committed against three of the most sacrosanct things: Life, Honor and Wealth. These crimes are:
Injury and Murder
Qazf (Falsely accusing someone of Fornication)
As for the matter of lighter forms of these crimes and other crimes, it has been left at the discretion of the legislators of an Islamic state, who, in accordance with the principle of mutual consultation, can legislate for such crimes.
Criminals of the second category have been characterized by the Quran as those who wage a war with Allah and His Prophet (pbuh) or those who spread anarchy and disorder in the land. Four types of punishments have been ordained for the criminals of this category, depending upon the nature of the crime, the criminal’s circumstances and the evident and expected consequences of the crime:
Taqteel (Execution in an Exemplary manner)
Amputating limbs from alternate sides
As can be seen from the above explanation, confinement in prison is not a part of the penal code of Islam. It was, in fact, only in the eighteenth century that this mode of punishment gained currency and has now become commonplace. Before the eighteenth century, prisons were used merely for the purpose of investigation and inquiry and not for unending confinements. If we observe closely, the atrociousness of jail punishment would be quite evident. It is the most potent way to irreparably disfigure the personality of an individual. Javed Ahmed Ghamidi writes:
The jail punishment is an atrocious crime that man has committed against himself. The whipping sentence is over in a while, hands are cut once and for all, crucifixion ends a criminal’s life after an extreme physical torture, and execution terminates irrevocably every string of his relation with this world; but it is this punishment in which the internal personality of a person is continually tormented. Some of his daily routines in which everyone has an unconditional freedom, become totally dependent on others. He sleeps and awakes upon the will of others. He sits and stands at the direction of others. His eating and drinking habits are governed by others, and even in a matter as personal as relieving one’s self, he has to seek permission from others. He is made to beg for a glass of water, a loaf of bread and even a puff at a cigarette; and on many occasions must loose his self-respect to obtain them. He is deprived from the love and affection of his parents, wife and children, and is made to suppress some of his desires upon which the Almighty has posed no restriction even in the holy month of Ramadan, during which restraint and control are the keywords. In short, he faces a hell on earth, in which he neither lives nor perishes.
Along with the confined individual, his wife and children too are made to go through extreme agony. Their moral, economic, social and psychological sufferings cannot be committed to words.
Additionally, the environment of a prison becomes a breeding ground for the criminal tendencies of an individual and even if he were initially inclined towards self-reformation, this feeling dies down in no time. An important aspect of Islamic punishments is that they are meted out once and for all, after which if a criminal wants to mend his ways, he can do so at his will. But in case of jail punishment, the law schedules the time for him to change.
Summing it up, you are quite right in believing that Islam does not sanction the incarceration of a criminal in a prison.
Nevertheless, it should remain clear that even though we may hold that the punishment of imprisonment is against the general spirit and philosophy on the basis of which Islam prescribes punishments for various crimes, yet prescribing punishments for any crimes for which the Shari`ah has not prescribed a punishment is the prerogative of the legislature. Thus, it would not be correct to term any punishment as ‘bid`ah‘. A punishment may be considered appropriate or inappropriate, but not a bid`ah.
February 22, 2003