Killing believers and covenantors

Surah 4 (Al-Nisa/Women): 92

It is not for a believer to kill another believer, except that it is by error.

Whosoever kills a believer in error, let him free a believing slave, and ransom is to be handed to his family, unless they forgo being charitable.

If he belonged to a people who are your enemies and is a believer then, the setting free of a believing slave.

If he belonged to a people in which there is between you and them a treaty, then a ransom is to be handed to his family and the setting free of a believing slave.

But, if he does not find (the means) let him fast two consecutive months in repentance to Allah.

And Allah is the Knower, the Wise.

{17.33} instructs ‘Slay not the soul that God has made inviolable save by right, and whosoever is slain unjustly We have appointed authority unto his heir.’ Accordingly, killing is primarily dealt with in accordance with the system of qisas, see 〈72.〉 preceding. {4.92}, produced above, prescribes three separate sanctions for accidental homicide involving each of the following three categories of victim:

1.   a believer,

2.   a believer with whom the killer is in a state of enmity, and

3.   an unbeliever with whom the killer had a covenant.


Since {17.33} relates only to those killed ‘unjustly’, and {4.92}. to those killed ‘in error’, it would be a reasonable interpretation, although this is nowhere stated, that only intentional killings should trigger qisas, whilst what the English law has come to know as involuntary manslaughter should be dealt with in accordance with {4.92}.


The three-way classification of victims, by necessary implication, anticipates that a believer who erroneously kills a non-believer with whom they do not have a specific covenant, should face no {4.92} punishment. If a believer is not to be punished for accidentally killing a non-believer, it takes only a small step to infer that they should not face punishment for the deliberate killing of an unbeliever either. Such an interpretation is consistent with numerous expressions of intense hostility to unbelievers set out in Part VII below. In particular it accords with the closely following verse:

{4.94} O you who believe! When you go forth in the way of God be discerning and say not unto him who offers you peace ‘You are not a believer’
seeking the ephemeralities of the life of the world, for with God are abundant spoils.

Thus were you yourselves beforehand but God has been gracious to you.

Therefore be discerning.

Truly God is aware of whatsoever you do.

Ahadith state that this verse was revealed after one or more incidents in which Muslims had been found to have robbed and killed victims who had offered the Islamic greeting of peace. Muslims are here urged to ‘be discerning’ and not to lightly reject professions of belief as false, and risk killing fellow believers, through desire for ‘the ephemeralities of this world’ i.e. loot. It seems to be implicit in this instruction to exercise due discernment not to kill a believer, that the act of killing a known non-believer would be regarded as unobjectionable.


The killing of children is condemned in four verses: {6.137140 & 151} and {17.31}. Three reasons are offered. In {6.137}, the forbiddance is specifically of the killing of a child as a human sacrifice to an idol (‘their partners (false deities or possibly jinn, have) made the slaying of their children seem fair to them’); in {6.151} and {17.31} killing ‘for fear of poverty’ is condemned as revealing a lack of faith in God to provide sustenance and in {6.140}, the most generally worded of the four verses, the killing of one’s own child is denounced as a rejection of God’s will in having created that child. No punishments for infanticide are prescribed, and in reading these verses, one might bear in mind the hadith excluding a capital punishment for killing one’s child referred to in 〈72.〉 and the apparent endorsement of the ‘honour killing’ of a rebellious and unbelieving child in the story of Al-Khidr 〈28.〉