Blood Money: Diyat

LA Times: Aziz Ahmed was supposed to die. In 2006 he used a meat cleaver to kill a friend he thought had been sleeping with his wife. He confessed and was sentenced to be hanged.

But last month Ahmed won his freedom; not because his confession was recanted or fresh evidence was presented, but because of a wad of cash. He paid the victim’s family $9,400 and walked out of prison a free man. The slain man’s relatives said they would use the money to buy the widow a cookware shop in this dusty farm town in Punjab, near the Indian border.

“We’re not bitter about this at all,” said Mohammed Nasir, brother of the victim, Ghulam Sarwar. “This money will take care of Ghulam’s wife and children.”

What outsiders might describe as “blood money” is a tenet of Islamic law sanctioned by Pakistani jurisprudence and used, by some estimates, in up to 60% of homicide cases here. The practice is called diyat, and it could be the means by which the United States and Pakistan extricate themselves from a dangerous diplomatic row that has strained relations between the two governments.

It is important to understand that diyat arose as a progressive measure designed to substitute restitution for retribution. Restitution systems have a number of virtues. One virtue of restitution is that it puts the victim’s family at the center of the process rather than ignoring their interests. Criminal law, in contrast, replaces the interests of victims with the interests of the state. Perhaps this is sometimes necessary (what to do about victims without families?) but restitution systems have been quite sophisticated at dealing with these problems. David Friedman, for example, explains the Icelandic system of wergeld and Bruce Benson discusses the medieval Ango-Saxon system. I am not aware of much work, however, on Islamic diyat. Randy Barnett makes the case for restitution as a substitute for criminal law today.

If restitution is to work well it’s crucial that restitution be set at the right levels. It’s not always clear that this is done. In Saudi Arabia maximum compensation prices are as follows (from Wikipedia, according to this document, take at your own risk)

  • 100,000 riyals if the victim is a Muslim man
  • 50,000 riyals if a Muslim woman
  • 50,000 riyals if a Christian or Jewish man
  • 25,000 riyals if a Christian or Jewish woman
  • 6,666 riyals if a Hindu man
  • 3,333 riyals if a Hindu woman.

More generally, however, Diyat will vary by the wages and prospects of the deceased. If that sounds wrong do note that US tort law compensates in a similar way, although as a supplement rather than substitute for criminal law.

The optimal scope and overlap of criminal and tort law is an under-researched topic.


Saudi's have always been anti-Hindu, b/c they feel guilty that their central place of worship, the Kaaba in Mecca, is nothing more than a converted Hindu temple.

No, before Islam the Ka'aba was used in local pagan religions. The reason why Moslems view Hindus so lowly is becaue they're polytheists, and monotheism (the Shehada) is the absolute first pillar of Islam. The Koran explicitly holds other "people of the book" (i.e., Christians and Jews) on a higher level than polytheistic and anamist religions like Hinduism and Buddhism.

Sharia Law: Coming soon to a neighborhood near you.

"Sharia Law: Coming soon to a neighborhood near you."

Yeah, if that neighborhood is in Peshawar.

Hey - we used to do the centuries that most of the readers here might remember as "the Dark Ages." The law codes of the post-Roman Germanic kingdoms were very careful about putting differential values on people. The most common word historians use (though it wasn't in universal usage in the codes of the Germanic kingdoms, and there are lots of spelling variations) is wergild, or "person-price." The differentials included things like:
German / free Roman / Slave
Man / Woman
Pregnant Woman / prepubescent female or post-menopausal female

You get the picture. But that was before the reimposition in most of Europe of the Roman code. Which happened a LONG time ago.

Alex, are you freakin' serious?

Add this to things economists (of all stripes) frequently err about: money fixes everything.

Meanwhile, we have yet to hear from the victim as to the acceptability of this arrangement.

This practice had deep roots in pre-Norman Anglo-Saxon law and was known as wergeld. You compensated a family for many kinds of actions now categorized as criminal. The rise of central authority converted this private scheme to a public system--perhaps more likely to keep the peace, certainly more profitable for the king (the payment became a fine).

There's a glaring flaw with the blood money system: it only represents people who are currently negotiating. The murder victim's interests are completely ignored. We don't have good surveys on what (potential) murder victims want, but they probably want more deterrence and less compensation for their families. The mismatch is particularly bad if the murder victim wasn't actually close to his family and/or the family conspired in the murder.

Restitution is not necessarily less moral than vengeance.

A billionaire could go on a murder spree and not worry much about it.

Not if restitution is set high enough

It speaks volumes about this blog that the license-to-kill-(if-u-r-rich) aspect is completely absent from the main post.

And Nick's "set high enough" doesn't work, because if the compensation is high enough to challenge a billionaire, no one poorer than that will be able to pay.

The sliding scales in practice seem to focus on the victim, not on the wealth of the murderer.

The problem with "blood money" restitution is that is fails to remedy the "public nuisance" harm that is the community interest. If A murders B in community C, it is not only B's dependents who suffer.

The value of C, if it now perceived as being a more violent and dangerous area, has declined, both for it's members and prospective entrants. It is, in other words, an environmental externality best pursued by the state.

This is best seen in the case when B is a single man without parents or dependents. Who would one pay restitution to? If the man has family, I can get out of jail for his murder by paying a lump sum, but if he is without a family, then I must rot in prison? Perhaps the state can take the place of the "intestate" for purposes of restitution, but then we are merely buying criminal law indulgences, and I don't think the potential abuses and corruptions of such a system need much elaboration.

So, no thank you. This seems quite primitive and barbarous compared to our legal system.

The objection that the wealthy can kill with impunity isn't a problem in historical or present-day practice: the victim's family does not have to accept payment. The system coexists alongside more violent forms of justice, public or private. The victim's next-of-kin have an option.

The real problem in both historical and present-day practice is the inability of the system to deter intra-family homicides.

$ 9,400 strikes me as fairly low compensation for wrongful death, even in a poor country such as Pakistan. The value of a life is estimated at about $ 3M in the United States, and reasonable awards for murder should be at least double or treble that. In addition, the community needs to be compensated for the "public nuisance" harm. Why isn't Ahmed paying $ 200,000 or more?

Having said that, I agree that wrongful death compensation is a sensible alternative to criminal prosecution, as long as the perpetrator confesses promptly and is no longer considered a danger to the public.

I don't understand. It took five years for Ahmed's benefactors(wife?) to raise the $9400. Why was there a reprieve for the death penalty issued?

Don't forget Aeschylus' The Oresteia. Ending retribution, and establishing a court system (and a blood price), was seen as a positive aspect of civilization to the ancient Greeks.

Wow..Hindus are so low!!. Its Pakistan!!

i dont know what you are implying here. if u are surprised hindus are treated low in pakistan/saudi arabia, its because these Islamic countries treat Hindus (another religion, polytheistic and largely peacuful) with hate and in the worst possible manner. Spread the word to all folks in your immediate circle.

It certainly seems like such a system could be welfare enhancing. Lower taxes/higher public spending associated w/ lower incarceration and court system costs should be sufficient to cover "public nuisance" costs.

A hybrid system that restricts wergild payments from people accused of killing family members might address problems associated with misaligned incentives in such cases.

Practical question - which family members would have sufficient standing to pursue or accept wergild? If a gay man was killed, would his partner be able to collect if the laws of their state prohibited them from being married?

I imagine that this won't actually solve the current US-Pakistan diplomatic row, because there will probably someone willing to pay the victims' families to not take blood money from the US government.

So, rich people can kill whoever they want. Yeah, I don't see a problem with this whatsoever.

You have skipped over the part where it says that the family "may" accept blood money instead of seeking retribution.

But I see your point. In contemporary society, distribution of wealth is less uniform than in most societies which practiced/still practice blood money.

An interesting exception is Saudi Arabia - the wealth gap is enormous there, but diyat is practiced.

Desi Avenger, I have never before heard the claim that the Kaaba was Hindu, or even that there were any Hindus in Mecca at any point in time.

Superheater, I don't think Alex claimed money fixes everything.

Before the Muslim depredations, Hinduism was widespread in Asia, from Angkor Wat and Bali to West Asia, including Kaaba.

@Desi Avenger, Do not consider anything pagan practiced in Arabia as Hinduism.

Don't forget that the Diyat is usually just the visible part. Other institutions usually require some monies too. It's not unusual in these countries to have to compensate the police, the judiciary and other interested parties for their time and attention. As an aside, I've worked in countries where the locals knew very well not to call the police in the first place, due to the fact that the police would charge a fee for being called. I did hear of one instance where the wedding celebrations got slightly out of hand, and the police ended up bringing a couple of tanks to the party!

As has been pointed out upthread, this is how we got our start. One point of state sponsored criminal law is to deter those who don't have the wealth to reimburse for their misdeeds.

"We don’t have good surveys on what (potential) murder victims want, but they probably want more deterrence and less compensation for their families."

yeah, if a primary breadwinner gets killed, he/she would rather have the state spend taxpayer money to imprison his/her murderer, while their family now struggles for money. the primary benefactors from the current system are the ones who prosecute for the state. how many times has a district attorney taken a high profile case, sought out the highest possible sentence, then used the publicity from the case to run for public office (i.e. city council, mayor, etc)?

"A billionaire could go on a murder spree and not worry much about it."

how exactly is the current system better? even if a wealthy man is guilty, he still has to be proven guilty in court. he can use his resources fund a top-class legal team in order to drag out the case as long as possible, forcing the state to cut its losses and offer a plea bargain. suddenly a 25 year sentence becomes just 3 years, with a possibility of parole halfway through. a proper restitution system would be where there is no maximum compensation set by the government. the victims family can demand compensation of any size, and the accused can either accept or take his chances in court. the current legal system cares very little about the victim or their family's wellbeing (unless theyre a government lawyer or law enforcement). its about the state trying to reassure its constituents of their safety and give them peace of mind.

"Restitution is not necessarily less moral than vengeance."

Except this isn't restitution, its redistribution. Several posters have pointed out that there's no way to indemnify the primary victim.

I wonder if this has ever produced a moral hazard. Arrange a murder with a prearranged agreement to accept the booty in place of criminal prosecution. Especially dangerous among folks who seem to kill wives and daughters to preserve their "honor".

Somalia and Somalialand have a version of this, as part of a legal system called xeer. The society is arranged in kinship networks. When two Somalis meet, they first have a conversation about how they are related. Kill somebody,and you owe their widow 50 camels. Fail to pay, and your tribe owes their tribe the 50 camels. It's not a perfect system, or a perfect culture, but Somalialand is far less "lawless" than it is portrayed in western media, even without having a central government. (Somalialand is the northern, formerly British, area, Somalia is the Southern, formerly Italian, area,and the two regions have somewhat different "personalities".)
A better understanding of how all this works out could solve the piracy problem.

"said the United States has global regulatory most strict, efficiency is the highest capital market" and said American capital market implement strict industrial policy functions. A few years later, the author referred to see the "strict supervision" where? American financial crisis in the United States after the home and abroad have said to Wall Street's greed

substitute restitution for retribution. Restitution systems have a number of virtues. One virtue of restitution is that it puts the victim’s family at the center of the process rather than ignoring their interests. Criminal law, in contrast, replaces the interests of victims with the interests of the state. Perhaps this is sometimes necessary (what to do about victims without families?) but restituti

Life of Raymond Davis has been saved due to this Blood Money only. And that is used pretty frequently in Pakistan actually.

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