How Does Blood Money Work?

What an arm and a leg will cost you.

Iraq national football players

An Iraqi soccer goalie was accidentally shot to death by a policeman on Monday during a post-game celebration, the second player shot in Iraq that day. The goalie’s family has requested that the policeman pay “blood money” for the death of their son. How do blood-money payments work?

Not that differently from Western damage settlements. In the Muslim world, the tradition of blood-money payments, or diyya, comes from the Quran, in which it is set out as a more humane alternative to the practice of eye-for-an-eye retaliation: “A believer should not kill another believer, unless it happens unintentionally; whoever does so unintentionally must pay diyya to the family.” Under Islamic tradition, the family of a murder victim can also choose to accept a blood-money payment in lieu of the death sentence, jail time, or lashing that might otherwise be meted out. In practice, diyya works like an out-of-court settlement in a Western tort case, and its payment is often more prosaic than the term blood money implies. Foreigners who plan to drive a car in Islamic countries are often encouraged to purchase coverage for potential blood-money claims as part of their regular auto insurance.

Diyya doesn’t only apply when someone is killed. But lesser injuries merit smaller payments to the victim, and there are intricate hierarchies of value: The loss of a normal hand, for example, is worth more than the loss of a hand with one finger missing; arms and legs are worth the same amount; and penalties are higher for injuries incurred during the holy season. In Iran and Saudi Arabia, where Islamic law is state-sanctioned, minimum diyya payments are set by statute and vary according to the gender and religion of the victim. In traditional Islamic texts, the price of a Muslim man was set at 100 camels; today in Saudi Arabia, the minimum payment for a Muslim man is around $26,000—with the life of a Christian or a Jew valued at about half that. Women’s lives are typically appraised at lower amounts as well. (In recent years, there has been a movement toward greater equality in blood-money payments.) Qatar recently raised the penalty for an accidental killing to around $55,000. It’s generally understood that if the accused can’t raise the cash himself, his extended clan will pitch in.

While diyya isn’t now an official part of Iraqi law, the soccer player’s family will probably receive payment for his death, according to regional custom. Bedouin tribes in places like Egypt and Jordan sometimes follow their own tradition of blood-money payments, arising from a pre-Islamic Arabic context. Although blood money exists completely outside the realm of state law in these cases, the basic principle is the same: When a member of one tribe is injured or killed, a mediator negotiates an amount payable by the offending tribe. Payments vary, but among the Bedouin, women’s lives are valued at as much as eight times that of men, and camels are still accepted as tender.

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Explainer thanks Noah Feldman of Harvard University, Intisar Rabb of Princeton University, and Clark Lombardi of the University of Washington School of Law.