If ever there were a time to find your way off death row in Iran, it’s right now. Judicial executions have sped up dramatically under President Hassan Rouhani. Despite his outwardly friendly appearance, he seems particularly fond of sending his citizens to the gallows. But if you’re a death row convict in the Islamic Republic, a little rote learning could be your path to freedom, because Iranian prisoners are seeing their sentences commuted, or even earning their release, by memorizing and reciting holy text.
According to Reza Sadeghi, head of Isfahan Province Endowments and Charities, 16 death row prisoners held in Central Isfahan Prison—five women and 11 men—were pardoned after they successfully memorized the Quran. Of those pardoned, 15 were released entirely, and one prisoner had his death sentence reduced to 15 years imprisonment.
Effectively, this is time off for good behavior, and entirely discretionary. At present, the policy of Quranic reprieve is more de facto than de jure; there is no law on the books in Iran specifying sentence reduction for memorizing the Quran. In reality, the decision on who among the hufaaz (a term used by modern Muslims for those who’ve memorized the entire Quran) receives a pardon may depend on a variety of factors, namely the nature of the crime and the political will of the authorities. For example, convicted rapists and political saboteurs probably have less chance of gaining their freedom than burglars or even murderers whose crimes involved no distinct political motive. According to the International Federation for Human Rights, the following crimes are punishable by death in Iran: murder, rape, child molestation, sodomy, drug trafficking, armed robbery, kidnapping, terrorism and treason.
Iran isn’t the first country to toy with the idea of allowing hufaaz a chance at escaping punishment for their crimes. The governments of Kuwait, the UAE and the Gaza Strip have all cut offenders a break provided they can recall at least some of the Quran’s 114 verses from memory. The late ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Maktoum Ibn Rashid Al Maktoum, implemented a scaled system whereby the sentence reduction was linked to the amount of Quranic text that a prisoner was able to memorize: Convicts could reduce their sentence by up to 20 years for memorizing the entire Quran, but they could also receive lesser reductions for just memorizing parts of the book. The extent of a prisoner’s Quranic memorization is usually tested by asking that prisoner to recite the text aloud.
It may seem baffling to Westerners that a little pious recollection could earn a murderer’s freedom, but for Iran’s politicos the reasoning is clear. First, memorizing the Quran verbatim is no easy task, so only a tiny minority will ever achieve it. The holy book of Islam contains roughly 77,430 words. Unlike the Christian Bible, which is, at least, broadly available in recognisable if old-fashioned English, the Quran is written in an archaic form of Arabic only truly understood by scholars of the language. For many prisoners, memorization of the entire text is way beyond their intellect. The 15 prisoners released this year are a tiny fraction of those sentenced—269 people were executed by the state between August and December alone in Iran in 2013.
Secondly, there’s a strong religious imperative to release good Quranic practitioners. The idea that those capable of memorizing the Quran are worthy of special praise is deeply rooted in Islamic culture; through memorization one draws closer to embodying the religion itself and, according to the Hadith (the sayings of Muhammed), becoming hufaaz puts you on the straight path to heaven. Which is a pretty good deal for any death row prisoner on a fast-track to hell.