6-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes of Solihull was killed by his father and stepmother in June 2020. In a case that has gripped the nation with disbelief and reignited memories of the tragic 2007 case of Baby P wherein a 17-month-old British boy died in London after suffering more than fifty injuries over an eight-month period, the tragedy of Arthur Hughes exposes again the ugly face of cruelty and abuse.
The ugliness of injustice (ẓulm) like that shown to Arthur sticks around. Like a dark irremovable stain, it besmirches and tugs forcefully at our conscience. There are no ambient lights, no kaleidoscope of colour with ẓulm. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said, “Beware of injustice for indeed injustice is darknesses on the Day of Judgement.” Its darkness is felt too in our world. The outpouring of public sympathy and grief over the tragic killing of Arthur Hughes is indeed a light of compassion but a brutal testament nonetheless to what shouldn’t have happened.
The cruelty shown to Arthur speaks volumes about the state of his torturers. Pitiless, they continued a campaign of merciless indifference as they starved him, poisoned him with salt, and subjected him to prolonged periods of beatings and other punishments. Terrified of the stepmother who murdered him, Arthur’s grandmother recalls that the six-year-old burst into tears when he found out his stepmother was in the car to pick him up and asked: ‘Grandma, can I stay with you?’ The torturers on the other hand were indifferent to their abuse, relishing food and ice cream whilst the boy suffered in agony. Cases of child abuse, domestic violence, state sanctioned violence, school bullying, acts of murder, and rape, are all dialects of the same language of violence.
As humans, we are capable of a lot. We are able to display dizzying acts of love towards one another, to exemplify kindness and friendship, mercy and compassion. Humans are witness to motherly love, parental care, to voluntary sacrifice, and in beautifying their relationships humans can foster feelings of warmth, protection and goodwill. But just as the human is capable of such goodness so too can he inflict unimaginable cruelty. When it comes to the dark side of human potential, one of the most devastating things we can do is to dehumanise others. To dehumanise someone is to decide they do not have, nor do they deserve, the basic rights and dues we give to ourselves and anybody we favour. It is to render them sub-human, unworthy, alien and as a result, completely expendable. Every day the weak and vulnerable are our others, stigmatised, dehumanised. Arthur Hughes was also dehumanised by a couple who gloated in their own security as they witnessed him suffer.
The Qur’an questions man, “O humanity! What has emboldened you against your Lord, the Most Generous.” Was it the torturers’ health, wealth, status that made them feel so confident that nothing would touch them? The Qur’an is replete with examples of individuals who reached heights of temporal power and in their gluttony felt assured in their comfort and status. The oppressive leader, Qārūn from Prophet Mūsa’s time is one such example. In light of his grandiose statements of hubris, the Qur’an questions: “Did he not know that Allah had already destroyed some from the generations before him who were far superior to him in power and greater in accumulating wealth?” The reminder is apt for those who bask in self-glory and security. The parents of Arthur perhaps felt all too self-assured and powerful as they rained their blows on fragile and defenceless Arthur. In the Prophet’s time, a companion, Abū Mas’ūd was beating a servant of his. The Prophet ﷺ, catching sight of him approached him with the words, “You should know, O Abū Mas’ūd…”
What was it at that moment that Abū Mas’ūd ought to have known? What was it that might have slipped the mind of the Prophet’s companion as he held his servant with that firm grip?
“You should know, O Abū Mas’ūd that Allah has more power over you than you have over this boy.”
The words spell out an unmistakeable truth. What is man in the presence of the Creator of all? What is man’s strength in the presence of God, the Originator, the Creator, the Lord of all who will summon the entirety of His creation in His Divine Court to hold each and every wrongdoer to account?
Shaken, Abū Mas’ūd replied: “I will set him free O Messenger of Allah.” The Prophet ﷺ replied:
“Had you not, the fire of hell would have touched upon you.”
We are reminded that the Qur’an teaches that the things we do in this life will not only have a consequence on our eternal fate in the next, but that our actions have a determinable effect on the lives of others in this life and the way such actions are intended and carried out will also weigh considerably on our eternal judgement. The Qur’an informs us those sins not only have consequences on those who carry them out but also on those who witness them, who are affected by them, who are inspired by them, partake in them, and refuse to prevent them.
Taking advantage of another’s weak and fragile state is of the most heinous displays of arrogance and cruelty. To know that small Arthur would be unable to go anywhere to escape the horrors of the house that should have been a home for the small boy, to know that his cries would go unheard and his pleas for love, for food, would be disregarded would have put him in a deep state of trauma. All hopes and dreams that coalesce in young children and that might have once seemed possible were now quashed violently.
Compassion is described as “a painful emotion occasioned by the awareness of another person’s undeserved misfortune.” As we consider the plight of Arthur Smith and the tragedy of loss and pain left in his passing, we are alerted to the great need of showing empathy for the suffering of others. Empathy is a very important Islamic attribute – to feel for another, to identify, to perspective take. Understanding the life experiences and motivations of another can provide us with much clarity about another’s way of thinking, insecurities, fears, and joys. That personal circumstances vulnerability can be understood in relation to how others are to be perceived and treated imparts unto us the importance of having a broad field of cognitive and compassionate vision with respect to our relations with and perceptions of others. This is reflected in Sūrah al-Duha, chapter 93 of the Qur’an. The Andalusian exegete al-Qurtubi explains the instructions to the Prophet ﷺ to treat others in relation to a recalling of events he underwent in his own life as a young man:
“When Allah says, ‘Therefore, treat not the orphan with oppression’, it means ‘remember when you were an orphan’.
And when Allah says, ‘And repulse not the beggar’, it means ‘remember when you were poor’.”
Ibn Kathīr explains: “Be unto the orphan as a merciful father.”
Arthur’s death should serve as a bitter reminder about our collective human responsibility towards each other. Intervention by those state actors responsible will undoubtedly expose failings but let us think also about ‘intervention’ in what is within our capabilities. If we fail to respond when we ‘witness’ then we become spectators seated in our global arena waiting for the next show of human misery. We forego what is inherently good and decent in ourselves in place of a moment of mental image-making. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ taught us the importance of social witnessing and responsibility, “Whoever sees an evil then let him change it with his hand, and whoever cannot then let him change it with his tongue, and whoever cannot then let him at least hate it within his heart – and that is the weakest of faith.”
In John Dean’s account of the tragic and infamous killing of Sylvia Likens in 1964 he notes how ‘the city’s curious, many of them from the several thousand workers in the City-County Building, had come to get a glimpse of the sadistic Likens murderers.’ An attorney in the crowd remarked, ‘If some of these people had been this concerned about Sylvia earlier, she probably would be alive today.’ Stanley Cohen highlights a similar observation in ‘States of Denial’ when commenting on the Israeli killing of Abd al-Samad Harizat on 22 April 1995, a Palestinian who collapsed after fifteen hours of violent interrogation, ‘literally shaken to death – yanked up and down by his shirt collar. A practice designated as perfectly okay in the Israeli High Court. Cohen writes, ‘I overheard two fellow bus passengers casually arguing about what the lawyers actually meant by tilltulium, the Hebrew word for ‘shaking.’’ That perhaps was their biggest concern.
Mercy, compassion and empathy are interlinked features of the best of what all people seek. We prefer mercy over harshness, forbearance over rage, kindness over cruelty. The Prophet ﷺ instructed that kindness be applied in every situation, once teaching his wife ‘Ā’isha (Allah be pleased with her): “Kindness is not found in something except that it makes it beautiful, and it is not removed from something except that it makes it tarnished.” Allah describes Himself with the most beautiful names of al-Raḥmān, al-Raḥīm – the Merciful, Gracious, Bestower of Mercy. There are many things we can do to foster communication based on paradigms of empathy. The task is to try and see the world from another’s point of view. The Prophet ﷺ once said that when he leads the prayer, he intends to pray a lengthy prayer, “and then I hear a child crying so I shorten my prayer as I know his crying will distress his mother.”
The Prophet ﷺ was cognisant of the needs of others and could understand the world of mother and child in relation to what could distress them at that point. The audible distress of another person actualised a kind of witness empathy in the Prophet ﷺ seeking to alleviate both the mother and child’s distress.
The Prophet ﷺ explained, “The merciful will be shown mercy by the Most Merciful. Be merciful to those on the earth and the One in the heavens will have mercy upon you.”
Secondly, the Qur’an calls to maintain good conduct with others, to be mindful of one’s speech, to be warned of rage, of extremes, to be warned of injustice, oppression, and cruelty. It cites examples of persons and people who had displayed arrogance, had oppressed others, who had defrauded others, and had done so with a feeling of utter impunity – for which they were punished.
One of the early verses in the Qur’an concerned the crime of burying baby girls alive. In a scene depicting the Day of Judgement, the Qur’an describes:
“And when the girl-child that was buried alive is made to ask. For what crime she had been slain.”
The verse draws attention to atrocities committed against innocents like Arthur Hughes, those unable to defend and protect themselves, so that on the Day of Judgement wrongs and injustices will be requited and the guilty shall be brought forth to answer for their crimes. The Prophet ﷺ even spoke of the care and compassion due unto animals, that a woman was met with punishment for imprisoning a cat and refusing it food, nor affording it the chance to catch its own food. The Prophet ﷺ said, “A woman entered the (Hell) Fire because of a cat which she had tied, neither giving it food nor setting it free to eat from the vermin of the earth.”
The Qur’an stresses that the infirm, children, orphans, widows, and strangers are to be protected and honoured, that their wealth protected and that a general air of mercy should encompass all social dealings with others. In this we must all take on a ‘witness empathy’ – the idea that empathising is not simply sympathizing or feeling a sense of pain or grievance because of somebody else’s suffering but that the sympathy transforms or transcends into a desire to help that person in his or her suffering. It is not simply an empathising from a geographic or cultural distance or even feeling the need to want to help the person suffering but it is the idea that one feels responsible that justice needs to be done when someone is in suffering.
The killing of Arthur was a monstrous atrocity, a trampling on his weakness and vulnerability, and a complete disregard for the trauma and travesty such an assault would leave on its victim. One cannot but sympathise with Arthur’s mother and grandparents and others who genuinely loved him. His grandmother explained, “For a child to say to his own dad ‘I’m in danger with you daddy…you’re going to kill me,’ there’s something wrong there,” Ms Halcrow said as she spoke movingly about young Arthur. We lose something collectively in the innocent killing of any one of us. As the Qur’an reminds:
“That is why We ordained for the Children of Israel that whoever takes a life—unless as a punishment for murder or spreading corruption on earth—it will be as if they killed all of humanity; and whoever saves a life, it will be as if they saved all of humanity.”
It provides of course comfort knowing that there is a life to come, and there is, from the great mercy of Allah, special care for children who were taken early from this world. In one narration the Prophet ﷺ was shown “a garden of deep green dense vegetation, having all sorts of spring colours. In the midst of the garden there was a very tall man and I could hardly see his head because of his great height, and around him there were children in such a large number as I have never seen. I said to my companions, who is this? They replied, Proceed! Proceed!’ Then among the things that the two companions (angels) said to him was: ‘The tall man whom you saw in the garden, is Abraham and the children around him are those children who die with al-Fitra (the Islamic Faith).” The narrator added: Some Muslims asked the Prophet, “O Allah’s Apostle! What about the children of pagans?” The Prophet ﷺ replied, “And also the children of pagans.”
Narrated by Khalid al-‘Absi: “A son of mine died and I felt intense grief over his loss. I said, Abū Hurayrah, have you heard anything from the Prophet ﷺ to cheer us regarding our dead?’ He replied, I heard the Prophet ﷺ say, ‘Your children are roaming freely in the Garden’.”
 Al-Bukhārī, Adab al-Mufrad, ḥadīth no. 488
 ‘Arthur Labinjo-Hughes’ father and stepmother enjoy ice cream and McDonalds while six-year-old starves in the hallway’ – https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/what-happened-arthur-labinjo-hughes-b1969845.html
 Al-Qur’an, 82:6
 Al-Quran, 28:78
 Al-Bukhārī, Adab al-Mufrad, ḥadīth no. 171
 M. C. Nussbaum, Upheavals of thought: The intelligence of emotions
(Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 2001), p. 301.
 Ibn Kathir, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Azeem (Beirut, Dar al-Maʿrifa: 2003), p. 1721.
 Saḥīḥ Muslim
 John Dean, House of Evil: The Indiana Torture Slaying, p. 90.
 Stanley Cohen, States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, p. 193.
 Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2594
 Sạhị̄h ̣al-Bukhārī 678, Sạhị̄h ̣Muslim 470
 Sunan al-Tirmidhī 1924.
 Al-Bukhārī, Adab al-Mufrad, ḥadīth no. 171
 Sạhị̄h ̣al-Bukhārī 3318
 Al-Qur’an, 5:32
 Sahih Bukhari 7047, Vol 9, Book 87, Number 171
 Al-Adab Al-Mufrad Al-Bukhari 145, Book 8, Number 145