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The bomb ticks on
Jan 1, 2010

Torture is an act that is almost universally condemned. It is prohibited in international law and is not officially sanctioned by any domestic laws in any state. Nevertheless, torture is widely used. The formal prohibition against torture is absolute, so there should be no exceptions to it.

Article 1 of the United Nations Convention against Torture defines torture as:

… any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind.

There is also a myriad of laws and conventions prohibiting the use of torture. In the oft-repeated words of the European Convention of Human Rights, Article 3 states that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” A large number of international laws have been adopted to combat torture from Article 5 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the four 1949 Geneva Conventions, the 1966 UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 7 of the 1984 UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) , and the 1987 European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

The ticking time-bomb scenario

In spite of torture being almost universally condemned, some have sought to justify the use of it in the “ticking time-bomb” scenario. While some versions of the scenario are more or less elaborate, the basic idea is that a terrorist has placed a bomb in a public place; if it is detonated many innocent lives will be lost. The authorities have detained a terrorist and are certain that the terrorist has relevant information as to the whereabouts of the bomb. The terrorist knows details that could lead to its defusing, however without the terrorist’s confession there is no other way to defuse the bomb. If the information is provided, the bomb will be diffused and the terrorist will not be tortured. But if the terrorist does not reveal the relevant details, he will be tortured until he does so.

The question posed in this situation is whether the torture of the person is permissible, impermissible or obligatory. Defenders of torture argue that it is permissible, and in some cases even obligatory; the right of the person with information not to be tortured is outweighed by the right of potential bomb victims not to be killed or injured. Given the choice between inflicting a small level of harm on a wrongdoer and saving the lives of many innocent people, is it morally indecent to prefer the interest of the wrongdoer?

The problem with the ticking time-bomb scenario is that it is impossible to know in advance how much pain would be caused by the bomb exploding and how much pain would be caused by the torture. Morally, it does not matter who experiences the pain or how intense it is. No one should go through such pain.

A critique of the ticking time-bomb scenario as a defense of torture

There are many reasons why torture is impermissible. Even if we accept it as a necessary evil, torture is an unreliable way to obtain information and evidence, especially when terrorist organizations know about torture and prepare for it by ensuring that no individual knows all the facts of any one operation. A person being tortured will say almost anything the torturers want to hear, even if it is false, so that their pain and suffering will come to an end. Another reason why torture should be prohibited is the fact that every society detests the violation of common morals; torture is a way of destroying the existing moral fabric of societies.

The ticking time-bomb misrepresents the real world. It is a simplification of reality in order to persuade people that torture can be permissible under certain circumstances. The torturer, for instance, is not portrayed as cruel and insensitive to the victims’ pleas, but rather as a heroic and conscientious public helper desperate to save the lives of innocent people that are weighing on his conscience. If one was to take this scenario hypothetically, it is worth asking how long a suspect should be tortured. How much should he be tortured? Should the frequency increase if he doesn’t talk, or as time runs out?

Secondly, if an official is willing to torture a person to extract information, why should he stop there? If the terrorist does not crack under pressure and pain, why not move on to torturing his family and friends in front of him? Seeing loved ones hurt is another form of torture that may be viewed as potentially useful as actual torture. Who is to guarantee that in order to extract information from a possible suspect, all probable measures, such as hurting loved ones, should not take place? In a world where the truth is unclear and where the existence of information held by a suspect remains ambiguous, the ticking time-bomb scenario should not be a valid point of reference.

Another way of looking at the ticking time-bomb scenario is the argument that it can help prevent future terrorist acts and act as a warning for others. If torture is permitted, it might be argued that it can help stop crimes. This cannot be the case in a society where right and wrong is judged upon what the behavioral norms of people are. If torture is permitted even in exceptional circumstances, then we run the risk of violence becoming tolerated and accepted in society as a normal response.

Contrastingly, it can be argued that even though in theory the requirements of the ticking time-bomb scenario can be met, in practice it is very difficult. Firstly, there is no guarantee that the suspects being interrogated are in fact terrorists, or, even if they are involved with a terrorist group, it cannot be certain or probable that they in fact have any information. Secondly, torture is not guaranteed to work if the assumption is based on mere possibility, as opposed to the certainty, that torture will make anyone talk. Thirdly, there is very little evidence suggesting that torture obtains results within a short time and in the most effective way.

Torture in Islamic jurisprudence

In Islam, human beings are considered as being the most exalted of all creation, created in the finest manner, adorned with rights and freedoms that cannot be undermined. Consequently, torture and inhuman practices inflicted on human life are strictly forbidden. An authority or state body whose aim is to restore justice cannot go outside the sphere of what is just and apply torture-this is haram, forbidden, in Islamic jurisprudence. The Qur’an explains the concept of justice in the following verse:

O you who believe! Be upholders and standard-bearers of right for God's sake, being witnesses for (the establishment of) absolute justice. And by no means let your detestation for a people (or their detestation for you) move you to (commit the sin of) deviating from justice. Be just: this is nearer and more suited to righteousness and piety. Seek righteousness and piety, and always act in reverence for God. Surely God is fully aware of all that you do. (Al-Maidah 5:8)

In Islamic jurisprudence, a guilty person cannot be forced into confession through torture. If such a case arises, a person cannot be punished for the information they provide as a result of such force. This is because the most important right of an individual under Islamic law is the principle presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty. In Islamic jurisprudence, a conviction has to be based on sound proof and certainty and not on mere probability, like the ticking time-bomb scenario. If there is reasonable doubt, it is seen as being in favor of the accused, not against. This principle is based on the saying of Prophet Muhammad: “Prevent punishment in case of doubt. Release the accused if possible, for it is better that the ruler be wrong in forgiving than wrong in punishing.”

Said Nursi, a twentieth century Islamic scholar, refers to the strict prohibition of torture in Islam as “pure justice” as opposed to “relative justice,” which is taking on the lesser of two evils. He makes reference to the Qur’anic verse “He who kills a soul unless it be (in legal punishment) for murder or for causing disorder and corruption on the earth will be as if he had killed all humankind; and he who saves a life will be as if he had saved the lives of all humankind” (al-Maidah 5:32). Nursi further explains his ideas in light of the Qur’anic verse above.

“[N]o innocent person can be deprived of his or her right to life or sacrificed for the community’s sake. Any right is a right in God’s sight, and thus cannot be abolished for one considered just as great or fundamental.”

When a relative justice approach is taken, the right of an individual is overlooked in favor of the rights of the community. Nursi argues that attempts made to apply relative justice are wrong if it is possible to apply pure justice.

By looking at Islamic principles on torture and the ticking time-bomb scenario as a whole, it can be said that because torture is strictly prohibited in Islam, it cannot be used to attain a confession from a terrorist. As a result, there would be uncertainty and doubt as to the guilt of that individual. In such cases, punishment needs to be prevented on the presumption that the suspect is innocent until proven guilty.

How to prevent both terrorism and torture

In order to eradicate terror and terrorists, we need to be able to go deeper into the core of the problem and ask ourselves this simple question: would a reasonable person go and threaten to kill thousands just for the sake of killing? There has to be a reason behind such an act. If we cannot discover what is bothering one individual, we cannot solve such a problem. If such problems are not listened to and dealt with in a proper humane manner then one side will continue to torture and the other side will continue to threaten to kill, but for how long? In the end, what we need to realize is that we are dealing with a human being who is facing torture, not an animal.

As long as there is not full certainty that the terrorist is guilty, there has to be another way to deal with situations like the ticking time-bomb without having to resort to torture. There has to be an alternative, one that does not discriminate against an individual on the basis of race or religion, without segregation, belittlement or force. One alternative could be interrogation and reasoning with the terrorist, discovering the reason why they have such a person who poses a threat. The interrogators must ask themselves what has made the suspect what he is, what has triggered him to take such a drastic action, and try to discover what he wants. If voices are being heard and individual problems are being dealt with, why is there still such rebellion and terror in our society? If there is terrorism in a society, there must be injustices. In a society where justice is being served, there cannot be terrorism.

Another solution to terrorism lies in the religious foundations and moral upbringing that should be grounded in every individual and society to prevent such scenarios like the ticking time-bomb from arising in the first place. If every society is sustained by religious, moral and human values, then would, without a doubt, be peace. This moral framework is most effective when it is established early on in life through educational upbringing so that later on such concerns do not develop.

Fethullah Gulen, a modern day scholar and thinker, acknowledges that it is through religion that such a moral framework can be instilled within people.

Humankind, since the beginning of time, has found true peace and happiness in religion. As it is impossible to talk of morality and virtue where people do not practice the true religion, it is also difficult to imagine real happiness. For morality and virtue originate in good, clear conscience and what makes conscience good and clear is religion, which is the connection between humanity and God.

It is extremely important for individuals to realize that when dealing with such scenarios as the ticking time-bomb, no religion supports such behavior. In the Qur’an it is stated that “… those who affront believing men and believing women without their having done any wrong to deserve it, they have surely burdened themselves with calumny and a blatant sin” (al-Ahzab 33:58).

Similarly the Bible states “Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:21). Also, in Jewish scriptures, there is reference to Hillel who says in the Talmud, Shabbat 31a “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow.”

If religion and moral values are instilled within individuals effectively, even when there is no one present, the fear of God and the love for God will prevail to prevent such treacherous acts like torture and killing from taking place. Those individuals who fear God are less likely to break the rules if they believe that they are being watched and that any action they do will have a consequence. It can also be said that those individuals who love God in His goodness, compassion and mercy will be more likely to do virtuous acts, above and beyond simple duty. It is when society is filled with such conscious people that crime rates can drop and the door to torture and terror can remain closed. There will neither be terrorist’s withholding information regarding the whereabouts of a bomb nor law enforcement agents waiting to torture possible suspects.

In a nutshell, there are numerous arguments for and against the use of torture in exceptional circumstances like in the ticking time-bomb scenario. However, such circumstances cannot justify the breaching of one human’s right in place of another’s, regardless of the quantity of lives involved on either side of the spectrum. Everyone must have an absolute right to life. It is the lack of prohibition of torture by various states that enable such unnecessary exceptions like the ticking time-bomb to arise. There can be no legitimate basis for the limiting of this human right, because a human right to be free of torture is absolute.


1. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, adopted 10 Dec. 1984, entered into force 26 June 1987, 1467 UNTS 85 (1985), available at

2. European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, signed 4 November. 1950, entered into force 3 Sept. 1953

3. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted 10 Dec. 1948, G.A. Res. 217A, 3 UN GAOR, UN Doc. A/810, at71 (1948), available at

4. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted 16 Dec. 1966, entered into force 23 March 1976, 999 UNTS 171, reprinted in 6 ILM 368 (1967), available at

5. M. A. Abdel Haleem, Adil Umar Sharif and Kate Daniels. Criminal Justice in Islam: Judicial Procedure in the Sharī’a , UK: I.B.Tauris, 2003, p. 48.

6. Abu Dawud, Salat, 14; Tirmidhi, Hudud, 2.

7.Said Nursi, The Letters, The Fifteenth letter from the Risale-i Nur Collection, NJ: The Light, Inc., 2007) p. 92.

8. M. Fethullah Gulen, Criteria or the lights of the way, London: Truestar Publications, 1996, p. 5.