Mutilation is an act or injury that degrades the appearance or function of the (human) body, usually without causing death. The term is usually used to describe the victims of accidents, torture, physical assault, or certain premodern forms of punishment. Acts of mutilation may include amputation, burning, flagellation, or wheeling. In some cases, the term may apply to treatment of dead bodies, such as soldiers mutilated after they have been killed by an enemy.
The use of the term mutilation is controversial with regard to its relation to body modification, since both terms are sometimes interchangable among different persons.
In describing changes made to the body, whether mutilation of body modification, the choice of one term over the other can reflect the speaker's political, religious, cultural or other beliefs. While there are common definitions for both words, in the context of changes to the human body there is no one accepted definition for either "mutilation" or "modification."
For some, any change to living tissue constitutes mutilation. For others, alterations made out of medical necessity are considered modification, while non-medically necessitated changes are mutilation. For yet others, a person's consent is the deciding factor. Dictionary definitions suggest that disfigurement or loss of an essential body part (sometimes inferred as harm or damage) is the criteria for using the term "mutilation".
In general, "mutilation" suggests injury or negative consequence. Thus, people who see a given change either as generally negative, or as a violation of individual rights, will likely choose the term "mutilation."
In general, "modification" suggests enhancement or positive outcome. Thus, people who see a given change, either as generally positive, or an individual choice will likely use the term "body modification."
In many premodern societies without a developed prison system, various forms of mutilation were the standard intermediate punishment, used for crimes considered too severe to be settled with a monetary fine, but not severe enough to deserve the death penalty. Mutilation, especially amputation, is a standard punishment in Islamic Shariah law; the Qur'an prescribes it for repeated stealing. In the Byzantine Empire, it was very widely used after the number of death penalties was much reduced during the 8th century out of religious considerations.