Punishment of Theft – Reflection on Qur’ȃnic Verses

وَالسَّارِقُ وَالسَّارِقَةُ فَاقْطَعُوا أَيْدِيَهُمَا جَزَاءً بِمَا كَسَبَا نَكَالًا مِّنَ اللَّهِ ۗ وَاللَّهُ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ

“Cut off the hands of thieves, whether they are male or female, as punishment for what they have done—a deterrent from God: God is almighty and wise. But if anyone repents after his wrongdoing and makes amends, God will accept his repentance” (5:38-39). 

This is how the Qur’ânic verses 5:38-39 are usually translated. The expression, faqta’û aydîyyahumȃ فاقطعؤا أيديهما is straightforwardly translated by most as ‘cut off their hands’. Impression is left that the Divine ordinance is to amputate the hands of a thief. The above translation shows confused and less thought over use of some of the words in the verse. This lack of reflection on its words gives the impression of severity and harshness of Merciful Allȃh. To understand by the expression faqta’û aydîyyahumȃ فاقطعؤا أيديهما ‘cutting off’ in the sense of ‘chopping off’ the hands takes things too far as compared to Bible, because the Bible never orders cutting off the hands of thieves.

What follows is neither an apology nor an attempt to indulge in a lengthy interpretation. It is simply an explanation of Arabic words used in this verse. Allȃh says: “The responsibility of explaining it [Qur’ȃn] lies on Us.” (75:19). It means, the explanation of Qur’ânic verse should come from Qur’ân. We will let Qur’ân speak for itself and explain its message. Qurȃ’nic Arabic is the so called “Classical Arabic” (lughat al-Fusaha), written and spoken at the time the Noble Qur’ân was revealed. It is different from modern spoken Arabic. If we are sincere to understand what is being said in the above verses, we have to look at lexica of classical Arabic and not modern Arabic dictionaries.

We begin with the key word al-Sȃriq السارق – The word used in the verse for a male thief is not sȃriq سارق but al-Sȃriqالسارق , and for the female al-Sȃriqaالسارقة and not sȃriqa سارقة. Unfortunately, most modern translators do not give adequate attention to the suffix al ال before sȃriq. The presence of the suffix al الbefore Arabic word is of great importance to understand what is being said and how it should be understood. Allȃh is not Rahmȃn رحمان – the gracious – who can also be you, but alRahmȃn الرحمان – the Most Gracious. Similarly, He is not just merciful (Rahîm رحيم ) but Ever Merciful (AlRahîm الرحيم). In Arabic suffix al ال adds a kind of perfection to the word. Thus al-Sȃriq would apply to a man and woman perfect in their profession, who are addicted to theft, habitual, unreformed thiefs—possibly kleptomaniac, or a thief who has perfected himself in the art of stealing. Any translation that does not take into consideration the importance of the suffix al الis apt to mislead its reader and Sharî’a law maker.

Now we come to the next key word qata‘a قطع. This word is translated as “to cut off” and gives the impression of “to chop off” with sword or a knife. It occurs 14 other times in the same verb form in Qur’ân, and with the exception of 59:5 and possibly 69:46 all other occurrences mean the non-physical or metaphorical action ( cf. 2:27, 3:127, 6:45, 7:72, 8:7, 9:121, 13:25, 15:66, 22:15, 27:32, 29:29, 56:33). The classical lexica give the following meaning to the word qata‘a قطع: to separate, sever, cross, divide, suppress, curtail asunder, decide, pass or traverse, infest, abolish, intercept, isolate (Tȃj al-‘Arûs, Lisȃn al-‘Arab. Lane’s Classical Arabic English Dictionary). Why should we limit the meaning of qata’a to only one meaning of cutting off in the sense of chopping off.

Arabic, like all languages possess its own treasure of idioms, which when translated literally will remove the beauty of the language and often mislead to wrong understanding. How it will sound the word for word translation of “How do you do?” in any other language of the world? Qata‘a al-Sabîl قطع السبيل (- to cut off the way; rob by force or cut communications), Qata ‘a lisȃnah لسانة قطع (- to make one speechless with arguments), Qata ‘a khasmahu bil-hujjah قطع خصمه بالحجٌة (- to overpower one’s opponents with arguments), Qata ‘a rahimhu qatîah قطيعة قطع رحمه (- he cut off his relations), Qata ‘a unuqa dabbatihi قطع عنق دابة (- he sold off his animal). These are examples of Arabic idioms. Thus, qata‘a قطع has a much broader meaning and cannot be limited to one meaning. Imȃmghib says, qata ‘a قطع is applicable to things that are visible to eye (basarبصر) and but also visible to the eye of intellect (basîrat بصيرة ). One should give the credit of idiom to the expression faqta’û aydîyyahumȃ فاقطعؤا أيديهما – ‘limit their power’

If we limit the understanding of a word qata’a قطعto ‘cutting off’ in the sense of ‘chopping off’, we will face problem in understanding others verses where the same word is being used; for example verse 12:31. There we read: “So when they (- the women) saw him (Joseph) they found him a dignified personality and cut their hands”. Did the women in the narration of Joseph really cut off their hands and chopped them off? This meaning does not make any sense. The sincere understanding leads to translate the word qata’na aidiyahunnaأيديهنٌ قطعن “mark their hands” because of knifes in their hands or inflicted some visible wounds on their hands. They could in no way “cut off their hands” in the sense of chopping off. The reaction of women when they saw Joseph was of awe and wonder (وَقُلْنَ حَاشَ لِلَّهِ مَا هَـٰذَا بَشَرًا إِنْ هَـٰذَا إِلَّا مَلَكٌ كَرِيمٌ) that the knives in their hand left marks on their hands, a kind of scar so that they could not deny later how they reacted when they saw Joseph’s dignified personality. Look at the verse 2:27where Qur’ân says: وَيَقْطَعُونَ مَا أَمَرَ اللَّهُ بِهِ أَن يُوصَلَ “and they sever [يَقْطَعُونَ] the ties which Allâh has bidden to be joined” and again in 27:32 قَالَتْ يَا أَيُّهَا الْمَلَأُ أَفْتُونِي فِي أَمْرِي مَا كُنتُ قَاطِعَةً أَمْرًا حَتَّىٰ تَشْهَدُونِ – “I decide [قَاطِعَةً]no important matter except when you are present with me” in other words, ‘I am not the one who makes the last decision without consulting you’. Here qata‘a قطع is being used as a figurative speech for ‘decide’. Similarly, فَقُطِعَ دَابِرُ الْقَوْمِ الَّذِينَ ظَلَمُوا “This is how the remnants of these people who acted wrongfully were completely rooted out” (6:45). There are several other verses that show قُطِعَ is not “chopping off” (e.g. 9:110; 11:81; 22:15; 27:32; 22:15; 47:22). Now, those who insist the verse 5:33 demands amputation and translate this verse as such, should reflect on the cited verses and its message of Mercy for all mankind in the Holy Qur’ân. There is no example that the Holy Prophet ordered an amputation and witnessed that his order was carried out. Narrations that this act actually happened should create doubts about their authenticity or the understanding of the classical Arabic expressions used in them.

Let us now look now at the classical dictionary for the meaning of word yadd يد usually translated as hand. The word yadd يد means besides hand: wing, favour, power, authority, help, protection, influence. All these meaning can easily apply to yadd يد in the verse 5:38 if one insists that the correct meaning of should be ‘to cut’. When these meaning are combined with the above meanings of qata‘a قطع they will give the proper understanding of the Qur’ânic expression faqta’û aydîyyahumȃ فاقطعؤا أيديهما. “Cut the hand” can also stand for to disgrace, or make one to shame as the Arabic Idiom Saqata fi yadihî سقت في يدهي (he felt ashamed, he was smitten with remorse) would suggest (Tȃj al-‘Arûs, Lisȃn al-‘Arab. Lane’s Classical Arabic English Dictionary). It should also be noted that the word aydîyyahumȃ is in the Arabic plural meaning 3 or more hands and not one hand. This plural usage causes problems for the common interpretation of hand cutting.

Yet there is another key word nakȃlan نكالاِ that needs attention. Nakila نكل is a strong fetter or iron on leg (Tȃj, Lane, Lisȃn). Nakilihi نكله is to stop someone following a path that he/she is currently treading. Nakȃlan نكالاِ will include all measures that can stop a person treading a wrong path (cf. 2:69; 73:12). In the verses under discussion (5:38) Allȃh suggests any kind of punishment that will stop the person treading the wrong path of stealing. The idiom faqta’û aydîyyahumȃ فاقطعؤا أيديهما includes all kinds of punishments that can be used to stop further thefts, not limited to chopping off the hands.

One has no choice left but to go back to the Arabic of the time of the Holy Prophet before presenting to the world an extremely harsh translation of an injunction, and calling it Qur’ânic injunction and making it a part of sharî’a. Nothing hinders us to translate expression faqta’û aydîyyahumȃ فاقطعؤا أيديهما ‘restrict their power of stealing’, ‘disgrace them’, ‘put a mark on their hands’, ‘make them shameful’, and not ‘chopping off their hands’ for stealing an egg. You will face difficulties to justify such a God as Ever Merciful God, Whose Mercy envelopes each and every object of his creation, and Holy Prophet Rahmatu lil-Âlamîn رحمة للعالمين – (Mecry for the mankind) before non-believers.

There is one working example given in Qur’ȃn of theft and its punishment is in the Chapter 12 (“Joseph”), in which option 3 is done by detaining the one guilty of theft, so that he can work to repay/compensate for the theft. We read in 12:73-74,

“They replied, ‘By Allâh, you know well that we did not come to commit mischief in this country, nor are we (professional) thieves.’ They (- the Egyptians) said, ‘What shall be the punishment for this (theft) if you are (proved to be) liars?’ They replied, ‘The punishment for this is that he in whose saddle-bag this (vessel) is found shall himself be the penalty for it (and so he himself shall be detained as its forfeit). This is how we punish the wrong doers’.” Verse 12:79 makes it clear that Joseph (described in 6:84 as one of the guided and a good doer) was acting in accordance with God’s law in detaining only the one guilty of theft. “He (Joseph) said, ‘God forbid that we take anyone except the one with whom we found our property, for (otherwise) we would, of course, be unjust’.” (12:79). These law maker may now follow in their interpretation the example of the “one who was guided” (6:84).

There are a few sayings in Muslim Traditions (Ahȃdîth), when rendered carelessly into English lead to the same wrongly understood meaning. For example: Aisha reported Allȃh’s Messenger as saying, “The hand of a thief should be cut off but for a quarter of a dinar and what is above that.” (Bukhȃrî 8:6789; Muslim 3:4175-79). This translation must be questioned. Then, the question is, did Holy Prophet (pbuh) meant any thief (sȃriq) or a professional thief – al-Sȃriq? Was he referring to particular person? Is not possible he meant just disgrace him, or make him shameful? These questions should be answered with certainty, sincerity and grace, not by speculation and opinion. In another story, Abu Huraira reported the Prophet as saying, “God curses the thief who steals an egg, for which his hand is to be cut off, or steals a rope for which he has his hand cut off!” (Bukhȃrî 8:6799; Muslim 3:4185). Accordingly, Muhammad (pbuh) condemns the thief who steals egg to an extremely painful act and converts him for his entire life into a handicapped person who can be otherwise useful to the society. Lastly, whatever interpretation you chosen for above Traditions, it is important to keep in your mind the recurring theme of equivalence and mercy in the Holy Qur’ân, the punishment should be proportionate to the crime: One should reflect on this verse:

وَجَزَاءُ سَيِّئَةٍ سَيِّئَةٌ مِّثْلُهَا ۖ فَمَنْ عَفَا وَأَصْلَحَ فَأَجْرُهُ عَلَى اللَّهِ ۚ إِنَّهُ لَا يُحِبُّ الظَّالِمِينَ

“And (keep in mind that) the recompense of an evil done is a punishment equal to it (for an evil merits an equal evil). But he who pardons (an offender) and (thereby) improves the matter (and effects thereby a reform in the offender) shall have his reward from Allâh. Behold! He does not love those who are cruel [the wrong doers]”. (42:40)

Problem with these traditional sayings (ahȃdith) is the English rendering of Arabic words, in particular al-Sȃriq, qata’a and yadd. Qata’a قطع is taken for granted as ‘cutting off’ in the sense of chopping off by an Arab or an Arabic speaking person, or the one who is unaware of the Classical Arabic Lexica and of broader meanings these words carry. To translate qata‘a قطع as to cut may be correct in modern Arabic, but how this was understood at the time of the Holy Prophet. No doubt there is a sea of differences in the understanding of a word in classical Arabic and modern Arabic. To limit the meaning of a Qur’ânic verse to modern Arabic will limit the vastness of Qur’ân and its messages and shall be misleading. There may be nothing wrong with the sayings mentioned in Bukhȃrî and by Abu Muslim when read in original Arabic and effort is made to understand them; wrong are the impression they create in the minds of simple Muslim when they are presented or translated without proper explanation and usage of Arabic idiom.

Objectively speaking, the practice of cutting the hands emerges from pagan Arab custom, but the Qur’ân restricted it to Al-Sȃriq taking it away from sȃriq. At time of famine under Caliph Umar’s reign, the Caliph suspended the pagan practice of cutting the hands completely. There were many other pagan customs and practices Qur’ân wanted to abolish. For example stoning to death a person convicted of adultery and fornication was a cruel punishment practiced by the Jews and some pagan Arabs. Just by simple injunction of prohibition of stoning one might come to the conclusion that Holy Qur’ân, if not welcomes adultery and fornication, but at least does not prohibit it. The Qur’ânic injunction on adultery and fornication reads as follows: “Strike the fornicatress and adultress, and the fornicator and adulterer on the body of each of them a hundred times” (24:2).

This verse beautifully combines prohibition of stoning to death in case of adultery, and at the same time expresses extreme dislike for such an act by presenting an alternative “should be” punishment. The alternative punishment should deter one from this act. At the same time it imposes strict applicable conditions to impose the offered punishment – namely four witnesses should come forward who witnessed the act being done. The verse continues with the protection of women in case of false allegation. “Strike eighty times on the bodies of those who calumniate chaste women and who do not support (their accusation) with four eye witnesses” (24:4).

Similarly, widely practiced polygamy was to be discouraged for an ideal society. Pagan Arabs used to have dozens of wives. Even the Holy Prophet had several wives before verse 4:3 was revealed. In order to abolish this practice for a better society, Qur’ân first restricted the number of wives to four (4:3), and at the same time added restriction to meet conditions for the second wife –equitable dealing, maintaining of balance between them and treat them equally and just. In order to discourage further this practice completely Qur’ân added: “It is not within your power to maintain balance and justice between them, even though you be ever eager to do so” (4:129). Similar was the case with the thieves. Qar’an restricted the punishment to al-Sȃriq, taking it away from sȃriq.

Next, it should be recalled that the next verse (5:39) says that Allȃh accepts the repentance of a thief, and it seems to imply that the repentance before the penalty blocks the mutilation that a sharî’a court may impose. Repentance after mutilation does not make any sense. This verse contains a message of hope for a thief when it says “Allȃh is Great Protector, Ever Merciful”. What His Protection and Mercy mean if the mutilation has already been carried out? Allȃh keeps the door of repentance open because of His Great Mercy and reminds the evil doer that He is a Great Protector and He can protect him or her from the punishment that waits him if he desists from such acts in the future.

We do not intend to insult any religion or to paint it with a broad brush. The Christian opponents of Islam will not hesitate to bring that brush when we insist on cutting hands of all thieves in the sense of chopping them and making him handicapped. On their own part they will go into lengthy explanation to the words in Matthew 18:8 that say if people’s hands cause them to sin, the people should cut them off. In the case of a thief it is the hand that causes sin, and in Deuteronomy 25:11-12 which states that if a woman sees her husband and another man fighting, and she grabs the other man’s genitals to defend her husband, then her hand is to be cut off.