8.1 Punishment for stealing
The last few years have seen the introduction of ‘Islamic Law’ (Shariah or Shariat) in some countries which call themselves Islamic States. One law in particular, quite often labelled by the West as barbaric, is the severing of a hand for theft. The so-called Islamic States which carry out these punishments do so for various political reasons, primarily to create fear and to hold on to power. Unfortunately, they go unquestioned, simply due to the fact that most people in the countries in question have no solid grounding in the Qur’anic injunctions regarding these issues.
According to the Qur’an, any punishment should fit the crime. The Qur’an says:
(5:45) And We prescribed for them therein: The life for the life, and the eye for the eye, and the nose for the nose, and the ear for the ear, and the tooth for the tooth, and for wounds of retaliation. But whoso forgoeth it (in the way of charity) it shall be expiation (atonement for past sins) for him. Whoso judgeth not by that which Allah hath revealed; such are wrong-doers.
If we are to follow the Qur’anic guidance that the punishment should fit the crime, then we cannot cut off the hand of a person who has stolen wealth as such a punishment would be utterly inconsistent with the nature of the original offence. Rather, we have to look very carefully at the verses which deal with this issue. The Law regarding this punishment is given in verses 5:38,39. In verse 38 the word yad is translated in its literal sense as ‘hand’. However, besides ‘hand’ the word yad also means ‘strength of hands’, ‘power’, ‘property’, ‘wealth’, ‘blessings’, ‘obligation’, and ‘support’. Many Arabic words contain such multiple meanings and it is important to note that the appropriate meaning will always depend on the context in which it is used. Here the context is stealing (i.e. of wealth) and therefore for the punishment to fit the crime wealth should be recompensed for wealth and not ‘hand’ for ‘wealth’. The thief should be given a punishment where he is made to give up his wealth to make good the loss of the person he has robbed. Hence the following translation of the verse, as given by the late Ahmed Ali Khan Jullundri in his translation and commentary of the Qur’an, is accurate:1
(5:38) As for the thieves, male or female, cut off their means of support and favours, take away their wealth and what they have hoarded, and make their hands and strength work (for the person whom they have robbed till the price of the stolen goods and some fine is recovered), an exemplary punishment from Allah for their serious crime and Allah is Mighty, Over-powering and the Possessor of great knowledge and He is the best disposer.2
The above translation also makes clear sense of the verse that follows it.
(5:39) But if the thief has repented and returned all the stolen goods and has mended himself, then truly Allah turns to him in forgiveness; surely Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.
On the other hand if verse 5:38 is translated literally to mean cutting off the physical hand, then verse 5:39 cannot be sustained logically. It would be ridiculous to suggest that Allah turns to a repentant thief who is now minus a hand! How is forgiveness appropriate after such a heavy penalty! However, we are told that if the thief returns the stolen goods and repents and reforms then he should be forgiven. This facility is directly at odds with any thought of cutting off a limb as a means of retribution, since such an action is irreversible.
In fact, in a truly Islamic State the question of cutting off a hand would not arise at all. There would be social justice and the State would act as trustee for the entire population. Hunger, injustice and poverty would be eliminated, as the wealth would be used for the benefit of the people. Further, the Qur’an states quite clearly that any such crime must be forgiven if there are mitigating circumstances i.e. poverty, hunger etc., as stated in the following verse
(5:3) […]whoso is forced by hunger, not by will, to sin: (for him) lo! Allah is forgiving, Merciful.
So how can these verses ever be construed to advocate the cutting off of a hand? In tracking down the cause, for the mistranslation of verse 5:38 we need look no further than the prolific Hadith compilers who ‘report’ this un-Qur’anic retribution for theft (Bukhari 5.597, Muslim 4190, Abu Daud 4367, 4396).