Saturday, June 11, 2011

LESSON 13: “The punishment for theft”

LESSON 13: “The punishment for theft”

(Thanks to "Wakas")

“And (as for) the man who steals and the woman who steals, cut off their hands as a punishment for what they have earned, an exemplary punishment from Allah; and Allah is Mighty, Wise.”


The Arabic word translated as "cut" in
is "iqtaa", and it occurs fourteen other times in the same verb-form (QaTaA). With the exception of 59:5 and possibly 69:46, all other occurrences mean the non-physical or metaphorical action of "cutting off a relationship" or "ending" (, 3:127, , 7:72, 8:7, 9:121, , 15:66, , 27:32, 29:29, 56:33).

The derivatives that are read in the second verb-form (QaTTaA) occur seventeen times. This form, which expresses intensity or frequency of the action, is used to mean physically cutting-off (5:33, 7:124, 20:71, 26:49, 13:31), metaphorically cutting-off (2:166, 6:94, 7:160, 7:167, 9:110, 47:15, 47:22, 21:93, 22:19, 23:53) as well as physically cutting/marking (12:31, 12:50). It is interesting to note that even though uses the more intensive verb-form with both "cut" and "hands" together, it does not mean "cut off". The less intensive form is employed in .

Secondly, the Arabic word for "hands" (aydi) is often used in the Qur’an in a metaphorical/metonymical manner (examples are 2:195, 2:237, 3:3, 3:73, 5:64, 6:93, 8:70, 9:29, 23:88, 28:47, 30:36, 38:45, 48:10, 48:24, 111:1), and often it has a meaning of “power”/”means”. It should also be noted that this word is in the Arabic plural meaning three or more hands, whilst only two people are referenced: the male and the female thief. Some have commented that this plural usage causes problems for the common interpretation of “hand-cutting”.

Therefore it is possible to understand the punishment for thieves in three alternative ways: (1) cutting off their hands, (2) cutting or marking their hands or (3) cutting their means to steal (or cutting their hands from committing the crime). It is up to the society to choose one of these meanings or a combination of them depending upon the severity of the crime and their ability to enforce the penalty.

However, it should be said that the only working example given by the Qur’an of theft and its punishment is in the story of Joseph, in which option 3 is done by detaining the one guilty of theft (12:73-75).

Furthermore, 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.
Thus, one possible meaning of is to apply it in the manner provided by Joseph's example.

If lashings are given as punishment for proven adultery, the Qur’an states to not let pity/compassion prevent one from carrying them out (24:2). However, it says no such thing for the alleged hand-cutting verse though many would consider this punishment to be worse. This adds to the possibility that it should not be taken to mean “cutting”.

Lastly, whatever interpretation is chosen, it is important to keep in mind the recurring theme of equivalence in the Qur’an. Thus the punishment should be proportionate to the crime:

“And the recompense of evil is punishment like it, but whoever forgives and amends, he shall have his reward from Allah; surely He does not love the unjust.”

Qur’an 42:40

It is thus clear that to physically cut off the hand or hands of the thief is not the only possible understanding. Taking into account the law of equivalence, it would perhaps only be reserved for a significant theft which led to harming others (hence harming the perpetrator). If a Muslim in authority, like Joseph was, were to apply the punishment for theft, like Joseph did, then they would be following the example of one guided.

For instance, a Muslim society cannot punish a hungry person for stealing food since letting a member of the society go hungry is a bigger crime than the act of stealing food. Such a society demonstrates the characteristics of a lack of appreciation (107:1-7, 89:17-20 and 90:6-20). Considering theft solely as an individual crime and advocating the severest possible interpretation is neither fair nor consistent with the scripture. Moreover, the degree of repentance is a consideration when deciding penalties:

“But whoever repents after his iniquity and reforms (himself), then surely Allah will turn to him (mercifully); surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.”

(The turning of Allah (SWT) mercifully means that the punishment will not be inflicted because it is described as Allah’s (SWT) punishment in

The situation is conceptually similar to , where Muslims are instructed to keep women guilty of lesbianism in their homes “until death takes them” or “until Allah finds for them some other way”. Obviously this means “for however long it takes before they are forgiven or married etc.”. The severest interpretation is subject to so many considerations that it would be virtually impossible for it to be appropriate.

1 comment:

  1. Ahadth of a number of the Companions of the
    Prophet recorded on leaves (Saha ‘if or in books
    (kutub) is partly of uncertain worth, still there
    can be no doubt that such written records were no
    longer ararity in the generation of the Tabi’un,
    who derived this knowledge from the Companions.