Table of Contents
Amputation for Theft?
وَالسَّارِقُ وَالسَّارِقَةُ فَاقْطَعُوا أَيْدِيَهُمَا جَزَاءً بِمَا كَسَبَا نَكَالًا مِّنَ اللَّهِ ۗ وَاللَّهُ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ
“And as for the man addicted to theft and the woman addicted to theft, cut off their hands in retribution of (the crime) that they have committed—an exemplary punishment from Allâh. And Allâh is All-Mighty and All-Wise.” (5:38)
فَمَن تَابَ مِن بَعْدِ ظُلْمِهِ وَأَصْلَحَ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ يَتُوبُ عَلَيْهِ ۗ إِنَّ اللَّهَ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ
“But whoso turns in repentance after his committing an unjust deed and reforms (himself) then surely Allâh will turn to him with mercy. Verily, Allâh is Great Protector, Ever Merciful.” (5:39)
The expression faqta‘û aydîyyahumȃ, فاقطعؤا أيديهما, in verse 5:38 is usually translated by most as “cut off their hands.” We are left with the impression that the Divine Ordinance requires us to amputate the hands of a thief. However, there is confusion as well as a misunderstanding of some crucial words revealed in the translation of the verse; it gives the wrong impression of severity and harshness of Allah, the Most Merciful. Indeed, His Attribute of Mercy is repeated in the verse that immediately follows.
This chapter is neither an apology nor an attempt to indulge in a lengthy interpretation by delving deeply into the books of Ahadith (traditions) and Islamic history. It is simply an explanation of the Arabic words used in this verse. We are told that “the responsibility of explaining it [the Qur’ȃn] lies on Us [on Allâh]” (75:19)—that is, the interpretation of Qur’ânic verses should come from the Holy Book itself, and we should therefore let the Qur’ân itself explain its Message. We need to remember that Qurȃ’nic Arabic is the so-called “Classical Arabic” (al-lughat al-fus.hâ), written and spoken at the time that the Noble Qur’ân was revealed, which is different from modern spoken Arabic. If we are sincere in trying to understand what is being said in the foregoing verses, we have to look at lexica of Classical Arabic rather than modern Arabic dictionaries.
We begin with the key word al-Sȃriq, السارق . The word used in the verse for a male thief is not merely sȃriq, سارق, but al-Sȃriq,السارق . For the female, the word is al-Sȃriqa,السارقة, and not merely sȃriqa, سارقة. Unfortunately, most modern translators do not give adequate attention to the article al (ال) before sȃriq. The presence of al before an Arabic word is of great importance in understanding what is being said and how it should be understood. Allah is not rahmȃn, رحمان, “the gracious,” an attribute that could also apply to humans; He is al-Rahmȃn, الرحمان, “the Most Gracious.” Similarly, He is not just merciful (rahîm, رحيم ) but Ever Merciful (al-Rahîm, الرحيم). In Arabic, the article al adds a sense of perfection to the word. Thus, al-Sȃriq would apply to a male criminal (and al-Sȃriqa to a female criminal) who had perfected his or her profession, who is addicted to theft—a habitual, unreformed thief. Any translation that does not take into consideration the importance of al is apt to mislead its reader, the result of which will be misunderstanding.
The next key word in the verse is qata‘a, قطع. This word is translated as “to cut off” which gives the impression of “to chop off” with a sword or a knife. It occurs fourteen other times in the same verb form in the Qur’ân, and—except for 59:5 and possibly 69:46—all occurrences denote a nonphysical or metaphorical meaning (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 Arabic lexica give the following meaning to the word qata‘a: “to separate, sever, cross, divide, suppress, curtail asunder, decide, pass or traverse, infest, abolish, intercept, isolate” (Tȃj al-‘Arûs, Lisȃn al-‘Arab. Lane). Therefore, we should not limit the translation of qata‘a only to the meaning of physically chopping off. Even in the English language, “cutting” has more than one meaning. If a sports team “cuts” a player, that player is released, not physically harmed. A driver “cuts off” another driver by changing lanes without the necessary caution.
Arabic, like all languages, possesses its own treasure of idioms, which when translated literally will remove the beauty of the language and often lead to misunderstanding. Qata‘a al-sabîl, قطع السبيل, means “to cut off the way, to rob, to cut communications.” Qata‘a lisȃnah, لسانة قطع, denotes not cutting off of the tongue but “to make one speechless with arguments.” Qata‘a khasmahu bil-hujjah, قطع خصمه بالحجٌة, means “to overpower one’s opponents with arguments.” Qata‘a rahimhu qatî‘ah, قطيعة قطع رحمه, means “he cut off his relations.” Qata‘a ‘unuqa dȃbbatihî, قطع عنق دابة, means “he sold his animal.” These are examples of Arabic idioms. Thus, qata‘a, قطع, has a much broader meaning and cannot be limited to just a single meaning of “chopping off.” Imȃm Rȃghib says, “Qata‘a, قطع [“to cut”] is applicable to things that are visible to the eye [basar, بصر]—for example, cutting an object with a knife and also cutting in the sense of idiom that is visible to the ‘eye of intellect’ [basîrat, بصيرة ].”
If we limit the understanding of the word qata‘a, قطع, to “cutting off” in the sense of “chopping off,” we will encounter problems in understanding other verses where the same word is being used. For example, consider verse 12:31, where 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 literally cut off their hands? Such a meaning does not make sense in this context. The reaction of the women when they saw Joseph was one of awe and wonder: وَقُلْنَ حَاشَ لِلَّهِ مَا هَـٰذَا بَشَرًا إِنْ هَـٰذَا إِلَّا مَلَكٌ كَرِيمٌ, “[They] said, ‘Glory be to Allâh! He is not a human being. He is but a noble angel.’” The knives in their hand left marks on their hands, so that they could not deny later how they had reacted when they saw Joseph’s dignified personality. That was the purpose of handing over knives to the guests. The words qata‘na aidiyahunna,أيديهنٌ قطعن, could only mean “marks were left on their hands,” because when they were surprised by the entrance of Joseph, the knives they were holding may have inflicted minor, but visible, wounds on their hands. It cannot mean that these women chopped off their hands when they saw Joseph.
Look also at verse 2:27, where the Qur’ân says: وَيَقْطَعُونَ مَا أَمَرَ اللَّهُ بِهِ أَن يُوصَلَ , “and [they] sever [cut, يَقْطَعُونَ] the ties which Allâh has bidden to be joined,” and again in verse 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 (to advise)”—in other words, “I am not the one who makes the final decision without consulting you.” Here qata‘a, قطع, is being used as a figure of speech for “decide.” Similarly: فَقُطِعَ دَابِرُ الْقَوْمِ الَّذِينَ ظَلَمُوا, “In this way the last remnants of these people who had acted wrongfully were completely rooted [cut] out” (6:45). There are several other verses that show that قُطِعَ does not mean “chopping off” (e.g., 9:110; 11:81; 22:15; 47:22).
Let us look now in the Classical Arabic dictionary for the meaning of the word yadd, يد, usually translated as “hand.” This word has meanings other than “hand”: “wing, favor, power, authority, help, protection, influence.” Each of these meanings can easily apply to yadd, يد, in verse 5:38 if one insists that the correct meaning of qata‘a, قطع, must be “to cut.” When these meaning are combined with the different meanings of qata‘a, they will provide the correct understanding of the Qur’ânic expression fâqta‘û aydîyyahumȃ, فاقطعؤا أيديهما. The expression “cut the hand” can also stand for “to disgrace” or “to make one be ashamed,” as the Arabic idiom saqata fî yadihî, سقت في يدهي (“he felt ashamed, he was smitten with remorse”) would suggest (Tȃj al-‘Arûs, Lisȃn al-‘Arab, Lane). It should also be noted that the word aydîyyahumȃ is in the Arabic plural, meaning three or more hands, not one or two hands. This plural (not dual) usage also indicates that the common literal interpretation of hand cutting is not correct. The expression faqta‘û aydîyyahumȃ, فاقطعؤا أيديهما, is therefore likely best translated as “limit their power” rather than a literal sense.
There is yet another key word, nakȃlan, نكالاِ, in verse 5:38 on theft that needs attention. Nakala, نكل means “to recoil, to shrink (from), to flinch, to shirk, to desist, to refrain, to abstain, to draw back, to withdraw (from).” Nikl, نكل, denotes “a strong fetter or iron around the leg or ankle” (Tȃj, Lane, Lisȃn). Nakilihi, نكله, means “to stop someone from following a path that he or she is currently treading.” Nakȃlan, نكالاِ, means “exemplary punishment, warning, warning example” and includes all measures that can stop a person treading a wrong path (cf. 73:12). In the first of the verses under discussion in this chapter (5:38), Allah suggests a form of exemplary punishment that will deter the person from treading the wrong path of stealing. The idiom faqta‘û aydîyyahumȃ, فاقطعؤا أيديهما, therefore includes a variety of measures that can be used to stop further thefts, including possible imprisonment.
It is of paramount importance that we go back to the Arabic of the time of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) before we ascribe a meaning to a verse, mistakenly suggesting that the verse mandates an extremely harsh punishment, then calling that interpretation a Qur’ânic injunction, and making it a part of Sharia Law. Nothing prevents us from translating the expression faqta‘û aydîyyahumȃ, فاقطعؤا أيديهما, as “restrict their power of stealing” or “disgrace them” or “put a mark on their hands” or “make them ashamed” rather than “chopping off their hands” for something as trivial as stealing an egg. Now, those who insist that verse 5:38 demands amputation and translate the verse that way should reflect on the next verse, 5:39, in which the Message of Divine Mercy is repeated. The literal translation of 5:38 is not consistent with 5:39, which depicts Allah as our Ever Merciful Lord, Whose Mercy envelops each and every object of His creation
It should be recalled that verse 5:39 says that Allah accepts the repentance of a thief, and it implies that repentance before the penalty prohibits any mutilation that a Sharia court might impose, because repentance after mutilation would not make any sense. This verse contains a message of hope for a thief when it says “Allah is Great Protector, Ever Merciful.” Allah keeps the door of repentance open because of His Great Mercy and reminds the evildoer that, if he or she desists from such acts in the future, He can protect the evildoer from the punishment that awaits.
In chapter 12 (“Joseph”) the Qur’ȃn provides a concrete example of theft and its punishment. In the case of Joseph and his brothers, justice is served not by amputation but by detaining the one guilty of theft, so that he can work to repay or compensate for the theft. We read the following in 12:73–75:
“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 confiscated [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,” one of “the performers of good to others”) 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.’”
There is no example where the Holy Prophet (pbuh) ordered an amputation and witnessed that his order was carried out. Narrations that this act actually happened should create doubts about their authenticity or about the understanding of the Classical Arabic expressions used in them. For example: “‘Ȃ’ishah reported Allah’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 3:4175–4179). Such a literal translation must be questioned. The questions that arise mirror the concerns about the exact words in verse 5:38 and their translation. Did the Holy Prophet (pbuh) mean any thief (sȃriq), or did he mean a habitual thief (al-Sȃriq)? Was he referring to a particular person? Is it not possible that he meant just to disgrace him, or to make him ashamed? These questions should be answered with certainty, sincerity, and grace, not by speculation and opinion.
The “cutting off” translation of qata‘a, قطع, in the sense of “chopping off,” is taken for granted by contemporary Arabs or Arabic speakers, who are unaware of the Classical Arabic lexica and of the broader meanings that these words carry. To translate qata‘a as “to cut” may be correct in modern Arabic, but that is not necessarily how the word was understood at the time of the Holy Prophet (pbuh). To limit the meaning of a Qur’ânic verse to modern Arabic restricts the Qur’ân and its Message and can be misleading. There may be nothing wrong with the sayings mentioned in Bukhȃrî and by Abu Muslim when they are read in the original Arabic, and effort should be made to understand them, but they create a wrong impression in the minds of regular Muslims when they are presented or translated without proper explanations and usage of the Classical Arabic idiom.
Opponents of Islam attempt to paint the faith with a broad brush, based on selective readings of specific verses. In this context, it should be pointed out that there are Bible verses that prescribe very harsh punishments. Matthew 18:8 says that if your hands cause you to sin, you should cut them off. Deuteronomy 25:11–12 states that if a woman sees her husband and another man fighting, and she grabs the other man’s groin to defend her husband, then her hand is to be cut off.
Whatever interpretation you choose for the foregoing Ahadith (traditions), it is important that you keep in mind the recurring theme of equivalence and Mercy in the Holy Qur’ân, that the punishment should be proportionate to the crime:
وَجَزَاءُ سَيِّئَةٍ سَيِّئَةٌ مِّثْلُهَا ۖ فَمَنْ عَفَا وَأَصْلَحَ فَأَجْرُهُ عَلَى اللَّهِ ۚ إِنَّهُ لَا يُحِبُّ الظَّالِمِينَ
“And (they 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 the wrongdoers.” (42:40)
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