Should Thieves’ Hands Be Cut Off?
If non-Muslims “know” anything about Islam, it is that they “know” that the Quran mandates a severe punishment for thieves: the cutting off of their hands. Here are three traditional translations of the famous passage on the left and our translation on the right:
! Disputed passage: Traditional translations render the punishment for thieves as “cut off,” while the verb has other meanings too.
|As to the thief, male or female, cut off his or her hands: a punishment by way of example, from Allah, for their crime: and Allah is Exalted in power. (5:38)||As for the thief, both male and female, cut off their hands. It is the reward of their own deeds, an exemplary punishment from Allah. Allah is Mighty, Wise. (5:38)||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. (5:38)||The male thief, and the female thief, you shall mark, cut, or cut-off their hands/means as a punishment for their crime, and to serve as a deterrent from God. God is Noble, Wise. (5:38)|
DISCUSSION OF 5:38
The Quran often uses words with more than one applicable and relevant meaning. This leads to verses that mean two, three, or more things at the same time, verses that make the translator’s job exquisitely difficult.
We come now to such a verse. The verb form we translated as “mark, cut, or cut off” comes from a root verb — QaTa’A – that occurs in the Quran many times. In almost all of its occurrences in the Quran, this verb means “to sever a relationship” or “to end an act.” Only in two instances (12:31 and 12:50) is this verb clearly used to describe a physical cutting; in another instance (69:46), the verb might possibly be interpreted in that way. A related form of this same verb — one that implies repetition or severity of action — occurs in the Quran seventeen times. This particular form is used to mean physically cutting off; or as a metaphor for the severing of a relationship; or to describe physically cutting or marking, but not cutting off.
Thus, the verse recommending punishment for theft or burglary, in the context of the Quran and its terminology (and not the terminology or interpretation attributed to Muhammad or his followers) provides us with a single verb … but one that God has permitted to incorporate a range of possible penalties. For instance:
- Cutting or marking the person’s hands as a means of public humiliation and identification;
- Physically cutting off the person’s hands; or
- Cutting off the person’s means and resources to steal and burglarize (presumably through rehabilitation or imprisonment).
The act of imposing any of these penalties, or any of their combinations, would of course depend on the facts of each case, the culpability and mental capacity of the accused, and the ability of the society as a whole to act in accordance with God’s other instructions in the Quran. Note, for instance, that a Muslim society cannot punish a hungry person for stealing food, since letting a member of the society go hungry is a much bigger crime than the act of stealing food. Such a society actually demonstrates the characteristics of a society of unappreciative people! (See 107:1-7; 89:17-20; and 90:6-20). Considering theft solely as an individual crime, and advocating the severest possible interpretation of the Quran in rendering punishment, is neither fair nor consistent with the scripture.
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