The tragic sound of one hand clapping in Islam. The punishment of hand amputation in the Quran is still being applied today for major theft. The Bible is contrasted with the Quran on theft.
Here’s the four-step method applied to the relevant verse.
First, various translations of Sura (Chapter) 5:38 are cited to set the table for further analysis and to prevent confusion over the wording circulating around the worldwide web.
Second, we explore how the earliest Muslims interpreted the verse in the hadith (Muhammad’s words and deeds outside of the Quran), which sheds light on Muhammad’s practice.
Third, influential modern Muslim translators and commentators speak for their own sacred book, but then we critique their views.
Fourth, we can get some insight into early Islam by contrasting the Quran with the Bible.
Translations of Sura 5:38
To see the verse in its historical and textual context, click on Maududi’s commentary on Chapter 5.
MAS Abdel Haleem (The Qur’an, Oxford UP, 2004) translates Sura 5:38 as follows:
5:38 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. 39 But if anyone repents after his wrongdoing and makes amends, God will accept his repentance: God is most forgiving and merciful. (Abdel Haleem)
The standard verb “to cut” (q-T-c) is used, and the object of the cutting is “their hands.” For this crime, early Islam punishes both male and female thieves. Evidently, the purpose is to purify the Islamic community and to deter future thieves. Verse 39 is included because it seems that Muhammad is providing a way of repentance before the penalty is exacted. But traditional Islam says the opposite. The bloody penalty is carried out, which helps the thief to purify his or her heart, and then he or she is in better state to repent (more on this below, “Early interpretations”).
The following long list of Muslim translations anchor the key words and prevent endless disputes.
“As for the thief, whether man or woman, cut off the hand of either of them” (Muhammad Akbar, translator of Maududi);
“And (as for) the male thief and the female thief, cut off their hands” (team of translators of Ibn Kathir);
“Cut off the hand of the man who steals and of the woman who steals” (Zafrulla Khan);
“As for the thief, both male and female, cut off both their hands” (Pickthall);
“And as for the man who steals and the woman who steals, cut off their hands” (Sher Ali);
“And (as for) the male thief and the female thief, cut off (from the wrist joint) their (right) hands” (Hilali and Khan);
“As for the thieves, whether male or female, cut off their hands” (Fakhry);
“As to the thief, male or female, cut off his or her hand” (Yusuf Ali);
“And as for the man addicted to theft and the woman addicted to theft, cut off their hands” (Nooruddin);
“And as for the man and the woman addicted to theft, cut off their hands” (Maulana Muhammad Ali, his word “addicted” is analyzed below);
“And (as for) the man who steals and the woman who steals, cut off their hands” (Shakir);
“And as for the male and female thief, cut off their hands” (Mufti Afzal Hoosen Elias, translator of Mufti Muhammad Aashiq’s commentary);
“As for the man or woman who is guilty of stealing, cut off their hands” (Salahi and Shamis, translators of Sayyid Qutb’s commentary);
“Now as for the man who steals and the woman who steals, cut off the hand of either of them” (Asad).
Thus, the vast majority of Muslims, to their credit, translate the verse straightforwardly. Two Muslims who do not, Orooj Ahmed Ali and Rashad Khalifa, are analyzed below. If the readers would like to see the verse in multiple translations, they should go here and type in the reference, like so: 5:38. (5 is the chapter or sura, and 38 is the verse.)
To sum up the historical and literary contexts, then, Muhammad is powerful militarily, so he is powerful socially, and this double-edged power shows up in his harsh and severe practical commands. Holy men stalked the Arab Peninsula in the seventh century, but none backed up their prestige with an army in the same convincing way that Muhammad did. Hence, he decides how people should be punished because his military prowess supports his harsh and severe practices.
How did the earliest Muslims apply Muhammad’s severe command?
The hadith corpus, so Muslims believe, did not come down from Gabriel, so it occupies a secondary, yet sacred place in Islam. It reveals and interprets Muhammad’s policy outside of the Quran. The following passages (representing others) indicate that the penalty cannot be explained away as anything but literal and physical. This is a quick compilation taken from the two most reliable collectors and compilers of the Hadith, Bukhari (AD 810-870) and Muslim (c. AD 817-875):
Aisha [favorite wife of Muhammad] 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.” (Bukhari 8:6789; Muslim 3:4175-79)
A dinar, a word taken from the Roman denarius, was not a small sum, but not exorbitant, either. It could buy a shield, and many of the very poor in Muhammad’s army could not afford one.
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!” (Bukhari 8:6799; Muslim 3:4185)
Some commentators say that an “egg” was really a helmet, and the rope was a ship’s rope, which was sizable and costly. However, the translation above is usually accepted, and this means that the penalty could be imposed for trivial thefts. But even if the more expensive items are in view here, are they still worth a human hand?
Next, it should be recalled that 5:39 says that Allah accepts the repentance of a thief, and it seems to imply that the repentance before the penalty blocks the mutilation that a court imposes. However, the earliest Muslim sources interpret the verse more accurately.
Ibn Kathir, referencing two hadiths from Bukhari and Muslim, summarizes an application of the punishment in early Islam (vol. 3, pp.175-76). A woman committed theft during Muhammad’s conquest of Mecca, and she was brought to him. A devout Muslim interceded for her, wanting her repentance to be accepted before the penalty. But Muhammad’s face turned red with anger and he rebuked the intercessor, saying that even if his own daughter were to steal, he would have her hand cut off. Allah’s command must be carried out no matter what. So Muhammad had the woman’s hand cut off, and Aisha reported that her repentance afterwards was sincere.
Narrated Aisha: The prophet cut off the hand of a lady … and she repented, and her repentance was sincere. (Bukhari 8:6800; Muslim 3:4187 and 4188)
Finally, we end our analysis of the early Muslim interpreters with further support of the policy of accepting repentance only after the penalty, not before, with this short passage:
Abu Abudallah said: “If a thief repents after his hand has been cut off, then his witness will be accepted” …. (Bukhari 8:6801)
To sum up this section, the earliest Muslims had no doubt that Muhammad intended this command to be taken literally and that he actually carried it out—before their very eyes. And repentance was more effective after the thief’s hand was cut off and cauterized, not before.
Modern Interpretations of Sura 5:38
We now turn to modern interpretations. Millions of copies of the Quran in multiple Muslim translations are circulating around the English-speaking world, and some provide brief commentaries. We analyze five of the most popular translations that provide brief comments on Sura 5:38, which represent other views circulating around the worldwide web.
Incredibly, modern interpreters do not deny that Allah sent down this verse. It is beyond them to challenge such a (gruesomely) divine policy, so most of them acknowledge the plain reading of Sura 5:38 and conclude that the will of Allah should be imposed. However, a few interpreters strain credulity and distort the straightforward language in the verse, attempting to explain it away.
First, Maulana Muhammad Ali belongs to the Ahmadiyyah sect, which is considered a heresy by most Muslims, but his translation and commentary (The Holy Qur’an, 1917, 2002) are discussed here because his version of the Quran is so widespread and because he puts forth a strong effort to defend the brutality of Sura 5:38. He translates the key clause: “And (as for) the man and woman addicted to theft,” which implies habitual, unreformed thieves—possibly kleptomaniacs. In reply, though, the hadith states that one offense is enough, which he rightly acknowledges in his commentary. And he fails to ask that even if addiction to theft or kleptomania were the correct translation, does this amount to losing a hand? Next, he says in his lengthy commentary on 5:38 that the punishment may be taken metaphorically. Thus, in Arabic someone may “cut off a tongue,” which means “cut off” a speaker in the middle of his speech, to silence him. This interpretation as it applies to cutting the hand, says Maulana Ali, amounts to putting the thief in prison. Again, though, the earliest traditions do not support this soft and dubious interpretation. They correctly take “cut off” as literal. Finally, as to 5:39, he points out that repentance can be accepted before the punishment, so a judge should not be hasty. To find mercy anywhere near a cruel passage like 5:38 is a nice effort on his part, but this only reveals a tacit admission that the Quran is severe and unmerciful; also, the hadith does not support this soft interpretation. A thief first gets punished, and only then his repentance is accepted by Allah.
Thus, Maulana Ali struggles with the verse, shifting his ground. But at least he is straightforward enough to admit that the literal meaning of “cut off” is found in the verse. He wrongly maintains, however, that this extreme punishment expresses a divine command—unless he means a pagan divine command.
Second, Yusuf Ali, in his translation (The Holy Qur’an, 1934, 11th ed., 2004) says that this verse was sent down so that later law could be built on it, possibly implying that literal mutilation should be seen as archaic and irrelevant, though he is unclear on this matter. If this is so, then this is a step in the right direction. However, as we will explain more fully in our analysis of Muhammad Asad, below, this explanation does not help ultimately, for he implies that God sent down the bloody punishment as the root that feeds other laws. Apparently, he does not see that the root is rotten. Yusuf Ali then deflects the obvious extremity of Sura 5:38 that is found in a legal context by quoting Matthew 18:8, which tells people to cut off their hands if they cause people to sin. As usual with Muslim apologists, who too often completely miss the point of Biblical passages, Yusuf Ali also misses the point of Matthew 18:8, which will be explained in the next section.
Third, Muhammad Asad in his translation and commentary (The Message of the Qur’an, 1980, 2003) first provides the social and economic background to early Islam and hence to Sura 5:38, and then he interprets the verse. Clauses, words and phrases as the following are laced throughout, describing an Islamic socialist paradise: “every citizen is entitled to a share in the community’s economic resources”; “social security”; “Islam … demands a society that provides … for his bodily and intellectual needs as well”; “available resources are so unevenly distributed” that group A lives in wealth, while group B lives in poverty—this is unjust. But then Asad shifts his ground to discuss the bare minimum material goods for everyone in an Islamic society. Why does he write a long commentary on such matters? He must elevate an ordinary theft to “an attack against the system as a whole, and must be punished as such” (emphasis original). Hence, a thief deserves to get his hand cut off. However, Asad warns us that in a society which is not discharging its duties to care for its citizens (e.g. not providing social security), theft should not be punished with cutting off a hand. Asad then references a time of famine under Caliph Umar’s reign, who suspended the practice. So the application of the punishment shifts around according to such circumstances as the economy.
Asad is partially right about this; it would indeed be wrong to cut off the hands of thieves if they stole bread in a famine, just to eat. However, we must step back and look at the big picture he lays out for us. First, he says that this punishment should not be applied in less-than-ideal societies, but this implies that it should be applied in fully functioning socialist paradises. So should it be applied in Canada, Sweden, or France? Has Saudi Arabia reached the status of a socialist utopia yet? Who decides? Second, he does not deny that Allah sent down the verse; rather, he must rationalize this atrocity that an ordinary and reasonable thinker rightly sees as extreme and unacceptable in any society, at any time, and in any circumstance six hundred years after Christ came to show us a better way—whether in poverty or in the infinite riches of socialism. Thus, he only hurts his case, not helps it—which also applies to Yusuf Ali, analyzed above. Cutting off the hands of thieves is wrong at all times and in all places after Christ. The root law in Sura 5:38 is rotten, ipso facto.
Fourth, we can easily answer Rashad Khalifa’s comment in his translation (Quran: the Final Testament, 3rd ed., 2001). He claims that the punishment of cutting off hands for theft was decreed by “false Muslims” and is a “satanic practice without Quranic basis.” To support this, he mysteriously plays with the reference numbers of Suras 5:38 and 12:31. This last verse, appearing in the context of Muhammad inaccurately retelling the story of Joseph the Biblical patriarch, also has the word “cut” in it, when women at a banquet cut their hands upon seeing the beauty of Joseph. Khalifa adds up the references, like so: 5:38 = 5+38 = 43; 12:31 = 12+31 = 43. He concludes that “to cut” in 5:38 cannot mean to cut off completely because in 12:31 women merely cut their hands, not cut them off; “nobody can,” he says. (He goes further with this silliness, but enough.) So this sincere but outlandish belief leads him to mistranslate “cut off their hands” as “mark their hands.” According to him, then, marking hands entails a cut that leaves only a mark.
Unfortunately for Khalifa, Ockham’s (non-literal) razor, which says that the plainest and clearest explanation is the best one, applies to such convoluted reasoning. The plain meaning of Sura 5:38 says in a legal context that hands must be cut off for theft, so the vast majority of Muslim translations cited above is right. So the “satanic practice” does indeed have “a Quranic basis.” Moreover, the prophet Muhammad practiced this atrocity; his first generation of followers practiced it. Are these the “false Muslims” Khalifa was referring to? Finally, he makes two true statements in his short comment on 5:38. The first is that the punishment is “satanic.” Objectively speaking, the practice is satanic—it emerges from pagan Arab custom, after all. So to his credit, his intuition is sound and right. The second is that false Muslims promote the practice, but it may be more accurate to say that only false prophets would promote it, so his intuition about falsehood is headed in the right direction, though he holds back from stating the obvious truth.
Fifth and finally, Orooj Ahmed Ali (Al-Qur’an, Princeton UP, 1984, 4th ed. 2001) commits the same interpretive error that Maulana Ali does. He looks up the words “to cut” in an Arabic dictionary and cites meanings that have nothing to do with 5:38, like being “cut off the road” or hands being “wounded” (Sura 12:31). So he mistranslates the clause as follows: “As for the thief, whether man or woman, cut his hand,” which does not say, “cut off their hand.”
In reply to this mistranslation and the irrelevant meanings that Ahmed Ali cites, Sura 5:38 plainly and clearly in a legal context speaks of cutting off hands for stealing; it does not speak of traveling down a busy road only to be cut off, or of being swept away by beauty only to accidentally cut one’s hand. To repeat, 5:38 is found in a legal context, and the context of any passage determines the meaning of words. Thus, Ockham’s (non-literal) razor applies here as well, and 5:38 clearly says that hands should be cut off, not only cut.
Moreover, Ahmed Ali would like to believe that Sura 5:39 allows a thief to repent before the penalty, and this is a commendable attempt to find kindness in an excessive passage, but the hadith do not allow it. The punishment helps the thief to repent, according to the earliest traditions concerning punishments. Clearly, an apologist’s agenda, not objective scholarship, guides Ahmed Ali in his mistranslation and commentary.
To sum up these five commentators, they cannot bring themselves to admit that this Quranic command is wrong and misguided. In a way, this is understandable because they have the prior belief in Muhammad’s complete reliability and in the Quran’s inerrancy. However, Muslims must have the courage to challenge this belief, especially when they compare it to reality, which says that mutilating a thief is far too extreme and hence wrong. Muhammad simply absorbed a seventh-century Arab pagan custom.
Contrasting the Quran with the Bible can bring out the differences in the two books, as we examine the Biblical view in this order: the Torah, Jesus, and Paul.
Old Covenant Scriptures
The Torah, traditionally ascribed to Moses, does not order the cutting off of the hands of thieves; rather, it commands that they should make restitution and work off the debt. These two passages represent others:
Exodus 22:3 A thief must certainly make restitution, but if he has nothing, he must be sold to pay for his theft.
Leviticus 6:4 … He must return what he has stolen …. He must make restitution in full and add a fifth of the value of it ….
Restitution is appropriate and just—we all sense it (just as we all sense that Muhammad’s punishment is cruel and unjust). However, at first glance, Exodus 22:3 appears troubling because if a thief does not have the goods to restore what he has stolen, then he is to be sold. But at bottom the verse is not as troubling as it seems for two reasons, once we understand this law in its historical and literary context. First, Exodus 21:2—part of the literary context—says that a sold Hebrew must work for only six years, and on the seventh year he is to go free without having to pay for his freedom. So the thief must become a laborer or indentured servant and work off his debt, but only for a prescribed time. Second, the law in Exodus 22:3 should be taken in its historical context. The code or law of Hammurabi, named after the emperor of Babylon (ruled 1792-1750 BC), commands that a thief unable to make restitution should be put to death. Hammurabi’s Laws (trans. MEJ Richardson, Sheffield Academic P, 2000) says:
If a man has stolen and ox, or a sheep … he shall repay ten times its value if it belongs to a workman. If that thief does not have enough to pay, he shall be killed. (p. 45)
A thief “shall be killed” if he does not have the means to restore the value of the stolen property. Per contra, when the law of Moses says that a thief must work off his debt and not be put to death if he is unable to make restitution, this law is much more generous than and improves on the law of Hammurabi. Working off the debt is better than rotting in prison or chopping of the thief’s hand so that he cannot work.
To cite another example, the code of Hammurabi commands that a barber have his hand cut off if he shaves away the mark of a slave.
If a barber has shaved away the mark of a slave which is not his own without the slave owner’s knowing, they shall cut off the hand of that barber. (p. 107)
Evidently, without this mark on the slave, no one would know that he was a slave, so class hierarchy would be confused, or he could possibly escape, or he could be stolen by another slave-owner; the last two possibilities entails a big financial loss for the original owner, an indirect theft, of sorts. But regardless of the monetary amount or the rationale behind this law, the Mosaic law rejects this barbarity circulating around the greater Middle East in the second millennium BC. The Torah does not command a hand to be cut off for trivial reasons, even for the loss of an expensive slave, initiated by a barber.
In contrast, Muhammad did not reject this barbarity circulating around the pagan Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century. He incorporated the punishment into his Quran because he erroneously believed that the true God told him to uphold the pagan custom. However, objectively speaking, it is far better that a thief in Old Testament culture or in any culture should keep his hand and work off his debt; he should not get his hand cut off so that he cannot work to make restitution—and he certainly should not get killed. The law of Moses makes much more sense than the law of Muhammad, not to mention the law of Hammurabi.
One Final Comparison
What about 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?
Three replies are available, based on the historical and textual contexts of the two verses in the law of Moses.
First, we consider the historical context. In the second millennium before Christ, in Middle Eastern cultures generally and Hebrew culture specifically, a man who has lost his reproductive ability is nearly dead, for his name dies out when he actually dies. So already we are far beyond the punishment for the theft of physical items in the Quran.
Second, this brings us to the literary context of Deuteronomy 25:11-12. Verses 5-10 discuss the marriage rules for a man who dies childless. His brother is to marry his wife, so the deceased man’s name may be carried on. (This is called a levirate marriage, from the Latin word levir, meaning “brother-in-law.”) So the literary context of vv. 11-12 clarifies the two target verses. The woman robs a man of his future children or posterity, committing murder, as it were. Again, we are far beyond the punishment for the theft of physical items in the Quran.
Third, the Mishnah (Baba Kamma 8:1, Danby’s translation), an early source of rabbinic discussions of the Torah, recognizes this connection between a woman permanently wounding a man’s reproductive ability and the punishment. However, the Mishnah passage adds that the punishment was never applied, but the woman was fined a monetary amount instead. But even if the punishment were applied, it is very different from Muhammad’s cruel law. He orders the chopping off of the hand of a female or male thief for stealing an “egg” or a rope—even if the more expensive items are in view (an egg is really a helmet and a rope is a ship’s rope), then Muhammad’s rule is quite out of proportion to the crime. A woman who robs a man of his name living on in his children in ancient Israel commits a far worse crime than a woman who steals an egg or a helmet in seventh-century Arabia, after Christ came.
To repeat, unlike Muhammad’s law, the law of Moses for thieves is fair and appropriate, for it orders that the thief should work off his debt with both hands intact.
Therefore, for Christians, one of the difficulties with Muhammad and his old-new law—the Quran—is that they appear six hundred years after Christ, who ushered in a new way of salvation that improves on the Old Testament much more clearly and decisively than Muhammad and the Quran allegedly improve on it. In light of the historical fact that Muhammad arrives late on the world stage and that he recycles the law of Moses and a pagan custom, in no way do he and his Quran improve on or perfect Jesus and the New Testament.
Those two links bring us to the New Testament.
New Covenant Scriptures
This brings us to Jesus and Paul and the New Covenant, which makes the debate between the Torah, the Quran, and the law of Hammurabi obsolete. Christians live under the law of love and the law of the Spirit.
Jesus did not order this bloody punishment for thieves. Since the Torah itself does not prescribe it, why would Jesus be crueler than it, which was sacred to him and which orders restitution?
It should be recalled that Yusuf Ali (second commentator, above) quotes Matthew 18:8, which says that if people’s hands cause them to sin, the people should cut them off. He intends to deflect the harsh punishment in the Quran—found in a legal context—by showing that Jesus endorses this practice. Why therefore would Christians complain? Yusuf Ali is completely wrong.
Jesus said that if one’s right eye or hand causes one to sin, one should gouge it out or cut it off and throw it away (Matt. 18:8; cf. 5:30 and Mark 9:42-47), but Jesus realized that neither the hand nor the eye really and literally causes one to sin. “But the things that come out of the mouth [words] come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean’” (Matt. 15:18). Thus, Jesus knew “the heart” causes one to sin, but did he mean the physical heart? Should one cut that out too? He later clarifies for his disciples in private what he means: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts” and then he lists some sins like adultery and theft (Matt. 15:19). Therefore, in Matthew 15 Jesus takes the common meaning of “the heart” as the deepest part of the human, not the physical heart. Likewise, in Matthew 18:8, he merely says that one should treat sin so drastically that one should cut it—the sin—out of one’s life no matter how deeply one may cherish it, or no matter how deeply it has sunk its claws into one’s soul. To use modern examples, an alcoholic should cut off all access to alcohol, and a sex addict must cut off all exposure to the sex industry. This is what Jesus means by cutting off and gouging out—dealing with sin drastically and decisively.
Finally, Paul the Apostle offers good advice. Even though Muslims recognize only the four Gospels, Christians regard the entire New Testament as inspired. In the last half of the Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul outlines the ethical conduct for his fellow Christians. Paul recommends a remedy for thieves:
4:28 He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.
The verb tense in “[h]e who has been stealing” signifies that the thief has been stealing habitually. Evidently, Paul believes that a thief like that can undergo reform if he works with his own hands, so that he can share his product with the needy. The irony is rich: his hands should be employed, not cut off. The New Testament does not shift from severity to mercy in a flash. Thus, in this matter (and in many others), Paul excels Muhammad.
To sum up, the Torah improved on the code of Hammurabi. The law of Moses never endorsed the brutality of chopping off the hands of thieves. On the other hand, Muhammad did not improve on the seventh-century Arab custom, but inserted it into his Quran. More important than all of these, never did Jesus or the New Testament authors support this butchery in a penal code or as an “exemplary” punishment for society in order to impose external righteousness. He and they sought to convert people by preaching alone, not to execute them or to maim and mutilate his church and the larger society.
Given the hard evidence, Christians realize that God would not send down such a violent verse in the new era of salvation which Jesus ushered in. They realize that the Quran is empirically and factually worse than the New Testament.
Jesus Christ came with good news and the love of God. Muhammad came with harsh rules and mutilation. Christianity advances society forward. Absorbing a seventh-century Arab pagan custom of butchery, Islam drags society backwards.
Once again, these two links express a sea-change in our interpretation of Scripture:
This post updates the earlier one, offsite, written by yours truly, and titled: Thieves, Give Muhammad a Hand!
ARTICLES IN A SERIES ABOUT SHARIA
Marital, Domestic and Women’s Issues
Sexual “Crimes” and Punishments
Thieves, Give Muhammad a Hand!