The punishment enforced in some Islamic countries for the crime of theft is based on the wrong interpretation of the following verse:
[5:38] The male thief, and the female thief, you shall ‘eqta’u’ (cut) their hands as a penalty for what they have committed, and to serve as a deterrent from God. God is Dignified, Wise.
According to the incorrect interpretation of 5:38, the law in these Islamic countries deems the punishment of severing the hand of anyone caught stealing. But is this the correct interpretation of God’s words in 5:38?
To determine the correct meaning of 5:38 we must analyse the key word in this verse which is the Arabic word “eqta’u“.
The word ‘eqta’u’ (which is the commnd from of the word ‘qata’aa’) has been wrongly interpreted by the traditional scholars to mean ‘to sever’. But the word for sever in Arabic is ‘batara’ and not ‘qata’aa’. In 108:3 we read the word ‘abtar” which speaks of he who whose progeny has been cut off/severed. In 5:38 God did not use the word ‘batara’ but used the word ‘eqta’u’.
The Arabic word ‘qata’aa’, and how it is used, is not any different from the use of the same word (cut) in English.
The word ‘cut’ can mean sever/cut off and can also mean to cause a cut or wound.
Example: You may be working in the kitchen one day and you accidently make a small cut in your hand with the knife, then you would tell your wife “I have cut my hand”! Does this mean you have completely severed your hand? Obviously not, it only means you have made a cut in your hand or marked it.
The Quran gives us confirmation that the correct meaning of the word ‘iqta’oo’ (command form of qatta’a) in 5:38 is to cause a cut/mark and not to sever.
When we read the story of the Prophet Joseph in Sura 12 we read another instance where the word ‘qatta’a’ is used. In 12:31 we read how the women guests of the lady of the house upon seeing how handsome Joseph was, their impulsive reaction was to ‘qattaana’ (plural femine of qatta’a) their hands with the knives given to them. The question here is: Did these women completely sever their hands? Obviously not, they only made a cut/mark in their hands.
God gives a clear sign that the same word ‘qatta’a’ in both verses has the same meaning. This is evident by the fact that the sum of both sets of Sura and Verse numbers is identical:
5 + 38 = 43
12 + 31 = 43
Undoubtedly, there will be some who will rush to describe this as a coincidental occurrence, but they should be reminded with God’s words where God confirms that every word and every verse in the Quran has been perfected and thus there are is nothing coincidental in the Quran:
[11:1] A.L.R. This is a book whose verses have been perfected.
Consequently, part of the punishment for theft according to the Most Merciful is to mark or make a visible cut in the hand of the offender so as to shame him in front of the people. This social humiliation is part of the deterrent.
But this is not all! If causing a cut in the hand of the thief were the only punishment then it would not in many cases not be sufficient deterrent to stop the thief from re-offending.
The second course of action decreed in the Quran for the one who commits theft is based on the law of equivalence:
[5:45] And We decreed for them in it that a life for a life, an eye an the eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth and equivalence regarding wounds. If one forfeits what is due to him as a charity, it will atone for his sins. Those who do not rule by what God has brought down are the unjust.
By virtue of the law set out by God for equivalence in 5:45, a thief who robs another person should be made to compensate the victim by working for him till the victim is fully paid for all damage incurred. Simply going to prison will not compensate the victim in any way!
So for example, the thief who is convicted of stealing a thousand dollars from you must work for you until you are fully paid for the thousand dollars you lost, plus any other damage and inconvenience the theft may have caused you.
This Quranic solution maintains justice for all, the thief’s innocent wife and children are not deprived of their man or the income he brings home to the family. Moreover, the expensive prison system in this case is eliminated.
God, the Most Merciful, does not cause any person to be punished for the sins of another (6:164). Severing the hand of the thief would permanently deprive him of his livelihood and as a result, his family and dependants would experience hardship for no fault of theirs! God’s law is fair and God’s wisdom is unequalled.
Applying the correct punishment for theft would give the offender the opportunity to repent and reform after the full punishment is completed and the victim has been compensated.
Severing the hand of the thief constitutes a life-long punishment that cannot be reversed should the offender genuinely wish to repent and reform.
In all the Quran, there are no life-long punishments! Even the punishment of adultery, which is considered one of the greatest sins, is not a life-long punishment.
The reason that there are no life-long punishments in the Quran is simply because God being the Most Merciful accepts the repentance of all who repent sincerely and reform. A life-long punishment would violate the concept of someone being forgiven. A forgiven person has no further punishment, but a man with a severed hand is punished for the rest of his life, even if he repents and reforms!
God gives us in the very next verse (5:39) further conclusive evidence for the correct meaning of the punishment for theft.
[5:39] Then whoever repents after his transgression, and reforms, God redeems him. God is Forgiver, Merciful.
In 5:39 God says that He will ‘yatoob’ (redeem) all those who repent and reform. The verse ends with the words God is Forgiver, Merciful. When God ‘yatoob’ (redeems) any person, forgives him (Forgiver) and grants him His mercy (Merciful), this means that this person is no longer punished. Needless to say, a person with a severed arm will have a life-long punishment that cannot be reversed and thus can never be free of his punishment!
Those who insist on claiming that the punishment of theft is to sever the hand of the thief are therefore those who reject God’s infinite mercy.