April 12, 2005
Thieves, give Muhammad a hand!By James Arlandson
The tragic sound of one hand clapping in the Quran.
Ever since 9/11, we have been careful not be overly critical of Islam because we do not want to insult the religion or to paint it with a broad brush, lumping together the bad Muslims with the good ones.
We have all heard of rumors that some Muslims, perhaps in the obscure corners of the Islamic world, practice extreme punishments, such as chopping off the hands of thieves. Is this rumor or fact? Where does this gruesome practice come from, originally?
Sad to report, the policy of chopping off the hands of thieves comes directly from the Quran itself, in Sura or Chapter 5:38. As we will see, Muhammad incorporated a seventh—century Arab pagan custom into his Quran, claiming that God revealed to him that Islam, the perfected religion for all humankind (Sura 5:3), should uphold this atrocity.
Now that our emotions have died down after 9/11, we must analyze Islam critically and unflinchingly, since many Muslims in their websites argue that Islam is the religion of peace and that it has perfected the earlier religions of Judaism and Christianity.
To show how 'divinely endorsed' mutilation is prescribed in the Quran, a specific method of exegesis (detailed analysis of a text) is followed. First, various translations of Sura 5:38 are cited to set the table for further analysis. Second, the historical and literary contexts are explained so that the most accurate interpretation can be obtained. This step is also intended to prevent the reflexive, standard 'out of context' defense from Muslim apologists. Third, we explore how the earliest Muslims interpret the verse in the hadith (Muhammad's words and deeds outside of the Quran), which sheds light on Muhammad's practice. Fourth, influential modern Muslim translators and commentators speak for their own sacred book, but then we critique their views. Fifth, we can get some insight into early Islam by contrasting it with early Christianity. Finally, we apply our findings to today's world.
It may be stated here that for Bible—educated Christians, this practice of mutilation is completely unacceptable, especially when it comes six hundred years after Jesus Christ showed us the better way and demonstrated the love of God.
Translations of Sura 5:38
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. (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 in the interpretation section).
Sometimes Muslim apologists (and scholars), especially on the worldwide web, squirm out of the plain and harsh meaning of Sura 5:38. To counter this confusion and subterfuge, 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.) Once there, the reader should ignore the request for the transliterated Arabic chapter titles, and just type in the numbers.
With these basic facts in mind, we now explore the historical and literary contexts.
Historical and literary contexts of Sura 5:38
To judge from the content of Sura 5, most scholars agree that its historical context takes place after the Treaty of Hudaybiyah in 628 and even as late as Muhammad's farewell pilgrimage to Mecca in 632, the year Muhammad dies of a fever. (Some regard Sura 5:3, which states that Muhammad has finally perfected religion, as the last verse in the entire Quran.) The details of these four years are largely irrelevant to this article because all we need to know is the following:
[N]ow Islam had become an invulnerable power . . . . [I]t had become quite obvious to the Arabs that no power could suppress the Islamic Movement. Now Islam was not merely a creed which ruled over the minds and hearts of the people, but had also become a State which dominated every aspect of the life of the people who lived within its boundaries. (Maududi 1:141)
At this time in Islam's history, Muhammad had or was about to subjugate his enemies, such as the Jews and the Meccans. He must lay down more rules for his community, wherever it may be found in the Arabian Peninsula, in order to control his community. Ibn Kathir, a highly respected Medieval commentator, points out that cutting the hands off of thieves was carried out in pagan Arabia before Muhammad conquered the land, and Islam upheld this punishment (3:172). This means that Allah spoke through Gabriel to Muhammad that the perfected religion of Islam should also practice it, but this revelation came down only when Islam was strong. This calls into question whether the true God would send Gabriel down with such a gruesome law.
Be that as it may, Maududi's quotation, above, accurately describes early Islam. The more power it accumulates, the more control it exerts over 'every aspect' people's lives. As we just read in 5:38, one of the laws that Allah and Muhammad lays down, though absorbed from pagan Arabia, commands the severing of hands of male or female thieves for certain thefts; it now becomes a timeless law that reflects Allah's will and blessing for all humankind; hence Islam is concerned with imposing holiness on society.
In four ways, the literary context shows a confused, selective use of the Torah, which breeds severity and harshness. First, Muhammad implies that he is better than Moses, so his religion fulfills Judaism (and Christianity) (vv. 15—19). Second, Muhammad seems to elaborate on his replacement of Moses in his story about the early Hebrews in the desert just before they conquer Canaan (vv. 20—26). Moses and 'two men' (presumably Joshua and Caleb) were fearless, but the people were fearful, so Allah cursed them. In the same way, Muhammad is fearless in his battles and leadership, and his Muslims must not disobey him.
Third, however, he confuses the story of Cain and Abel, saying that God at that time instituted the death penalty. But Genesis 4 says explicitly that Cain was spared the death penalty and that he was to wander around as a fugitive, untouched. (The death penalty was actually instituted in the Flood narrative in Gen. 9:6) (vv. 27—34). In these same verses, he flies over, as it were, a long sweep of Old Testament history and says that even after all the prophets had come and gone, the people still committed 'excesses' (v. 32); hence, he is allowed to curtail any excesses in his community as well, so he commands the cutting off of hands or feet for corruption (v. 33) and hands for theft (v. 38). (For more information on how Islamic scholars today broadly interpret 5:33, go to the article in this Shi'ite journal and scroll about halfway down, looking for Sura 5:33. As usual with Muhammad, he takes things too far, because the Bible never orders cutting off the hands of thieves (see below, 'Early Christianity').
Fourth and finally, out of the blue, so it seems, Muhammad condemns the non—Muslims to an eternally painful torment, even if they were to gather up all the riches of the world and offer them to Allah in order to ransom or redeem themselves out of hell. Ransoming prisoners of war and victims of kidnapping was a hard custom in seventh—century Arabia, and Muhammad uses the practice to illustrate the inescapability of non—Muslims from Allah and his eternal flames—not an odd metaphor since Allah enriched Muhammad and his Muslims with their prisoners of war in real life (vv. 35—37).
Thus, reading the literary context of Sura 5:38—in fact, reading the entire Quran where it references the Old and New Testaments and the torment of hell—one gets the impression that Muhammad twists and distorts the earlier sacred Books both out of ignorance and out of an agenda to make himself powerful and controlling; he also frequently promises the disobedient hell fire, in order to scare them into obeying him. Hence, the entire literary context of Sura 5:38 reveals a harshness and severity and personal power that coincides with his military power.
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, 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.
Early interpretations of Sura 5:38
How did the earliest Muslims apply Muhammad's severe command? Literally and gruesomely, as they followed his example.
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 amputation that a court imposes. However, the earliest Muslim sources interpret the verse more accurately.
Ibn Kathir, referencing (3:175—76) two hadiths from Bukahri and Muslim, summarizes a story circulating around early Islam. 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, 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, explaining it away.
First, in Maulana Muhammad Ali's translation of Sura 5:38 (The Holy Qur'an, 1917, 2002), he translates, '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, but 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, 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' 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 shows how the Quran shifts from severity to mercy in a flash; also, the hadith does not support this soft interpretation. A thief gets punished, and 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' is found in the verse. He maintains, however, that this extreme punishment expresses a 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. 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 like 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.
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 this punishment 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—whether in poverty or in the infinite riches of socialism. Thus, he only hurts his case, not helps it—and the same is true with Yusuf Ali, analyzed above. Cutting off the hands of thieves is wrong at all times and in all places. 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 them up, 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.' Apparently for him, 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 are 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, 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, Sura 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. Moreover, Ahmed Ali would like to believe that 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.
To sum up, these five commentators 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 Islam with Christianity can bring out the differences in the two religions.
Jesus did not order this punishment for thieves. It should be recalled that Yusuf Ali 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 in one's soul. To use modern examples, an alcoholic should cut off all access to alcohol and a sex addict must cut off all avenues of exposure to the sex industry. This is what Jesus means by cutting off and gouging out—dealing with sin drastically.
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, never did Jesus or the New Testament authors endorse brutality and 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.
6. Application to us today
The hard facts presented in this article are relevant to us today.
First, sharia, which is Islamic law rooted in the Quran and the hadith, is not a benefit to society. It contains too many harsh rules and punishments. One of the most tragic and under—reported occurrences in the West in recent years is the existence of a sharia court in Canada. Muslims are pushing for one in Australia, as well. Canada should promptly shut it down, and Australia should never allow it. Most importantly, such a court should never be permitted in the US. Sharia ultimately degrades society and diminishes freedom, contrary to what this whitewashed and euphemistic analysis says at this site. Readers should go to this last link to read for themselves how Muslim apologists distort or soften the meaning of straightforward and harsh words (e.g. mutilating 'has some negative connotations, and I would prefer the alternative 'amputating''), and how they deny or omit facts. Butchery by any other word still smells as bad. Whichever words they choose, the hard reality is the same. Hence, sharia is no benefit to society.
Second, traditional Muslims believe that Allah sent down the Quran through Gabriel. Would they break the letter of Gabriel's command if they were to ignore the literal meaning of cutting off hands in Sura 5:38? The five Muslim commentators critiqued in this article seem to zigzag between an intuition that cutting off hands is excessive and a deep belief that the Quran is completely inerrant and universally relevant. It seems that the cognitive dissonance or the mental shock may be too great for them to reform, if they have to deny the plain meaning of Sura 5:38 and that Allah sent it down.
Third, the violent radicals who are now slithering around the world would gladly impose their Quran's severe law on non—Muslim nations, if the radicals could ever conquer them by force or by gradual means. If they do not hesitate to cut off heads, why would they not cut off hands to make society pure and holy before Allah, who gave this rule in the first place? The war on terror must continue, in order to preserve western civilization and an assortment of nonwestern nations struggling with Islam.
Fourth, we on the outside of Islam are allowed to ask whether the Quran's punishments are better than Paul's recommendation that thieves work with their hands or better than Jesus' unwillingness to impose mutilation. Does the Quran guide society better than the New Testament does? Would the true God send Gabriel down to Muhammad with such a message? Should this message supercede the New Testament?
Given the hard evidence, Bible—educated Christians realize that the true 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.
James Arlandson (PhD) teaches introductory philosophy and world religion at a college in southern California. He has written a book, Women, Class, and Society in Early Christianity (Hendrickson, 1997). He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.