Saiyed Shahid Ali


Cut off the thief's hand!
- Did the Almighty decree this cruel punishment?

   The Quranic injunction regarding the punishment for theft is given in verse 38 to 40 in chapter 5. In verse 38 the word “yad” occurs, which is translated in its literal sense of “hand”. As is explained in the interpretation by the late Ali Ahmad Khan in his translation commentary of the Quran, this word has other meaning besides “hand”, one being “wealth”. It is because the word “yad” has been translated by all the translators and commentators as “hand”, the punishment for theft has been taken to mean the “cutting off of hands”. Owing to this error in translation, a great confusion has been created by the interpreters, and especially the jurists. There is no unanimity amongst them whether ONE hand only or BOTH hands should be cut off. And if only one hand should be cut off, then which one?

 Again: there is great disagreement as to how much of the hand should be cut off – whether the WHOLE hand or only the fingers should be chopped off; (and in the present day, whether the amputation should be carried out by a surgeon under anaesthetic, or by a salaried executioner weilding a sword!) Then there is the preposterous construction put upon Verse 39 : “But if the thief has repented and reformed himself, then surely Allah turns to him in forgiveness…”

 Some commentators interpret this to mean that if the thief repents AFTER his hand has been cut off, and THEN he reforms himself, then Allah turns to him in forgiveness. What a ridiculous explanation! Repentance and reformation can only have meaning and significance if they are done BEFORE the punishment is carried out and the stolen property is returned to its rightful owner! Some jurist exempt certain items from this punishment. There is no unanimity among them on what these items are.

 The WHOLE situation has been reduced to a state of utter confusion, leading to endless arguments and differing interpretations. There is, however, another cruel side to this interpretation of cutting off the hand. Over the last many centuries, countless hands have been cut off, thus causing terrible miseries to the innocent families of the thieves.

 The Holy Prophet (S) had established the just Islamic Social Order, which was maintained and strengthened by early Caliphs, in which there were no paupers, no one hungry, and there were no deprived sections of the community. There was a just and equitable distribution of wealth and, therefore there WAS NO NEED WHATSOEVER FOR ANYBODY TO STEAL.

 Later on when this just system was replaced by autocratic and corrupt regimes, crime flourished and people were forced to commit theft. In order to meet this situation, which may not have been unlike our own days, the Quranic law on theft was also perverted to mean physical cutting off the hand. Besides “hand”, the word “Yad” also means strength of hands, power, property, favour, wealth, blessings, kindness, obligation, support, etc.

 According to the Law of God, the punishment should fit the crime. Not hand for wealth, but wealth for wealth. If the thief has cut someone’s hand, then his hand should be cut off. If Allah had ordered that the thief’s hand be cut off, then there would have been no question of his repentance and returning to the Right Path, and there would have been no question of his being forgiven either. Allah has not ordered that the hand(s) of the thief be cut off, but to cut off his advantages and to keep him a prisoner to work for the person whose goods he (the thief) has stolen. Every language has its idioms which, if taken literally, are different in their actual meanings. To cut off the thief’s hand also means that the thief should be given such a punishment as to PREVENT him from stealing anymore – so that he can work, with BOTH hands as a prisoner, to make good the loss of the person he robbed.


 Cutting off the hand means cutting off the reasons why a person steals. In the Quranic Social Order, the ruler is supposed to provide his subjects with all the wherewithal’s of subsistence and existence.

 When every member of the community has ENOUGH to eat, a decent home to live in, and a secure well-paid job – all of which are religiously provided by the ruler/ Khaleefah/ Muslim government – then automatically the NEED to steal falls away!

 If this is not done, and the subjects are hungry, miserable and in dire want, then a criminal climate is created where people are FORCED to steal for food and other necessities of life! Thus, cutting off the hand clearly denotes eliminating the REASON, the CIRCUMSTANCES and the SITUATIONS that prompt and force a person to steal. A person’s hand is automatically “cut off” if he has ENOUGH of everything and thus has NO CAUSE WHATSOEVER TO STEAL!. Conversely, of course if a person after having been provided with EVERY necessity of life enabling him to lead a decent, clean life, thus having NO NEED AT ALL TO STEAL – still conimits thefts for the sheer fun, kicks and pleasure of it, then naturally the Quranic Law would applied LITERALLY, and his hand will be cut off PHYSICALLY! In the words of Abu A’la Moudoodi: “If in an Islamic government the Khaleefah does not provide enough food and a proper, decent life for his subjects, thus motivating them to steal, then the Khaleefah’s hand should be cut off”! When the thief gets his punishment, it is necessary for him to repent and give back all the stolen property.

 Thus the repentance of the thief brings out the REAL MEANING of the verse. Physically cutting off the hand deprive him of the opportunity to repent, deprives him of the opportunity to rehabilitate himself, and causes untold misery to his wife and children – because the sole bread-winner has now become handless!

 Did the Almighty have this cruel punishment in His Mind when he decreed to hand out the punishment for theft? And Allah says again and again in the Quran that He is Ghafoor, Ghaffar, Raheem, Rahman – the Ever-forgiving, the Ever Merciful?