The Punishment of Theft
The punishment enforced in a number of Islamic countries for the crime of theft is based on the wrong interpretation of the following verse:
"The male thief, and the female thief, you shall "eqta’u" their hands as a punishment for their deeds, and to serve as a deterrent from God. God is Almighty, Wise" 5:38
The way these so called Muslims interpret this verse makes them enforce 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 analyse the key word in the verse. The key word in this verse is the Arabic word "eqta’u".
The word "eqta’u" means (you shall cut).
Similar to the English language, the word CUT in Arabic (qata'a) could mean a number of different things. From these various meanings of the word CUT, there are two meanings that are relevant to our analysis, they are the following:
1- The word CUT (qata'a) can mean to sever. This use can be demonstrated by the following sentence:
"When a baby is born, its umbilical cord must be cut (severed)"
2 The word CUT could also mean to mark, scratch or cause to bleed. This use can be demonstrated by the following sentence:
"While I was playing football I fell and CUT (marked/caused to bleed) my leg"
It is obvious from this sentence that while I was playing football, I fell and my leg was wounded, scratched, marked or made to bleed, it does not mean that my leg was severed!
When we come to analyse 5:38 and try to determine which of these two meanings is the correct meaning we can seek the evidence of other Quranic verses that use the same word CUT (qata'a) and see how it is used.
The word CUT (qata'a) is used in the Quran in numerous verses, however the verse 12:31 is perhaps a most appropriate verse to refer to for the reason that like verse 5:38, we note that in verse 12:31 the word CUT was used in connection to the cutting of the hands.
"When she heard of their gossip, she invited them, prepared for them a comfortable place, and gave each of them a knife. She then said to him, "Enter their room." When they saw him, they so admired him, that they cut their hands.* They said, "Glory be to God, this is not a human being; this is an honorable angel" 12:31
This verse (12:31) refers to the women who were left gasping when they saw the beauty of Joseph. This made them "cut" their hands. Obviously, they did not sever their hands from their bodies, nobody can! Anyone attempting such a gruesome act would most definitely faint before being able to do it! What is most likely to have happened is that these women in their excitement at seeing such a handsome man as Joseph, cut (marked) their hands.
It is interesting to note that the sum of the sura and verse numbers for 5:38 is 43 (5 + 38). This is also the same total we get from adding 12 + 31.
It becomes clear that the correct punishment for theft is to mark the hands of the thief so as to make an example of his deed and also act as a deterrent for him and others.
Indeed, God would prescribe a punishment for the thief, but being the Most Merciful, God would not deprive a sinner (thief) from the ability to earn his living (if his hands were severed). Moreover, if a thief steals a thousand dollars from you, and they cut his hand, what do you get? If the thief has a wife and children, what is their crime to lose the ability of their man in earning money for the family? Why should they suffer hardship (if the father's hands are severed)?
The Quran solves this problem, as well as the problems associated with the criminal justice systems prevalent in today's world.
Equivalence is the Law in the Quran (2:178-179). According to the Quranic criminal justice, 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. At the same time, the thief's innocent wife and children are not deprived of their man.