Is the penalty of cutting off the hand of the thief very severe?

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

The penalty of cutting off the hand of the thief in Islam is aimed at preventing theft not cutting off hands.

The property of a person that he has earned legitimately cannot be touched in any way. Whoever steals is severely punished and his hand is cut off. The Quran states it as follows:

“As to the thief, Male or female, cut off his or her hands: a punishment by way of example, from Allah, for their crime: and Allah is Exalted in power.(al-Maida, 5/38)

Someone who found the punishment given to the thief very severe in the Islamic legal system was asked, “What would you do if someone broke into your house and stole your thirty years of savings and then you caught him?”

The man said: “I would kill him!”

Thereupon, he was addressed as follows: “You went further than the judgment you found severe; while Shari’a cuts off only one of his hands, you want to kill the man, let alone cutting off a hand.”

Hamdi Yazır states the following regarding the issue:

“A hand that dares to steal will inevitably be cut off like a gangrenous limb in the social life of Islam.” (Yazır, Hak Dini Kuran Dili, 3/1673)

On the other hand, the following point should not be overlooked in any case:

Punishments should be deterrent, not affectionate. Affectionate punishments do not prevent crime; on the contrary, they encourage crime. Many people who say “Oh, if only I were rich” can dream of reaching it by stealing. Since he sees that nothing happens to his hand even if he is caught and that he stays in prison for three or five months and then comes out, he can easily take that risk and steal.

If he is caught, he will have an experience of “overcoming fear” during the three or five months he stays in prison; and instead of coming to his senses and giving up, he decides to “continue theft”. Especially, if he stays with similar people in prison, he learns from them and gains experience; when they go out, they may even become organized and continue their way as a “gang”.

Badiuzzaman Said Nursi deals with the issue of punishment for theft in the religion in a detailed way as follows:

One time in the desert, a man was the guest of a nomad who was one of the people of reality. He saw that the desert-dwellers did not concern themselves with guarding their belongings. His host had even left some money openly in the corner of the room. The guest asked him, “Aren’t you frightened of thieves, just throwing your belongings in the corner like that?”

His host answered, “We do not have any thieves here.”

The guest said, “We put our money in safes and lock them, but it is still frequently stolen.”

His host told him, “We cut off the hands of thieves as a Divine command and on account of the justice of the Shari’a.”

Whereupon the guest exclaimed, “Then most of you must be lacking a hand!”

His host told him: “I am fifty years old, and yet in my whole life I have only seen one person.”

The guest was ashamed and said: “Although every day in my country we put fifty people in prison for theft, it does not have one hundredth of the effectiveness of your justice here.”

The host said: “You have been unmindful of an important truth and have ignored a strange and powerful fact, as a result of which true justice has escaped you. In place of general good, under an apparent justice, hatred and vicious and partisan currents intervene, destroying the effect of the judgements. The truth is as follows:

With us, the moment a thief stretches out his hand to seize another’s property, he recalls the punishment of the Shari’a. The command revealed from the Divine Throne comes to his mind. Through the sense of belief and ear of the heart, he as though hears the verse: وَالسَّارِقُ وَالسَّارِقَةُ فَاقْطَعُوا اَيْدِيَهُمَا which calls for “the execution of the thief’s hand,” and his belief and elevated emotions are stirred into action. From around his spirit and the depths of his conscience a state of mind is given rise to which as though attacks the inclination to steal. The inclination, which arises from the instinctual soul and lust, is stifled and recedes; by degrees it is completely extinguished. For not only the mind and imagination, but also the inner faculties, the intellect, heart, and conscience, together attack that desire and emotion. By recalling the punishment of the Shari’a the thief’s conscience restrains and prohibits him, confronting that desire and silencing it.

Yes, belief places in the heart and mind a permanent ‘prohibitor;’ when sinful desires emerge from the soul, it repulses them, declaring: “it is forbidden!”

Man’s actions result from the inclinations of his heart and emotions. They come from the sensibilities of the spirit and its needs. The spirit is stirred into action through the light of belief. If an act is good, he does it; if it is evil, he tries to restrain himself. Blinder emotions will not drive him down the wrong road and defeat him.

In short: When the punishments are carried out in the name of the Divine commands and dominical justice, both the spirit, and the intellect, and the conscience, and man’s innate subtle faculties are affected and influenced.

It is for this reason that the execution of a punishment once in fifty years is more effective than your imprisoning numerous people every day. Your penalties affect only your imaginations, for when one of you decides to steal something, suffering a penalty on account the country and nation and its benefits seems imaginary; or he thinks others will condemn him if they know about it; or it occurs to him that if it turns out unfavorably the government will send him to prison. So only his power of imagination feels minor discomfort. And the powerful desire issuing from his instinctual soul and emotions -particularly if he is needy as well- will overpower him. Then the penalty will be ineffective in making him refrain from committing the bad deed. Anyway, because they are not a Divine command, the penalties are not justice. They are vain and futile like performing the prayers without taking ablutions and not facing the qibla. That is to say, true justice and effective penalties are those which are in accordance with the Divine command and executed in its name. Others can have only a minimal effect.

Other universal and all-embracing Divine injunctions may be compared with this small question of theft, so that it may be understood that man’s happiness and well-being in this world are possible only through justice. As for justice, it can be achieved only through direct application of the way shown by the Qur’an…” (see Hutbe-i Şamiye, p. 75)

It seems that the punishment given to the thief in Islam is not to cut off the hands, but to prevent theft.

In the periods when this punishment was applied, theft was largely prevented and a balanced and peaceful society model was seen.

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