Is there a penalty for stealing due to hunger?

The Details of the Question

- If a person steals bread to feed his starving family and saves them from starvation, is the penalty of theft applied in that case?

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

No, the person who is in that situation is never punished, on the contrary, the state pays the owner what he stole and takes care of all the needs of his family.

Conditions such as knowingly and willfully committing the crime, having criminal capacity, the stolen property being under legal protection and being more than a certain amount are necessary for the crime of theft to occur fully.

However, if there is an excuse such as hunger, necessity and coercion that partially or completely excuses committing the crime of theft, no penalty is given.

Accordingly, if a person has to steal bread to save his family from starvation, no punishment is given. In addition, all the needs of the hungry people are met by the state and the money for the stolen property is paid to the owner by the state.

As a matter of fact, during his caliphate, Umar (ra) did not impose hadd punishment on those who stole when famine and starvation prevailed. (1)

We think that Hz. Umar made this ijtihad by basing the cause of the decree on a hadith. We know that the Prophet (pbuh) did not apply had penalty in an event that took place when the Companion named Abbad b. Shurahbil committed theft due to hunger and that the needs of that Companion were met. (2)

It is possible to explain it with the principle of necessity (darurah). That is, Hz. Umar decreed that stealing someone else’s property in case of famine and hunger did not require a hadd penalty acting upon the fact, by analogy, that eating the meat of a dead animal in case of necessity did not bring about any responsibility. In this ijtihad, he observed the principle of protecting one’s life.

We would like to remind you that Islamic jurists laid very strict conditions for the formation of the crime and the implementation of the penalty; they adopted the principle of canceling the hadd penalty in case one of these conditions was absent or doubtful; moreover, they mentioned a series of measures in order to minimize the reasons that push people to commit theft.

Therefore, it is seen in the first Islamic society that the incidents of theft decreased considerably compared to the past and that the practice of cutting off the hand took place only in a few incidents in the periods of the Prophet (pbuh) and the Four Caliphs.

According to the shared statements of the fiqh scholars, the punishment prescribed for theft is equivalent to the severity of the crime committed; it has an exemplary aspect, and deters and improves anyone who attempts and intends to steal, as well as warns the society in this direction and forces them to take the necessary measures.

On the other hand, punishing the crime of theft is not the goal; on the contrary, it is the last resort. What matters is to eliminate the social instability, economic and moral distress, ambition, lack of education and moral degradation that pave the way for or encourage theft, and to reduce luxury and waste to a reasonable degree.

After the conditions are improved and the necessary measures are taken, the punishment of the crime of theft is a requirement of justice and is a part of Islam’s determination to ensure social order and the protection of rights.

Footnotes:

1) Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, Ilamul-Muwaqqi’in, Egypt, 1955, 3/10-12; Muhammad Rawwas Qalaji, Mevsuatu Fiqhi Umar Ibn al-Khattab, Beirut, 1981, p. 382.
2) Abu Dawud, Jihad, 85; Ibn Majah, Tijarat, 67.

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

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