The way some Muslims interpret this verse makes them enforce the punishment of severing/cutting off the hand of anyone caught stealing. But is this the correct interpretation of God’s words in 5:38?
Here is a translation of 5:38:
“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 key word in this verse is the Arabic word “eqta’u”. We will need to analyse this keyword to help us understand the verse better.
The word ‘eqta’u’ (which is the commnd from of the word ‘qata’aa’) has been wrongly interpreted by some scholars to mean ‘to sever’. But the word for sever in Arabic is ‘batara’. In 108:3 we read the word ‘abtar” which speaks of he who has been cut off (his progeny severed). In 5:38 God did not use the word ‘batara’ but used the word ‘eqta’u’. The act of cutting can simply mean causing a wound or a marking. An example is of one who would be working in the kitchen and then may say “I have cut my hand”, this does not mean that he severed his hand!
To confirm the correct meaning, God has given us in the Quran a clear indication in the story of Joseph. When the women, who were the guests of the governor’s wife, saw how handsome Joseph was they cut their hands (12:31). The same word used in 5:38 is used in 12:31. Needless to say these women did not sever their hands.
Consequently, the punishment for theft according to the Most Merciful is to mark or make a wound in the hand of the offender so that he would be shamed in front of the people.
God, the Most Merciful, would not decree any person to be punished for the sins of another (6:164). Severing the hand of the thief would deprive him of his livelihood. As a result, his family and dependants would experience hardship for no fault of theirs! God’s law is fair and God’s wisdom is unequalled.
Applying the correct punishment for theft would give the offender the opportunity to repent and reform, and then he would be able to resume normal life after the cut in his hand heals.
On the other hand, severing the hand would be a terminal punishment that cannot be reversed should the offender genuinely wish to repent and reform.
In addition, God gives us in the very next verse (5:39) conclusive evidence for the correct meaning of the punishment for theft. In 5:39 God says that He will ‘yatoob’ (redeem) all those who repent and reform. There is no exception given in 5:39 and thus it includes those who have committed theft. The meaning of the word ‘yatoob’ means to forgive and restore to previous state. Needless to say, a person with a severed arm can never be restored to his previous state since he will be carrying the punishment of his crime till his dying day.Those who insist on claiming that the punishment of theft is to sever the hand are therefore those who reject God’s infinite mercy.
Indeed, God does 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). Any other sinner continues to earn a living, so why should the one who committed theft be singled out among all sinners for this life long punishment?
Moreover, if a thief steals a thousand dollars from you, and they cut his hand, what do you get? 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.