| Question: The punishment for
a theft is amputation of hands? Please explain why this punishment has
been prescribed by Islam.
Answer: The punishment of cutting a thief’s hand for stealing must be examined in the proper context. The verse in question, 5:38-9, mentions two words, Sariq and Sariqah, for the male and female who will have their hand cut off for stealing. These two words are significant because they are adjectives and in Arabic language, adjectives as opposed to verbs signify that the trait they represent is thoroughly present in the person they stand for. Hence, these are individuals who are thieves by profession and the act they commit constitutes thievery. Thus, one time acts committed by an individual out of ignorance, temporary weakness, need, mistake, etc. do not support carrying out this severe punishment. Hence, if some government carried out this action against someone who happened to once steal a chicken, in my opinion they were mistaken. However, if they carried it out against a chicken thief, then the issue could be worthy of severe punishment. Similarly, in the West the severity of the punishment increases with the number of offenses committed and degree of the crime. Hence, ‘armed robbery’ receives a harsher punishment because it is considered a felony not a misdemeanor. Islamic punishments are in fact maximum punishments that can be given for a particular type of crime. However, this does not mean that this punishment must be given whenever that type of crime is committed. Circumstances and context must be examined for each crime.