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The Quran => Q&As with Joseph Islam - Information Only => : Reader Questions November 14, 2011, 06:57:01 AM

: Cutting off the Hands
: Reader Questions November 14, 2011, 06:57:01 AM
Salaamun aleikum, Br Joseph.

I have just read your article on the punishment for theft. While interesting, I'm not persuaded that this is necessarily the 'right' interpretation. I strongly incline to the view that the word 'yad' as appearing in (5:38) must be understood metonymically as "power" and/or "resources". (There are a number of signs/indicators in The Qur'an where yad carries this meaning, e.g. in relation to God/Allah who created Adam with His two hands.) On this basis, I would render the phrase "aq th'aa-oo aydiyahuma" in (5:38) as "restrain/prevent them from exercising their ability (to steal)". However, this is a deterrent reading; an alternative is "freeze their assets". It is interesting that the punishment for theft described in (12:75) is some form of detention. I don't see physically cutting the hand as justified because of the law of qisas (like for like): Amputation is NOT the like of theft; amputation is the like of amputation. Finally, your appeal to (5:33-34) is somewhat problematic since, as Muhammad Asad has argued in The Message of The Qur'an, this "legal punsihment" is the same as that implemented by Pharaoh/Fir'awn (7:124, 20:71, 26:49) who The Qur'an identifies as guilty of taghaa (tyranny/excess).
I reproduce Asad's commentary on (5:33-34) for your consideration below:
In classical Arabic idiom, the "cutting off of one's hands and feet" is often synonymous with "destroying one's power", and it is possibly in this sense that the expression has been used here. Alternatively, it might denote "being mutilated", both physically and metaphorically - similar to the (metonymical) use of the expression "being crucified" in the sense of "being tortured". The phrase min khilaf - usually rendered as "from opposite sides"- is derived from the verb khalafahu, "he disagreed with him", or "opposed him", or "acted contrarily to him": consequently, the primary meaning of min khilaf is "in result of contrariness" or "of perverseness".
Most of the classical commentators regard this passage as a legal injunction, and interpret it, therefore, as follows: "The recompense of those who make war on God and His apostle and spread corruption on earth shall but be that they shall be slain, or crucified, or that their hands and feet be cut off on opposite sides, or that they shall be banished from the earth: such shall be their ignominy in this world." This interpretation is, however, in no way warranted by the text, and this for the following reasons:
(a) The four passive verbs occurring in this sentence - "slain", "crucified", "cut off" and "banished" - are in the present tense and do not, by themselves, indicate the future or, alternatively, the imperative mood.
(b) The form yuqattalu does not signify simply "they are being slain" or (as the commentators would have it) "they shall be slain", but denotes - in accordance with a fundamental rule of Arabic grammar - "they are being slain in great numbers"; and the same holds true of the verbal forms yusallabu ("they are being crucified in great numbers") and tuqatta'a ("cut off in great numbers"). Now if we are to believe that these are "ordained punishments", it would imply that great numbers - but not necessarily all - of "those who make war on God and His apostle" should be punished in this way: obviously an inadmissible assumption of arbitrariness on the part of the Divine Law-Giver. Moreover, if the party "waging war on God and His apostle" should happen to consist of one person only, or of a few, how could a command referring to "great numbers" be applied to them or to him?
(c) Furthermore, what would be the meaning of the phrase, "they shall be banished from the earth", if the above verse is to be taken as a legal injunction? This point has, indeed, perplexed the commentators considerably. Some of them assume that the transgressors should be "banished from the land [of Islam]": but there is no instance in the Qur'an of such a restricted use of the term "earth" (ard). Others, again, are of the opinion that the guilty ones should be imprisoned in a subterranean dungeon, which would constitute their "banishment from [the face of] the earth"!
(d) Finally - and this is the weightiest objection to an interpretation of the above verse as a "legal injunction" - the Qur'an places exactly the same expressions referring to mass-crucifixion and mass-mutilation (but this time with a definite intent relating tothe future) in the mouth of Pharaoh, as a threat to believers (see 7:124, 20:71 and 26:49). Since Pharaoh is invariably described in the Qur'an as the epitome of evil and godlessness, it is inconceivable that the same Qur'an would promulgate a divine law in precisely the terms which it attributes elsewhere to a figure characterized as an "enemy of God".
In short, the attempt of the commentators to interpret the above verse as a "legal injunction" must be categorically rejected, however great the names of the persons responsible for it.
On the other hand, a really convincing interpretation suggests itself to us at once as soon as we read the verse - as it ought to be read - in the present tense: for, read in this way, the verse reveals itself immediately as a statement of fact - a declaration of the inescapability of the retribution which "those who make war on God" bring upon themselves. Their hostility to ethical imperatives causes them to lose sight of all moral values; and their consequent mutual discord and "perverseness" gives rise to unending strife among themselves for the sake of worldly gain and power: they kill one another in great numbers, and torture and mutilate one another in great numbers, with the result that whole communities are wiped out or, as the Qur'an puts it, "banished from [the face of] the earth". It is this interpretation alone that takes full account of all the expressions occurring in this verse - the reference to "great numbers" in connection with deeds of extreme violence, the "banishment from the earth", and, lastly, the fact that these horrors are expressed in the terms used by Pharaoh, the "enemy of God".
Again, what do you think?
: Re: Cutting off the Hands
: Joseph Islam November 14, 2011, 07:00:41 AM
You do make a very plausible argument with regards 5:38, however 'ceteris paribus', I incline to read the context of the punishment as within the ambit of 'fasad fil ard' as following on from its previous verses and hence the use of the word "Nakalan' in 5:38 as exemplary. The appeal to Pharaoh's context is only with a view to  understand terminology of 'nakalan' in the context of 'fasad fil ard' and not an appeal to synonymity with Pharaoh's personal transgressions. I am strongly swayed by two conditions: 'Nakalan' as a term used in 5:38 and the context of 'fasad fil ard' in the previous verses which I humbly feel should not be overlooked. These are no ordinary 'thief's' in my humble opinion given the conditions just cited, but those whose repeated transgressions are so indiscriminate and a serious deprivation to others which amount to clear 'fitna' in the land.  This would be no different from the kind of highway indecent robbery which was possibly commonplace amongst the people of Lot for which along with other lewd acts, were taken for severe retribution by God (29:29).
I will deal with brother Asad's most 'weightiest' objection (as he has put it) (d) first. I am a great fan of our late brother Muhammad Asad and his beautiful work, however, I humbly cannot concur with the premise of brother Asad's argument in which he seems to argue, as you say, that "this "legal punishment" is the same as that implemented by Pharaoh/Fir'awn (7:124, 20:71, 26:49) who The Qur'an identifies as guilty of taghaa (tyranny/excess)"   
Whereas Pharaoh's punishment was meted out without just cause or due right but amounted to pure and utter tyranny, this is not the case with God's punishment. The two conditions are not equal. Conversely then, it can then be argued if we accept 5:33 as not literal, then why should we assume 7:124, 20:71 and 26:49 are literal in Pharaoh's case? This only increases the difficulty. I suppose we need to find an honest way to remain consistent and harmonious with all the verses in which the terms are utilised as I'm sure you agree.
Moving on to brother Muhammad Asad's other points,
(a) Though I agree with Muhammad Asad that that the four imperfect verbs to be passive (slain, crucified, cut off and banished), they clearly indicate an action that has not yet occurred and a possibility for the future as they are clearly in the subjunctive mood.
(b) I am not sure how Muhammad Asad is using the verb form II which is the same verb form II (albeit in the 1st person singular imperfect verb due to Pharaoh's direct speech context) in 20:71 to conclude 'great numbers' in 5:33 as the only viable translation. Clearly, the verbs in 5:33 are in 3rd person masculine plural but that is only to identify the correct grammar which exists between the speaker (God) and the 3rd person subjects in question. They are all in the subjunctive mood and can easily denote future occurrences even if they are used in the present tense. This is quite common in other languages too.
Secondly, I am not sure I accept the connection between the punishments suggested with the 'expectation' that 'all should be punished in this way'. That is the reason why various options of punishments are given to capture the various extent of the involvement of the individuals concerned and to ascertain what specific punishments would be suitable for particular individuals who are convicted of the crime. I suppose a lose analogy would be if the justice system has to its avail a list of prescribed punishments for rioters, does one expect to give one blanket punishment to all rioters? Certainly not as I'm sure you will agree.
(c) 'yunfaw minal-ardi' simply means to exile from the land. 'Ard' clearly in the Quran is not simply used for planet 'Earth' but also denotes land, a place where one alights or abides or the ground as meaning the surface of the earth which we tread. It also implies the area or remit in which one's power is exercised 13:41; 21:44. One can of course banish one from the land one occupies, but to take it possibly in the literal sense as banishing one  from the face of the Earth is quite an unnecessary literal extrapolation, certainly not warranted by context as I'm sure you will agree. Furthermore, by the mere fact that other opinions may have seen it in a literal sense (almost nonsensically) should not interfere with our own opportunity to decline this view for a more plausible one.
Just my humble thoughts and nice to hear your thoughts on this matter as well.

: Re: Cutting off the Hands
: Reader Questions November 14, 2011, 07:03:01 AM
Salaamun aleikum, Br Joseph.
Jazak'Allah khairun for the prompt and detailed response.
I'm inclined to think that rather than emphasise the possible contextual relevance of (5:33-34) for the understanding of (5:38), we should focus attention on the verb qata'a as it appears in The Qur'an. According to the dictionary, the basic meanings associated with this verb include "to cut/sever/disunite/separate/detach, to disable in prosecuting, unable to proceed it, withdrew, break down, perish/cease/finish/fail, cut short/stop, intercepted/interrupted, put an end/stop to, a piece/bit/part/portion cut off from a whole, herd, distinct portion." In (12:31) we find the construction "qatt'ana aydiyahunna" which is usually rendered as "they cut their hands" but might be idiomatic language for "they stopped cutting/peeling with the knives they were given". If so, this might lend support to the idea of "fettering/preventing/deterring the exercise of criminal power".
>Conversely then, it can then be argued if we accept 5:33 as not literal, then why should we assume 7:124, 20:71 and 26:49 are literal in Pharaoh's case? This only increases the difficulty. I suppose we need to find an honest way to remain consistent and harmonious with all the verses in which the terms are utilised as I'm sure you agree.
Agreed, but I'm not sure that was/is what Muhammad Asad is trying to argue; rather, I take him to be saying that the constructions in all these signs/indicators (ayaat) may be making use of idiomatic and/or metonymi/metaphorical language.
: Re: Cutting off the Hands
: Joseph Islam November 14, 2011, 07:05:20 AM
Peace my brother,

I guess you are absolutely correct brother, with all its arguments and counterarguments, the crux of the matter is whether to interpret 'fa-iq'ta'u aydiyahuma' literally or metaphorically. Personally, the somewhat difficulty I have with accepting 'waqatta'na aydahunna' (and cut their hands) in 12:31 with regards the women in the metaphorical sense is that I would then find the mention of a knife (sikinan) somewhat superfluous. I suppose my assertion is that  other phrases could have easily been mentioned which just informed one that they were either gobsmacked or stopped what they were doing. With no exact matching Biblical comparison of the scence, there is a powerful impact that the Quran is making with the charged scene of the narrative and its purpose.

I also try to compare the form of the verb as well the verbal root. So where qata'a in 5:38 would be an imperfect verb in form I, the 'qatta'a' verb in 12:31 and 12:50 is in form II of the perfect verb which is similar to 7:160, 7:168, 47:15 which all mean to either divide / cut into pieces  / sever.  So hence my difficulty accepting a metaphorical meaning purely from the Quran.

I hope that helps,

Your brother,
: Re: Cutting off the Hands
: Reader Questions November 14, 2011, 07:08:21 AM
Salaamun aleikum, Br Jospeh.
Thank you for the clarification; I am aware of that interpretation of the cutting of the hands of the women in Surah Yusuf.
One thing that does interest me given diversity of interpretation is to HOW to enforce the hudood in a given mulk/dominion? Do you envisage multiple systems of law co-existing? I say this because beyond academic concerns lies the REAL issue of PRAXIS, i.e. practical implementation of LAW. In short, for theft in a given polity/community, which interpretation(s) should be applied and by whom? This raises the whole issue of authority which DEFINITELY requires examination. Recently, I have been looking into anarchist political thought and am more and more persuaded that The Qur'an does NOT recognise the 'state', as least on its corporate/Weberian  conception, as a legitimate entity.
: Re: Cutting off the Hands
: Joseph Islam November 14, 2011, 07:10:39 AM
Salamun Alaikum,

Indeed, the Quran intends to provide clear guidance for practical purposes not only to govern the spiritual realm but also in a legal capacity where it lays down the 'hadh' (limits and scope) for societies to develop on. I suppose one can appeal to the strong directives governing the recommendation of 'shura' (42:38; 27:32) which even the prophet was asked to participate in (3:159) with how to implement the 'hadh' stipulated by the Quran and appreciating the wide berth given by the Quran to recognise the degrees of implementation. Unfortunately, as you know from a study of the development of early jurisprudence in Islam and to today, there has been much departure from the 'hadh' stipulated by the Quran and into a legal system which has been dependant on surmounting traditions which are clearly dichotomous with respect to the Quran. This approach has only served to narrow the interpretation and often completely divert from the essence of the Quranic laws and its wisdom.

With regards the recognition of a state, I wonder how one would interpret the narrative with regards Prophet Joseph (pbuh) and how he recognised the 'system' (deen) of his land which he didn't contravene, rather chose to manufacture a situation to reveal the truth. Clarification made, 'ka-dhalika kidna li-yusufa - ma kana liyakhuda akhahu fi dini-l-maliki' (Thus (did) we plan for Yusuf. He could not take his brother by the 'din' of the king).

[My interpretation of the Quranic use of 'deen']

I hope that helps,

Kind regards,