Crucifixion and Mutilation in the Quran

As a punishment for mischief, broadly interpreted, throughout the land, the Quran orders crucifixion and alternate hand-and-foot mutilation. Real law, real life, real bad.

This post updates the earlier one, offsite and titled Crucifixion and Mutilation? Just Say No to Islamic Law!

This post is divided into seven sections:

  • Translation of the Verse
  • Classical Interpretations and Applications
  • Modern Explanations
  • The Quran, the Bible, and Western Law
  • Conclusion

To understand Sura 5:33, three steps are used. First, we use a reputable Muslim translation. Second, we explore the historical context of the verse. Third, we examine its literary context. These last two steps not only clarify the verse, they also prevent the standard, reflexive “out of context” defense of Muslim apologists (defenders of Islam).

After this three-step process, we analyze classical legal interpretations of Sura 5:33. Then we critique four modern interpretations or defenses of the verse. Next, we contrast the Quran with the Bible as they relate to the Western world. Finally, we apply our findings to the world today.

A Translation of Sura 5:33

For the historical and textual contexts of Chapter 5, please click on Maududi’s commentary:

Egyptian-born MAS Abdel Haleem, educated at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, and Cambridge University, now professor of Islamic Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, translates as follows:

5:33 Those who wage war against God and His Messenger and strive to spread corruption in the land should be punished by death, crucifixion, the amputation of an alternate hand and foot or banishment from the land: a disgrace for them in this world, and then a terrible punishment in the Hereafter, 34 unless they repent before you overpower them: in that case bear in mind that God is forgiving and merciful. (The Qur’an, Oxford UP, 2004)

Verse 34 has been included because some Islamic legal scholars say that in some cases the criminal does not undergo the punishments if he repents before he is caught. Muhammad says that the criminal can be (1) executed, (2) crucified, (3) mutilated, or (4) expelled. As we will see, Muslim jurists debate the circumstances that elicit these punishments. Also, these are commands in a legal context, so Abdel Haleem’s words “should be” are too soft. The readers should take in these two verses carefully, for they set the stage for various interpretations and legal opinions. For more translations of this verse, visit this website and type in 5:33. 5 is the sura or chapter and 33 is the verse.


Sharia Law

Sharia means the body of Islamic law; fiqh means the science of interpreting and applying this law, done by qualified Islamic judges and legal scholars. Over the first two centuries after Muhammad’s death in AD 632, four main Sunni schools of fiqh emerged, led by these scholars: Malik (d. 795), who lived in Medina, Arabia; Abu Hanifa (d. 767), who lived in Kufa, Iraq; Shafi (d. 820), who lived mostly in Mecca, Arabia, but who was buried in Cairo, Egypt; and Hanbal (d. 855) who lived in Baghdad, Iraq.

But the shortest route is to click on Ibn Kathir’s commentary, here:

We examine the opinions of some of these schools, using the question and answer format.

1. How do these legal scholars define the crime in Sura 5:33?

Even though the supposed historical context of Sura 5:33 deals with renegade tribesmen, during a raid, which happened often enough in Arabia at the time, some scholars interpret the clause “wage war against God and His messenger” as an armed rebellion against an Islamic ruler. However, most jurists agree that the tribesmen’s crime comes under the category of highway robbery or brigandage. This crime is committed outside of the city along the trade routes or highways, not in a city by an ordinary thief. The Quran has another verse to deal with the ordinary thief, male or female: Sura 5:38, which commands that his or her hand should be cut off.

2. When and how are the punishments of execution, crucifixion, mutilation, or banishment applied?

The Shafi School has several applications. (1) If the robbers kill someone, but do not take his property, then they are executed (presumably beheaded). (2) If the robbers kill someone and steal his property, then they should be hanged (presumably crucified) after being given a bath, burial and funeral prayer. (3) If they robbed property, but did not kill anyone, then their right hand and left foot are to be amputated. (4) If they only threaten, but do not kill or rob, then they are to be punished by imprisonment (substitute for banishment) and according to the judge’s discretion (A Sunni Shafi Law Code, trans. Anwar Ahmed Qadri, Lahore, Pakistan: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf Publishers, translated in 1984, p. 121).

As for the other schools of law, we use the compendium of Ibn Rushd, known in the West as Averroës (d. 1198). By far he is the most thorough compiler and editor of legal opinions. He was a judge, medical doctor, and scientist, but he pursued his career mostly as a judge in Spain, where Islam ruled from the eighth century to the fifteenth. He was buried in Cordova. His two volume book, The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer, (trans. Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee, Center for Muslim Contribution to Civilization, Reading, UK: Garnet, 1994-1996, vol. 2, pp. 547-52), took over twenty years to write. Bringing together the first three schools of law and an assortment of other legal opinions, Ibn Rushd provides a foundation in Islamic law for judges and legal scholars throughout the Islamic world, where it is still used today.

Ibn Rushd records that Malik says that the punishments are applied as follows: (1) if the robbers commit murder, they are to be put to death, either by execution or crucifixion. (2) If they stole property, but did not murder, then the penalty is exile, but the judge has discretionary authority to execute, crucify, or amputate the alternative hand and foot. (3) The least punishment is flogging and exile, depending on the circumstances. Sometimes exile can be replaced with imprisonment. Ibn Rushd also says that the Hanafi School agrees with the Shafi School, which was noted above.

3. Do the criminals go free if they repent before getting caught (Sura 5:34)?

This is the confusing part of Islamic law in the matter of brigandage, especially when we compare the excessive punishment for theft: chopping off the hand of a male or female thief. The hadith (Muhammad’s words and actions outside of the Quran) states that the repentance of the thief is acceptable only after his or her hand has been chopped off and cauterized. Per contra, Islamic law, for the crime of highway robbery, according to some scholars, allows the criminals to go free without suffering death or mutilation. This is odd, because highway robbery sometimes involves murder and always involves a danger to trade. This means that the crime of the highway robber “is far the greater because he menaces the lifeline of the community, its trade routes” (The Reliance of the Traveller: a Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law, rev. ed. trans. Nuh Ha Mim Keller, Bethany, Maryland: Amana Publications, 1991, 1994, p. 616).

It is true that some scholars, for example, Shafi, say that the robber must give himself up and show signs of repentance (e.g. desist from his crimes), but he is still liable to retaliation (restitution or bodily injury or death), if the robber stole, injured, or killed, and if the victims’ families demand it (Reliance of the Traveller, p. 616).

However, Ibn Rushd, after summarizing three various degrees of punishment for a repentant highway robber, notes a fourth opinion:

The fourth opinion is that repentance absolves him [the highway robber] from all claims based on the right of Allah [divine punishment in Sura 5:33] or on the rights of human beings pertaining to wealth or killing, except for the property still existing in their possession. (vol. 2, p. 551)

In other words, the highway robber’s repentance absolves him of all other punishment—execution, crucifixion, amputation of his hands and feet, and expulsion. Jurists are allowed to disagree with each other, but this fourth opinion interprets v. 34 accurately, for the verse does say that the punishment is annulled if he repents before he is overtaken. In contrast, the ordinary thief gets his or hand chopped off (provided he or she steals more than a certain monetary amount). Allah sent down 5:34, which allows repentance before getting caught, as a way for the highway robber to possibly escape punishment, but Allah also sent down 5:39, which seems to block repentance before the ordinary thief is caught and punished—as the hadith tells us.

However, whether or not the brigands should suffer some kind of punishment with or without their repentance, we must step back and look at the big picture. Islamic law on the crime of highway robbery is excessive, when it orders the amputation of hands and feet merely for stealing property. To execute a first-degree murderer is a viable penalty, though many oppose it in the West; the law in many states in the US allows this punishment, but European nations forbid it. Either way, western law does not permit the amputation of hands and feet for stealing goods along the trade routes.

In contrast, traditional Islam would still like to follow the universal will of Allah in Sura 5:33 and impose the mutilation of hands and feet for stealing property along the roads, and even impose crucifixion if the robber killed anyone during his crime—and possibly impose crucifixion if the robber did not kill anyone, according to the judges’ discretion. If traditionalists would like to chop off hands for theft, then why would they not chop off hands and feet for highway robbery? But anyone whose mind has not been clouded by a lifetime of devotion to Islam and who uses sound reasoning must conclude that cutting off the alternate hand or foot only for stealing goods from a caravan journeying down a trade route is extreme, and the same is true of crucifixion for murder and chopping off a hand for ordinary theft.

This extreme becomes crystal clear when we remember that Muhammad himself attacked and robbed Meccan caravans without direct provocation—including killing people. During the ten years that he lived in Medina (AD 622-632), he either sent out or went out on seventy-four raids, expeditions, or full-scale wars. A few times the raids did not end in violence, but most of the time people were killed and their property stolen. However, by the time Sura 5 was revealed late in Medina, he was too powerful militarily and politically throughout much of the Arabian Peninsula for anyone to stop him. Only he gets to lay down the law—and excessively, too.

To conclude this section, the legal opinions uphold the brutality of Sura 5:33, though an Islamic judge has a little leeway to impose certain penalties on certain crimes, such as beheading or crucifying, if the highway robber kills someone (or merely robs, according to the judges’ discretion), or amputating or executing if the highway robber only steals property.

Modern Explanations of Sura 5:33

For a discussion, click on the older and longer version of this post, offsite and written by yours truly:

Crucifixion and Mutilation? Just Say NO to Islamic Law.

Scroll down to the right section.

The Quran and the Bible, and the Western World

For a discussion, click on the older and longer version of this post, offsite and written by yours truly:

Crucifixion and Mutilation? Just Say NO to Islamic Law.

Scroll down to the right section.


Omitting the two sections and asking the reader to click on the offsite links is designed to keep this post short enough. The Quran and Sharia Law gets to the heart of the issue.

We on the outside of Islam are allowed to ask: Does the Quran offer better guidance for society than the New Testament does? Does Muhammad improve on the teaching and deeds of Jesus? Indeed, would God send Gabriel down to inspire Sura 5:33?

Given the hard evidence, Christians realize that the God would not send down such an extreme verse in the new era of salvation which Jesus ushered in. They realize that the Quran is empirically and factually worse than the New Testament.

Jesus Christ came with good news and the love of God. As the eternal Son of God, he sent the Holy Spirit to transform people from the inside out. Being only a human messenger (Sura 3:144), Muhammad came with crucifixion and mutilation. Christianity advances society forward. Islam drags society backwards.

Jesus saves sinners and criminals by his own crucifixion. Muhammad killed sinners and criminals by his legalized, punitive crucifixion.


Thirty Sharia Laws

Why sharia is incompatible with American values

How to judge sharia

What is sharia?

Introduction to a series on Islamic sharia law

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