I remember being told with a smirk and wink as a child that some places in the world thieves are punished by the cutting off of hands.  I am not sure about the prudence of telling a child this, though I may have “helped myself” to some forbidden fruit, and the comment sure wasn’t intended to be a threat.  Still, a mental picture like that stays with a kid, which was maybe the point!  Today we come to the passage in the Qur’an that instructs that thievery be handled in exactly that way. 

Today’s section begins with a rehearsal of Jewish history, in particular a reminder that the Jews have been unfaithful as far back at the episode with the twelve spies sent to scout out Canaan.  This is a common strategy: pull out all the skeletons in an opponent’s closet and make them look bad.  

Then the passage turns to an interesting re-telling of Cain and Abel, embellished with a conniving raven (?).  All of this is a lead up to the enduring issue at hand: how to punish willful, violent crimes against others, such as the killing of one’s brother.  The bottomline is that murder is punishable by “death, crucifixion, the amputation of an alternate hand and foot, or banishment from the land” (5:33).  And it gets worse in the Hereafter (5:37).  Theft is to be punished by the cutting off of hands, whether the offender is male or female, and this is intended to be a deterrent to the masses (5:38).  I will refrain from posting the many pictures out there on the Internet, but it seems now in some places the removal of hands has been replaced by the crushing of hands and arms by running over such with a vehicle.  I guess this is considered more humane?  What is the underlying ethical principle?  The same “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” principle we see in the Hebrew Bible as well.

To be fair, I should mention that there is also a strong possibility of mercy in this very same passage.  True repentance can curtail capital punishment for those who have “spread corruption in the land” because “God is forgiving and merciful” (5:34).  Repentance and restitution can prevent punishment from thievery (5:39).  After all it is God who is in charge of the world, even in charge of justice, so if he chooses to forgive (or punish) he is justified.  This seems to be the point of this line:

He punishes whoever He will and forgives whoever He will: God has power over everything. (5:40) 

Though that sounds sort of willy-nilly, the point is certainly not that God is unpredictable or unfair.  If anything He is more than fair.        

Let me finish with the words of two great Jewish men on the matter.  I prefer their take:

Villager: An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth!
Tevye: Very good. That way the whole world will be blind and
toothless. (from Fiddler on the Roof)

You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.”  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Jesus in Matthew 5:38-42)