Just say NO to Islamic law!
James M. Arlandson
Traditional Muslims who understand the Quran and the hadith (reports of Muhammads words and actions outside of the Quran) believe that Islamic law or sharia expresses the highest and best goals for all societies. It is the will of Allah.
In September 2003, Scotsman Sandy Mitchell faced crucifixion in Saudi Arabia. He was beaten and tortured until he confessed to a crime he did not commit: a bomb plot masterminded by the British embassy. The article says of his punishment that it is the worst kind of execution:
Public beheadings are routine in Saudi Arabia, but crucifixion is reserved as an exemplary punishment under sharia (Islamic) law for crimes of the utmost severity. Two highway robbers have been executed in this way in the past 20 years.
Of interest here is the punishment of crucifixion for the crime of highway robbery. Though this crime is not "of the utmost severity" (the report is inaccurate on that one point), where do Islamic judges get crucifixion for this crime?
However, Islamic law in Saudi Arabia may also amputate an alternate hand or foot for highway robbery. In 2000, Amnesty International reports the following about amputation for ordinary theft and "cross" (alternate) amputation for severer crimes.
Amnesty International recorded 90 judicial amputations between 1981 and December 1999 in Saudi Arabia, including at least five cases of cross amputation, but the true number is probably much higher. It appears that in at least some cases, executioners carry out amputations. Amnesty International does not know if they receive medical training, or whether anaesthetics are administered to victims of judicial amputations, or if restraints are used. After the amputation has been carried out, the victim is taken away by ambulance to hospital for treatment.
Amnesty International explains in the paragraph before this one excerpted here that "cross" amputation is meted out for highway robbery and cites two cases in the year 1999 alone.
In the paragraph from the same web page, an executioner is interviewed, and he says he must use special knives and have great courage to cut off a hand, for the condemned man is still aliveit does not take as much courage if the condemned is beheaded because he leaves this life.
According to Sa'id bin 'Abdullah bin Mabrouk al-Bishi, an experienced Saudi Arabian executioner, "purpose-made knives are used to cut off the hands of those who commit theft". He was reported to have told a journalist:
"...for me it is more difficult to cut off a hand than to carry out an execution, because executions are done momentarily by the sword and the person leaves this life. By contrast, severing a hand demands more courage, especially because you are cutting off the hand of someone who will remain alive afterwards, and also you have to cut it off at a specific joint and use your skill to make sure that cutting implement stays in position. As I said, it is much more difficult for me to cut off someone's hand than to execute them, both in terms of carrying out the penalty itself and in terms of my own feelings."
Surely the same courage must be applied to severing off a foot, as well.
In 2002 Amnesty International reports that even though Saudi Arabia ratified the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Convention against Torture) in October 1997, amputation is prescribed under both Hudud (punishments) and Qisas (law of retaliation).
Under Hudud it is prescribed for theft (amputation of the right hand) and for highway robbery (amputation of the right hand and left foot). Amnesty International has recorded 33 amputations and nine cross-amputations since the Convention came into force in Saudi Arabia.
Alternate amputation for highway robbery? Again, where do these judges get this gruesome punishment?
It is sad to report that the judges get crucifixion and alternate amputation from the Quran itselfthe immutable, eternal word of Allah. Sura 5:33and Muhammads examplecommands these punishments.
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
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 Quran, 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 Haleems 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.
The historical context of Sura 5:33
The second step in our exegetical method is to explore the historical context of Sura 5:33.
The following event supposedly provides the historical context of 5:33-34. Some Arab tribesmen visited the prophet, but fell sick in the uncongenial climate of Medina, so Muhammad told them to follow a shepherd outside of the city, recommending to them an old folk belief: drinking the milk and urine of a camel. Subsequently, they are reported to have felt better. However, for some reason, they killed the shepherd (another version says shepherds), turned apostate, and drove off the camels for themselves. This news reached Muhammad, and he ordered them to be hunted down and brought before him. He decreed that their hands and feet should be cut off. Then he committed more excesses:
Then he ordered for [sic] nails which were heated and were branded with those nails, their eyes, and they were left in the Harra (i.e. rocky land in Al-Madina). And when they asked for water, no water was given them till they died .... (Bukhari vol. 4, no. 3018)
Though this passage is awkwardly translated, it is one of many that should shock Westerners and everyone of a sound mind. Muhammad actually pierced their eyes with nails (one version says with needles). Then their bodies were thrown on stony ground, dying of dehydration. One version says they died from the battering they suffered from being thrown on rocky ground; another says they died from loss of blood, for Muhammad did not cauterize their amputated limbs. Regardless, it is one thing to execute first-degree murderers, but torturing them like this is excessive, and excess is never just. Once again, Muhammad takes things to extremes.
Allah confirms that the prophet took things to extreme in this hadith, which reprimands him:
When the Apostle of Allah . . . cut off (the hands and feet of) those who had stolen his camels and he had their eyes put out by fire (heated nails), Allah reprimanded him on that (action), and Allah, the Exalted, revealed: "The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Apostle and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is execution or crucifixion." (Abu Dawud, no. 4357)
The problem with this reprimand is that it makes Sura 5:33 appear as if it were a vast improvement on the prophets ungodly actions. Though the verse may improve on them a little, it still legalizes torture by crucifixion and mutilation. Both methods of punishing criminals are still excessive and therefore unjust.
Sources: Bukhari vol. 4, no. 3018, vol. 6, no. 4619, and vol. 8, no. 6802; Muslim vol. 3, nos. 4130-4137; Sunan Abu Dawud vol. 3, nos. 4351-4359; Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad, trans. Guillaume, pp. 677-78. For more information on this gruesome torture meted out by the Allah-inspired prophet, please see this article.
For a look at the historical context of the entire Fifth Sura, please see this article, and scroll down to the section "Historical and literary contexts."
The literary context of Sura 5:33
The third step is the literary contextthe verses surrounding Sura 5:33. This has been examined thoroughly in this article, (scroll down to the section "Historical and literary contexts"), but we should note here that Muhammad has grown in military power, so he is able to inflict terrible punishments on the disobedient. For example, in v. 38 he commands that the hands of male and female thieves must be cut off. Also, he condemns the non-Muslims to an eternally painful torment, even if they were to gather up all the riches of the world and offer them to Allah in order to ransom or redeem themselves out of hell. Ransoming prisoners of war and victims of kidnapping was a hard custom in seventh-century Arabia, and Muhammad uses the practice to illustrate the inescapability of non-Muslims from Allah and his eternal flamesnot an odd metaphor since Allah enriched Muhammad and his Muslims with their prisoners of war in real life (vv. 35-37). All in all, Muhammad is on a literary warpath in this section of Sura 5, which reflects historical reality.
However, we can cast further afield to explore the larger literary context. Sura 7 was revealed in Mecca, before the prophet's Hijrah (Emigration or Flight) to Medina. The context of the following verse in the Quran finds Muhammad confusedly relating the narrative about Moses confronting Pharaoh and his magicians. After seeing the power of God, the servants and magicians in Pharaohs court believe in God, but the ruler will not stand for it. He threatens them with the same punishment that Allah and Muhammad mete out in Sura 5:33.
The Quran in Sura 7:124 says through the mouth of Pharaoh:
"Be sure I will cut off your hands and your feet on apposite sides, and I will cause you all to die on the cross." (Yusuf Ali)
The question is: did Pharaoh inspire Allah, or did Allah inspire Pharaoh? Either way, they are both on the same unjust and barbaric level.
Classical interpretations and applications of Sura 5:33
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 Muhammads 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.
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 tribesmens 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 judges 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 AverroŽs (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 Jurists 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 (See this article, and scroll down to the section "Early interpretations of Sura 5:38"). The hadith (Muhammads 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 robbers repentance absolves him of all other punishmentexecution, 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 punishedas the hadith tells us. How is this justice?
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. (For more on this, see "The Quran, the Bible and western law," below.)
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 crimeand 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 provocationincluding killing people. (For more information, go to this article, and to this one, and scroll down to point no. 4). 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 lawand 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. Once again, Islamic law takes things too far because it is rooted in the Quran, the eternal word of Allah, which is often excessive.
Modern explanations of Sura 5:33
We analyze the comments of four Muslim thinkers whose translations and commentaries on the Quran or hadith are very influential in the English-speaking world. Are these scholars completely forthright about their religion, particularly about Sura 5:33?
First, Abdullah Yusuf Ali (d. 1953) translated the Quran and wrote a commentary on key verses, all in one volume (The Meaning of the Holy Quran, 1934). After multiple revisions, it has subsequently been revised by a team of scholars, who finished their work in 2004. His comment on this verse is short, and we zero in on this confusing assertion about the torture of victims:
These [execution, crucifixion, maiming, or exile] were features of the Criminal Law then and for centuries afterwards, except that tortures such as hanging, drawing, and quartering in English Law, and piercing of eyes and leaving the unfortunate victim exposed to a tropical sun, which was practiced in Arabia, and all such tortures were abolished. (note 738)
His comment is misleading in three ways. First, he seems to imply that the pagans alone pierced eyes and left people exposed to the sun. However, as we saw in the hadith passages (see "Historical context," above), Muhammad is the one who did them. He is the one who pierced the eyes of the tribesmen. He is the one who left them exposed to the tropical sun without giving them water. He is the one who threw them off high points on to rocks. Why would Yusuf Ali omit these facts? Apparently, his agenda was to present a purified Islam to unsuspecting and uniformed readers in the English-speaking world and to make the harsh religion more palatable to the western world and beyond. This is why Islamic scholars and apologists (defenders of Islam) must be challenged and exposed constantly.
Next, Yusuf Ali says that the tortures of piercing eyes and leaving victims exposed to the tropical sun were abolished. But who abolished them? Did Muhammad later on? Then this is an admission that he was excessive and therefore unjust in his torturing of the tribesmen. Did later jurists abolish these tortures? Then Muslims should follow them, because they are more just than Muhammad and therefore superior lawgiverssee the analysis of Siddiqi, next.
Finally, Yusuf Ali compares Quranic law, which was revealed by Allah himself, with old laws in England, which was not revealed by God himself through the archangel Gabriel, as traditional Islamic theology claims for the Quran. This comparison is unfair and uneven, as we will see in our analysis of Siddiqi, which follows.
Thus, Yusuf Alis ambiguous comment indicates that he believes that the Quran in Sura 5:33 is excessive and that he is embarrassed by the verse and the hadith. But he cannot bring himself to say outright that the verse did not come down from God. But it is clear to reasonable people, and especially to reasonable and Bible-educated Christians, that God did not send down this versenot to mention the entire Quran itself.
The second scholar we analyze is Abul Hamid Siddiqi, who translated the hadith collection Sahih Muslim and provided some commentary. After describing the renegade tribesmen in the worst way possible so that the Quranic punishments seem to fit the crime, and after reviewing the opinions of legal scholars, Siddiqi writes this about western law:
Lest some of these penalties may appear barbarous to some hypersensitive Western reader, let him cast a glance on drawing and quartering: a penalty of the English criminal code maintained as late as the eighteenth century, inflicted on those found guilty of high treason against the King or government. The person committed was usually drawn on a sledge to the place of execution; there he was hung by the neck from a scaffold, being cut down and disemboweled, while still alive; his head was cut from the body and his corpse divided into four quarters .... (vol. 3, p. 894, note 2121)
Siddiqi makes two familiar missteps. First, he, like many Muslims, deflects the brutality in the origins of his own religion by criticizing later Western civilization. He seems to say, "Who are you hypersensitive Western readers to complain? You have your own excessive punishments." But this is a tacit admission that the Quranic verse is in fact cruel and brutal; however, since it came down from Allah, Siddiqi and many others are not allowed to deny its validity. In fact, they have to deny or explain away its barbarity. This first misstep is like a husband deflecting his wifes accurate observations of his cruel flaws with the retort that she is not perfect, either. With that attitude, the husband will never reform. Can or will Islam rewrite classical fiqh and reform? How can they when their sacred book, brought down by Gabriel from Allah (so says traditional Islamic theology), endorses these atrocities?
The second misstep is that Siddiqi, like many Muslims, compares the founding documents of Islam with much later, but now outdated Western laws, but this comparison is asymmetrical. It is always better to compare the founder and the source documents of a religion (Islam) with the founder and the source documents of another religion (Christianity). This comparison will developed in the next section, but suffice it to say here that never did Jesus endorse such brutality in a penal code or as an example for society in order to impose external righteousness, even if people were highway robbers and apostates. He sought to change people, even criminals from the inside out, so that they can lead moral lives. He did not come to physically maim and physically torture people, as Muhammad did.
Siddiqi also informs us that later jurists decreed that if a criminal is being killed in retaliation or for committing a grave crime, he should be supplied with water, if he asks for it. "Callousness should not be shown even to a person who is undergoing capital punishment. The criminal must receive punishment according to the law of the Shariah, but he should not in any way be treated brutally" (vol. 3, p. 894, 2123). This is a remarkable observation, even though Siddiqi does not mention Muhammad by name, the one who committed these atrocities. These later jurists correct and improve on Muhammads "callousness" and "brutality." These are the lawgivers whom Muslims should be following, for these jurists follow after justice more closely than their prophet did.
The third scholar is Sayyid ALa Abul Maududi (d. 1979), an Indo-Pakistani who tried to set up a theocracy in Pakistan through the Jamaat-i-Islami party and who wrote a six-volume, highly regarded commentary on the Quran. From the verbiage about Sura 5:33 emerges a brief comment that does not miss the chance to boast about the ideals of Islam: [it] sets up "an equitable system of government, which should guarantee peace and justice to human beings, animals, trees, vegetation, and everything in the earth, which may enable human beings to develop to the fullest their natural capabilities" .... Therefore, these criminals in Sura 5:33 who would destroy this utopia get what they deserve (The Meaning of the Quran, Lahore, Pakistan: Islamic Publications, vol. 1, p. 447, note 55).
In reply, however, it is impossible to imagine a religious system that does the exact opposite of these ideals. In fact, it is not farfetched to believe, given the evidence, that Islam came on this earth in the seventh century in Arabia, only to restrict and control people excessivelyand to kill them if they do not submit. Humans are not able to develop their capabilities to the fullest. Rather, people are hemmed in by a religion that imposes its own brand of holiness on themby gruesome punishments if they do not submit. In the last 150 years, the western world has advanced by leaps and bounds past the Islamic world, just in the area of technology, not to mention human rights. Where in the most devout Islamic country does equity abound? Turkey may come close, but they have separated mosque from state. Perhaps Afghanistan and Iraq will prosper and allow humans to flourish, if they too keep the mosque far away from the state, and allow simple, plain, and clear reason guide themnot Islam as an all-encompassing system. Sharia degrades people. Thus, for the following reason (and others) violent thugs detonate roadside bombs and car bombs in Iraq: they oppose democracy and the true freedom it brings.
The fourth and final scholar we critique is Muhammad Asad (d. 1992), who was an Austrian Jew who converted to Islam. His one-volume translation and commentary, The Message of the Quran (1980, 2003), also carries some weight in the English-speaking world, but his comment on Sura 5:33 is the most convoluted and confusing of the comments analyzed in this section.
First, Asad says that cutting off hands and feet should not be taken literally, for these two bodily members may metaphorically represent a persons "power" (note 44). However, he interprets Sura 5:38 literally, which says that a thiefs hand should be cut off. He should interpret Sura 5:33 literally, as well. He provides no explanation for this interpretive change, other than finding meanings in an Arabic dictionary that suit his agenda. The plain and simple meaning of mutilating and crucifying and killing is just thatliterally doing these three brutal acts. Ockhams razor, which says that the plainest and clearest explanation is to be preferred, eliminates Asads convoluted one.
Second, Asad uses Arabic verb tenses and moods to assert that criminals habitually kill each other and crucify (metaphor for torture) each other, and so onSura 5:33 is a statement of fact, not a legal punishment (note 45). He admits that his interpretation flies in the face of the majority of commentators and legal scholars, but so be it. His agenda is to clear Allah and Muhammad of any blame for imposing brutal punishments in the verse; rather, the brutalities just happen naturally in criminal societies. However, the majority of commentators and legal scholars has more insight, for the literary context of the verse is in fact legal (see Sura 5:38), not a mere description of what was actually happening in seventh-century Arabia. Historically, no large number of criminal Arabs or tribes of Arabs was crucifying (torturing) each other, or killing each other "in great numbers" (Asads words). Asad lifts the verse out of the broader historical context, an interpretive step that is always dubious, especially in this verse. He must provide evidence for such self-killing and self-torture en masse, done out a loss of morality and ethics. And this he cannot do.
Therefore, Ockhams razor once again cuts out Asads convoluted explanation and prefers the clearest and most straightforward one. In Sura 5:33 Muhammad is simply and clearly laying down four legal punishments in a legal context for "those who wage war against Allah and his messenger." The majority of commentators and legal scholars is right; Asad is wrong.
To conclude this section, these four Muslim scholars twist, omit, and misinterpret some basic facts that make Muhammad seem a less-than-ideal lawgiver. Those seekers today who are curious about Islam must be forewarned that what the representatives of this religion tell the seekers may not be the whole truth. Also, any comparison between Islamic law, which Muslims would like to impose on the world today, and extreme, archaic civil law in the West only demonstrates that Islamic law is also outdated and extremebut too many Muslims do not seem to realize this and instead believe that Allah wills to implement this law around the world.
The Quran, the Bible, and the western world
In the previous section, two Muslim scholars, Yusuf Ali and Siddiqi, implied that Westerners should look first at archaic western law before they criticize Islamic law. Also, either in private emails to me or throughout the worldwide web, Muslims quote the Torah to show that the Bible is harsh in its punishments, so who are Westerners to complain about the Quran? This section addresses these charges by asking and answering four questions.
1. What is the relationship between the Torah and Christs new law of the Spirit?
First, Christians honor the Old Testament, but they also take this multifaceted document in its historical context. The Torah was part and parcel of its culture. It either reflects its culture (like some architectural features of the tabernacle), or it improves on its culture (ethical monotheism). Not all of the old law applies to todays world.
Second, Christians look back at the Old Testament through the vision of Jesus. It is true that the Old Testament endorses the stoning of adulterers (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22), for example. However, for Christians, Jesus interpretation of these laws is final. He takes away their sharp sting with his death on the cross and by his sinless life and divine love.
Third, Jesus came to fulfill the law or Torah, not to abolish it (Matthew 5:17). He fulfills it in at least three ways, but the one we look at here takes away the laws severe punishments.
Jesus fulfills the law by taking on himself the penalty for our sins. The Torah is filled with specific punishments for specific sins, but his death on the cross satisfies and propitiates divine wrath that is directed at our sinsthis is the Christian doctrine of the atonement. It is for this reason that a Christian could never give up this doctrine and must totally reject Muhammads odd view that Christ never died on the cross, but a man took his place (Sura 4:157). Muhammads belief is completely misguided. Christs death is Gods gift to us. We are saved and on our way to heaven, not based on our own works, but on Christs good work on the cross. Therefore, those who trust in Christ do not have to pay the penalty for their sins. The effects of this doctrine benefit all of society, especially today.
For more information on how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament, click on this article.
2. How does the New Covenant established by Jesus contrast with the law of Muhammad?
One of the problems with the law of Muhammad is that he seeks to revive a diluted and distorted version of the old law of Moses. Muhammad haphazardly reinstitutes harsh punishments, for example, flogging fornicators (Sura 24:2) and stoning adulterers (Bukhari 8:6815, 6825; Muslim no. 4206). For Christians, the way of Muhammad is deficient and incomplete at best, and at worst it drags them backwards into legalistic bondage. The inspired Gospel of John says: "For the law was given to Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (John 1:17). Hence, Christians do not need a recycled and inferior old-new Moses in Muhammad. They have grace and truth through Jesus Christ.
Another problem with the law of Muhammad is the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, who has been reduced to the archangel Gabriel in Islamic theology. According to this doctrine, Muslims do not enjoy the Holy Spirit living in them in the way described by Jesus Christ and the New Testament, so they have to fulfill the old-new law of Muhammad by their own efforts. For Christians, this too is inadequate and incomplete. They have been promised the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:18; 3:11; Luke 11:13; John 20:22), and he lives in them to enable and empower them to walk in love, which fulfills the law (Matt. 23:37-40; Rom. 13:10).
3. But does the Bible, specifically the New Testament, contribute anything to the law in western societies?
One of the many charges that Muslims throw at Christianity is that it does not provide enough specific guidance in legal affairs. This criticism is right in one way, but wrong in another.
As noted here (scroll down to "How Christianity changes society"), the criticism is right because Jesus mission was to look beyond establishing a worldly government, but to provide the true path of salvation by his atoning death on the cross. He knew that wandering messiahs and prophets tried to establish their credentials by military and political means around the greater Middle East, before and during his time, so he avoided a military and political messiahship. Besides, he was destined to fulfill Old Testament passages that describe a spiritual Messiah, such as Isaiah 53. When he comes back a second time, he will fulfill the role of a Messiah that is both military (one word will eliminate all enemies) and political (he will rule on earth peacefully and without opposition).
The criticism is wrong because western legal scholars over the centuries have used the Bible to enact laws, but their application or ignorance of these laws has produced mixed results. As Siddiqi noted in the previous section, western law went to extremes by torturing a man as he was being put to death, disemboweling and drawing and quartering him. But the Bible does not command this, though stoning a man to death, which the Torah does command, is hard enough on the human body. Other times western law demanded stoning for adultery, following the old Torah. In the Medieval Age a peasant could be executed for defying a feudal lord or severely punished for not paying proper respect to him. This is wrong, for it does not honor the peasant who is loved by God equally. The western world is gradually learning a lesson by following the principles of mercy and dignity, found in the New Testament and the life of Jesus, when the West must punish a criminal.
For example, if states in the US insist on imposing the death penalty (and this is a debated topic), then the US Constitution forbids "cruel and unusual" punishment. It is true that various states over the past two hundred or more years have carried out the death penalty by less-than-ideal methods, for example, hanging, a firing squad, or an electric chair. But now lethal injection is being used, and that is a much more merciful and dignified way to die, and it is certainly more humane than how the murder victim diedassuming of course that the death penalty is a viable punishment for first degree murders with special circumstances. This shows that the US is learning from the past and is progressing.
Moreover, this much is certain: in no way does any state in the US (nor the entire European Union) endorse or carry out cutting off the hands and feet or searing the eyes of any highway robber who stole material goods along a trade route, as we find in the Quran and the example of Muhammad. To repeat, this is "cruel and unusual punishment," and this phrase was added to the Constitution precisely because Europe in the eighteenth century and before used cruel and unusual methods of punishing criminals. But the West has improved since thenand is still improving. It is following the principle of the dignity of humans, even when they have to be punished.
One of the major flaws in Islamic law or sharia is that it applies specific punishments that are brutal and excessive, such as cutting off a hand of a thief or flogging a sexual sinner or cutting off an alternate hand and foot of a highway robber, perhaps even crucifying him to make an example of him. These laws are simply wrong, ipso facto, by their very nature, six hundred years after Jesus showed us a better way. If Muslims were to rewrite these brutal laws, then this would be a limping step in the right direction. But they are embedded in the Quran, which allegedly expresses the universal and eternal truths of Allah. So how can legal scholars even rewrite classical fiqh or the science of applying sharia, which is based on their sacred book and on the example of Muhammad seen in the hadith?
4. What is the major difference between western law and Islamic law?
Islamic law is based on the Quran and the example of Muhammad in the hadith. Muslims assert that Allah inspired his book and guided his prophet in the clearest and most direct way possible. Logically, this means that Islam loathes change and innovation. If sharia followed common sense, reason, and the dignity of humans more fully, then this would not be a problem in human affairs (theologically, though, many problems emerge). However, this article and the linked articles demonstrate that Islamic law does not follow these three virtues. But how can they, when the Quran and hadith are harsh and excessive? Excess is never just. But Allah wills it nonetheless.
Western law, on the other hand, does not claim direct inspiration from God, even though Biblical principles lay at its foundation. Also, since the Enlightenment (c. 1600-1800), a strong dose of reason has been injected into the legal process, as well. (The Islamic world has not yet undergone this kind of Enlightenment, but it needs to.) If western law became harsh and oppressive, for example, in the Medieval Age, then it could be changed for the better. Reason and the Biblical principle of dignity, for example, allow for improvement more readily. This is why reform is much easier to enact here in the West than in societies that are drenched in religious law.
To conclude this section, the West is progressing in applying its punishments, absorbing the dignity and mercy that Jesus and the New Testament authors showed everyone, even criminals, in his words and life and in their writings. Hence, the Western world, with all of its flaws, does not impose the gruesome penalties that the Quran commands and that too many Islamic societies impose, such as the long, painful death of crucifixion or the mutilation of hands and feet. But when the West is excessive in its punishments, it can reform more easily, since its law is also based on reason and is not saturated with religious law.
On the other hand, Muslim scholars may talk about dignity and mercy in their books or on their websites, but Muhammad too often did not demonstrate these virtues to people. After all, he is the one who left the tribesmen in the hot sun, dying of thirst, but not before piercing their eyes and throwing them off high points on to rocks. It seems, then, that in order to reform, traditional Muslims must reject many verses in the Quran and many, many passages in the hadith. But this is blasphemous, especially rejecting the Quran, so onward the traditionalists go, blithely and matter-of-factly mutilating and stoning and flogging people.
Application to today
This article published by the journal al-Tawhid (Oneness or Unity) in Qum, Iran, the seat of learning for Shiites, uses Sura 5:33 and defines the crimes broadly, as follows:
This broad description of crimes opens the door to all manner of justifications of applying the punishments in Sura 5:33. Should such a criminal have his alternate hand and foot cut off for selling drugs or pimping or racism? Should he be crucified? Rather than questioning this verse, the author of the article and many in the Islamic world seem to accept it as coming from Allah and matter-of-factly interpret it for society today.
However, sharia is not a benefit to society, for it contains too many harsh rules and punishments. One of the most tragic and under-reported occurrences in the West in recent years is the existence of a sharia court in Canada. Muslims are pushing for a sharia divorce court in Australia, as well. Having a court of arbitration if it is based on western law and legal theory is legitimate, but sharia does not hold to this standard. So Canada should promptly shut down any sharia court, and Australia should never allow one. Fortunately, the province of Quebec, Canada, rejected a sharia court. This is the right policy and direction. Such a court should never be permitted in the US, Europe, and elsewhere around the world. Sharia ultimately degrades society and diminishes freedom.
The violent radicals who are now slithering around the world would gladly impose their Qurans and the hadiths severe law on non-Muslim nations, if the radicals could ever conquer them by force or by gradual means. If the terrorists do not hesitate to cut off heads, why would they not mutilate the hands and feet of highway robbers in order to make society pure and holy before Allah, who gave this rule in the first place? The war on terror must continue, in order to preserve western civilization and an assortment of nonwestern nations struggling with Islam.
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, Bible-educated Christians realize that the true 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.
Jesus saves. Muhammad killed.
In 2002, in Iran, a man was sentenced to have his right hand and left foot amputated for theft with special circumstances.
In 2003, in Sudan a sixteen-year-old boy has been sentenced to have his right hand and left foot amputated for highway robbery.
This news bulletin announces the publication of a book that tracks the spread of extreme sharia throughout the world. Amputation and crucifixion are included on the list.
This short article sketches out beheadings in the Quran and in early Islam. The author denounces Muslim clerics in the US who deny its practice by Muhammad and his earliest followers.
This report outlines Nigeria's troubled history with Islamic law.
Articles by James Arlandson
Answering Islam Home Page