Punishment for Theft in the Islamic Laws
By: Shaheed Ayatullah Abdul Husain Dastghaib Shirazi
Sin which is certainly a Greater one is stealing or thievery. Imam Riďa (a.s.) has included stealing among the Greater sins according to the tradition reported by Fazl Ibn Shazān. Amash says that Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (a.s.) has related from the Holy Prophet (S) that he said, “A believer cannot commit fornication and a believer cannot steal.” (Wasa’il ul-Shia)
Thus one who fornicates or steals is not a believer. Such a person is devoid of faith. Such a person lacks belief in Allah (S.w.T.) and the Day of Judgement. If such a person dies without repenting for his sins, he does not die a believer. Some of the ayats and traditions that are critical of Khayanat also include stealing. Stealing is absolutely Harām even if it is for a worthless object. To steal even a needle is Harām. However, the hands of a thief are cut only, if in addition to all the necessary conditions the value of the stolen goods exceeds a quarter misqal of gold.
Muhammad Ibn Muslim says that he inquired from Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (a.s.): “What is the minimum amount, stealing of which can make one liable to have his hands amputed?”
Imam (a.s.) replied, “A quarter of a dinar.”
“And on stealing two dirhams?”
“Even if it is a dirham more than a quarter of a Dinar. In all cases the hands are severed.”
Muhammad Ibn Muslim further asked, “Then if one steals less than a quarter of a dinar, is he called a thief?”
Imam (a.s.) told him, “Every such person is a thief in the eyes of Allah who steals the property of the Muslims and keeps it for himself.” (That is, Allah will punish him with the punishment that is reserved for all those who steal.)
“But (in this world) his hands are not cut off. However if he steals a quarter dinar or more his hands are severed. If the hands of those who steal less than a quarter dinar were also to be cut then we would find most of the people with their hands severed.”
Punishment for theft
The Almighty Allah (S.w.T.) says in Surah al-Mā’ida: “And (as for) the man who steals and the woman who steals, cut off their hands as a punishment for what they have earned, an exemplary punishment from Allah, and Allah is Mighty. Wise. But whoever repents after his inequity and reforms (himself), then surely Allah will turn to him (mercifully), surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” (Surah al-Mā’ida 5:38-39)
The book Burhanul Qur’an mentions on page 170: “The opponents of Islam have raised objection against the penal code of Islam. They label such penalties to be primitive and inhuman and not acceptable in the twentieth century. The criticism is especially severe with regard to the punishment of theft and fornication. They trump up their arguments saying that such crimes are a result of psychological disorders and moral and psychological counselling can reform criminals. We admit that moral advice is one of the ways of reforming individuals. Certainly, moral lessons have a profound effect in guiding a society in the right direction. We also do not reject the fact that most of the crimes are due to psychological and moral ills.
Islam has not overlooked moral training as a factor in the development of character but Islam also believes that inspite of such training if the individual is inclined towards crime he should be punished adequately. A breakdown in discipline and order begins if you ignore crime, eventually leading to a corrupt society.
In non-Muslim countries also the criminals are not let off with a sermon on moral values. Criminals are imprisoned and accorded various punishments. We do not deny the fact that poverty causes many a crime to be commited. We agree that destitution sometimes makes a man lose his sense of moral values and he is more inclined to Khayanat and stealing when he is in difficult economic conditions. But we cannot accept that poverty and destitution are the sole causes of crime. We see quite a few people who inspite of their straitened circumstances are not at all inclined towards injustice and crime and prove their integrity by fulfilling their obligations with sincerity. On the other hand crimes and perversity are prevalent in affluent countries and also in communist countries which claim to have eradicated inequality.
Those who are critical of Islam to be primitive and inhuman are unable to assess their own selves. Those who proclaim independence and human rights overlook their own crimes. Forty thousand people were butchered in North Africa just because they were protesting for their basic rights. Is this nor barbaric?
The newspaper Kahyan of 14th April 1960 reports: The valiant people of Algeria have struggled for six years against the tyrannical rule of France over their country. To date, around one million people from the total population of ten million have laid down their lives in this struggle.
Coming back to our discussion we would like to point out that Islam has taken in to consideration all aspects of crimes and punishment. Islam does lays down heavy penalties for crimes committed but Islamic law takes into account, the circumstances under which the crime is committed. A person who steals due to hunger and poverty is not liable to have his hands cut off, nor is a person who has been coerced into stealing, punished. Also Islamic laws are not applicable in non-Muslim countries. So the objections raised are baseless.
As far as barbarism (of which Islam is accused) is concerned, the progressive countries in the Second World War alone killed and maimed a million people. The dropping of the atom bomb caused untold miseries of devastation, death and diseases plagued millions of people and the horrible effect of these continue to this day. It has come to light in recent times that the dropping of the atom bomb was entirely unneccessary. It was for an experiment. An experiment conducted at the cost of human life and human masses. Compared to this shocking perversity and savageness the fact that corporeal punishment in Islam is given in only limited cases.
Besides Islam prescribes rules and regulations which if followed faithfully not only improve morals, but eliminate poverty and enhance economic development of the society as a whole, thus eliminates the very cause of these crimes.
It is the duty of the Islamic government to provide every citizen with suitable employment. If some people still remain unemployed they are to be paid a stipend from the public treasury till they can secure a job. Under these conditions there is no need for anyone to steal. Inspite of this if someone steals, then surely he deserves to be punished.
It is a fallacy to think that these prescribed punishments are only meant for old times when people were savage and incapable of being controlled by any other means and that in the modern age people are receptive and suggestive and can be reformed without punishment. It is a foolish argument. If this argument had any substance we would not be witnessing such an awsome crime rate in the “cultured” atmosphere of the developed countries.
It is obvious that the Qur’anic ayat quoted earlier does not give any details regarding the robbery or the punishment. These details have been elaborated in numerous traditions that have come down to us from our Ahl ul-Bayt (a.s.)
Conditions when corporeal punishment is accorded
It should be mentioned here that as far as Shia faith is concerned amputing of hand implies cutting four fingers of the right hand. The palm and the thumb are left untouched.
Before amputing the hands of the thief the following conditions must be fulfilled. Even if one of them is absent, the punishment is not carried out:
1. The thief must be an adult. The signs of adulthood according to Shari’a are the completion of fifteen lunar years for a boy and nine lunar years for a girl. Another sign of maturity is the growth of pubic hair. The third sign is the ejaculation of semen in boys and the beginning of the menstrual cycle in the girl. Even if one of these signs are present the concerned person is an adult. So if the thief is not an adult his hands cannot be amputed. At the most the judge releases him after issuing a stern warning so that he may not dare to repeat this act.
Abdullah Ibn Sinan relates the following tradition from Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (a.s.): “When a minor child steals for the first and the second time he is forgiven. If he does it for the third time he is issued a strict warning and beating. If he persists in his crime, the tips of his fingers are slightly cut and if he repeats the act, some more of his fingers are cut away.”
2. The thief must be sane. So if an insane person robs, his hand is not amputed. He may be suitably warned and scolded.
3. The thief must not have resorted to stealing under duress, if he had been compelled to do so, the penal code is not applied.
4. The stolen thing must be something that is worth owning. Hence, if ones freedom is restricted it cannot be called a theft.
5. The value of the stolen object must not be less than one-fourth misqal of pure gold. One misqal is equal to eighteen grams. One-fourth misqal is four-and-a-half gram.
6. The son or the slave of the thief must not own the thing that is stolen. So if a father steals from his son, he is not punished. On the contrary if a son or a daughter steals from the father or mother their hands are amputed. The same rule applies to the master and the slave. If the master robs his slave he is not punished. On the other hand, there exists a difference of opinion on the matter of whether the slave who steals from his master is to be accorded the punishment of theft or not. Some Mujtahids are of the opinion that if a servant steals from his office or employer, he should not be given the full penalty. Other Mujtahids have issued a decree that there is no difference between a servant, a workman and other people. They shall be deserving of the penalty. There is also a difference of opinion with regard to the theft committed by a guest from his host. The most prevalent verdict is that the guest must be punished.
7. Eatables stolen during the times of famine do not make the thief liable for having his hands cut. It is narrated from Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (a.s.) that he said:
“In the time of famine and draught the hands of a thief are not cut off for stealing edible items like bread and meat etc.”
8. If a soldier participates in a raid and steals from the plundered goods obtained in war before they are distributed, he is exempted from the punishment.
9. If one of the parties to a transaction steals a property and claims that it rightfully belongs to him, he is not liable to be punished.
10. If a person is accused of theft, but before his theft is proved to the judge, he pays the owner the value of the goods, he is not penalised. Similarly, if a son steals from his father but before the verdict is issued the father dies, the son is not punished, as stolen goods now comprise his inheritance.
11. If the use of the stolen things is Harām (e.g. wine or pork), there is no penal action against the robber.
12. If the thief claims that he had not taken a particular thing with the intention of stealing it, and the judge considers otherwise, there shall be no punishment for it.
13. The object should have been stolen from a place where the owner’s permission is required to enter. If a theft takes place in a public mosque or public bath, the thief does not have his hand amputed.
14. The thing should have been stolen from a secure place. If something is not kept in a safe place and left open, the theft of it does not incur punishment. Hence valuables should be kept under lock and key. The fruits should not have been stolen from the trees. They should have been already picked and stored in the orchard. The four-footed animals have to be stolen from the stables. Wares have to be stolen from inside the shop. The pocket that is picked must be an inside one and not the one that hangs outward. Money should be stolen from a safe etc. The shroud should have been stolen from the grave.
15. The thief must himself take away the stolen goods from their proper place. If one takes out the thing from its safe place and another one takes it away, neither of the two can be punished for theft. Because, the one who has taken out the thing from its safe place has not stolen it and the one who has stolen it has not done so from its place of safety. We have already mentioned that one who steals something from other than its proper place is not given the punishment of theft. Only that thief is punished who removes the thing from its proper place and also takes it away. If more than one person are involved in stealing something from its proper place and taking it away, then the value of the stolen property is divided by the number of people involved. If the share of each person is more than one-fourth misqal all their hands are amputed but if their individual shares are less than this then none of them are punished in this manner.
If a thief removes the stolen object and loads it on his animal, or gives it to an insane man or a minor child for taking it away, he is penalised. This is because the animal, the insane person and the child are mere carriers of the goods.
16. Severing of the hand is a punishment for theft. Theft implies that someone takes away something without the knowledge of others who later realize that the thing is missing. Hence if a person forcibly loots some goods from its owner, he is not punished for theft. He is beaten up and issued a warning, so that he may not repeat the act. However if the goods are looted using a weapon, the punishment is equal to that of being at war against the Muslims. (This punishment is described in the thirty-third ayat of Surah al-Mā’ida. Either the criminal is killed or crucified, the left and the right foot is amputed, or he is to be exiled; the judge can award one of these punishments.)
17. If before a theft can be proved, the thief goes to the judge and repents and promises not to steal in future he is saved from the punishment. Once the theft has been proved, repentance is of no consequence and punishment will be implemented.
18. For a theft to be proved, two just witnesses should have seen the thief stealing. It may also be that there is just one witness but the owner also testifies that robbery has taken place. The thief may himself confess twice of his theft and deserve to be penalised. If he confesses only once, the stolen goods are taken away from him and restored to the owner. He is not punished for theft.
19. If the owner takes back his goods or allows the thief to keep them before the matter is reported to the Qazi and does not press for a penalty, the thief is not punished. However if the crime is proved before the judge even the owner cannot save the thief from punishment.
Some Mujtahids believe that if two just people have not witnessed the theft and it is only proved by two confessions of the thief, the judge has the prerogative to condone him. It is mentioned in the book Tahzīb that a person came to Amir ul-Mu’minīn ‘Ali (a.s.) and confessed of having stolen something. Hazrat ‘Ali (a.s.) asked him, “Can you recite some portions of the Qur’an?”
He said, “Yes, Surah al-Baqarah.”
‘Ali (a.s.) said, “I have respited your hand in exchange of Surah al-Baqarah.”
Ashath said, “O ‘Ali (a.s.)! Have you overlooked the Divine penalty?”
‘Ali (a.s.) replied, “What do you know? Awarding the penalty is only necessary when two just witnesses have testified. But if the crime is confessed by the thief himself, the Imam can condone him.”
If the crime satisfies the above conditions, the amputing of the hands could only be carried out by the just ruler or judge. No other person is qualified to award the penalty or carry out the punishment. The Qazi is responsible for recovering the stolen goods and restoring them to the owner. If the goods are used up or lost, the thief has to make good the loss. The order for the returning of stolen goods is the same, whether the theft is proved according to Shari’a or not. If a thing belonging to someone else is taken, it has to be returned.
In some cases the theft is not proved but the Qazi issues a warning for taking the property belonging to someone else. The Qazi may scold or beat the person so that he may not repeat the act. The extent of scolding and beating is also left to the discretion of the judge. In cases where the goods are stolen from an unsafe place, or a bandit has looted the goods, or a forgerer has forged a signature and wrongfully acquired someone’s money, the property is restored to the owner and the accused is scolded and beaten. In the same way if someone digs up the grave containing a corpse, but does not steal the shroud, he is also scolded and beaten up. Even if he steals the shroud but its value is less than one-fourth misqal of gold he is similarly beaten up and scolded.
Protection of property and honour
If the thief is seen stealing, he becomes a bandit. The owner can, with the intention of protecting his property fight with him. If the thief dies, his killing is condoned and no blood money is payable. Similarly the attacker can be killed in defence of ones life and honour. But the real aim has to be for defence, and if defence is possible without killing, then killing is Harām. Only the least aggressive measures necessary for defence are permitted.
The Islamic laws with regard to theft are numerous and there is a difference of opinion among the Mujtahids upon many of the points. Keeping in mind the scope of this book, we feel the discussion we have had should suffice.
How is the punishment awarded?
After the crime is proved the judge cuts off the four fingers of the right hand. He leaves the thumb and the palm untouched. The penalty is the same if the thief is convicted of multiple thefts and has not been punished before. If a thief has already had his four fingers cut and he steals again and the theft is proved, his left foot is cut from the front. The heel is left so that he can walk. If he steals for a third time and again the theft is proved the robber is imprisoned for life. If he steals in the prison too, he is put to death.
The hand which is supposed to be lifted up for prayers, the hand which expresses the submission to Allah (S.w.T.), the hand which must be used to solve the difficulties of people, to help the oppressed and the orphans, to attack the enemies of faith, if the same hand is used to steal the property of the Muslim brothers and it is proved with all its necessary conditions, then there is no way except to dismember it. Society is rendered safe due to this measure.
If someone’s hand is amputed without any fault of his, the one who cuts the hand is made to pay five hundred misqal of gold to the victim. Whereas if someone robs one fourth of a misqal of gold his hand is amputed. It appears that one who steals a fourth of a misqal of gold is worse than the one who cuts off the hand of an innocent person. Such is the value of trust in Islam.