The more I learn about Islam and Christianity, the more I am amazed at just how many opposites there are. Some are quite tricky to spot, some are huge eye openers, and others seem so obvious after you consider them even briefly. It is into the last category that this article falls.
Shari’a law is the standard within Islam. While it is true that implementation of that law varies from country to country, it is also true that from the Muslim perspective, Shari’a law is reckoned to be the exact law of Allah. A Muslim in Riyadh experiences it differently than one in Istanbul, and understanding why would require an entire volume to explore. At the most basic level, though, the Qur’an lays out the rules for what it declares to be the perfect society, and it is one particular tenet of this law which we will scrutinize.
The Qur’an lays out a specific punishment for theft.
[5.38] 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.
Within the Hadith, there are various criteria by which this punishment can be averted. For example, if the robber is not sane or if the item was less than a particular value, less harsh measures can be taken. Many Islamic writers spend time justifying the just nature of this law, citing the various exceptions. Additionally, these authors discuss how it is justified by citing that the benefits of having the law as a deterrent outweigh the disadvantages of its implementation. Yet whatever criteria are used, and whatever the purpose behind the law, ultimately the Qur’an dictates that the punishment for intentional, serious, and provable theft is amputation.
As usual, rather than being accused of taking a verse out of context, I have included Muhammad’s own words with reference to this verse. As reported by ibn Kathir, Muhammad said this regarding the verse in question, referring to himself in the third person,
“By Him in Whose Hand is my soul! If Fatimah the daughter of Muhammad stole, I will have her hand cut off.” [i]
At this juncture, many people begin to discuss the justness of this law, what it says about the god who mandates such laws, and so on. Yet for just a moment, let’s just accept the Muslim position that such a law is for society’s best. How does this compare to what the Bible says, and what does that tell us about God?
In the book of Ephesians, chapter 4, verse 28, the Bible states what thieves should do.
He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need.
Firstly, the thief is commanded to stop stealing, and of course that seems a no-brainer. Yet consider the follow-up. The thief is to labor, with his own hands (plural) to help others. The thief is instructed to use the very same hands formerly used in robbery to provide for others, to give to others rather than taking from them. Of course societies with laws to protect the innocent require restitution and possible incarceration, depending on the severity of the crime. Yet ultimately, after civil penalties have been paid, instead of being an amputee that would likely be a burden to the rest of society, the ex-criminal is to unburden others in need. To do so, he is to labor with the same hands once used as instruments of sin. What a microcosmic picture of God’s redemptive plan.
On a much higher plane, God uses us, all sinners at heart, to labor for the kingdom in whatever way He calls us. It’s part of His master plan. If past sin prevented us from performing good works because of our new found love for God, everyone on the planet would be excluded from participation in His kingdom work. Yet praise be to God! Tongues which once blasphemed are called to praise Him. Minds which once had a bevy of impure thoughts are called to use wisdom to promote His kingdom purposes. Feet that once ran toward evil now hasten to help those in need. So too, God does not want our past robberies to preclude us from being able to work with our hands and restore that which was lost.
In Christianity, former instruments of sin are used to help others. In Islam, they are to be cut off. Complete reversal of attitude. Which is better?