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‘Even if Fatimah stole, I would cut her hand off’

Please be advised that the following article does not mention anything about the interpretation of the punishment of thievery, mentioned in the 38th and 39th verses of Surah Al-Ma’idah, or the negotiations and practices where the jurists and politicians played the leading role throughout history. My main purpose in this article is to put two different translations in the centre and then analyse the mentality.  

This hadith explains that there should be no discrimination whatsoever in the name of establishing and providing justice. One day, a woman belonged to the Makhzum clan, which was one of the most influential tribes in the Pre-Islamic Arab world, committed a theft. She was proven guilty of the offence and the verdict was to cut off her hand. Meanwhile, some of the members of that clan deliberated that based on the pre-Islamic practices, this punishment should not be applied to the members of the Makhzum clan. However, they could not find the courage to make this offer to Muhammad (PBUH) since it will result in favouritism in the last analysis and asked Usama ibn Zayd, who was not loved any lesser by Muhammad (PBUH) compared to his grandsons Husayn and Hassan, to go to the Prophet with their request. Usama ibn Zayd was the son of Zayd ibn Harithah, who had embraced freedom thanks to Muhammad (PBUH).

The Messenger of Allah was very furious after he had received the offer and took a firm stand and says “Are you being an intercessor for one of the hudud punishments not to be imposed which is defined by Allah?” Then he goes up on the minbar and addresses his jamaat: “People before you would release the guilty if he was influential, and would carry on with the punishment if the thief belonged to a clan which was weaker and that is the exact reason why they perished. I swear to Allah, even if Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad stole…” (Abu Dawud, Hudud, 4)

I did not finish the last sentence in order to attract your attention. Because the two different translations I mentioned above are applied for this part. In this part, the words coming out of the Prophet (PBUH) mouth are: “le kata’tu yedehe”. The following is the first translation provided for this sentence which is very simple and clear to interpret for anybody who has a grasp of elementary level Arabic knowledge: “Of course, I would cut her hand too.” This is a literal translation and is 100% in harmony with the text. And the second translation, which I will be talking about and is the very reason for this article to be written: “I would not abandon justice, I would be unbiased, I would carry out the punishment”

I cannot help but ask myself here; why? Why would they say “I would not abandon justice, I would be unbiased, I would carry out the punishment” instead of “I would cut her hand”? Is this an interpretation? If it was, then they would be correct. You could interpret it like carrying out the hudud punishment,  providing justice, being unbiased, and inflicting the penalty without granting privileges to everybody, even if the person was the daughter of the Prophet (PBUH). However, the interpretation is not in question here. You are translating an existing quote of the Prophet (PBUH) from Arabic into Turkish, you are construing it. Moreover, there are no difficult or ambiguous words which would make literal translation difficult. If there were, you could provide this extra information within brackets, which is a widely adopted practice under similar circumstances. However, this is exactly how you do the translation.

Now, let me talk about the mentality analysis I have mentioned above. I would like to write the sentence now which I was planning to write at the end; the clash of modernity and tradition; getting torn between this clash; not being able to choose accurately; and even though it happens to be accurate, having difficulties explaining it or not being able to find the courage to convince the mind and satisfy the heart.

As a matter of fact, the cutting of the hand was an applicable punishment for the thieves amongst the revelation community and Allah certified this punishment with the 38th verse of Surah Al-Ma’idah. This punishment was carried out, accepted as the peak, and included in our tradition. 

However, this punishment style, which was included in our legal tradition, was questioned severely during modern times. As a matter of fact, this questioning had already existed throughout history. Many topics surrounding the punishment of cutting the hand were discussed; about the conditions for the thief and the goods which were stolen; whether the thief’s appeal for mercy would require forgiveness or not; the impact on the verdict if there was a necessity; whether the verdict could be swapped with imprisonment or exile or not; and whether the punishment of cutting the hand would be changed with something else or not if there were matters of extenuation, and these discussions were always settled according to the political, social, legal, and economic conditions of the related period. However, inquisitions nowadays reached a different level because of the dominant western paradigm. Besides, such inquisitions had made an appearance for matters starting from polygamy, husband beating his wife, executing the apostates, and to inheritance, and they still do. 

This foundation brought three groups of people. The first group comprises of the people whom we call “traditionalists”, and they support an orthodox perceptive; think and support that the method of punishment stated in Quran and Sunnah must be carried out exactly by ignoring the changing, developing, and diversifying living conditions. The second group is called modernists, and they think that the punishment of cutting the hand was only valid under the conditions of the revelation community and a different type of punishment must be carried out, and the ultimate decision regarding this matter should be offered by the jurists for the politicians to be able to legislate. And the third group is called the “conservatives” who advocate adaptation and reconciliation of the traditional values with modern experience, and reconstruction together with the in-tray compositions.

The people belonging in this group do not accept the Quran and Prophet (PBUH) to be excluded while determining the new method of punishment. They advocate that this punishment shall be carried out as long as it provides a solution for the problem in the places where the living conditions of the revelation community continues, and throughout the places where they do not continue; new legislation may be issued in accordance with these two primary sources. 

Now, let’s get back to the hadith. The traditionalists and modernists interpret the part of the hadith we focus on as “even if Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad stole, I would cut off her hand”. They do literal translation directly to the point without complicating anything. Because there is nothing they can not explain. According to the approaches we mentioned above; the traditionalists say that the cutting of the hand should be carried out today, while the modernists support the opposite and say it should not be carried out. 

The ones who interpret the hadith as “Even if Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad stole, I would not abandon justice and I would be unbiased and punish her” are the conservatives, whom we tried to set the framework and identify above. For me, they are located somewhere in between the other two groups. This community, which is aware of the difference between the historical and Islamic, knows that the social upheavals trap themselves between modern and traditional, new and old, today and yesterday, and they seek for a way out. They do not want to adopt the modernization, secularization, and profanation driven by the West by disengaging the transcendent, which we could call “a godless modernization”, however, they also cannot get rid of the effect produced by the mentality of modernity.

As a matter of fact, this is a complete turnout. The stance is very accurate. This is a foundation where initiatives could be made which we can call “updating Islam without cutting the ties with the one which is transcendent”, and exhibit new readings, meanings, interpretations, and practices within this framework. However, we really need to confront the problems we face inside the living conditions of today; produce methodologies which provide answers to these problems; intellectual consistency; courage and faith to accomplish all of these intimately, sincerely, and faithfully. But, let me underline that all of these must be together. If there are faith and sincerity but there are no methodology and courage; there is courage but if the intellectual consistency is missing, there will not be a result which will satisfy today’s people or pave the way for the future generations. The only thing which will emerge is copping out, as is seen when providing a meaning to the hadith.  

I had started the article by providing a heads up, and I would like to finish the same way. This article did not address the punishment of cutting the hand given to the thievery act. I only tried to discuss the background of the mentality which translates the Prophet’s (PBUH) words “I swear to Allah, even if Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad stole, I would cut off her hand” as “I would not abandon justice, I would be unbiased, I would punish her”. 

Endnote; is it an alteration or subversion to interpret the hadith like this? Without a doubt both an alteration and subversion. It might not be the goal of the person who does it. However, this is the result, and it bears the meaning of imputation of something which was not stated by the Prophet (PBUH). 

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Dr. Ahmet Kurucan is a an author and scholar focusing on Islamic Studies and Law.

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