Verse 5:33 - "Cut off alternate hands and feet"
Verse 5:33 has been frequently quoted by critics of the Qur'an. To understand the verse we need to be aware of the Qur'an as a whole - as well as be in possession of the necessary faith and wisdom provided by God. Initially, here is verse 5:33 on its own:
إِنَّمَا جَزَاءُ الَّذِينَ يُحَارِبُونَ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ وَيَسْعَوْنَ فِي الأَرْضِ فَسَادًا أَنْ يُقَتَّلُوا أَوْ يُصَلَّبُوا أَوْ تُقَطَّعَ أَيْدِيهِمْ وَأَرْجُلُهُمْ مِنْ خِلافٍ أَوْ يُنْفَوْا مِنَ الأَرْضِ ذَلِكَ لَهُمْ خِزْيٌ فِي الدُّنْيَا وَلَهُمْ فِي الآخِرَةِ عَذَابٌ عَظِيمٌ
(5:33) The recompense of those who fight God and His messenger, and seek to make corruption in the land, is that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from alternate sides or that they be banished from the land; that is their disgrace in this world and in the Hereafter they will have a great torment.
The Qur'an has to be interpreted as a whole. A believer must use his or her Quranic wisdom and knowledge when reading a particular verse. This requires him to have read the Qur'an before-hand and be able to use wisdom in applying his knowledge of other verses.
The expression in verse 5:33 is very specifically defined. For example, "hands and feet be cut off from alternate sides." i.e. left foot and right hand. Elsewhere in the Qur'an, we find that one of the greatest tyrants on the earth, 'the Pharaoh' threatens the few true believers who had joined the Prophet Moses in the same manner:
قَالَ آمَنْتُمْ لَهُ قَبْلَ أَنْ آذَنَ لَكُمْ إِنَّهُ لَكَبِيرُكُمُ الَّذِي عَلَّمَكُمُ السِّحْرَ فَلأُقَطِّعَنَّ أَيْدِيَكُمْ وَأَرْجُلَكُمْ مِنْ خِلافٍ وَلأُصَلِّبَنَّكُمْ فِي جُذُوعِ النَّخْلِ وَلَتَعْلَمُنَّ أَيُّنَا أَشَدُّ عَذَابًا وَأَبْقَى
(20:71) He (Pharoah) said: "Have you believed in him before taking my permission? He is surely your great one who has taught you magic. So, I will cut off your hands and feet from alternate sides, and I will crucify you on the trunks of the palm trees, and you will come to know which of us is greater in retribution and more lasting!"
This is repeated once again in the Qur'an:
قَالَ فِرْعَوْنُ آمَنْتُمْ بِهِ قَبْلَ أَنْ آذَنَ لَكُمْ إِنَّ هَذَا لَمَكْرٌ مَكَرْتُمُوهُ فِي الْمَدِينَةِ لِتُخْرِجُوا مِنْهَا أَهْلَهَا فَسَوْفَ تَعْلَمُونَ
(7:123) Pharaoh said: "Have you become believers before I have given you permission? This is surely some scheme which you have schemed in the city to drive its people out; you will reveal what you know."
لأُقَطِّعَنَّ أَيْدِيَكُمْ وَأَرْجُلَكُمْ مِنْ خِلافٍ ثُمَّ لأُصَلِّبَنَّكُمْ أَجْمَعِينَ
(7:124) "I will cut off your hands and feet from alternate sides, then I will crucify you all."
قَالُوا إِنَّا إِلَى رَبِّنَا مُنْقَلِبُونَ
(7:125) They said: "It is to our Lord that we will return."
The point to ponder over is, why is the specific threat pharaoh made repeated in the same manner by God in verse 5:33 (i.e. cutting alternate hands and feet and crucifixion)?
This is because God is not actually commanding the believers to carry out this punishment in verse 5:33. Rather, it is a statement against pharaoh's quote who threatened the believers. More specifically, in 5:33 God is inferring that it is not the believers (who follow God's messengers) who deserved that, rather those who fight against God and His messenger (how pharaoh did), who truly deserve the punishment they wish to inflict on the believers. This point is made in a striking way by referring ironically to pharaoh's threats to the believers.
This interesting observation conforms further with the verse immediately before 5:33, which sets the context of the time of pharaoh! Both 5:32 and 5:33 are quoted below:
مِنْ أَجْلِ ذَلِكَ كَتَبْنَا عَلَى بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ أَنَّهُ مَنْ قَتَلَ نَفْسًا بِغَيْرِ نَفْسٍ أَوْ فَسَادٍ فِي الأَرْضِ فَكَأَنَّمَا قَتَلَ النَّاسَ جَمِيعًا وَمَنْ أَحْيَاهَا فَكَأَنَّمَا أَحْيَا النَّاسَ جَمِيعًا وَلَقَدْ جَاءَتْهُمْ رُسُلُنَا بِالْبَيِّنَاتِ ثُمَّ إِنَّ كَثِيرًا مِنْهُمْ بَعْدَ ذَلِكَ فِي الأَرْضِ لَمُسْرِفُون.َ
(5:32) It is because of this that We have decreed for the Children of Israel: 'Anyone who kills a person who has not committed murder, or who has not committed corruption in the land; then it is as if he has killed all the people! And whoever spares a life, then it is as if he has given life to all the people.' Our messengers had come to them with clarification, but many of them are, after this, are corrupting on the Earth.
(This sets the context of Pharaoh's response to Moses)
إِنَّمَا جَزَاءُ الَّذِينَ يُحَارِبُونَ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ وَيَسْعَوْنَ فِي الأَرْضِ فَسَادًا أَنْ يُقَتَّلُوا أَوْ يُصَلَّبُوا أَوْ تُقَطَّعَ أَيْدِيهِمْ وَأَرْجُلُهُمْ مِنْ خِلافٍ أَوْ يُنْفَوْا مِنَ الأَرْضِ ذَلِكَ لَهُمْ خِزْيٌ فِي الدُّنْيَا وَلَهُمْ فِي الآخِرَةِ عَذَابٌ عَظِيم
(5:33) The recompense of those who fight God and His messenger, and seek to make corruption in the land, is that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from alternate sides or that they be banished from the land; that is their disgrace in this world and in the Hereafter they will have a great retribution.
Thus, the immediate context of Pharaoh's time also supports the understanding that this verse is in relation to pharoah's threat described in other verses. Lastly, note that even grammatically, the verse is not worded in the imperative (as an order or command). It is written in the manner in the translation ("that they be killed or crucified..."). This compares with pharaoh's "I will do", commanding sentence.
Therefore, this verse makes the powerful point that those disbelievers who threaten 'God and His Messenger' with punishment and persecution, they are actually the ones who truly deserve the same retribution - not God's messengers or the believers who invite mankind to the ways of peace - to know their Creator and the existence of the Hereafter.
NOTE: To see our full article on The True Origins of Hadith, click here.