Are crucifixion and mutilation legal punishments in Islam?

Question:

Are crucifixion and mutilation prescribed as legal punishments in Islam?

Answer:

In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

Crucifixion and mutilation were punishments in various societies at the time of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, which have been abrogated by Islam.

There is an authentic report in which the Prophet punished the thieves of Ukl by cutting their hands and gouging their eyes. The Prophet did so upon the legal basis of equal retaliation (al-qisas), as these criminals had inflicted similar punishments against their victims. However, Allah was not satisfied with this precedent.

Abu Zinnad reported:

لَمَّا قَطَّعَ الَّذِينَ سَرَقُوا لِقَاحَهُ وَسَمَلَ أَعْيُنَهُمْ بِالنَّارِعَاتَبَهُ اللَّهُ تَعَالَى فِي ذَلِكَ فَأَنْزَلَ اللَّهُ تَعَالَى إِنَّمَا جَزَاءُ الَّذِينَ يُحَارِبُونَ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ وَيَسْعَوْنَ فِي الْأَرْضِ فَسَادًا أَنْ يُقَتَّلُوا أَوْ يُصَلَّبُوا

When the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, cut the hands of those who stole his camels and gouged their eyes with fire, Allah rebuked him for that and then Allah revealed the verse, “It is but a just recompense for those who wage war on Allah and His Messenger and endeavor to spread corruption on earth that they are being slain in great numbers, or crucified in great numbers, or have in result of their perverseness, their hands and feet cut off in great numbers,” (5:33)

Source: Sunan Abu Dawud 4368/4370, Grade: Hasan

After this incident, the punishments of crucifixion and mutilation were abrogated.

Anas ibn Malik said:

ثُمَّ نَهَى عَنْ الْمُثْلَةِ

Thereafter, mutilation was forbidden.

Qatada reported:

بَلَغَنَا أَنَّ النَّبِيَّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ بَعْدَ ذَلِكَ كَانَ يَحُثُّ عَلَى الصَّدَقَةِ وَيَنْهَى عَنْ الْمُثْلَةِ

We have heard that after this incident the Prophet would encourage charity and he forbade mutilation.

Source: Sahih Bukhari 3956, Grade: Sahih

In other well-known traditions the Prophet prohibited mutilation.

Al-Hayyaj ibn Imran reported: A servant boy of Imran had run away and he vowed by Allah that if he caught him, he would cut off his hand. Then he sent me to ask about that, so I came to Samurah ibn Jundab and I asked him. Samurah said:

كَانَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ يَحُثُّنَا عَلَى الصَّدَقَةِ وَيَنْهَانَا عَنْ الْمُثْلَةِ

The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, encouraged us to give in charity and he forbade us from mutilation.

Then he went to Imran ibn Hussein and he asked him about it. Imran said:

كَانَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ يَحُثُّنَا عَلَى الصَّدَقَةِ وَيَنْهَانَا عَنْ الْمُثْلَةِ

The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, encouraged us to give in charity and he forbade us from mutilation.

Source: Sunan Abu Dawud 2667, Grade: Hasan

Furthermore, the punishment of mutilation is considered reprehensible by the early Muslim scholars.

At-Tirmidhi said:

وَكَرِهَ أَهْلُ الْعِلْمِ الْمُثْلَةَ

The people of knowledge hate mutilation.

Source: Sunan At-Tirmidhi 1408, Grade: Sahih

As such, the punishment of mutilation and crucifixion should not be punishments in Islamic law. They have been replaced by regular penalties for murder, theft, and adultery.

Nevertheless, some Muslim jurists interpreted the verse 5:33 as prescribing crucifixion and mutilation as legal punishments.

Muhammad Asad responds to this interpretation as follows:

Most of the classical commentators regard this passage as a legal injunction, and interpret it, therefore, as follows, “The recompense of those who make war on God and His apostle and spread corruption on earth shall but be that they shall be slain, or crucified, or that their hands and feet be cut off on opposite sides, or that they shall be banished from the earth. Such shall be their ignominy in this world.” This interpretation is, however, in no way warranted by the text. This is for the following reasons:

First, the four passive verbs occurring in this sentence – “slain,” “crucified,” “cut off,” and “banished,” – are in the present tense and do not, by themselves, indicate the future or, alternatively, the imperative mood.

Second, the form yuqattalu does not signify simply “they are being slain,” or (as the commentators would have it) “they shall be slain,” but denotes, in accordance with a fundamental rule of Arabic grammar, that “they are being slain in great numbers,” and the same holds true of the verbal forms yusallabu (“they are being crucified in great numbers”) and tuqatta’a (“cut off in great numbers”). Now if we are to believe that these are “ordained punishments,” it would imply that great numbers, but not necessarily all, of “those who make war on God and His apostle,” should be punished in this way: obviously an inadmissible assumption of arbitrariness on the part of the Divine Law-Giver. Moreover, if the party “waging war on God and His apostle” should happen to consist of one person only, or of a few, how could a command referring to “great numbers” be applied to them or to him?

Third, what would be the meaning of the phrase, “they shall be banished from the earth,” if the above verse is to be taken as a legal injunction? This point has, indeed, perplexed the commentators considerably. Some of them assume that the transgressors should be “banished from the land of Islam,” but there is no instance in the Quran of such a restricted use of the term “earth.” Others, again, are of the opinion that the guilty ones should be imprisoned in a subterranean dungeon, which would constitute their “banishment from the face of the earth”!

Finally, and this is the weightiest objection to an interpretation of the above verse as a “legal injunction,” the Quran places exactly the same expressions referring to mass-crucifixion and mass-mutilation (but this time with a definite intent relating to the future) in the mouth of Pharaoh, as a threat to believers:

لَأُقَطِّعَنَّ أَيْدِيَكُمْ وَأَرْجُلَكُم مِّنْ خِلَافٍ ثُمَّ لَأُصَلِّبَنَّكُمْ أَجْمَعِينَ

Pharaoh said: I will surely cut off your hands and feet on opposite sides and will crucify you altogether!

Surah Al-A’raf 7:124

لَأُقَطِّعَنَّ أَيْدِيَكُمْ وَأَرْجُلَكُم مِّنْ خِلَافٍ وَلَأُصَلِّبَنَّكُمْ أَجْمَعِينَ

Pharaoh said: I will surely cut off your hands and feet on opposite sides and I will crucify you altogether!

Surah Ash-Shu’ara 26:49

فَلَأُقَطِّعَنَّ أَيْدِيَكُمْ وَأَرْجُلَكُم مِّنْ خِلَافٍ وَلَأُصَلِّبَنَّكُمْ فِي جُذُوعِ النَّخْلِ وَلَتَعْلَمُنَّ أَيُّنَا أَشَدُّ عَذَابًا وَأَبْقَىٰ

Pharaoh said: I will surely cut off your hands and feet on opposite sides and I will crucify you to the trunk of a palm tree, then you will know which of us is the most severe and lasting in punishment!

Surah Ta Ha 20:71

Since Pharaoh is invariably described in the Quran as the epitome of evil and godlessness, it is inconceivable that the same Quran would promulgate a divine law in precisely the terms which it attributes elsewhere to a figure characterized as an “enemy of God.”

In short, the attempt of the commentators to interpret the above verse as a “legal injunction” must be categorically rejected, however great the names of the persons responsible for it. On the other hand, a really convincing interpretation suggests itself to us at once as soon as we read the verse, as it ought to be read, in the present tense. For read in this way, the verse reveals itself immediately as a statement of fact, a declaration of the inescapability of the retribution which “those who make war on God” bring upon themselves. Their hostility to the ethical imperatives causes them to lose sight of all moral values and their consequent mutual discord and “perverseness” gives rise to unending strife among themselves for the sake of worldly gain and power. They kill one another in great numbers, and torture and mutilate one another in great numbers, with the result that whole communities are wiped out or, as the Quran puts it, “banished from the earth.” It is this interpretation alone that takes full account of all the expressions occurring in this verse: the reference to “great numbers” in connection with deeds of extreme violence, the banishment from the earth, and lastly, the fact that these horrors are expressed in the terms used by Pharaoh, the “enemy of God.”

Source: Message of the Quran 5:33

Therefore, the verse 5:33 is merely a description of the event of the thieves of Ukl and it is not a prescription. Anas ibn Malik as well as Qatadah informed us that these punishments were abrogated.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.