Imam al-Subki on mitigating factors in criminal punishment

In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

Fixed legal punishments in Islamic law for a handful of serious crimes, known as hadd or hudud, are particularly harsh as compared to the practice of some developed nations. This harshness has provoked criticism of Islam, and even the demonization of Muslims, just as it has been abused by criminal organizations claiming to act in the name of Islam.

Muslim and anti-Muslim extremists fail to understand that the fixed harsh punishments in Islamic law are the maximum penalty possible, not necessarily the standard sentence in court. The Prophet (s) encouraged Muslim jurists and judges to look for ways to avoid the maximum punishment and to apply lesser discretionary punishments instead, because it is more important to protect the innocent than it is to punish the guilty.

Aisha reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

ادْرَءُوا الْحُدُودَ عَنْ الْمُسْلِمِينَ مَا اسْتَطَعْتُمْ فَإِنْ كَانَ لَهُ مَخْرَجٌ فَخَلُّوا سَبِيلَهُ فَإِنَّ الْإِمَامَ أَنْ يُخْطِئَ فِي الْعَفْوِ خَيْرٌ مِنْ أَنْ يُخْطِئَ فِي الْعُقُوبَةِ

Avoid applying legal punishment upon the Muslims if you are capable. If the criminal has a way out, then leave him to his way. Verily, for the leader to err in pardoning the criminal is better than to err in punishing the innocent.

Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 1424, Grade: Sahih

The purpose of the law, after all, is to achieve justice and security for the community and not to indulge in vengeance against the guilty.

On this basis, scholars imposed several conditions that would prevent the implementation of the maximum punishment, such as any doubt in the testimony or a lack of direct evidence.

Al-Suyuti writes:

القاعدة (في الفقه) الحدود تسقط بالشبهات

A principle of law states that legal punishments are suspended by doubts.

Source: al-Ashbāh wal-Naẓāʼir 2/122

There were also historical considerations. The maximum punishment for theft, for instance, was the amputation of the thief’s hand; the thief may not be killed or punished in any way beyond this. This was perhaps the only practical way to deter theft when costly alternatives like prison, in which prisoners must be fed and guarded for extended periods of time, were simply unavailable.

An example of classical jurists using mitigating factors to significantly reduce the scope and use of the maximum punishments is the fatwa, or legal opinion, provided by the 14th century Muslim jurist Taqi al-Din al-Subki. He lists over eighty conditions, any of which might deter a judge from imposing maximum punishment on a thief.

The following is a translation of Imam al-Subki’s fatwa, based upon an article by Dr. Johnathan Brown at the Yaqeen Institute, with the Arabic text below:

Book of cutting the hand of the thief

The Imam and Shaykh, may God have mercy on him, said: It has been agreed upon that the Hadd [punishment] is obligatory for one who has committed theft and [for whom the following conditions apply]:

  1. [the item] was taken from a place generally considered secure (hirz),
  2. it had not been procured as spoils of war (mughannam),
  3. nor from the public treasury,
  4. and it was taken by his own hand,
  5. not by some tool or mechanism (ala),
  6. on his own,
  7. solely,
  8. while he was of sound mind,
  9. and of age,
  10. and a Muslim,
  11. and free,
  12. not in the sacred precinct (al-haram) in Mecca,
  13. and not in the abode of war (dar al-harb),
  14. and he is not one who is granted access to it from time to time,
  15. and he stole from someone other than his wife,
  16. and not from a uterine relative,
  17. and not from her husband if it is a woman,
  18. when he was not drunk,
  19. and not compelled by hunger,
  20. or under duress,
  21. and he stole some property that was owned,
  22. and would be permissible to sell to Muslims,
  23. and he stole it from someone who had not wrongfully appropriated it,
  24. and the value of what he stole reached ten dirhams,
  25. of pure silver,
  26. by the Meccan weight,
  27. and it was not meat,
  28. or any slaughtered animal,
  29. nor anything edible,
  30. or potable,
  31. or some fowl,
  32. or game,
  33. or a dog,
  34. or a cat,
  35. or animal dung,
  36. or feces (ʿadhira),
  37. or dirt,
  38. or red ochre (maghara),
  39. or arsenic (zirnikh),
  40. or pebbles,
  41. or stones,
  42. or glass,
  43. or coals,
  44. or firewood,
  45. or reeds (qasab),
  46. or wood,
  47. or fruit,
  48. or a donkey,
  49. or a grazing animal,
  50. or a copy of the Quran,
  51. or a plant pulled up from its roots (min badā’ihi),
  52. or produce from a walled garden,
  53. or a tree,
  54. or a free person,
  55. or a slave,
  56. if they are able to speak and are of sound mind,
  57. and he had committed no offense against him,
  58. before he removed him from a place where he had not been permitted to enter,
  59. from his secure location,
  60. by his own hand,
  61. and witness is born,
  62. to all of the above,
  63. by two witnesses,
  64. who are men,
  65. according to [the requirements and procedure] that we already presented in the chapter on testimony,
  66. and they did not disagree,
  67. or retract their testimony,
  68. and the thief did not claim that he was the rightful owner of what he stole,
  69. and his left hand is healthy,
  70. and his foot is healthy,
  71. and neither body part is missing anything,
  72. and the person he stole from does not give him what he had stolen as a gift,
  73. and he did not become the owner of what he stole after he stole it,
  74. and the thief did not return the stolen item to the person he stole it from,
  75. and the thief did not claim it,
  76. and the thief was not owed a debt by the person he stole from equal to the value of what he stole,
  77. and the person stolen from is present [in court],
  78. and he made a claim for the stolen property,
  79. and requested that amputation occur,
  80. before the thief could repent,
  81. and the witnesses to the theft are present,
  82. and a month had not passed since the theft occurred.

All of that was said by ‘Ali ibn Ahmad ibn Sa’id, and the Shaykh and Imam said: It has been made an additional condition along with this that the confession did not precede the testimony and afterwards came a retraction. Were the thief to do so first, then evidence of it is established against him and then he retracts, the punishment of amputation is dropped according to the more sound opinion in the school of Al-Shafi’i, may Allah have mercy on him, as the establishment of guilt was by confession and not evidence, so his retraction is accepted.

Source: Fatāwá al-Subkī 2/333-334

كِتَابُ قَطْعِ السَّرِقَةِ

قَالَ الشَّيْخُ الْإِمَامُ رَحِمَهُ اللَّهُ اتَّفَقُوا عَلَى وُجُوبِ حَدِّ السَّرِقَةِ عَلَى

  1. مِنْ غَيْرِ مَغْنَمٍ
  2. مَنْ سَرَقَ مِنْ حِرْزٍ
  3. وَلَا مِنْ بَيْتِ الْمَالِ
  4. بِيَدِهِ
  5. لَا بِآلَةٍ
  6. وَحْدَهُ
  7. مُنْفَرِدًا
  8. وَهُوَ عَاقِلٌ
  9. بَالِغٌ
  10. مُسْلِمٌ
  11. حُرٌّ
  12. فِي غَيْرِ الْحَرَمِ بِمَكَّةَ
  13. وَفِي غَيْرِ دَارِ الْحَرْبِ
  14. وَهُوَ مِمَّنْ لَا يَجِيءُ فِي وَقْتٍ مِنْ الْأَوْقَاتِ
  15. فَسَرَقَ مِنْ غَيْرِ زَوْجَتِهِ
  16. وَمِنْ غَيْرِ ذِي رَحِمٍ لَهُ
  17. وَمِنْ غَيْرِ زَوْجِهَا إنْ كَانَتْ امْرَأَةً
  18. وَهُوَ غَيْرُ سَكْرَانَ
  19. وَلَا مُضْطَرٍّ بِجُوعٍ
  20. وَلَا مُكْرَهٍ
  21. فَسَرَقَ مَالًا مُتَمَلَّكًا
  22. يَحِلُّ بَيْعُهُ لِلْمُسْلِمِينَ
  23. وَسَرَقَهُ مِنْ غَيْرِ غَاصِبٍ لَهُ
  24. وَبَلَغَتْ قِيمَةُ مَا سَرَقَ عَشَرَةَ دَرَاهِمَ
  25. مِنْ الْوَرِقِ الْمَحْضِ
  26. بِوَزْنِ مَكَّةَ
  27. وَلَمْ يَكُنْ لَحْمًا
  28. وَلَا حَيَوَانًا مَذْبُوحًا
  29. وَلَا شَيْئًا يُؤْكَلُ
  30. أَوْ يُشْرَبُ
  31. وَلَا طَيْرًا
  32. وَلَا صَيْدًا
  33. وَلَا كَلْبًا
  34. وَلَا سِنَّوْرًا
  35. وَلَا زِبْلًا
  36. وَلَا عَذِرَةً
  37. وَلَا تُرَابًا
  38. وَلَا مَغْرَةً
  39. وَلَا زِرْنِيخًا
  40. وَلَا حَصًى
  41. وَلَا حِجَارَةً
  42. وَلَا زُجَاجًا
  43. وَلَا فَخَّارًا
  44. وَلَا حَطَبًا
  45. وَلَا قَصَبًا
  46. وَلَا خَشَبًا
  47. وَلَا فَاكِهَةً
  48. وَلَا حِمَارًا
  49. وَلَا حَيَوَانًا سَارِحًا
  50. وَلَا مُصْحَفًا
  51. وَلَا زَرْعًا مِنْ بَدَائِهِ
  52. وَلَا ثَمَرًا مِنْ حَائِطٍ
  53. وَلَا شَجَرًا
  54. وَلَا حُرًّا
  55. وَلَا عَبْدًا
  56. يَتَكَلَّمُ وَيَعْقِلُ
  57. وَلَا أَحْدَثَ فِيهِ جِنَايَةً
  58. قَبْلَ إخْرَاجِهِ لَهُ مِنْ مَكَان لَمْ يُؤْذَنْ لَهُ فِي دُخُولِهِ
  59. مِنْ حِرْزِهِ
  60. بِيَدِهِ
  61. فَشَهِدَ عَلَيْهِ
  62. بِكُلِّ ذَلِكَ
  63. شَاهِدَانِ
  64. رَجُلَانِ
  65. كَمَا قَدَّمْنَا فِي كِتَابِ الشَّهَادَاتِ
  66. وَلَمْ يَخْتَلِفَا
  67. وَلَا رَجَعَا عَنْ شَهَادَتِهِمَا
  68. وَلَا ادَّعَى هُوَ مِلْكَ مَا سَرَقَ
  69. وَكَانَ سَالِمَ الْيَدَ الْيُسْرَى
  70. وَسَالِمَ الرِّجْلِ
  71. لَا يُنْقَصُ مِنْهَا شَيْءٌ
  72. وَلَا يَهَبُهُ الْمَسْرُوقُ مِنْهُ مَا سَرَقَ
  73. وَلَا مَلَكَهُ بَعْدَمَا سَرَقَهُ
  74. وَلَا رَدَّهُ السَّارِقُ عَلَى الْمَسْرُوقِ مِنْهُ
  75. وَلَا ادَّعَاهُ السَّارِقُ
  76. وَلَا كَانَ لَهُ عَلَى الْمَسْرُوقِ مِنْهُ دَيْنٌ بِقَدْرِ مَا سَرَقَ
  77. وَحَضَرَ الْمَسْرُوقُ مِنْهُ
  78. وَادَّعَى الْمَالَ الْمَسْرُوقَ
  79. وَطَلَبَ قَطْعَهُ
  80. قَبْلَ أَنْ يَتُوبَ السَّارِقُ
  81. وَحَضَرَ الشُّهُودُ عَلَى السَّرِقَةِ
  82. وَلَمْ يَمْضِ لِلسَّرِقَةِ شَهْرٌ

قَالَ ذَلِكَ كُلَّهُ عَلِيُّ بْنُ أَحْمَدَ بْنِ سَعِيدٍ وَقَالَ الشَّيْخُ الْإِمَامُ وَيُشْتَرَطُ مَعَ ذَلِكَ أَنْ لَا يَسْبِقَ الشَّهَادَةَ بِهِ إقْرَارٌ وَيَأْتِيَ بَعْدَهَا رُجُوعٌ فَلَوْ تَقَدَّمَ السَّارِقُ بِذَلِكَ ثُمَّ قَامَتْ عَلَيْهِ الْبَيِّنَةُ بِهِ ثُمَّ رَجَعَ سَقَطَ الْقَطْعُ عَلَى الْأَصَحِّ مِنْ مَذْهَبِ الشَّافِعِيِّ رَحِمَهُ اللَّهُ لِأَنَّ الثُّبُوتَ كَانَ بِالْإِقْرَارِ لَا بِالْبَيِّنَةِ فَقُبِلَ رُجُوعُهُ

2/333-334 فتاوى السبكي

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.