What would be the Islamic punishment of theft in modern times?
On the issue of the punishment of amputating a hand in case of proven theft, was such a punishment meant to be used figuratively? Hands were the tools used for theft in earlier days- now more sophisticated tools are used. Millions are siphoned off through e accounts, cases of fraud abound and people are relieved of their money through false bank schemes. recently a group of ‘ulema’ have been caught in a fraud case of Islamic banking. Basically, skewed minds are the instruments used here. The hand is hardly at fault. What would be the Islamic punishment? Or would this come under ‘fasad fil ard’?
Whether a crime belongs to the category of mischief on earth or not is to be decided by the judges on the basis of their assessment as to whether it was a blatant violation of the rights of others in a way that it had become a threat for others too or it was a one-off crime. All crimes have the potential of proliferating but the manner some of them are committed causes the society to feel threatened. It is these crime that fall within the category of fasad fil ard.
The punishments mentioned in the Quran are stated in the literal sense. They mean what their apparent words are suggesting. The allegorical verses (mutashabihat) referred to in the Quran (3:7) are applicable to the description of the unseen world. When it comes to the Shari’ah, the Almighty says exactly what the words He employs mean. We have no other way of knowing what else those words could refer to except to go the understanding of classical Arabic to find meanings of the words used in the Quranic text. If interpretation of the Quranic law is done by understanding what the words suggest figuratively, then the divine guidance would remain no more clear. It will then be left at the discretion of the individual to interpret it the way he/she chooses.
Indeed theft can be committed with one’s hands and in other ways too. The punishment for theft would still be amputating a thief’s hand. The idea is not to punish exactly the limb that was directly involved in doing the crime. Had that been the case, God should have clarified that if the thief stole something from his left hand, it should be the left one that should be amputated and if the right one was involved in the crime, it should be the right one that should be cut off. When a hand is chopped off, the individual is punished, not just the hand, which is only a part of his physical existence.
The idea behind the stipulation is both to punish the individual and to make the the punishment a deterrent for others. (5:38) The verse ends by stating that God is powerful and wise. In other words, He has the authority to judge the way he chooses to and He is the wisest to choose the most appropriate punishment.
Having said that, one must not ignore the fact that the punishment of theft or other Quranic punishments for that matter can only be introduced if the state was looking after the basic needs of the poor, the thief was mature enough to know what is right from what is wrong, and the amount stolen was of substantial value.
If an individual has not acknowledged something or done what was expected of him, it could be because he has forgotten (or some genuine reason has kept him from doing it) or he has deliberately ignored it, imagining it to be an unworthy task. In the first case, he deserves a gentle reminder. In the second case he should receive a different message. In the absence of a clear evidence, one should always imagine that a genuine reason or forgetfulness has been the cause.