Qur’an 5:33 Commentary

5:33 The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter
The context of this verse itself will clear any negative perceptions against Islam. One cannot quote verse 5:33 without quoting verse 5:32 (prohibition of murder) and verse 5:34 (command to forgive). Let us examine the verse in its proper context:

5:32-34 ...If any one slew a person - unless it be as punishment for murder or for spreading corruption in the land - it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people. Then although there came to them Our apostles with clear signs, yet, even after that, many of them continued to commit excesses in the land. The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter; Except for those who repent before they fall into your power: in that case, know that Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.

There are several points to note here. The first is the gravity of the offense. This is punishment for WAGING WAR against the Prophet of God and spreading evil and destruction. In modern terminology this would be considered “terrorism”. This is a punishment for such a severe offense, hence the severity of the punishment. As Muhammad Asad writes on this verse:

The present participle la-musrifun indicates their “continuously committing excesses” (i.e., crimes), and is best rendered as “they go on committing” them. In view of the preceding passages, these “excesses” obviously refer to crimes of violence and, in particular, to the ruthless killing of human beings. (Asad, The Message of the Qur’an)
It is quite shocking to see how many Islam-haters will place this verse under the heading of “inciting Muslims to kill and wage war”, whereas the verse commands nothing of this sort! In fact, it comes directly after a verse prohibiting murder and likening the unjust murder of a single individual to the slaughter of humanity. The Qur’an purposefully describes the gravity of the sin before describing the punishment. The crime of murder and committing terrorist activities is regarded as such a severe violation in Islam, that a severe retribution has been prescribed. Waging war against God’s prophet is tantamount to waging war against Our Creator Himself. It is ironic that Islam-haters will present this verse to justify their claim that Islam supports terrorism, whereas Muslim scholars have always presented this verse as proof that Islam is vehemently opposed to terrorism. For example, the Islamic Fiqh Council of Saudi Arabia writes about this verse:

Obviously, in view of the enormity of such acts of aggression, which are viewed by the Shari’ah (Islamic law) as an act of war against the laws and the creatures of God, there is no stricter punishment anywhere in the manmade laws. (Islamic Fiqh Council of Saudi Arabia, Terrorism – Islam’s viewpoint, Muslim World League Journal, Jumad al-Ula 1423/July 2002 CE)

Is it logical to inform someone about a certain punishment without telling them about the crime? Yet, this is exactly what the enemies of Islam have done to deceive people into thinking Islam is a violent religion. They cite only verse 5:33 without verse 5:32 or verse 5:34, which brings us to our next point. God has prescribed multiple punishments in this verse using the word “or” between them, indicating various alternatives. The punishment depends on the circumstances and severity of the offence. As Muhammad F. Malik writes in his translation of this verse:

The punishment for those who wage war against Allah and His Rasool and strive to create mischief in the land is death or crucifixion or the cutting off their hands and feet from opposite sides or exile from the land (based on the gravity of their offence)... (Malik, Al-Qur’an: Guidance for Mankind)

Likewise, Abdullah Yusuf Ali comments:

For the double crime of treason against State, combined with treason against God, as shown by overt crimes, four alternative punishments are mentioned, any one of which is to be applied according to circumstances…except that tortures such as “hanging, drawing, and quartering” in English Law, and piercing of eyes and leaving the unfortunate victim exposed to a tropical sun, which was practiced in Arabia, and all such tortures were abolished. In any case sincere repentance before it was too late was recognized as grounds for mercy. (Yusuf Ali, The English Translation of the Holy Qur’an, emphasis added)

Indeed, the subsequent verse immediately states that this punishment is not for those who repent. For verily, God is Oft-Forgiving and Most Merciful. God’s infinite Mercy is truly clear when one considers that God is willing to forgive these ruthless acts of terror that deserve such harsh punishments, so long as the offender sincerely repents to Allah, seeking His Pardon and True Guidance. The Muslim scholars have mentioned that whenever Allah warns us of a punishment, He always shows us a way out, a way to avoid the punishment. Many Muslim jurists also cite this verse in the case of punishment for Hirabah (armed robbery/highway robbery). In such instances, depending on the severity of the offence, the punishment is prescribed. When murder has been committed, then execution is prescribed as the punishment. Depending on the circumstances, the judge may choose a lesser punishment. The banishment mentioned in the verse has been interpreted by some schools of thought as imprisonment. The punishment of crucifixion has been mentioned in the verse, but many Muslim scholars have mentioned that they never have even heard of such punishment ever being prescribed. In fact, Imam Malik, the founder of the Maliki school of thought, when as ked about crucifixion, replied that he had never even heard of a single case in which crucifixion was prescribed as punishment for armed robbery. (see Al-Mudawwanah, vol. XV, p. 99). In light of this fact, Shaykh Muhammad S. Al-Awa has said:

This observation of Malik’s gives me the impression that this punishment was prescribed solely to deter the potential criminal. (El-Awa, Punishment in Islamic Law; US American Trust Publications, 1993, p. 11, emphasis added)

Concerning the argument that such punishments are barbaric, Shaykh Muhammad S. Al-Awa writes:

Shaykh Muhammad Abu Zahra, in his previously mentioned book [Al-Jarima wal-‘Uqba, pp. 6-11], explains the aim of both Islamic law, as well as the sacred Jewish law contained in the Torah, is to achieve public security and peace for the community as well as the retribution for the criminal minority; accordingly, the necessary means for the attainment of this latter end were prescribed both in the Torah and the Qur’an. The second question concerns the law of pardon for offenders who repent and whether the punishment for Hirabah should be considered a dead letter because of this law. To answer this question, one should again bear in mind that this punishment, and indeed all the hudud punishments in the Islamic penal system, are prescribed mainly to protect society from crime. In order to achieve this purpose, Islamic law, while prescribing punishment for criminals, makes it possible for them to be pardoned when they realize the evil of their conduct and desire to mend their ways. This does not contradict the earlier quotation from Abu Zahra. While punishment may be withheld, provision must be made for all the injuries and harm resulting from the criminal’s act. In this way, society does not lose anything. On the contrary, it gains a new member who, if he had not been given the chance to repent, forever would have been considered an outlaw. (El-Awa, Punishment in Islamic Law; US American Trust Publications, 1993, p. 13, emphasis added)

For further information on the Islamic Criminal Law, the reader may refer to the excellent article, Crime and Punishment in Islam. Other scholars explain the Islamic punishments by comparative means. Shaykh Abdul Majid Daryabadi writes the following on verse 5:33:

Lest some of these penalties may appear ‘barbarous’ to some hypersensitive Western reader, let him cast a glance on ‘drawing and quartering’, a penalty of the English Criminal Code maintained as late as the 18th century, inflicted on those found guilty of high treason touching the king’s person or government. The person committed was usually drawn on a sledge to the place of execution; there he was hung by the neck from a scaffold, being cut down and disemboweled, while still alive, his head was cut from his body and his corpse divided into four quarters. With the profession of their faith declared as high treason by law many Catholics of England and Ireland suffered this death. ‘In this reign of Henry III and Edward I there is abundant evidence that death was the common punishment of felony; and this continued to be the law of the land as to treason and as to all felonies, except petty larceny, down to the year 1826’ (Stephen, History of the Criminal Law of England, I. p. 458). In contemporary English law, robbery is larceny with violence; and the guilty is liable to penal servitude for life, and in addition, if a male, to be once privately whipped. The elements of the offence are essentially the same under American law (EBr. XIX. p. 346). (Daryabadi, The Glorious Qur’an, emphasis added)

In light of the above mentioned points, we can clearly reject any claims of this verse supporting “violence and warfare” as baseless. The textual context, historical context, legal context, and comparative analysis of this verse all demonstrate that this verse merely enjoins justice in return for grave offences, and by no means can support the lies of the Islam-haters.

Similar Narration

Bukhari: Some people from `Uraina tribe came to Medina and its climate did not suit them, so Allah’s Apostle (pbuh) allowed them to go to the herd of camels (given as Zakat) and they drank their milk and urine (as medicine) but they killed the shepherd and drove away all the camels. So Allah’s Apostle sent (men) in their pursuit to catch them, and they were brought, and he had their hands and feet cut, and their eyes were branded with heated pieces of iron and they were left in the Harra (a stony place at Medina) biting the stones. (Volume 2, Book 24, Number 577)

This narration is often quoted in order to present the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) as someone who delivered exceedingly cruel and barbaric punishments. Let us examine the narration more closely along with other narrations of the same event. The narration states the following:

-Some people from Urayna (or Ukil) tribe came to Madinah after accepting Islam
-They acquired an illness due to the climate, for which the Arabs used to drink milk and urine of camels as medicine
-The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) allowed them to go to the herds of camels for their medicine
-After recovering from their illness, they killed the sheperd and drove away the camels
-The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) ordered their hands and feet cut off, their eyes branded with heated pieces of iron, and they were left in the desert

It is clear that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) prescribed the hands and feet to be cut off in accordance with the Islamic laws concerning hiraabah (armed robbery). What doesn’t appear in this narration is the reason for branding their eyes with heated pieces of iron. This is explained in other narrations where it states that this was the punishment because they had done the same thing to the sheperd whom they killed. As Shaykh Abdul Khaliq Hasan Ash-Shareef states about this narration:

It should be made clear that those people who came to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) were Muslims and they were sick. The Prophet advised them to go to the herd of camels and to drink their milk and urine (as a medicine). When they became healthy, they killed the herder of the Prophet and drove away all the camels that were allocated for sadaqah (charity). When the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) came to know about this, he applied the punishment for Hirabah on them. Hiraba means killing people, robbing their money or raping women by an armed group of people. The punishment for Hirabah is mentioned in the Qur’an. Allah says:

“The only reward of those who make war upon Allah and His Messenger and strive after corruption in the land will be that they will be killed or crucified, or have their hands and feet on alternate sides cut off, or will be expelled out of the land. Such will be their degradation in the world, and in the Hereafter theirs will be an awful doom” (Al-Ma’idah: 33).

As for branding their eyes, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) branded the eyes of the people of `Ukl or `Uraina with iron because they killed the herder and branded his eyes with iron. Imam Ibn Hajar stated the differences of opinions among scholars and he said, “The killing that took place (that is, in reference to the above hadith) was in retaliation and Allah Almighty says,

‘And one who attacketh you, attack him in like manner as he attacked you’ (Al-Baqarah: 194).”

All in all, using this story as evidence in favor of the permissibility of torturing people in Islam is refuted by the fact that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) applied the punishment for Hirabah on them and that he did not do so for personal vengeance. (SOURCE, emphasis added)

Likwise, Moiz Amjad writes:

There is only one part of the referred narrative, which raises a question-mark in one’s mind. It apparently seems strange that after having implemented the punishment prescribed in the Qur’an for crimes committed against the society, in general, why did the Prophet (pbuh) ordered their eyes to be branded. Most of the narratives do not provide an answer to this question. However, in one of the narratives reported in Ibn Al-Jarood’s Al-Muntaqaa, Anas (ra) is reported to have explained the reason for this punishment as well. The companion of the Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said:

The Prophet (pbuh) branded their eyes because they had branded the eyes of the herdsmen. (volume 1, Pg. 216)

This explanation adequately clarifies the fact that the Prophet (pbuh) ordered the branding the eyes of the culprits, in compliance with the Qur’anic directive of Qisaas (Al-Baqarah 2: 178, Al-Maaidah 5: 45) for the punishment of murder and inflicting physical injury on someone. In view of the foregoing explanation, I find no reason to consider the incident narrated in the referred narrative to be unauthentic. (SOURCE)

Shaykh Muhammad al-Qannâs, a Professor at Al-Imam University (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia), places the narration in perspective by presenting the views of the various Muslim scholars:

The above mentioned hadîth is narrated in Sahîh al-Bukhârî (6802) and Sahîh Muslim (1671). It reads:

Some people belonging (to the tribe) of `Uraynah came to the Prophet (peace be upon him) at Madînah, but they found its climate uncongenial. So the Prophet (peace be upon him) said to them: If you so like, you may go to the camels that are part of the charity and drink their milk and urine. They did so and were all right. They then fell upon the shepherds and killed them and turned apostates from Islam and drove off the camels of the Prophet (peace be upon him). This news reached Allah’s Apostle (peace be upon him) and he sent (people) on their track and they were (brought) and handed over to him. He got their hands cut off, and their feet, and put out their eyes, and threw them on the stony ground until they died.

The scholars disagree among themselves on this punishment:

1. Some said: This punishment was in retaliation for their act and the Prophet (peace be upon him) punished them in the same way that they killed the shepherds. It is mentioned in Sahîh Muslim
“The Prophet (peace be upon him) put out their eyes because they put out the eyes of the shepherds”.

The people concerned in studying the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) military career said: They dismembered the shipyards. Ibn al-Qayyim said: “It is extracted from the story of al-`Arâniyîn tribe that the criminal will be subject to the same act similar to the one he perpetrated, when they put out the shepherd’s eyes, he put out their eyes.” [Zâd al-Mâ`âd: (3/286)]

2. Other scholars said what is mentioned in the hadîth is abrogated, according to the prohibition of mutilation.

Accordingly, what took place in this hadîth was abrogated. This was adopted by al-Bukhârî. He narrated from Qatâdah that: “It is been narrated to us from the Prophet (peace be upon him) after that the Prophet (peace be upon him) encouraged charity and prohibited mutilation.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (4192)].

It was narrated by Qatâdah through Muhammad b. Sîrîn that this took place before the revelation on the ruling of punishments. [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (5686)]

Al-Hâzimî said: “This hadîth was abrogated” and he set a chapter “Mutilation and its abrogation”. He said: “A group of people adopted the opinion that these ruling were fixed in the beginning and then were abrogated when Allah sent: “The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger…” [Sûrah al-Mâ’dah: 33]

[Al-I`tibâr fi al-Nâsikh wa al-Mansûkh, page 196].

It could be that this severe punishment was at the beginning because the Prophet (peace be upon him) knew that some of the tough and hardened Bedouins who live around Madînah would not refrain from attacking others unless they heard of some of these severe punishments. The desert Bedouins living in the surrounding wilderness were warlike tribes used to toughness and to causing harassment. Allah says: “The dwellers of the desert are very hard in unbelief and hypocrisy, and more disposed not to know the limits of what Allah has revealed to His Messenger; and Allah is Knowing, Wise” [Sûrah al-Tawbah: 97] (IslamToday fatwa service)

Therefore, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) did not punish them any more than the harm they inflicted upon the sheperd and the Muslim community. He also sent a strong message to other desert tribes who were accustomed to raiding and attacking nearby villages and tribes. This punishment was done for the security of the Muslim community, living in a very dangerous time with no formal legal system governing the arabian tribes. The situation is incomparable to modern times where governments have strong control over their territories - in arabia there existed a tribalistic anarchy. As Shaykh Muhammad ‘Ata Al Sid Sid Ahmad writes:

When the criminals of ‘Urainah betrayed the community of Madinah which had met them with all love and respect—by torturing and killing the herder of their camels and escaping with the Muslim’s camels as their booty—the Prophet quickly marshalled all his powers, arrested and dealt with them in the severest manner as the law allowed him. (Al-Sid, Islamic Criminal Law: The Hudud; Malaysia, Eagle Trading Sdn. Bhd., 1995, p. 132)

It should also be noted that many critics of the punishments in Islam are themselves believers in an afterlife in which people will be punished for their crimes, often with eternal torment in Hell. Eternal torment is far more servere than any temporary punishment delivered in this life. The punishments prescribed in Islam are intended to purify the offender of their sin in order that they may be saved from a far greater punishment in the next life. It seems that when one defers a punishment to the afterlife, there is a subconcious belief that such a punishment is not as “real” and consequently it is not as bothering to sentence someone to eternal torture in Hell as it is to prescribe a painful punishment here and now. Such thinking is inherently flawed.

Some writers have also claimed that the punishment delivered to the Ukil/Urayna tribe was prescribed for their apostasy. This is clearly rejected by the text of the hadith as well as the consensus of all Muslim jurists. Shaykh Muhammad S. Al-Awa explains this as well:

On the other hand, the prevalent view among Muslim jurists is that the case of this group of ‘Ukal and ‘Urayna was a case of hiraba (armed robbery) and it was for this crime that they were punished (fn. See Tabari, Tafsir, vol. VI, pp. 132-146; Ibn al-Qayyim, Zad al-Ma’ad, vol. III, p. 78; Ibn Hajar, Fath Al-Bari, where he criticises Bukhari’s view). The text itself demonstrates this very clearly. (El-Awa, Punishment in Islamic Law; US American Trust Publications, 1993, p. 51)

To conclude, this narration refers to an event of Hiraabah (armed robbery), where the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) implemented the law of Qisas (retribution), and the offendors were punished exactly as they had punished the sheperd. The Prophet did not exceed this limit at all in his prescribed punishment, but rather purified the offenders so that the punishment in the next life would be averted.