Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim
Sura 5:33 reads as follows: “Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and spread mischief in the land is death, crucifixion, cutting off their hands and feet on opposite sides, or exile from the land. This penalty is a disgrace for them in this world, and they will suffer a tremendous punishment in the Hereafter.”
The above is the standard translation of the verse, a verse which follows hard upon the heels of the story of Abel's pacifism even in the face of his brutal death at the hand of his brother Cain. “If you raise your hand to kill me, I will not raise mine to kill you, because I fear Allah—the Lord of all the worlds.” (Qur'an 5:28) And it follows immediately after a beautiful verse proclaiming that killing a human being is like killing all of humanity, and saving a human being is like saving all of humanity. And it is strange that the punishments described in this verse about those who wage war against God and His apostle are the same punishments as those carried out by the Pharaoh during his corrupt rule.
Yet when a prophet as fierce as Moses accidentally struck and slew a man, he was immensely distraught at his action and that it had led to the death of a human being even if the death was accidental and unintentional. This was the way of the Prophets, they were sensitive to any injustice, and did not excuse themselves. To imagine that our Prophet would deliberately subject enemies to the same torture and mutilation carried out by the Pharaoh is difficult to reconcile with his nature and seems perhaps to be a misinterpretation of the history of prophethood, a misinterpretation of verse 5:33, and of the history of Islam as it relates to this verse.
Verse 33, although it is commonly rendered as a legal imperative, is in the present continuous tense so it is not really phrased as an imperative action to be carried out against those who work corruption. It does not appear as a prescription for punishment. Rather, it seems to be phrased as a recognition of the unfortunate reality that is experienced by those who work corruption (committing violent and ruthless slaughter, disruption, destruction and destabilization) in the world. So the translation might read “they are being crucified (in great numbers) or they are having their hands and feet cut on opposite sides (in great numbers)…”. In addition, crucifixion, and the cutting of hands and feet can be generalized as torture or great suffering. So they are suffering greatly as a result (and consequence) of their own mindset, the mindset and actions of the groups of which they are a part. Muhammad Asad, in his translation of the Qur'an and in his tafsir goes into this issue in some detail. With this in mind, the verse might be interpretively rendered in the following way.
“Indeed, the recompense that befalls those who continually wage war against God and His apostle and spread their corruption in the earth is that they bring on themselves (through the hands of their own associates) death, crucifixion, cutting off their hands and feet on opposite sides, and exile from the earth. This is the sad disgrace they experience in this world (due to the company they keep), and for them, in the higher worlds, there waits a tremendous punishment.”
Those who make war against God and His messenger are like those who, had they lived in the time of the Pharaoh, would have aligned themselves with the Pharaoh and against Moses. Rather than seek the mercy of God and justice, they cast their lot with oppressors who persecute those around them, exulting in their power, not the least concerned with principle.
Making war means that they actively, obstinately, deliberately, violently oppose the ethics and morality of revelation and of their own fitra. They act without regard to justice and mercy. But those who align themselves with the like of Pharaoh or commit brutal injustice as Pharaoh did, will likely find themselves dealt with harshly and brutally by their own compatriots or by the very despots they follow. The punishment they are likely to face, not at the Prophet’s hand, but from those they serve, are like the punishment the Pharaoh meted out to the magicians. Once you have aligned yourself with pharaonic forces, you are under their authority and are unlikely to escape. Brutal powers work their brutality and wield their dominance over friend and foe alike. They are under the domain and influence of those who are not to be trusted, who only operate by subjugating and deceiving others and continually commit violations that are excessive and shocking in nature. In time those excesses and violations will rebound on them and their own supposed alliances will fall apart and they will be undone by the viciousness of their own party.
Pharaoh says to those who are his subjects, “How dare you believe in him (Moses) before I give you permission?...I will certainly cut off your hands and feet on opposite sides, then crucify you all.” (Qur’an 7:123-124) This is a similar situation to that faced by the Prophet, who like Moses brought an ethical message of liberation, and faced vicious opposition from all sides. The powers of the Prophet’s time warned their people to turn away from the message and the messenger or face harsh reprisals. They preferred the status quo of an inequitable and corrupt society to a principled message that would bring unwanted change, and they did not hesitate to inflict brutal punishments.
Those who spread corruption like a contagion in the earth are considered to be waging war against God and His messenger. They are engaged in continually attempting to destroy the ethics and morals brought by the Prophet and all the messengers before him, and to undermine the values contained in revelation. They will have their ability to work corruption curtailed, not by the hand of the Prophet, but by the viciousness that pervades the mentality of their own groups and their own people. The verse warns that their own actions and alliances will be their undoing. Brutally opposing the Prophet and God is a losing battle - originating from the unseen worlds, the victory of the Prophet and the revelation is beyond question.
Engaging in corruption and violence rebounds on the them and they face the violence of their own kind, who, like Pharaoh, think nothing of harsh reprisals and torture. In the Pharaoh’s time a slight word of opposition against the Pharaoh led to vicious retribution. Those who align themselves with workers of corruption will eventually find themselves facing violent death, punishment by their own leaders, or exile (as fugitives) in great numbers due to the discord and strife among their own people and the disdain of others towards them because of the suffering they cause, and in the higher worlds they will also face judgement and punishment. In a sense they are exiles from earth itself, as those who do great damage to humanity will become outcasts and shunned no matter where they go. As well, their own communities will be torn apart by internal strife and violence and will self-destruct if they are unable to emerge from this mentality.
Other verses on fasad (creating corruption in the earth) reinforce the notion that those who work corruption will taste the consequences of their corruption through their own hands, their own actions rebounding on themselves through their own society and companions. But this can also be an opportunity for them to correct their actions.
“Corruption has spread on land and sea as a result of what people’s hands have done, so that Allah may cause them to taste (the consequences of) some of their deeds so perhaps they might return (to the Right Path).” (Qur’an 30:41)
The self destruction of those who worked corruption in the past should be a warning to those who work it in the present since the destruction they brought on their own selves is historically evident as the next verses indicates.
“Travel throughout the land and see what was the end of those (destroyed) before (your time) — most of them committed shirk (association of partners with God).... those who covered over (concealed) the truth will bear (the burden of) their own disbelief (and corruption); and those who (changed and) did good will have prepared for themselves (eternal homes)” (Qur’an 30:42 and 44)
Verse 30:41 makes it clear that the workers of violent corruption (fasad) are made to “taste the consequences of some of their own deeds....” (Qur'an 30:41) So when we return to Qur'an 5:33 it perhaps should be rendered in a similar fashion to show that the punishments indicated are a consequence of extreme corruption rebounding on the perpetuators.
“Indeed, the recompense that befalls those who continually wage war against God and His apostle and spread their corruption in the earth is that they bring on themselves (at the hands of their own associates) death, crucifixion, cutting off their hands and feet on opposite sides, and exile from the very earth. This is the sad disgrace they experience in this world (due to the company they keep), and for them, in the higher worlds, there waits a tremendous punishment.”
They will cause their own destruction (the destruction of their own violent community) and vanish from the face of the earth remaining only as a bitter memory. “They are exiled from the very earth....Travel throughout the land and see what was the end of those (destroyed and vanished) before (your time)” (Qur’an 5:33 and 30:42)
This is in contrast to those who follow the Prophet and revelation, who are those for whom, taking a life is like killing all of humanity, and saving a life is like saving all of humanity (Qur’an 5:32) Between them and the workers of corruption, violence, strife, murder, and agressive unjust war in the earth, there is an interminable gulf.
“Beware of blood and spilling it unlawfully, for nothing is more deserving of vengeance (from God), greater in its consequence or more likely to (bring about) a cessation of blessing and the cutting off of (one's appointed) term than shedding blood unjustly. (Their communities will find their term on this earth curtailed because of their own corruption and injustice) God - glory be to Him - on the Day of Resurrection will begin judgment among His servants over the blood they have spilt. So never strengthen your power by shedding unlawful blood, for that is among the factors which weaken and enfeeble it, nay, which overthrow and transfer it. You have no excuse before God and before me for intentional killing….” (Ali Ibn Abu Talib)
To be notified when new articles are added to this site, please follow @i_from_i (islam from inside).
About 5:33 - Muhammad Asad
1 – “(In verse 5:33) 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. The term apostle is evidently generic in this context. By “making war on God and His apostle” is meant a hostile opposition to, and willful disregard of, the ethical precepts ordained by God and explained by all His apostles, combined with the conscious endeavour to destroy or undermine other people’s belief in God as well.
In classical Arabic idiom, the “cutting off of one’s hands and feet” is often synonymous with destroying one’s power, and it is possibly in this sense that the expression has been used here. Alternatively, it might denote being mutilated, both physically and metaphorically – similar to the (metonymical) use of the expression “being crucified” in the sense of being tortured. The phrase min khilaf – usually rendered as “from opposite sides” – is derived from the verb khalafahu, “he disagreed with him,” or “opposed him,” or “acted contrarily to him”: consequently, the primary meaning of min khilaf is “in result of contrariness” or “of perverseness”.
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, and this for the following reasons:
a) 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.
(b) 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 – “they are being slain in great numbers” and the same holds true of the verbal forms yucallabu (“they are being crucified in great numbers) and tuqaooa (“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?
(c) Furthermore, what would be the meaning of the phrase, “they shall be banished from the earth,” if the 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 Qur’an of such a restricted use of the term earth (ard). 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!
(d) Finally – and this is the weightiest objection to an interpretation of the above verse as a legal injunction – the Qur’an 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 (see 7:124, 20:71 and 26:49). Since Pharaoh is invariably described in the Qur'an as the epitome of evil and godlessness, it is inconceivable that the same Qur’an 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...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 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 Qur’an puts it, “banished from [the face of] the earth.” It is this interpretation...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.
(quoted from Muhammad Asad's translation and commentary on 5:33 in his “The Message of the Qur'an)”↵
1 – “See also: The Hermeneutics of Takfir
2 – “See also: Power and Hegemony
3 – “See also: Divine Morality/Human Morality