Kaleef K. Karim
5:33 Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth [to cause] corruption (mischief) is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land. That is for them a disgrace in this world; and for them in the Hereafter is a great punishment,
5:34 Except for those who return [repenting] before you apprehend them. And know that Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.
This verse (Q. 5:33) is often quoted by some that it sanctions the killing of innocents. This in reality is not true. Some of these critics also claim that the verse is very ‘vague’, and what does Allah mean by ‘making mischief (or corruption) in the land’? Could ‘criticism of Islam’ or being too ‘westernised’ be punishable by death? The answer is no. Some of those who make these claims are very ignorant and have not studied our Islamic sources what ‘mischief’ in the passage (Q. 5:33) entails. They are fond of spreading misinformation and misguide innocent people.
In order to understand this particular verse (Q 5:33), we have to go back to Prophet Muhammed’s life-time, with the historical sources available to us, and find out how it was interpreted by the Muslims then.
Some of the earliest to modern exegesis say that this verse (Q. 5:33) was revealed in connection with a group of people who came to Madinah, they ate, rested and later in the day robbed and butchered an innocent shepherd to pieces. These criminals decapitated the shepherd(s), gouged their eyes out (Al-Tabari, Tafsir al-Jalalayn, Tafsir Ibn kathir, and Asbab Al-Nuzul by Al-Wahidi). After they fled, they also went on to rape women.
Historical Context For 5:33
We are told that from a number of reports that go back to when Prophet Muhammed (p) was alive, that this particular verse (5:33) was revealed in connection with some people who came from Ukil (or Urayna) to Madinah, and asked the Prophet for some food and drink. The prophet told them to go with his shepherd nearby and they will be fed.
The sources further say, once they were fed and rested properly, they killed the shepherd and robbed all the camels. Upon news reaching the Prophet (p), he despatched his companions to capture these criminals. Sahih al-Bukhari:
“A group of eight men from the tribe of ‘Ukil came to the Prophet and then they found the climate of Medina unsuitable for them. So, they said, “O Allah’s Messenger! Provide us with some milk.” Allah’s Apostle said, “I recommend that you should join the herd of camels.” So they went and drank the urine and the milk of the camels (as a medicine) till they became healthy and fat. Then they killed the shepherd and drove away the camels, and they became unbelievers after whey were Muslims. When the Prophet was informed by a shouter for help, he sent some men in their pursuit, and before the sun rose high, they were brought, and he had their hands and feet cut off. … (Abu Qilaba, a sub-narrator said, “They committed murder and theft and fought against Allah and His Apostle, and spread evil in the land.”) (Sahih al-Bukhari volume 4, Book 52, Hadith 261)
“Eight men of the tribe of ‘Ukl came to Allah’s Messenger and swore allegiance to him on Islam, but found the climate of that land uncogenial to their health and thus they became sick, and they made complaint of that to Allah’s Messenger, and he said: Why don’t you go to (the fold) of our camels along with our shepherd, and make use of their milk… They said: Yes. They set out and drank their (camels’) milk … and regained their health. They killed the shepherd and drove away the camels. This (news) reached Allah’s Messenger and he sent them on their track and they were caught and brought to him (the Holy Prophet). He commanded about them, and (thus) their hands and feet were cut…” (Sahih Muslim Book 16, Hadith 4131)   
Some of the details in regards to this event might be hard to stomach for a modern reader, how these criminals were killed. But one has to keep in mind, the punishment meted out was exactly what they did to the victims and worse. The following historical reports give us further details surrounding this incident, which was not mentioned in the previous citations, on what these criminals did to the victims.
Kitab al-tabaqat al-Kabir – Ibn Sa’d:
“THE SARIYYAH OF KURZ IBN JABIR AL-FIHRI TOWARDS AL-URANIYINS
Then (occurred) the sariyyah of Kurz Ibn Jabir al-Fihri towards al-Uraniyun in Shawwal of the sixth year from the hijrah of the Apostle of Allah. They (narrators) said: A party of the Uraynah numbering eight came to the Apostle of Allah, and embraced Islam but the climate of al-Madinah did not suit them. Thereupon the Apostle of Allah ordered them to live with his milch-camels which used to graze at Dhu al-Jadr in the vicinity of Quba close to Ayr at a distance of six miles from al-Madinah. They remained there till they recuperated and became fat. One morning they made a raid on the milch camels and drove them away. Yasar, the mawla of the Apostle of Allah, confronted them. He fought with them. They cut his hands and feet and pricked thorns in his tongue and eyes. Consequently he died. The news of this incident reached the Apostle of Allah. He sent twenty horsemen to pursue them and appointed Kurz Ibn Jabir al-Fijri their leader. They reached there, and surrounded them. They captured them, tied them, and seating tem on their horses they brought them to al-Madinah. The Apostle of Allah was at al-Ghabah. They set out with them towards him and met him at al-Zaghabah, the place where flood water came from all directions. He gave orders and their hands and feet were amputated, their eyes extracted. They were crucified. Then the verse was revealed to the Apostle of Allah. ‘The only reward of those who make war upon Allah and his Messenger and strive after corruption in the land.’ – Al-Qur’an, 5:33 …” 
“Abd al-Malik Ibn Marwan wrote a letter to Anas Ibn Malik, was asking him about this verse (i.e., Quran 5:33). Then Anas responded with a letter to him informing him that this verse was revealed concerning those group of Uraniyyun (or Ukil) from Bajilah. Anas said: ‘They apostatized from Islam, KILLED THE SHEPHERD, herded off the camels, SPREAD TERROR ON THE HIGHWAY, AND RAPE. Anas said, ‘The Messenger of God asked Jibril [Angel Gabriel] about the ruling concerning those who brigandage. He (Gabriel) said, ‘Whosoever steals and spreads terror on the highway, cut off his hand for his thievery and his leg for spreading terror. And whosoever kills, kill him. And whosoever kills, spreads terror on the highway, and rapes, crucify him.’” 
“A group from Uraynah (or Ukil) came to the Prophet (p), so he said to the group: ‘Would that you were to go out to our camels, be with them, and drink from their milk… They did. When they became well, they WENT TO THE SHEPHERD of the Messenger of God and KILLED HIM. They returned to unbelief, and STOLE THE CAMELS of the Messenger of God, so the Messenger sent pursuants to look for them. They were brought to him. He cut of their hands, and poked out their eyes.” 
“Prophet Muhammed had a Ghulam called Yasar, he excelled in his prayers (Salah). So he (the Prophet) made him in charge over his camels. One day, a group of people from Urayanah (or Ukil), from Yemen, accepted Islam. When they came to they got ill. Soon after they were fed and their bellies fattened. THEY KILLED HIM (YASAR), AND PUT SPIKES IN HIS (YASAR’S) EYES. Then they fled from the scene and robbed the camels. So the Prophet sent after them his companions, with Kurz Ibn jabir al-Fihri as their leader. They caught them and brought them back (to Madinah). So he cut off their hands and feet and gouged their eyes out.” 
“THE EXPEDITION OF THE COMMANDER KURZ B. JABIR
The expedition took place when the milch camels of the Prophet were raided in shawwal of the year six, in Dhul-Jadr, which lies eight miles from Medina.
… A group of eight from Urayna came before the Messenger of God and converted. They deemed Medina unhealthy, and the Prophet commanded them to be moved to his milch camels that were in Dhul-Jar. The cattle of the Muslims were there in Dhul-Jadr until they became healthy and put on weight. They asked permission of the Prophet to drink the camel’s milk and urine. He permitted them, and in the morning they left with the camels. The Mawla of the Prophet overtook them, but there was a group with them that fought him. They captured him and they cut his hand and leg, and pierced his tongue and eyes with a fork until he died. Then they left with the camels.
A woman from the Banu Amr b. Awf approached on a donkey of hers until she passed Yasar under a tree. When she saw him and what to him, he was dead. She returned to her people and informed them. They set out towards Yasar until they brought him to Quba, dead. The Messenger of God sent twenty riders in the tracks of those from Urayna. He appointed Kurz b. Jabir al-Fihri over them.
They set out in search of them until they reached them at night. They spent the night in the district and rose in the morning, but did not know where to go. All of a sudden, they found themselves with a woman carrying the shoulder of a camel. They took her captive, and said, ‘What do you have with you?’ She said, ‘I passed by a people who had slaughtered a camel and they gave it to me.’ They said, ‘where are they?’ She replied, ‘They are in that wasteland of the district. When you are before them you will see their smoke.’
So they left until they came to the men from Urayna when they had finished their food. They surrounded them and asked them to surrender. All of them were captured; not a man escaped. They tied them and seated them behind them on their horses until they arrived with them in Medina. They found the Messenger of God in al-Ghaba and they set out to meet him. … I set out walking in their tracks with some youths. When the Prophet met them in al-Zaghaba where the waters meet, he commanded that their hands and legs be cut. Their eyes were scooped out and they were crucified there. … When the Prophet cut the hands of the Companions of the milch camels, and their legs, and gouged out their eyes, these verses were revealed: ‘Punishment of those who wage war against God and His Apostle and strive corruption in the land, is execution or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides… (Q. 5:33) to the end of the verse. … Ibn Bilal related to me from Ja’far b. Muhammad from his father from his grandfather, who said: ‘ The Messenger of God did not cut a tongue ever. Nor did he gouge out an eye. Indeed he did not go beyond cutting hands and feet ever. …” 
“…A band of Qays from Bajila area came to the Messenger of God, who were ill. The Messenger of God suggested to them to ‘go the camels, and drink from their milk…’ They went there, when they recovered from their illness and their bellies fattened, they went against the Messenger of God’s shepherd. They MURDERED HIM, and SHOVED SPIKES INTO HIS EYES, AND ROBBED THE CAMELS. The Messenger of God sent Jurzi Ibn jabir in their pursuit, and they were caught. They were brought to the Messenger of God, while he just came from Dhu Qarad expedition. He cut of their hands, feet and gouged their eyes out.” 
Reading these early reports, not only did these criminals rob, murder, and torture the shepherd, by shoving spikes in his eye, slicing him in pieces and poking his eyes out, they also went on to rape women and spread terror through the highway.
We have to keep in mind that the punishments was only carried out on these criminals as a result of the seriousness of what they did to innocent people. Such crimes committed even today would guarantee a criminal person(s) would be given the death penalty in a Democratic country like America, or life imprisonment without parole. As mentioned previously, the punishment meted out was in retaliation for their acts. The Prophet (p) punished them the same way they killed the shepherd. As it is explained by fourteenth century scholar Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali, in his book, Jami’ Al-Ulum Wa’L-Hikam, he states:
“… They say, ‘The Prophet only killed them and cut off their hands because they stole property, and whoever takes property and murders, then necessarily [his limbs] are cut off, he is killed and crucified. So he is killed for his murder, alternate hands and feet are cut off because he took property, and he is crucified because he committed the two criminal acts, murder and robbery together.’ This is the statement of al-Hasan and it is also one narration from Ahmad.
Their eyes were only put out because they themselves put out the eyes of the shepherds, which is what Muslim narrated in the hadith of Anas. Ibn Shihab mentioned that they murdered the shepherd and mutilated him. Ibn Sa’d mentioned that they cut off his hand and his foot, and embedded thorns in his tongue and in the eyes until he died. In this case then, the amputation [of their limbs] and the putting out of their eyes, and left thirsty were as acts of retaliation.” 
Moreover, most of the reports contents already cited are accurate on what happened to these criminals. However, there are historical sources that goes back to Prophet Muhammed’s life-time that tell us, that he did not gouge the criminals’ eyes out. Islamic scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl provides ample of these early reports in his book (footnote section), that the part about gouging eyes out (mentioned in some the above sources) did not happen:
“… According to these reports, when the incident with Urayna took place, the Prophet asked the angel Jibril about the proper course of action. Jibril then revealed the verse to the Prophet, and specified that those who steal be amputated from opposite ends, those who murder should be killed, and those who killed and rape should be crucified. The Prophet punished the offenders accordingly, and did not blind any of them.” 
As shown, making ‘mischief’ in the land, refers to robbery, murder and rape. This is how it was implemented in the life-time of Muhammed (p) and his Companions.
As we have read this verse (Quran 5:33) in its historical context, we see that the passage refers to an incident of armed robbery, rape and murder where the Prophet (p) prescribed the law of retribution. And the criminals were punished the same way they had punished the shepherd(s).  Moreover, Prophet Muhammed (p) ordered the hands and feet of the criminals be cut off, as a punishment from God, for the heinous crimes they had committed such as robbery, torture, murder, and rape.
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 Jami at-Tirmidhi: “Some people from Urainah arrived in Al-Madinah, and they were uncomfortable (and became ill from the climate). So Allah’s Messenger sent them some camels from charity. He told them: “Drink from their milk …” So they killed the camel driver that Allah’s Messenger sent, and they violently drove off the camels, and apostatized from Islam. So the Prophet came to them, he cut off their hands and feet on opposite side, and branded their eyes…” (Jami` at-Tirmidhi volume. 1, Book 1, Hadith 72)
 Sunan Ibn Majah: “Some people from (the tribe of) `Urainah came to us (to Al-Madinah) during the time of the Messenger of Allah, but they did not want to stay in Al-Madinah because the climate did not suit them. He said: “Go out to the camels which belong to us, and drink their milk…” So they did that (and recovered), then they apostatized from Islam and killed the herdsman of the Messenger of Allah and stole his camels. The Messenger of Allah sent people after them, and they were brought back. Then he cut off their hands and feet…” (Sunan Ibn Majah volume 3, Book 20, Hadith 2578)
 Sunan an-Nasa’i: “Some people from ‘Uraynah came to the Messenger of Allah [SAW], but the climate of Al-Madinah did not suit them. The Messenger of Allah [SAW] said to them: ‘Why don’t you go out to our camels and drink their milk?'” – “So they went out to the camels of the Messenger of Allah [SAW], but when they recovered they killed the herdsman of the Messenger of Allah [SAW], who was a believer, and drove off the camels of the Messenger of Allah [SAW], and left as those at war. He sent (men) after them and they were caught. Then he had their hands and feet cut off…” (Sunan an-Nasa’i volume 5, Book 37, Hadith 4035)
 Kitab al-tabaqat al-Kabir, by Ibn Sa’d, volume 2, page 114 – 115
 Tabari, jami, by Abu Jafar Muḥammad ibn Jarir al-Ṭabari (Arabic edition), volume 10, page 267, (number 11854). This quote was translated and cited in the book “Analysing Muslim Traditions Studies in Legal, Exegetical and Maghazi Hadith”, [Brill – Leiden, 2010] by Sean W. Anthony, page 443
 Ibn Hibban, volume 10, page 322 (number 4471), this report is also mentioned in Sunan an-Nasa’i volume 5, Book 37, Hadith 4035.
 Tabarani, Mujam, by Abu al-Qasim Sulaiman ibn Ahmad ibn Al-Tabarani, volume 7, page 6 (number 6223)
 The Life of Muhammad: Al-Waqidi’s Kitab al-Maghazi [Translator: Rizwi Faizer], page 569 – 570
 Al-Sira al-Nabawiyya, Ibn Hisham, volume 2, page 640
 The Compendium Of Knowledge and Wisdom (‘Jami’ Al-Ulum Wa’L-Hikam’), [Copyright 1428/2007, Turath publishing] by Ibn Rajab Ibn Hanbali, page 250 – 251
 Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law  By Khaled Abou El Fadl, page 50 – 51
 Jonathan Brown is an Associate Professor and Chair of Islamic Civilization at Georgetown University. He comments on Surrah 5:33 and states that some prominent scholars in the past questioned the reports that mention that the Prophet (p) had murderers’ feet and hands cut off:
“Ḥiraba: This crime is understood to be set out in the Quran’s condemnation of “those who make war on God and His Messenger and seek to spread harm and corruption in the land.” The Quran gives it the harshest punishment in Islam: crucifixion and/or amputating hands and feet (Quran 5:33). The vast majority of Muslim scholars have held that this verse was revealed after a group of men brutally blinded, maimed and murdered a shepherd and then stole his camels. The Prophet ordered the killers punished in exactly the same way. YET PROMINENT SCHOLARS WERE SKEPTICAL OF REPORTS THAT HE HAD ACTUALLY ORDERED THE MURDERERS’ HANDS OR FEET CUT OFF. This disagreement between the punishments ordered by the Quran and by the Prophet may have been because the Prophet’s order came before the verse was revealed, but the ambiguity is generally understood as illustrating that the ruler/state has discretion in deciding the proper punishment for ḥirāba.” (“Stoning and Hand Cutting—Understanding the Hudud and the Shariah in Islam” Last accessed 16th December 2016, online source https://www.yaqeeninstitute.org/publications/stoning-and-hand-cutting-understanding-the-hudud-and-the-shariah-in-islam/)