Explaining Chapter 5 verse 33 of the Holy Quran
The verse appears to call for extreme and cruel punishment for those who wage war against God and His messenger.
The verse goes as follows, according to Yusuf Ali’s translation:
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;
This verse should however be considered in the light of other verses in the Holy Book which attribute these forms of punishments to the greatest enemy of God, namely Pharaoh. Look at the next three verses, where these cruel punishments are threatened to God’s Prophet and the believers:
7|124|”Be sure I will cut off your hands and your feet on apposite sides, and I will cause you all to die on the cross.”
20|71|(Pharaoh) said: “Believe ye in Him before I give you permission? Surely this must be your leader, who has taught you magic! be sure I will cut off your hands and feet on opposite sides, and I will have you crucified on trunks of palm-trees: so shall ye know for certain, which of us can give the more severe and the more lasting punishment”
26|49|”Said (Pharaoh): ‘Believe ye in Him before I give you permission? surely he is your leader, who has taught you sorcery! but soon shall ye know! Be sure I will cut off your hands and your feet on opposite sides, and I will cause you all to die on the cross!”
This creates a better context within which to reach a proper understanding of chapter 5 verse 33. A more correct translation would then be:
5|33|If anyone deserved being massacred, crucified, having their hands and feet cut on opposite sides, or removed from the face of the earth, then it would be those who wage war against God and His messenger, frantically spreading corruption on earth. To them would such humiliation be fit, and for them would there be a severe punishment in the hereafter.
Now let’s apply a modern day context to increase our understanding of this verse.
Israel has declared that its enemies are fair game for assassination. The US has declared that its enemies are fair game for drone strikes. Both of these countries are also known to summarily incarcerate their enemies for lengthy periods. America and Israel have furthermore been exposed for subjecting their enemies to severe humiliation and torture.
If that verse was to be applied to this modern context, and the language slightly adapted to our times, it would render a meaning such as the following:
”If anyone deserved being blown up by missiles, tortured or locked up indefinitely, it would be those who wage war against God and His messenger whilst vigorously promoting corruption and evil on earth… “
As you can see, the Quran repeats the cruelty of Pharaoh’s unjust punishment on the righteous and projects it back on the perpetrator of such cruelty.
It is useful to note that the Arabic of verse 33 is written in the passive mood. It nowhere calls for Believers to mete out such punishment, only that such punishment would have been fit for those who spread corruption and engage in aggressive war. It in fact implies that the same may happen to those who practice such cruelty, in which case they would have brought it upon themselves.