Amputation case paints Islam in bad light, but Jews can relate

Amputation case paints Islam in bad light, but Jews can relate

Lee Chottiner
Lee Chottiner

The Amnesty International report jumped out at me:

“The Yemeni authorities must immediately commute a sentence of amputation imposed on a man convicted of theft and assault, said Amnesty International.

“The defendant received the ‘cross-amputation’ sentence at Sana’a’s Specialized Criminal Court on Sunday 15 September. The sentence, which he can appeal, requires his right hand and left foot to be amputated.”

Amputation is one type of corporal punishment proscribed in Islamic law.

As a Jew, and as a humanitarian, the barbarity of the sentence struck me on a visceral level. After all, it’s not the first recent case of cross-amputation being used as a criminal punishment.

In February, Human Rights Watch, citing “credible” sources, reported government doctors in Sudan amputated a man’s right hand and left foot by court order in the capital city of Khartoum.

Cross-amputation is one of several appalling punishments that still make the news from far-flung parts of the world, including caning, flogging and, for capital crimes, beheading.

What a world.

For the record, cross-amputation does run counter to international law. The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights both prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, including the use of corporal punishment. Yemen is a party to both treaties.

It’s easy, when hearing about such things, to dismiss the countries where they happen, and the faith their people profess, as backward.

But that would be a mistake, according to Haider Hamoudi.

Hamoudi, an associate professor of law and the associate dean of research and faculty development at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, said most legal systems in the Middle East and North Africa, including Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco and Algeria, don’t even have Islamic law as part of their criminal code or, if they do, employ it minimally.

That said, Hamoudi, who teaches Islamic law and has done significant scholarly writing on the subject, said there is a set of criminal punishments set forth in foundational Islamic texts; in other words, penalties that are divinely proscribed.

Cross-amputation is one of them, but it is not a penalty that should be handed down lightly. And in this case, the professor said, it shouldn’t have been meted out at all.

According to Hamoudi, cross-amputation, which is proscribed in cases of violent theft (highway robbery, piracy, etc.), was the kind of crime the Yemeni man was accused of committing. However, the crime must occur within “open areas,” places not under any kind of legal authority — a place that’s lawless, a place that has no formal law, like the high seas.

That’s not the case in Yemen, a sovereign state whose central government has authority over its territory.

“In this case, the Yemeni government has jurisdiction over its territory, so there’s no open territory,” Hamoudi said.

Further, he noted, the Koran allows for other sentences in violent cases such as banishment. No one need be subjected to mutilation.

Even in Yemen’s case, the sentence is the first of its kind to be reported there in more than 10 years, according to Amnesty International.

So why did the judge impose it? Hamoudi suggested grandstanding as the reason, chalking it up to a judge who wants to show how tough he is on crime — something we’ve seen in the United States, the only Western democracy that still has the death penalty.  

“My conclusion, when I see [cases] like this is it’s really less about Islamic doctrine and more about creating a spectacle … showing you’re tough on crime. There’s no religious order that you have to cross-amputate the limbs of this guy; it’s just not true.”

Nevertheless, when punishments like this are ordered, it contributes to a tragic misunderstanding of one of the world’s three great monotheistic religions.

“I definitely think that the public develops a faulty understanding of Islam from cases like these,” Hamoudi said. “Certainly, part of the problem lies in the nature of the media — neither the punishment of cross-amputation nor the crime of banditry as understood in Islamic law even exists in the laws of most Middle Eastern jurisdictions, from Egypt to Jordan to Morocco.  Yet, of course, this fact is not ‘news’ and few Americans know it.

“As a result,” he continued, “isolated and decontextualized stories like this are the ones that appear rather than the vast majority of crimes prosecuted in Middle Eastern jurisdictions, which result in jail time, not cross-amputation.”

Why should Jews relate to this? The same thing has happened to us.

In our own history, Judaism has been branded as an inflexible, legalistic religion lacking in compassion. Our accusers have pointed to a multitude of offenses for which one could face the death penalty. (The “eye-for-an-eye” argument is made even today.)

We know those accusations are groundless, the product of ignorance of Jewish philosophy and halachah, and just blind hatred. Yet many Jews still paid the price for them. The same may be true for the children of Ishmael.

Here’s something else Jews and Muslims have in common — besides a common ancestor.

(Lee Chottiner, executive editor of the Chronicle, can be reached at

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