بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ
In Ayat 5:38 Al-Kitab uses the word فَاقْطَعُوا (with root ق ط ع ) meaning ‘cut’ for both hands of a male or female thief. It is usually assumed that cut means severance of hands as the punishment of theft. However, lets examine another instance of mention of cutting of hands in Al-Kitab which we find in Ayat 12:31. This Ayat mentions an incident when a group of ladies with knives in their hands , cut their hands when Prophet Yusuf passed in front of them, in awe of his exemplary personality. The same root word قَطَّعْ ‘Qata’ is used in this Ayat which was used in Ayat 5:38 for theft punishment. No one has any doubt about it that these women actually did not sever their hands. Everybody knows that these ladies suffered a small cut in their hands.
So, we can conclude that cutting of hands in Ayat 5:38 means make a cut (for marking) in both hands of the persons who have committed theft. This mark serve as criminal record. In modern world criminal records are kept for persons involved in criminal activities. This marking which Al-Kitab mentions is serving the same purpose.
5:38 وَالسَّارِقُ وَالسَّارِقَةُ فَاقْطَعُوا أَيْدِيَهُمَا جَزَاءً بِمَا كَسَبَا نَكَالًا مِّنَ اللَّهِ ۗ وَاللَّهُ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ
As to the thief, male or female, cut his or her hands. A punishment for what they earned and exemplary punishment from Allah , and Allah is Exalted in power.
12:31 فَلَمَّا سَمِعَتْ بِمَكْرِهِنَّ أَرْسَلَتْ إِلَيْهِنَّ وَأَعْتَدَتْ لَهُنَّ مُتَّكَأً وَآتَتْ كُلَّ وَاحِدَةٍ مِّنْهُنَّ سِكِّينًا وَقَالَتِ اخْرُجْ عَلَيْهِنَّ ۖ فَلَمَّا رَأَيْنَهُ أَكْبَرْنَهُ وَقَطَّعْنَ أَيْدِيَهُنَّ وَقُلْنَ حَاشَ لِلَّهِ مَا هَٰذَا بَشَرًا إِنْ هَٰذَا إِلَّا مَلَكٌ كَرِيمٌ
When she (Wife of Aziz of Egypt) heard of their (ladies) malicious talk, she sent for them and prepared a sitting for them. She gave each of them a knife and she said (to Joseph), “Come out before them”. When they saw him, they did extol him, and (in their amazement) cut their hands. they said, “Allah preserve us! This is no mortal! this is none other than a noble angel!”
Note: Even those ultra conservative and orthodox Islamic societies who may still be practicing severing of hands as punishment of theft, they don’t sever both hands, while the Ayat 5:38. mentions both hands. The reason is because, the Spirit of Words of Allah, which Allah has breathed into Adam (38:72) and thus into mankind, enables mankind to recognize that severing of hands is not a rightful punishment for the crime of theft.
Another incidence mentioned in Al-Kitab Ayat 12:70-79, suggests the punishment for this crime as per law of the land can be administered.