’Working corruption on the earth’

Surah 5 (Al-Ma’idah/The Table Spread): 32-33

32. On account of (Cain’s deed), We decreed to the Children of Israel that if anyone kills a person – unless in retribution for murder or spreading corruption in the land – it is as if he kills all mankind, while if any saves a life it is as if he saves the lives of all mankind.

Our messengers came to them with clear signs, but many of them continued to commit excesses in the land.

33. Those who wage war against God and His Messenger and strive to spread corruption in the land should be punished by death, crucifixion, the amputation of an alternate hand and foot, or banishment from the land:

a disgrace for them in this world, and then a terrible punishment in the Hereafter.



{5.32} is amongst the most quoted – and misquoted – verses of the Qur’an, often given without the following verse that completes its meaning. In {5.32} the Quranic author, speaking as in God’s voice, purports to recall instructions that He had given previously to the Israelites. In fact, however, the phrase that follows- ‘if anyone kills a person, unless in retribution for murder or spreading corruption in the land, it is as if he kills all mankind, while if any saves a life it is as if he saves the lives of all mankind’ – come not from God’s words in the Torah at all, but from a second or third century Talmudic commentary upon the Torah, the Mishna Sanhedrin   . This text reflects upon Cain’s murder of Abel 〈16.〉 and reasons that killing a person who is still capable of begetting children, has the effect of depriving of life, not just the immediate victim, but also the infinite number of potential descendants whose existence he might otherwise have brought about. Such an act, the scholar mused, must one day affect the whole of humanity, an early articulation of what today might be called ‘the butterfly effect’:

For so we have found concerning Cain that he slew his brother, for it is written: ‘The bloods of your brother cry’. It says not ‘the blood of your brother’ but ‘the bloods of your brother’; his blood and the blood of his posterity…

Therefore man was created as a single being in the world in order to teach that anyone who causes a single life to perish is considered to have caused an entire world to perish and anyone who preserves a single life is considered to have preserved an entire world.

If this sophisticated meaning was known to the Qur’an’s author, this is not conveyed by {5.32} which reads merely as a grandiloquently expressed condemnation of killing.



The fact that {5.32} is presented in historical, and possibly context specific, terms – ‘We decreed for the children of Israel …’ – contrasts with {5.33} which gives a new instruction on violence for the Qur’an’s audience to follow. In this verse, two offences are specified, that may be translated as ‘waging war against God and His Messenger’ and ‘endeavouring to work corruption upon the earth’. Faced with either of these sins, a judge is authorised to choose from four prescribed punishments:

      • death,
      • crucifixion,
      • the amputation of an alternate hand and foot, and
      • banishment from the land.


The word that is commonly translated as ‘they are to be crucified‘, yuallabū’, derives from the root ṣ-l-b which can carry a more general  meaning of hardness (with a particular usage in respect of  bones and the process of extracting of bone marrow).  Consequently, it is possible that it originally carried a more general sense of torture than the precise mode of execution used against Jesus. Nevertheless, it is significant that the word is the same used in relation to the apparent putting to death of Jesus 26., and the distinctive (if on a strict view incompatible) combination of alb and opposite-side amputation that Joseph (son of Jacob) had predicted would be meted out by one pharaoh to his baker in{12.41},  {12.41}, and that a later pharaoh  threatened against his magicians, should they fail to prevail against Moses 〈22.〉 


This shared taste in the methods of inflicting violence between God, Pharaoh and the would-be executioners of Jesus sits oddly with the Qur’an’s depiction of the latter two as having been defiant to His will. However, along with the jihad verses 95., it underscores the Qur’an author’s comfort with the use of torture in the cause of ensuring obedience and acts as a powerful symbolic rejection of the Christian doctrine of self-sacrifice over retaliation.


The sanctions in {5.33} are prescribed for two categories of miscreant:

muḥāribūn’ (literally ‘those who wage war’, from the root ḥ-r-b meaning ‘war’) against God and His Messenger 〈86.〉, and

ifsād’, interpreted as ‘workers of corruption’ (per Arberry and Pickthall), alternatively rendered as those ‘making mischief’ (Yusuf Ali).


The two types of misconduct might reasonable be read together as either opposing the Quran-believing community through violent opposition or undermining it through decadent behaviour. Several hadith record the circumstances in which two verses were announced as relating to some Bedouins who had killed a Muslim camel herder and stolen his livestock. The culprits were captured and brought before Muhammad, who announced the revelation of {5.32-33}, before he then exceeded even these severe measures, as on his instructions, his men ‘cut off their hands and feet and gouged their eyes‘ and ‘they were left in this state in Medina until they died.’


Based upon the divine authority that these verses gave caliphs to torture and kill their opponents, Sharia jurists of all schools subsequently sought to limit their scope by interpreting the sanctions as applicable only against offences involving violence and sin, coming to define ‘ḥāribah‘ as though it was a specific offence, amounting to armed banditry. However, the terms ‘wage war against God and his Messenger’ and ‘spreading corruption in the land’ were, it is suggested, undoubtedly worded by the announcer of the Qur’an, to give himself the widest possible discretion in imposing draconian punishments for opponents of his regime or those whose behaviour was decadent. The latter of the two phrases, in particular, is used in several other verses of the Qur’an as a generic term for the human propensity to wickedness contrasted with virtue, including in {2.27 & 230} and {13.25}; in {2.30}, when the angels predict that it will be the inevitable consequence of the creation of man; in the call to righteousness in the preaching of Shwayb, {7.85} and {11.85}, and of Saleh, {26.152}; and in the general phrase ‘Behold how the workers of corruption fared in the end!’ used in relation to the people of Pharaoh, {7.103}, and of Midian, {11.86}. See also {17.4}. In two instances, it appears to be used to encompass merely the holding of erroneous views:


{2.11} And when it is said unto them: ‘Do not work corruption upon the earth,’ they say ‘We are only working righteousness’.

{2.12} Nay it is they who are the workers of corruption though they know not.



{3.62} This (a summary of Jesus’s prophethood) is indeed the true account: there is no god, but God, And truly God is the Mighty, the Wise.

{3.63} And if they turn away, then God knows well the workers of corruption.