Why Did Caliph Umar Suspend the Theft Punishment During His Caliphate?

Answered by Shaykh Bassem Itani


How did Umar (Allah be pleased with him) suspend the punishment for theft during his caliphate when it is a prescribed punishment from Allah?


All praise is due to Allah, Lord of the worlds, and blessings and peace be upon our master Muhammad, his family, and all his companions.

Our master Umar ibn Al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, did not suspend the punishment for theft, which is one of Allah’s prescribed punishments, during his caliphate.

Suspension of the punishment means to nullify it, but he found that the conditions for theft were not met in the case of famine, so he did not implement the punishment. None of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, may Allah be pleased with them, did such a thing as nullifying any of Allah’s prescribed punishments.

Far be it from Umar ibn Al-Khattab to do so, as he is known for his historical biography of uprightness in Allah’s religion, his courage in spreading the word of Allah, his firmness in religious rulings, and his commitment to applying Shari‘a without deviation.

Some people have misunderstood this issue either due to ignorance of the principles of legislation regarding what happened during his caliphate or out of slander against this great Islamic figure to confuse people’s minds.


I will clarify for you exactly what happened in this matter, in brief, to remove ignorance and slander about it:

During the caliphate of the Commander of the Believers, Umar ibn Al-Khattab – may Allah be pleased with him – in the eighteenth year of Hijra, a severe famine struck Medina and its surrounding villages, following the return of people from Hajj.

Rain was withheld from the sky, the land became barren, livestock perished, and even wild animals sought refuge with humans. The famine lasted nine months, turning the land black, resembling ash, hence it became known as the Year of Ashes (‘Aam al-Ramada).


This was a general trial and great tribulation for Muslims, a divine tradition in this world that affects all people, both disbelievers and believers, like other natural phenomena such as eclipses, floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc. Allah (Most High) says,

“And We send not the signs except as a warning.” [Quran, 17:59]

For a believer, if Allah decrees death due to such events, it is a blessing, and they receive the reward of martyrs. If they survive, it increases their lessons, and fear, and strengthens their faith and certainty in Allah, and they continue to be steadfast until they meet their Lord.

As for the disbelievers, if they die in their disbelief due to these signs, it is a curse, and Allah will hold them accountable for their disbelief. If they survive and continue in their disbelief, they only increase in disbelief, sin, and punishment in the Hereafter. If they believe, it is better for their worldly life and the Hereafter.

Umar’s Approach

The Year of Ashes was a test of the faith and patience of the believers, from the top of the hierarchy, the Caliph, to the base of the pyramid, every individual in the society. Caliph Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, was inspired to manage this significant crisis with high responsibility. He was a role model and example for all world leaders in such a phase, with a professional and sincere administrative approach:

Umar (Allah be pleased with him) equally distributed food among the newcomers to the city, which amounted to sixty thousand, and among the tribes in their localities. He appointed leaders to circulate among them and check on their conditions.

He used to stand in prayer at night, supplicating in the last third of the night, saying, “O Allah, do not let the destruction of Muhammad’s nation be at my hand, O Allah, do not destroy us with years of famine, and lift this affliction from us.”

He sought assistance from his governors in the provinces: He sent them letters to help the people in Medina and its surroundings who were perishing. He wrote to ‘Amr ibn al-‘As in Egypt, Saad bin Abi Waqqas in Kufa, Abu Musa al-Ashari in Basra, and Muawiya bin Abi Sufyan in Sham, asking them to send food and clothing. They responded and sent aid, including flour, fat, oil, animals like camels, and more.

He urged people to engage in abundant istighfar (seeking forgiveness), repentance, supplication, and the prayer for rain. Umar (Allah be pleased with him) called upon people to seek forgiveness from their Lord, then repent to Him, and he recited the verse, “Seek your Lord’s forgiveness, (for) He is truly Most Forgiving. He will shower you with abundant rain.” [Quran, 71:10-11]

He asked them to seek His bounty and pray for merciful rain, not rain of punishment. When he intended to pray for rain and go out with the people, he wrote to his governors to go out on a specific day, to supplicate to their Lord, and to ask Him to lift this hardship from them. Umar went out on that day wearing the cloak of the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, until he reached the prayer ground. He addressed the people, supplicating fervently.

His prayer was mostly seeking forgiveness until, when he was about to leave, he raised his hands, reversed his cloak, switching the right side to the left and vice versa, then extended his hands and persisted in supplication, weeping profusely until his beard became wet. He continued like this until Allah relieved them. [‘Ali al-Tantawi and Naji al-Tantawi, Akhbar Umar wa Akhbar ‘Abdullah ibn Umar]

Wise Decision 

I have summarized for you the Year of Ashes (a year of severe famine and hardship) to give you a correct understanding of why Umar did not implement the punishment for theft during this period.

The wise decision made by Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab was not to cut off the hand of a thief during the year of famine, as he said, “No hand should be cut off for stealing a bunch of dates or during a year of famine.” [Musannaf Abd al-Razzaq]

This was because necessity permits taking from someone else’s property to the extent needed, which prevents the obligation of amputation. It is narrated that the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “No hand should be cut off in times of famine.” [Asbahaini, Tarikh Asbahan]

There is no cutting off in the year of famine due to necessity and hardship. Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, during the year of famine, merged one household with another and said, “Let not people perish on half-filled stomachs. How can we order cutting off hands in such a situation?” [Sarakhsi, al-Mabsut]. Thus, he manifested the ruling of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, which he most likely learned from him.

Even if we consider this a personal judgment of Umar, the opinion of a companion is binding according to the majority of jurists, and the companions knew of his judgment, and no opposition to it was known. This indicates that there is no dispute in this matter. It falls under the cases of necessity, derived from Allah’s saying,

“But whoever is compelled by extreme hunger—not intending to sin—then surely Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” [Quran, 5:3]

The well-known principle is that necessities permit the prohibited. Undoubtedly, the doubt of amputation in this case is strong, and legal penalties are averted by doubts. This is one of his judgments that demonstrates his genius in deriving legal rulings, may Allah be pleased with him.

[Shaykh] Bassem Itani
Checked and Approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani

Shaykh Dr. Bassem Hussayn Itani was born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1965. He earned his Ph.D. in Islamic Studies in 2005. Among his mentors were Shaykh Muhammad Taha Sukkar, Shaykh Adib al-Kallas, Shaykh Mulla Abdul ‘Alim al-Zinki, Shaykh Abdul Rahman al-Shaghouri, Shaykh Abdul Razzaq al-Halabi, Shaykh Dr. Mustafa Dib al-Bugha, Shaykh Dr. Wahba al-Zuhayli, Dr. Muhammad al-Zuhayli, and others, may Allah have mercy on them all. 

Shaykh Itani has a rich background in both academic and administrative fields. He has held significant positions in many governmental and non-governmental institutions in Lebanon and abroad. This includes his role as a member of the Academic Committee at SeekersGuidance and a senior teacher with the free online global seminary.

From 2020 to 2021, he served as the Dean of the College of Da‘wa – University for Islamic Studies (Lebanon) – Postgraduate Studies. He was the Director of Dar Iqra for Islamic Sciences from 1998 to 2018. Shaykh Itani is a well-versed teacher in several academic subjects, including Fiqh, Usul, Aqida, and Tafsir. He has supervised and examined numerous Master’s and Doctoral theses at various universities and colleges in Lebanon.

His contributions to Islamic sciences are also evident in his writings and research. His notable works include “The Relied-upon Statements of Imam Zufar in the Hanafi School,” “Collective Ijtihad: The Sublimity of Thought in the 21st Century,” and “Custom and its Impact in Islamic Jurisprudence.” Shaykh Itani has actively participated in numerous scientific conferences and seminars, both in Lebanon and internationally. He is linguistically adept, excelling in Arabic, proficient in French, and comfortably conversant in English.