D-I-V-O-R-C-E (see suras 65 and 66)
Sura 63 excoriates the hypocrites who opposed Muhammad in Medina (vv. 1-6). According to Maududi, it came to Muhammad in response to the machinations of one of the leaders of the hypocrites, Abdullah bin Ubayy. When the Jewish Qaynuqa tribe surrendered to the Muslims, some of the Qaynuqa who had made alliances among the Muslims came forward to plead their case before Muhammad. According to Tabari, Muhammad wanted to have all the men of the tribe put to death. However, Abdullah bin Ubayy implored Muhammad: “O Muhammad, deal kindly with my clients.” Muhammad ignored him, so Abdullah repeated the request, whereupon the Prophet of Islam turned his face away from Abdullah. Abdullah bin Ubayy then impetuously caught Muhammad by the collar of his robe, whereupon, according to Ibn Ishaq, “the apostle was so angry that his face became almost black.” Muhammad said to Abdullah, “Confound you, let me go.”
But Abdullah replied, “No, by God, I will not let you go until you deal kindly with my clients. Four hundred men without mail and three hundred mailed protected me from all mine enemies; would you cut them down in one morning? By God, I am a man who fears that circumstances may change.” Muhammad then granted him his request, agreeing to spare the Qaynuqa as long as they turned over their property as booty to the Muslims and left Medina, which they did forthwith.
Still, Muhammad was unhappy with the alliance Abdullah had made with the Jewish tribe. It was at this point that he received a key revelation about the relationships that should prevail between Muslims and non-Muslims: “O ye who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians for your friends and protectors: They are but friends and protectors to each other. And he amongst you that turns to them (for friendship) is of them. Verily Allah guideth not a people unjust” (5:51). And Allah scolded in harsh terms those who, like Abdullah bin Ubayy, feared a loss of business prospects because of the misfortune of the Qaynuqa (5:52). In sura 63, Allah criticizes them for discouraging people to contribute money to the cause of Islam (vv. 7, 9-10).
The Meccan sura 64 repeats oft-repeated themes: Allah has dominion over all things (v. 1); he knows the secrets of every person’s heart (vv. 2, 4); those who reject Allah’s messengers will suffer a terrible punishment (vv. 5-6); they doubt that they will be raised from the grave and judged (v. 7), but they will, and the righteous will enter Paradise (v. 9) while the damned will go to hell (v. 10). No calamity befalls anyone unless it is Allah’s will (v. 11), so obey Allah and Muhammad, but Muhammad is not responsible for those who reject his message (v. 12). The warning that one’s enemies may be his own wives and children (v. 14) arose from an incident recounted by Ibn Abbas: “There were men who embraced Islam in Makkah and wanted to migrate to Allah’s Messenger. However, their wives and children refused to allow them. Later when they joined Allah’s Messenger, they found that those who were with him (the Companions) have gained knowledge in the religion, so they were about to punish their wives and children” – whereupon Allah counseled them to forgive them (v. 14 also).
The sura ends with another appeal to give money for the cause of Islam (vv. 16-17).
The Medinan sura 65 lays down rules for divorce. If a man wishes to divorce his wife, he has to wait through two menstrual periods to make sure she isn’t pregnant first (v. 1) – or three months for those who are post-menopausal (v. 4). The talk about taking them back (v. 2) refers to the fact that in Islamic law a man can take his wife after divorcing her twice, but after the third divorce he cannot take her back so easily. Muhammad directed that in such a case, the divorced woman would have to consummate a marriage with another man and be divorced by him – only then could she return to her first husband if he wished her to do so:
The wife of Rifa'a Al-Qurazi came to the Prophet and said, “I was Rifa‘a’s wife, but he divorced me and it was a final irrevocable divorce. Then I married AbdurRahman bin Az-Zubair but he is impotent.” The Prophet asked her, “Do you want to remarry Rifa‘a? You cannot unless you had a complete sexual relation with your present husband.”
Ibn Abbas once asked Umar, the renowned Companion of Muhammad and his second successor as leader of the Muslim community, about the beginning of the Medinan sura 66: “O Chief of the believers! Who were the two ladies from among the wives of the Prophet to whom Allah said: ‘If you two return in repentance (66.4)’?”
Umar replied, “I am astonished at your question, O Ibn Abbas. They were Aisha and Hafsa.” According to Umar, Hafsa, one of Muhammad’s wives, had been angering Muhammad by talking back to him. So when Umar learned that Muhammad had divorced all his wives, he was not surprised; in fact he was jubilant and exclaimed: “Hafsa is a ruined loser! I expected that would happen some day.”
Umar then went to Muhammad, who initially declines to receive him and then relents. “I greeted him and while still standing, I said: ‘Have you divorced your wives?’ He raised his eyes to me and replied in the negative.” Umar explained to Abdullah that “the Prophet did not go to his wives because of the secret which Hafsa had disclosed to Aisha, and he said that he would not go to his wives for one month as he was angry with them when Allah admonished him (for his oath that he would not approach Maria). When twenty-nine days had passed, the Prophet went to Aisha first of all.”
The background of this is that Hafsa had caught Muhammad in bed with his concubine, Maria the Copt, on the day he was supposed to spend with Hafsa. Muhammad promised to stay away from Mary and asked Hafsa to keep the matter a secret, but Hafsa told Aisha. Then Allah stepped in with the revelation of the threat of divorce that we now find in vv. 1-6, freeing Muhammad from his oath to stay away from Mary.
Another tradition explains the same verses as concerning only his wives’ jealousy (or perhaps Muhammad’s bad breath) and his oath to stop drinking honey. In this case what the Prophet has held forbidden that Allah has made lawful for him would be honey. That is, Muhammad tried to please his consorts by promising to give up honey, and Allah is allowing him to break this oath and threatening the errant wives with divorce.
Then vv. 7-12 conclude sura 66 with more warnings of hell for the unbelievers. Allah tells Muhammad to “strive hard” (jahidi, جاهد) against the unbelievers and hypocrites. Ibn Kathir explains: “Allah the Exalted orders His Messenger to perform Jihad against the disbelievers and hypocrites, the former with weapons and armaments and the later by establishing Allah's legislated penal code.”
(Here you can find links to all the earlier “Blogging the Qur’an” segments. Here is a good Arabic Qur’an, with English translations available; here are two popular Muslim translations, those of Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, along with a third by M. H. Shakir. Here is another popular translation, that of Muhammad Asad. And here is an omnibus of ten Qur’an translations.)