Allah continues in vv. 17-18 the call to repentance he began in v. 16 by warning that he will only accept repentance from those who sinned out of ignorance, and will not look kindly upon deathbed changes of heart. Then he forbids the inheriting of women against their will (v. 19), and enjoins men not to treat them harshly in order to get them to forfeit part or all of their dowry — “unless they be guilty of flagrant lewdness.” Aisha, Muhammad’s favorite wife, recounts according to Mishkat al-Masabih that Muhammad said: “The best of you is he who is best towards his wife, and I am the best towards my wives.”
Allah then continue with these exhortations toward just treatment (vv. 20-21), telling men that if they have decided to “exchange one wife for another,” they must not take back the dowry they have given to the wife who is to be discarded. He prohibits marriage with various women who are related by blood or marriage (vv. 22-25).
Allah refers to “foster mothers,” or more literally “mothers who suckled you,” as being among those with whom marriage is forbidden (v. 23). Men and women who are not related are forbidden by Islamic law to be alone together, but a man and a woman who are forbidden to marry each other — i.e., who are related in some way — can be alone together.
Once a woman came to Muhammad and told him that her husband, Abu Hadhaifa, was angry because a freed slave of his, a young man who had reached puberty, “enters our house freely.” Muhammad told her: “Suckle him and you would become unlawful for him, and (the rankling) which Abu Hudhaifa feels in his heart will disappear.” The woman later reported that it worked: “So I suckled him, and what (was there) in the heart of Abu Hudhaifa disappeared.”
This directive gained worldwide attention a few years ago when a cleric at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the most respected authority in Sunni Islam, recommended that this could solve a problem in the workplace: a man could be alone with, and work with, a woman with whom he was not related, if the woman suckled the man and thereby became his foster mother. After the story got out and Al-Azhar was subjected to international ridicule, the lecturer who recommended this was suspended. Left unaddressed, however, was the root of his recommendation in the words of Muhammad himself.
Allah forbids Muslims to marry women who are already married, except slave girls (v. 24): according to Islamic law, once a woman is captured and enslaved, her marriage is immediately annulled (cf. ‘Umdat al-Salik o9.13). At one point, according to a hadith reported by Sahih Muslim, “the Companions of Allah’s Messenger seemed to refrain from having intercourse with captive women because of their husbands being polytheists” (3432). So the Companions “asked the Prophet about this matter, and this Ayah [verse] was revealed … Consequently, we had sexual relations with these women.”
Ibn Kathir says that this verse also prohibits temporary marriage — marriage with a predetermined expiration date, which Shi’ites believe was never prohibited. Meanwhile, men who don’t have the money to marry believing women should marry Muslim slave girls (v. 25).
The deity then turns to general moral exhortations, including a prohibition of suicide (vv. 29-30). Is suicide bombing included in this prohibition? The Muslim leaders who justify it say that it isn’t, as the object of the action is not to kill oneself, but to kill infidels, and thus is the killing and being killed that is rewarded with Paradise according to Qur’an 9:111. Allah tells Muslims to avoid the “major sins” (v. 31) What are those? Islamic cleric Hafidh Dhahabi lists 70 major sins in his Kitab ul-Kaba’ir, beginning with shirk, or associating partners with Allah (i.e., saying Jesus is God’s Son), and including black magic, adultery, desertion on the battlefield, drinking alcohol, lying, stealing, pride, misappropriating the booty, spying on others, harming Muslims and speaking ill of them, disobeying one’s husband, and making pictures. Other lists add more. Another book, Al Ashba wa al-Nadha’ir, lists offenses such as eating pork, dancing, castrating one’s slave, apostasy, playing chess, masturbation, and drug use among the major sins.
Allah then gives us the notorious woman-beating verse (v. 34). He tells men to beat their disobedient wives after first warning them and then sending them to sleep in separate beds. This is, of course, an extremely controversial verse, so it is worth noting how several translators render the key word here, وَاضْرِبُوهُنَّ, waidriboohunna.
Pickthall: “and scourge them”
Yusuf Ali: “(And last) beat them (lightly)”
Al-Hilali/Khan: “(and last) beat them (lightly, if it is useful)”
Shakir: “and beat them”
Sher Ali: “and chastise them”
Khalifa: “then you may (as a last alternative) beat them”
Arberry: “and beat them”
Rodwell: “and scourge them”
Sale: “and chastise them”
Asad: “then beat them”
Laleh Bakhtiar, in a recent translation that has received wide publicity, translates it as “go away from them.” In light of this unanimity among the translators, both Muslim and non-Muslim, this seems difficult to sustain — all of these authorities got the passage wrong until Bakhtiar? But her impulse is understandable, as many Muslims today regard this verse with acute embarrassment. Asad adduces numerous traditions in which Muhammad “forbade the beating of any woman,” concluding that wife-beating is “barely permissible, and should preferably be avoided.”
Unfortunately, however, this is not a unanimous view.
Sheikh Syed Mahmud Allusi in his commentary Ruhul Ma’ani gives four reasons that a man may beat his wife: “if she refuses to beautify herself for him,” if she refuses sex when he asks for it, if she refuses to pray or perform ritual ablutions, and “if she goes out of the house without a valid excuse.”
Also, Muhammad’s example is normative for Muslims, since he is an “excellent example of conduct” (Qur’an 33:21) — and Aisha reports that Muhammad struck her. Once he went out at night after he thought she was asleep, and she followed him surreptitiously. Muhammad saw her, and, as Aisha recounts: “He struck me on the chest which caused me pain, and then said: Did you think that Allah and His Apostle would deal unjustly with you?” (Sahih Muslim 2127)
Wife-beating exists in all cultures, but only in Islam does it enjoy divine sanction.
Amnesty International reports that “according to the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, over 90% of married women report being kicked, slapped, beaten or sexually abused when husbands were dissatisfied by their cooking or cleaning, or when the women had ‘failed’ to bear a child or had given birth to a girl instead of a boy.”
Aisha herself said it: “I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women.” (Bukhari 7.72.715)
(Revised April 2015)