Sura 23 comes from the middle of Muhammad’s Meccan period, during the time of a famine in Mecca, which is referred to obliquely in vv. 75-6. Umar, the second caliph of the Muslims after Muhammad, reported: “This Surah was revealed in my presence and I myself observed the state of the Holy Prophet during its revelation. When the revelation ended, the Holy Prophet remarked, ‘On this occasion ten such verses have been sent down to me that the one who measures up to them, will most surely go to Paradise.’ Then he recited the initial verses of the surah.”
Those Paradise-enabling verses (verses 1-11) promise success to the believers (v. 1) — recalling the muezzin’s call to prayer from the minaret, which says in part: “Come to prayer, come to success.” Allah enumerates the characteristics of those who will go to Paradise: they pray humbly (v. 2) and faithfully (v. 9); they shun vain talk (v. 3); they’re charitable to the poor (v. 4); they keep their word and their covenants (v. 8); and they’re chaste (v. 5) — except with their wives and slave girls (v. 6) — a verse that the Islamic State clearly knows well.
But the Islamic State is not the only Islamic entity that sees that verse and others as allowing for the sexual enslavement of non-Muslim women. The Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains: “except from their spouses, that is, to their spouses, and what [slaves] their right hands possess, that is, concubines, for then they are not blameworthy, in having sexual intercourse with them.” The rape of captive women is also sanctioned in Islamic tradition:
Abu Sirma said to Abu Sa’id al Khadri (Allah he pleased with him): 0 Abu Sa’id, did you hear Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) mentioning al-’azl? He said: Yes, and added: We went out with Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) on the expedition to the Bi’l-Mustaliq and took captive some excellent Arab women; and we desired them, for we were suffering from the absence of our wives, (but at the same time) we also desired ransom for them. So we decided to have sexual intercourse with them but by observing ‘azl (Withdrawing the male sexual organ before emission of semen to avoid conception). But we said: We are doing an act whereas Allah’s Messenger is amongst us; why not ask him? So we asked Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him), and he said: It does not matter if you do not do it, for every soul that is to be born up to the Day of Resurrection will be born. (Sahih Muslim 3371)
It is also in Islamic law: “When a child or a woman is taken captive, they become slaves by the fact of capture, and the woman’s previous marriage is immediately annulled.” (Umdat al-Salik O9.13)
The Egyptian Sheikh Abu-Ishaq al-Huwayni declared in May 2011 that “we are in the era of jihad,” and that meant Muslims would take slaves. In a subsequent interview he elaborated:
Jihad is only between Muslims and infidels. Spoils, slaves, and prisoners are only to be taken in war between Muslims and infidels. Muslims in the past conquered, invaded, and took over countries. This is agreed to by all scholars—there is no disagreement on this from any of them, from the smallest to the largest, on the issue of taking spoils and prisoners. The prisoners and spoils are distributed among the fighters, which includes men, women, children, wealth, and so on.
When a slave market is erected, which is a market in which are sold slaves and sex-slaves, which are called in the Qur’an by the name milk al-yamin, “that which your right hands possess” [Koran 4:24]. This is a verse from the Qur’an which is still in force, and has not been abrogated. The milk al-yamin are the sex-slaves. You go to the market, look at the sex-slave, and buy her. She becomes like your wife, (but) she doesn’t need a (marriage) contract or a divorce like a free woman, nor does she need a wali. All scholars agree on this point—there is no disagreement from any of them. […] When I want a sex slave, I just go to the market and choose the woman I like and purchase her.
Around the same time, on May 25, 2011, a female Kuwaiti politician, Salwa al-Mutairi, also spoke out in favor of the Islamic practice of sexual slavery of non-Muslim women, emphasizing that the practice accorded with Islamic law and the parameters of Islamic morality.
A merchant told me that he would like to have a sex slave. He said he would not be negligent with her, and that Islam permitted this sort of thing. He was speaking the truth. I brought up [this man’s] situation to the muftis in Mecca. I told them that I had a question, since they were men who specialized in what was halal, and what was good, and who loved women. I said, “What is the law of sex slaves?”
The mufti said, “With the law of sex slaves, there must be a Muslim nation at war with a Christian nation, or a nation which is not of the religion, not of the religion of Islam. And there must be prisoners of war.”
“Is this forbidden by Islam?” I asked.
“Absolutely not. Sex slaves are not forbidden by Islam. On the contrary, sex slaves are under a different law than the free woman. The free woman must be completely covered except for her face and hands. But the sex slave can be naked from the waist up. She differs a lot from the free woman. While the free woman requires a marriage contract, the sex slave does not—she only needs to be purchased by her husband, and that’s it. Therefore the sex slave is different than the free woman.”
Iraqi Ayatollah Al-Haeri said in April 7, 2016 that a man could offer slave girls to a friend for sex.
The savage exploitation of girls and young women is, unfortunately, a cross-cultural phenomenon, but only in Islamic law does it carry divine sanction.
Yet Maududi asserts that “the fact that the people who have accepted the Message of the Holy Prophet have started acquiring such and such noble qualities of character is a practical proof of the truth of the Message.”
Allah in verses 12-22 points to various elements of the natural world as proof of his power: the creation and growth of human beings from “a product of wet earth” (vv. 12-14); and various features of the natural world: the rain, trees, cattle, etc. (vv. 17-22). According to a hadith recorded in the Mishkat al-Masabih, Muhammad offers a determinist view of why some people are good and others evil. It’s all because of the type of sand they were made from: “Allah took a handful of sand from all over the earth and mixed it with water so that it became mud. Allah then cast the mould of Sayyidina [Master] Adam from this mud. Allah then blew the soul into it. The progeny of Sayyidina Adam will therefore be like the portion of sand they were created from. Among them are reddish people, white people, black people and others between these complexions. Some of them are soft, others hard, some good, others bad (according to the type of sand).”
After that, Allah returns yet again to the stories of various prophets: Noah (vv. 23-30); an unnamed prophet in the generation after Noah (vv. 31-41); other unnamed prophets sent to other people (vv. 42-44); Moses and Aaron (vv. 45-49); and Jesus (v. 50). As we have seen elsewhere in the Qur’an, these accounts frequently recall Muhammad’s own experience with those who rejected his message. Muhammad thereby puts his opponents on notice that they are doing the same thing that the enemies of the prophets of old did, and that they will face the same divine judgment. Noah’s enemies scoff that he is just “a man like yourselves” (v. 24), and the critics of unnamed prophet say the same thing (v. 33). And of course, Muhammad is just an ordinary man (18:110). They say Noah is possessed (v. 25) — and that’s the same thing they say about Muhammad (44:14). The unbelievers deny that the dead will be raised (v. 37), just as they did to Muhammad (19:66).
Another message here is that Muhammad’s message is the same as that of the earlier prophets, and “this Brotherhood of yours is a single Brotherhood” — that is, the Brotherhood of the Prophets (v. 52).
Allah issues more warnings to the unbelievers in verses 53-90. Those who enjoy prosperity in this life (vv. 55-56) will not escape the judgment. Those who believe in “the signs of their Lord” — that is, the verses of the Qur’an (v. 58) and do not associate partners with Allah (v. 59) will be saved. Allah gives no soul a burden greater than it can bear (v. 62). The unbelievers will “groan in supplication” on the Day of Judgment (v. 64), but Allah will not help them (v. 65), because when the verses (“signs”) of the Qur’an were recited, they would turn their backs (v. 66) and scorn the Qur’an itself (v. 67). The message that has come to them from Allah is the same as the one sent to their fathers of old (v. 68). They accuse Muhammad of being possessed (v. 69), just as Noah’s enemies said of him (v. 25), but actually Muhammad has simply brought them the truth — but most of them hate the truth. Muhammad is calling them to the straight path (v. 73), which is Islam, but even if Allah removed from the unbelievers the present distress they are suffering (because of the famine in Mecca), they would not believe (vv. 75-76). The unbelievers doubt that the dead will be raised for judgment (vv. 82-83), but everything belongs to Allah and will return to him (vv. 84-89).
Allah concludes this sura with further warnings to the unbelievers (vv. 91-118). Allah has not begotten a son, and if he had, each god would have fought with the others on behalf of what he himself had created (v. 91). Ibn Kathir explains: “If it were decreed that there should be a plurality of deities, each of them would have exclusive control over whatever he had created, so there would never be any order in the universe. But what we see is that the universe is ordered and cohesive, with the upper and lower realms connected to one another in the most perfect fashion.” Interestingly enough, the idea of cooperation among the members of a group doesn’t seem to come up.
Allah tells Muhammad to seek refuge with him against the unbelievers (vv. 93-100). On Judgment Day the scoffers will have no one to help them (v. 101). Those whose good deeds outweigh their evil deeds will be saved (v. 102), but those whose evil deeds are heavier will go to hell (v. 103), where they will grin horribly after their lips are burnt off (v. 104), as the Tafsir al-Jalalayn says: “The Fire will scorch their faces, it will burn them, while they glower therein, their upper and lower lips having receded from their teeth.” Allah will then ask them “Were not My Signs [ayat, verses of the Qur’an] rehearsed to you, and ye did but treat them as falsehood?” (v. 105), and the damned will make excuses (v. 106) and plead for another chance (v. 107), which Allah will not grant (v. 108), because they used to ridicule his servants (vv. 108-109). Life is short (v. 113), and Allah will ask the unbelievers, “Did you then think that We had created you in jest, and that ye would not be brought back to Us (for account)?” (v. 115).
(Revised June 2016)