This Medinan sura was revealed after the Muslims’ defeat of a pagan Arab tribe, the Banu al-Mustaliq. Much of it is preoccupied with one of the most notorious events in early Islamic history: the rumors that Muhammad’s favorite wife, Aisha, had committed adultery — an incident that has repercussions for Muslim women down to this day.
Allah begins by laying down general laws for adultery: adulterers are to receive a hundred lashes (v. 2); a man guilty of adultery may only marry a woman guilty of the same crime or a non-Muslim (v. 3); four witnesses are required to establish guilt, and false accusers should get eighty lashes (v. 4); husbands can establish charges of adultery against their wives if they testify four times under oath (v. 6) and invoke Allah’s curse on themselves if they’re lying (v. 7); a wife so accused can head off being punished by testifying four times that her husband is lying (v. 8) and likewise calls Allah’s curse on herself if she is lying (v. 9).
Lashes for adultery? Then why do some Islamic states sentence adulteresses to be stoned to death? Because of a hadith that says that the Qur’an originally mandated stoning for adulterers, but the passage somehow dropped out. Umar, the second successor of Muhammad as caliph, the leader of the believers, explained: “I am afraid that after a long time has passed, people may say, ‘We do not find the Verses of the Rajam (stoning to death) in the Holy Book,’ and consequently they may go astray by leaving an obligation that Allah has revealed.”
Umar didn’t want to see that happening, so he lent his own weight to the legitimacy of stoning for adultery: “Lo! I confirm that the penalty of Rajam be inflicted on him who commits illegal sexual intercourse, if he is already married and the crime is proved by witnesses or pregnancy or confession.” Umar added, “Surely Allah’s Apostle [that is, Muhammad] carried out the penalty of Rajam, and so did we after him.”
In verses 11-20 Allah furiously castigates a group that has “brought forward a lie” (v. 11) against a chaste woman, without producing four witnesses (v. 13). The deity scolds the believers as well, for crediting this obvious slander (vv. 12, 16). This is a most serious matter (v. 15), but the Qur’an doesn’t tell us what it’s all about. This hadith fills in the details. Allah had recently ordered the veiling of women (a command that is transmitted in v. 31), so Aisha, when she accompanied Muhammad to a battle, was carried in a curtained howdah on the back of a camel. The caravan stopped and Aisha got out to answer “the call of nature.” While returning she lost her necklace, and stopped to search for it. Meanwhile, her attendants, forbidden to look at her or speak to her, loaded the howdah back onto the camel without realizing that she wasn’t in it. “At that time,” Aisha explains, “I was still a young lady,” and what’s more, “women were light in weight for they did not get fat.”
And so the caravan left without her, and Muhammad’s favorite wife was stranded. Presently a Muslim warrior who was traveling behind the army came along, and was considerably started to find Aisha alone. “I veiled my face with my head cover at once,” Aisha insisted, “and by Allah, we did not speak a single word, and I did not hear him saying any word besides his Istirja” — a prayer spoken in times of distress. The warrior carried Aisha on his camel to the Muslims’ camp — and almost immediately the rumors started. Even Muhammad was affected by them. Aisha explains: “After we returned to Medina, I became ill for a month. The people were propagating the forged statements of the slanderers while I was unaware of anything of all that, but I felt that in my present ailment, I was not receiving the usual kindness from Allah’s Messenger which I used to receive when I got sick.”
Aisha was deeply distressed: “I kept on weeping that night till dawn, I could neither stop weeping nor sleep, then in the morning again, I kept on weeping.” Ali bin Abi Talib, who later became the great saint and hero of the Shi’ite Muslims, ungallantly reminds Muhammad that there are “plenty of women” available to the Prophet (Aisha never forgot or forgave this, and after Muhammad’s death, warred against Ali herself.) But Ali also advises Muhammad to ask Barira, Aisha’s slave girl, if she has seen anything, and Barira maintained that Aisha had done nothing wrong. Muhammad left the matter in Allah’s hands, telling Aisha: “I have been informed such-and-such about you; if you are innocent, then soon Allah will reveal your innocence, and if you have committed a sin, then repent to Allah and ask Him for forgiveness, for when a person confesses his sins and asks Allah for forgiveness, Allah accepts his repentance.”
Muhammad then received a revelation from Allah, as Aisha watched: “So there overtook him the same hard condition which used to overtake him (when he was Divinely Inspired) so that the drops of his sweat were running down, like pearls, though it was a (cold) winter day, and that was because of the heaviness of the Statement which was revealed to him. When that state of Allah’s Apostle was over, and he was smiling when he was relieved, the first word he said was, ‘Aisha, Allah has declared your innocence.'” Allah had revealed vv. 11-20.
Aisha, however, was still angry: “My mother said to me, ‘Get up and go to him.’ I said, ‘By Allah, I will not go to him and I will not thank anybody but Allah.’ Yet she was amazed by the revelation: “By Allah, I never thought that Allah would reveal in my favor a revelation which would be recited, for I considered myself too unimportant to be talked about by Allah in the Divine Revelation that was to be recited.”
But she was. And the false accusations against her brought about the requirement that four male Muslim witnesses must be produced in order to establish a crime of adultery or related indiscretions. Islamic law still requires the testimony of four male witnesses to establish sexual crimes (v. 13).
Consequently, it is even today virtually impossible to prove rape in lands that follow the dictates of the Sharia. Even worse, if a woman accuses a man of rape, she may end up incriminating herself. If the required male witnesses can’t be found, the victim’s charge of rape becomes an admission of adultery. That accounts for the grim fact that as many as seventy-five percent of the women in prison in Pakistan are, in fact, behind bars for the crime of being a victim of rape. When the Musharraf government instituted measures removing the crime of rape from the sphere of Islamic law and establishing that it be judged by modern canons of forensic evidence, a group of Islamic clerics were furious. They demanded that the new law be withdrawn: it would turn Pakistan into a “free-sex zone.” Clerics thundered that the new law was “against the teachings of Islam,” and had been passed only to appease the West.
(Revised June 2016)