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 23:75-6. 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 you would not be brought back to Us (for account)?” (v. 115).
The Medinan sura 24 was revealed, according to Islamic tradition, 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 (24:2); a man guilty of adultery may only marry a woman guilty of the same crime or a non-Muslim (24:3); four witnesses are required to establish guilt, and false accusers should get eighty lashes (24:4); husbands can establish charges of adultery against their wives if they testify four times under oath (24:6) and invoke Allah’s curse on themselves if they’re lying (24:7); a wife so accused can head off being punished by testifying four times that her husband is lying (24:8) and likewise calls Allah’s curse on herself if she is lying (24:9).
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.
Allah warns the believers not to imitate Satan (24:21) by committing sins — such as the sin of not aiding those who have left their homes “in Allah’s cause” (24:22). This refers to the early Muslims who left Mecca and settled in Medina with Muhammad — it is a call to the new Muslims of Medina to ease their transition. Another sin to avoid is that around which this entire sura revolves: the sin of accusing chaste women of adultery, which will get the false accuser Allah’s curse in both this world and the next (v. 23). Allah will pay them back on the Day of Judgment (v. 25).
All this refers, of course, to the accusation of adultery made against Muhammad’s wife Aisha — as does the phrase “Evil women are for evil men and evil men are for evil women, and good women are for good men and good men are for good women” from v. 26, which Abdur-Rahman bin Zayd bin Aslam explains thusly: “Allah would not have made Aishah the wife of His Messenger unless she had been good, because he is the best of the best of mankind. If she had been evil, she would not have been a suitable partner either according to His Laws or His decree.”
Allah then lays down rules for the etiquette of visiting someone else’s house: don’t just barge in (vv. 27-29). This leads in verses 30-31 to rules for modesty. Men should “lower their gaze” (v. 30): says Ibn Kathir, “They should look only at what is permissible for them to look at, and lower their gaze from forbidden things. If it so happens that a person’s gaze unintentionally falls upon something forbidden, he should quickly look away.”
Women, meanwhile, should cover their “adornment” (v. 31). Contrary to what some Islamic apologists in the West claim today, this is not a matter of choice, but a divine commandment. Ibn Kathir explains: “This is a command from Allah to the believing women, and jealousy on His part over the wives of His believing servants. It is also to distinguish the believing women from the women of the Jahiliyyah [the society of unbelievers] and the deeds of the pagan women.”
What should they cover? In a hadith, Aisha recounts that Muhammad said that “when a woman reaches the age of menstruation, it does not suit her that she displays her parts of body except this and this, and he pointed to her face and hands.” Even today some Muslims use this hadith to justify mandating the hijab, or headscarf, for women. In another hadith, a woman with a veil over her face came to see Muhammad; she was looking for her son, who had been killed in battle. Muhammad asked her: “You have come here asking for your son while veiling your face?” She responded: “If I am afflicted with the loss of my son, I shall not suffer the loss of my modesty.” Pleased, Muhammad told her: “You will get the reward of two martyrs for your son,” because “the people of the Book have killed him.” The Tafsir al-Jalalayn agrees that v. 31 means that when in public women should cover “all that is other than the face and the hands.”
Allah also says in v. 31: “And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment.” Ibn Kathir continues: “During Jahiliyyah, when women walked in the street wearing anklets and no one could hear them, they would stamp their feet so that men could hear their anklets ringing. Allah forbade the believing women to do this.” And: “women are also prohibited from wearing scent and perfume when they are going outside the home, lest men should smell their perfume.”
Allah then gives laws for marriage and direct Muslims to free their slaves upon their request (v. 33), “provided,” says Ibn Kathir, “that the servant has some skill and means of earning so that he can pay his master the money that is stipulated in the contract.” Muslims should not force their slave girls to become prostitutes and live off the profits, if the slave girls want to remain chaste (v. 33).
Then in verses 35-45, Allah celebrates Allah. He is the light of the heavens and the earth (v. 35, the verse that gives this sura its name), and of the homes of the believers who pray and gives alms (vv. 36-37) — while the unbelievers live in darkness (vv. 39-40). All beings praise him in their own way (v. 41); he rules the natural world (vv. 43-44); he created every animal from water (v. 45).
But still there are those who don’t believe or only pretend to believe, and these are excoriated again, while the believers are praised, in verse 46-57. Allah has sent down signs (ayat, revelations or verses of the Qur’an, v. 46), but some only pretend to believe in Allah and Muhammad: they are not really believers (v. 47). Some of them don’t even come when Muhammad summons them (v. 48); if they were right, they would have come to him obediently (v. 49). They are wrongdoers (v. 50), while the believers, when Muhammad summons them, answer “We hear and obey” (v. 51). Those who obey Allah and Muhammad will be victorious in the end (v. 52) — a conviction that sustains many a jihadist today through setbacks and defeats.
The Hypocrites swear they’ll leave their homes if Muhammad commanded it, but rather than swearing mighty oaths, they should just obey (v. 53). Ibn Kathir explains: “Allah says about the hypocrites who had promised the Messenger and sworn that if he were to command them to go out for battle, they would go.” However, of the Hypocrites “it is known that your obedience is merely verbal and is not accompanied by action. Every time you swear an oath you lie.” If they turn away from Muhammad’s message, they will bear the responsibility; he has done his duty by calling them to Islam (v. 54).
Then comes a momentous promise: Allah will establish the believers as rulers of the earth (v. 55). “This is a promise,” says Ibn Kathir, “from Allah to His Messenger that He would cause his Ummah [community] to become successors on earth, i.e., they would become the leaders and rulers of mankind, through whom He would reform the world and to whom people would submit, so that they would have in exchange a safe security after their fear.” Ibn Kathir then says “this is what Allah did indeed do,” and recounts some of the early Islamic conquests.
Allah in verses 58-64 lays down instructions for when the believers’ slaves and children must ask permission before coming in Muhammad’s presence (vv. 58-59); allow elderly women to go uncovered in public (although modesty is better) (v. 60); and greetings and eating together (v. 61), as well as direct the believers to ask permission before leaving Muhammad’s presence (v. 62), for Muhammad’s summons is not like that of an ordinary man (v. 63).
The name of the late Meccan sura 25 is Al-Furqan (الفرقان), which is variously translated as the criterion, the canon, the standard. The word appears in 25:1, where it is identified as the Qur’an. The Tafsir al-Jalalayn says that the Qur’an is “called thus [al-furqan] because it has discriminated (faraqa) between truth and falsehood.”
Allah sent it to Muhammad, the Tafsir al-Jalalayn continues, “that he may be to all the worlds, [to] mankind and the jinn, but not the angels, a warner, a threatening of God’s chastisement.” Why not to the angels? Perhaps because the angels “don’t resist Allah in that which He commands them” (66:6), and thus have no need of Muhammad’s warning. But he has been sent to everyone on earth, as he himself explains in a hadith: “Every Prophet used to be sent to his nation only but I have been sent to all mankind.”
The opening verse of this sura is also one of the apparent (and unacknowledged by Islamic commentators) exceptions to the rule that Allah is the lone speaker in the Qur’an — unless he is blessing himself for delivering the Qur’an to Muhammad. Following this, Allah returns in verses 2-10 to yet another chastisement of the unbelievers for rejecting Muhammad’s message. Allah has dominion over all things and has no son (v. 2), yet the unbelievers have taken along with him other gods that can create nothing and do not have his power over life and death (v. 3). From this it would appear that the unbelievers don’t reject Allah — they just worship other gods with him. This could be a reference to the Christian Trinity or to the pagan Arabs who worshipped Allah along with many other gods, or both.
The unbelievers charge Muhammad with lying (v. 4) and say that in his Qur’an he is merely repeating “tales of the ancients, which he has caused to be written: and they are dictated before him morning and evening” (v. 5). These charges stung Muhammad, as they’re often rebutted in the Qur’an. In another place we learn that the man who was allegedly dictating to Muhammad was a foreigner: “We know indeed that they say, ‘It is a man that teaches him.’ The tongue of him they wickedly point to is notably foreign, while this is Arabic, pure and clear” (16:103). Then there is an unnamed figure who, according to a hadith, “was a Christian who embraced Islam and read Surat-al-Baqara [sura 2] and Al-Imran [sura 3], and he used to write (the revelations) for the Prophet.” That is, he used to transcribe Muhammad’s Qur’anic recitations. Evidently this experience disabused him of the notion that they were divinely inspired, for “later on he returned to Christianity again and he used to say: ‘Muhammad knows nothing but what I have written for him.'”
Allah reacted with fury to one person who made these charges: the deity pointed out that the man was illegitimate (“base-born”) and promised to brand him on the nose (68:10-16). He also calls down divine woe upon “those who write the Book with their own hands, and then say: ‘This is from Allah,’ to traffic with it for miserable price!” (2:79). And when speaking of the People of the Book, Allah tells Muhammad: “There is among them a section who distort the Book with their tongues: (as they read) you would think it is a part of the Book, but it is no part of the Book; and they say, ‘That is from Allah,’ but it is not from Allah!” (3:78). These and other passages suggest that some people around Muhammad mocked his prophetic pretensions by representing their own writings, or folkloric or apocryphal material, as divine revelation, and selling them to him.
The unbelievers also complain that Muhammad is an ordinary man, and ask why an angel wasn’t sent down instead (v. 7). Muhammad, they scoff, doesn’t even have a garden (v. 8), although Allah tells him he could give him the Gardens of Paradise (v. 10).