Qur’an 14: Adultery, marriage & slaves

I’m a British humanist reading The Qur’an (Tarif Khalidi’s translation) and blogging about it as I go. I’m doing my best not to make assumptions, apart from assuming it was written – not necessarily in the order given – by a man (or men) in Arabia in the 7th century. I realise that some Muslims will consider the whole exercise blasphemous, and some anti-theists will say it’s not critical enough. The aim is not to be offensive, but simply to share a personal, non-scholarly, view of one of the most influential texts of our time. [More…]

Chapter 24 (“Light” – as in “God is the light of the heavens…”) starts by going back (or not depending on whether we’re talking chronological order or Qur’anic order) to the topic of adultery.

The odd thing here is that the requirement to prove adultery – four witnesses (unless the accuser is the husband, see below) – seems almost impossible to achieve, yet it’s clear that the author not only expects that there will be cases, but that there will also be false accusations. He specifies severe, merciless public punishment for both the adulteress and the adulterer: “flog each of them a hundred lashes. And let not pity for them overcome you in regard of the law of God, provided you believe in God and the Last Day. And let their punishment be witnessed by agroup of believers.”

Anyone, apart from her husband, who falsely accuses a married woman of adultery  but then fails to produce four witnesses: “flog them eighty lashes” and don’t accept their testimony in the future unless they “repent and reform their ways”. On the other hand, if the accuser is the woman’s husband and has “no witnesses but themselves, let each of them witness four times by God that he is telling the truth and the fifth time that the curse of God will fall on him if he is a liar.” But the wife doesn’t get punished if “she testifies four times by God that he is a liar, and a fifth time that God’s wrath shall fall upon her if he is telling the truth.” So it seems that, in theory, an innocent woman can safeguard herself. There is nothing to say what happens if the wife finds her husband committing adultery.

There’s more here on modesty. Both men and women must “safeguard their private parts” and women must not “expose their attractions except what is visible” and wrap “shawls around their breast lines”. They are only allowed to “reveal their attractions” only before a long list of allowable men including “slaves, or male attendants with no sexual desire”.  While women must not “stamp their feet to reveal what they hide of their ornaments”, their is no specific mention of head covering.

Women past child bearing age “who do not look forward to marriage, to them no blame attaches if they remove thier cloaks, but do not display any ornament”, though “if they behave with modesty this would be better for them.”

Then there’s a contradiction: in Chapter 4 (Women) he says that, if you can’t afford to marry “free, chaste and believing women”, then you’re allowed female slaves who are “believing maidens”, provided you get their owner’s consent. You then “render them their dowries in kindness” and treat them as legal wives. But here in “Light” he says “And let those who find not the means to marry have recourse to chastity until God enriches them with His bounty”. And he goes on to claim that “We [God] sent down revelations fully elucidated”, which, as earlier, at least calls into question the use of abrogation to address contradictions.

The men to which the Qur’an is addressed are apparently middle class enough to own slaves as they are urged to “marry the unwed among you and the virtuous among your slaves, male and female”.

Speaking of slaves, there are some benign rules here. If a slave “seeks a contract of manumission” (i.e. to be allowed to be free), then, “contract with them accordingly, if you know of any talent in them, and grant them of the wealth that God has granted you”. He doesn’t explain what the slave’s side of this contract should look like.

And there’s an injunction against sex slavery: “Do not force your female slaves into prostitution, if they desire chastity, in order to gain some advantage in this present world.” And if they are raped, then “God is All-Forgiving, Compassionate” to the women. “Compassionate”, good. “Forgiving”…?

Apart from that, there’s no guidance on treatment of slaves, or any suggestion that God considers slavery wrong.

He then makes clear that “no blame attaches to the blind, the lame, the sick” – which is good – but also not to you “if you eat in your own houses” or at varous relatives’ houses. (Presumably this related to local customs.)

Finally, a revealing – and threatening – passage:”Do not address the Messenger in your midst [i.e. the author] as you address one another…Let those who defy his orders beware lest some ordeal befall them, or else a painful torment.” You have been warned.



Author: HumanistJ

I'm a humanist - someone who thinks you can live a good life without believing in anything supernatural. I'm active in Humanism in the UK, both through Humanists UK and as chair of South West London Humanists. This blog is purely my personal view.

2 thoughts on “Qur’an 14: Adultery, marriage & slaves”

    1. Thanks. That’s how I read it too: the raped women are forgiven and regarded compassionately. I’ll amend to clarify.


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