Tafsir Zone - Surah 4: an-Nisa' (Women )

Tafsir Zone

Surah an-Nisa' 4:24

Overview (Verse 24)

The Crime of Advocating Free Sex
And (forbidden to you are) all married women, other than those whom your right hands possess. This is God’s ordinance, binding upon you. Lawful to you are all women other than these, provided that, offering them of your own possessions, you seek to take them in wedlock not in fornication. (Verse 24)

The first sentence in this verse makes it clear that married women are, as a result of their marriage, not lawful for other women to marry. This means that polyandry is forbidden in Islam. This is in line with the basic rule in Islamic society that makes the family its constituent unit. It must be protected against any confusion in relationships that may result from “sexual communism” or promiscuity.
The family, which comes into existence through a marriage made in public to unite one woman with one man in order to ensure the preservation of chastity, is the perfect system which fits in with human nature and meets the real needs of man. It is a system that serves the objectives of human life, which transcend man’s sexual needs, and helps achieve the goals of human society. It also ensures peace of mind for the individual, the family and the community.
Everyone knows that the human child needs a much longer period of upbringing than the progeny of any animal. Moreover, the education a child needs in order to comprehend the requirements of civilised human life takes a similarly long period.
In animals, the sexual desire has no further objectives than intercourse and procreation. In man, however, it has a much finer objective which establishes a permanent link between the male and the female in order to provide an environment suitable for bringing up children who are able to protect themselves and satisfy their needs. It also serves the more important purpose of educating the child and helping him to gain experience and acquire a good standard of knowledge. Thus, the child will be able to contribute to the life of his community and discharge his responsibility in advancing human civilisation.
Sexual desire, then, is not the paramount element in the life of the two human sexes. It is a means implanted in their nature so that their companionship lasts well beyond their sexual contact. It is not their inclination to each other that determines how long they remain together. It is their sense of duty towards their helpless offspring and towards their human society. It is society that assigns to parents the responsibility of taking good care of their offspring until such children are able to play their own part in the achievement of the goals of human existence.
All these considerations make the family the only proper platform for companionship between the two sexes. It also makes the system which assigns one woman to one man the only proper system which ensures the continuity of this companionship. Duty becomes the paramount consideration in the establishment and continuation of the family as well as in solving any problem it may encounter and, in extreme cases, at the time of its dissolution. Any attempt to devalue family ties or weaken the family’s foundation on duty or to substitute it for temporary passion and burning desire is wicked and criminal, not only because it helps spread promiscuity in human society but also because it destroys human society and pulls down its foundations.
When we remember this, we can appreciate the magnitude of the crime perpetrated by writers and the media who make it their task to weaken family ties and devalue marriage. They depict the same in a very bad light so as to glorify those built on burning, carnal desires and temporary passions. What a bad service they perform when they speak highly of these relationships while at the same time they ridicule marriage.
We can also appreciate the great wisdom of `Umar ibn al-Khaţţāb when he said to a man who came to him expressing his desire to divorce his wife on the grounds that he no longer loved her: “Think properly, man! Are families built only on love? What room is then left for loyalty and mutual care?” `Umar based his argument on the Qur’ānic directive to God’s best servants: “Consort with them in a goodly manner. Even if you are averse to them, it may well be that you are averse to something in which God has placed much good.” (Verse 19) This directive helps a Muslim to place duty before personal desire. He, therefore, tries hard to solve his problems with his wife amicably. He does not sever the family relationship unless all attempts to achieve proper reconciliation have failed. This attitude gives priority to the care that needs to be taken of the young who should be spared the shocks of changing passions.
Compared with this noble view of marriage, the arguments of those who glorify all relationships except the one which gives priority to duty and which takes care of the primary task of bringing up future generations appear decidedly absurd. Yet we find immoral writers and wicked media encouraging every wife who experiences some coolness towards her husband to rush for a boyfriend. They describe her relationship with that boyfriend as “sacred”, whilst at the same time describing her relationship with her husband as one whereby she is “selling her body”.

Organised efforts are being made in order to establish social values and standards and to create foundations for human relationships that are at variance with those established by God. They seek to determine a line for people and for human life altogether different from that determined by God. Those who are behind such efforts imagine that what they will ultimately achieve is the destruction of the foundations of Islamic society in Muslim countries. They believe that when the ideology and moral standards of these societies are destroyed, there will no longer be any barriers to prevent them from achieving their old ambitions in these countries. The catastrophe which they are perpetrating goes far beyond this. Their efforts will lead to the destruction of the foundation of all human societies in their endeavour to ruin the basis of human nature. They remove the very elements that enable man to discharge his task of building a civilised existence worthy of him. They deprive him of raising well-balanced and properly equipped children in a happy family atmosphere, who will take over the task of serving the interests of mankind. These considerations are totally different from the sort of sex and procreation practised by animals.
The curse of self-destruction will affect all mankind, as the present generation undermines the prospects of future generations through indulgence in carnal desires. God’s judgement will come to pass against those who rebel against His decrees and directives and the nature He has given to man. All mankind will suffer as a result, unless they are rescued by a community of believers that establishes God’s system on earth and shows it clearly to others so that they too may adopt it. This is the only way to rescue them from the calamity that they themselves perpetrate while imagining that they are simply destroying Muslim societies. It is painful to see that these evil designs are also served by writers and the media in Muslim countries.
Legitimate Relationships
“[Forbidden to you are] all married women, other than those whom your right hands possess.” This exception is made in the case of women who fell captive to Muslims in their jihād campaigns. These might, prior to their captivity, have had husbands in their countries which remained at war with the Muslim society. Thus, the physical distance separating them severed their relationships with their unbelieving husbands. As they had no husbands in the land of Islam, they were in the same position as unmarried women. It was sufficient to ascertain that they were not pregnant by observing a waiting period consisting of one menstruation cycle. Thereafter, it was legitimate for them to marry, if they became Muslims. Alternatively, it was legitimate for a person to whom such a captive woman belonged to have sex with her as “one whom his right hand possessed”. This applied whether the woman became a Muslim or not.
We have already explained in detail the attitude of Islam towards slavery (Volume I, pp. 262-4). Further explanation will be given in the commentary on Sūrah 47, entitled Muĥammad. It is sufficient for our purpose here to explain that in the matter of imposing slavery on war captives, Islam adopted the rule of equal treatment with its enemies. Islam has always been superior to its enemies in its kind treatment of slaves as human beings. This was inevitable because the enslavement of war captives was an international institution that could not be unilaterally abolished by Islam. Otherwise, Muslim captives would have been enslaved while unbelievers who fell captive to Muslims would remain free. This would have tilted the balance in favour of un-Islamic societies. They would no longer have had an incentive to attack the Muslim state, knowing that their captives would never be enslaved.
Therefore, it was inevitable that there would be unbelieving women falling captive to the Muslim society. But what to do with them? Their natural needs would not be totally satisfied with food and drink. There was another aspect which needed satisfying, and had this not been facilitated, promiscuity would have endangered the whole society. Muslims could not marry them as long as they remained unbelievers. There was only one way out. That was to make an unbelieving captive woman lawful for her master only after making sure that she was not pregnant and after her relationship with her former unbelieving husband was totally and physically severed.
The verse goes on to explain which women are lawful to marry. Before it does so, however, it identifies the source of this legislation, namely God. Only God has the authority to forbid something and legitimise another and to issue legislation in all matters whatsoever: “This is God’s ordinance, binding upon you.” (Verse 24) It is, then, a directive from God, not a question of desire, tradition, or local institutions. People must observe what He legislates for them and abide by it. In turn, they are accountable for its implementation.
We have already pointed out that most of the women whom we are forbidden to marry according to the Qur’ān were also forbidden in the Arabian society in pre- Islamic days. The only ones that were not so forbidden were former wives of parents and marriage to two or more sisters at the same time. The Qur’ān does not simply endorse a practice followed in pre-Islamic days. Rather, we are told that this prohibition is a binding ordinance issued by God. This is a point which merits careful consideration as it relates to the essence of Islamic faith. Moreover, its effects are highly important to us in our practical lives.
Islam considers God’s commandment and permission as the only basis for legislation. The authority to legislate belongs to Him in the final resort. Whatever is not based on this principle is essentially invalid and cannot subsequently be legitimised. Hence, whatever prevails in ignorant society, which includes every human situation not based on the only true principle that acknowledges the authority to legislate solely to God, is invalid. This applies to concepts, values, standards, traditions, rules, regulations and laws. When Islam rules, it deals with life as a whole. It begins by abrogating all values, traditions and laws of ignorance in order to establish its own system. If, in the process, it approves a tradition that had prevailed in former, ignorant days, it does not accept it with its original foundation. It establishes it anew and gives it its own authority with God’s permission. Thus, the practice of pre-Islamic days no longer exists, while a new practice is established in its stead under God’s authority.
Similarly, when Islamic jurisprudence refers to “tradition” in certain matters, it imparts to tradition a new authority based on God’s permission. Hence, tradition acquires in these particular questions the validity of Islamic law. It is no longer a case of society giving a tradition its authority. That authority is now imparted by God, the only Legislator who has approved of it as a source of judgement in certain cases.
This is a basic principle to which reference is made by the Qur’ānic statement: “This is God’s ordinance, binding upon you.” It is further endorsed by other Qur’ānic statements. Every time an aspect of legislation is mentioned in the Qur’ān, reference is made to the source that gives it its essential validity. When the Qur’ān refers to the laws, traditions and concepts of non-Islamic societies, it very frequently follows that reference with a clear statement that these “have not been given any authority by God.” It thus emphasises their invalidity.
This principle is different from the other basic Islamic principle which states that all things and matters are initially permissible, unless they are made unlawful by a clear statement. The initial permissibility is granted by God. It enjoys God’s authority. What we are speaking about here concerns that which ignorant societies legislate for themselves. All of which is initially and essentially invalid. It only becomes valid when God’s law endorses any part of it, granting it proper legitimacy.
Dowry as a Condition of Marriage
Now that the sūrah has defined the women with whom a Muslim may not be married, linking such prohibition of marriages to God’s decrees and ordinances, it goes on to define the area within which people may satisfy their natural desire through marriage. It sets out the way God approves of for the companionship between the two sexes, which leads to the establishment of families. In this way, the meeting between the two sexes provides enjoyment with purity. “Lawful to you are all women other than these, provided that, offering them of your own possessions, you seek to take them in wedlock not in fornication. To those with whom you seek to enjoy marriage, you shall give the dowers due to them; but you will incur no sin if you agree among yourselves on any voluntary arrangement even after what has been stipulated by way of duty. God is indeed All-Knowing, Wise.” (Verse 24)
This Qur’ānic verse states that marriage with any woman other than those listed as forbidden is legitimate. Anyone who wishes to have such a marriage may spend of his money, by way of dowry, not to buy enjoyment outside the marriage bond. Hence, the verse states: “Provided that, offering them of your own possessions, you seek to take them in wedlock not in fornication.” This condition is stated perfectly clearly even before the sentence is finished. Moreover, the condition is stated first in a positive form, “you seek to take them in wedlock,” which is immediately followed by the negative form, “not in fornication.” Thus no ambiguity whatsoever overshadows this legislation. It describes without any equivocation the nature of the type of relationship Islam approves of, namely marriage, and the nature of the relationship it outlaws, that being promiscuity in any form. Promiscuous relationships, whether as fornication or prostitution, were practised and approved of in pre-Islamic Arabian society. This is clear in the following report given by `Ā’ishah, the Prophet’s wife:
There were four types of man-woman relationship in ignorant days. The first is the same as marriage today: A man makes his proposal to another man to marry a girl in his charge or his daughter, pays her dower and gets married to her.
The second type is that in which a man says to his wife after she has finished her menstruation period: “Contact this person [he names a certain man] and get pregnant by him.” Her husband then keeps away from her and does not sleep with her until her pregnancy by the other man becomes manifest. When it is clear that she is pregnant, her husband may take her to bed if he wants. The reason behind this is that the husband wants to have a child of better blood. This relationship is known as having a child through another man.
A third form of relationship was that a number of men, less than 10, may share one woman, with each of them having intercourse with her. If she became pregnant, then a few nights after she gives birth, she calls them all for a meeting. None of them can absent himself. When they meet, she says to them: “You know what has passed between me and you. I have given birth to a child. I want you to know that it is the child of ...” She names any one of them and he becomes the father of the child. He cannot decline to acknowledge his parenthood.
The fourth form was that of many men frequenting the lodging of a certain woman who does not refuse anyone. These were prostitutes and they used to put a flag on their doors. Anyone who wanted them was welcome. When any such prostitute was pregnant, they collected money for her after she gave birth and called in an expert in physiognomy to trace resemblance of features and so determine the parenthood of that child. He would claim it without objection, and the child would be called after him. (Related by al-Bukhārī.)
The third and fourth types come under the umbrella of fornication, which is forbidden, whether in a private relationship or in a case of prostitution. The first type is that of honest wedlock which is encouraged. The second is something that we find ourselves at a loss in trying to furnish it with an appropriate name.
The Qur’ān describes the nature of the type of relationship God approves of: it is one of honesty, chastity and mutual care. It is wedlock, for both man and woman, which protects their chastity in a clean and straightforward manner. It is also a protection of the home, the family and of children. It provides the strong foundation for the healthy institution we call the family.
Any other form is rejected. It is worth noting that the Arabic term the Qur’ān uses to describe such a relationship is derived from a root which denotes pouring water over low ground. Therefore, it connotes the wasting by both man and woman of the fluid which brings life and which God has created in order to preserve our species and bring about progress through the participation of both man and woman in the upbringing and protection of children. It is wasted over a momentary pleasure. In other words, it is poured over low ground. It does not protect them against impurity, nor does it protect their children against waste.
In two short phrases, the Qur’ān delineates two images of two types of life. Furthermore, it achieves its purpose of promoting the acceptable and of degrading the unacceptable, while stating at the same time the true nature of each type. In this and other features of word economy, the Qur’ānic style is unique.
Having stated the condition that money should be spent for marriage, an explanation of how this is to be conducted follows: “To those with whom you seek to enjoy marriage, you shall give the dowers due to them.” (Verse 24) The dowry, then, is something a woman may claim by right for what she gives her husband. A man who wants to fulfil his desire with a woman whom he can wed must seek her through marriage for the purpose of preserving his own and her own chastity. He must also pay her dowry as a stipulated duty. It is not something he gives her by way of charity. Nor can he inherit her without having to pay her dowry, as used to happen in ignorant, pre-Islamic days. Nor is it possible for him to enter into a trade-in relationship like that which once happened and still happens in ignorant societies. That is, an exchange deal between two men, whereby each gave the other a woman in his charge to be his wife. Thus, the two girls or women were traded like animals or inanimate objects.
Having established this right of dowry, which is owed to the woman, the possibility is left open for the married couple to agree between them any arrangement which is suitable to their circumstances, according to their own wishes and feelings towards each other: “But you will incur no sin if you agree among yourselves on any voluntary arrangement even after what has been stipulated by way of duty. God is indeed All-Knowing, Wise.” (Verse 24) This means that the wife can forgo part or all of her dowry after it has been clearly stipulated. Her dowry belongs to her by right and she is free to do with it what she likes, without interference from anyone. Hence, it is permissible for her to forgo any part of it. Equally, it is permissible for her husband to give her more than her stipulated dowry. Such an increase is his own prerogative. To make any such arrangement is open to them without restriction.
The concluding comment in this verse relates these legal provisions to their source, who has true knowledge and perfect wisdom: “God is indeed All-Knowing, Wise.” It is on the basis of His knowledge and wisdom that He has decreed these legal provisions. When a Muslim realises from what source he has received laws which affect every aspect of his life, especially his private relationship with his wife, he is reassured that such laws can only be the right ones, since they derive from God’s wisdom and knowledge.