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Women in Islam

Does the Qur'an approve Concubinage?
By V.A. Mohamad Ashrof

The challenge before genuine Muslims scholar is that of a reawakening of rigorous intellectual and theological enquiry and discourse.


Like any other text, Qur’an is polysemic or open to variant readings. However, the correct approach is that the Scripture should be interpreted in such way as to be internally consistent (Qur’an 4:82), in the mode that is just (5:8, 4:135); and always in the available best manner (39:18).


No one can deny that the Qur’an espouses universal values and principles. However, these are often expressed through the context of the historical and cultural specificities of the 7th century Arabia. Muslim scholars should recognize this characteristic of the Qur’anic text. The challenge before genuine Muslims scholar is that of a reawakening of rigorous intellectual and theological enquiry and discourse. They have to extract the universal principles that are found in the time-and-space bound examples in the Divine Writ and apply them to our contemporary socio-cultural context.


In some cases radical rethinking may be required to recapture the Qur’anic spirit.


It is true that in practical terms, in today’s Muslim world, the majority of women are treated by men as second class citizens. In classical fiqh texts, gender inequality is taken for granted, a priori, as a principle. It reflects the world in which the medieval jurists lived, a world in which discrimination between genders was considered the ‘natural’ order of things. The disproportion between men’s and women’s rights in Muslim societies was - and still is - sustained largely through the rules that medieval jurists devised for regulating the formation and termination of the marriage contract. While the Qur’an is an egalitarian text, reflecting the justice of Islam, the ‘fiqh’ is a patriarchal voice, reflecting social, cultural and political expediencies.    


It is also true that the major juristic Schools of Islam have traditionally accepted the institution of slavery and concubinage. Pre-Islamic Arabia, like many other cultures at the time, practiced slavery and concubinage, and women certainly lacked inheritance rights. Islam, by directing men to care for slaves, concubines and wives, actually furthered women’s rights.


Women continue to suffer many injustices because of a misapplication and misinterpretation of Qur’anic verses based on some spurious hadith literature, wherein there seems to be a greater sanction for concubinage as sex-slavery. Since the actual Sunnah of the Prophet is the conceptual and practical interpretation of the divine message, such ahadith have to be weighed against an informed understanding of Qur’anic verses and rejected wherever they conflict with the fundamental objectives of the Qur’an.


The misconception that concubinage is permissible in Islam is due to a gross misreading of the Qur’an. It is true that concubinage was practiced in Arabia before the advent of Islam. That is why some Muslims may have practiced it before it was prohibited. The Qur’an ruled: “And marry off those among you who are single, and those who are fit among your male slaves and female slaves” (24:32). And as female slaves were also used to earn a profit for their masters through prostitution, it was prohibited thus: “And do not compel your slave girls to prostitution” (24:33). The basic principle for all Muslims was laid down thus: “And let those who cannot marry keep chaste, until Allah makes them free from want out of His grace” (24:33).


It is a fact that the Qur’an makes a distinction between free women and “those whom your right hands possess”, the latter being women taken as prisoners of war. But there could be no intimacy even with the latter without marriage as is clear from the following verse: “And whoever among you has not within his power ampleness of means to marry free believing women, he may marry from those whom your right hands possess from among your believing maidens: God knows best your faith – you are like one another. So marry them with the permission of their masters, and give them their dowries justly, they being chaste, not fornicating, nor receiving paramours” (4:25). Thus, marriage for the sake of satisfying lust only, or secret marriage, is not permissible in Islam. It requires that husband and wife should live together in a bond of wedlock.


Muhammad Asad, a noted modern commentator of the Qur’an, adopts the uncompromising position that the Qur’an never, at any point, gave Muslim men the sanction to acquire war captives as concubines. In his masterful commentary, Asad states that verse 4:3 of the Qur’an exhorts Muslim men to marry free believing women and if these not be available, then to marry those from the captives and by doing so elevate their status in Muslim society. He affirms that the command to marry both categories of women is unequivocally stated in the Qur’an as follows: “If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two or three or four: But if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them) then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess. That will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice.” (Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’an, Dar Al-Andalus: Gibraltar, 1980, p.101) To Asad, “two or three or four” is a parenthetic clause relating to both the free women mentioned in the first part of the sentence and female slaves for both these nouns are governed by the imperative verb “marry”.  Contrary to the popular view, neither the Qur’an nor the life example of the Prophet provides any sanction for sexual intercourse without marriage. In his note 58 to surah 33:50, Asad says that the only difference between a free woman and a slave is that the former must receive a dowry from her husband, no such obligation is imposed on a man who marries rightfully owned slave, “one whom his right hand possess” for in such a case, the freedom conferred upon the bride by the very act of marriage is considered to be equivalent to a dowry”. (Muhammad Asad, Ibid, Note: 58, p.648). He further states that the advice to marry captives, rather than to retain them as concubines, is reiterated in verse 4:24 of the Qur’an as stated below: “Also prohibited are women already married, except those whom your right hands posses. Thus hath God ordained (prohibition) against you. Except for these all others are lawful, provided you seek (them in marriage) with gifts from your property-desiring chastity, not lust, seeing that ye derive benefit from them, give them their dowers, (at least) as prescribed; but if after the dower is prescribed, ye mutually (vary it) there is no blame on you.” Asad asserts that the verse is meant to stress the prohibition of sexual relations with any woman other than one’s lawful life.


Our interpretation should also be more consistent with Islam’s general philosophy regarding sex outside of marriage as taboo. The notion of maintaining a harem with an unlimited number of concubines would contradict the very essence of the verses quoted above, which clearly warns Muslim men to preserve their chastity within wedlock.


(The writer is the sub-editor of ‘Al-Harmony’magazine, based in Kerala)