Beating your wife? Fine. Saying Jesus was crucified? Not so good.
Welcome to Sura 4, “Women,” another important Medinan sura containing laws for the conduct of women and Islamic family life, and a great deal more.
Allah starts by saying that he created men and women from a “single soul” (v. 1). Many Muslims in the West have pointed to this verse as evidence that Islam recognizes the full human dignity of women. Ayatollah Murtada Mutahhari says that “other religions also have referred to this question, but it is the Qur’an alone which in a number of verses expressly says that woman has been created of the species of man, and both man and woman have the same innate character.”
He then quotes 4:1. The “single soul” from which mankind was created was Adam’s, and while the Biblical story of Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib is not repeated here, Muhammad refers to it in a hadith that suggests that while men and women may have the same “innate character,” that doesn’t mean they are equal in dignity, for women are crooked.
The prophet of Islam is depicted as saying:
Woman has been created from a rib and will in no way be straightened for you; so if you wish to benefit by her, benefit by her while crookedness remains in her. And if you attempt to straighten her, you will break her, and breaking her is divorcing her. (Bukhari 8.3467)
Pictured: Woman who has not read Sura 4.
Then comes the basis for Islamic polygamy (v. 3), allowing a man to take as many as four wives, as long as he believes he is able to “deal justly” with all of them.
According to the Mishkat Al-Masabih, Muhammad said:
The person who has two wives, but is not just between them, shall appear on the Day of Judgment in such a condition that one half of his body will be collapsing.
But of course, justice in these circumstances is in the eye of the beholder. Ibn Kathir says this the requirement to deal justly with one’s wives is no big deal, since treating them justly isn’t the same as treating them equally:
It is not obligatory to treat them equally, rather it is recommended. So if one does so, that is good, and if not, there is no harm on him.
And as for polygamy, why don’t women get to have four husbands? Muhammad Asad notes:
One might ask why the same latitude has not been given to women as well; but the answer is simple. Notwithstanding the spiritual factor of love which influences the relations between man and woman, the determinant biological reason for the sexual urge is, in both sexes, procreation: and whereas a woman can, at one time, conceive a child from one man only and has to carry it for nine months before she can conceive another, a man can beget a child every time he cohabits with a woman. Thus, while nature would have been merely wasteful if it had produced a polygamous instinct in woman, man’s polygamous inclination is biologically justified.
Allah goes on to say in v. 3 that if a man cannot deal justly with multiple wives, then he should marry only one, or resort to “the captives that your right hands possess” — that is, slave girls.
Slave girls, just like in the Islamic State, which everyone from John Kerry to Joe Biden to David Cameron — learned imams all — denounces today as “un-Islamic.”
Bulandshahri explains the wisdom of this practice, and longs for the good old days:
During Jihad (religion war), many men and women become war captives. The Amirul Mu”minin [leader of the believers, or caliph — an office now vacant] has the choice of distributing them amongst the Mujahidin [warriors of jihad], in which event they will become the property of these Mujahidin. This enslavement is the penalty for disbelief (kufr).
He goes on to explain that this is not ancient history:
None of the injunctions pertaining to slavery have been abrogated in the Shari”ah. The reason that the Muslims of today do not have slaves is because they do not engage in Jihad (religion war). Their wars are fought by the instruction of the disbelievers (kuffar) and are halted by the same felons. The Muslim [sic] have been shackled by such treaties of the disbelievers (kuffar) whereby they cannot enslave anyone in the event of a war. Muslims have been denied a great boon whereby every home could have had a slave. May Allah grant the Muslims the ability to escape the tentacles of the enemy, remain steadfast upon the Din (religion) and engage in Jihad (religion war) according to the injunctions of Shari”ah. Amen!
Allah also directs Muslims to “marry women who seem good to you.” Ibn Majah records a tradition in which Muhammad details the qualities of a good wife, including that “she obeys when instructed” and “the husband is pleased to look at her.”
Pictured: Feminists protesting against Sura 4. Or something.
In the following verse, Allah requires a husband to give his wife a dowry. Ibn Kathir explains that “no person after the Prophet is allowed to marry a woman except with the required dowry.” However, the wife may choose to free the husband from this obligation: “If the wife gives him part or all of that dowry with a good heart, her husband is allowed to take it.”
Allah then gives rules for inheritance and related matters (vv. 5-14). He directs that when an estate is being parceled out, daughters are to receive half the share that sons receive (v. 11). Why not? They’re “crooked,” after all.
Following that, he lays down penalties for sexual immorality. He prescribes home imprisonment until death (unless “Allah ordain for them some (other) way”) for women found guilty of “lewdness” on the testimony of four witnesses (v. 15). According to Islamic law, these four witnesses must be male Muslims; women’s testimony is inadmissible in cases of a sexual nature, even in rape cases in which she is the victim.
If a woman is found guilty of adultery, she is to be stoned to death; if she is found guilty of fornication, she gets 100 lashes (cf. Qur’an 24:2).
The penalty of stoning does not appear in the Qur’an, but Umar, one of Muhammad’s early companions and the second caliph, or successor of Muhammad as leader of the Muslims, said that it was nevertheless the will of Allah.
“I am afraid,” he said, “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 affirmed: “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.” And he added that Muhammad “carried out the penalty of Rajam, and so did we after him.”
Then Allah gives instructions for how to punish men who commit adultery or homosexual acts (v. 16).
Pictured: Guys who might not have spent so much at Kinko’s had they read Sura 4.
The Tafsir Al-Jalalayn says that this verse refers to men who commit “a lewd act, adultery or homosexual intercourse.” They are to be punished “with insults and beatings with sandals; but if they repent, of this [lewd act], and make amends, through [good] action, then leave them be, and do not harm them.” However, it adds that this verse “is abrogated by the prescribed punishment if adultery is meant [by the lewd act],” that is, stoning. The Islamic jurist al-Shafi’i, it goes on, requires stoning of homosexuals also, but “according to him, the person who is the object of the [penetrative] act is not stoned, even if he be married; rather, he is flogged and banished.”
After that come various regulations for marriage and the treatment of women. Allah continues in vv. 17-18 the call to repentance he began in v. 16 by warning that he will only accept repentance from those who sinned out of ignorance, and will not look kindly upon deathbed changes of heart. Then he forbids the inheriting of women against their will (v. 19), and enjoins men not to treat them harshly in order to get them to forfeit part or all of their dowry — “unless they be guilty of flagrant lewdness.” Aisha, Muhammad’s favorite wife, recounts according to Mishkat al-Masabih that Muhammad said: “The best of you is he who is best towards his wife, and I am the best towards my wives.”
Allah then continue with these exhortations toward just treatment (vv. 20-21), telling men that if they have decided to “exchange one wife for another,” they must not take back the dowry they have given to the wife who is to be discarded. He prohibits marriage with various women who are related by blood or marriage (vv. 22-25).
Allah refers to “foster mothers,” or more literally “mothers who suckled you,” as being among those with whom marriage is forbidden (v. 23). Men and women who are not related are forbidden by Islamic law to be alone together, but a man and a woman who are forbidden to marry each other — i.e., who are related in some way — can be alone together.
Once a woman came to Muhammad and told him that her husband, Abu Hadhaifa, was angry because a freed slave of his, a young man who had reached puberty, “enters our house freely.” Muhammad told her: “Suckle him and you would become unlawful for him, and (the rankling) which Abu Hudhaifa feels in his heart will disappear.” The woman later reported that it worked: “So I suckled him, and what (was there) in the heart of Abu Hudhaifa disappeared.”
This directive gained worldwide attention a few years ago when a cleric at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the most respected authority in Sunni Islam, recommended that this could solve a problem in the workplace: a man could be alone with, and work with, a woman with whom he was not related, if the woman suckled the man and thereby became his foster mother. After the story got out and Al-Azhar was subjected to international ridicule, the lecturer who recommended this was suspended. Left unaddressed, however, was the root of his recommendation in the words of Muhammad himself.
Allah forbids Muslims to marry women who are already married, except slave girls (v. 24): according to Islamic law, once a woman is captured and enslaved, her marriage is immediately annulled (cf. ‘Umdat al-Salik o9.13). At one point, according to a hadith reported by Sahih Muslim, “the Companions of Allah’s Messenger seemed to refrain from having intercourse with captive women because of their husbands being polytheists” (3432). So the Companions “asked the Prophet about this matter, and this Ayah [verse] was revealed … Consequently, we had sexual relations with these women.”
Ibn Kathir says that this verse also prohibits temporary marriage — marriage with a predetermined expiration date, which Shi’ites believe was never prohibited. Meanwhile, men who don’t have the money to marry believing women should marry Muslim slave girls (v. 25).
The deity then turns to general moral exhortations, including a prohibition of suicide (vv. 29-30). Is suicide bombing included in this prohibition? The Muslim leaders who justify it say that it isn’t, as the object of the action is not to kill oneself, but to kill infidels, and thus is the killing and being killed that is rewarded with Paradise according to Qur’an 9:111. Allah tells Muslims to avoid the “major sins” (v. 31) What are those? Islamic cleric Hafidh Dhahabi lists 70 major sins in his Kitab ul-Kaba’ir, beginning with shirk, or associating partners with Allah (i.e., saying Jesus is God’s Son), and including black magic, adultery, desertion on the battlefield, drinking alcohol, lying, stealing, pride, misappropriating the booty, spying on others, harming Muslims and speaking ill of them, disobeying one’s husband, and making pictures. Other lists add more. Another book, Al Ashba wa al-Nadha’ir, lists offenses such as eating pork, dancing, castrating one’s slave, apostasy, playing chess, masturbation, and drug use among the major sins.
Allah then gives us the notorious woman-beating verse (v. 34). He tells men to beat their disobedient wives after first warning them and then sending them to sleep in separate beds. This is, of course, an extremely controversial verse, so it is worth noting how several translators render the key word here, وَاضْرِبُوهُنَّ, waidriboohunna.
Pickthall: “and scourge them”
Yusuf Ali: “(And last) beat them (lightly)”
Al-Hilali/Khan: “(and last) beat them (lightly, if it is useful)”
Shakir: “and beat them”
Sher Ali: “and chastise them”
Khalifa: “then you may (as a last alternative) beat them”
Arberry: “and beat them”
Rodwell: “and scourge them”
Sale: “and chastise them”
Asad: “then beat them”
Laleh Bakhtiar, in a recent translation that has received wide publicity, translates it as “go away from them.” In light of this unanimity among the translators, both Muslim and non-Muslim, this seems difficult to sustain — all of these authorities got the passage wrong until Bakhtiar? But her impulse is understandable, as many Muslims today regard this verse with acute embarrassment. Asad adduces numerous traditions in which Muhammad “forbade the beating of any woman,” concluding that wife-beating is “barely permissible, and should preferably be avoided.”
Unfortunately, however, this is not a unanimous view.
Sheikh Syed Mahmud Allusi in his commentary Ruhul Ma’ani gives four reasons that a man may beat his wife: “if she refuses to beautify herself for him,” if she refuses sex when he asks for it, if she refuses to pray or perform ritual ablutions, and “if she goes out of the house without a valid excuse.”
Also, Muhammad’s example is normative for Muslims, since he is an “excellent example of conduct” (Qur’an 33:21) — and Aisha reports that Muhammad struck her. Once he went out at night after he thought she was asleep, and she followed him surreptitiously. Muhammad saw her, and, as Aisha recounts: “He struck me on the chest which caused me pain, and then said: Did you think that Allah and His Apostle would deal unjustly with you?” (Sahih Muslim 2127)
Wife-beating exists in all cultures, but only in Islam does it enjoy divine sanction.
Amnesty International reports that “according to the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, over 90% of married women report being kicked, slapped, beaten or sexually abused when husbands were dissatisfied by their cooking or cleaning, or when the women had ‘failed’ to bear a child or had given birth to a girl instead of a boy.”
Aisha herself said it: “I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women.” (Bukhari 7.72.715)
After Allah recommends arbitration for a quarreling couple (v. 35), he enjoins kindness toward relatives, friends, neighbors, and slaves (“what your right hands possess,” v. 36), and denounces pride and miserliness (vv. 36-42).
Then he tells believers not to come to prayers while drunk (v. 43). Ibn Abi Hatim says this was revealed because one of the Muslims began to recite sura 109:1-3: “Say: O disbelievers! I do not worship that which you worship; nor do you worship that which I worship.” But the leader of prayer was drunk, and so he said: “Say, O disbelievers! I do not worship that which you worship, but we worship that which you worship.” This verse of sura 4 was revealed shortly thereafter.
It was the first stage of the three-stage Qur’anic prohibition of alcohol.
First Allah commanded the Muslims not to pray while drunk in this passage; then he told them that alcohol was a “great sin, and some profit, for men” (2:219); and finally there came the revelation that alcohol was “Satan’s handiwork” (5:90), and thus to be shunned altogether. The last of these verses is considered to have abrogated the other two.
Muhammad himself became quite stern about drunkenness, saying that drunks should be given three chances and then executed: “If he is intoxicated, flog him; again if he is intoxicated, flog him; again if he is intoxicated, flog him; if he does it again a fourth time, kill him.”
Then Allah returns to one of his favorite themes, excoriating the People of the Book in general and the Jews in particular.
The Jews “traffic in error” and wish that the Muslims would “lose the right path” (v. 44). They “they believe in sorcery and evil, and say to the unbelievers that they are better guided in the (right) way than the believers!” (v. 51). They twist Allah’s words, and Allah has “cursed them for their unbelief” كُفْرِهِمْ, kufrihim, (vv. 46; see also 52).
Says Ibn Kathir: “Allah states that the Jews, may Allah’s continued curse fall on them until the Day of Resurrection, have purchased the wrong path instead of guidance, and ignored what Allah sent down to His Messenger Muhammad. They also ignored the knowledge that they inherited from previous Prophets, about the description of Muhammad, so that they may have a small amount of the delights of this life.” They are called to accept Islam or face terrible punishment, including being cursed “as We cursed the Sabbath-breakers” (v. 47) — that is, being transformed into apes and pigs (2:63-65). Allah will forgive anything except shirk, the associating of partners with him (v. 48). Because the People of the Book are accursed, they shall soon be “cast into the Fire: as often as their skins are roasted through, We shall change them for fresh skins, that they may taste the penalty” (v. 56).
According to Maududi, in saying that “Allah doth command you to render back your trusts to those to whom they are due” (v. 58), Allah is warning the Muslims not to make the same mistake the Jews made: “One of the fundamental mistakes committed by the Israelites was that in the time of their degeneration they had handed over positions of trust (i.e. religious and political leadership) to incompetent, mean, immoral, corrupt and dishonest people.”
Maududi, a foremost exponent of political Islam who was writing in the mid-20th century, is implying that Muslims have gone astray by putting up with authoritarian regimes that do not govern according to Islamic law, rather than implementing full Sharia government. Another 20th century theorist, Sayyid Qutb, writing in a similar vein about the same verse, adds that jihad is “a fulfillment of a specific trust.” A third, Maulana Bulandshahri, explains that contemporary governments in Muslim states have betrayed their trust by allowing their “legislative assemblies to make laws” instead of “following the guidelines of the Qur’an and Ahadith.”
The believers, meanwhile, are exhorted to “obey Allah, and obey the Messenger, and those charged with authority among you” (v. 59). To obey Muhammad today is, many Islamic authorities say, to obey his dictates in the Hadith, which some contemporary Muslims wish to disregard and say that only the Qur’an has authority. And Muhammad himself is quite clear about the necessity to obey earthly rulers: “You should listen to and obey your ruler even if he was an Ethiopian (black) slave whose head looks like a raisin.” Verses 60-70 continue the theme of obeying Muhammad, chastising the hypocrites who pretend to believe in Muhammad and Islam but refuse to come to him to judge their disputes. Allah tells Muhammad: “by the Lord, they can have no (real) Faith, until they make thee judge in all disputes between them” (v. 65).
Immediately after this, Allah exhorts the believers to go forth courageously to jihad warfare (vv. 71-104). Ibn Kathir explains v. 71 in this way: “Allah commands His faithful servants to take precautions against their enemies, by being prepared with the necessary weapons and supplies, and increasing the number of troops fighting in His cause.” A warrior should fight fearlessly, for “whether he is slain or gets victory” he will be rewarded (v. 74) — here again is the promise that has made Muslims fight with such tenacity throughout history. For the contrast is stark: the believers fight against oppression (v. 75) and for Allah, while the unbelievers fight for Satan (v. 76). One will not escape death by declining to fight, for “all things are from Allah” (v. 78). And in any case, Allah will “restrain the fury of the unbelievers” (v. 84).
Those who join the Muslims and then turn away should be hunted down and killed — a foundation for Islam’s death penalty for apostasy (v. 89).
V. 90 is sometimes adduced as proof that Muslims have no open-ended mandate to fight unbelievers, but the Tafsir al-Jalalayn makes clear that this refers only to unbelievers who submit to Islamic rule: “And so if they stay away from you and do not fight you, and offer you peace, reconciliation, that is, [if] they submit, then God does not allow you any way against them, [He does not allow you] a means to take them captive or to slay them.”
Allah forbid Muslims to kill fellow believers intentionally; if one kills a Muslim accidentally, he should free a Muslim slave (vv. 92-93). How is it, then, that Muslims can kill each other with such apparent impunity in Iraq and elsewhere?
They pronounce takfir on one another — declare the opposing group to be unbelievers — despite the gentle discouraging of this practice in v. 94. Allah says that those believers who stay home and risk no injury are not equal to those who wage jihad (v. 95).
Passages such as this, which are often overlooked in discussions of the Qur’anic view of jihad, demonstrate definitively that what the Qur’an means by jihad is not an interior spiritual struggle, but warfare.
Why should anyone fear death or the fury of the unbelievers, or shorten his prayers in view of an impending attack by the unbelievers (v. 101), in a spiritual struggle? How can one kill a fellow Muslim by accident in a spiritual struggle?
Allah then continues the martial theme of the previous section (v. 104), telling Muslims not to weaken in pursuit of the enemy. Bulandshahri explains: “While the disbelievers (kuffar) will be subjected to the unending torment and distress in the abysses of Hell, the Muslims shall be rejoicing in the bliss and comforts of Heaven (Jannah), without the slightest worries and concerns. The disbelievers (kuffar) cannot aspire for these stages as these are promised exclusively to the Muslims. For this reason the Muslims have a much stronger incentive to fight and should do so with greater zest and zeal.”
He then direct Muslims to judge by the Qur’an (v. 105); excoriate hypocrites and warn against sin (vv. 107-112); and remind Muhammad of Allah’s protection, telling Muslims to obey him (vv. 113-116). In warning Muslims not to follow any path “other than the believer’s way,” Allah in v. 115 gives a principal foundation for the Islamic legal concept of ijma, consensus. This is the idea that once the Islamic community has agreed on a matter, it can be sure that Allah has guided it to the truth. Ibn Kathir explains: “the Ummah [community] of Muhammad is immune from error when they all agree on something, a miracle that serves to increase their honor, due to the greatness of their Prophet.” Unfortunately, this idea can impede Islamic reform: when the community reaches consensus on an issue, the understanding of it becomes generally fixed. This is true, although few Islamic spokesmen in the U.S. will admit it, of the ideology of Islamic supremacism that mandates warfare against and the subjugation of unbelievers: because this is something that all the schools of Islamic jurisprudence agree on, it will be very hard to dislodge.
Allah assails polytheists who “call but upon female deities” and Satan instead of Allah (v. 117). In another affirmation of Allah’s absolute control over everything, v. 119 has him leading astray these unbelievers: “I will mislead them, and I will create in them false desires; I will order them to slit the ears of cattle, and to deface the (fair) nature created by Allah.” The last clause, according to Al-Hasan bin Abi Al-Hasan Al-Basri, refers to tattooing. Said Muhammad, “Allah has cursed the lady who practices tattooing and that who gets it done for herself, and also the lady who lengthens hair artificially and that who gets her hair lengthened artificially.”
But then Allah promises Paradise to the true believers, both male and female (v. 124). (Paradise, filled with the virginal houris for men — cf. 44:54, etc. — is not described for women.) The statement “Not your desires, nor those of the People of the Book (can prevail)” was revealed, says the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, “when the Muslims and the People of the Scripture began to pride themselves [upon God’s promise].” Allah, of course, says Ibn Kathir, “then supported the argument of the Muslims against their opponents of the other religions.”
After that, Allah returns to women. He speaks of agreements between a husband and a wife (v. 128). Ibn Abbas recounted that one of Muhammad’s wives, Sawdah, “feared that the Messenger of Allah might divorce her.” So she said: “O Messenger of Allah! Do not divorce me; give my day to Aisha” — that is, take the night you are scheduled to spend in my bed and spend it instead with one of your other wives. Allah says (v. 129) that Muslims will not be able to treat all their wives equally, but Aisha asserts that Muhammad was an exception; he “used to treat his wives equally.”
Allah’s next theme is…Allah. He emphasizes his sovereignty, enjoins justice, and criticizes the unbelievers (who should not be taken as friends, say verses 139 and 144), and hypocrites, and warns that Allah will not forgive those who leave Islam twice (v. 137). Muhammad’s own statement is sharper: “If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him.” Then Allah criticizes the hypocrites for ridiculing Islam (v. 140) and pretending to support the Muslims while actually opposing them (v. 141). Believers are not to befriend unbelievers (v. 144).
And then once again Allah returns to the enormities of the Jews and the Christians. Those who make no distinction between the prophets of Allah will be rewarded (v. 152). Says Ibn Kathir: “Allah threatens those who disbelieve in Him and in His Messengers, such as the Jews and Christians, who differentiate between Allah and His Messengers regarding faith…The Jews, may Allah curse them, believe in the Prophets, except Isa [Jesus] and Muhammad, peace be upon them. The Christians believe in the Prophets but reject their Final and Seal, and the most honored among the prophets, Muhammad, peace be upon him…Therefore, whoever rejects only one of Allah’s Prophets, he will have disbelieved in all of them, because it is required from mankind to believe in every prophet whom Allah sent to the people of the earth.” After the Jews disobeyed Allah repeatedly, Allah “set the seal on their hearts for their blasphemy” (v. 155). The Jews who are “well-grounded in knowledge” believe in Muhammad and Islam (v. 162).
The assertion that “there is none of the People of the Book but must believe in him before his death” has been taken to mean that Jesus will return to earth — and when he does, according to Muhammad, he will “break the Cross and kill the pig and abolish the Jizya (a tax taken from the non-Muslims, who are in the protection, of the Muslim government).” That is, he will abolish the subservient dhimmi status of the non-Muslims, and Islamize the world: “During his time, Allah will destroy all religions except Islam and Allah will destroy Al-Masih Ad-Dajjal (the False Messiah).”
Allah warns Christians to remember that Jesus was a created being and not to say “Three” (v. 171) — that is, not to say God is a Trinity. Ibn Kathir echoes the Qur’an itself (5:116) in saying that the Christians elevated Jesus “and his mother to be gods with Allah”; the actual Christian Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is not envisioned in the Qur’an.