After the last surah, I vented my frustration at finding the Quran to be so often directed towards disbelievers, telling them they were going to Hell for rejecting its teachings –which seemed to largely be teachings about them going to Hell.
Surah an-Nuur, “The Light,” is the Quran’s answer to my complaint! The first ayah shows remarkable self-awareness, describing itself as an obligatory surah consisting of clear ayaat for them to remember. This is as close to a “through the following arguments in this essay I shall…” thesis statement as we have seen since the “let me tell you a story” analogue of Surah Yusuf. This surah opens by prepping its audience that it is full of obligations. That is accurate to the following material, in which there are absolutely no narrations of prophetic cycles and minimal rants about unbelievers. Instead, the surah sets up directives for practical matters like sexual misconduct, gossip, court testimony, privacy, and dress code.
However, this surah is not without a narrative, only the narrative is not included in the text. Today we’re only going to cover the first 26 ayat, throughout which we can catch allusions to a dramatic story that shook the believing community.
In the last surah we had the verse about guarding one’s nethers from all but spouses and slaves, a verse which was nebulously about either sex or modesty. Today’s verses are distinctly about extra-marital sex. Ayah 33 enjoins upon its men to remain chaste before marriage. Ayat 3-4 address the crime of zaniy, “extra-marital sex.” Rather than having separate words for “fornicator” and “adulterer,” Arabic encapsulates both meanings in one word: zaaniyy/a. (Notice that heterosexual pairings are very carefully delineated in these ayat, so it is quite likely that homosexual sex is not covered by this term.) I noticed that the majority of translations skewed to represent only “fornicator.” I presume they do this because adultery has been traditionally assigned other punishments than the flogging assigned here. While hadith accounts have given certain Islamic schools of law the preference for stoning as a type of punishment, stoning is not actually a prescribed thing in the Quran, rather it only appears as a type of pagan hostility. So ayah 2 is in its own context talking about all extra-marital sex, whether the parties are married or unmarried.
Fornicators/adulterers are to be punished publicly with one-hundred lashes. The Believers are forbidden from feeling pity for those being punished. This leads into ayah 4, which is grammatically unclear in function: is it prescriptive or descriptive? Is it being commanded that zaaniyy are to be banned from all marriages except those to zaaniyya or pagans (and ditto for the other sex)? Or is it being described that they only copulate with equally immoral people? It is a small semantic difference, since either way the guilty party is being excluded from the community of Believers, but whichever idea you choose does interact with that command not to feel pity. In the one case, the ayah is prescribing a continuation of the punishment, and thus Believers are prepped not to yield and or neglect this continued consequence. In the other case, the ayah is describing zaaniy/a as co-minglers and equals to pagans who commit the worst trespass, shirk, and thus exist outside the reach of pity. I hold the view that ayah 4 is in fact descriptive. Much later in ayah 26 we will read that evil men and women deserve each other, and good men and women deserve each other.
So, a note about the word yunkiḥu that is translated as “marry.” Anti-Muslim polemicists make great effort to portray the Arabic word as vulgar, grossly reducing marriage to sexual intercourse. Indeed, in their eagerness to denounce the Quran, these otherwise self-righteous sites will type out definitions of f–k and pornographic descriptions of sex as their proposed translations. The iota of truth for this is that the Arab word nakaḥa comes from roots that relate to co-mingling and copulation. One way this could be used, according to Lane’s Lexicon, is to describe rainwater seeping into the soil, but primarily these roots get applied to terms surrounding marriage. Nikaḥ is in fact the official word used for Muslim marriage ceremonies. In the Quran’s usage, words around these roots do mostly apply to marriage. The strongest candidate for an exception is today’s ayah 4 which to my eye looks more likely to mean “copulates” and maybe ayah 60 regarding post-menopausal women who do not have desire for nikaḥ. All other Quranic uses of those roots are contextually very connected to marriage or marriageability. And hey, it’s true that in our modern culture sex and marriage are rather divorced concepts, with marriage functioning primarily for social status and taxes. For many others cultures the two things exist for each other. Indeed, the inseparability of sex and marriage is a very Roman Catholic view of the matter.
Witnesses for the Prosecution
This surah is very concerned with matters of gossip and testimony, which is not surprising, given that we’ve just come off the topic of sexual misconduct. While theft and murder have easy results to identify and are more likely to produce objective evidence, sex is less apparent unless you catch the person in the act and have other witnesses to verify. The Quran sets a high bar for the number of witnesses required to prosecute adultery: four. It is not clear to me whether the rule of two-women-equals-one-male-witness rule of Surah al-Baqarah 282 applies here, as that verse was about witnessing contracts in order to testify in the future, but if so the challenge of assembling witnesses is even harder. And that’s perhaps a good thing, given the severity of the charge and punishment. I noticed that the surah starts by describing the punishment for adultery first, denying that pity can factor into the punishment, and so establishes the severity of the crime before explaining its prosecution.
Except for mandating the four witnesses, the surah does not show much concern with how to prosecute adultery. Four witnesses, but to what are they testifying, and what is admissible in the court? Can you testify against the woman’s character? Can you merely testify to the accuser’s character? Did you have to witness the adultery directly? Can just anyone charge the woman of adultery? Actually, this one is interesting, because the content of the surah suggests that anyone can accuse a woman of adultery, whether they are the wronged party or not. The subject pronoun of ayah 4 is very broad and comes with a specific punishment if the accuser fails to substantiate their accusation. Then ayah 5 follows with an option available just for husbands. Since adulterers/fornicators are put on equal footing with pagans, they are also available to be interpreted as toxic presences that corrupt the whole community, therefore the whole community is entitled to take action against them.
If a husband cannot produce four witnesses to his wife’s adultery he must swear four times that he is telling the truth, and then invoke an oath upon himself that God should curse him if he is a liar. This will indemnify the woman. –BUT– The woman has the ability to override the man’s accusation if she testifies equally against the man’s character, and then invokes an oath upon herself that God should curse her if he is actually being truthful. This order of things –that a husband’s testimony alone can condemn a wife but that the wife’s testimony can trump the man’s– is interesting. It is hard to imagine a case where the woman wouldn’t counter-swear to null her husband’s testimony, and so the general result would be that judgement is left in God’s hands. It is also interesting that the woman is not testifying as to her own character, but attacking the character of her husband. It is not clear if the husband gets flogged after she rebuts him, as would have been the case of any other accuser who could not produce four witnesses.
I am not fond of this process of swearing oaths. Again, adultery is a very hard thing to prove unless the adulterers are sloppy and serial, so I don’t know if there was a good answer in this era concerning how to prove it. I am glad that this scenario –unless it results in someone getting flogged one way or the other– does leave the matter in God’s hands. Still, my problem with this process of testimonies is this: if the wife’s punishment is at stake, then it should still be her guilt on trial rather than the husband’s honesty. And if it is his testimony being put on trial, than it should be his punishment that is at stake. It does not make sense that his testimony gets put on trial, but she gets punished if his testimony I think it would make more sense if this process of testimonies would instead serve to remove the husband from the punishment of accusing his wife without witnesses. He has made an accusation and cannot support it, so therefore he needs to testify that he accused her in full personal integrity, whereupon she can deny that his testimony has any substance, with the result being that the matter is left in God’s hands. The result is the same, the logic is different. To be able to accuse your wife without enough evidence, and then still have an option to prosecute her further with even less evidence, is not a great procedural logic, even if she has an easy option out. Other features I find missing are reparations for the distress caused to the vindicated wife, or fines for wasting court time. There are also no paths available for forgiveness, which I think should be in place since this is a marriage we’re talking about. Can a couple forgive and reconcile during this process? …Actually, given that he was trying to sentence her to 100 lashes (or worse in those traditional cultures), probably not.
On the whole, what this surah is really trying to do rather than spell out how to prosecute an adulteress is discourage people from making accusations altogether. The punishment is high, the amount of witnesses is high, the stakes are high, the cost to your marriage is high –don’t even try it unless the offense is really, really heinous and obvious. Or unless you’re a husband who rigs witnesses. That Draconian court might let a lot of smaller, less provable offenses slip through, but it does keep the accusations from being easy and thus might spare many women casual affronts to their honor. In this system of high-stake prosecutions but easy divorce, maybe the best way to deal with a sketchy wife is just to dissolve the marriage and move on with life.
Also, what is going on with the lover during all of this? Does he need to testify? Can his wife/wives charge him? Can the adulteress’s husband charge him? The surah really is less concerned with protecting or prosecuting the presumed lover as it is with matters of the wife. Funny that……
Gossip, or Rather, Slander
Ayat 10-26 then continue on to warn off and berate gossips and slanderers in the community. At this point the surah falls away from being procedural and the instruction becomes less timeless. Verbs start appearing in past tense to describe crimes that have already happened, crimes which the people are warned against repeating. There is very clearly a specific rumor in mind, because the rumor is always presented as false. The section starts very ominously in ayah 10, “and if not for God’s grace upon you and His mercy… and surely God is one relenting and wise.” A near identical statement comes later in ayah 20. I appreciate Sahih International’s artistic choice of adding the ellipses and used such myself because the statement is very much a latent threat coated with honey. The first clause of that statement gets repeated in ayat 14 and 21, but in those two instances the ellipses are filled in with reminders of God’s wrath and general human frailty. Given the frequency with which those two reminders happen throughout the Quran, letting them be contained in an ellipsis is apropos and appreciated.
So a certain rumor has been introduced to the community of believers and gone rampant. That the believers should be so susceptible to fostering slander is the main distress of these ayat. It seems almost everyone is guilty, for ayah 14 declares broadly that “y’all” had to receive God’s mercy to avoid punishment. To explain the community’s susceptibility, the surah takes a surprisingly Christian tack: blaming mankind’s inherent sinfulness. Ayah 21 declares that it was only by God’s intervention that any of the people remained pure –ever. Those who originated are set apart from the general community right in ayah 11. The community is told not to be distressed at their presence, but to consider it a good thing (why this should be good is not explained). The guilty group is promised punishments proportional to their part of the crimes. There is punishment in the afterlife, but ayah 19 clarifies that there will be doled out shame and punishment in this life too.
This surah undermines its own messages about how to handle gossip by its obsession with condemning slander. I think the best example of this is in ayat 15-16. Ayah fifteen gives a fair definition of gossip: casually passing on unconfirmed information. Ayah 16 offers in its rebuke an alternative script of behavior, to humbly recognize one’s lack of right to discuss the topic. But after telling its people that they are to recognize when they aren’t qualified to pass on information they cannot evaluate, ayah 16 concludes that the people should have evaluated the information as slander. Indeed, throughout these passages the great condemnation is not that the people didn’t humbly refrain from repeating material that they could not evaluate, but rather that they did not evaluate that the material was wrong. So wrong. Wrong and malicious. And targeted towards believing, chaste, and unaware women…
Also worth noting is ayah 22, which in the midst of all this concern over slander exhorts the virtuous to continue sharing their wealth, asking them to be merciful, and suggesting through implication that this is required in order to receive God’s mercy. This is a typical ayah in the Quran, but it’s placement here in this context is weird. Again, is any jump in topic weird in the Quran? Perhaps not, but this isolated ayah in the midst of an otherwise directed tirade is…odd.
The Matter at Hand
So, it is obvious that some of the invectives within the first half of this surah are a little targeted, a little temporally locked. There is a story associated with the revelation of this surah, one that is well-covered in the hadith accounts and largely attributed to the central character of the drama: the young wife Aisha. Mind you, hadith traditions are not the most reliable or unbiased in detail, which is why my default preference is to avoid their qualitative morays and not consult them. However, these hadith really illuminate the existence of this surah and some of its choices, so today I want to step out into the realm of tradition.
This story happens at a militant point in Muhammad’s ministry. When he went on conquests, his wives drew lots to determine who would travel with him. Aisha accompanied him on this occasion, carried along in an enclosed howdah in accordance with the commands in place that Muhammad’s wives were to be veiled from public sight. One day on the return journey, Aisha left the camp in order to go to the bathroom. She returned, but realized that she’d lost a necklace and thereupon left the camp again to find it. No one noticed her go, and her servants lifted the howdah onto the camel without noticing that she wasn’t in it (she explains that she was very young and light back then).
The camp left without noticing Aisha’s absence, so she waited in place for them to discover such and return for her. Instead, one of Muhammad’s soldiers lagging behind the convoy discovered her, and carried her forward to the next camp. There was a whole day between Aisha being forgotten and returned. The convoy then arrived back in Medina, and Aisha fell sick.
While Aisha was bedridden with sickness, suspicions and rumors started to spread that the whole event was a liaison between her and a soldier lover. The rumor grew out of hand since Aisha was unaware in her sickness and thus unable to rebut it right away. Muhammad was distressed, particularly since Aisha was his favorite wife, and waited for God to reveal whether she was guilty or not. In the meantime, he stayed aloof from Aisha and consulted various friends and family concerning their perceptions of her character and guilt. The hadith are sure to record that Aisha’s biggest rival amongst the wives, Zainab, contradicted her own sister and defended Aisha’s character. Aisha’s slave testified that the girl was young and ditzy, but not licentious. Aisha’s father, Abu Bakr, was distressed that Muhammad would entertain suspicions of his daughter and so stopped paying to Muhammad a voluntary stipend. In the end, Muhammad declared Aisha innocent and Surah an-Nuur was revealed in order to set up due process for future accusations.
The context of this story starts to explain several particular features of this surah. Now we can guess why the surah only ever deals with accusations towards women, never the inverse. The need to prescribe a severe punishment makes sense in contextualizing that the crime of adultery/fornication was not being regarded flippantly, and that Muhammad was not showing pity or weakness towards Aisha. It makes sense why the surah smarts with resentment only towards gossip aimed at chaste women (ayah 4), and even more specifically “chaste, unaware, and believing women,” (ayah 23). We can see why, in the midst of all the talk about slander, there is a verse enjoining the virtuous to be forgiving and to keep paying their charitable donations to, among others, their family. It makes sense why the invectives towards the gossips are so sure that their words are false and baseless.
Muhammad’s favorite wife had just been dragged through the mud. It was all very personal.
Reading the surah as a response to a very personal and distressing incident in Muhammad’s personal life does reveal some credit about how he handled the situation. If one suspects that Muhammad was manufacturing the Quran for his own benefit, then one might have expected Muhammad to handle this situation by just revealing a divine inspiration that Aisha was innocent. End of story. It would have been effective and easy, but ultimately self-serving and nonconstructive to the community. Instead, the surah sets up some due process for leveling charges of adultery, and offers a condemnation of the gossip and slander.
For me, though I consider the goals of this section of surah to be commendable, I still do not see divine revelation in it. Draconian laws do not make justice more effective, just more unwieldy. Those condemnations of gossip are far too specific to false sexual slander to help apply to the everyday forms in which gossip manifests.
In the end, the surah fails to address the reasons such gossip arose in the first place: cultural assumptions about the sexuality and roles of men and women. In the story (which, granted, is historically unverifiable in detail), Aisha was veiled from public view. She was preserved from the public eye for Muhammad’s sake. For a whole day the convoy went forward in their travels without noticing that she was gone. The whole disaster could’ve been averted if Aisha’s role as female and wife of the Prophet had not consigned her to seclusion. And the story also demonstrates the danger of encouraging the cultural expectation that no man and woman can interact without sexual tension, something I’ve ranted against in our modern culture as well. That Aisha had been alone with another man for an extended time was too suggestive in a world where men and women are understood to be always in sexual tension with each other. The surah sets up due process for any future events, but does nothing to dismantle the social conditions that contributed to Aisha –and many other people– being slandered in the first place.
Sahih International takes a bizarre tack in ayah 26, where it translates the words as “Evil words are for evil people…etc.” The Arabic here is very oblique, using adjectives as if they are nouns. What the ayah literally says is: “The (fem.pl.)evil are for the (masc.pl.)evil…etc.” The words being used in each pairing are identical, only that one has had the feminine plural suffix, -aat, tacked on. The masculine case is easy to translate, as grammatical rules of gender restrict the definition to mean “the evil [men].” With a feminine suffix tacked on, the most direct translation of the feminine word is “the evil [women].” However, in Arabic the feminine case rules are more flexible. In Arabic gender protocol, inanimate things are generally classified as receiving feminine gender. So there is the potential to read this ayah as saying “The evil [inanimate things] are for the evil men…etc” and translators can then fill in whatever inanimate thing they want according to the topic at hand. Sahih opted for that latter treatment and chose “words,” but you can read some variety of choices across the translations.
BTW, English speakers, it’s easy for us to look at this aspect of gendered language and triumphantly declare “Feminine equals inanimate?! The misogyny –We found it!!!” Here is the perfect time to learn a lesson about gossip. For all its faults, English does have the virtue of a neuter pronoun and largely ungendered vocabulary. This makes us entirely ignorant of how gender works in other languages, and thus unable to evaluate whether such systems reflect constructed sexism. That mention of feminine case being applied to inanimate things is a very broad sweep of the Arabic rules. Unless you can explain the full intricacies of gender in Arabic, how its used, its exceptions, and how those things fit into your theory, please humbly recognize that you are unqualified to charge and spread theories around that the Arabic language comes with intrinsic structural misogyny.