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Bidding the Good and Forbidding the Evil: Essential Message of Islam: Chapter 26 To 30

By Muhammad Yunus & Ashfaque Ullah Syed

11 August 2015

(Published Exclusively On New Age Islam with Permission of the Authors and Publishers)

26.    Intoxicants & Gambling

26.1.       Qur’anic Exhortations against Intoxicants and Gambling

The Qur'an introduces its restrictions on intoxicants and gambling in phases, beginning with a general exhortation (2:219):

“They ask you (O Muhammad,) concerning intoxicants and gambling. Say: ‘There is grave sin as well as some benefits for people in both of them; but their sin is greater than their benefit;’ and they ask you (O Muhammad,) concerning what to spend (in God’s way). Say: ‘the surplus.’ Thus does God clarify the messages to you that you may reflect” (2:219)

At a later stage, the believers are asked not to approach prayer in a state of intoxication or when mental faculty is impaired, such as due to influence of drugs, giddiness or any reason (4:43).1

 “You who believe, do not approach prayer while you are intoxicated (Sukara) until you know what you say…” (4:43).

In the final phase (5:90/91), the Qur’an speaks about the social vices of drinking and gambling and asks the believers to keep away from them:  

“You who believe, intoxicants and gambling, idols and raffles are defilements from the work of Satan, so abstain from them that you may succeed (5:90). Satan desires to create enmity and hatred among you with intoxicants and gambling, and to keep you from the remembrance of God, and from prayer. So, will you not desist” (5:91)?

No matter the semantics, it goes without saying that the above verses advocate abstinence from all forms of intoxicants and gambling, while a vast number of Prophetic traditions place the Qur’anic admonition regarding intoxicant and gambling in the binding (Hurmah) category. 

26.2.       Supreme Significance of Deeds And Heedfulness (Taqwa) 

The verse 5:93 belonging to the last revealed Sura of the Qur'an lays special emphasis on good deeds and heedfulness (Taqwa), by pronouncing each of these precepts thrice (underlined below):

“Those who believe and do good deeds shall not be blamed for what they may eat (or drink) (fima ta‘imu,) so long as they heed (Attaqu), and believe, and do good deeds; so long as they heed (attaqu), and believe; so long as they heed (attaqu), and do good (Remember,) God loves the compassionate ” (5:93).

The phrase fima ta‘imu (rendered in bold) carries a seeming liberty on what ‘one may eat and drink,’ or, literally what one ‘may have eaten and drank,’ so long as he does good deeds and remains heedful, that is, practices taqwa. Most interpreters have, however, added a qualifying bracket: ‘(in the past)' after the reference to ‘eating’, implying that God will not blame Muslims for what they ate or drank before conversion to Islam, provided they remained committed to good deeds and heedfulness (taqwa) after embracing faith. Such an interpretation has some difficulty.

The Qur’an affirms that all past (sins) are forgiven when the disbelievers embrace Islam.2 Thus, there can be no question of the Qur’an making the forgiveness of past sins contingent to the doing of good deeds after embracing faith, as the additional qualifying bracket implies. Therefore, as advocated by Muhammad Asad,3 and reflected in our rendering, the ‘eating’ action referred to in the verse applies to any time a person may eat or drink any thing.

This verse would appear to remind those believers who may be painstakingly complying with Qur’anic dietary precepts (Ch. 25), that they will be judged primarily on the basis of their deeds and heedfulness (Taqwa), rather than by what they ate or drank. This argument is consistent with the Qur’an’s broader message on Halal and Haram (6:151-153/Ch. 19.1), and can hardly be perceived as a bid at intellectualization, as some may contend.

The foregoing proposition may, however, be turned around by arguing that anyone who wilfully partakes of the forbidden (Haram) category of food defaults on heedfulness (Taqwa), and therefore, he must comply with the Qur’anic dietary instructions to avoid incurring blame in God’s sight. God knows best.

The verb ta‘ima primarily applies to eating and drinking. Muhammad Asad, however, notes that in a broader sense, it may also be interpreted to imply the partaking of all good things in life,4 Thus, the verse seemingly removes any taboo on undue austerity in dietary or living habits, so long as a believer remains committed to taqwa and good deeds. The Qur’an further clarifies its message in yet another verse from the same period:

“You who believe, do not forbid the good things God has made lawful for you, but do not exceed limits. Indeed God does not love those who exceed limits” (5:87).


1.       Muhammad Asad, Message of the Qur’an, Gibraltar 1980, Chap. 4, Note 54.

2.       8:38.

3.       Muhammad Asad, Message of the Qur’an, Gibraltar 1980, Chap.5, Note 108.

[3. references]


27.    Thoughtless Oaths

In the Prophet’s era, oaths played a significant role in personal and family lives. Thus a man could temporarily abandon his wife by taking an oath (Ayman),1 which he could break at will.2 As a prelude to introducing its laws on divorce (beginning with 2:226/Ch. 34.1), the Qur’an exhorts the believers to refrain from upsetting peace and harmony in the family or society by taking thoughtless oaths (2:224/225).

“Do not make God an excuse for your oaths (ayman) that would prevent your being virtuous (Tabarru), or heedful (Tattaqu), or reconciliatory among people. (Remember,) God is All-Knowing and Aware” (2:224). God will not take you to account for any frivolity in your oaths, but He will take you to account for the intention* in your hearts. (Indeed) He is Most Forgiving and Gracious” (2:225). *[Lit., ‘earnings’]

However, the breaking of an oath taken in earnest is a sin (16:91) that needs to be atoned (5:89).

“God will not take you to account for thoughtlessness in your oaths - but He will take you to account for the oaths which you swear, in earnest, the expiation for which is the feeding of ten needy persons with the average of what you would feed your own families, or clothing them, or freeing a slave; but if anyone cannot afford (this), then it is fasting for three days. This is the expiation of your oaths that you have sworn, but (it is better that) you keep your oaths. Thus does God clarify His messages to you, that you may be grateful (to Him)” (5:89).

“Fulfil the promise to God, once you have pledged, and do not break any oaths after having confirmed them, as you have made God your surety. Indeed God knows what you do” (16:91).

Finally, it needs explaining that in the Qur’anic context oath (Ayman) is a personal pledge aimed at denying oneself of any good thing that the Law of Islam does not prohibit,3 or giving up a lawful habit or pursuit.


1.       The Qur’anic word Ayman, rendered as ‘oath’ must not be confused with the notions of ‘testimony’, and ‘commitment’ for which the Qur’an uses the roots ShHD and AHD respectively.

2.       This custom was however abolished with the introduction of divorce laws, beginning with the verse 2:226, which succeeds 2:225 above on thoughtless oaths.     

3.       Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’an, Gibraltar 1980, Chap.5, Notes 100, 101.

[3 references]


28.    On Personal Clothing And Modesty

28.1.       Significance Of Clothing For Humanity

In one of the Meccan verses, the Qur’an speaks about the relative significance of clothing:

“Children of Adam! We have sent you clothing to cover your nakedness, and for (your) beauty (risha),* but the cloak of heedfulness (taqwa) is the best. This is among the signs of God, that they may be mindful”(7:26). *[Lit., ‘plumage’ – metaphorically derived from the bird’s plumage.]

The Qur’an expands on this in the Medinite period in a long and cryptic passage (24:30/31) asking both believing men and women to avert their glances (from what they should not see) in addition to covering their private parts (Furujah). The passage also commands womenfolk to ‘draw their shawls (khimar) over their bosoms’ permitting a casual display of ‘what is (normally) apparent’ and forbids them from exposing their ‘charms’ (zinat)’ except in the presence of the immediate members of their household, and restrains them from walking in a provocative manner. The fuller interpretation of these injunctions, which will be contingent to the exact meaning of the word Zinat, is evolved in the commentary following the rendering of the passage.                

“Tell believing men to restrain their glances and guard their private parts (furujah)*. This is (conducive) to their purity. Indeed God is Informed of whatever they contrive (in their minds) (24:30). And tell believing women to restrain their glances and guard their private parts (Furujah)*, and not to expose their charms (zinat) except what is (normally) apparent of it, and to draw their shawls (khimar) over their bosoms, and not to expose their charms (zinat) except (in the presence of) their husbands, or their fathers, or their husbands’ fathers, or their sons, or their husbands’ sons, or their brothers, or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or those under their lawful trust, or the male attendants not having any (sexual) desire, or children not yet conscious of women’s sexuality; nor let them strike their feet so as to make known what they hide of their charms (zinat). And turn to God together, you believers, that you may succeed” (24:31). *[See usage in the verse 23:5/Ch. 19.1.]

28.2.       Orthodox View on Dressing Norms for Women

The orthodox scholars interpret the word Zinat in the verse as ornaments, women wear to enhance their appeal. They argue that since women wear ornaments around their neck and on their ears and arms and hands, and so forth, all these parts of the body must be covered, and accordingly they advocate head-to-toe veiling.1 They draw on a tradition that the Prophet had told his young sister-in-law Asma that an adolescent girl’s body should not be visible except her face and palm.2 But (i) the compiler (Abu Daud) himself classified it as a weak tradition, (ii) the tradition was not reported by earlier Imams, al-Bukhari and Muslim and (iii) it imposed a clothing requirement that was excessive for the scarcities of the time, as indicated by a number of traditions,3  and by the prevalent custom of men and women wearing single pieces of unstitched cloaks around their bodies.4 Thus the authenticity of the tradition remains too questionable to support the classical interpretation of the passage. Hence the traditional meaning of the term Zinat as external ornament, which provides the basis for the classical interpretation, is also untenable.

28.3.       Textual Analysis of the Qur’anic Injunction (24:31)

The interpretation of the critical words and phrases of the verse is tabled below.

1. Zinat: The Qur’an often uses the word Zinat and its other forms to denote the gifts of God, alluring to humans, such as the worldly life,5 feeling of love for the opposite sex,6 and all sorts of beautiful things.7Based on this analogy, the word Zinat in the above verse must be something beautiful and alluring that God has gifted to a woman, and this can only be her ‘physical’ charms, – not the ornaments that she may or may not wear. This corollary is reinforced by the permission of casual exposure in the presence of (i) male family members of the household and (ii) male attendants not having any (sexual) desire, or children not yet conscious of women’s sexuality.’ If Zinat were to mean ornaments, these instructions will be meaningless as:

        It will be virtually immaterial for a male member of a household, whether the female inmates (sister, wife, mother, aunty etc) reveal or hide their ornaments. The instruction will only make sense if Zinat connoted with the physical charm of the body that is liable to be exposed in day-to-day life.    

        If Zinat were to mean ornaments, the instruction should have been to hide them from the male attendants as well as children, as they both might be attracted by its glamour. The instruction will only make sense If zinat connoted with the physical charm for which none of them would have any appeal.

2. ‘what is apparent of it’: Muhammad Asad quotes al-Qiffal to interpret the phrase as ‘that which a human being may show in accordance with prevailing custom,’ obviously within the Qur’anic spirit of modesty.8

3.  ‘to draw  their shawls (khimar) over their bosoms’: Many scholars, including Muhammad Asad affirm that in pre-Islamic Arabia, many women did not cover their breasts as a dressing norm – a practice dictated both by scarcity of clothes and pagan relaxed attitude towards sexuality. So, the instruction is simply to pull the shawl around the upper part of the body. 

4. ‘nor let them strike their feet’: In the scarcity society of the time when a woman wrapped herself with merely a single piece of clothing and wore but little ornaments, this instruction forbade her from walking about in a seductive and revealing manner. In its universal context, it is a general guideline for women against adopting a provocative gait - despite proper covering of body.

28.4.       Qur’anic Universal Guidelines on Modesty

The clear pronouncements of the verses 7:26 and 24:30 and the textual analysis of 24:31 as tabled above demonstrate that for any public appearance, the Qur’an asks, men and women to restrain their glances and cover their private parts (Furujah). The Qur’an also takes account of a woman’s innate power to provoke the male sexual impulse by wearing revealing outfit. She is therefore asked to dress modestly, commensurate to the prevailing custom, and to bear herself in a non-provocative manner. Wearing of any external head to toe veil, covering of head, and gender-based segregation are not specified.

Women are also allowed some ‘concessions’ to facilitate their joint accommodation with close relatives, such as their fathers, father-in-laws, brothers, nephews, children and senile male attendants.

28.5.       The Qur’an Makes Concession For Elderly Women 

“(As for) the elderly women who sit around and do not look forward to marriage, there is no blame on them in taking off their garments (provided they do so) without showing off their charms (Zinat), but modesty is better for them. (Remember,) God is All-Knowing and Aware” (24:60).

In historical context, common people in most parts of the world barely had any extra clothing apart from what they wore, and used community washing and bathing facility in a modest way. The verse relents towards the elderly women who may be instinctively less conscious of their sexuality, that they may go about their daily chores without being blamed for showing off their physical charms (zinat).   

28.6.       Dressing Guideline For The Prophet's Household And Other Muslim Women

In a clearly stated verse, the Prophet is asked to tell the womenfolk in his household and other believing women to pull their cloaks around themselves for others to recognize them without causing them any annoyance (33:59).

“O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the womenfolk of believers that they should draw their cloaks over themselves: this may be more appropriate as they may be recognized (in public), but not annoyed (yu’dhayna)*. (Remember,) God is Most Forgiving and Merciful” (33:59). *[See the rendering of 33:53/Ch. 3.15 for use of common root- word.]

As Muhammad Asad comments, the specific time bound reference to the Prophet’s wives and daughters, and the deliberate vagueness of the instruction, by not specifying what part of the body to be covered, make it clear that the verse carries a general moral guideline as is reinforced by the concluding God’s attributes of Mercy and forgiveness.9

The orthodox cite this verse to reinforce their argument on head-to-toe veiling for Muslim women. But this restrictive dressing code is conceivably, a reflection of the pre-Islamic heritage of Muslim scholars.

28.7.       Influence Of Pre-Islamic Heritage On Women’s Dress Code

Until the advent of Islam, women were oppressed and subjected to various forms of restrictions in practically all the major civilizations.10 Therefore all the Christians (including the Romans and Greeks), Zoroastrians, pagans and Hindus who embraced Islam brought notions against women from their previous religions. This inevitably influenced their interpretation of Qur’anic exhortations on modesty. With time, this gave rise to imposition of varying restrictions upon women, including their full veiling and segregation when outside the house – a custom borrowed understandably from “the Greek Christians of Byzentium, who had long veiled and segregated their women in this manner.”11


1.       Muhammad Shafi, Mu‘arif al-Qur’an, New Delhi 1993, Vol. VI, p. 396.

2.       Sanan Abu Daud, Urdu translation by Wahiduz Zaman, Vol.3, Ch. 26/Acc. 704, p. 264.

3.       Sahih al-Bukhari, English translation by Mohsin Khan, New Delhi 1984, Vol.1, Acc. 305, 309, 348-358, 360, 361, 366.

4.       Ibid., Vol.1, Acc. 358.

5.       “Worldly life allures (zuiyina) those who deny (God’s Guidance)…” (2:212/Ch. 41.1).

6.       “Alluring (zuiyina) to people is the love for pleasures from women …” (3:14/Ch. 41.1).

7.       “Who has forbidden the beautiful (gifts) (zinat) of God, which He has brought forth for His servants …” (7:32/Ch. 25.4).

8.       Muhammad Asad, Message of the Qur’an, Gibraltar 1980, Chap. 24, Note 37.

9.       Ibid., Chapter 33, note 75. 

10.     An illustration of how the pre-Islamic world treated women: The Zoroastrians (Persians) kept their women in confinement, guarded by eunuchs. The Greek followed their example and kept their women in gynaeceum, often under lock and key. The Hindus burnt their widows alive on funeral pyres of their husband’s bodies - a practice continued until recent centuries. The Chinese bound their women’s feet in iron shoes as a cultural norm, obviously, to restrict their movement. The Christian Church placed women under total domination of men. (The Bible, Genesis 3.16). Roman male citizens could kill their women by law, if they found them committing adultery.

11.     Karen Armstrong, Islam, A short history, New York 2002, p. 16.

 [11 references]


29.    Bidding the Good and Forbidding the Evil

29.1.       To Enjoin the Good And Forbid The Evil

The Qur’an enjoins what it calls Ma’ruf – which it connotes with doing good to others and behaving in the most decent and reasonable manner in the community. It forbids (Naha)1 the Munkar: all acts, gesture, and behaviour that run counter to reason and contradict all norms of good behaviour (3:104, 3:110).2  For simplicity, we will be rendering these terms as the good (Ma’ruf) and the evil (Munkar).

“Let there be a community among you who will invite (others) to be good, enjoin the good (Ma’ruf), and forbid the evil (Munkar), and it is they who shall succeed” (3:104).

“You are the best community brought forth for humanity; you enjoin the good, and forbid the evil, and believe in God. If the People of the Book would only believe - it would be best for them: some of them have true faith (Mu’minun) while most of them are perverse” (3:110).

In the context of the revelation, the verse 3:110 describes Muslims as ‘the best community’. However, taken in isolation, the pronouncement can be highly misleading. To deserve this accolade, Muslims must comply with the all-embracing directives of the Qur’an, and emulate the noble principles and exemplary moral conduct and behavior of the Prophet (33:21/Ch. 15). Apparently, this verse also calls upon the People of the Book (the Jews and Christians) to embrace Islam, but it also declares that some of the People of the Book have indeed true faith in God (mu’minun). Therefore citing this verse partially to indicate the exclusivity of Muslims (the followers of the Prophet Muhammad) will be misleading.

29.2.       Admonitions Against All Forms Of Vices

As mentioned in the Preface (Note 24), the Qur'an uses different root-words while referring to different categories of vices. The following review attempts to render these words in a consistent manner, giving the transliteration of each Arabic word in the first instance of its appearance to maintain the integrity of translation.3 

The Qur'an forbids (Harramah) sins (Thaiyat), abominable acts (fawahishah)4 (16:90, 24:21, 42:37)5 – whether open or secret (6:120, 7:33), and terrorism (baghya) (7:33, 7:56).6

 “Abstain from sin – whether open or secret: those who earn sin will get due recompense for what they have earned” (6:120).

“Say, ‘My Lord has forbidden abominable deeds - whether open or secret, sin, and unlawful terrorism, and that you should associate (others) with God for which He has not sent down any authority, or say things concerning God that you do not know’” (7:33).

“Do not cause corruption (Fasad) on earth after it has been reformed, but pray to Him with fear and longing. Indeed God’s Mercy lies close to the compassionate” (7:56).

“God commands justice and goodness and giving to fellowmen (Qurba),7 and He forbids the abominable, the evil, and terrorism, and instructs you that you may be mindful” (16:90).

“You who believe, do not follow Satan’s footsteps; for he who follows Satan’s footsteps (will find that) he (Satan) enjoins the abominable and the evil. (Remember,) without God's Grace and Mercy towards you – not one of you will ever be pure; but God purifies anyone He wills. (Remember,) God is All-Knowing and Aware” (24:21).

“Whatever you are given is a provision for this life, but what is with God is finer and lasting, (and it is) for those who believe and put their trust in their Lord (42:36), and who avoid grave sins and abominations and forgive (even) when they are angered” (42:37).

29.3.        The Qur’an is lenient with the repentant and stern to the arrogant

The Qur'an recognizes man's innate propensity to commit evil or wrong his own soul (5:100), even while praying for good (17:11). It promises forgiveness to those who are ashamed of a vice having committed it (4:110).8 However, it is stern against those, who commit sin, and then blame the innocent (4:111/112). It asks believers not to confuse their faith with wrongdoing (6:82), but underlines a concession for minor mistakes (53:32).

“If anyone commits a sin or wrongs his own soul and then seeks God's forgiveness, he will find God Most Forgiving and Merciful (4:110). So anyone who earns a sin, earns it upon himself (and must know that) God is All-Knowing and Wise (111). But anyone who earns a mistake (Khati’a) or a sin, and then throws the blame upon the innocent, burdens himself with a slander as well as an open sin” (4:112).

 “Say, ‘Bad (things) (Khabisah) and good (things) (Tayyiban) are not equal, though the plentiful of bad (things) pleases you. So, heed God – O you prudent, that you may succeed’” (5:100)

“Those who believe and do not confuse their faith with wrongdoing - it is they who (are in) security, and they are (rightly) guided” (6:82).

“Man (sometimes) prays for (things that are) bad (sharr) while praying for (his) good - as man is prone to be hasty” (17:11).

“Those who avoid grave sins and abomination except for minor lapses* (will) indeed (find) God Boundless in forgiveness. He knows you (well) as He caused you to grow from the earth and when you were hidden in your mothers’ wombs; so do not redeem yourselves. (Remember,) God knows best who heeds” (53:32). *[Lit., ‘a touch thereof’.]


1.       In Qur’anic vocabulary, the word naha connotes a non-compulsive forbiddance, that is ‘restraining’ against doing something. Examples:

      79:40 - refers to those who ‘restrain’ (naha) their own souls.

      11:62 – The Prophet Salih’s elders asked him if he was trying to ‘restrain’ them (atanhana) from their idols.

      29:45 - Prayer (salat) ‘restrains’ (tanha) one from abomination (fahshah).

2.       9:112, 22:41, 31:17.

3.       Since the notions of the different Arabic words relating to ‘goodness’ and ‘badness’ (Note 24/Preface) remain subjective, it is impossible to claim accuracy in the choice of the English counterparts in the above focused review.

4.       See Note 4/Ch. 19 for fuller notion of this word (singular form, fahishah) as used in the Qur’an.

5.       6:151 (Text in Ch. 19.1), 29:45.

6.       42:42/Ch. 12.2.  

7.       See 4:36/Ch. 17.3 for the broader connotation of the word qurba as fellowmen.

8.       3:135.

 [8 references]


30.    The Abolition of Slavery

30.1.       Phased Abolition of Slavery

The Qur’an aimed at removing slavery in a phased manner. The phasing out was an historical necessity as the social and historical realities of the time were not conducive to an abrupt eradication of slavery with all its ramifications. Moreover, the Qur’an also had to address other prevalent vices in tandem. It therefore introduced its injunctions against slavery concomitantly with its social and moral reforms. Thus, it gives clear directives to freeing the slaves (riqab, pl. raqabah) in the following passages:

        90:13-16 (Ch. 17.1). The Qur’an combines its exhortation on “the freeing of a slave” (90:13), with “feeding during famine (14) an orphaned relative (15), or the needy (lying) in the dust” (90:16).

        4:92 (Ch. 39) commands the freeing of a believing slave and paying compensation for any accidental killing of a believer.

        5:89 (Ch. 27) lists the freeing of a slave as an option to expiate a false oath taken in the earnest.

        2:177 (Ch. 19.3) includes the freeing of slaves among the virtues of the truly pious.

        9:60 (Ch. 18.8) includes slaves regardless of faith in the category of people entitled to receive charity.

        58:3 requires the freeing of a slave as expiation for breaking an oath called zihar, which absolved a man of all conjugal responsibilities to his wife, but did not give her the freedom of divorce:

“Those who divorce their wives by zihar* and then wish to go back on their words, must free a slave before they touch each other…”(58:3). *[The word literally means ‘back.’ Many men abandoned their wives simply by declaring, “You are to me like my mother’s back” (58:2)]  

 Since slavery and prostitution went hand in hand, the Qur’an aimed at eradicating slavery by rehabilitating the male and female slaves through the institution of marriage. Thus the Qur’an exhorts men to marry from among the bondmaids under their lawful trust (4:25), marry off the unmarried ones among their male and female slaves (24:32) and free their slaves against reasonable contract, allowing them to pay later for their freedom (24:33).

“And any of you who cannot afford to marry (yankiha) chaste believing woman (should marry) from believing bondmaids under your lawful trust,1 and God knows best your faith. Some of you have (ties) with others of them. So marry them with the permission of their people and give them their dowers reasonably as (meriting) chaste women, and do not prostitute them nor take them as mistresses. If they commit adultery after they are married, their punishment is half that of (free) chaste women. This (permission to marry bondmaids) goes for those of you who fear (committing sin by) their (sexual) impulses. However, patience is best for you. (Remember,) God is Most Forgiving and Merciful” (4:25).

“Marry off the unmarried ones among you and those among your slaves (‘abd) and bondmaids that are ready for marriage.2 If they are needy, God will enrich them of His bounty. (Remember,) God is Boundless (in mercy) and All-Knowing (24:32). Yet those who have no (financial) means to marry should wait until God enriches them of His bounty. And as for those under your lawful trust who seek a contract (for freedom), draw it up for them if you know any good in them, and give them out of the riches God has given you. And do not coerce your bondmaids into prostitution seeking the gains of this world, when they want to be chaste - seeking the pleasure of worldly life. But should anyone coerce them (sexually), God will be Merciful (to them) after they have been so coerced” (24:33).

30.2.       Qur’anic Positive Phrase for Slaves And Bondmaids

While the Qur’an uses the words fatat,3 riqab,4 ‘abd,5  to denote a slave, bondmaid in the historical sense, it also employs a dignified phrase, ma malakat ayman to denote slaves, bondmaids, and for that matter, anyone who is under one’s lawful trust. Most scholars render this phrase literally as: ‘what the right hand possesses’, and connote it restrictively with slaves, bondmaids, captives, and prisoners of war in the masculine as well as feminine gender. Such an interpretation is misleading. The closest literal translation of this expression would be: ‘those possessed by (or under trust to) the right hand.’ However, the Qur'an uses the word ‘right hand’ figuratively to denote a positive lawful status, such as the companions of the ‘right hand’,6 and God's ‘right hand’.7 Therefore, the phrase could be best rendered as “those under one’s lawful trust.” Thus through its ingenious vocabulary, the Qur’an gives a new ennobling status to the slaves and bondmaids who were historically relegated to the lowest rung of the social hierarchy – hated, despised, brutalized and segmented from the freeborn by impervious boundaries.  

The Qur’anic phrase Malakat Ayman (sing. milk al-yamin) is no camouflage or mere euphemism. In the Prophet's days, captives from armed conflicts were distributed among the Medinite Muslims for their safe custody. Those captives, whether male or female, were virtually ‘slaves’ but were regarded as Malakat Ayman; and accordingly their custodians treated them with sympathy and consideration. William Muir, one of the most hostile of the Prophet's biographers offers this quotation from a prisoner: “the men of Medina made us ride, while they themselves walked, they gave us wheaten bread to eat when there was a little of it, contenting themselves with dates.” 8

In a different plane, unlike the legal codes that preceded it, and succeeded it for over a millennium, the Qur’an does not enact any separate civil law or code for the slaves or the Ma Malakat Ayman class. The Qur’an does, however, refer to slavery in the context of the past or even prevalent traditions, but its civil, commercial, inheritance and family laws are for all believers, without any reference to their being freeborn or slaves.

In sum, Qur’anic repeated rejoinders on freeing slaves, it’s clear dictates to looking after them, to setting them free and to marrying them off, its specific ennobling vocabulary for slaves, bondmaids and captives, and its avoidance of any distinction between slaves and freeborn in all its social and civil laws, amply demonstrate that the Qur’an aimed at rooting out the institution of slavery. Accordingly Caliph Umar abolished slavery among the native inhabitants of Arabia. He also gave a clear instruction to his generals, on the strength of the Qur’an, not to turn the civilian population of conquered nations into slaves.9 However, he met with stiff resistance from many of his generals, and his policy was discontinued with the establishment of the first Islamic dynasty (AH 40), less than two decades after his death (AH 24). Thus slavery re-established itself in the Islamic world, barely thirty years after the Prophet’s death, and was vigorously followed by slave traders and those with vested interests, for many centuries to come.  

The Qur’anic ideal of a slave free society was realized more than twelve hundred years after the death of the Prophet – but not in the Islamic world. Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States (1861-1865) legislated the abolition of slavery by the Emancipation Proclamation (Jan.1 1863). Ironically, the classical Islamic Shari‘a that had its birth more than a hundred years after the Prophet’s demise, entertained slavery; and slaves, bondmaids, and concubines formed an integral part of the social hierarchy of Islamic civilization in many Muslim lands.


1.       The opening and the clarifying underlined stipulations suggest that when a man of limited means apprehends that a Muslim woman may not entertain his marriage proposal, he should approach a bondmaid, offering her the same sort of dowry that he would have offered a free Muslim woman. The verse has been often misinterpreted to imply the following propositions, supportive of the institution of slavery. To quote Muhammad Shafi:

      “As far as possible one should marry free women; one should not marry a bondmaid.” 

      “It will be Makruh (undesirable) for anyone having the means to marry a freewomen, to marry a Muslim or believing bondmaid.” -  Quoted from Abu Hanifa. 

      “It is Haram (forbidden) to marry a bondmaid, and thus completely forbidden to marry a bondmaid from the kitabia (the People of the Book)”.

Muhammad Shafi, Mu‘arif al-Qur’an, New Delhi 1993, Vol.II, p. 371

2.       The Qur’an normally connotes the word al-sualih (pl. al-sualihin) with a pious person, who is, so to say, spiritually sound. However, the term can also apply in the material sense, such as physical and moral fitness for marriage, as rendered in undereline. -  Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’an, Gibraltar 1980, Chap.24, Note 43.

3.       12:30, 4:25.

4.       2:177, 4:92, 5:89, 9:60, 58:3, 90:13.

5.       2:178, 2:221, 24:32.

6.       56:8, 56:27.

7.       39:67.

8.       Rafiq Zakaria, Muhammad and the Qur’an, London 1992, p. 408.

9.       Shibli Noumani, al-Faruq, Delhi 1898, Karachi reprint 1991, p. 258.

[9 references]

Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. KhaledAbou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.