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Debating Islam ( 12 Jan 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Art and Science of Interpreting the Quran: How the Verses Relating To Sex with Female Slaves Must Be Interpreted?

By Naseer Ahmad (Observer) for New Age Islam

13 January, 2014

In this article, I have discussed how the verses relating to sex with female slaves must be correctly interpreted.

Attributes of Quran that help in interpreting the Book

(27:1) These are verses of the Qur´an,-a book that makes (things) clear;

(18:28) (It is) a Qur´an in Arabic, without any crookedness (therein): in order that they may guard against Evil.

(4:82) Do they not consider the Qur´an (with care)? Had it been from other Than Allah, they would surely have found therein Much discrepancy.

(18:69) We have not instructed the (Prophet) in Poetry, nor is it meet for him: this is no less than a Message and a Qur´an making things clear:

(39:23) Allah has revealed (from time to time) the most beautiful Message in the form of a Book, consistent with itself, (yet) repeating (its teaching in manifold forms): the skins of those who fear their Lord tremble thereat; then their skins and their hearts do soften to the celebration of Allah´s praises. Such is the guidance of Allah: He guides therewith whom He pleases, but such as Allah leaves to stray, can have none to guide.

(10:82) "And Allah by His words doth prove and establish His truth, however much the sinners may hate it!"

(9:125) But those in whose hearts is a disease,- it will add doubt to their doubt, and they will die in a state of Unbelief.

The important points to note are:

a)       That the Quran is not a book of poetry. Poets use key words in such a fashion that the word can take all or several of its many meanings and yet the verse remains intelligible or the same word is used in a single verse with different meanings. This is a characteristic of poetry. The Quran makes it clear that it is not a book of poetry and therefore it uses words to make the meaning clear and not to confuse or allow different interpretations. The key takeaway here is that one should not interpret the Quran as one would interpret poetry and debate about the different meanings that its verse can take but should take the simple and straightforward meaning communicated by it and as consistent with the rest of the Book. This is especially so when it concerns the ‘Muhkamat’ verses that instruct a Muslim in the right practice or conduct. As it concerns the allegorical verses, these are capable of being taken either literally or allegorically without affecting the manner in which a Muslim is required to conduct his affairs.

b)       The message is repeated taking manifold forms that assist a correct interpretation. Any mistake in understanding a verse therefore gets easily corrected.

c)       Any doubt regarding the interpretation of any verse of the Quran can be settled with reference to other verses of the Quran itself. The Quran is its best and most comprehensive commentary.

d)       The consistency, clarity and lack of discrepancy that the Quran shows is phenomenal. It is a book of over 6000 verses and yet one would be hard pressed to find any word that takes two or more meanings across these 6000+ verses. The consistency is therefore not within a verse or Sûrah alone but across the Book. With such consistency, only someone who is careless can go wrong or someone “in whose heart is a disease” can go astray.

The meaning of `Ma Malakataimanukum’ and its variations

With the above in mind, let us look into the meaning of ma Malakataimanukum and its grammatical variations. Let us first start with the literal meaning.

Ma – what (relative pronoun)

Malakat – own (as used in the Quran, it means ownership in the legal sense and not just physical possession) (3rd person feminine singular perfect verb)

Aymanukum – rightfully, they rightfully possess, their right hands (N – nominative masculine plural noun or PRON – 3rd person masculine plural possessive pronoun)

Aymanukum – your right hands (2nd person masculine plural)

Aymānuhunna – they rightfully possess (third person feminine plural)

The Variations used in the Quran

Ma Malakataimanukum - What your  right hands possess  (2nd person masculine plural)  *

(4:3; 4:24; 4:25; 4:36; 24:33, 30:28)

Ma Malakatyaminuka - What your right hands possess (2nd person masculine single)(33:50; 33:52)

Alazeenamalakatayymanukum - Those whom your right hands possess *  (2nd person masculine plural)(24:58)

Ma Malakataimanuhum - What their right hands possess *  (3rd person masculine plural) (16:71; 23:6; 70:30)

Ma Malakataymanuhunna - What their right hands possess (3rd person feminine plural) (24:31; 33:55)

The expression “ma Malakataiman” is one of the most beautiful expressions used in the Quran. Malakat has been used in the sense of legal ownership and not just physical possession. Ayman also means trust. The expression has been used in the Quran exclusively to mean ‘slave’ and this is how every authority has interpreted it with a few exceptions which will be discussed separately. The expression therefore also implies that your wife, children, orphans and relatives who may be living with you under your care and trust are not your ‘Malakat’ that is ‘owned by you’. They are free people although dependent. A man’s wife as per the Quran is therefore clearly a free woman, with all the rights and privileges that go with it on par with her husband. It also subtly communicates that while you own the slave, it is in trust from God to Whom you are fully accountable for humane and kind treatment of the slave.

While interpreting it as `slave’ in 11 of the fourteen occurrences of the expression in the Quran, Muhammad Asad has interpreted it differently following Tabari and Razi in three occurrences of the expression. If the Quran were to show inconsistency in the usage of an expression irrespective of the number of meanings the expression may have in its usage outside the Book, it would not qualify as a Book that makes things clear and is without any crookedness. The inconsistency is never on the part of the Quran. It is on account of the interpreter. The very fact that someone has shown such inconsistency renders all his work of doubtful scholarship. If a person interprets the Quran not as the word of God but as poetry, giving different meanings to the same expression in their various occurrences, then he lacks the qualities essential in an exegete of the Quran.

Let us examine the three cases:

a)       Verse 4:3 Walmohsinato Min Nisaiillama Malakataimanukum

Asad: And [forbidden to you are] all married women other than those whom you rightfully possess [through wedlock]:

Yusuf Ali: Also (prohibited are) women already married, except those whom your right hands possess:

Asad is saying that forbidden to you are all married women except the ones who are already married to you which is meaningless! Apart from that, he is treating `Mohsinat’ which means both a married woman and free woman in this context as ‘owned’ by you. Wedlock does not give Malakat or ownership and is clearly antithetical to the usage of the expression elsewhere in the Quran and also to the status of wife as a free woman. The verse is correctly interpreted by Yusuf Ali as granting rights over slaves who may have been married women before becoming slave.

b)       Verse (23:5 - 7) as translated by Asad:

(23:5) and who are mindful of their chastity, (23:6) [not giving way to their desires] with any but their spouses - that is, those whom they rightfully possess [through wedlock] -:3 for then, behold, they are free of all blame, (23:7) whereas such as seek to go beyond that [limit) are truly transgressors; (

As translated by Yusuf Ali

23:5) Who abstain from sex,(6) Except with those joined to them in the marriage bond, or (the captives) whom their right hands possess,- for (in their case) they are free from blame, (7) But those whose desires exceed those limits are transgressors;-

In this case, Asad interprets ‘aw’ meaning ‘or’ as ‘that is’. He does not therefore treat `spouse’ and `ma Malakataimanuhum’ as separate categories but spouse as ‘ma Malakataimanuhum’ subverting the status of spouse once again to ‘slave’ or a person owned by the husband. Also, if the intention was to say only wife as Asad implies, where was the need to use the expression `Ma Malakataimanuhum’? In verse 4:33, `Aqadataimanukum’ translated as ‘those to whom your right hand was pledged’ and implies spouse (husband or wife) has been used to denote spouse. Clearly, therefore usage of ‘Ma Malakataiman’ for spouse is improper and only means ‘slave’ wherever it has been used in the Quran.

c)       Verses 70:30 which is similar/identical to 23:6 and therefore the discussion under (b) above would repeat.

In his translation of the complete Quran, Asad has translated ‘aw’ as ‘that is’ only in verses 24:3 (twice), 25:62, and 50:37 besides the two cases under b) and c) above. Therefore, as against hundreds of occurrences of the conjunction ‘aw’, Asad has translated it as `that is’ only in 5 verses. Yusuf Ali has consistently translated ‘aw’ as ‘or’. The Quranic consistency in usage of words is therefore not just for complete expressions such ‘ma malakataiman’ but for even conjunction such as ‘aw’!

The ‘mistranslation’ in the three verses does not have the same drastic consequences as in 23:6 and 70:30

I reproduce those three verses below:

24:3 Translated by Asad:

[Both are equally guilty:] the adulterer couples with none other than an adulteress - that is, a woman who accords [to her own lust] a place side by side with God; and with the adulteress couples none other than an adulterer - that is, a man who accords (to his own lust] a place side by side with God: and this is forbidden unto the believers.

Translated by Yusuf Ali:

(3) Let no man guilty of adultery or fornication marry and but a woman similarly guilty, or an Unbeliever: nor let any but such a man or an Unbeliever marry such a woman: to the Believers such a thing is forbidden.

Clearly, Yusuf Ali’s translation is the more correct one since adultery was commonplace among pagan Arabs and not a social taboo or crime. An adulterer was therefore allowed to marry only another adulterer or a disbeliever.

(25:62) as translated by Asad:

And He it is who causes the night and the day to succeed one another, [revealing Himself in His works] unto him who has the will to take thought - that is, has the will to be grateful.

(25:62) as translated by Yusuf Ali:

 And it is He Who made the Night and the Day to follow each other: for such as have the will to celebrate His praises or to show their gratitude.

Here the difference is less significant but clearly, Yusuf Ali’s translation is the more correct because reflection of the phenomena described can result in a person praising God or showing gratitude or both which what is meant when ‘or’ is used.

50:37 as translated by Asad:

In this, behold, there is indeed a reminder for everyone whose heart is wide-awake - that is, [everyone who] lends ear with a conscious mind

(50:37) as translated by Yusuf Ali:

Verily in this is a Message for any that has a heart and understanding or who gives ear and earnestly witnesses (the truth).

Once again the difference is less significant but clearly Yusuf Ali’s translation is the more correct.


If a translator or an exegete follows the discipline outlined in the article and ensures consistency in his work, he can never go wrong, as the Quran is remarkably consistent in the manner and the meanings of words and expressions that it uses. The Quran itself provides a check on the accuracy of one’s understanding and interpretation. It is truly a Book that makes everything manifestly clear beyond doubt and is without crookedness.