By Muhammad Yunus, New Age Islam
Co-author (Jointly with Ashfaque Ullah Syed), Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009
Most commentators have translated the captioned verses in a literalist and gendered manner purporting to legitimize a man’s sexual intimacy with slave/ captive women in the historical context, and maids, call girls etc. in today’s context. This contradicts the broader Qur’anic message, making a mockery of its laws relating to marriage.
The captioned verses belong to the Suras (al-Mu‘minun, 23 and al-Ma‘arij, 70) that date from the Meccan period of the revelation (610-622 AD). Marriage laws and those abolishing slavery were yet to be introduced. These came down in phases about a decade later (after the Prophet moved to Medina in 622) and abolished the notions of slavery as well as sex with captives, slave women, call girl and the like outside the wedding bond.
A recent focused exegetic (interpretational) work  that is approved by al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo and is endorsed and recommended by a leading American Islamic scholar and jurist Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, presents the following gender neutral universal translation of the captioned verses that negates the notions of slavery and all forms of extramarital relations:
“(Believers/Prayerful) preserve their private parts* (23:4/ 70:29) - except from their spouses (azwaj), that is (awe) those under their lawful trust (ma malakat ayman), and then (they are) not blame worthy (23:5/ 70:30).” *[Sexual impulses]
The traditional translation will typically read:
“(Believers/Prayerful) preserve their private parts* (23:4/ 70:29) - except from their wives (azwaj), or (awe) those that their right hands possess (ma malakat ayman) (such as captive/ slave women, bondmaids etc.) and then (they are) not blame worthy (23:5/ 70:30).” *[Sexual impulses]
The universal rendition is based on the following irrefutable considerations:
1. The gender neutral addressee – ‘believers’, ‘prayerful’ respectively of the passages 23:1-6 and 70:19-29 respectively that contain these verses. That is, both the passages are addressed to both men and women and not to men alone.
2. The word azwaj is rendered in a gender neutral manner (denoting both men and women) as consistently used in the Qur’an. Traditional translations are in the feminine form (as wives) which is gender-biased, misleading and untenable.
3. The particle awe (23:5/ 70:30) is translated as ‘that is' instead of ‘or’ based on its versatile connotation in the Qur’anic usage.
The tabled universal interpretation is further supported by the following Qur’anic illustrations and arguments to avoid any doubts and suspicions.
1. The Qur’an uses the word ‘right hand’ figuratively to denote a positive lawful status, such as the companions of the ‘right hand’ (56:8, 56:27) and God's ‘right hand’ (39:67). Therefore, the phrase ‘ma malakat ayman’ could be best rendered as “those under one’s lawful trust.”
2. Its following verses/ passages carry clear exhortations to freeing the salves:
• 90:13-16. 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 commands the freeing of a believing slave and paying compensation for any accidental killing of a believer.
• 5:89 lists the freeing of a slave as an option to expiate a false oath taken in the earnest.
• 2:177 includes the freeing of slaves among the virtues of the truly pious.
• 9:60 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
3. 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 i) marry from among the bondmaids under their lawful trust (4:3, 4:25), ii) marry off the unmarried ones among their male and female slaves (24:32) and iii) free their slaves against reasonable contract, allowing them to pay later for their freedom (24:33).
“If you fear that you cannot do justice by the orphans, marry women who please your - two or three or four; but if you still fear that you cannot treat (them) equitably, then only one, or (marry) someone under your lawful trust. Then it is most likely that you will not act unjustly” (4:3).
“And any of you who cannot afford to marry chaste believing woman (should marry) from believing bondmaids under your lawful trust, 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… (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. 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).
4. 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.
Conclusion: The Qur’an came to bring about an all round reform of human society that included, among other things, phased abolition of slavery and empowerment of women through the institution of marriage and other family laws. Therefore any suggestion to accommodate slavery or sex with captives, maids, call girls etc. in the fold of Islam will stand in stark contradiction to its universal message.
It is conceivable that with time the gendered and historic-specific traditional translation of the Qur’an will be refreshed with the tabled universal rendition. But how long the predominantly male Muslim scholarship will cling to the gendered traditional interpretation remains a question mark. Those lusting after extramarital avenues will not be happy with the tabled universal rendition. It is for the Muslim intelligentsia to take up the issue through Face book, Twitter and other forums rest the highly patriarchic Ulama will support and perpetuate the traditional rendition that caters to the masculine sexual lust.
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. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.
1. Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, Maryland (USA) 2009, authored by Muhammad Yunus and Ashfaque Ullah Syed.