Tafsir On Surah 23:1-6

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Revealed in Makkah (Ibn kathir)

Analysing Verses

“23:1 Certainly will the believers have succeeded:
23:2 They who are during their prayer humbly submissive
23:3 And they who turn away from ill speech
23:4 And they who are observant of zakah
23:5 And they who guard their private parts
23:6 Except from their wives or those their right hands possess, for indeed, they will not be blamed.” – Quran 23:1-6


Dr. Muhammad Asad:

“1 Lit., “working for” or “active in behalf of [inner] purity”, which is the meaning of zakah in this context (Zamakhshari; the same interpretation has been advanced by Abu Muslim).
2 Lit., “who guard their private parts”
3 Lit., “or those whom their right hands possess” (aw ma malakat aymanuhum). Most of the commentators assume unquestioningly that this relates to female slaves, and that the particle aw (“or”) denotes a permissible alternative. This conventional interpretation is, in my opinion, inadmissible inasmuch as it is based on the assumption that sexual intercourse with one’s female slave is permitted without marriage: an assumption which is contradicted by the Qur’an itself (see 4:3, 24, 25 and 24:32, with the corresponding notes). Nor is this the only objection to the above-mentioned interpretation. Since the Qur’an applies the term “believers” to men and women alike, and since the term azwaj (“spouses”), too, denotes both the male and the female partners in marriage, there is no reason for attributing to the phrase ma malakat aymanuhum the meaning of “their female slaves”; and since, on the other hand, it is out of the question that female and male slaves could have been referred to here, it is obvious that this phrase does not relate to slaves at all, but has the same meaning as in 4:24 – namely, “those whom they rightfully possess through wedlock” (see note 26 on 4:24) – with the significant difference that in the present context this expression relates to both husbands and wives, who “rightfully possess” one another by virtue of marriage. On the basis of this interpretation, the particle aw which precedes this clause does not denote an alternative (“or”) but is, rather, in the nature of an explanatory amplification, more or less analogous to the phrase “in other words” or “that is”, thus giving to the whole sentence the meaning,….. save with their spouses – that is, those whom they rightfully possess [through wedlock)..”, etc. (Cf. a similar construction 25:62 – ‘for him who has the will to take thought – that is [lit., “or”], has the will to be grateful’.)” (The Message of The Quran translated and explained by Muhammad Asad, page 734 – 735, online source http://www.usc.edu/schools/college/crcc/private/cmje/religious_text/The_Message_of_The_Quran__by_Muhammad_Asad )

Scholar Abdullah Yusuf Ali:

”2868 This is further explained and amplified in 4:25. It will be seen there that the status of a captive when raised to freedom by marriage is the same as that of a free woman as regards her rights, but more lenient as regards the punishment to be inflicted if she falls from virtue.”
(The Meaning of The Noble Qur’an by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, page 229, online source http://www.ulc.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/English-Quran-With-Commentaries.pdf)

Maulana Muhammad Ali:

“1a. The last two chapters opened with a warning of the approach of judgment. This, as a fitting sequel, opens with a declaration of the triumph of the believers, for it was possible that the wicked should have tasted punishment without resultant good to the faithful. To dispel all such doubts it is stated that the believers shall be successful even in this life.
4a. Fa‘il∂n (from fi‘l, doing) means doers of deeds, and li-l-zakat means for the sake of purity or to attain purity. The word zakat means originally purity, as in 19:13, while zakat in the sense of poor-rate is spoken of as being paid, yu‘t∂n al-zakat — they pay zakat, being always the form adopted. Hence the significance adopted here — they do what they do for the sake of, or to attain to, purity.
5a. Fur∂j, plural of farj, indicates the part of a person which it is indecent to expose (LL), particularly the pudenda. In this sense √if al-farj means generally the observing of continence, or the restraining of sexual passions.
6a. The words au m malakat aimanu-hum, of which a literal rendering is given in the translation, usually indicate slaves. It should be noted that this chapter is a Makkan revelation, and the conditions under which slave-girls could be taken as wives were given later at Madinah; see 4:25a. If the reference here is to sexual relations, the permission regarding those whom their right hands possess must be read subject to the conditions of 4:25. It may be added that slave-girls, when taken as wives, did not acquire the full status of a free wife, and hence they are spoken of distinctly. It may, however, be added that √if˚ al-farj in a wider sense means the covering of parts of the body which it is indecent to expose, and in this connection it must be borne in mind that according to Islamic rules of decency, the exposure of such parts of the body, as are generally exposed in ballrooms and theatres, is disallowed, but a certain degree of freedom is allowed to women in the presence of their husbands and female servants and to men in the presence of their wives and male servants.” (The Holy Quran Arabic Text with English Translation, Commentary and comprehensive Introduction [Year 2002 Edition] by Maulana Muhammad Ali, page 684)

Scholar Malik Ghulam:

“561. The expression, Ma Malakat Aimanukum, general signifies, women prisoners of war who are not ransomed and who are in the custody and control of their Muslim captors because they had taken part in a war which was waged to destroy Islam and thus had legitimately deprived themselves of their freedom. The term has been used in the Quran in preference to ‘Ibad and Ima’ (Slaves and bondwomen) to point to a just and rightful possession, the expression Milk Yamin signifying full and rightful possession (Lisan).
It includes both slaves and bondwomen, and it is only the context which determines what the expression signifies in a particular place. Much misunderstanding prevails as to what the expression ‘their hands possess’ signifies, and what are the rights and status of the persons to whom it applies. Islam has condemned slavery in unequivocal terms. According to it, it is a mortal sin to deprive a person of his or her liberty, unless, of course, he or she renders himself or herself of deprivation of it by taking part in a war waged to destroy Islam or Muslim State. It is also a grievous sin to buy or sell slaves. Islamic teaching on this point is quite clear, unequivocal and emphatic. According to it a person who makes another person his slave commits a grave sin against God and man (Bukhari, kitab al-Bai & Dawud as quoted by Fath al-Bari). It is worthy of note that when Islam came into the world, slavery was an integral part of the human social system and there existed a large number of slaves in every country. It was, therefore, not feasible, nor wise, to abolish with a stroke of the pen, an institution which had become so inextricably interwoven into the whole texture of human society, without doing serious injury to its mortal tone.
Islam, therefore, sought to abolish it gradually but effectively and surely. The ‘Quran has laid down the following very sound rules for the speedy and complete abolition of slavery: (1) Prisoners can only be taken after a regular battle. (2) They cannot be retained after the war is over, but (3) are to be set free either as a mark of favour or by exchange of prisoners (47:5). Those unfortunate persons, however, who, may fail to gain their freedom through any of these means, or should choose to remain with their Muslim masters, can purchase their emancipation by entering into a contract called Mukatabah with them (24:34). Now, if a women is taken prisoner in a war of the nature mentioned above and thus loses her liberty and becomes Milk Yamin, and she fails also to get her release by the exchange of prisoners of war, and the exigencies of government also do not justify her immediate release as a mark of favour, nor do her own people or government get her ransomed and she does not even seek to buy her freedom by entering into Mukatabah, and her master, in the interest of morality, marries her without her prior consent, in what way can this arrangement be regarded as objectionable. As regards establishing sexual relations with a female prisoner of war or a slave-wife without marrying her, neither this nor any other verse of the Qur’an lends any support to it whatever. Not only does the Qur’an not give any sanction for the treatment of female prisoners of war as wives without taking them into proper wedlock but there are clear and positive injunctions to the effect that these prisoners of war, like free women, should be married if they are treated as wives, the only difference between the two being temporary difference of social status, inasmuch as prior consent of prisoners of war to their marriage which they forfeit by taking part in a war against Islam is NOT considered necessary as in the case of free women. Thus the expression Ma Malakat Aimanukum, signifying female prisoners, according to the Qur’an LENDS NO SUPPORT whatsoever to the view that Islam has upheld concubinage. Besides the present verse, at least in as many as three other verses the injunction has been laid out down in clear and unambiguous terms that female prisoners of war should not remain unmarried (2:222; 4:26; 24:33). The holy Prophet is also very explicit on this point. He is reported to have said,
‘He who has a slave girl, and gives her proper education and brings her up in a becoming manner and then frees and marries her, for him is double reward.’ (Bukhari, Kitab al-Ilm). This saying of the Holy Prophet implies that if a Muslim wishes to have a slave girl as wife, he should first set her free and then marry her. The Holy Prophet’s own practice was quite in harmony with his precept. Two of the Holy Prophet’s wives, Juwairiyah and Safiyyah, came to him as prisoners of war. They were his Milk Yamin. But he married them according to Islamic Law. He also married Mariyah who was sent to him by the King of Egypt, and she enjoyed the status of free wife like the Prophet’s other wives. She observed Purdah and was included among “The Mothers of the Faithful.” The Qur’an makes it clear that the commandment regarding marriage applies to ‘whom your right hands possess’ as much as it does to ‘the daughters of the Holy Prophet’s paternal and maternal uncles and aunts.’ Both are to be wedded before they are treated as wives. All the three categories mentioned above were made lawful to the Holy Prophet through marriage (33:51). Further, the verse ‘And forbidden to you are married women, except such as your right hands possess’ (4:25) along with its preceding one deals with women whom it is unlawful for a man to marry and among these are included married women. But it makes one exception, which is that those married women who are taken prisoner in a religious war and then choose to remain with Muslims, can be married to their masters. The fact that they choose not to go to their former husbands is considered to be tantamount to the annulment of their marriage. It may also be noted in passing that it is not permitted to take in marriage such female relations of a bondwoman as correspond to the relations of a free woman within the prohibited degree. For instance, the mothers, sisters, daughters, etc., of a slave wife cannot be taken in marriage. It may further be stated that in view of the circumstances obtaining at the time of its revelation the Qur’an had to make a distinction between the social status of two classes of women. That distinction was expressed by the word zauj (a free woman taken in marriage) and Milk Yamin (bondwoman taken in marriage). The former word connotes a sense of equality between husband and wife while the latter implies a somewhat inferior status of the wife. That was, however, a temporary phase. The Qur’an and the Holy Prophet had strongly recommended that bondwomen should first be given full freedom and full status and then married as the Holy Prophet himself had done. Besides, Islam does NOT ALLOW women taken prisoner in ordinary wars to be treated as bondwomen. The permission about marrying a bondwoman without her prior consent comes into operation only when a hostile nation first wages a religious war against Islam in order to extirpate it and to compel Muslims to abandon their religion at the point of the sword and then treats their prisoners – men and women – as slaves, as was done in the time of the Holy Prophet. At that time the enemy took away Muslim women as prisoners and treated as bondwomen. The Islamic injunction was only a retaliatory measure and was in its very nature temporary. It also served the additional purpose of protecting the morals of captive women. Those conditions have ceased to exist now. There are no religious wars now and hence no prisoners of war to be treated as slaves or bondwomen.” (The Holy Qur’an – Arabic Text With English Translation & Short Commentary By Malik Ghulam Farid, page 183 – 184)


“5 The word Zakat literally means purification and development-to help something grow tip smoothly and develop without obstruction. As an Islamic term, it implies both the portion of wealth taken out for the purpose of purifying the rest of wealth and the act of purification itself. The words of the original Text mean that the Believer constantly practices purification. Thus the meaning is not confined to the paying off of Zakat dues only but it is extended to self-purification which includes purification of morals as well as wealth, property and life in general. Then it does not mean purification of one’s own self, but includes the purification of the lives of other people as well. So the verse means: “The Believers are the people who purify themselves as well as others.” This thing has been stated at other places in the Qur’an -also, for instance: “Successful is he who practiced -purification and remembered his Lord and prayed.” (LXXXVII: 1415), and: “Successful is he who purified himself and failure is he who corrupted it.” (XCI: 9-10). But this verse is more comprehensive in meaning because it stresses the purification of both society and one’s own person.
6 They are modest in every sense of the word. They are free from sex abuse and sex perversion. They are so modest that they even conceal those parts of their bodies which the Law forbids to expose before others. For explanation, see E.N.’s 30 and 32 of An-Nur (XXIV).
7 This is a parenthesis which is meant to remove the common misunderstanding that sex desire is an evil thing in itself and satisfying it even in lawful ways is not desirable, particularly for the righteous and godly people. This misunderstanding would have been strengthened had it been only said that the Believers guard their private parts scrupulously, because it would have implied that they live unmarried lives, away from the world, like monks and hermits. Therefore a parenthesis has been added to say that there is nothing wrong in satisfying the sex desire in lawful ways. What is evil is that one should transgress the prescribed limits for satisfying the sex desire.
Here are briefly a few injunctions which are based on this parenthetical clause:
(1) Two categories of women have been excluded from the general command of guarding the private parts: (a) wives, (b) women who are legally in ode’s possession, i.e. slave-girls. Thus the verse clearly lays down the law that one is allowed to have sexual relations with one’s slave-girl as with one’s wife. the basis being possession and not marriage. If marriage had been the condition, the slave-girl also would have been included among the wives, and there was no need to mention them separately. Some modern commentators, who dispute the permissibility of having sexual relations with the slave-girl, argue from An-Nisa’ (IV) : 25 to prove that one can have sexual relations with a slave-girl only after entering wedlock with her, because that verse enjoins that if a person cannot afford to marry a free Muslim woman, he may marry a Muslim slave-girl. But these commentators have a strange characteristic: they accept a part of a verse if it suits them, but conveniently ignore another part of the same verse if it goes against their wish and whim. The law about marrying the slave-girls as enunciated in IV :25 reads: “….you may marry them with the permission of their guardians and give them their fair dowries.” Obviously the person under reference here is not the master of the slave girl himself but the person who cannot afford to marry a free Muslim woman, and therefore , wants to marry a slave-girl, who is in the possession of another person. For if the question had been of marrying one’s own slave-girl, who would then be the “guardian” whose permission would have to be sought? Then, the interpretation they give of this verse contradicts other verses dealing with the same subject in the Qur’an. A sincere person who wants to understand the Qur’anic law in this regard should study An-Nisa’ (IV); 3, 25; AI-Ahzab (XXXIII): S0, 52, and Al-Ma`arij (LXX): 30 together with this verse of Al-Mu’minun. (For further explanation, see E.N. 44 of An-Nisa).
(2) The law prescribed in the parenthesis is only applicable to men as is clear from the Text. A woman in the time of Hadrat `Umar did not understand this fine point of the language and indulged in sexual gratification with her slave. When her case was brought before the consultative body of the Companions, they gave the unanimous decision: “She misinterpreted the Book of Allah” Nobody should entertain the doubt that if this exception is meant for the men only, how could then the husbands become lawful for the wives? This doubt is unjustified because when the husbands are exempted from the command of guarding their private parts in regard to their wives, the wives automatically stand exempted from the command with regard to their husbands, and there is no nerd to grant them exemption separately. Thus the command of exemption remains applicable and effective only in respect of the man and the woman legally in his possession, and the slave becomes unlawful for the woman possessing him. The wisdom of why the slave has been forbidden to the woman is that he can only satisfy her sexual desire but cannot become guardian and governor of herself and her household, which leaves a serious flaw in the family life.
(3) The sentence “…. but those who go beyond this (in lust for sexual desire), shall be transgressors” has made satisfaction of sex desire in other ways unlawful, whether it be through fornication, homosexuality, sex gratification with animals, or some other means. The jurists differ only with regard to masturbation. Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal regards it as lawful, but Imams Malik and Shafi`i regard it as absolutely unlawful: and though the Hanafites also regard it as unlawful, they give the opinion that if a person indulges sometimes in masturbation under the fit of passion, it is expected that he will be forgiven the error.
(4) Some commentators have proved the prohibition of Mut ah (temporary marriage) from this verse. They argue that the “woman with whom one has entered into wedlock temporarily, can neither be regarded as a Wife nor a slave-girl. A slave-girl obviously she is not, and she is also not a wife, because the legal injunctions normally applicable to the wife are not applicable to her. She neither inherits the man nor the man her; she is neither governed by the law pertaining to `Iddah (waiting period after divorce or death of husband), divorce, subsistence, nor by that pertaining to the vow by man that he will not have conjugal relations with her, false accusation, etc. She is also excluded from the prescribed limit of four wives. Thus, when she is neither a “wife” nor a “slave-girl” in any sense, she will naturally be included among those “beyond this”, whose seeker has been declared a “transgressor” by the Qur’an.
This is a strong argument but due to a weakness in it,-it is difficult to say that this verse is decisive with regard to the prohibition of Mut`ah. The fact is that the Holy Prophet enjoined the final and absolute prohibition of Mut ah in the year of the conquest of Makkah, but before it Mut ah was allowed according to several authentic traditions. If Mut ‘ah had been prohibited in this verse, which was admittedly revealed at Makkah, several years before the migration, how can it be imagined that the Holy Prophet kept the prohibition in abeyance till the conquest of Makkah? The correct position therefore is that prohibition of Mut ah is not based on any express law of the Qur’an but is based on the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet. Had it not beep prohibited by the Sunnah, it would have been difficult to declare it as prohibited only on the authority of this verse.
It would be worth-while to clarify two other points in connection with Mut’ah: (a) lts prohibition is based on the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet and therefore it is wrong to say that it was prohibited by Hadrat ‘Umar. As a matter of fact, Hadrat `Umar only enforced it as a law of Islam and publicised it among the people. This had not been done earlier because the Holy Prophet had forbidden Mut ‘ah only during the latter part of his worldly life.
(b) The Shiite view that Mut ah is absolutely lawful and permissible has no sanction and support in the Qur’an or Sunnah. The fact is that a few of the Companions, their followers and jurists who regarded it permissible in the early days of Islam, did so only in case of extreme necessity and need. None of them held the view that it was absolutely lawful like marriage and could be practised in normal circumstances. Hadrat `Abdullah bin ‘Abbas, who is generally cited as a prominent supporter of the view of permissibility, has himself explained his position thus: “It is just like carrion which is lawful for a person only in extreme necessity.” Even Hadrat Ibn ‘Abbas had to revise his opinion when he saw that people were abusing permissibility and had started practising Mut ah freely regardless of genuine need and necessity. Again, even if the question, whether Hadrat Ibn ‘.Abbas and the few likeminded jurists had revised their opinion or not, is ignored, the fact is that the supporters of Mut’ah allow it only in case of extreme necessity. Holding Mut ah as absolutely permissible, practising it without any real necessity, or resorting to it even when one has a legally wedded wife or wives is a kind of licence which is abhorred by good taste, much less it be attributed to the Shari ah of Muhammad (Allah’s peace be upon him) and imputed to the learned jurists of his family. I think that among the Shiite Muslims themselves no respectable person would like that somebody should ask for the hand of his daughter or sister not in marriage but for the purpose of Mutah. For if Mutah is held as absolutely permissible, it would imply that there should exist in society a low class of women, like the prostitutes, who should be available for the purpose as and when required, or if not that, Mutah be restricted to the daughters and sisters of the poor stratum of society and the well-to-do be given the freedom and right to exploit them as and when they like. Can such an injustice and discrimination be expected of the Divine Law? And will Allah and His Messenger permit an act which every respectable woman would regard not only disgraceful for herself but shameful, too?” (Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi – Tafhim al-Qur’an – The Meaning of the Qur’an on Surah 23:6 – online source http://www.englishtafsir.com/Quran/23/index.html#sdfootnote5sym )

Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi:

“6. i.e., who keep themselves away from every kind of sex abuse.
7. i.e., free women joined to them by regular marriage bond.
8. (as slave girls) i.e., women taken as captives in war and RAISED TO THE STATUS OF WIVES. In the Bible, slavery as an institution is not only recognised but definite laws and ordinances are provided for the purchase, sale and transfer of slaves both male and female. ‘Whereever possible,’ remarks English sociologist, ‘the man should, of course, have concubine of some sort.’ (Ludovici, woman, p. 172).”
(Tafsir -Ul- Qur’an: Translation And Commentary Of the Holy Qur’an [Published by Darul – Isaaht Urdu Bazar Karachi- 1 Pakistan – First Edition 1991] By Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi, volume 3, page 186)

Fi Dhilal Al Qur’an – Qutb:

“We see also in this permission a way to satisfy the natural needs of the women captives themselves, so that they did not resort to immorality. We see this happening today, despite the international treaties prohibiting slavery, when women are taken captive in war. Islam, however, does not condone such promiscuity. But Islam did open up several ways for women captives to gain their freedom: one of which automatically came into operation when the captive woman gave birth to her master’s child. In this case, she became free on her master’s death. Alternatively, her master may give her freedom, either voluntarily or in atonement for some offence he might have committed. Or, she may choose to buy her own freedom. A different situation applied if her master hit her across the face. He was, then, required to free her by way of compensation. There were further ways to freedom as well. Anyway, allowing captives through war was a temporary necessity in order to maintain equal treatment in a world where all war captives became servants. It was, however, not a part of the Islamic social system per se.” (In The Shade Of The Quran (‘Fi Dhilal Al Qur’an’), by Sayyid Qutb, volume 12, 152)


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