Can Men Sleep with Women Other Than Their Wives?

Can Men Sleep with Women Other Than Their Wives?


assalamu alaikum the only thing stopping me from fully accepting Islam is that men can sleep with women who they aren’t married to but who “their right hand possesses” / women in war circumstances. I just don’t see how that doesn’t qualify as rape since the woman might not (probably won’t) want it. Maybe you could explain it.

Wa alykum as-salaam,

First of all, there is nothing and I truly mean this, nothing in The Qur’an which can justify rape, nor is there anything in The Qur’an that could even hint at that possibility. So if your concern is over the idea that “rape” is somehow permitted or sanctioned by The Qur’an, then please, I assure you, and I have addressed this issue in another post, which you can read here.

As far as men being able to have sexual relations with women who they are unmarried, that is one of the most heated debates, for hormonal young Muslims and legal scholars, albeit for very different issues.

Now, before we continue, let us make a very sharp distinction here, there was never a time in which the Muslim armies would simply take women captives and have sex with them, let alone rape them. This did not happen, nor is it supported in The Qur’an.

What you might be confusing is the practice of the Muslim armies, when they were out on campaign, to engage in the practice of temporary marriage, or mutah, which far from rape or enslaving women for sex, was men entering into temporary marriages with women while on military campaign, giving them dowries and gifts and these women would have their rights.

Caliph Omar made this practice impermissible, and thus it is something that Sunnis and Shia fight over, even though none of us go on military campaigns and would probably never utilize this, and I hope you can pick up from my dismissive tone the amount of interest I have in debating temporary marriage or mutah.

The point is, when they were on military campaigns, Muslim men went into these marriages, and I want to underline that they were marriages, as some men were getting a little “uneasy” (that’s a nice way to put it) since they asked The Prophet if they should castrate themselves to help control themselves. (I’m not even kidding about this, yes, you read that right, castrate themselves)

Now why do I emphasize that they were marriages? Frankly speaking, because the Muslims armies did not rape women, and also when they were on military campaigns, they utilized this tool, and in order to engage in temporary marriage, you are obviously entering into a consensual relationship.

I’d also like to be abundantly clear about something else, the concept of “temporary marriage” has nothing to do with the concept of “what your right hands possess.” These are two distinct and separateissues, and so the issue of Muslim men having sex while on military campaign involves the issue of “temporary marriage,” and the concept of “what your right hands possess” is another, distinct issue.

I hope I have addressed your concerns over the false accusations of rape and what not against Muslims, and if not, please ask me follow up questions.

Now, in regards to the phrase “what your right hands possess,” this is a line that has been debated by even the earliest scholars. What this phrase means, is up to interpretation. I will be honest, I don’t think it matters for our day-and-age, because we do not live in the same context as one in which having a concubine was critical (for various reasons we do not have today).

Now, when I say concubine, I’m not talking some woman you have for simple sexual pleasure, because The Qur’an restricts that possibility, completely:

“And if any of those whom you rightfully possess desire [to obtain] a deed of freedom, write it out for them if you are aware of any good in them: and give them [their share] of the wealth of God which He has given you.” [24:33] Muhammad Asad

Okay, so this is the second part (of three) of 24:33, and it clearly underlines the phrase in question, and it refers, in this context, both male and female slaves, but also it underlines that if they ask for freedom, give it to them; specifically that is a moral obligation (upon a Muslim) to help slaves free themselves from bondage (as many were slaves because of debts, etc). So, from this aspect, that we take the next part of 24:33:

“And do not, in order to gain some of the fleeting pleasure of this worldly  life, coerce your [slave] maidens into whoredom if they happen to be desirous of marriage; and if anyone should coerce them, then, verily, after they have been compelled [to submit in their helplessness], God will be much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace!” [24:33] Muhammad Asad

So, this ayah of The Qur’an explicitly prohibits the Muslim from utilizing his female slaves for sex, and that if they (the slaves) want marriage, which means they are receptive to the owner romantically, that the Muslim man must marry her in order to have sexual relations. It also underlines that women are not to blame if they are in this position and have sex with their masters, this is the fault of the master.

Case-closed, right? Well, not exactly, because we still haven’t discussed other parts of The Qur’an, which deal with this famous phrase. In 70:30, and in 23:6 we get two ayat which underline that a Muslim man may have sexual relations with his wife “and” those “whom they rightfully possess.” You will see why I wrote “and” later.

Now, this would seem that it would accept the idea that a Muslim man can have sexual relations with someone he is not married to, but (and this is a huge but) that interpretation can only be possible if you associate the phrase with slavery.

Why would Muslims back-in-the-day allow this to happen? Again, there is a practical reason why they would be inclined towards this interpretation, and that is because, you had to have boys in order to make sure you don’t get killed, have everything stolen, etc. I realize this doesn’t sound very, acceptable, but this is how people lived back then, and quite frankly, until very recently (and unfortunately, in many parts of the world, they still have this concern).

So, there were no 401K retirement plans, no pensions, the only way you could have an “insurance plan” was if you had kids, lots of kids, and boys were a more assured commodity, because they could more easily work on farms and other jobs, as well as have a greater access to education and military service (how poor families could achieve social mobility), so boys (but children in general) were something you wanted. So, they would try and have kids, and lots of them. This meant that when their wives couldn’t have children, or if the women weren’t having boys (even though men determine the sex of the baby, but they didn’t know that) then they would marry another, or get a concubine to produce an heir.

This was of especial importance to those with heredity titles, and since people with heredity titles tend to have more money, and therefore more power, they tended to push the interpretations of 23:6 and 70:30 as to include concubines, and they would try to ignore 24:33. This was an issue of history and not of the early Muslims, but it is where we get the idea that having sex with a slave or a woman you are not married to is okay: it is historical.

Obviously, we do not live in that same world, and thus denying this possibility is easy for us, but it was far more difficult for people back-in-the-day, just like even though there is clear evidence that slavery is wrong, Muslims still had and sold slaves. That being said, there are various historical (not just modern) commentaries that disagreed with the interpretation that these two ayat (70:30 and 23:6) allowed sex outside of marriage.

The entire argument hinges upon how you interpret that famous phrase. Muhammad Asad renders 70:30 and 23:6 like so:

“(29) and who are mindful of their chastity, (30) [not giving way to their desires] with any but their spouse – that is, those whom they rightfully possess [through wedlock] –: for then, behold, they are free of all blame,” [70:29-30]

I included the 29th ayah because it underlines Asad’s point, and his translation reflects how the phrase should be understood, and so:

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

This part of The Qur’an underlines even further Asad’s point, and it is not simply wishful thinking from Asad to render this phrase this way, rather, this is something that is agreed with from historical sources, but also, when we remember that The Qur’an itself makes sex with one’s slave outside of marriage to be impermissible (4:3, 4:24, 4:25, and 24:32).

Furthermore, when The Qur’an uses the terms “azwaj” (spouses) that is a unisex term, just as 24:33 underlines that the slaves we should free, applies to both male and female slaves, so to think that “ma malakat aymanuhum” is to only mean your “female” slaves, seems rather far-fetched.

Thus, outside of the context of slavery, this phrase, “ma malakat aymanuhum” means that husbands and wives, both rightfully possess each other by virtue of marriage. So, when we look at the Arabic particle “aw,” which people use to differentiate between spouses and slaves, it becomes clear that “aw” is really an amplification, and not a simple “or.” Think of it like when Barney Stinson amplifies something by going “oooooooorrrrrrrrrrrrr,” and you’ll get the idea.

Therefore, 4:24 completes this idea, because it says:

“And [forbidden to you are] all married women other than those whom you rightfully possess [through wedlock]: this is God’s ordinance, binding upon you. But lawful to you are all [women] beyond these, for you to seek out, offering them of your possessions, taking them in honest wedlock, and not in fornication.
And unto those with whom you desire to enjoy marriage, you shall give the dowers due to them; but you will incur no sin if, after [having agreed upon] this lawful due, you freely agree with one another upon anything [else]: behold, God is indeed all-knowing,wise.” [4:24]

So, when you take this into account, you come to the conclusion that no one can have sex outside of marriage, and when you read the commentaries of historical scholars like Razi who insisted that this phrase should be understood as “women whom you rightfully possess through wedlock,” which was seconded by Tabari as well as Abdullah ibn Abbas, Mujahid, and others, while Razi writes that because the reference to “all married women” comes after the prohibited degrees of relationships (in 4:23) that this was meant to stress the prohibition of sexual relations with any woman other than one’s lawful wife.

Now, there are many scholars who hold the previous opinion, of the permissibility of men having sex outside of marriage (even if they simply say it was historical). I think Asad, Razi, Tabari, et al have laid out a very impressive argument that I agree with, but I also understand (but do not condone) why historicallyothers interpreted this differently.

The reality is that, today, we do not find any use for that interpretation (justifying it), and so I hope that this puts you at ease, and I hope and pray that I will have the privilege of calling you my brother/sister in Islam soon, insha Allah.

I hope that answered your question, and if you, or anyone else, has a question on this, or any other subject, please do not hesitate to ask me, insha Allah.

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