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Monday, December 06, 2004

Concubines: Wives or Sex-Slaves?

By Farzana Hassan-Shahid.

In the modern western mind, the word “concubine” may immediately
invoke images of medieval seraglios and harems, where women dance to the
whims of their capricious master, obsequiosly obliging him in every
possible way. Historical evidence indicates that such was indeed the case
in many Muslim and Non Muslim lands, and that concubinage as an
institution remained unchallenged for centuries, both before and after the
advent of Islam. The question however arises as to whether Islam as a
religion of social justice, put an end to this morally sacrileges
institution, or whether it gave it tacit approval, albeit for a limited time?

Muhammad Asad, a noted modern exegete and commentator of the Qur’an
adopts the uncompromising position that the Qur’an never at any point,
gave Muslim men the sanction to acquire war captives as concubines. In
his learned commentary, he states that verse 4:3 of the Qur’an exhorts
Muslim men to marry free believing women and if these not be available,
then to marry those from the captives, and by doing so elevate their
status in Muslim society. He asserts that the command to marry both
categories of women is unequivocally stated in the Qur’an as follows:

“If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans,
marry women of your choice, two or three or four: But if ye fear that
ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them) then only one, or (a
captive ) that your right hands possess. That will be more suitable, to
prevent you from doing injustice.”

He further states that the exhortation to marry captives, rather than
to retain them as concubines, is reiterated in verse 4:24 of the Qur’an
as stated below:

“Also prohibited are women already married, except those whom your
right hands posses. Thus hath God ordained (prohibition) against you.
Except for these all others are lawful, provided you seek (them in
marriage) with gifts from your property--desiring chastity, not lust, seeing
that ye derive benefit from them, give them their dowers,(at least) as
prescribed; but if after the dower is prescribed, ye mutually( vary it)
there is no blame on you, and God is All-Knowing, All-Wise”

Asad asserts that the institution of marriage, not concubinage is being
discussed here with respect to both free women and captives of war. The
notion of maintaining a harem with an unlimited number of concubines
would contradict the very essence of the verse quoted above, which
clearly warns Muslim men to preserve their chastity within wedlock. Such an
interpretation would also be more consistent with Islam’s general
philosophy regarding sex outside of marriage.

Nonetheless, wives and concubines or “milk yameens” are often discussed
in the Qur’an as separate categories of women with whom a man may have
sexual relations. This may of course give credence to the view that
concubines, as sexual partners outside marriage, are permitted in Islam.
To clarify the meaning of such verses, Abdullah Yusuf Ali provides the
following explanation:

‘Captives of war may be married as such, but their status is inferior
to that of free wives until they are free. This institution of the
captives of was is now obsolete. Such inferiority of status as there was,
was in the status of captivity , not in the status of marriage as such,
in which there are no degrees except by local customs, which Islam does
not recognize”(Abdullah Yusaf Ali, The Holy Quran: Translation and

Thus according to the above explanation, the mention of wives and “milk
yameens” or those “possessed by the right hand” as distinct categories,
was not due to the fact that the wives were married and the captives
were not, but that socially the latter were still at a disadvantage until
they gave birth, after which they would earn their right to be freed.

An ethical question which must be addressed is whether the female
prisoners of war could exercise choice in such matters. Here a distinction
must be made between the institution of slavery as it is generally
understood, and the concept of a “milk yameen” or one who comes to be
“possessed by the right hand” as a captive of war. In a nutshell, one can
unequivocally state that there exist no grounds for comparison between
the two. Whereas the slave could be subjected to all sorts of barbaric
and inhumane treatment, the “milk yameen” was a virtual family member,
enjoying equal rights and privileges with other family members. Thus
any injury inflicted on the “milk yameen” by a “master”, would
automatically result in the latter’s immediate release according to the strict
rules governing the institution. A rape or assault must necessarily be
regarded as the worst type of injury inflicted on a human being and
would qualify as grounds for the female captive’s immediate release. It
would therefore be safe to conclude that the relationship between a “milk
yameen” and her “master” was consensual, leaving no room for coercion
in such cases. Muslim orthodoxy too, has traditionally characterized
the relationship between a “milk yameen” and her “master”, as a de facto
marriage, with all the rights and obligations that proceed from such a

Concubinage must also be understood within the wider issue of
“slavery”. According to modern exegetes, verse 47:4 which exhorts believers to
free slaves or “milk yameens” “by grace or by ransom” clearly abolished
slavery or the institution of the “milk yameen”. They further state
that this verse supersedes any previous verses of the Qur’an, which may
have allowed the institution to continue as a reciprocal arrangement
between Muslims and Non-Muslims for a limited time. If such an
interpretation is accepted, then it must follow that concubinage, which was
linked to the institution of “slavery”, was abolished along with it.

Women continue to suffer many injustices because of a misapplication
and misinterpretation of Qur’anic verses based on spurious hadith
literature, wherein there seems to be a greater sanction for concubinage as
sex-slavery. Such ahadith have to be weighed against an informed
understanding of Qur’anic verses and rejected wherever they conflict with
the basic intent of the Qur’an. Moreover, the greatest exemplar of
Qura’nic virtues was our beloved prophet pbuh. According to authentic
sources, he freed and married two Jewish women, Saffiyaah and Jawairriya,
who had come under his care. In all likelihood, he also married Maria
the Copt, although there are conflicting reports as to whether a formal
marriage ceremony ever took place or not.


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