Does the Quran permit sex with slaves?
After a short exchange with a guy named “Tanvir Chowdhury” on Twitter Tanvir wrote a detailed response as to why he thinks sex with slaves is not endorsed by the Quran. I shall quote Tanvir’s response and intersperse my comments.
These verses as translated by Yusuf Ali reads:“Who abstain from sex,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”
The phrase “right hands possess” (arabic: Ma malakat aymanukum) used in verse 23:6 is presumed to mean “captives” (obtained through defensive war). And hence, many interpret this verse as permitting sex with one’s war captives or slaves.
However, the translation by Muhammad Asad reads slightly differently:“and who are mindful of their chastity[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”
Whilst I do like that you have chosen the nicest translation of the original text I find it unfortunate to say that this is a biased approach. I would prefer it if the Quran said not to have sex with slaves, that is my preference, but it’s a mixed blessing that reality doesn’t conform to my preferences.
- Ahmad Ali: Except from their wives and women slaves of old are free of blame,
- Arberry: Save from their wives and what their right hands own then being not blameworthy
- Daryabadi: Save in regard to their spouses and those whom their right hands own: so they are not blameworthy
- Khan: Except from their wives or the legal bondwomen that they possess, for then there is no blame upon them
- Maududi: save from their wives, or those whom their right hands possess; for with regard to them they are free from blame
- Pickthall: Save from their wives or the (slaves) that their right hands possess, for then they are not blameworthy
- Qaribullah: except with their wives and what their right hand possess, and then they are not blamed.
- Sahi Intl: Except from their wives or those their right hands possess, for indeed, they will not be blamed. 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,
- Shakir: Except before their mates or those whom their right hands possess, for they surely are not blameable,
There is quite a bit of variation here. Some interpret “Right hands possess” to mean slaves, some just quote it as it literally appears in the Quran. Ahmad Ali adds the words “of old” which do not exist in the Quran, a good example of translating the text to mean what you want rather than translating what it actually says. From this all we can conclude so far is that we need to work out the definition of “Right hands possess”.
- Except with your wives or (to put it another way) with those your right hands possess (through marriage).
- Except with your wives or with those your right hands posses.
The words “to put it another way” and “of old” do not appear in the original Arabic so must be inferred from other parts of the Quran, as Tanvir has done.
Muhammad Asad’s rendering of this verse indicates that there is no blame if one has sex with whom they “rightfully possess” through wedlock (ie. marriage). The justification for this rendering is given in his commentary on this verse, reproduced below:
“Many of the commentators assume unquestioningly that this relates to female slaves, and that the particle aw (“or”) denotes a permissible alternative. This interpretation is, in my opinion, inadmissible inasmuch as it is based on the assumption that sexual intercourse with ones female slave is permitted without marriage: an assumption, which is contradicted by the Qur’an itself (see 4:3, 24, 25 and 24:32)
I will address each referenced verse in turn.
- 4:2 Give unto orphans their wealth. Exchange not the good for the bad (in your management thereof) nor absorb their wealth into your own wealth. Lo! that would be a great sin.
- 4:3 And if ye fear that ye will not deal fairly by the orphans, marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if ye fear that ye cannot do justice (to so many) then one (only) or (the captives) that your right hands possess. Thus it is more likely that ye will not do injustice.
Various hadiths explain that 4:2-3 are verses about men marrying female orphans in their care. Two things these verses forbid are
- That the man mixes the wealth of the orphan with his own because she has more money (Mainly described in 4:2)
- If the man desires the orphan for reasons other than money he must ensure that he pays her a suitable Mahr (dowry), one that another suitor would have paid. Giving her anything less than she deserves would be unjust
Of the two options
- Your wives
- Your slave girls
Which of these make sense when applied to verses 4:2-3. The term “right hands possess” doesn’t seem to be referring to one’s wives as it is advising on some kind of relationship. It makes no sense to permit a man to marry those who his right hand possesses if that term means he is already married to them.
4:3 instructs the believing man that if he cannot treat the orphan justly (by means of not taking their wealth and by giving them a suitable dowry) they should instead marry 2,3 or 4 other women they like. If they cannot do justice to so many women (i.e. they cannot afford a suitable dowry for that many) then have only one (because that is less expensive), or the captive(s) your right hand possesses.
The final point could either mean to have sex with slaves instead of getting married, or it could mean that a dowry for a slave is less or even non-existent, so a man who cannot afford a wife could choose a slave as a cheaper option. Although this verse does not say “have sex with slaves” it does demonstrate that it is logically impossible for “right hand possesses” to mean one’s wive.
- 4:22 Do not marry your father’s ex-wives
- 4:23 Unlawful also are your mothers/daughters/sisters/aunts/nieces/foster mothers/foster sisters/mothers in law/ex-wives of genetic sons/women who are sisters/step daughters in your charge (unless not had sex with her mom)
- 4:24 Unlawful for men are already married women, except those he legally possesses. All non-mentioned women are lawful if you pay a fair dowry.
- 4:25 If you cannot afford to marry a believing woman then believing women your right hands possess.
Could “right hands possess” be referring to women you already possess in marriage? Again 4:24 rules this out. Women forbidden to men are those whom are already married *except* if he rightfully owns her. Possible variations here are whether right-hand-possesses means “slave girls” or “your married wives”, and also whether the verse has switched the topic from “legal in marriage” to “legal for sex”. I will address every variation
- Your wife, for sex
This option almost makes some sense*
- Your wife, for marriage
This option makes no sense
- Your slave, for sex
This option makes sense
- Your slave, for marriage
This option also makes sense
* Although this seems to make sense the verse does say that women who are “already married” are unlawful to you. This would mean that your wives who are married (presumably to you) are unlawful to you, which makes no sense.
The only two remaining options here that make sense are 3 and 4. Without knowing if the verse has switched from marriage to sexual intercourse it is impossible to say what is being permitted, however the verses seem to be referring to a context of marriage (as does 4:26) so could very well be saying that a man is permitted to marry one of his slaves even if she is already married to someone else (presumably Jewish and Christian women, as Muslim women cannot have more than one husband).
Relevant hadiths which claim verse 4:24 came about as a result of victorious Muslim men not wanting to have sex with female captives because they were polytheists.
- Abu Sa’id al-Khudri (Allah her pleased with him) reported that at the Battle of Hanain Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) sent an army to Autas and encountered the enemy and fought with them. Having overcome them and taken them captives, the Companions of Allah’s Messenger (may peace te upon him) seemed to refrain from having intercourse with captive women because of their husbands being polytheists. Then Allah, Most High, sent down regarding that:
The hadiths are both Sahih (strong), but as to their authenticity I cannot comment. If not authentic then this at least demonstrates how easily manipulated (or “misunderstood”) the verses are in order to permit state sanctioned rape.
And marry such of you as are solitary and the pious of your slaves and maid-servants. If they be poor, Allah will enrich them of His bounty. Allah is of ample means, Aware
This verse says that Muslim men and women may marry slaves whom are pious/righteous. It uses different words for “slaves” than the other verses do for “right hands possess” which could mean there is a difference between those whom one’s right hand possesses and one’s slaves. However it could also be the case that a different word was used because the slaves referred to are “righteous”.
If this different word is used only for righteous slaves then I would expect to see other references in the Quran specifying that the slaves are in some way righteous.
Imai: Female slave
- 24:32 Slaves who are righteous
- 2:221 Don’t marry idolaters until they believe, a believing slave girl is better
There are only two occurrences in the Quran for Imai, and both are referring to women slaves whom are better due to the fact that they are righteous/believers.
Ibadi: Male slave
- 2:23 Allah’s slave (Muhammad)
- 2:90 Allah’s chosen servants
- 2:138 Allah’s worshippers
- 2:178 Slave’s life for a slave’s life
- 2:186 Allah’s servants
All other occurrences may be viewed here, there are too many to list. For the most part it seems to refer to Allah’s slaves who would be considered more righteous than polytheists and non-believers.
To deal the final death blow to the idea that “right hands possess” means “possess through marriage” one only need look at the verse before this one, 24:31. It reads
And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to their own husbands or fathers or husbands’ fathers, or their sons or their husbands’ sons, or their brothers or their brothers’ sons or sisters’ sons, or their women, or their (right hands possess), or male attendants who lack vigour
The word used for the believing women’s slaves is “ayman“, which is the same word used in verse 23:6. So we have here another example of the exact same concept but instead from the point of view of a woman. If “right hand possesses” does in fact mean “your legally married spouse” then Allah seems to have forgotten that he had already said “their own husbands” and repeated it later in the same sentence; if (as Tanvir said) it is logical to list the same item twice “23:6 wives or (in other words) those whom their right hands possess (through marriage)” then 24:31 says a woman need not hide her private parts from “their women or (in other words) those whom their right hand possess (through marriage)”. A Muslim woman cannot marry another woman, so clearly this verse, which takes the same form as 23:6, cannot possibly be referring to her spouse.
Based on the various hadiths cited, the logical/illogical variations of meaning, and the fact that verse 23:41 seems to contradict the suggested meaning of 23:6 I can only conclude that “right hands possess” means one’s slaves/captives of war.
I’d continue, but this is big enough as it is and I think I have already made my point.