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Women's Rights in the Harem

Chapters from the Koran.
Vol. 45, pp. 967-974 of The Harvard Classics

The Koran defines the powers of a husband over his wives. Thus a woman unfaithful to her lord may be walled up alive.
(Mohammed arrives at Kuba after "The Flight," Sept. 20, 622.)

Medina Suras
The Chapter of Women

  IN the name of the merciful and compassionate God.

  O ye folk! fear your Lord, who created you from one soul, and created therefrom its mate, and diffused from them twain many men and women. And fear God, in whose name ye beg of one another, and the wombs; verily, God over you doth watch. 1

  And give unto the orphans their property, and give them not the vile in exchange for the good, and devour not their property to your own property; verily, that were a great sin. But if ye fear that ye cannot do justice between orphans, then marry what seems good to you of women, by twos, or threes, or fours; and if ye fear that ye cannot be equitable, then only one, or what your right hands possess. 2 That keeps you nearer to not being partial.

  And give women their dowries freely; and if they are good enough to remit any of it of themselves, then devour it with good digestion and appetite. 3

  But do not give up to fools 4 their property which God has made you to stand by; but maintain them from it, and clothe them, and speak to them with a reasonable speech. Prove orphans until they reach a marriageable age, and if ye perceive in them right management, then hand over to them their property, and do not devour it extravagantly in anticipation of their growing up. And he who is rich, let him abstain; but he who is poor, let him devour in reason, and when ye hand over to them their property, then take witnesses against them; but God sufficeth for taking account.

  Men should have a portion of what their parents and kindred leave, and women should have a portion of what their parents and kindred leave, whether it be little or much, a determined portion. And when the next of kin and the orphans and the poor are present at the division, then maintain them out of it, and speak to them a reasonable speech. And let these fear lest they leave behind them a weak seed, for whom they would be afraid; and let them fear God, and speak a straightforward speech. Verily, those who devour the property of orphans unjustly, only devour into their bellies fire, and they shall broil in flames.

  God instructs you concerning your children; for a male the like of the portion of two females, and if there be women above two, then let them have two-thirds of what (the deceased) leaves; and if there be but one, then let her have a half; and as to the parents, to each of them a sixth of what he leaves, if he has a son; but if he have no son, and his parents inherit, then let his mother have a third, and if he have brethren, let his mother have a sixth after payment of the bequest he bequeaths and of his debt.

  Your parents or your children, ye know not which of them is nearest to you in usefulness:—an ordinance this from God; verily, God is knowing and wise! And ye shall have half of what your wives leave, if they have no son; but if they have a son, then ye shall have a fourth of what they leave, after payment of the bequests they bequeath or of their debts. And they shall have a fourth of what ye leave, if ye have no son; but if ye have a son, then let them have an eighth of what ye leave, after payment of the bequest ye bequeath and of your debts.

  And if the man’s or the woman’s (property) be inherited by a kinsman who is neither parent nor child, and he have a brother or sister, then let each of these two have a sixth; but if they are more than that, let them share in a third after payment of the bequest he bequeaths and of his debts, without prejudice, 5—an ordinance this from God, and God is knowing and clement!

  These be God’s bounds, and whoso obeys God and the Apostle He will make him enter into gardens beneath which rivers flow, and they shall dwell therein for aye;—that is the mighty happiness.

  But whoso rebels against God and His Apostle, and transgresses His bounds, He will make him enter into fire, and dwell therein for aye; and for him is shameful woe.

  Against those of your women who commit adultery, call witnesses four in number from among yourselves; and if these bear witness, then keep the women in houses 6 until death release them, or God shall make for them a way.

  And if two of you commit it, then hurt them both 7; but if they turn again and amend, leave them alone, verily, God is easily turned, compassionate.

  God is only bound to turn again towards those who do evil through ignorance and then turn again. Surely, these will God turn again to, for God is knowing, wise. His turning again is not for those who do evil, until, when death comes before one of them, he says, ‘Now I turn again;’ nor yet for those who die in misbelief. For such as these have we prepared a grievous woe.

  O ye who believe! it is not lawful for you to inherit women’s estates against their will; nor to hinder them, 8 that ye may go off with part of what ye brought them, unless they commit fornication manifestly; but associate with them in reason, for if ye are averse from them, it may be that ye are averse from something wherein God has put much good for you.

  But if ye wish to exchange one wife for another, and have given one of them a talent, 9then take not from it anything. What! would you take it for a calumny and a manifest crime. 10?

  How can ye take it when one of you has gone in unto the other, and they have taken from you a rigid compact?

  And do not marry women your fathers married,—except bygones,—for it is abominable and hateful, and an evil way; unlawful for you are your mothers, and your daughters, and your sisters, and your paternal aunts and maternal aunts, and your brother’s daughters, and your sister’s daughters, and your foster mothers, and your foster sisters, and your wives’ mothers, and your step daughters who are your wards, born of your wives to whom ye have gone in; but if ye have not gone in unto them, then it is no crime in you; and the lawful spouses of your sons from your own loins, and that ye form a connexion between two sisters,—except bygones,—verily, God is forgiving, merciful; and married women, save such as your right hands possess,—God’s Book against you!—but lawful for you is all besides this, for you to seek them with your wealth, marrying them and not fornicating; but such of them as ye have enjoyed, give them their hire as a lawful due; for there is no crime in you about what ye agree between you after such lawful due, verily, God is knowing and wise.

  But whosoever of you cannot go the length of marrying marriageable women who believe, then take of what your right hands possess, of your maidens who believe;—though God knows best about your faith. Ye come one from the other; then marry them with the permission of their people, and give them their hire in reason, they being chaste and not fornicating, and not receivers of paramours.

  But when they are married, if they commit fornication, then inflict upon them half the penalty for married women; that is for whomsoever of you fears wrong; but that ye should have patience is better for you, and God is forgiving and merciful.

  God wishes to explain to you and to guide you into the ordinances of those who were before you, and to turn towards you, for God is knowing, wise. God wishes to turn towards you, but those who follow their lusts wish that ye should swerve with a mighty swerving! God wishes to make it light for you, for man was created weak.

  O ye who believe! devour not your property amongst yourselves vainly, unless it be a merchandise by mutual consent. And do not kill yourselves; verily, God is compassionate unto you.

  But whoso does that maliciously and unjustly, we will broil him with fire; for that is easy with God.

  If ye avoid great sins from which ye are forbidden, we will cover your offences and make you enter with a noble entrance.

  And do not covet that by which God has preferred one of you over another. The men shall have a portion of what they earn, and the women a portion of what they earn; ask God for His grace, verily, God knows all.

  To every one have we appointed kinsfolk as heirs of what parents and relatives and those with whom ye have joined right hands leave; so give them their portion, for, verily, God is over all a witness.

  Men stand superior to women in that God hath preferred some of them over others, and in that they expend of their wealth: and the virtuous women, devoted, careful (in their husbands’) absence, as God has cared for them. But those whose perverseness ye fear, admonish them and remove them into bed-chambers and beat them; but if they submit to you, then do not seek a way against them; verily, God is high and great.

  And if ye fear a breach between the two, 11 then send a judge from his people and a judge from her people. If they wish for reconciliation, God will arrange between them; verily, God is knowing and aware.

  And serve God, and do not associate aught with Him; and to your parents show kindness, and to kindred, and orphans, and the poor, and the neighbour who is akin, and the neighbour who is a stranger, and the companion who is strange, and the son of the road, and what your right hands possess, 12 verily, God loves not him who is proud and boastful; who are miserly and bid men be miserly too, and who hide what God has given them of His grace;—but we have prepared for the misbelievers’ shameful woe.

  And those who expend their wealth in alms for appearance sake before men, and who believe not in God nor in the last day;—but whosoever has Satan for his mate, an evil mate has he.

  What harm would it do them if they believed in God and in the last day, and expended in alms of what God has provided them with? but God knows about them.

  Verily, God would not wrong by the weight of an atom; and if it’s a good work, He will double it and bring from Himself a mighty hire.

  How then when we bring from every nation a witness, and bring thee as a witness against these on the day when those who misbelieve and rebel against the Apostle would fain that the earth were levelled with them? but they cannot hide the news from God.

  O ye who believe! approach not prayer while ye are drunk, until ye well know what ye say; nor yet while polluted,—unless ye be passing by the way,—until ye have washed yourselves. But if ye are sick, or on a journey, or one of you come from the privy, or if ye have touched a woman, and ye cannot find water, then use good surface sand and wipe your faces and your hands therewith; verily, God pardons and forgives.

  Do ye not see those who have been given a portion of the Book? they buy error, and they wish that ye may err from the way! But God knows best who your enemies are, and God suffices as a patron, and sufficient is God as a help.

  And those who are Jews, and those who pervert the words from their places, and say, ‘We hear but we rebel, and do thou listen without hearing,’ and (who say) ‘râ’hinâ,’ 13distorting it with their tongues and taunting about religion. But had they said, ‘We hear and we obey, so listen and look upon us,’ it would have been better for them and more upright;—but may God curse them in their misbelief, for they will not believe except a few.

  O ye who have been given the Book! believe in what we have revealed, confirming what ye had before; ere we deface your faces and turn them into hinder parts, or curse you as we cursed the fellows of the Sabbath 14 when God’s command was done.

  Verily, God pardons not associating aught with Him, but He pardons anything short of that to whomsoever He pleases; but he who associates aught with God, he hath devised a mighty sin.

  Do ye not see those who purify themselves? nay, God purifies whom He will, and they shall not be wronged a straw. 15

  Behold, how they devise against God a lie, and that is manifest sin enough.

  Do ye not see those to whom a portion of the Book has been given? They believe inGibt 16 and Tâghût, 17 and they say of those who misbelieve, ‘These are better guided in the way than those who believe.’ These are those whom God has cursed, and whom God has cursed no helper shall he find.

  Shall they have a portion of the kingdom? Why even then they would not give to men a jot. 18

  Do they envy man for what God has given of His grace? We have given to Abraham’s people the Book and wisdom, and we have given them a mighty kingdom. And of them are some who believe therein, and of them are some who turn from it, but Hell is flaming enough for them.

  Verily, those who disbelieve in our signs, we will broil them with fire; whenever their skins are well done, then we will change them for other skins, that they may taste the torment. Verily, God is glorious and wise.

  But those who believe and do aright, we will make them enter gardens beneath which rivers flow, and they shall dwell therein for ever and aye, for them therein are pure wives, and we will make them enter into a shady shade. Verily, God bids you pay your trusts to their owners, and when ye judge between men to judge with justice. Verily, God, excellent is what He admonishes you with; verily, God both hears and sees.

  O ye who believe! obey God, and obey the Apostle and those in authority amongst you; and if ye quarrel about anything, refer to God and the Apostle, if ye believe in God and the last day; that is better and fairer as a settlement.

  Do ye not see those who pretend that they believe in what has been revealed to them, and what was revealed before thee; they wish to refer their judgment to Tâghût, but they are bidden to disbelieve therein, and Satan wishes to lead them into a remote error. And when it is said to them, ‘Come round to what God has sent down and unto the Apostle,’ thou seest the hypocrites turning from thee, turning away.

  How then when there befalls them a mischance through what their hands have sent on before? then will they come to you, and swear by God, ‘We meant naught but good and concord.’ These, God knows what is in their hearts. Turn thou away from them and admonish them, and speak to them into their souls with a searching word.

  We have never sent an apostle save that he should be obeyed by the permission of God; and if they, when they have wronged themselves, come to thee and ask pardon of God, and the Apostle asks pardon for them, then they will find God easy to be turned, compassionate.

  But no! by thy Lord! they will not believe, until they have made thee judge of what they differ on; then they will not find in themselves aught to hinder what thou hast decreed, and they will submit with submission. But had we prescribed for them, ‘Kill yourselves, or go ye forth out of your houses,’ they would not have done it, save only a few of them; but had they done what they are admonished, then it would have been better for them, and a more firm assurance.

  And then we would surely have brought them from ourselves a mighty hire, and would have guided them into a right path.

  Whoso obeys God and the Apostle, these are with those God has been pleased with, of prophets and confessors and martyrs and the righteous;—a fair company are they.

  That is grace from God, and God knows well enough.

Note 1. That is, fear God, and pay respect to your mothers and wives. 
Note 2. That is, female slaves. 
Note 3. The Arabic idiom for the enjoyment of property being to eat it up, Mohammed here gives the men permission to enjoy such portion of their wives’ dowries as the latter might be pleased to remit, and adds, with a sort of humour, the colloquial expression used by the Arabs when any one is eating. The sentence might be paraphrased ‘and if they are kind enough to remit any portion of it of their own accord, then enjoy it, and much good may it do you!’ 
Note 4. To idiots or persons of weak intellect. 
Note 5. I. e. to the heirs. 
Note 6. Women taken in adultery or fornication were at the beginning of Islâm literally immured. 
Note 7. The commentators are not agreed as to the nature of the offence here referred to. The text, however, speaks of two of the masculine gender. The punishment to be inflicted is also the subject of dispute, the original merely saying, as I have translated it, ‘hurt them.’ 
Note 8. That is, from marrying again. 
Note 9. That is, a large dowry. 
Note 10. This question is ironical, and intended as a warning against beinging a false accusation of infidelity against a wife for the sake of keeping her dowry when divorced. 
Note 11. Man and wife. 
Note 12. I. e. slaves. 
Note 13. The Jewish Arabs used this word derisively. 
Note 14. Turning them into apes. 
Note 15. The word in the original means a fibre in the cleft of a date stone, or the rush wick of a candle. 
Note 16. Idols of the ancient Arabs. 
Note 17. Idols of the ancient Arabs. 
Note 18. Literally, a dent or cleft in a date stone. 


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