Opinion, August 2003, www.aljazeerah.info
Legislation Given When Needed
Arab News, 8/9/03
In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Beneficent
And as for those who accuse their own wives (of adultery), but have no witnesses except themselves, let each of them call God four times to witness that he is indeed telling the truth; and the fifth time, that God’s curse be upon him if he is telling a lie.
However, punishment is averted from her if she calls God four times to witness that he is indeed telling a lie; and the fifth time, that God’s curse be upon her if he is telling the truth. Were it not for God’s favor upon you and His grace, and that God is the One who accepts repentance, the wise...! (Light, Al-Noor: 24: 6-10)
Last week we related in detail the event that led to the revelation of these verses outlining the method of proof to be adopted in a case where a husband accuses his wife of adultery and cannot produce four witnesses. The event involved Hilal ibn Umayyah, an Ansari companion of the Prophet who accused his wife. The Prophet demanded that he should have witnesses, or else he would suffer the penalty for false accusation. The Prophet found the situation very hard for him personally, for the accuser and for the Muslim community as a whole.
As this case provides for a special situation which is exempted from the general rules of false accusation, in recognition of the impossibility of providing witnesses, it may be asked why God did not reveal this exception to the general rules in the first place. Why has God waited until a case has taken place and caused embarrassment and hardship?
God certainly knows all this, but in His infinite wisdom He bestows from on high the revelation outlining the rules when the need for it is keenly felt. Thus, the rules are received with eagerness, and people immediately recognize the wisdom behind the legislation and the divine grace it ensures. Hence, the verses outlining the procedure are concluded with the statement: “Were it not for God’s favor upon you and His grace, and that God is the One who accepts repentance, the wise...!”
Let us pause a little here to reflect on the Islamic method of molding the new Muslim community and how the Prophet re-educated his companions by means of the Qur’an. We should remember here that he was dealing with Arabs who were strongly impulsive, particularly when it came to personal honor. They would rarely pause to consider options before rushing into action. Thus, when legislation was established outlining the punishment for accusing chaste women of adultery without providing the required proof, people found it hard. Saad ibn Ubadah, the chief of the Ansar, goes as far as asking: “Is that how it has been revealed, messenger of God?” He puts forth his question, knowing for certain that the verses were revealed in that way. His question, however, reflects the difficulty he felt of complying with that ruling in a particular situation he imagined. Hence, he explains: “Messenger of God! I know it to be true and that it comes from God. I only wondered that if I would find a man on top of my wife, I could not disturb him until I have brought four witnesses. By the time I bring them, he would have finished his business.”
Yet this situation that Saad finds very hard to imagine soon takes place in real life. A man comes forward, having found his wife with a man, seeing them with his own eyes, and hearing them with his own ears. Yet the Qur’anic rules do not permit any measures to be taken against the two. Therefore, he had to overcome his own feelings, traditions and the social environment that calls for immediate action. Even harder than that, he had to restrain himself and wait for a ruling from God. Such restraint is hard indeed, but Islam remolded those Arabs to patiently bear all this hardship so that there can be no rule other than that of God. Only His rulings apply in all life situations.
How could all this happen? Simply, those people felt that God was with them, and that He took care of them, without requiring them to put up with anything they could not bear. They realized that God would never abandon them in a situation that goes beyond their abilities and would never deal unjustly with them. They felt that they lived under God’s care. Hence, they looked for His grace in the same way as children look up to their compassionate guardian.
And the practical case involves a man, Hilal ibn Umayyah, who comes home to find his wife with a man, seeing and hearing them both. As he was alone, he could only complain of this to the Prophet who, in turn, feels that he must apply the ruling concerning an accusation not supported by four witnesses. Hence, he says to Hilal: “You either bring the proof or lay your back for punishment.” Hilal, however, believes that God would not let him suffer a punishment when he only stated the truth. He knew that what he said about his wife was true. At this moment, God reveals new verses outlining an exception in the case of husbands accusing their wives. The Prophet gives the good news to Hilal, who says confidently: “I certainly hoped that God would grant me that.” He certainly trusted to God’s mercy, justice and care. Furthermore, he was full of trust that God was looking after that community of believers. It was faith that remolded those Arabs and made them submit fully to God’s rulings, whatever they happened to be.
Having outlined the rules applicable in cases of accusing women of adultery, the surah mentions a case of false accusation that reflects the repugnance of this crime. It is a case that involves the Prophet’s own household with its noble and chaste inhabitants. It reflects on the honor of the Prophet, the most beloved person by God, and the honor of his friend, Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s closest companion. It also involves the honor of a man, Safwan ibn al-Mu’attal, who enjoys the Prophet’s own testimony that he never saw anything but good from him. It was a case that preoccupied the entire Muslim community in Madinah for a whole month.
We will look at the details of this case next week, God willing.
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