Intercourse with ‘those one’s right hand possesses’

Surah 4 (Al-Nisa/Women): 24

And all married women (are forbidden unto you), save such as your right hands possess (captives of war); it is a decree of Allah for you, 

But lawful for you are all beyond these.

So seek them with your wealth in honest marriage and not lust.

[‘Quran’, Hamid Aziz, 1981]

Five verses of the Qur’an unambiguously permit a believers to have sexual intercourse with ‘those whom their right hands possess’: {4.24} (reproduced above), {23.1-9}, {70.19-35} and {33.50 & 52} (see 〈79.〉) On each occasion these permissions are granted within the context of restricting a man’s sexual partners to those women with whom he has obtained the right to intercourse, either through the payment of a bridewealth 〈58.〉 or through capture or purchase. That is to say, these were rights that might be asserted against the rights of other men, rather than rights understood as existing alongside the rights of the women concerned to sexual autonomy.


The latter right is only recognised once in the Qur’an, in {24.33} which prohibits compelling female slaves into prostitution ‘if they desire to be chaste’. However, this limited recognition of a slave’s right to say ‘no’ to intercourse with men other than their owners only serves to underscore the lack of any similar right (for either wives or slaves) to refuse their husband/owner. The suggestion that is sometimes made that respect for such consent was so universally acknowledged that it did not need to be stated, lacks any credibility. Such a fanciful consensus against the sexual exploitation of a slave by her master is not consistent with the fact that no Islamic legal authority addressed any incident of sexual misconduct by slave owners against their slaves over the course of centuries of conquests and slave taking . It also conflicts with several hadiths, that express, in deliberately exaggerated terms, a wife’s duty to acquiesce immediately to her husband’s desire for to exercise his conjugal rights 〈76.〉 It defies credulity that a slave-girl would have been universally but tacitly afforded greater sexual autonomy than a wife.


According to the traditional Islamic narrative, {4.24} was announced after the Battle of Hunayn 〈48.〉 and was either the third or the final of these four verses to have been announced. According to Ibn Ishaq’s account of this battle, the Hawazin had used their womenfolk as a decoy to trick the Meccans into believing that the Hawazin fighting men were lined up for battle at the far end of a valley. When the Hawazin men’s surprise attack upon the flanks of Muhammad’s army failed and the attackers repulsed, the Hawazin women were captured by Muhammad. It is unnecessary here to recite in detail the deeply unpleasant hadiths describing how Muhammad and his men divided the female captives up between them, but they make no effort to hide the victors’ carnal intentions and the subsequent rape of the Hawazin women. It is within this context that some of his fighters are said to have asked Muhammad:

O Prophet of Allah! How can we possibly have physical relationships with women whose lineage and husband we know very well?

Since it would have already been clear from verses previously announced that the Qur’an does not raise for a woman any expectation of sexual exclusivity on the part of her husband, the purpose of this third or fourth verse on the permissibility of intercourse with captives {4.24} would appear to have been to clarify that sexual intercourse with captives did not amount to an offence of violating their captives’ marriages , even if these were to ‘men that they (the questioners) knew well.


See also 〈D.〉 The wives and concubines of Muhammad, 〈44.〉 and 〈64.〉 above.