Making an unsupported allegation of sexual impropriety

24 (Al-Nur/Light): 4-5

4. And as for those who accuse chaste women (of adultery), and then are unable to produce four witnesses (in support of their accusation), flog them with eighty stripes and ever after refuse to accept from them any testimony – since it is they, they that are truly depraved!

5. Excepting (from this interdict) only those who afterwards repent and made amends. For, behold, God is much forgiving, a dispenser of grace.


A narration account relates this rare and virtually unachievable Quranic rule of evidence to an accusation made against Muhammed’s young wife Aisha (see 〈D.〉 Muhammad’s Wives and Concubines, above). Aisha, the account goes, had been accompanying Muhammad on an expedition when she left their camp to search for a lost necklace and found herself stranded. Fortunately, she encountered a Muslim scout who accompanied her until they were able to rejoin the main troupe, but when they arrived, three people spread speculation that Aisha and the man had committed adultery. This same incident is also said to have prompted the announcement of {24.11-24} .


A rational purpose for {24.4} is impossible to discern. Whilst it is in principle unobjectionable for a legal system to impose particularly stringent evidential requirements for certain offences, and there is an argument in natural justice for giving the maker of a false accusation the penalty that they sought to have wrongly imposed upon an innocent party, {24.4} achieves neither of these ends. If illicit sex were a sufficiently serious cause of concern as to require confinement till death, flogging and possibly stoning 〈66.〉, then it makes no sense that the Qur’an impose an evidential requirement that, in the absence of a pregnancy or confession (being the two alternative methods of proving intercourse) could barely ever be met. If the concern had been to protect women from slanderous accusations, then the logical solution would been the punishment only of accusations that could be demonstrated to be false. Common sense dictates that the requirement of four eye witnesses before making a justiciable allegation is as likely to encourage witness collusion and perjury as it is to achieve reliable convictions. In any event, to require a sharia judge to sentence a person to flogging for the honest reporting of a fact, which may well be demonstrably correct, is manifestly absurd. Great caution should generally be used in using hadith written down long after the Qur’an to explain the circumstances in which any given verse came to be announced. Nevertheless, in this case there is an argument that the story of Aisha having been accused of adultery was unlikely to have been a pure invention, given the scandalous nature of the accusation and her status as one of the revered ‘mother of the believers’. Furthermore, the capricious nature of the rule does support the explanation that {24.4} was produced to halt the spread of one particular unjust or inconvenient rumour, such as that described in the story of Aisha’s necklace.


{24.6-7} creates an exception to the ‘four witness’ requirement that one may suspect was added shortly afterwards when the full implications of effectively criminalising any accusation of adultery had become clear. Under {24.6-7}, should a man accuse his own wife of adultery ‘then the testimony of one of them shall be four witnesses’, ‘swearing by God that he is among the truthful’ and ‘the curse of God shall be upon him if he is amongst the liars.’ Needless to say, there is no equivalent right given to wives to accuse their husbands, reflecting once again the fundamental Quranic understanding of marriage as a man’s proprietary right over a woman 〈57.〉 as well as the Qur’an’s reluctance to recognise the credibility 〈78.〉 and rights 〈76.〉 of women in general.


Although the ‘four witness rule’ is specifically imposed for ‘those who accuse a chaste women‘, when this rule is extended by analogy to give protection to men against accusations by women, it results in an especially unjust and tragic, although probably unintended, consequence. Should a woman report that a man other than her husband has raped her, without having the required four eye witnesses to corroborate her account, she finds herself in the legal position of having admitted that intercourse has occurred between her and a man other than her husband, whilst her accusation against her attacker is to be disregarded. This places her in jeopardy of either being whipped, both for the offence of fornication and under some regimes a second time for the offence of having made an unsubstantiated allegation, or alternatively stoned to death for adultery, depending upon her marital status. Meanwhile, the man she has accused is protected from any sanction or even the repetition of the accusation, however compelling the evidence of his guilt may be.