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* Can slander of chaste women be forgiven? Yes [24:5], No [24:23].
The general guideline is that Allah, who excels in mercy and forgiveness, does forgive all sins with repentance, as a general rule. This is the rule specified in Al-Noor(24):5 and which was revealed by God in relation to Hilal ibn Umayyah who discovered his wife in bed with Shuraik ibn Sahma'. A witness needs to bring three other witnesses of this act before his claim regarding the chastity of a chaste woman shall be accepted. Otherwise the witness shall be whipped eighty lashes for this testimony if he can not corroborate it with three other witnesses. If the witness happens to be the woman's husband then his witness will count as four witnesses, then the process of "mulaanah" (oath-taking) by both parties begins. If the witness(es) bore false witness then this is considered to be a very major sin in the sight of God and worthy of severe punishment. However, Allah excels in mercy and this is displayed in most aspects of Islam. Even this tremendous sin can be forgiven if the person sincerely repents and turns to God in penitence before death. This is the general rule. However, there is an exception to this rule and this is found in the second set of verses a little further down this same chapter.
In the second set of verses we are dealing with a completely different context and situation. This set of verses was revealed regarding a group of hypocrites lead by Abdullah ibn Ubai ibn Salool who tried to frame Aisha the wife of the prophet (pbut) and cast doubt on her integrity and chastity by alleging infidelity with a Muslim by the name of Safwan ibn Al-Muattal. Safwan had been charged as a look-out behind the Muslim's caravan. During their travel Aisha (pbuh) withdrew away from the caravan to relieve herself and while she was out of sight the caravan picked up and left. Some hours later Safwan came up behind the caravan and found her stranded in the desert after the caravan had left. He coaxed his camel down, she got up on it, and he guided it back to the caravan. When she arrived Abdullah ibn Ubai wasted no time in starting an unfounded rumor against their chastity. This was a time of severe discord and tribulation and was not resolved until God revealed their innocence in this set of verses. The difference is that in this case the sin shall not be forgiven since it was directed at the prophet's wife in an attempt to destroy both their reputations. This is a special case of a general rule and similar to cases found in the Bible where similar special cases are excepted from general rules. For example, in the Bible we read:
Matthew 12:31-32 "Wherefore I (Jesus) say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy [against] the [Holy] Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the [world] to come."
Here we have a general rule: "All sins and blasphemy are forgiven." However, a certain class of sin and blasphemy is not forgiven, namely, that directed at the Holy Ghost. Similarly, slander of chaste women is forgiven with sincere repentance and penitence except when it is directed at the wives of the prophet (pbuh). How do we know this? We know if from the context of the verses which we get from the Hadeeth and which inform us who each set of verses was revealed in regard to, when and why.
"And We (God) have sent down unto you (Muhammad) the Reminder (Qur'an), that you might make clear to mankind that which was sent down unto them and perchance they might reflect." Al-Nahil(16):44
"And We (God) have not sent down unto you (Muhammad) the Book (the Qur'an) except that you might make clear to them that in which they differ, and [as] a guidance and a mercy for a folk who believe" Al-Nahil(16):64
For example, in these very same verses we read the words "And let not those among you who are blessed with graces and wealth swear never to render [aid] to the their kinsmen, the poor, and the emigrators in the cause of Allah. Let them pardon and forgive. Do you not covet that Allah should forgive you? And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most-Merciful." Al-Noor(24):22
At first glance this verse appears to be quite general and we do not learn its true meaning until we study the words of the prophet (pbuh) and his companions in the Hadeeth in order to find its "context." This verse was revealed as part of the previous story. When Abdullah ibn Ubai first started to spread this rumor a poor man by the name of Mustah ibn Uthata who was a close kin of Aisha's father, Abu-Bakr, this man propagated the rumor and spread it causing severe injury to both Aisha and her father even though Abu-Bakr had always in the past done good by him and had been providing for him. When the verses were revealed confirming her innocence her father Abu-Bakr swore to never again give him a red cent. This is when God revealed the above verse, gently encouraging Abu-Bakr to forgive and relent, and reminding him that God forgives those who forgive others.
When Abu-Bakr heard these verses being recited and God said "... do you not covet that God should forgive you?.." Abu-Bakr broke down in tears and began weeping bitterly while exclaiming, "Yes my Lord, I do covet Your forgiveness. I forgive him and shall never withhold from him whatever I have."
This is why Muslims recognize the title "those among you blessed with graces and wealth" to be specific to Abu-Bakr in this specific case even though the title is quite general and this general attitude is recommended for all Muslims as a whole, as seen for example in the more comprehensive verse which commands all Muslims:
"Whether you disclose a good deed or conceal it or pardon an evil, verily, Allah is Ever Oft-Pardoning, All-Powerful" Al-Nissa(4):149
Similarly, what is meant by "chaste women" in the second set of verses is the prophet's wives since they were the context within which the second set of verses were revealed.
In this manner, we see that it is necessary to know a little about the
contexts of the verses, the hadeeth related to them, and at least a basic smattering of
the history of Islam in order to be able to understand the intent of a given verse. Simply
disregarding all of this information, who the verses relate to and why, or what the
prophet (pbuh) or his companions said in this regard, is a sad way to cut corners in
search of quick "contradictions."
Back to Responses to the so called "Contradictions" in the Noble Quran.
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