Qur'an Contradiction

How Are the Sexually Immoral Supposed To Be Punished?

Sam Shamoun

The Quran is confused regarding the punishment that is to be administered to those guilty of sexual sin. In the following citation the Quran banishes women to a form of house arrest if they are caught in some type of immoral act:

If any of your women are guilty of lewdness (al-fahishata), Take the evidence of four (Reliable) witnesses from amongst you against them; and if they testify, confine them to houses until death do claim them, or God ordain for them some (other) way. If two men among you are guilty of lewdness, punish them both. If they repent and amend, Leave them alone; for God is Oft-returning, Most Merciful. S. 4:15-16 Y. Ali

Here is the way various versions translated the word fahishah:

And those of your women who commit illegal sexual intercourse… And the two persons (man and woman) among you who commit illegal sexual intercourse… Hilali-Khan

Those who commit adultery among your women… The couple who commits adultery shall be punished… Rashad Khalifa

It should be noted that the word that the Quran most often uses for sexual immorality, whether fornication or adultery, is zina. The following commentary written by Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi of India states regarding Q. 24:2:

171. The Arabic word zanaa denotes sexual intercourse between any man and woman, whether married or not, who do not stand to each other in the relation of husband and wife; and, as such, has no single word equivalent in English language. It includes both adultery (i.e., illicit sexual intercourse of two persons either of whom is married to a third person) and fornication (i.e., illicit sexual intercourse of unmarried persons)… Islam condemns Zina in all its forms… (Tafsir-ul-Quran [Darul – Ishaat, Urdu Bazaar Karachi – 1 Pakistan, First Edition 1991], Volume III, pp. 210-211; underline emphasis ours)

The late translator Muhammad Asad writes in reference to Q. 24:2 that:

The term zina signifies voluntary sexual intercourse between a man and a woman not married to one another, irrespective of whether one or both of them are married to other persons or not: hence, it does not -- in contrast with the usage prevalent in most Western languages -- differentiate between the concepts of "adultery" (i.e., sexual intercourse of a married man with a woman other than his wife, or of a married woman with a man other than her husband) and "fornication" (i.e., sexual intercourse between two unmarried persons). For the sake of simplicity I am rendering zina throughout as "adultery", and the person guilty of it as "adulterer" or "adulteress", respectively. (Source; underline emphasis ours)

Interestingly, the Quran classifies zina as a kind of fahishah:

And go not nigh to fornication (al-zina); surely it is an indecency (fahishatan) and an evil way. S. 17:32 Shakir

Note the way other translators render this passage:

And come not near to the unlawful sexual intercourse. Verily, it is a Fahishah [i.e. anything that transgresses its limits (a great sin)], and an evil way (that leads one to Hell unless Allah forgives him). Hilali-Khan

Nor come nigh to adultery: for it is a shameful (deed) and an evil, opening the road (to other evils). Y. Ali

With the foregoing in perspective it seems evident that the fahishah which Q. 4:15 has in mind is sexual immorality, more specifically zina in all its various forms, with the prescribed punishment for such a crime being house banishment for women.

Yet this introduces several problems, one of which is that Q. 4:16 prescribes some unspecified punishment for the two who commit a similar crime. The question is, two from whom? Two males as Y. Ali understood it? And if so, then is this referring to two males engaging in homosexual acts? Or does this refer to two men sleeping with the same woman or even women at the same time, i.e. an orgy of sorts? What about bestiality? Two men using the same beast? Whatever the case, the two men must be linked in some way, otherwise it would make no sense to specifically mention "two".

Or does this verse refer to the male and female engaged in this sin as understood by both Hilali-Khan and Khalifa? If so, does it refer to a married man sleeping with a married woman, or to a married person sleeping with someone other than his/her spouse? Or is it addressing the issue of unmarried couples committing fornication? How does anyone know for certain?

And if Q. 4:16 does have two males in mind then this implies that the men who commit this wicked act are to receive some unspecified punishment, whereas the women’s punishment is that they are to be banished to their homes till they die. But if the passage has in view the couple that is caught in this unlawful act then this shows that not only do the women get banned to their houses till death but they must also receive some punishment for their illicit act.

One could ask even more questions: The second part of this verse appears to be understood by all/most of the above translators as two persons who commit indecency with each other (whether homosexual or heterosexual). Does that mean that the first part then also refers to "those of your women who commit indecency with each other" (i.e. lesbian acts), or each of the women with another man, or a beast? Moreover, does the last part of the verse, "If they repent and amend, leave them alone", refer only to the second part regarding the "two persons" or also to the first part about the women? Are the women to be punished by seclusion no matter what, but men could be left alone if they repent?

The other problem raised by this specific text is that it is in direct tension with the punishment prescribed elsewhere for sexual immorality or zina:

The woman and the man guilty of adultery or fornication (Al-zaniyatu wa al-zanee), - flog each of them with a hundred stripes: Let not compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by God, if ye believe in God and the Last Day: and let a party of the Believers witness their punishment. Let no man guilty of adultery or fornication marry and but a woman similarly guilty, or an Unbeliever: nor let any but such a man or an Unbeliever marry such a woman: to the Believers such a thing is forbidden. And those who launch a charge against chaste women, and produce not four witnesses (to support their allegations), - flog them with eighty stripes; and reject their evidence ever after: for such men are wicked transgressors; - Unless they repent thereafter and mend (their conduct); for God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. S. 24:2-5 Y. Ali

The context makes it apparent that this text has the same sin in view which is mentioned in Q. 4:15, since they both refer to the need for four witnesses. And as we noted, zina refers to a host of sexual sins such as fornication and adultery, making it even more likely that Q. 24:2 has the same crime in mind.

Yet this leads to a bit of confusion for the reader of the Quran since one doesn’t know for certain whether zina in the context of Q. 24:2 refers to adultery, fornication, or some other type of sexual sin. And trying to read the varying English versions of the Quran doesn’t solve the problem but only adds to the confusion since various translators rendered the term differently. 

For example, Y. Ali understood zina here to refer to both adultery and fornication, that the punishment prescribed here is for the person who either commits fornication or adultery. Ali’s rendering differs from other translations:

The fornicatress and the fornicator… Arberry

The adulterer and the adulteress… Pickthall

The woman and the man guilty of illegal sexual intercourse… Hilali-Khan

In light of this, how is one to understand Q. 24:2? Does this refer to any sexual sin, whether fornication or adultery? Or does it refer to fornication alone or to adultery?

Regardless of the specific sexual sin that Q. 24:2 has in mind the punishment mentioned in Q. 4:15 would still be applicable here, at least in the case of the women, since, as we saw, fahishah includes zina in all of its various forms. And neither text restricts the meaning of either fahishah or zina to something specific, which would allow the reader to see that the reason why these citations prescribe different punishments is because they have different sexual sins in view.

We, therefore, have an inconsistency since the punishment for zina according to Q. 24:2 is one hundred lashes for both the man and the woman, which is in tension with the punishment prescribed for woman in Q. 4:15!

This, perhaps, explains why some Muslims believed that Q. 24:2 abrogated Q. 4:15:

The Adulteress is Confined in her House; A Command Later Abrogated

At the beginning of Islam, the ruling was that if a woman commits adultery as stipulated by sufficient proof, she was confined to her home, without leave, until she died. Allah said…

<And those of your women who commit illegal sexual intercourse, take the evidence of four witnesses from among you against them; and if they testify, confine them (i.e. women) to houses until death comes to them or Allah ordains for them some (other) way.> `Some other way' mentioned here is the abrogation of this ruling that came later. Ibn `Abbas said, "The early ruling was confinement, until Allah sent down Surat An-Nur (chapter 24) which abrogated that ruling with the ruling of flogging (for fornication) or stoning to death (for adultery)." Similar was reported from `Ikrimah, Sa`id bin Jubayr, Al-Hasan, `Ata' Al-Khurasani, Abu Salih, Qatadah, Zayd bin Aslam and Ad-Dahhak, and this is a matter that is agreed upon. Imam Ahmad recorded that `Ubadah bin As-Samit said, "When the revelation descended upon the Messenger of Allah, it would affect him and his face would show signs of strain. One day, Allah sent down a revelation to him, and when the Messenger was relieved of its strain, he said…

<<Take from me: Allah has made some other way for them. The married with the married, the unmarried with the unmarried. The married gets a hundred lashes and stoning to death, while the unmarried gets a hundred lashes then banishment for a year.>>" Muslim and the collectors of the Sunan recorded that `Ubadah bin As-Samit said that the Prophet said…

<<Take from me, take from me. Allah has made some other way for them: the (unmarried) gets a hundred lashes and banishment for one year, while the (married) gets a hundred lashes and stoning to death.>> At-Tirmidhi said, "Hasan Sahih". Allah said…

<And the two persons among you who commit illegal sexual intercourse, punish them both.> Ibn `Abbas and Sa`id bin Jubayr said that this punishment includes cursing, shaming them and beating them with sandals. This was the ruling until Allah abrogated it with flogging or stoning, as we stated. Mujahid said, "It was revealed about the case of two men who do it." As if he was referring to the actions of the people of Lut, and Allah knows best. The collectors of Sunan recorded that Ibn `Abbas said that the Messenger of Allah said…

<<Whoever you catch committing the act of the people of Lut (homosexuality), then kill both parties to the act.>> Allah said…

<And if they repent and do righteous good deeds>, by refraining from that evil act, and thereafter their actions become righteous…

<leave them alone>, do not verbally abuse them after that, since he who truly repents is just like he who has no sin…

<Surely, Allah is Ever the One Who accepts repentance, Most Merciful.> The following is recorded in the Two Sahihs

<<When the slave-girl of one of you commits illegal sexual intercourse, let him flog her and not chastise her afterwards.>> because the lashes she receives erase the sin that she has committed. (Tafsir Ibn Kathir; source; underline emphasis ours)

We will have something to say about stoning and banishment later.

As for those of your women who commit lewdness, adultery, call four, Muslim men, of you to witness against them; and if they witness, against them such [lewdness], then detain them in their houses, and prevent them from mixing with people, until, the angels of death take them or, until, God appoints for them a way, out of it. This was stipulated for them at the very beginning of Islam, but then a way out was appointed for them through [the stipulation] that the virgin should receive a hundred lashes and be banished for a year, and the married woman be stoned. The prescribed punishment was explained thus in the hadith, 'Come listen to me! Come listen to me! God has now made a way out for them', as reported by Muslim. (Tafsir al-Jalalayn; source; bold, italic and underline emphasis ours)

The late Abdullah Yusuf Ali wrote that:

523. Most commentators understand this to refer to adultery or fornication; in that case they consider that the punishment was altered by the later verse, xxiv. 2… (Ali, The Holy Qur’an: Translation and Commentary, p. 183)

Not only did Ali claim that Q. 4:15 was abrogated by Q. 24:2 but he even admitted that most commentators understood Q. 4:15 to be referring to a woman that has committed adultery or or fornication.

Even though the following commentary doesn’t say that Q. 4:15 was canceled out by Q. 24:2, it still claims that the former was abrogated nonetheless:

(As for those of your women) your free, married women (who are guilty of lewdness) i.e. of fornication, (call to witness) that they were caught red-handed in the act (four of you against them) four of your free men. (And if they testify) to the Truth of the allegation (then confine them to the houses) keep them in prison (until death take them) until they die in prison (or (until) Allah appoint for them a way) out by means of stoning. Imprisoning a free, married woman who commits fornication until she dies in prison was later abrogated by stoning. (Tanwr al-Miqbs min Tafsr Ibn ‘Abbs; source; bold and italic emphasis ours)

The problem that Muslims face by appealing to the doctrine of abrogation is that this is nothing more than an implicit admission that the Quran contradicts itself. As one Muslim put it:

The principle on which the theory of abrogation is based is unacceptable, being contrary to the clear teachings of the Qur'an. A verse is considered to be abrogated when the two cannot be reconciled with each other; in other words, when they appear to contradict each other. But the Qur'an destroys this foundation when it declares that no part of it is at variance with another: "Will they not then meditate on the Qur'an? And if it were from any other than Allah, they would have found in it many a discrepancy" (4 : 82). It was due to lack of meditation that one verse was thought to be at variance with another; and hence it is that in almost all cases where abrogation has been upheld by one person, there has been another who, being able to reconcile the two, has repudiated the alleged abrogation. (Maulana Muhammad Ali, The Religion of Islam [The Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha'at Islam (Lahore) U.S.A., Eighth Edition 2005], p. 32; bold and italic emphasis ours)

Hence, to say that Q. 4:15 has been canceled is simply a tacit admission that there are verses and/or certain reports which contradict this specific reference.

However, there is a way to reconcile the discrepancies between Q. 4:15 and 24:2 without having to appeal to abrogation. Instead of saying that the punishment prescribed in Q. 4:15 has been annulled a Muslim can assume that the punishment for a woman caught committing zina/fahishah is one hundred lashes AND house banishment till she dies. Or, a Muslim can argue that the penalty of one hundred lashes is the other way that Q. 4:15 stated Allah would prescribe for the women. (Yet one is still left wondering why this other way wasn’t instituted from the very beginning.)

Even thought the above harmonizations may reconcile the two texts in question, the problems are just beginning for the Muslims since the ahadith prescribe a completely different punishment for zina, namely stoning!

Narrated Ibn 'Abbas:
'Umar said, "I am afraid that after a long time has passed, people may say, ‘We do not find the Verses of the Rajam (stoning to death) IN THE HOLY BOOK,’ and consequently they may GO ASTRAY by leaving AN OBLIGATION that Allah has revealed. Lo! I confirm that the penalty of Rajam be inflicted on him who commits illegal sexual intercourse, if he is already married and the crime is proved by witnesses or pregnancy or confession." Sufyan added, "I have memorized this narration in this way." 'Umar added, "Surely Allah's Apostle carried out the penalty of Rajam, and so did we after him." (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 8, Book 82, Number 816)

… In the meantime, 'Umar sat on the pulpit and when the call makers for the prayer had finished their call, 'Umar stood up, and having glorified and praised Allah as He deserved, he said, "Now then, I am going to tell you something which (Allah) has written for me to say. I do not know; perhaps it portends my death, so whoever understands and remembers it, must narrate it to the others wherever his mount takes him, but if somebody is afraid that he does not understand it, then it is unlawful for him to tell lies about me. Allah sent Muhammad with the Truth and revealed the Holy Book to him, and among what Allah revealed, was the Verse of the Rajam (the stoning of married person (male & female)) who commits illegal sexual intercourse, and we did recite this Verse and understood and memorized it. Allah's Apostle did carry out the punishment of stoning and so did we after him.

I am afraid that after a long time has passed, somebody will say, ‘By Allah, we do not find the Verse of the Rajam in Allah's Book,’ and thus they will go astray by leaving an obligation which Allah has revealed. And the punishment of the Rajam is to be inflicted to any married person (male & female), who commits illegal sexual intercourse, if the required evidence is available or there is conception or confession. And then we used to recite among the Verses in Allah's BOOK: ‘O people! Do not claim to be the offspring of other than your fathers, as it is disbelief (unthankfulness) on your part that you claim to be the offspring of other than your real father’ …" (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 8, Book 82, Number 817)

Muslim scholars, on the basis of certain Islamic narratives such as the ones above, limit stoning to married couples that commit adultery, whereas the punishment prescribed for the unmarried engaged in sexual sin is lashing and/or banishment for a year. As the late A. Y. Ali stated in his notes to Q. 24:2:

2954. Zina includes sexual intercourse between a man and a woman not married to each other. It therefore applies both to adultery (which implies that one or both of the parties are married to a person or persons other than the ones concerned) and to fornication, which, in its strict signification, implies that both parties are unmarried. The law of marriage and divorce is made easy in Islam, so that there may be the less temptation for intercourse outside the well-defined incidents of marriage. This makes for greater self-respect for both man and woman. Other sex offenses are also punishable, but this Section applies strictly to Zina as above defined. Although zina covers both fornication and adultery, in the opinion of Muslim jurists, the punishment laid down here applies only to unmarried persons. As for married persons, their punishment, according to the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be on him), is stoning to death. (Ali, The Holy Qur’an: Translation and Commentary, p. 896; bold and underline emphasis ours)

{Note: The bolded text is not part of Yusuf Ali’s original comments, but an addition made by Muslim publishers in their revision of Ali’s original work. Regardless of this being a later insertion it still serves the purpose of illustrating the viewpoint of Muslim jurists and exegetes.}

But even this proposed explanation by the scholars and hadith poses problems since neither Q. 24:2 nor Q. 4:15 limits the punishment to the unmarried person. And since neither citation defines the nature and extent of zina or fahishah we are to assume that the prescribed penalty is to be inflicted on both the married and unmarried parties who are guilty of sexual immorality.

The final problem facing the Muslims is that both Q. 4:15 and 24:4 prescribe four witnesses, but do not specify whether they are to be strictly from among the men or whether they can also include women. But if these witnesses can be from either gender, i.e. a combination of males and females, then this introduces another problem since Q. 2:282 likens the witness of one man to two women:

O believers, when you contract a debt one upon another for a stated term, write it down, and let a writer write it down between you justly, and let not any writer refuse to write it down, as God has taught him; so let him write, and let the debtor dictate, and let him fear God his Lord and not diminish aught of it. And if the debtor be a fool, or weak, or unable to dictate himself, then let his guardian dictate justly. And call in to witness two witnesses, men; or if the two be not men, then one man AND TWO WOMEN, such witnesses as you approve of, THAT IF ONE OF THE TWO WOMEN ERRS THE OTHER WILL REMIND HER; and let the witnesses not refuse, whenever they are summoned. And be not loath to write it down, whether it be small or great, with its term; that is more equitable in God's sight, more upright for testimony, and likelier that you will not be in doubt. Unless it be merchandise present that you give and take between you; then it shall be no fault in you if you do not write it down. And take witnesses when you are trafficking one with another. And let not either writer or witness be pressed; or if you do, that is ungodliness in you. And fear God; God teaches you, and God has knowledge of everything. S. 2:282

Muhammad explained the reason why two women were required to testify:

Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri:
Once Allah's Apostle went out to the Musalla (to offer the prayer) on ‘Id-al-Adha or Al-Fitr prayer. Then he passed by the women and said, "O women! Give alms, as I have seen that THE MAJORITY of the dwellers of Hell-fire were you (women)." They asked, "Why is it so, O Allah's Apostle?" He replied, "You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion THAN YOU. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you." The women asked, "O Allah's Apostle! What is deficient in our intelligence and religion?" He said, "Is not THE EVIDENCE OF TWO WOMEN EQUAL TO THE WITNESS OF ONE MAN?" They replied in the affirmative. He said, "This is the deficiency in her intelligence. Isn't it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?" The women replied in the affirmative. He said, "This is the deficiency in her religion." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 6, Number 301)


Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri:
The Prophet said, "Isn't the witness of a woman equal to half of that of a man?" The women said, "Yes." He said, "THIS IS BECAUSE OF THE DEFICIENCY OF A WOMAN’S MIND." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 48, Number 826)

What the foregoing implies is that the four witnesses must be from the men otherwise the number of those testifying would increase if women were included. Depending on the ratio of men to female witnesses the total number required to confirm an act of zina/fahishah would be:

  1. Eight female witnesses (this assumes, of course, that the Quran doesn’t require at least one male witness in order for the testimony to be acceptable. The problem with this assumption is that Q. 2:282 pretty much requires the testimony of at least one man).
  2. One male and six female witnesses (seven witnesses total).
  3. Two male and four female witnesses (six witnesses total).
  4. Three male and two female witnesses (five witnesses total).

To summarize the problems raised by the Quran in regard to the punishment of the sexually immoral:

So much for the Quran’s assertion that it is a clear and coherent text which is free of discrepancies! (1, 2)

Perhaps there is a Muslim out there who can satisfactorily harmonize all of the problems and discrepancies raised by these specific Quranic verses and Islamic reports.

Further Reading


Contradictions in the Qur'an
Answering Islam Home Page