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Real Talk: Are Muslim Men Allowed to Have Concubines?

Questioner

Sarah

Reply Date

Oct 07, 2017

Question

As-salamu Alaykum! Why is a man permitted to have concubines in addition to having a wife? And, in a case that a man has 4 wives (surely his needs are being met) why would it still be allowable to have a concubine? Why are concubines and harems allowed at all, especially if it doesn't seem to be very fair for women? Does the wife have a say in it? What rights does a concubine have? I understand how Islam permits polygamy with conditions that provide fairness and protection for women, but I just don't understand the issue of concubines. Prophet Sulayman (Solomon) is said to have had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. Obviously, this was in a time before Islam regulated polygamy, but how can concubines be considered fair or respectable? Jazakum Allahu Khayran.

Consultant

Answer


concubines

Short Answer: No, of course not. In the past when slavery was not yet abolished in any part of the world, God gave female slaves human rights. Islam gradually abolished slavery, and concubines and slaves are something of the past. Honorable marriage is the only legal, moral option for sexual pleasure for a Muslim.


Salam Dear Sarah,

Thank you for raising this point which is a matter of confusion to many non-Muslims and Muslims as well!

What Is/Was a Concubine?

First, it is important to define the term “concubine” as it is usually misunderstood.

Some think that “concubine” refers to the mistress or the woman who lives a non-marital relationship with a man, and who is inferior in rank to the legal wife.

This might be due to the fact that people see famous men like kings and princes having concubines in their courts.

Of course, such a relationship is outlawed in Islam.

As for Islam, the term “concubine” refers to a woman slave who was owned by a certain man either through serfdom, or by being a war captive.

According to this definition, it becomes obvious that taking concubines, as well as slaves, is out of date.

It is a system that existed early in the history of humanity but has ceased to exist any more under the law of abolishing servitude, not only in the Muslim communities, but also all over the world.

No one now is allowed to take a slave or a concubine in our modern times; it is criminal to do so.

Fighting the “Arabian Nights” Muslim Image

This image of one man buying tens of women to meet his endless desires is but a far memory of an old history.

This is not only for the legal considerations of abolishing servitude, but also for the economic and health problems befalling the modern man disabling him from following the model of Shahrayar, the king in The Arabian Nights, even if he aspires to!

The only form of relationship between men and women among Muslims now is that of marriage, and anything outside it is not accepted.

Having a look at the history of this phenomenon, one finds that it was not confined to the Muslim world, though it is sometimes portrayed as if it is a Muslim-made tradition, coming from the East.

The Arabian Nights represents Muslim society as highly sensual, living in an erotic atmosphere with every single man having an army of concubines playing around in his bed to satisfy his surfeit needs!

If this was the real picture of Muslim society in its early and middle ages, then who was behind the great scientific and military achievements that happened at that time?

When Islam was revealed, taking male and female slaves —either through buying or  being taken as war captives— was a widespread phenomenon.

This was not only in the Arabian Peninsula, but also in the neighboring Roman and Persian Empires.

The attitude towards slaves and concubines was inhuman and abusive of all human rights.

Such maltreatment of slaves resulted in profound psychological sicknesses and chaotic orders within the societies, which produced — for example—the slave riot lead by Spartacus.

Islam Abolished Slavery, Gradually

Because Islam existed in various historical epochs, it has been its inevitable role to cope with the norms and to regulate the legal systems of those epochs.

So, for the tradition of taking slaves and concubines, that already existed then, Islam interfered by regulating it in an attempt to abolish it gradually.

It couldn’t have been abolished abruptly, since it was such a deeply-rooted tradition.

Islam has always adopted the strategy of gradual reformation rather than rapid radical solutions, especially in aspects that are vital to people’s lives such as religion, economy or politics.

The issue of idol worshiping, for example, took 13 years of persuasion till the Prophet decided to pull the idols down.

This has always been Islam’s malleable nature, which made its spirit — and not only script — survive for almost 15 centuries and not perish or extinct by time.

Two Phases of Abolishing Slavery

Back to the historical survey of the issue of concubines, Islam worked gradually in two directions to free slaves and concubines.

The first was by encouraging the believers to buy and free slaves.

Almighty Allah offered Paradise as a reward for whoever did that.

As a result of such a divine promise, a large number of slaves were freed.

The second was by making the act of freeing slaves a form of  kaffarah (punishment or penalty) as a make-up “penalty”, if a person commits some forbidden deeds.

And in this way, punishment became pleasing to both the slave and the punished one, who would have wanted to receive God’s forgiveness, for the forbidden deed, by doing the good deed of freeing a slave.

Parallel to that process of gradual freeing (and until all slaves were freed) Allah granted slaves and concubines —who had not yet gained their liberty— many human rights that had never been given to them before.

God Granted Slaves and Concubines Human Rights

For example, when a concubine begot a child by her master, the child would immediately be recognized as legal and free.

The child would carry the father’s name and inherit the same like any brothers and sisters begotten by wives.

As for the concubine herself, she is then directly elevated to a higher status, that is of om-el-walad (legal mother of a legal child).

Her owner can no longer sell her as a slave and in case he dies, she is automatically free.

No wonder that up to the 17th century, Mamluks —who were slaves owned by the Islamic state— were allowed high education and job opportunities exactly like their masters.

They were trained in chivalry and were upgraded in the social rank until they reached the positions of sultans and kings of the whole Islamic state.

This was termed in history as the Mamluk State. It was a state that lasted for several hundreds of years and was considered among the most fruitful periods in the history of Islam.

Nobody ever looked with sensitivity or with dissatisfaction at the experience of being ruled by a “slave” who owned by the state.

This Mamluk State was in existence simultaneously while Americans were taking African people as slaves and concubines from Africa.

These were being treated like animals and deprived from basic human rights, as we have read in history.

Thank you and I am looking forward to receiving more of your interesting questions. Please keep in touch.

Salam.


(From AboutIslam’s archives)

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Islam and Social Justice (Part 1)

Women Slaves in Quran and Hadith: How True?




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