What does Islam teach about concubines?

March 27, 2013

In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

Islam encourages the freeing of slaves and their joining in marriage as a means to improve their status in society. Concubinage was a form of marriage in Islam that was abolished when Muslim countries ended slavery. Islam forbids rape and prostitution in all cases as they are major sins in the category of adultery.

Most ancient societies allowed a form a concubinage in which a master would be intimate with his female slaves. According to the Bible, Solomon had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines (1 Kings 11:3). Concubinage (as-sirr) in Islam was a marriage (nikah) between a free man and his female slave. Ibn Mandhur states in his classical dictionary of the Arabic language:

  وَالسِّرُّ : النِّكَاحُ ؛ لِأَنَّهُ يُكْتَمُ … وَالسُّرِّيَّةُ : الْجَارِيَةُ الْمُتَّخَذَةُ لِلْمَلِكِ وَالْجِمَاعِ

Concubinage, from the root sirr meaning secret, is marriage because it is kept hidden… The concubine is the servant girl adopted by the master with whom she is intimate.

Source: Lisan Al-Arab 7/167

This is unlike the concubinage of societies that treated such women as property without rights. Rather, Islam made the concubines like wives with similar rights to maintenance and good treatment. A man would not be allowed to share his concubine with other men, nor was he allowed to be intimate with another man’s concubine. In this respect, the Quran commands Muslims to marry (ankihu) their female slaves in the same way free women are married.

Allah said:

وَمَن لَّمْ يَسْتَطِعْ مِنكُمْ طَوْلًا أَن يَنكِحَ الْمُحْصَنَاتِ الْمُؤْمِنَاتِ فَمِن مَّا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُكُم مِّن فَتَيَاتِكُمُ الْمُؤْمِنَاتِ وَاللَّهُ أَعْلَمُ بِإِيمَانِكُم بَعْضُكُم مِّن بَعْضٍ فَانكِحُوهُنَّ بِإِذْنِ أَهْلِهِنَّ وَآتُوهُنَّ أُجُورَهُنَّ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ مُحْصَنَاتٍ غَيْرَ مُسَافِحَاتٍ وَلَا مُتَّخِذَاتِ أَخْدَانٍ

Whoever among you cannot find the means to marry free, believing women, then he may marry from those whom your right hands possess of believing slave girls, and Allah is most knowing about your faith. You believers are of one another. So marry them with the permission of their people and give them their due compensation according to what is acceptable. They should be chaste, neither of those who commit unlawful intercourse randomly nor those who take secret lovers.

Surah An-Nisa 4:25

Muhammad Asad comments on this verse:

Literally meaning, “And not taking unto themselves secret love-companions.” This passage lays down in an unequivocal manner that sexual relations with female slaves are permitted only on the basis of marriage, and that in this respect there is no difference between them and free women. Consequently, concubinage is ruled out.

Source: Message of the Quran 4:25

And Allah said:

وَأَنكِحُوا الْأَيَامَىٰ مِنكُمْ وَالصَّالِحِينَ مِنْ عِبَادِكُمْ وَإِمَائِكُمْ إِن يَكُونُوا فُقَرَاءَ يُغْنِهِمُ اللَّهُ مِن فَضْلِهِ وَاللَّهُ وَاسِعٌ عَلِيمٌ

Marry the unmarried among you and the righteous among your male slaves and female slaves. If they should be poor, Allah will enrich them from His bounty, for Allah is Encompassing and Knowing.

Surah An-Nur 24:32

Muhammad Asad comments on this verse:

As in verse 4:25, the above verse rules out all forms of concubinage and postulates marriage as the only basis of lawful sexual relations between a man and his female slave.

Source: Message of the Quran 24:32

Likewise, Sheikh Abdul Wahhab Al-Turayri writes:

Allah forbids any relationship between a man and woman outside the marital relationship.

Source: Islamtoday.net

The Prophet and his companions considered sexual intercourse with unmarried slave girls to be a form of adultery.

Habeeb ibn Salim reported: A man had sexual intercourse with the servant girl of his wife, so the matter was referred to Nu’man ibn Basheer. Nu’man said:

لَأَقْضِيَنَّ فِيهَا بِقَضَاءِ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ لَئِنْ كَانَتْ أَحَلَّتْهَا لَهُ لَأَجْلِدَنَّهُ مِائَةً وَإِنْ لَمْ تَكُنْ أَحَلَّتْهَا لَهُ رَجَمْتُهُ

I will judge them according to the judgment of the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him. If his wife had given him permission, I will lash him one hundred times. If she did not give him permission, I will sentence him to death.

Source: Sunan At-Tirmidhi 1451, Grade: Hasan 

At-Tirmidhi comments on this tradition:

وَقَدْ اخْتَلَفَ أَهْلُ الْعِلْمِ فِي الرَّجُلِ يَقَعُ عَلَى جَارِيَةِ امْرَأَتِهِ فَرُوِيَ عَنْ غَيْرِ وَاحِدٍ مِنْ أَصْحَابِ النَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ مِنْهُمْ عَلِيٌّ وَابْنُ عُمَرَ أَنَّ عَلَيْهِ الرَّجْمَ وَقَالَ ابْنُ مَسْعُودٍ لَيْسَ عَلَيْهِ حَدٌّ وَلَكِنْ يُعَزَّرُ وَذَهَبَ أَحْمَدُ وَإِسْحَقُ إِلَى مَا رَوَى النُّعْمَانُ بْنُ بَشِيرٍ عَنْ النَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ

There is a disagreement among the scholars about a man who has intercourse with his wife’s servant girl. It is narrated from more than one of the companions of the Prophet, among them Ali and Ibn Umar, that he should be condemned to death. Ibn Mas’ud said this legal punishment should not be applied, but rather he should be given a discretionary punishment. Ahmad and Ishaq followed what was narrated by Nu’man ibn Basheer from the Prophet.

Source: Sunan At-Tirmidhi 1451

In this example, the Prophet, the companions, and a number of scholars considered it an act of adultery for a woman to make sexual relations lawful between her own slave and her husband. This demonstrates that sexual relations were only lawful with concubines due to the ratification of a marriage (nikah) as mentioned in the Quran.

Freeing slaves is a great virtue mentioned in the Quran and it is a means for Muslims to enter Paradise. Islam only allowed the acquisition of slaves as an unfortunate consequence of war and, by contrast, provided Muslims with many incentives to free their slaves.

Allah said:

وَمَا أَدْرَاكَ مَا الْعَقَبَةُ فَكُّ رَقَبَةٍ

What will make you know what is the difficult path to Paradise? It is the freeing of a slave.

Surah Al-Balad 90:12-13

The Prophet particularly encouraged Muslims to free their female slaves and to marry them.

Abu Burda reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

وَرَجُلٌ كَانَتْ عِنْدَهُ أَمَةٌ فَأَدَّبَهَا فَأَحْسَنَ تَأْدِيبَهَا وَعَلَّمَهَا فَأَحْسَنَ تَعْلِيمَهَا ثُمَّ أَعْتَقَهَا فَتَزَوَّجَهَا فَلَهُ أَجْرَانِ

There is a double reward for a man who owns a servant girl and he mentors her, teaches her beautiful manners, educates her in the best way, and then he emancipates her and marries her.

Source: Sahih Bukhari 97, Grade: Sahih

Al-Bukhari narrates this tradition in his Book of Marriage as the first matter under the section about taking a concubine, demonstrating that concubinage was an issue of marriage jurisprudence and that it was recommended for men to free their concubines. Likewise, other books of traditions mention the issue of concubinage within the context of marriage.

Not only did the Prophet encourage freedom for slaves and concubines, he set an important precedent by practicing it in his personal life.

Anas ibn Malik reported:

النَّبِيَّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ أَعْتَقَ صَفِيَّةَ وَجَعَلَ عِتْقَهَا صَدَاقَهَا

The Prophet emancipated Safiya and made her freedom as her marriage dowry.

Source: Sahih Bukhari 4798, Grade: Muttafiqun Alayhi

Since Islam strictly limited slavery and strongly encouraged freedom, it became clear to Muslim scholars over time that the intention of such legislation was to abolish slavery altogether and, consequently, the practice of concubinage. Today, the legal consensus among Muslim countries makes it unlawful to own slaves and by extension forbids concubinage.

Furthermore, Allah has forbidden prostitution or selling slave women for sexual service.

Allah said:

وَلَا تُكْرِهُوا فَتَيَاتِكُمْ عَلَى الْبِغَاءِ إِنْ أَرَدْنَ تَحَصُّنًا لِّتَبْتَغُوا عَرَضَ الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا

Do not compel your slave girls to prostitution if they desire chastity, seeking thereby the interests of worldly life.

Surah An-Nur 24:33

Jabir reported: Abdullah ibn Ubayy Al-Salul would say to his servant girl, “Earn us something from prostitution.” So Allah the Exalted revealed the verse:

وَلَا تُكْرِهُوا فَتَيَاتِكُمْ عَلَى الْبِغَاءِ إِنْ أَرَدْنَ تَحَصُّنًا لِّتَبْتَغُوا عَرَضَ الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا

Do not compel your slave girls to prostitution if they desire chastity, seeking thereby the interests of worldly life. (24:33)

Source: Sahih Muslim 3029, Grade: Sahih

Therefore, Islam absolutely forbids what is known as the “sex trade” wherein women are bought and sold for sexual intercourse, either willingly or by compulsion.

Regarding the crime of rape, the Prophet applied the legal punishment of adultery to those who committed this heinous sin.

Abu Alqama reported: A woman went out to pray during the time of the Prophet and she was met by a man who attacked her and raped her. She said, “This man has molested me!” The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:


He is condemned to death.

Source: Sunan At-Tirmidhi 1454, Grade: Sahih

Similarly, Umar condemned a man to death for having unlawful intercourse with a female captive he had acquired during war.

Harun ibn Al-Asim reported: Umar ibn Al-Khattab sent Khalid ibn Al-Waleed with the army and Khalid sent Dirar ibn Al-Azwar along with a company and they invaded a district belonging to the tribe of Asad. They captured a beautiful girl and Dirar was impressed with her. He asked his companions to give her to him and they did, then he had intercourse with her. A letter was sent to Umar and he replied:

فَكَتَبَ عُمَرُ أَنْ أَرْضِخْهُ بِالْحِجَارَةِ

He should be stoned to death.

Source: Sunan Al-Kubra 16761

As such, the founding jurists of the schools of Islamic law considered the crime of rape to be a major sin in the category of adultery, specifically mentioning the case of a man who rapes a female captive he acquires during war.

Imam Ash-Shafi’ee said:

وَإِذَا اغْتَصَبَ الرَّجُلُ الْجَارِيَةَ ثُمَّ وَطِئَهَا بَعْدَ الْغَصْبِ وَهُوَ مِنْ غَيْرِ أَهْلِ الْجَهَالَةِ أُخِذَتْ مِنْهُ الْجَارِيَةُ وَالْعُقْرُ وَأُقِيمَ عَلَيْهِ حَدُّ الزِّنَا

If a man acquires a slave girl by force and then he rapes her, and he is not an ignorant person, then the slave girl is taken from him. He must pay the fine and the legal punishment for adultery will be applied to him.

Source: Al-Umm 253

It is not true, as some anti-Muslim speakers have claimed, that a woman who is raped should be punished.

Imam Malik said:

وَالْعُقُوبَةُ فِي ذَلِكَ عَلَى الْمُغْتَصِبِ وَلَا عُقُوبَةَ عَلَى الْمُغْتَصَبَةِ فِي ذَلِكَ كُلِّهِ

The legal punishment is applied to the rapist and there is no punishment for the woman who was raped in any case.

Source: Muwatta 1418

In conclusion, the only lawful sexual relations in Islam are those in a valid marriage between a man and a woman. Concubinage as a form of marriage has become obsolete with the abolition of slavery. Furthermore, it is not lawful for a Muslim to commit rape or prostitution under any circumstances.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.