Verses 21-26 of sura 24 warn the believers not to imitate Satan (v. 21) by committing sins – such as the sin of not aiding those who have left their homes “in Allah’s cause” (v. 22). This refers to the early Muslims who left Mecca and settled in Medina with Muhammad – it is a call to the new Muslims of Medina to ease their transition. Another sin to avoid is that around which this entire sura revolves: the sin of accusing chaste women of adultery, which will get the false accuser Allah’s curse in both this world and the next (v. 23). Allah will pay them back on the Day of Judgment (v. 25).
All this refers, of course, to the accusation of adultery made against Muhammad’s wife Aisha — as does the phrase “Evil women are for evil men and evil men are for evil women, and good women are for good men and good men are for good women” from v. 26, which Abdur-Rahman bin Zayd bin Aslam explains thusly: “Allah would not have made ‘A’ishah the wife of His Messenger unless she had been good, because he is the best of the best of mankind. If she had been evil, she would not have been a suitable partner either according to His Laws or His decree.”
Verses 27-29 lay down rules for the etiquette of visiting someone else’s house: don’t just barge in. This leads in verses 30-31 to rules for modesty. Men should “lower their gaze” (v. 30): says Ibn Kathir, “They should look only at what is permissible for them to look at, and lower their gaze from forbidden things. If it so happens that a person’s gaze unintentionally falls upon something forbidden, he should quickly look away.”
Women, meanwhile, should cover their “adornment” (v. 31). Contrary to what some Islamic apologists in the West claim today, this is not a matter of choice, but a divine commandment. Ibn Kathir explains: “This is a command from Allah to the believing women, and jealousy on His part over the wives of His believing servants. It is also to distinguish the believing women from the women of the Jahiliyyah [the society of unbelievers] and the deeds of the pagan women.”
What should they cover? In a hadith, Aisha recounts that Muhammad said that “when a woman reaches the age of menstruation, it does not suit her that she displays her parts of body except this and this, and he pointed to her face and hands.” Even today some Muslims use this hadith to justify mandating the hijab, or headscarf, for women. In another hadith, a woman with a veil over her face came to see Muhammad; she was looking for her son, who had been killed in battle. Muhammad asked her: “You have come here asking for your son while veiling your face?” She responded: “If I am afflicted with the loss of my son, I shall not suffer the loss of my modesty.” Pleased, Muhammad told her: “You will get the reward of two martyrs for your son,” because “the people of the Book have killed him.” The Tafsir al-Jalalayn agrees that v. 31 means that when in public women should cover “all that is other than the face and the hands.”
V. 31 also says: “And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment.” Ibn Kathir continues: “During Jahiliyyah, when women walked in the street wearing anklets and no one could hear them, they would stamp their feet so that men could hear their anklets ringing. Allah forbade the believing women to do this.” And: “women are also prohibited from wearing scent and perfume when they are going outside the home, lest men should smell their perfume.”
Verses 32-34 contain laws for marriage and direct Muslims to free their slaves upon their request (v. 33), “provided,” says Ibn Kathir, “that the servant has some skill and means of earning so that he can pay his master the money that is stipulated in the contract.” Muslims should not force their slave girls to become prostitutes and live off the profits, if the slave girls want to remain chaste (v. 33).
Then verses 35-45 celebrate Allah. He is the light of the heavens and the earth (v. 35, the verse that gives this sura its name), and of the homes of the believers who pray and gives alms (vv. 36-37) – while the unbelievers live in darkness (vv. 39-40). All beings praise him in their own way (v. 41); he rules the natural world (vv. 43-44); he created every animal from water (v. 45).
But still there are those who don’t believe or only pretend to believe, and these are excoriated again, while the believers are praised, in verse 46-57. Allah has sent down signs (ayat, revelations or verses of the Qur’an, v. 46), but some only pretend to believe in Allah and Muhammad: they are not really believers (v. 47). Some of them don’t even come when Muhammad summons them (v. 48); if they were right, they would have come to him obediently (v. 49). They are wrongdoers (v. 50), while the believers, when Muhammad summons them, answer “We hear and obey” (v. 51). Those who obey Allah and Muhammad will be victorious in the end (v. 52) – a conviction that sustains many a jihadist today through setbacks and defeats.
The Hypocrites swear they’ll leave their homes if Muhammad commanded it, but rather than swearing mighty oaths, they should just obey (v. 53). Ibn Kathir explains: “Allah says about the hypocrites who had promised the Messenger and sworn that if he were to command them to go out for battle, they would go.” However, of the Hypocrites “it is known that your obedience is merely verbal and is not accompanied by action. Every time you swear an oath you lie.” If they turn away from Muhammad’s message, they will bear the responsibility; he has done his duty by calling them to Islam (v. 54).
Then comes a momentous promise: Allah will establish the believers as rulers of the earth (v. 55). “This is a promise,” says Ibn Kathir, “from Allah to His Messenger that He would cause his Ummah [community] to become successors on earth, i.e., they would become the leaders and rulers of mankind, through whom He would reform the world and to whom people would submit, so that they would have in exchange a safe security after their fear.” Ibn Kathir then says “this is what Allah did indeed do,” and recounts some of the early Islamic conquests.
Verses 58-64 lay down instructions for when the believers’ slaves and children must ask permission before coming in Muhammad’s presence (vv. 58-59); allow elderly women to go uncovered in public (although modesty is better) (v. 60); and greetings and eating together (v. 61), as well as direct the believers to ask permission before leaving Muhammad’s presence (v. 62), for Muhammad’s summons is not like that of an ordinary man (v. 63).
Next week: Sura 25, “The Criterion.” Muhammad’s detractors say of the Qur’an: “Tales of the ancients, which he has caused to be written: and they are dictated before him morning and evening.”
(Here you can find links to all the earlier “Blogging the Qur’an” segments. Here is a good Arabic/English Qur’an, here are two popular Muslim translations, those of Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, along with a third by M. H. Shakir. Here is another popular translation, that of Muhammad Asad. And here is an omnibus of ten Qur’an translations.)