The imprisonment of Marte Deborah Dalelv reflects not just local custom, but Islamic law.
Dubai, not willing to take the international heat, has pardoned Marte Deborah Dalelv, a Norwegian woman who had been sentenced to sixteen months in prison for making the mistake of reporting that she had been a victim of rape.
The UK’s Daily Mail reported that “under UAE law, rapists can only be convicted if either the perpetrator confesses or if four adult Muslim males witness the crime.” This isn’t just Emirati law; it is pure Sharia, based on Qur'an 24:4 and 24:13. Those verses, in turn, are according to Islamic tradition, the result of Muhammad’s exoneration of his favorite wife, Aisha, who was suspected of adultery.
Allah gave Muhammad a revelation requiring four male witnesses to establish such a crime: “And those who accuse honourable women but bring not four witnesses, scourge them (with) eighty stripes and never (afterward) accept their testimony, they indeed are evil-doers” (Qur’an 24:4). The problem with this is that women who accuse men of rape but cannot produce four male witnesses are often accused themselves of zina -- unlawful sexual intercourse -- and jailed as a result.
This is not limited just to Dubai or the UAE. According to Sisters In Islam, a Muslim reform group, there is evidence that most -- up to 75% -- of the women imprisoned in Pakistan are there because of rape.
And it is all because of a tradition about Muhammad, recounting that soon after the Islamic prophet had ordered the veiling of women, the Muslims went in caravan to battle. Muhammad’s child bride, Aisha, accompanied him, carried in a curtained howdah on the back of a camel. Aisha tells the story:
(We camped) as we approached near the city of Medina. Then he announced for departure at night. I got up when they announced the departure, and went away from the army camps, and after finishing from the call of nature, I came back to my riding animal. I touched my chest to find that my necklace which was made of Zifar beads (i.e. Yemenite beads partly black and partly white) was missing. So I returned to look for my necklace and my search for it detained me. (In the meanwhile) the people who used to carry me on my camel, came and took my Hawdaj and put it on the back of my camel on which I used to ride, as they considered that I was in it. In those days women were light in weight for they did not get fat, and flesh did not cover their bodies in abundance as they used to eat only a little food. So, those people did not feel the difference in the heaviness of the Hawdaj while lifting it, and they put it near the camel. At that time I was still a young lady. They made the camel rise and all of them left (along with it). I found my necklace after the army had gone.
Since the order for veiling meant that no one could look at her or speak to her, and her weight didn’t make any significant difference, the people loading Aisha’s howdah onto her camel had no way of telling she wasn’t there. And so Muhammad’s favorite wife was stranded.
While I was sitting in my resting place, I was overwhelmed by sleep and slept. Safwan bin Al-Muattal As-Sulami Adh-Dhakwani was behind the army. When he reached my place in the morning, he saw the figure of a sleeping person and he recognized me on seeing me as he had seen me before the order of compulsory veiling (was prescribed). So I woke up when he recited Istirja' (i.e. "Inna lillahi wa inna llaihi raji'un" [“Truly to Allah we belong and truly to him we shall return”]) as soon as he recognized me. I veiled my face with my head cover at once, and by Allah, we did not speak a single word, and I did not hear him saying any word besides his Istirja'. He dismounted from his camel and made it kneel down, putting his leg on its front legs and then I got up and rode on it. Then he set out leading the camel that was carrying me till we overtook the army in the extreme heat of midday while they were at a halt (taking a rest).
Aisha had been alone with a man who was not her husband. For some, that was enough to begin circulating ugly rumors about her: “(Because of the event) some people brought destruction upon themselves,” Aisha said, “and the one who spread the Ifk (i.e. slander) more, was 'Abdullah bin Ubai Ibn Salul'”—along with three others (including another man named Mistah bin Uthatha and the sister of Zaynab bint Jahsh), along with some secondary figures. The rumors flew, and even Muhammad was affected by them, drawing back from Aisha, who explains:
After we returned to Medina, I became ill for a month. The people were propagating the forged statements of the slanderers while I was unaware of anything of all that, but I felt that in my present ailment, I was not receiving the usual kindness from Allah's Messenger which I used to receive when I got sick. (But now) Allah's Messenger would only come, greet me and say, ‘How is that (lady)?' and leave. That roused my doubts, but I did not discover the evil (i.e. slander) till I recovered from my ailment and I went out with Umm Mistah [that is, Mistah’s mother] to Al-Manasi’ where we used to answer the call of nature…
Umm Mistah ultimately tells Aisha about the rumors, which of course made an already ailing Aisha feel even worse:
So my ailment was aggravated, and when I reached my home, Allah's Messenger came to me, and after greeting me, said, 'How is that (lady)?' I said, 'Will you allow me to go to my parents?' as I wanted to be sure about the news through them. Allah's Messenger allowed me (and I went to my parents) and asked my mother, 'O mother! What are the people talking about?' She said, 'O my daughter! Don't worry, for scarcely is there a charming woman who is loved by her husband and whose husband has other wives besides herself that they (i.e. women) would find faults with her.' I said, 'Subhan Allah! [Glory be to Allah!] Are the people really talking in this way?' I kept on weeping that night till dawn, I could neither stop weeping nor sleep, then in the morning again, I kept on weeping.
And she had good reason to weep: Muhammad evidently believed the rumors, although Aisha had defenders:
(When the Divine Revelation was delayed), Allah's Messenger called 'Ali bin Abi Talib and Usama bin Zaid to ask and consult them about divorcing me. Usama bin Zaid said what he knew of my innocence, and the respect he had for me. Usama said, '(O Allah's Messenger!) She is your wife, and we do not know anything except good about her.'
Rather ungallantly, ‘Ali, who later became the great saint and hero of the Shi’ite Muslims, reminds Muhammad that there are “plenty of women” available to the Prophet (Aisha never forgot this, and later disputed Ali’s claim that Muhammad had appointed him as his successor: “When did he appoint him by will? Verily when he died he was resting against my chest and he asked for a wash-basin and then collapsed while in that state, and I could not even perceive that he had died, so when did he appoint him by will?”). Aisha’s account continues:
'Ali bin Abi Talib said, 'O Allah's Messenger! Allah does not put you in difficulty, and there are plenty of women other than she, yet, ask the maid-servant (Aishah’s slave-girl) who will tell you the truth.' On that Allah's Messenger called Barira (i.e. the maid-servant) and said, 'O Barira! Did you ever see anything which aroused your suspicion?' Barira said to him, 'By Him Who has sent you with the Truth. I have never seen anything in her (i.e., Aishah) which I would conceal, except that she is a young girl who sleeps leaving the dough of her family exposed so that the domestic goats come and eat it.'
Muhammad was satisfied with this, and turned on Aisha’s accusers. Aisha recounts:
So, on that day, Allah's Messenger got up on the pulpit and complained about 'Abdullah bin Ubai (bin Salul) before his Companions, saying, 'O you Muslims! Who will relieve me from that man who has hurt me with his evil statement about my family? By Allah, I know nothing except good about my family and they have blamed a man about whom I know nothing except good and he used never to enter my home except in my company'…. All that day I kept on weeping with my tears never ceasing, and I could never sleep.
In the morning my parents were with me and I wept for two nights and a day, neither my tears ceased nor could I sleep till I thought that my liver would burst from weeping. While my parents were sitting with me and I was weeping, an Ansari woman asked me to grant her admittance, and I allowed her to come in. She came in, and sat down and started weeping with me. While we were in this state, Allah's Messenger came, greeted us and sat down. He had never sat with me since that day of the slander. A month had elapsed and no Divine Revelation came to him about my case. Allah's Messenger then recited Tashahhud (i.e., La ilaha illallah wa anna Muhammad-ur-Rasul Allah – none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger) and then said, 'Amma Ba’du [Now to the point], O 'Aishah! I have been informed such-and-such about you; if you are innocent, then soon Allah will reveal your innocence, and if you have committed a sin, then repent to Allah and ask Him for forgiveness, for when a person confesses his sins and asks Allah for forgiveness, Allah accepts his repentance.'
At that point Aisha began to fight back against her accusers, even quoting the Qur’an in her own defense:
When Allah's Messenger finished his speech, my tears ceased flowing completely and there remained not even a single drop of it. I said to my father, 'Reply to Allah's Messenger on my behalf concerning what he has said.' My father said, 'By Allah, I do not know what to say to Allah's Messenger.' Then I said to my mother, 'Reply to Allah's Messenger on my behalf concerning what he has said.' She said, 'By Allah, I do not know what to say to Allah's Messenger.' In spite of the fact that I was a young girl and had a little knowledge of the Qur’an, I said, 'By Allah, no doubt I know that you heard this (slanderous) speech so that it has got fixed up in your minds and you have taken it as a truth. Now, if I tell you that I am innocent, you will not believe me, and if confess to you falsely that I am guilty, and Allah knows that I am innocent, you will surely believe me. [Qur’an 12:18]…. Then I turned to the other side of my bed; hoping that Allah would prove my innocence.
By Allah, Allah’s Messenger had not got up and nobody had left the house before the Divine Revelation came to Allah’s Messenger. So, there overtook him the same state which used to overtake him, (when he used to be inspired Divinely). The sweat was dropping from his body like pearls, though it was a (cold) wintry day and that was because of the weighty statement which was being revealed to him. When that state of Allah's Messenger was over, he got up smiling, and the first word he said was, 'O 'Aishah! Allah has declared your innocence!' (V. 24.11-21).
Here is the full passage of the Qur’an declaring Aisha’s innocence, scolding the Muslims for ever believing the accusations, and setting a standard for evidence in crimes of sexual impurity that remains part of Islamic law to this day:
Why did they not produce four witnesses? Since they produce not witnesses, they verily are liars in the sight of Allah. Had it not been for the grace of Allah and His mercy unto you in the world and the Hereafter an awful doom had overtaken you for that whereof ye murmured. When ye welcomed it with your tongues, and uttered with your mouths that whereof ye had no knowledge, ye counted it a trifle. In the sight of Allah it is very great. Wherefore, when ye heard it, said ye not: It is not for us to speak of this. Glory be to Thee (O Allah)! This is awful calumny. (Qur’an 24:11-16)
The story establishes that Muhammad loved Aisha, and was clearly relieved when the revelation of her innocence came to him from Allah. But as so often in Islamic tradition, it seems as if Allah’s solicitude for his Prophet takes the Qur’an, which is supposed to be a universal message applicable to all people in all times and places, into some rather surprisingly localized areas. Even Aisha herself was amazed: “But by Allah, I did not think that Allah, (to confirm my innocence), would reveal Divine Revelation which would be recited, for I consider myself too unimportant to be talked about by Allah through Divine Revelation revealed for recitation, but I hoped that Allah's Messenger might have a dream in which Allah would reveal my innocence.”
Indeed, many others have marveled at this over the centuries. And women continue to suffer for the odd stipulation that four male Muslim witnesses must be produced in order to establish a crime of adultery, including rape.
Marte Dalelv was just the latest. She will by no means be the last.
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