Surah An-Nur is a treasure trove of divine guidance on the ethics of communication. In this powerful multi-part tafseer of the surah, Nouman Ali Khan provides a compact reading of the aesthetics and language of each ayah. He also recounts the gripping details of the context in which the surah was revealed.
Ustadh Nouman first explains how the timing of this revelation, several years after hijrah, is a key factor in understating Allah’s purpose, especially when it comes to the punishment laid out in the opening ayat. This is Madani Quran when Muslims were thrust into a very different type of society and had to deal with different kinds of social challenges from what they experienced in Mecca under religious persecution.
In an unusual technique, Allah declares that this surah is “obligated” (faradnaha) on all Muslims in the very first ayah. This is followed by what seems like a very harsh public penalty for those found guilty of committing adultery.
These ayat are an important precursor to the transition into the story of ifk (slander) which involved Our Mother Aisha, the wife of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). While Allah stipulates that adulterers must receive 100 public lashings, an equally harsh penalty awaits those who level accusations against innocent victims without supporting these allegations with the testimony of four eyewitnesses. Not only do they receive 80 lashes for spreading such lies and rumors, they must also be ostracized in their communities and are not allowed to give testimony in court.
The way the incident of Ifk itself is presented in the surah is a source of profound wisdom about the responsibility we owe each other when it comes to preserving the dignity of a Muslim. The incident led to both a domestic crisis within the household of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and a larger crisis that affected the Ummah of Muslims at the time.
Ustadh Nouman explains how Abdullah ibn Ubayy ibn Salul, the serpent’s head of hypocrites (munafiqun) in Medinah, started a rumor by vaguely insinuating that there was “inappropriate conduct” between Our Mother Aisha and a soldier named Safwan. Aisha was accidentally left behind when the caravan returning from battle set off, thinking that she was in her hawdaj (carriage) on her camel. The sun had set as she searched for her missing onyx necklace and she lost her way, but when she returned and found that the caravan had left, she fell asleep in the campsite. Safwan found her and escorted her back to the caravan.
When he saw them together, Abdullah ibn Ubayy’s started a rumor that set in motion a whole series of events that cast a shadow over the Muslim community for over a month, until Allah revealed ayat proving Our Mother Aisha’s innocence.
Ustadh Nouman digs deep into the word “ifk”, explaining that it is derived from the root “afika” which means “deliberately digressing from the right path.” In the surah, Allah offers a consolation to the victims of this terrible injustice, practically telling Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), his companion Abu Bakr As-Siddiq and his daughter Aisha that their pain will be a source of guidance to humanity forever and must therefore not be seen as a source of evil.
One of the main takeaways from this terrible incident is that in such cases, one of the worst sins a Muslim can commit is casually repeating a rumor that could harm another Muslim’s reputation. Allah says that this is a test of our iman and stipulates that we must immediately deny such rumors and not let ourselves become fertile ground for exaggerating unfounded allegations. It is haram not to give people the benefit of the doubt.
Allah uses angry language to describe the mouth that contributes to this form of explicit digression from good morals and condemns those who want shamelessness (and conversations about shamelessness) to pervade Muslim communities. To this, He promises painful punishment in this world and the next. Such behavior that increases lewdness and evil, is likened to walking in the footsteps of shaytan and will lead to the spread of unspeakable crimes that will chip away at the core of human decency.
When we hold our tongue in the face of baseless rumors, explains Ustadh Nouman, we will be able to attain our state of purity. Iman is a gift from Allah that will help us guard our chastity and protect our communities from shamelessness. We must resist the temptation to pontificate, take the high moral ground and publicly blame others for their mistakes, because in doing so, we too are crossing a shaky ethical boundary by carelessly assuming that unfounded claims are true and heedlessly repeating them.