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Al-Ifk: Lessons from the heinous lie against ‘Ā’isha (radiyAllau ‘anha), Mother of the Believers

One of the defining characteristics of the hypocrites was, and remains to be, their incessant plotting against the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) his family and Companions. In the 5th year after migration the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) and Companions were returning from the expedition of Banī Mustaliq when Sūrah al-Munāfiqūn (Chapter of the Hypocrites) was revealed. The Sūrah was revealed in response to an incident where a minor dispute had broken out between the Companions, and ʿAbdullāh b. Ubay, chief of the hypocrites, sought to exploit the incident by making veiled threats against the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) and Companions. Allāh unequivocally exposed him in Sūrah al-Munafiqun:

They say, “If we return to al-Madīnah, the more honoured will surely expel therefrom the more humble.” And to Allāh belongs [all] honour, and to His Messenger, and to the believers, but the hypocrites do not know.”[1]

It was in the very same return journey that the hypocrites attempted their most audacious attack against the honour of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) and his family, accusing his beloved wife ʿĀ’isha of infidelity and spreading the slander in Madīna. They deceived some of the sincere believers and enticed them to join their slander which festered for over a month, before Allāh himself exonerated her from above the seven heavens, revealing verses from Sūrah al-Nūr in her defense, which would forever raise her status and condemn her accusers.

It is sufficient honour for ʿĀ’isha that she is the most beloved person to the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam). ʿAmr b. Al-ʿĀs narrates:

I came to the Prophet and said, ‘Who do you love the most?’ He replied, ‘ʿĀ’isha.’ I said, ‘From amongst the men?’ He replied, ‘Her father (Abū Bakr)’.[2]

The Prophet’s (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) love for her was not the mere affection of a husband for his wife. It was indeed inspired by revelation. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) relayed to ʿĀ’isha a dream he had prior to marrying her:

You were shown to me twice in a dream. I saw you in a piece of silk. I was told, ‘This is your wife, so unveil her,’ and it was you. I said, ‘if this dream is from Allāh then it will come to pass’.[3]

ʿĀ’isha is the wife of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) in the hereafter as she was his wife in this world.[4] She is the only wife under whose covers the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) would receive revelation.[5] The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) spent his final days in her apartment and breathed his last in her arms. She was the best of women chosen for the best of men, as Allāh states in Sūrah al-Nūr:

Good women are for good men, and good men for good women.[6]

It is narrated that, remarkably, Jibrīl (ʿalayhi al-Salām) would extend his salutations to her.[7] She was a scholar from the Companions who they turned to over and over again for guidance in matters of faith after the death of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam), and she narrated one quarter of the hadīth regarding rulings.[8]

In the most heart-rendering of stories, ʿĀ’isha herself narrates the most detailed and eloquent account of the great slander. An account which must be read, understood and reflected on by all Muslims as it establishes key principles of societal relations and sexual morality. Despite being only fifteen years old, ʿĀ’isha endured a trial which would cripple the most resolute of men. On the return journey from Banī Mustaliq, she became separated from the army while looking for a necklace and the army marched on thinking she was still seated in her ‘hawdaj’.[9] It was customary for the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) to keep one of the companions to trail behind to look for people who had become separated from the army and it was here that Safwān b. Al-Muʿattal found ʿĀ’isha who had fallen asleep waiting for the army to return.

The most poignant of lessons from this entire episode teaches us the practice of Hijāb amongst the Companions. Hijāb is not merely a scarf that the Muslim women covers her hair with, but a conduct of honour which is maintained between the genders at all times. ʿĀ’isha states that,

“By Allāh, he did not speak a word to me and I did not hear him say anything except, ‘Truly, to Allāh we belong, and truly, to Him we shall return.’”

There was no casual talk to pass the time or alleviate the obvious anxiety of the situation. Safwān woke up the Mother of the Believers with the most honourable of addresses and proceeded to walk in front of the camel while she rode behind him so as to avert his gaze from her. Indeed ʿĀ’isha states that at the moment of hearing Safwān’s voice, ‘I woke up, and covered my face with my Jilbāb (outer garment)’, thereby confirming that the complete Hijāb consists of the Jilbāb and the face veil. The point here is not to establish the obligation of the jilbāb and face veil, but to recognise the noble practices which are from our heritage and recognise the standard we must all aspire to. In fact, if we reflect upon the circumstances of ʿĀ’isha being left behind, we gain further insight into the conduct of the Companions; ʿĀ’isha was being carried in a ‘hawdaj’, a discrete and concealed means of transportation, despite already wearing a jilbāb and face veil. Also the companions who lifted the ‘hawdaj’ and rode away clearly had no conversation with ʿĀ’isha because, if they did, they would have realised that she was absent and raised the alarm. The picture that emerges is one of dignity and respect which governs the interaction of the genders which only serves to amplify their honour and increase our love for them.

By midday, ʿĀ’isha had reached the army, but it was here that ʿAbdullāh b. Ubay made an insidious comment and ignited the great slander. The hypocrites at every stage of history have a pivotal role in igniting rumour, controversy and accusations in order to undermine the moral foundations of the Muslim community. In particular, they love to talk about and promote promiscuity in the Muslim community by spreading scandals. Allāh said in Sūrah al-Nūr:

Indeed, those who like that immorality should be spread among those who have believed will have a painful punishment in this world and the Hereafter. And Allāh knows and you do not know.[10]

Imām at-Tabari explains this verse by saying, ‘Those that love to see fornication spread and become rampant amongst the believers will have a painful punishment – a portion in this world by way of the hadd (punishment) of lashing for accusing a married woman or man of adultery without proof, and moreover in the hereafter they will have the punishment of the Hellfire, if they die without repenting’. Talking about promiscuity, unfounded or not, normalises this flagrant violation of the sanctity of Allāh’s religion, and encourages its proliferation. It is noticeable therefore that while Sūrah al-Nūr begins with a harsh and abrupt warning against those who commit fornication with the punishment of a hundred lashes,[11] the punishment for those who make unfounded accusations is almost on a par with those who commit the act itself:

And those who accuse chaste women and then do not produce four witnesses – lash them with eighty lashes and do not accept from them testimony ever after. And those are the defiantly disobedient.[12]

The burden of proof has been placed so exceptionally high on making an accusation of fornication that it stretches almost beyond the pale of reality. How could a man and woman commit such a shameful act in full view of four just witnesses? This sin by nature is something which is concealed behind closed doors, and committed in secret. This demonstrates to us that punishments in Islamic law are fundamentally deterrents and a means of purification. Often it is people who have repented and seek purification that volunteer to have the punishments established on themselves, hence the penal code in Islam is to be viewed in a holistic sense having a connection to prevention of the crime in this world, but also a purification from sin in the hereafter. Note that the punishment for those who bring an unfounded accusation against the believers is threefold, consisting of eighty lashes, there testimony being rejected forever, and if they do not repent, the threat of punishment in the hereafter. It is impossible to find another penal code that so vehemently protects the honour and dignity of innocent people, in particular women, who are often subjected to malicious accusations or erroneous assumptions based on circumstantial evidence.  It is worth noting here that the condition of four witnesses is absolute. If there are three confirmed witnesses but the fourth expresses some degree of doubt then the accusation is classed as unfounded and the three confirmed witnesses must withdraw their testimony or face eighty lashes.

Imām ash-Shawkāni explains that ‘al-ifk’ referred to in verse 11 means the most grievous type of lie as it is defined as saying the complete opposite of the truth. It relates to the slander against ʿĀ’isha by consensus of the Muslims and hence Allāh called it ‘al-ifk’ as she was in reality far removed from such and the complete opposite. In fact the use of the preposition, ‘al’, emphasises that not only was this a grievous lie but it is ‘the’ grievous lie after which there are no comparable lies.

In the most eloquent and succinct manner, Allāh summarised the consequences for both the victims and perpetrators of the great lie:

Indeed, those who came with falsehood are a group among you. Do not think it bad for you; rather it is good for you. For every person among them is what [punishment] he has earned from the sin, and he who took upon himself the greater portion thereof – for him is a great punishment.[13]

Imām ash-Shawkāni explains that the worst of the group referred to at the end of this verse is ʿAbdullāh b. Ubay. It was the hypocrites who instigated the slander and purposefully spread it hence Zamakshari states this verse is a proof that the main perpetrators of the great lie are hypocrites who are consigned to the hell-fire forever. The group from among the Muslims who Allāh censored at the beginning of the verse are those naïve Muslims who passed on the rumour without giving it much thought, or even those Muslims who listened attentively to the rumour without rebuking it and were complicit through their silence. In fact the next verse indicates the only noble course of action when rumours of this sort are spread:

Why, when you heard it, did not the believing men and believing women think good of themselves and say, ‘This is an obvious falsehood’?[14]

Imām at-Tabari explains that this verse is a reprimand from Allāh to the believers about what they thought when confronted with this lie, and that they should have assumed good about those accused. They should have responded like Abū Ayyūb al-Ansari who called it an outright lie at the moment he found out about the accusation from his wife, and asked her if she could do such a dreadful thing. When she said she could not, he put it to her that ʿĀ’isha was better than her. The good thoughts referred to in this verse would have been to assume that a believer could never commit fornication with his mother, nor a mother, commit fornication with her own son, as all of the wives of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) are mothers to the believers.

Imām al-Qurtubi explains a critical principal necessary for the preservation of the integrity of the Muslim community and the purity of their hearts: Namely, Allāh has commanded the believers that if they hear of a man being accused of fornication and only the contrary is known about him, they should immediately seek to deny it and say that it is made up. This is in line with the principle that a believer’s honour and reputation remains intact up until substantial proof is shown to the contrary. Mere rumour or tales do not and should not affect it. It is also interesting to note how Allāh accused the believers of not thinking good of themselves. Even though the accusation was against ʿĀ’isha and Safwān, by insinuating that they were capable of this sin, the accusers had in fact accused the whole of the Muslim community of being capable of falling into this sin including themselves, for ʿĀ’isha and Safwān were from amongst the best of the believers.

Allāh consoled the household of Abū Bakr that the great lie was in fact good for them and not bad for them as they perceived. Allah declared the innocence and honour of ʿĀ’isha with verses that would be recited over and over again until the Day of Judgement. Generation after generation would pay homage to the purity and nobility of ʿĀ’isha long after her accusers had perished. Any anguish they suffered only served to expiate their sins. In fact it was through this incident that Abū Bakr established the precedence of not only forgiving those who harm you, but continuing in good treatment and charity towards them. Allāh said in the Qur’ān:

And let not those among you who are blessed with graces and wealth swear not to give to their kinsmen, the poor, and those who left their homes for Allāh’s cause. Let them pardon and forgive. Do you not love that Allāh should forgive you? And Allāh is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.[15]

Ibn Kathīr explains that this verse was revealed in response to the oath made by Abū Bakr to withhold charity from Mistah b. Uthathah. He was one of the destitute Companions who migrated for the sake of Allāh and witnessed Badr. He was a relative of ʿĀ’isha, and Abū Bakr would support him with a monthly stipend. He had naively fallen into the great slander against ʿĀ’isha and Abū Bakr had taken an oath to withhold his spending on him. When the verse was revealed, Abū Bakr’s response was emphatic in responding to Allāh’s invitation for forgiveness. Syed Qutb explains that he replaced his initial oath with a new oath to spend on Mistah, illustrating how Abū Bakr is one of those whom Allāh chose to be purified and attain a sublime standard through this trial. Abū Bakr has been crowned with the title, ‘as-Sidīq’, precisely for his endeavour to do the maximum good in any situation. Not only did he not retaliate against Mistah maintaining family ties, not only did he overlook his mistake and forgave him, but he magnanimously reinstated charity on him in the ultimate act of kindness and upholding of ties of kinship.

The moments when these verses were revealed exonerating ʿĀ’isha are truly touching moments. ʿĀ’isha upon her return journey to Medina had fallen ill for the best part of a month. She was completely oblivious to the rumours being circulated. When she found out, she became inconsolable with grief. She wept through the entire night and continued to weep through the entire day. Her parents feared that her liver would burst from the intensity of her weeping.  When the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) questioned her, out of his justice as a leader, she was so overwhelmed that she responded with the call to patience of the Prophet Yaʿqūb, referring to him only as Yūsuf’s father, having forgotten his name in her state of trauma. She describes how she felt herself too insignificant for verses of the Qur’ān to be revealed regarding her innocence but she expected that Allāh would exonerate her through a dream, when suddenly she noticed that the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) had been overtaken by a state similar to that when he received revelation. Drops of sweat were running down him like pearls due to the heaviness of the words descending on him. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) look up to ʿĀ’isha, smiled and said:

Be glad O ʿĀ’isha, Allāh has declared your innocence!

ʿĀ’isha describes how her mother said to, ‘Get up and go to him.’ But she responded:

‘By Allāh, I will not go to him and I will not give praise to anyone except Allāh, may He be glorified, for He is the One Who has proven my innocence.’

Despite her overwhelming grief, ʿĀ’isha never abandoned her trust in Allāh, even in the most intense moments of this trial. It is a common feature of the Companions that their fitrah (natural disposition) is so pure and in tune with revelation that they often anticipate revelation before it descends. There are numerous verses of the Qur’ān that were revealed confirming the pronouncements of ʿUmar b. al-Khattāb. Even in Sūrah al-Nūr, the verses of li’ān (oath of condemnation) were revealed in response to the accusation of adultery made by Hilāl b. Umayyah against his wife. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) demanded four witnesses and Hilāl protested that no man could stumble upon his wife committing adultery and go and retrieve four witnesses to observe the act. Under threat of eighty lashes, Hilāl had trust in Allāh that He would reveal verses in his defence. Sure enough the verses of li’ān were revealed instituting the mechanism by which a husband makes an accusation of adultery against his wife. The verses demand that the husband brings her before the judge and makes the accusation against her, and the judge should make him swear four times by Allāh that he is telling the truth, and the fifth time he should invoke the curse of Allāh upon himself if he is lying. If he says this, she becomes irrevocably divorced by virtue of this li’ān, and the punishment for adultery should be carried out on her. The punishment is averted from her if she also engages in li’ān and swears by Allāh four times that he is lying and the fifth time she should invoke the wrath of Allāh upon herself if he is telling the truth.

One of the profound lessons we learn from the entire episode of the slander against ʿĀ’isha is the exemplary leadership of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) – his justice, wisdom, foresight and restraint. He was a man with the greatest sense of ghira (sense of honour and jealousy over his wives), yet he did not allow the impulse of revenge and retribution to cloud his judgement as a leader of the community. Had the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) killed ʿĀ’isha’s accusers as soon as the rumour surfaced, it may have set the precedent of vengeful fathers and husbands in future taking the law into their own hands when accusations are made against their daughters and wives. Instead the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) put his communal responsibility as a leader above his personal feelings as a husband and investigated the matter thoroughly. He did not rush to judgement but took time to investigate and verify. He asked those closest to the accused and took their counsel. He did not blame his wife ʿĀ’isha for bringing the rumours upon herself or censor her for separating from the army over a small necklace, but he did maintain some degree of distance and impartiality while he investigated the accusations.

The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) never had any doubt in the innocence of his wife. This is clear from his statement to the companions when he declared:

O Muslims, who will help me against a man who has hurt me by slandering my family. By Allāh, I know nothing about my family but good, and the people are blaming a man of whom I know nothing except good, and he has never entered upon my family except with me.

Perhaps the most remarkable act of forbearance, mercy and concern for ʿĀ’isha’s hereafter is when the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) offered her the door to repentance if she had committed an error. A Muslim leader’s primary concern is the salvation in the hereafter of their followers, not their personal revulsion at the sins they may have committed. Which husband could make such a statement to his wife at a time when rumours are rife about her, and the community has been thrown into turmoil:

Thereafter, O ʿĀ‘ishah, I have been told such and such a thing about you, and if you are innocent, then Allāh will reveal your innocence, but if you have committed a sin, then seek Allāh’s forgiveness and turn in repentance to Him, for when a servant confesses his sin and repents to Allāh, He accepts his repentance. 

ʿĀ’isha’s response is no less noble and depicts a young woman at the tender age of fifteen showing the trust in Allāh, fortitude and patience of a Sidīqah. Little wonder that when we consider she has been born and raised into the household of a Sidīq, and is the soul mate of the greatest of all Prophets:

By Allāh, I know that you have heard so much of this story that it has become planted in your minds and you believe it. So now if I tell you that I am innocent — and Allāh knows that I am innocent — you will not believe me; but if I admit something to you — and Allāh knows that I am innocent — you will believe me. By Allāh, I cannot find any example to give you except for that which the Prophet Yūsuf’s father said, ‘So (for me) patience is most fitting. And it is Allāh whose help can be sought against that which you describe.’

The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) also showed remarkable foresight and restraint in preserving the unity of the Muslims under extreme provocation. When the minor dispute had broken out between the Muhājirūn and the Ansār during the expedition of Banī Mustaliq, and the flames of tribal loyalty had been fanned by the hypocrites, the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) forced the companions to march on without stopping for rest through the intense heat of the day. The ensuing fatigue caused the Companions to totally forget about their early dispute and be consumed by the hardships of the journey.  When the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) addressed the companions to help him against a man who had hurt him and his family, a dispute broke out between the Aws and Khazraj, the two main constituent tribes of the Ansār. Saʿd b. Muʿadh, leader of the Aws stood up and said,

`O Messenger of Allāh, by Allāh I will deal with him for you. If he is from Al-Aws, then I will cut off his head, and if he is from our brothers of Al-Khazraj, tell us what to do and we will do it.’

Then Saʿd b. ʿUbadah, leader of the Khazraj and a righteous man who had been overtaken by tribal loyalty stood up and said,

`By Allāh, you will not kill him and you will never be able to kill him.’

Then Usayd bin Hudayr, who was the cousin of Saʿd b. Muʿadh, stood up and said to Saʿd b. ʿUbadah,

`You are lying! By Allāh, we will kill him, and you are a hypocrite arguing on behalf of the hypocrites!’

There is no doubt that the Ansār had over and over again put their lives on the line in defence of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam), and at times had made human shields around the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) to protect him with their own bodies. But in times of turmoil and instability when emotions are running high and malicious slander, lies and rumour have rocked the foundations of the community and altered their perception of reality, even the greatest believers may speak and act out of character. Saʿd b. ʿUbadah’s statement may not have been an outright defence of the hypocrites as such, but a reaction to the statement of Saʿd b. Muʿadh who not only offered to kill the hypocrites from his own tribe, but crucially offered to kill the hypocrites from Saʿd b. ʿUbadah’s tribe without first giving him the opportunity to demonstrate his own loyalty.

The two groups, Al-Aws and Al-Khazraj, then started to get angry and were about to come to blows, while the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) was standing on the Minbar, trying to calm them down until they became quiet. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) then also fell silent, and once again chose the welfare of the community over his own desire for retribution.

There is a difference of opinion amongst the scholars over who, if anybody, was actually punished for the unfounded slander and failure to bring four witnesses. Some scholars states that three Companions, Hassan b. Thābit, Misṭaḥ b. Uthātha and Ḥamnatu b. Jaḥsh were lashed for their role in spreading the rumour. The prime instigator, ʿAbdullāh b. Ubay escaped the establishment of the hadd for unfounded accusations. Some scholars explained that the reason for this was that the Prophet was leaving him open to the severe punishment in the hereafter as mentioned in verse 11. As for the Companions who had erred, he did it in order to expiate them. Ibn ʿAshūr also explains that it was out of the virtue and kindness of ʿĀ’isha and Safwān that they pardoned him and as such he escaped the punishment in this world. It is also possible that he escaped the punishment because the crime was not committed openly but rather the hypocrites secretly instigated the rumours and it spread thereafter. Zamakhshari states in his tafsīr that there is no sterner warning than those given to this slander – cursed in this life and the hereafter and their limbs will testify against them in case they deny. This confirms that Allāh condemned the chief instigators to the hell fire for eternity as hypocrites:

Indeed, those who accuse chaste, unaware and believing women, are cursed in this world and the Hereafter; and they will have a great punishment.

On a Day when their tongues, their hands and their feet will bear witness against them as to what they used to do.

That Day, Allāh will pay them in full their deserved recompense, and they will know that it is Allāh who is the perfect in justice.[16]

The incident of the great slander is a fertile story with innumerable lessons and benefits. We learn about the danger the hypocrites pose in fracturing the community and the need to guard against their malicious rumours. Even lending an ear to them empowers them and can undermine the foundations of trust that bind the community together. We learn about the expansive mercy of this religion which never closes the door of repentance and the critical role the hudūd play as a deterrent and as a means of purification in the hereafter. We learn about the great status of ʿĀ’isha, the beloved of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam). Ibn Kathīr quotes a consensus of apostasy against the person who persists in accusing ʿĀ’isha in open defiance of the Qur’ān. And we learn about the just, magnanimous and wise leader who is our Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam). How he placed his social responsibility as a leader of the community above his personal feelings as a husband, while simultaneously preserving the unity of the Muslims under immense strain. But perhaps most importantly, in an era where the boundaries of sexual morality are constantly being redrawn, and entire industries depend on gossip and promiscuity, we learn how to nurture social interactions between the genders and create a blessed and honourable environment which preserves the sanctity of our religion.

This article draws on the Hadith of Al-Ifk – click here to read.

Source: www.islam21c.com


[1] Al-Qur’ān, 63:8

[2]Saḥīḥ al-Bukhārī Volume 5, Book 57, Number 14

[3]Saḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, 3606

[4] Ibn Kathīr, Surah al-Nūr, verse 26

[5]Saḥīḥ al-Bukhari, hadith 3491

[6] Al-Qur’ān, 24:26 explained to be a reference to ʿĀ’isha by Ibn Kathīr

[7]Saḥīḥ al-Bukhari, Volume 5, Book 57, Number 112

[8] Ibn Hajar in his explanation of Saḥīḥ al-Bukhārī under the chapter the virtue of ʿĀ’isha (7/107)

[9] A tent like structure which conceals a woman while riding on a camel

[10] Al-Qur’ān, 24:19

[11] Al-Qur’ān, 24:2

[12] Al-Qur’ān, 24:4

[13] Al-Qur’ān, 24:11

[14] Al-Qur’ān, 24:12

[15] Al-Qur’ān, 24:22

[16] Al-Qur’ān, 24:23-25


About Ustadh Abu Haneefah Sohail

Abu Haneefah is an educationalist and student of knowledge. He has worked extensively in community projects in the UK. He holds regular study circles on reflections on the Qur'ān and his field of expertise is the tarbiyya of young people.

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