Women and the law

A Woman’s Oath (Li’an)


By Amira Sonbol

Source: Qur’an, Surat Al-Nur 24:6-10 and Sunan Dawood


The Qur’an and sunnah provide insight into acceptance of a woman’s oath as legal grounds for establishing paternity of a child’s father and as grounds for divorce.

Qur’an Verse of Condemnation in English

“And for those who launch a charge against their spouses, and have (in support) no evidence but their own,- their solitary evidence (can be received) if they bear witness four times (with an oath) by Allah that they are solemnly telling the truth; And the fifth (oath) (should be) that they solemnly invoke the curse of Allah on themselves if they tell a lie. But it would avert the punishment from the wife, if she bears witness four times (with an oath) By Allah, that (her husband) is telling a lie; And the fifth (oath) should be that she solemnly invokes the wrath of Allah on herself if (her accuser) is telling the truth. If it were not for Allah’s grace and mercy on you, and that Allah is Oft-Returning, full of Wisdom,- (Ye would be ruined indeed). ”

Translation of Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Meaning of the Holy Quran (Brentwood, Maryland: Amana Corporation, 1993), pp. 866-867.

Qur’an Ayat Al Li’an

 وَٱلَّذِينَ يَرۡمُونَ أَزۡوَٲجَهُمۡ وَلَمۡ يَكُن لَّهُمۡ شُہَدَآءُ إِلَّآ أَنفُسُهُمۡ فَشَهَـٰدَةُ أَحَدِهِمۡ أَرۡبَعُ شَہَـٰدَٲتِۭ بِٱللَّهِ‌ۙ إِنَّهُ ۥ لَمِنَ ٱلصَّـٰدِقِينَ (٦) وَٱلۡخَـٰمِسَةُ أَنَّ لَعۡنَتَ ٱللَّهِ عَلَيۡهِ إِن كَانَ مِنَ ٱلۡكَـٰذِبِينَ (٧) وَيَدۡرَؤُاْ عَنۡہَا ٱلۡعَذَابَ أَن تَشۡہَدَ أَرۡبَعَ شَہَـٰدَٲتِۭ بِٱللَّهِ‌ۙ إِنَّهُ ۥ لَمِنَ ٱلۡكَـٰذِبِينَ (٨) وَٱلۡخَـٰمِسَةَ أَنَّ غَضَبَ ٱللَّهِ عَلَيۡہَآ إِن كَانَ مِنَ ٱلصَّـٰدِقِينَ (٩) وَلَوۡلَا فَضۡلُ ٱللَّهِ عَلَيۡكُمۡ وَرَحۡمَتُهُ ۥ وَأَنَّ ٱللَّهَ تَوَّابٌ حَڪِيمٌ (١٠)

Holy Qur’an, Surat al-Nur (24:6-10) Ayat Al Li’an

Corroborating Hadith

The Qur’anic ayas (verses) involving l`ian are supported by the Prophet’s Sunna through several hadiths that tell of the Prophet’s ordering a man and his wife “to invoke curses on each other” (Sunan Abu Dawud, book 12, Number 2247, narrated by Ibn Abbas.) The following version of the hadith from Sunan Abu Dawood is more explicit and gives the multifaceted dimensions of the li`an system and its purposes:

Hilal ibn Umayyah … returned from his land and found a man with his wife. He witnessed with his eyes and heard with his ears. … he went to the Apostle of Allah … and said … I came to my wife at night and found a man with her. I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears … Thereupon the following Qur’anic verse came down: “And those who make charges against their spouses but have no witnesses except themselves, let the testimony of one of them….” When the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) came to himself (after the revelation ended), he said: Glad tidings for you, Hilal. Allah, the Exalted, has made it easy and, a way out for you… [he then sent for her] and recited (the verses) to them that the punishment in the next world was more severe than that in this world.

Hilal said: I swear by Allah, I spoke the truth against her.

She said: He told a lie.

The Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) said: Apply the method of invoking curses on each other.

Hilal was told: Bear witness. So he bore witness before Allah four times that he spoke the truth.

When he was about to utter a fifth time, he was told: Hilal, fear Allah, for the punishment in this world is easier than that in the next world; and this is the deciding one that will surely cause punishment to you.

He said: I swear by Allah. Allah will not punish me for this (act), as He did not cause me to be flogged for this (act). So he bore witness a fifth time invoking the curse of Allah on him if he was one of those who told lies.

Then the people said to her: Testify. So she gave testimony before Allah that he was a liar.

When she was going to testify a fifth time, she was told: Fear Allah, for the punishment in this world is easier than that in the next world. This is the deciding one that will surely cause punishment to you.

She hesitated for a moment, and then said: By Allah, I shall not disgrace my people.[1]

So she testified a fifth time invoking the curse of Allah on her if he spoke the truth.

The Apostle of Allah (PBUH) separated them from each other, and decided that the child would not be attributed to its father. Neither she nor her child would be accused of adultery. He who accused her or her child would be liable to punishment. He also decided that there would be no dwelling and maintenance for her (from the husband), as they were separated without divorce.

He then said: If she gives birth to a child with reddish hair, light buttocks, wide belly and light shins, he will be the child of Hilal. If she bears a dusky child with curly hair, fat limbs, fat shins and fat buttock he will be the child of the one who was accused of adultery. She gave birth to a dusky child with curly hair, fat limbs, fat shins and fat buttocks.

The Apostle of Allah (PBUH) said: Had there been no oaths I should have dealt with her severely.

Ikrimah said: Later on he became the chief of the tribe of Mudar. He was not attributed to his father. (Abu Dawud Book 006, Hadith Number 2247A.)

Analysis of Significance

This hadith expands on the Qur’anic ayas discussing li`an, showing the Prophet Muhammad’s handling of the denial of paternity. By separating the couple who invoke curses against each other and attributing the child whose paternity was disputed to the mother, the man was denied the possibility of ever getting his wife back or claiming the child as his. In other words in such a situation a man has to be absolutely certain that the child was not his; there was no going back. At the same time, by choosing to take the oath, the woman was exonerated from dishonor and no punishment is undertaken against her. One interesting point that opens further question has to do with the sequence of oaths the woman took. As in the case of the man, each time the woman took the oath, she was warned that her punishment for lying would be more severe in the afterlife than it would be while she was living. When it came to the fifth oath, it was pointed out to her that this was her last chance and there was no going back. She chose to take the oath, yet her words explain her decision in doing so: “By Allah, I shall not disgrace my people.” This seems to indicate that notwithstanding her act of oath taking, she was unsure as to who the father is and her fear was concerned with the honor of her tribe. This happened in front of the Prophet and he still accepted her oath and did not question her. As for the child, he was not held responsible for any of this and grew to become the leader of his tribe, a very significant lesson to modern society which continues to condemn children born out of wedlock and even sheikhs, who should know better, refer to them as “luqata’” (foundlings), or awlad al-haram (children of sin), thereby stigmatizing them for life.

[1] My stress on the words.