When I was writing my exegesis, “Polygamy is haraam.” I remembered a conversation I had with Orbala ages ago in which I had demanded to know why the supposed permissibility of polygyny did not conventionally extend to polyandry. She responded that polyandry, the marriage of one woman to multiple men, was explicitly forbidden in the Qur’an (a view she has now revised). This was attributed to Qur’anic verse 4:24, which reads across translations as, “haraam to you are women [who are married],” which is one of way saying a woman cannot marry more than one man.
This is a… questionable translation. I’d always wondered why the term “muḥ’ṣanāt,” translated in 4:24 as “women who are married,” was also used in reference to enslaved women in the verse that follows, especially since several translations of 4:24 add “except those your right hands possess,” creating a dynamic that (1) contradicted itself and (2) incidentally made polyandry permissible by the same logic because the verse would then permit an enslaved woman to marry multiple men.
Take a look down this center column to observe the selectivity in translating “muḥ’ṣanāt”:
“Muḥ’ṣanāti” clearly cannot mean married women and simultaneously mean chaste women. It cannot mean free women and simultaneously mean enslaved women. Regard part of 4:25, for an illustrative demonstration of why this doesn’t work:
So marry them [enslaved women]
With the permission of their families
And give them their bridal due
In a fair manner,
They should be muḥ’ṣanāti and not committing secret
Then when they [enslaved women] are married,
if they commit adultery,
then for them is half of the punishment
that is on the [free, unmarried] muḥ’ṣanāti women.
Notice the placement of the word and its functions. Common translations render muḥ’ṣanāti as meaning free women even though in the very same verse muḥ’ṣanāti is referring to enslaved women. The translation of this word consistently chances, sometimes even contradictorily, in order to fit what best suits the whims of male translators, because they don’t understand what it means.
Male scholars don’t know what muḥ’ṣanāt means. They don’t understand. This conclusion is the optimistic one. Realistically, they do know what it means, because they translate the word and its variations differently when the pronoun is a masculine one, in which case it miraculously alludes to a noble “refrain.”
Muḥ’ṣanāt are women who restrain or do not consent, and specifically women who have the power to restrain and deny or provide consent. This is what it means in every instance. In every. Single. Instance. It is the only uniform meaning. It is what it means throughout all of these aimed translations: “chaste” “refrained” “guarded” etc.
Consider 5:5, which permits marriage to Christians and Jews [muḥ’ṣanātu].
And [lawful in marriage are] […]
muḥ’ṣanātu from among those
who were given the Scripture
As is obvious, muḥ’ṣanāt does not reference sexual restraint specifically, which is why it is so dynamic in its usage throughout the Qur’an. It can refer to religious restraint. In this context (5:5), muḥ’ṣanāt means women who refrain from or do not consent to converting to Islam, rather than women who are “chaste” as male translators so love to convey this word. But whether or not the context is sexual or perceived it be, muḥ’ṣanāt always signifies the power to withhold consent.
In fact, verse 4:25 itself tells us how to define muḥ’ṣanāti. Notice in the excerpt of 4:25 that men must ask permission (“with the permission of their families”) because “you are believers of one another”—which male scholarship often assumes must indicate that free women are the subject here and there has been a transition mid-verse (because why should they ask permission regarding enslaved women). Make no mistake the subject is still enslaved women; they are referred to as believers earlier in the same verse (fatayātikumu l-mu’mināti). The Qur’an challenges the perception of social hierarchy and dismisses it as being a petty invention of the earthly realm, upholding enslaved women as equal and worthy as free men. The dynamics in this verse confirms that muḥ’ṣanāti describes women who are of a state of power to withhold consent.
In this way too, the function of the word and its true meaning importantly interrogates male responsibility and accountability. If an enslaved woman is not in a state of power to withhold consent, which she never is, then according to 4:25, society has not empowered her to qualify as muḥ’ṣanāti and the man who has taken that power from her cannot wed her.
Those of you reading for a while know I’ve arrived to this conclusion before.
(And let refrain those
who do not find means
for marriage, until the God/dess
You mustn’t compel
the woman to need
who wishes to be independent. –24:33)
4:24 is not making haraam to men women who are married. It is making haraam to men women who refuse to marry them.
When an exegesis is substantial, it is validated in every shade of the Qur’an. A similar sentiment graces verse 24:60:
And women who have menstruated
and do not desire marriage
then it is not upon them any blame if they
cast aside their garments,
not displaying their adornments. It is better
if they modestly refrain [yastaʿfif’na].
There is an assumption among male translators that the “modest refraining” is in reference to casting aside garments, that women who do not desire marriage needn’t dress modestly but it’s “better” if they should. However, it is clear to me that “should modestly refrain” refers to refraining from marriage, as it is this desire to refuse or not consent to marriage that is the subject of the verse. It is better for them to refrain from marriage because their souls have not consented to marriage. This is, demonstrably, consistent to variations of the root of what is translated to mean “restrain” “guard” or “remain chaste” which signifies the power to deny consent.