Az-Zihar and the Atonement for It
Imam Ahmad recorded that Khuwaylah bint Tha`labah said,
"By Allah! Allah sent down the beginning of Surah Al-Mujadilah in connection with me and `Aws bin As-Samit.
He was my husband and had grown old and difficult. One day, he came to me and I argued with him about something and he said, out of anger,
`You are like my mother's back to me.'
He went out and sat with some of his people. Then he came back and wanted to have sexual intercourse with me. I said,
`No, by the One in Whose Hand is the soul of Khuwaylah! You will not have your way with me after you said what you said, until Allah and His Messenger issue judgement about our case.'
He wanted to have his way regardless of my choice and I pushed him away from me; he was an old man. I next went to one of my neighbors and borrowed a garment from her and went to the Messenger of Allah. I told him what happened and kept complaining to him of the ill treatment I received from `Aws. He said,
يَاخُوَيْلَةُ ابْنُ عَمِّكِ شَيْخٌ كَبِيرٌ فَاتَّقِي اللهَ فِيه
O Khuwaylah! Your cousin is an old man, so have Taqwa of Allah regarding him.
By Allah! Before I departed, parts of the Qur'an were revealed about me. Allah's Messenger felt the hardship upon receiving the revelation as he usually did and then became relieved. He said to me,
يَا خُوَيْلَةُ قَدْ أَنْزَلَ اللهُ فِيكِ وَفِي صَاحِبِكِ قُرْانًا
O Khuwaylah! Allah has revealed something about you and your spouse. He recited to me,
قَدْ سَمِعَ اللَّهُ قَوْلَ الَّتِي تُجَادِلُكَ فِي زَوْجِهَا وَتَشْتَكِي إِلَى اللَّهِ
وَاللَّهُ يَسْمَعُ تَحَاوُرَكُمَا إِنَّ اللَّهَ سَمِيعٌ بَصِيرٌ
(Indeed Allah has heard the statement of her that disputes with you concerning her husband, and complains to Allah. And Allah hears the argument between you both. Verily, Allah is All-Hearer, All-Seer), until,
وَلِلْكَافِرِينَ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ
(And for disbelievers, there is a painful torment). He then said to me,
مُرِيهِ فَلْيُعْتِقْ رَقَبَة
Command him to free a slave.
I said, `O Allah's Messenger! He does not have any to free.'
فَلْيَصُمْ شَهْرَيْنِ مُتَتَابِعَيْن
Let him fast for two consecutive months.
I said, `By Allah! He is an old man and cannot fast.'
فَلْيُطْعِمْ سِتِّينَ مِسْكِينًا وَسْقًا مِنْ تَمْر
Let him feed sixty poor people a Wasq of dates.
I said, `O Allah's Messenger! By Allah, he does not have any of that.'
فَإِنَّا سَنُعِينُهُ بِعَرَقٍ مِنْ تَمْر
We will help him with a basket of dates.
I said, `And I, O Allah's Messenger! I will help him with another.'
قَدْ أَصَبْتِ وَأَحْسَنْتِ فَاذْهَبِي فَتَصَدَّقِي بِهِ عَنْهُ ثُمَّ اسْتَوْصِي بِابْنِ عَمِّكِ خَيْرًا
You have done a righteously good thing. So go and give away the dates on his behalf and take care of your cousin.
I did that."'
Abu Dawud also collected this Hadith in the Book of Divorce in his Sunan, according to which her name is Khawlah bint Tha`labah. She is also known as Khawlah bint Malik bin Tha`labah, and Khuwaylah. All these are close to each other, and Allah knows best. This is what is correct about the reason behind revealing this Surah. Therefore,
الَّذِينَ يُظَاهِرُونَ مِنكُم مِّن نِّسَايِهِم
Those among you who make their wives unlawful to them by Zihar.
refers to Zihar, which is derived from Az-Zahr, meaning, the back. During the time of Jahiliyyah, when one wanted to declare Zihar towards his wife, he would say, "To me, you are like the back of my mother."
That was one way they issued divorce during that time. Allah allowed this Ummah to pay expiation for this statement and did not render it as a divorce, contrary to the case during the time of Jahiliyyah.
مَّا هُنَّ أُمَّهَاتِهِمْ
إِنْ أُمَّهَاتُهُمْ إِلاَّ اللَّيِي وَلَدْنَهُمْ
they cannot be their mothers. None can be their mothers except those who gave them birth.
meaning, when the husband says to his wife that she is like his mother, or the back of his mother etc., she does not become his mother. Rather his mother is she who gave birth to him.
This is why Allah said,
وَإِنَّهُمْ لَيَقُولُونَ مُنكَرًا مِّنَ الْقَوْلِ وَزُورًا
And verily, they utter an ill word and a lie.
meaning, false and sinful speech,
وَإِنَّ اللَّهَ لَعَفُوٌّ غَفُورٌ
And verily, Allah is Oft-Pardoning, Oft-Forgiving.
meaning, `what you used to do during the time of Jahiliyyah, and what accidentally slips out of your mouth, unintentionally.'