24:11 Verily, numerous among you are those who would falsely accuse others of unchastity, [but, O you who are thus wronged] deem it not a bad thing for you: nay, it is good for you! [As for the slanderers] unto every one of them [will be accounted] all that he has earned by [thus] sinning; and awesome suffering awaits any of them who takes it upon himself to enhance this [sin]!
This sentence, which introduces the section dealing with the condemnation of all unfounded or unproven accusations of unchastity – as well as the similar sentence which closes it in verse 20 – is deliberately left incomplete, leaving it to man to imagine what would have happened to individual lives and to society if God had not ordained all the above-mentioned legal and moral safeguards against possibly false accusations, or if He had made a proof of adultery dependent on mere circumstantial evidence. This idea is further elaborated in verses l4-l5.
24:12 Why do not the believing men and women, whenever such [a rumor] is heard, think the best of one another and say, “This is an obvious falsehood”?
Lit., “those who brought forth the lie (al-ifk, here denoting a false accusation of unchastity) are a numerous group (‘usbah) among you”. The term ‘usbah signifies any group of people, of indeterminate number, banded together for a particular purpose (Taj al-‘Arus). – According to all the commentators, the passage comprising verses 11-20 relates to an incident that occurred on the Prophet’s return from the campaign against the tribe of Mustaliq in the year 5 H. The Prophet’s wife ‘A’ishah, who had accompanied him on that expedition, was inadvertently left behind when the Muslims struck camp before dawn. After having spent several hours alone, she was found by one of the Prophet’s companions, who led her to the next halting place of the army. This incident gave rise to malicious insinuations of misconduct on the part of ‘A’ishah, but these rumors were short-lived, and her innocence was established beyond all doubt. – As is the case with all Qur’anic allusions to historical events, this one, too, is primarily meant to bring out an ethical proposition valid for all times and all social circumstances: and this is the reason why the grammatical construction of the above passage is such that the past-tense verbs occurring in verses 11-16 can be – and, I believe, should be – understood as denoting the present tense.
24:13 Why do they not [demand of the accusers that they] produce four witnesses to prove their allegation? – for, if they do not produce such witnesses, it is those [accusers] who, in the sight of God, are liars indeed!
i.e., in the sight of God: for, the unhappiness caused by unjust persecution confers – as does every undeserved and patiently borne suffering – spiritual merit on the person thus afflicted. Cf. the saying of the Prophet, quoted by Bukhari and Muslim: “Whenever a believer is stricken with any hardship, or pain, or anxiety, or sorrow, or harm, or distress – even if it be a thorn that has hurt him – God redeems thereby some of his failings.”
24:14 And were it not for God’s favor upon you, [O men] and His grace in this world and in the life to come, awesome suffering would indeed have afflicted you in a result of all [the calumny] in which you indulge.
i.e, by stressing, in a legally and morally inadmissible manner, certain “circumstantial” details or aspects of the case in order to make the slanderous, unfounded allegation more believable.
24:15 When you take it up with your tongues, uttering with your mouths something of which you have no knowledge, and deeming it a light matter whereas in the sight of God it is an awful thing!
Lit.; “whenever you hear it” – the pronoun “you” indicating here the community as a whole.
24:16 And [once again] Why do you not say, whenever you hear such [a rumor], “It does not behove us to speak of this, O Thou who art limitless in Thy glory, this is an awesome calumny”?
This interpolation is necessary for a view of the fact that the believers spoken of in the preceding verse are blamed, not for making the false accusation, but for not giving it the lie.
24:17 God admonishes you [hereby] lest you ever revert to the like of this [sin] if you are [truly] believers.
Lit., “in support thereof” (‘alayhi).
24:18 For God makes [His] messages clear unto you – and God is All-Knowing, Wise!
Sc., “yourselves and your whole society”. With this and the next verse the discourse returns to, and elaborates, the idea touched upon in verse 10 and explained in note 11.
24:19 Verily, as for those who like [to hear] foul slander spread against [any of] those who have attained to faith – grievous suffering awaits them in this world and in the life to come: for God knows [the full truth], whereas you know [it] not.
The interjection subhanaka (“O Thou who art limitless in Thy glory”) stresses here the believer’s moral duty to bethink himself of God whenever he is tempted to listen to, or to repeat, a calumny (since every such rumor must be considered a calumny unless its truth is legally Proved).
24:20 And were it not for God’s favor upon you and His grace, and that God is compassionate, a dispenser of grace…
The term fahishah signifies anything that is morally reprehensible or abominable: hence, “immoral conduct” in the widest sense of this expression. In the above context, it refers to unfounded or unproven allegations of immoral conduct, in other words, “foul slander”.