10. The word “nikah” as it appears in this context (which Asad renders as: “couples with”) affords two meanings and hence the verse has been understood differently by different scholars. Originally the word was coined to mean wedlock. But with usage it came to be used for sexual intercourse also.
11. Ibn Jarir writes: It is widely reported that there were a few prostitutes in Madinah, (some of them Jews or Christians while others Yethrabite slave-girls: Alusi), who were available on hire. They placed signs over their houses and anyone could enter freely. Now, there were many migrant Muslims (As-hab al-Suffah: Qurtubi) who were too poor to be able to marry. So they thought they could for the moment fill the void by marrying one of them. Some of the owners thought they might even use them as a source of income. They consulted the Prophet (saws) who prohibited them saying that they were fit for fornicators and pagans alone. Subsequent to that this verse was revealed. (The reports are widely reported: Qurtubi. They are in Ahmad and Nasa’i: Ibn Kathir).
The report of Marthad b. Abi Marthad meeting his old lover `Inaq as he penetrated Makkah to smuggle out some Muslims is quite widely reported. After one such operation, during which he encountered her, he expressed his wish to marry her if the Prophet would allow and this verse was revealed.
Shawkani traces the report in Abu Da’ud, Tirmidhi, Nasa’i, Ibn Jarir, Ibn al-Mundhir, Ibn Abi Hatim, Ibn Marduwayh, Bayhaqi and Hakim, the last of whom declared it trustworthy. And S. Ibrahim adds that Albani too thought it was trustworthy.
In any case, there is almost consensus of opinion that a fornicator or fornicatress could be taken in marriage if they sincerely repent (Ibn Kathir); although there is a hadith which says, “A fornicator who has been whipped will not marry but someone like him.” Albani declared this hadith of Abu Da’ud and Ahmad as Sahih (S. Ibrahim).
A group of scholars believe that this commandment stands abrogated by a verse which follows (no. 32), “And marry off your orphans..” (Ibn Jarir, Ibn Kathir). For, one problem then would be that such men and women who committed sinful sexual acts, would be forced to marry either fornicators or pagans. Ibn al-`Arabiyy was also against such a meaning, and therefore, the correct meaning seems to be, as Ibn `Abbas has said, “Sex with an adulteress does not happen but from a fornicator or a pagan.” Ibn Khuwayzmandad had another point: “Probably the verse is applicable to a fornicator who commits the act so openly as to get caught and punished. He or she should not be taken in marriage by a believer” (Qurtubi).There have been many other interpretations, too numerous for presentation (Au.).
It is also reported that Ibn `Abbas understood that the Qur’anic statement expresses a fact, viz., none but a fornicator commits sex with a fornicator or with a pagan (Razi, Qurtubi). Thus he understood the word “nikah” in the sense of sexual intercourse. That is how Sa`id b. Jubayr, Mujahid, Dahhak and a few others understood. Ibn Jarir’s own preferred meaning is also the same. In other words, the allusion is to fornicators, adulterers, and pagans who have free sexual intercourse between themselves, which is prohibited to the Muslims.