Dealing Justly with Wives and Orphans (Qur'an 4:3)
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This article will examine a common misinterpretation of Qur'an 4:3, and evidence provided in the sahih ahadith as to the true meaning of this verse.
Apologetic claims regarding 4:3
Basic meaning of this verse
A common explanation for 4:3 is to give the above partial quote of the verse and explain that a Muslim man may marry up to four women. However, if he cannot deal justly with each of the wives then he has, he is forbidden to marry that many; and can marry only one wife, to prevent treating women unfairly. Muslims explain that the use of the word "Justice" or "Justly" (depending on which translation is being used) refers to the man's ability to treat each of his wives exactly the same in every regard: not just materially (i.e. food, clothing, shelter, time, money, etc.) but also that he must be able to love them all exactly the same. He must be able to feel the same amount of affection and love for each of his wives.
If he cannot do this, then, according to the Qur'an he cannot marry more than one wife.
The injunction against polygamy
Some apologists will provide more evidence to back up their interpretation of 4:3 by giving the partial quote of 4:129 as above. Since Allah says that you can only marry (up to) four women if you can deal Justly with them, and in 4:129, Allah tells us that men are unable to deal Justly with more than one wife. This means that men are generally not allowed to engage in polygamy. However, Allah included the allowance for multiple wives under specific circumstances. These include war, gender imbalance in certain regions/countries and women's preference.
After a war where a lot of men are killed, there are usually much higher numbers of women alive than men. In this case, men are permitted to take more than one wife, in order to reproduce at a faster rate than normal in order to repopulate the region. Women are more prevalent in some areas of the world, and men are also allowed to marry multiple wives when this is the situation, in order to ensure that every woman has a male partner and doesn't have to fend for herself. Some women also prefer to be a second, third or fourth wife; thus polygamy is also allowed in order to accommodate the desires of these women.
But as a general rule, as stated, men are prohibited from engaging in polygamy unless absolutely necessary.
The few who reject the ahadith altogether, except when it is necessary in order to explain an Islamic Pillar, give an explanation of 4:3 as being an injunction against polygamy under any circumstances. They back their claim up by quoting 4:129
The reasoning continues that a man can never treat his wives equally, thus 4:3 means: Don't treat orphans unfairly, by marrying their mothers in order to gain access to the wealth that the orphans will inherit when they come of age. Then 4:3 changes the topic, mid ayat and tells men that they can marry up to four free (believing) women, but if they cannot treat them fairly, then they can marry only one. Then 4:3 goes back to who they are allowed to marry, and says they may also marry captives (from their right hands), but that the injunction from the previous part of the verse still applies.
i.e. don't mistreat orphans by marrying their mothers to get their wealth >> Men can marry believing women; 2 or 3 or 4 >> If you can't treat them all exactly the same (fairly) then they can only marry one. >> Men can also marry their captives but "treat them fairly" rule still applies.
Evidence as to the real meaning of 4:3
Problems with the apologetic interpretation
The main issue with the above interpretation of 4:3 and the claim regarding 4:129, is that proponents of these interpretations must quote the verses out of context in order to "explain the meaning." They quote a small portion of the verse(s) and and use it to suit the explanation. However the interpretation that they give ignores the majority of the verse(s); and renders the whole verse(s) nonsensical if read in context.
Those who explain the two verses completely as an injunction against polygamy would have to dismiss all sahih ahadith as not being authentic, for no other reason than it contradicts their own interpretation of the verse. They would also have to admit that 4:3 is badly written and not clear in its intended meaning. By doing this, they would contradict the Muslim belief that the Qur'an is a perfect literary masterpiece, that could not have been written by any human being. In order for the Qur'an to remain the "literary masterpiece" claimed, and this explanation to be correct, the verse would be more properly written thus:
Most apologists, because of this, will avoid answering any questions as to the meaning of the whole verse(s) in order to stick to their own interpretation.
Evidence From sahih ahadith as to the meaning of 4:3
The true meaning of Qur'an 4:3 is explained to us by Aisha in Bukhari's Sahih ahadith collection:
That he had asked 'Aisha about the meaning of the Statement of Allah: "If you fear that you shall not Be able to deal justly With the orphan girls, then Marry (Other) women of your choice Two or three or four." (4.3)
She said, "O my nephew! This is about the orphan girl who lives with her guardian and shares his property. Her wealth and beauty may tempt him to marry her without giving her an adequate Mahr (bridal-money) which might have been given by another suitor. So, such guardians were forbidden to marry such orphan girls unless they treated them justly and gave them the most suitable Mahr; otherwise they were ordered to marry any other woman." 'Aisha further said, "After that verse the people again asked the Prophet (about the marriage with orphan 'girls), so Allah revealed the following verses:-- 'They ask your instruction Concerning the women. Say: Allah Instructs you about them And about what is Recited unto you In the Book, concerning The orphan girls to whom You give not the prescribed portions and yet whom you Desire to marry..." (4.127)What is meant by Allah's Saying:-- 'And about what is Recited unto you is the former verse which goes:-- 'If you fear that you shall not Be able to deal justly With the orphan girls, then Marry (other) women of your choice.' (4.3) 'Aisha said, "Allah's saying in the other verse:--'Yet whom you desire to marry' (4.127) means the desire of the guardian to marry an orphan girl under his supervision when she has not much property or beauty (in which case he should treat her justly). The guardians were forbidden to marry their orphan girls possessing property and beauty without being just to them, as they generally refrain from marrying them (when they are neither beautiful nor wealthy)."
Urwa bin Az-Zubair said that he asked 'Aisha about the meaning of the Quranic Verse:--
"And if you fear that you will not deal fairly with the orphan girls then marry (other) women of your choice." (4.2-3)
Aisha said, "It is about a female orphan under the guardianship of her guardian who is inclined towards her because of her beauty and wealth, and likes to marry her with a Mahr less than what is given to women of her standard. So they (i.e. guardians) were forbidden to marry the orphans unless they paid them a full appropriate Mahr (otherwise) they were ordered to marry other women instead of them. Later on the people asked Allah's Apostle about it. So Allah revealed the following Verse:--
"They ask your instruction (O Muhammad!) regarding women. Say: Allah instructs you regarding them..." (4.127)and in this Verse Allah indicated that if the orphan girl was beautiful and wealthy, her guardian would have the desire to marry her without giving her an appropriate Mahr equal to what her peers could get, but if she was undesirable for lack of beauty or wealth, then he would not marry her, but seek to marry some other woman instead of her. So, since he did not marry her when he had no inclination towards her, he had not the right to marry her when he had an interest in her, unless he treated her justly by giving her a full Mahr and securing all her rights.
Narrated Aisha:There was an orphan (girl) under the care of a man. He married her and she owned a date palm (garden). He married her just because of that and not because he loved her. So the Divine Verse came regarding his case: "If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphan girls..." (4.3) The sub-narrator added: I think he (i.e. another sub-narrator) said, "That orphan girl was his partner in that datepalm (garden) and in his property."
That he asked 'Aisha regarding the Statement of Allah:
"If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphan girls..." (4.3) She said, "O son of my sister! An Orphan girl used to be under the care of a guardian with whom she shared property. Her guardian, being attracted by her wealth and beauty, would intend to marry her without giving her a just Mahr, i.e. the same Mahr as any other person might give her (in case he married her). So such guardians were forbidden to do that unless they did justice to their female wards and gave them the highest Mahr their peers might get. They were ordered (by Allah, to marry women of their choice other than those orphan girls." 'Aisha added," The people asked Allah's Apostle his instructions after the revelation of this Divine Verse whereupon Allah revealed:"They ask your instruction regarding women " (4.127) 'Aisha further said, "And the Statement of Allah: "And yet whom you desire to marry." (4.127) as anyone of you refrains from marrying an orphan girl (under his guardianship) when she is lacking in property and beauty." 'Aisha added, "So they were forbidden to marry those orphan girls for whose wealth and beauty they had a desire unless with justice, and that was because they would refrain from marrying them if they were lacking in property and beauty."
that he asked 'Aisha, saying to her, "O Mother! (In what connection was this Verse revealed):'If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with orphan girls (to the end of the verse) that your right hands possess?" (4.3) Aisha said, "O my nephew! It was about the female orphan under the protection of her guardian who was interested in her beauty and wealth and wanted to marry her with a little or reduced Mahr. So such guardians were forbidden to marry female orphans unless they deal with them justly and give their full Mahr; and they were ordered to marry women other than them." 'Aisha added, "(Later) the people asked Allah's Apostle, for instructions, and then Allah revealed: 'They ask your instruction concerning the women . . . And yet whom you desire to marry.' (4.127) So Allah revealed to them in this Verse that-if a female orphan had wealth and beauty, they desired to marry her and were interested in her noble descent and the reduction of her Mahr; but if she was not desired by them because of her lack in fortune and beauty they left her and married some other woman. So, as they used to leave her when they had no interest in her, they had no right to marry her if they had the desire to do so, unless they deal justly with her and gave her a full amount of Mahr."
Evidence from tafsir's regarding 4:3
﴿وَإِنْ خِفْتُمْ أَلاَّ تُقْسِطُواْ﴾
(If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly) Al-Bukhari recorded that `Urwah bin Az-Zubayr said that he asked `A'ishah about the meaning of the statement of Allah,
﴿وَإِنْ خِفْتُمْ أَلاَّ تُقْسِطُواْ فِى الْيَتَـمَى﴾
(If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphan girls.) She said, "O my nephew! This is about the orphan girl who lives with her guardian and shares his property. Her wealth and beauty may tempt him to marry her without giving her an adequate dowry which might have been given by another suitor. So, such guardians were forbidden to marry such orphan girls unless they treated them justly and gave them the most suitable dowry; otherwise they were ordered to marry woman besides them. `A'ishah further said, "After that verse, the people again asked the Messenger of Allah (about marriage with orphan girls), so Allah revealed the Ayah,
﴿وَيَسْتَفْتُونَكَ فِى النِّسَآءِ﴾
(They ask your instruction concerning the women..) ﴿4:127﴾. She said, "Allah's statement in this Ayah,
﴿وَتَرْغَبُونَ أَن تَنكِحُوهُنَّ﴾
(yet whom you desire to marry) ﴿4:127﴾ refers to the guardian who does not desire to marry an orphan girl under his supervision because she is neither wealthy nor beautiful. The guardians were forbidden to marry their orphan girls possessing property and beauty without being just to them, as they generally refrain from marrying them (when they are neither beautiful nor wealthy).
﴿مَثْنَى وَثُلَـثَ وَرُبَاعَ﴾
(two or three, or four), means, marry as many women as you like, other than the orphan girls, two, three or four. We should mention that Allah's statement in another Ayah,
﴿جَاعِلِ الْمَلَـئِكَةِ رُسُلاً أُوْلِى أَجْنِحَةٍ مَّثْنَى وَثُلَـثَ وَرُبَـعَ﴾
(Who made the angels messengers with wings, - two or three or four) ﴿35:1﴾, does not mean that other angels do not have more than four wings, as there are proofs that some angels do have more wings. Yet, men are prohibited from marrying more than four wives, as the Ayah decrees, since the Ayah specifies what men are allowed of wives, as Ibn `Abbas and the majority of scholars stated. If it were allowed for them to have more than four wives, the Ayah would have mentioned it. Imam Ahmad recorded that Salim said that his father said that Ghilan bin Salamah Ath-Thaqafi had ten wives when he became Muslim, and the Prophet said to him, "Choose any four of them (and divorce the rest). During the reign of `Umar, Ghilan divorced his remaining wives and divided his money between his children. When `Umar heard news of this, he said to Ghilan, "I think that the devil has conveyed to your heart the news of your imminent death, from what the devil hears during his eavesdropping. It may as well be that you will not remain alive but for a little longer. By Allah! You will take back your wives and your money, or I will take possession of this all and will order that your grave be stoned as is the case with the grave of Abu Righal (from Thamud, who was saved from their fate because he was in the Sacred Area. But, when he left it, he was tormented like they were). Ash-Shafi`i, At-Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah, Ad-Daraqutni and Al-Bayhaqi collected this Hadith up to the Prophet's statement, "Choose any four of them. Only Ahmad collected the full version of this Hadith. Therefore, had it been allowed for men to marry more than four women at the same time, the Prophet would have allowed Ghilan to keep more than four of his wives since they all embraced Islam with him. When the Prophet commanded him to keep just four of them and divorce the rest, this indicated that men are not allowed to keep more than four wives at a time under any circumstances. If this is the case concerning those who already had more than four wives upon embracing Islam, then this ruling applies even more so to marrying more than four.
﴿فَإِنْ خِفْتُمْ أَلاَّ تَعْدِلُواْ فَوَحِدَةً أَوْ مَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَـنُكُمْ﴾
(But if you fear that you will not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one or what your right hands possess.) The Ayah commands, if you fear that you will not be able to do justice between your wives by marrying more than one, then marry only one wife, or satisfy yourself with only female captives, for it is not obligatory to treat them equally, rather it is recommended. So if one does so, that is good, and if not, there is no harm on him. In another Ayah, Allah said,
﴿وَلَن تَسْتَطِيعُواْ أَن تَعْدِلُواْ بَيْنَ النِّسَآءِ وَلَوْ حَرَصْتُمْ﴾
(You will never be able to do perfect justice between wives even if it is your ardent desire) ﴿4:129﴾. Allah said,
﴿ذلِكَ أَدْنَى أَلاَّ تَعُولُواْ﴾
(That is nearer to prevent you from Ta`ulu), meaning, from doing injustice. Ibn Abi Hatim, Ibn Marduwyah and Abu Hatim Ibn Hibban, in his Sahih, recorded that `A'ishah said that, the Prophet said that the Ayah,
﴿ذلِكَ أَدْنَى أَلاَّ تَعُولُواْ﴾
(That is nearer to prevent you from Ta`ulu), means, from doing injustice. However, Ibn Abi Hatim said that his father said that this Hadith to the Prophet is a mistake, for it should be attributed to `A'ishah not the Prophet . Ibn Abi Hatim reported from Ibn `Abbas, `A'ishah, Mujahid, `Ikrimah, Al-Hasan, Abu Malik, Abu Razin, An-Nakha`i, Ash-Sha`bi, Ad-Dahhak, `Ata' Al-Khurasani, Qatadah, As-Suddi and Muqatil bin Hayyan that Ta`ulu means to deviate ﴿from justice﴾.
Ali bin Abi Talhah reported Ibn `Abbas saying, Nihlah, in Allah's statement,
﴿وَءَاتُواْ النِّسَآءَ صَدُقَـتِهِنَّ نِحْلَةً﴾
(And give to the women (whom you marry) their Saduqat Nihlah) refers to the dowry. Muhammad bin Ishaq narrated from Az-Zuhri that `Urwah said that `A'ishah said that `Nihlah' means `obligatory'. Muqatil, Qatadah and Ibn Jurayj said, `Nihlah' means `obligatory' Ibn Jurayj added: `specified.' Ibn Zayd said, "In Arabic, Nihlah, refers to what is necessary. So Allah is commanding: Do not marry unless you give your wife something that is her right. No person after the Prophet is allowed to marry a woman except with the required dowry, nor by giving false promises about the dowry ﴿intended﴾. Therefore, the man is required to pay a dowry to his wife with a good heart, just as he gives a gift with a good heart. If the wife gives him part or all of that dowry with a good heart, her husband is allowed to take it, as it is lawful for him in this case. This is why Allah said afterwards,
﴿فَإِن طِبْنَ لَكُمْ عَن شَىْءٍ مِّنْهُ نَفْساً فَكُلُوهُ هَنِيئاً مَّرِيئاً﴾(But if they, of their own pleasure, remit any part of it to you, take it, and enjoy it without fear of any harm.)
Although the ahadith above do not discuss the verse in its entirety, the tafsirs do. It is important to note that Aisha and the tafsir writers have defined "justice" for us. Kathir even makes it plain that 4:3 is not referring to perfect justice, so th alleged injunction against polygamy is invalid. As "justice" is used twice in the verse in connection with two different types of women (orphans and free women) it is apparent that Justice means the same thing both times it is used. It would be incorrect to assume that "justice" means mahr in relation to orphans and something else for free women given the context of the verse. One more verse that needs to be considered in order to understand 4.3 is as follows:
In light of all the information provided above, if we wish to give Qur'an 4.3 its full expansive meaning it would read something like this:
Quran 4:3 has nothing to do with treating your wives equally, its about the orphan's and their Mahr. Injustice in this verse is talking about financial equality regarding bride price (for orphans) and financial viability of having that many wives, not equality between them.
Dividing the ayah into several pieces will make it easier to get a grip on an alternative view, which is not related to the mahr story in any way.
And if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards orphans ...
An orphan (yateem) is a child whose father is unknown. This can be the result of any of the situations listed below:
- Father is dead
- Father can not be found in any way
- Mother has been raped or had sex with another man during pregnancy
- Child is the result of adultery (zina)
- Child is of a maid bought or enslaved at war
- Child is the result of adultery (zina) of a maid with a man other than her owner
- Child is the result of permitted adultery of a maid with a man other than her owner
Free orphans can be protected by other males whether they are related or not to the child. If a woman marries another man after her husband dies or somehow becomes untraceable, her orphans (underage children) will also be under the protection of the new father. Orphans of slaves are also slaves. But if a maid gives birth to a child of her owner, then the child is free.
According to Abu Dawud, a child can not be called an orphan after reaching the age of puberty. Puberty can only be understood when the child experiences his first nocturnal ejaculation (wet dream) during his sleep if it's a boy or has her first period if it's a girl.
So, the orphans that are subject to marriage are underage girls. Of course Islam does not have strict rules limiting the age of marriage, and as seen with Muhammad's marriage to Aisha, marriage to very young girls were also a common practice among early Muslims.
Mahr is by definition
In fact it can be any goods of certain value that both the groom and the bride or bride's protector (her father, brothers, owner etc.) agree on. In this scenario, where a man wants to marry the child under his protection, both sides of the agreement are either the protector, or the protector and an underage child which is still at the early stages of mental development with no prior experience of marriage or mahr agreement. Therefore not paying mahr "justly" is definitely not an issue here.
but if you fear that you will not do justice (between them), then (marry) only one ...
In this part, the mahr is one of the possible reasons for the injustice. Marriage requires paying mahr, and paying different amount of mahr to several women may cause problems between the wives. Also it is possible that problems similar to those between Muhammad and his wives may occur. Therefore, here it means
or what your right hands possess ...
Many times in the Qur'an, maids and slaves are referred to as "what your right hand possess".
It is clear that the ayah is not in any way about paying an underage child the mahr justly, but about fulfilling one's sexual needs. But why would fulfilling sexual needs scare a man as long as he marries the orphan child legally? Who are those orphans?
- They are not the orphan step daughters of the man, for Quran 4:23 strictly forbids having intercourse both with women and their daughters.
- They are not free orphan children in any way, for it's not illegal to marry a child regardless of her age as it's seen on Muhammad and Aisha's, Omar and Ali's daughter Ummu Gulsum's marriages etc.
After eliminating the other possibilities by the help of facts above, the only possibility left is: those are the man's maids' orphan children. Let's see how it is.
In Quran 24:33 it is seen that the maids were also forced into prostitution by their owners. Maids or slaves were considered property, owners had the right to use them in any way they wanted. Maids were used for prostitution, as treats to the owners' friends, for paying owners' debts etc.
As stated above, the child would be considered "free" if the father was the maid's owner. But if not, then the child would also be a slave or maid and used by the master.
At that time, there was no way of knowing who the father of the child was, if a woman - even if she was already pregnant from a certain man - had sexual intercourse with other men.
If a maid is offered to other men and used by her owner at the same time, or was already pregnant when she got bought/earned at war and used by her owner during her pregnancy, then that would make the child an orphan and require the master to decide the child's fate, whether to make the child free or making it a slave. If he makes the child a slave, then he would have all the rights to use her as a sex slave well.
The orphans mentioned in that ayah are those maids' children whose fathers are unknown, for the maids were used by both their owners and other men. And the real meaning of the ayah is:
- ↑ "Narrated Ali ibn AbuTalib: I memorised (a tradition) from the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him): There is no orphanhood after puberty, and there is no silence for the whole day till the night." - Sunan Abu Dawud 17:2867
- ↑ "Abu Darda' (Allah be pleased with him) related from the Prophet of Allah (may peace be upon him) that he came upon a woman who was in the advanced stage of pregnancy at the door of a tent. He (the Holy Prophet) said: Perhaps he (the man accompanying her) intends to cohabit with her. They said: Yes. Thereupon Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) said: I have decided to curse him with such a curse as may go along with him to his grave. How can he own him (the child to be born) and that is not lawful for him, and how can he take him as a servant for that is not lawful for him?" - Sahih Muslim 8:3389