Surah an-Nisa' (Women ) 4 : 3

وَإِنْ خِفْتُمْ أَلَّا تُقْسِطُوا۟ فِى ٱلْيَتَٰمَىٰ فَٱنكِحُوا۟ مَا طَابَ لَكُم مِّنَ ٱلنِّسَآءِ مَثْنَىٰ وَثُلَٰثَ وَرُبَٰعَ ۖ فَإِنْ خِفْتُمْ أَلَّا تَعْدِلُوا۟ فَوَٰحِدَةً أَوْ مَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَٰنُكُمْ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ أَدْنَىٰٓ أَلَّا تَعُولُوا۟

Translations

 
 Muhsin Khan
 Pickthall
 Yusuf Ali
Quran Project
And if you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphan girls, then marry those that please you of [other] women, two or three or four. But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one or those your right hands possesses [i.e., slaves]. That is more suitable that you may not incline [to injustice].

1. Lessons/Guidance/Reflections/Gems

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Explanatory Note

`Urwah ibn al-Zubair, a scholar from the generation following that of the Prophet’s Companions, relates that he once asked `Ā’ishah, the Prophet’s wife, about this verse which states: “But if you fear that you will not be able to maintain fairness between them, then marry only one, or those whom your right hands possess. That makes it more likely that you will not do injustice.” She said: “Nephew, this refers to an orphan girl being brought up by her guardian and she is his partner in his property. He is attracted to her because of her property and beauty, and he wishes to marry her without being fair to her in her dower and without giving her what someone else would have given. People are therefore not allowed, on the basis of this verse, to marry those orphans unless they treat them fairly and give them the maximum dower girls in their station would have had. They are further ordered to marry other women instead.”

This ĥadīth, as related by `Ā’ishah, describes some of the practices and traditions of ignorant,  pre-Islamic  Arabia  that  continued  to  be  practised  in  the  Muslim community, that is until the Qur’ān had its say about them. The Qur’ān is here forbidding such practices and removing them from the Muslim community, with such wise directives that place the onus for their appropriate observation on people’s consciences. The Qur’ānic verse starts with: “If you fear that you may not deal fairly by the orphans.” It is, then, a question of taking precautions and making sure to be on the safe side, fearing God’s punishment, when a guardian suspects that he is not extending fair treatment to an orphan girl in his care. The verse is general and does not speak of any particular area where fairness is essential. What it requires is that orphans must be treated fairly, in every sense of the word and in all situations, whether relating to dowry or to any other aspect. If a guardian seeks to marry an orphan girl for her money, then he is motivated by his desire to absorb her property, and not by any affection he has for her or by any feeling that her personality makes her a suitable wife for him. Unfairness also arises when a guardian marries an orphan girl regardless of the wide differences in age between them. This makes a happily married life rather untenable, and does not give due consideration to the girl’s feelings in the matter. Indeed, she may be unable to express her feelings, either out of shyness or because she fears that if she disobeys her guardian, he will squander her wealth. Many other situations and circumstances may make it difficult to maintain fairness. The Qur’ān, therefore, appoints one’s conscience as well as fear of God as the watch guards. The opening verse of this sūrah, which sets the scene for all these legal provisions and directives, is concluded with the reminder: “God is ever watching over you.’’
 
When guardians are unsure about their ability to maintain fairness with orphan girls in their charge, they should turn elsewhere for marriage. In this way they remove all suspicions of dealing unfairly with their ward: “If you fear that you may not deal fairly by the orphans, you may marry of other women as may be agreeable to you, two or three or four. But if you fear that you will not be able to maintain fairness between them, then marry only one, or those whom your right hands possess. That makes it more likely that you will not do injustice.”

It is necessary to explain this concession with regard to polygamy. Essentially, the reservation stipulates that if one fears that one cannot maintain fairness between one’s wives, then only one wife should be married, or one should confine oneself to those whom one’s right hand possesses. It is indeed useful to explain this concession because in these modern times of ours, people are often boastful of their acquired knowledge. They claim for themselves an insight into man’s life, nature and interests which surpasses that of their Lord who has created them. They make their judgement on different matters according to their desires and on the basis of their ignorance and blindness. In doing so, they behave as if new circumstances and needs have become more pressing today than when they were taken into consideration by God when He enacted His legislation for mankind. Such a claim combines ignorance and blindness with impudence and bad manners and adds them all to total disbelief. Such boastful statements are repeated again and again, with no one caring to prevent such ignorance. They represent a very rude affront to God, His law and constitution, without fear of any reproach or punishment. Indeed, those who repeat such affronts receive their wages from those who take it upon themselves to try to undermine Islam.

Al-Bukhārī relates that when Ghailān ibn Salamah al-Thaqafī embraced Islam he had ten wives. The Prophet said to him: “Choose four of them.” Abū Dāwūd quotes `Umairah al-Asadī as saying: “I had eight wives when I accepted Islam. I told the Prophet (peace be upon him) of this fact, and he said to me: `Choose four of them.’” Al-Shāfi`ī relates that Nawfal ibn Mu`āwiyah al-Dailamī said: “When I became a Muslim I had five women. God’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said to me: ‘Choose four of them, any four you like, and divorce the other one.’”

When Islam was first revealed, men very often had ten or more wives and this without any limits or restrictions. Islam then made it clear that there is a limit which a Muslim cannot exceed, this being four wives. Furthermore, it imposed a qualification, namely, the ability to maintain fair treatment among all wives. Otherwise, a man must limit himself to one wife, or to bondwomen. Islam, therefore, set restrictions that were not formerly present. It has not left the matter for men to do as they please. It has made polygamy conditional upon fair treatment. Otherwise, the concession is withdrawn.

Islam is a practical and positive system for human life, which is consistent with human nature and with man’s constitution, needs, requirements and changing circumstances in all areas and all generations. It is a system which deals with man as he is, and in the situation it finds him in, elevating him to heights he can never otherwise  achieve,  without  in  any  way  denouncing  his  natural  desires  or suppressing  his nature  or  overlooking  his  practical  needs.  Moreover,  Islam approaches man gently. It does not resort to violent or arbitrary pushing to force him to move in the direction it wants.
 
Islam does not raise the spectre of hollow idealism, or dreamy theorisation that clashes with man’s nature and the needs of his practical life. It is a system that cares about man’s morality and the purity of society. It does not allow a situation to exist if this is likely to lead to the weakening of moral values and the corruption of society. It works for the creation of a social order that promotes moral values and the purity of society with minimum effort on the parts of both the individual and society.
 
We have to keep all these essential qualities of the Islamic system in view when we look at the question of polygamy. We see firstly that there have always been many practical cases, in different societies, in the past and in the present, where the number of women of marriageable age exceed the number of men who may get married. It has never been known in history that such an imbalance which can affect certain societies has ever exceeded the ratio of four to one. It is always within that limit. How do we deal with this imbalance which happens from time to time in different ratios and societies and which cannot be overlooked? Do we simply shrug our shoulders and do nothing? Do we leave it without treatment until it settles down according to whatever circumstances may come to prevail?
 
Shrugging our shoulders does not solve any problem. Leaving society to deal with such a situation at random is something no serious man who respects the human race would contemplate. Action must be taken and a system must be devised. Here we find ourselves facing three alternatives:
 
1.  Each man who is fit to get married marries one woman of marriageable age. Therefore, one woman or more, according to the ratio of imbalance, will inevitably remain outside marriage, going through her life without ever knowing a man.
 
2.  Every man who can marry gets married to one woman in a healthy, legitimate relationship. He, then, has an affair or a short-term relationship with one or more of the women who do not have legitimate male partners. In this way, these women associate with men in an illegitimate and hypocritical way.
 
3.  Men who are able to get married, or some of them, actually marry more than one wife. In this way, the second woman associates with a man as an honourable wife, in broad daylight, not as a mistress or as an occasional partner in an illegitimate relationship practised under the cover of darkness.
 
The first alternative clashes with human nature and places a great burden on the woman who is made to go through life without ever having a man with whom to share her life. This fact cannot be ignored even on the basis of idealistic claims that argue when a woman works and earns her own living she does not need a man. The need goes much deeper than such superficiality. Neither a job nor a high income can replace a woman’s natural need to live normally with a man, to satisfy her physical urges as well as her emotional and spiritual needs, and to have a companion with whom to share her life. A man works and earns his living, yet this too is not enough for him. Therefore, he seeks a partner and a companion. Men and women are alike in this regard, because they descend from a single soul.
 
The second alternative is in sharp conflict with Islam, the religion of purity, and with Islamic society which is based on serious morality and with woman’s human dignity in mind. Those who do not care when immorality spreads in society are the very people who boast that they know better than God and impudently criticise God’s law because there is no one to stop them. Indeed, they find every encouragement and help from those who are keen to undermine the Islamic faith.
 
It is the third alternative that Islam adopts as a qualified concession to a situation that cannot be dealt with by simply shrugging our shoulders or by espousing hollow idealism. Such a choice is in keeping with Islam’s seriousness and practicality in dealing with man as he is, taking full account of his changing circumstances. It is this approach which fits perfectly with the importance Islam attaches to decency, purity and morality as it tries to elevate man to its great height in an easy, gentle and practical way.
 
From another point of view, we see in all human societies, ancient and modern, past, present and future, another real problem that cannot be overlooked or brushed aside. The period of a man’s fertility extends to the age of 70, sometimes even beyond. In the case of women, fertility ends at around the age of 50. This means that there are on average 20 years of fertility in a man’s life with no corresponding fertility in a woman. There is no doubt that one of the purposes of joining the two different sexes in marriage is to promote life through procreation and to build the earth through increases in population. It does not fit with this natural situation to prevent humanity from making use of man’s longer period of fertility. What fits with this practical situation is that legislation that is applicable to all societies in all ages should provide this concession, not as an obligation, but as an option to benefit human life in general. This balancing between human nature as it is and the purpose of legislation is always evident in Divine law, while it is generally absent in man- made laws. Left to himself, man cannot take into account all details, he cannot look at a situation from all angles, and cannot provide for all eventualities.
 
1.  We forbid the man from seeking satisfaction of his natural desires by the force of law. We say to him: “Shame on you. What you are thinking of is unbecoming and does not take account of the rights and dignity of the woman who is married to you.
 
2.  We allow the man to have illegitimate relationships with other women.
 
3.  We allow the man to marry again, as the situation requires, without having to divorce his first wife.
 
The first alternative is in sharp conflict with human nature, and weighs very heavily on man mentally. If we were to impose it by force of law, its immediate result would be to leave the man resenting, if not hating, his married life because of the pressures it imposes on him. Islam, which views the family home as a place of rest and peace and views the married couple as intimate companions, does not approve of this alternative.
 
The second alternative clashes with Islam’s moral concept as also its method of elevating human life and establishing it on foundations of perfect purity. Only a life of such purity is worthy of God’s honoured creature, man.
 
The third alternative is the only one which satisfies the needs of human nature and which fits in with the Islamic moral code. It allows the first wife to continue to enjoy married life, satisfies the desire of both man and wife to remain together as intimate companions, and helps to elevate man with ease and practicality.
 
In contemplating practical life, leaving aside both pedantic arguments and absurdity in trying to solve serious problems, we are bound to appreciate the Divine wisdom that allows this concession. Naturally, it is qualified with the need to maintain fairness: “You may marry of other women as may be agreeable to you, two or three or four. But if you fear that you will not be able to maintain fairness between them, then marry only one.” (Verse 3) Furthermore, this concession not only protects society from deviation into immorality but also protects the wife from being treated unjustly and safeguards her dignity. Moreover, it maintains justice, which helps tolerate a bitter pill.
 
If a certain generation abuses this concession and men utilise it to make married life nothing more than a means to satisfy their carnal desires, creating the notorious harem, the blame should not be put on Islam’s doorstep. Such people do not represent Islam. Indeed, they have sunk so low because they have deviated far away from Islam and have not appreciated its requirements of purity and cleanliness. They do not live in a society where Islam is practised and its law is observed. Their society is not one where an Islamic authority rules according to the Islamic constitution and which implements the laws and directives of Islam observing its moral traditions.
 
The fairness that needs to be maintained is fairness in treatment, financial support and all practical aspects of married life. Love and feelings are not included in this condition of fairness simply because these are not controlled by man’s will. It is in relation to this aspect that God rules out the possibility of maintaining justice between one’s wives in a later verse in this sūrah which states: “In no way can you maintain equity between your wives, even though you may be keen to do so. Do not, then, be totally partial towards one to the exclusion of the other, leaving her, as it were, in a state of suspense.” (Verse 129) Some people quote this verse in support of their argument that Islam does not permit polygamy. What we have to remember is that God’s law does not permit something in one verse and then forbid it in another, like one who takes away with his right hand what he has given with his left. The fairness required in the earlier verse is that which relates to treatment, financial support and other practical aspects of married life. It is when one feels unable to maintain this type of fairness that one must not marry more than one wife. What this means is that nothing should be withheld from one wife when it is allowed to another. This is what the Prophet, the noblest and fairest man ever to have walked on this earth, used to maintain at the time when everyone around him, including his own wives, were fully aware that he loved `Ā’ishah most, and felt for her what he did not feel for any of his other wives. Hearts and emotions are not subject to our control. They are governed only by God’s will. The Prophet, who knew his religion well and knew his heart well, used to say: “My Lord, this is my fair allocation in what I control. Do not blame me for that which You control and I do not.”
 
To recap, Islam has not started polygamy but rather restricted it. It does not order its followers to be polygamous, but it allows them a qualified concession to marry more than one wife so as to solve some problems in human life and to satisfy the needs of human nature. Here, we have mentioned some of these needs and problems that are currently recognisable. However, there may be other purposes which will become apparent over the course of time, as happens with regard to every legislation or directive included in the Divine constitution. People in any period of history may not fully appreciate its wisdom and benefits. Nonetheless, wisdom and benefit are presumed to exist in every piece of Divine Legislation, whether they are known or unknown to man.
 
So far we have given due importance to the condition attached by the Qur’ān to the concession to marry more than one wife, namely, fair treatment. When a man fears that he may not be able to abide by that condition, the Qur’ānic verse stipulates certain options that are open to him: “If you fear that you will not be able to maintain fairness between them, then marry only one, or those whom your right hands possess.” (Verse 3) This means that where fairness cannot be maintained, marriage should be confined to just one wife. The other alternative touched upon by the phrase “those whom your right hands possess” refers to women who are slaves. The statement is expressed in general terms, without specifying formal marriage. We have already spoken about the general question of slavery when we discussed the relevant verses in Sūrah 2, The Cow, or Al-Baqarah. It is pertinent to add here some brief remarks in connection with the present verse.
 
When a slave woman is married, she regains her human dignity. Such a marriage qualifies her and any offspring by her master for freedom, even if he does not actually set her free when he marries her. On the day when she gives birth, she is elevated to the status of “the child’s mother”. Her master no longer has any right to sell her, and she is free on his death. Her child is free from birth.
 
Similar conditions apply if her master joins her to himself without marriage. When she gives birth, she gains the status of “the child’s mother” and she cannot be sold. On her master’s death, she regains her freedom. So does her child by him, if he acknowledges his parenthood as was the general practice.
 
Both marriage and cohabitation enable a slave woman to gain her freedom. We know that Islam has provided many such methods for slaves to regain their freedom. Still, some of us may feel uneasy about the notion of cohabiting with a slave woman. We should, however, remember here that slavery was an answer to an emergency situation; a position imposed on captives, on the basis of equal treatment, after a legitimate war declared by a Muslim ruler who implements God’s law. The same emergency allowed cohabitation with slave women by their masters. When free Muslim women were taken captive, the treatment they received was infinitely worse.
 
It is also important not to forget that captive women also have desires that must be taken into account by any practical system that caters for man, his natural needs and life situation. Slave women’s desires, then, could be satisfied either through marriage or through cohabitation with their masters. The only other alternative would have meant the spread of immorality and unrestrained sexual chaos whether via prostitution or other illegitimate relationships, as was the case in pre-Islamic days.
 
During certain generations the number of slave-girls rose very sharply through purchase, kidnapping and the like. Large numbers of them were gathered in palaces where they took part in orgies and other disgusting practices of which we have learnt from both true and exaggerated reports. Nothing of this can be either approved of or encouraged by Islam. It cannot be attributed to the Islamic system or added to its history.
 
The proper Islamic history is that which comes into existence according to Islamic principles, laws and legal provisions. When something which contravenes Islamic laws and principles takes place in a society that claims to be Islamic, it cannot be attributed to Islam. How could it be when it is in conflict with essential Islamic principles?
 
Islam has its own independent existence that is separate from that which takes place among Muslims in any generation. What we have to remember is that Muslims have not invented Islam. It is Islam that has brought Muslims into existence. Islam is the origin and Muslims are only its product. What defines the true Islamic system and true Islamic concepts is not what Muslims do or understand, unless this is in full conformity with Islam in its pure form. In other words, Islam is independent from people’s practices and understanding. As for people, their behaviour should be evaluated according to Islamic principles in order to determine how far they are truly Islamic or not.
 
The situation differs in other systems, which are based on human concepts and on creeds and laws that they formulate for themselves. Here, creed and law change in accordance with how attitude is formulated and applied in society. The Islamic system has not been devised by people. It has been laid down for mankind by their Lord who has created them and who provides them with their sustenance. People can choose to implement this system and conduct their affairs according to its principles, and it is this that makes their society part of practical Islam. Alternatively, they can deviate or turn away from it altogether, which means that their social set-up does not belong to Islam. Indeed, it is a deviation from it.
 
The final comment in this verse refers to the purpose behind all these legal provisions. They all aim at maintaining fairness and avoiding injustice: “That makes it more likely that you will not do injustice.” (Verse 3) All that — including avoiding marrying orphan girls for fear of dealing unjustly by them, marrying other women, including the concession of polygamy on the one hand and limiting oneself to one wife on the other when unfairness if feared, and the legislation concerning slave women — “makes it more likely that you will not do injustice.” Indeed, each one of these provisions helps to prevent injustice.
 
The achievement of justice is, then, the overriding motive of this system and the aim of its every detail. It is most important that justice should be observed in the family home, since the family is the basic unit of the whole social structure, and the starting point for community life. It is in the family home that the young are brought up in their formative years. If justice, affection and peace are lacking in the family home, they cannot be realised in society at large.

2. Linguistic Analysis

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Frequency of Root words in this Ayat used in this Surah *


3. Surah Overview

4. Miscellaneous Information

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5. Connected/Related Ayat

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6. Frequency of the word

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7. Period of Revelation

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This Surah comprises several discourses which were revealed on different occasions during the period ranging probably between the end of year 3 A.H. and the end of 4 A.H. or the beginning of 5 A.H. Although it is difficult to determine the exact dates of their revelations it is possible to assign to them a fairly correct period with the help of the Commandments and the events mentioned therein. A few instances are given below by way of illustration:

1. We know that the inheritance law for those martyred and protection for the rights of the orphans was sent down after the Battle of Uhud (in which 70 Muslims were martyred). From this we conclude that v. 1 -28 were revealed on that occasion.

2. We learn from the traditions that the ruling regarding the prayer (Salah) during war time was given on the occasion of the Zat-ur-Riqa’aan expedition. This took place in 4 A.H. From this we conclude that the discourse containing v. 102 was revealed on that occasion.

3. The last warning to the Jews was given before the Banu-Nadheer were exiled from Madinah in Rabi’-ulAwwal 4 A.H. It may therefore be assumed that the discourse containing v. 47 was revealed before that date.

4. The permission about performing ablution with dust in the event of no water (tayammum) verse 43, was given during the Bani-al-Mustaliq expedition which took place in 5 A.H. [REF: Mawdudi]

8. Reasons for Revelation

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Let us now consider the social and historical considerations of the period in order to understand the Surah. All the discourses in this Surah deal with three main problems which confronted the Prophet at the time. First of all he was engaged in bringing about an all round development of the islamic Community that had been formed at the time of his migration to Madinah. For this purpose he was introducing new moral cultural social economic and political ways in place of the old ones of the pre-islamic period. The second thing that occupied his attention and efforts was the bitter struggle that was going on with the polytheist Arabs, the Jewish clans and the hypocrites who were opposing tooth and nail his mission of reform. Above all, he had to propagate Islam in the face of the bitter opposition of these powers of evil with a view to capturing more and more minds and hearts.

Accordingly detailed instructions have been given for the consolidation and strengthening of the islamic Community in continuation of those given in Surah 2: Al-Baqarah (The Cow). Principles for the smooth running of family life have been laid down and ways of settling family disputes have been taught. Rules have been prescribed for marriage and rights of wife and husband have been apportioned fairly and equitably. The status of women in the society has been determined and the declaration of the rights of orphans has been made. Laws and regulations have been laid down for the division of inheritance and instructions have been given to reform economic affairs. The foundation of the penal code has been laid down, drinking has been prohibited and instructions have been given for cleanliness and purity. The Muslims have been taught the kind of relations good men should have with their God and fellow men. Instructions have been given for the maintenance of discipline in the Muslim Community.

The moral and religious condition of The People of the Book (Jews and Christians) has been reviewed to teach lessons to the Muslims and to forewarn them to refrain from following in their footsteps. The conduct of the hypocrites has been criticized and the distinctive features of hypocrisy and true faith have been clearly marked off to enable the Muslims to distinguish between the two. In order to cope with the aftermath of the Battle of Uhud, Inspiring discourses were sent down to urge the Muslims to face the enemy bravely, for defeat in the Battle had so emboldened the polytheist Arab clans and the neighbouring Jews and the hypocrites at home, that they were threatening the Muslims on all sides. At this critical juncture God filled the Muslims with courage and gave them such instructions as were needed during that period of war clouds. In order to counteract the fearful rumours that were being spread by the hypocrites and the Muslims of weak faith they were asked to make a thorough enquiry into them and to inform the responsible people about them. Then they were experiencing some difficulties in offering their prayer during the expeditions to some places where no water was available for performing their ablutions etc. In such cases they were allowed to cleanse themselves with pure earth and to shorten the prayer or to offer the “Prayer of Fear” when they were faced with danger. Instructions were also given for the solution of the puzzling problem of those Muslims who were scattered among the unbelieving Arab clans and were often involved in war. They were asked to migrate to Madinah the abode of Islam.

This Surah also deals with the case of Banu nadir who were showing a hostile and menacing attitude in spite of the peace treaties they had made with the Muslims. They were openly siding with the enemies of Islam and hatching plots against the Prophet and the Muslim Community even at Madinah itself. They were taken to task for their inimical behaviour and given a final warning to change their attitude and were at last exiled from Madinah on account of their misconduct.

The problem of the hypocrites, who had become very troublesome at that time, was involving the Believers in difficulties. Therefore, they were divided into different categories to enable the Muslims to deal with them appropriately. Clear instructions were also given regarding the attitude they should adopt towards the non-belligerent clans. The most important thing needed at that time was to prepare the Muslims for the bitter struggle with the opponents of Islam. For this purpose greatest importance was attached to their character building, for it was obvious that the small Muslim Community could only come out successful, nay, survive, if the Muslims possessed high moral character. They were, therefore, enjoined to adopt the highest moral qualities and were severely criticized whenever any moral weakness was detected in them.

Though this Surah mainly deals with the moral and social reforms, yet due attention has been paid to propagation of Islam. On the one hand, the superiority of the islamic morality and culture has been established over that of the Jews, Christians and polytheists; on the other hand, their wrong religious conceptions, their wrong morality and their evil acts have been criticized to prepare the ground for inviting them to the way of the Truth. 

9. Relevant Hadith

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10. Wiki Forum

Comments in this section are statements made by general users – these are not necessarily explanations of the Ayah – rather a place to share personal thoughts and stories…

11. Tafsir Zone

 

12. External Links

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