Should they marry the orphans, their mothers, or other women?

Surah An-Nisa (4:3)

For Surah 4:3 we find at least the following different Muslim versions:

Pickthall Yusuf Ali F. Malik
And if ye fear that ye will not deal fairly by the orphans, marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four; If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, Marry women of your choice, Two or three or four; If you fear that you shall not be able to treat the orphans with fairness, then you should not marry the women with orphan children; marry other women of your choice: two, three or four.
Sher Ali Muhammad Sarwar Rashad Khalifa
And if you fear that you will not be just in dealing with the orphans, then marry of other women as may be agreeable to you, two, or three, or four; With respect to marrying widows, if you are afraid of not being able to maintain justice with her children, marry another woman of your choice or two or three or four (who have no children) If you deem it best for the orphans, you may marry their mothers - you may marry two, three, or four.

What exactly is the author of the Quran trying to communicate here regarding orphans and marriage? The translation of Pickthall gives the impression that the verse is saying that if one cannot deal fairly with orphans then he should marry from among them any he desires. The translation of Y. Ali suggests that a person can marry any woman, whether an orphan or someone else, whereas Sher Ali implies that these women whom a Muslim marries must be other than the orphans.

The versions of Malik, Sarwar, and Khalifa insert words into the Arabic text in order to give the reader the idea that the Quran is prohibiting Muslims from marrying the mothers of orphans if they are incapable of dealing kindly with these orphans. This view seems to be popular with the Quran-only camp, a group of Muslims who reject the view that the hadith literature and Sira are an integral part of Islam and necessary for a correct understanding of the Quran. Here is how they explain Q. 4:3:

"You shall hand over to the ORPHANS* their rightful properties. Do not substitute the bad for the good, and do not consume their properties by combining them with yours. This would be a gross injustice. If you fear that you will not be equitable towards the ORPHANS*, then you may marry their mothers. You may marry two, three, or four. If you fear lest you become unfair, then you shall be content with only one, or with what you already have. Additionally, you are thus more likely to avoid financial hardship." (4/2-3)

* Orphans in Arabic (Yatama) is used for a child who has lost his father. A child who has lost his mother is not considered an Orphan in Arabic… You must be the GUARDIAN to these Orphans and caretaker to their inheritance BEFORE even considering Polygamy. It is not just for a man to just pick children off the street and claim that he will marry their mother. The man must be the Guardian to the children appointed by their deceased father or because they (the Orphans) are from his blood…

1. Orphans placed in our guardianship are to be treated fairly.
2. If we fear biased-ness or unfairness in treatment, we MAY marry their mother.
3. We MUST pay their mother her dowry as in the case of a normal marriage… (Free-Minds.Org, How Many Wives?; source)

The major problem with this explanation is that the verse in question makes no mention of the mothers of the orphans. Neither the words "widows," "their mothers," or "women with orphan children" appear in the Arabic text, yet the translators and the above author have taken the liberty to insert these into the Quran thereby giving the person who cannot read the Arabic the misleading impression that this is what the original text says!

Furthermore, the impression given by these Quran-only Muslims is that widows can only marry the guardian of their children. Isn’t that unacceptably restrictive, depriving these widows of a free choice in the matter of whom they want to marry? That may not have been the intention behind the theory that these Muslims have come up with, but is it not the implication of the above interpretation that widows with children cannot marry again except under very strict conditions, i.e. this one man, the guardian of her children, or none? What if that man already has four wives or is simply not interested in marrying this woman? Realistically, such an interpretation would imply that most widows have no chance for a second marriage.

Moreover, they say that this is the only case in which polygamy is permitted. Does the passage thus speak only about already married men who are then allowed to take further wives from among the mothers of orphans under their care? Are single men not allowed to marry a widow with children?

In order to fully appreciate the issues and problems proposed by this reference we need to look at its immediate context. For instance, after mentioning the property of orphans and the fear of not being able to treat them fairly the text then goes on to mention marrying up to four wives:

Mankind, fear your Lord, who created you of a single soul, and from it created its mate, and from the pair of them scattered abroad many men and women; and fear God by whom you demand one of another, and the wombs; surely God ever watches over you. Give the orphans their property, and do not exchange the corrupt for the good; and devour not their property with your property; surely that is a great crime. If you fear that you will not act justly towards the orphans, marry such women as seem good to you, two, three, four (fainkihoo ma taba lakum mina alnnisa-i mathna WA thulatha WA rubaAAa); but if you fear you will not be equitable, then only one, or what your right hands own; so it is likelier you will not be partial. And give the women their dowries as a gift spontaneous; but if they are pleased to offer you any of it, consume it with wholesome appetite. But do not give to fools their property that God has assigned to you to manage; provide for them and clothe them out of it, and speak to them honourable words. S. 4:1-5 Arberry

One can see why this passage would leave Muslims a bit perplexed since it is rather incoherent. After all, is this meant to be a general injunction that allows for a person to marry any lawful woman? Or is it saying that a man can only marry up to four women from among the orphans, provided they are treated fairly?

Basically, the formulation of Q. 4:3 can be understood in three ways (excluding the one proposed by the Quran-only crowd!): If you fear that you will not to be able to treat the orphan girls fairly (in what regard?) then marry (a) two, three or four of THEM (the orphan girls), (b) two, three or four OTHER women (i.e. NOT those orphan girls), or (c) two, three or four of ANY women, whether orphans or some others.

However, if the latter option was meant, one wonders what does this have to do with orphan girls. After all, the statement is an "if… then…" construction, and one would expect that there would and should be an obvious relationship between the two. This relationship is clearly missing, unless one wants to claim that only those who are in danger of treating orphans unjustly are allowed to become polygamous, while all others have to remain monogamous. Even more: Why does this verse not even give the option of marrying only one woman, why does it start with the number TWO? Does that mean that all Muslims should marry at least two women, or only those who fear that they can’t deal justly with the orphans in their care have to marry at least two women?

More importantly, the problem raised in this passage is the danger of treating orphans unjustly. After all, Aisha herself said that this reference was initially given to address marriages with orphans:

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 date palm (garden) and in his property." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 60, Number 97)

Narrated ‘Urwa bin Az-Zubair:

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." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 60, Number 98)

If we take Aisha’s interpretation for granted then this means that Q. 4:3 is prohibiting men from marrying the orphans under their charge if it is for selfish reasons, i.e. for their wealth or property. But why should the just treatment of orphans become connected with marriage at all? The simple and obvious solution would be to say: If you fear to treat orphans in your care unjustly, request that a second guardian be appointed to help you in making good decisions for them, another person to whom you are accountable for your actions as a guardian.

Why on earth does the fear of dealing unjustly with orphans and their property lead to the command to marry either them or their mother or another woman? And why does this text seem to deal only with treating orphan girls unjustly? Is there no danger that male orphans are taken advantage of and their property is being misused?

If a Muslim man is in fear or danger of treating an orphan unjustly, how does marriage solve that problem?

Whether he marries the orphan girl or her mother, does not that marriage give him even more power over them, and thus even more opportunity to be unjust to that orphan, instead of forcing him to be accountable to the community for what he does? Isn’t that advice counterproductive by giving the person in danger of abusing the orphan more instead of less opportunity to abuse the orphan? Is the Muslim community more or less likely to interfere when an orphan is taken advantage of, or when a wife or foster-child is taken advantage of? Are not outsiders less likely to interfere the closer the relationship is?

And if he marries neither the orphan nor her mother but some other woman or women, what has that to do with the problem that is supposed to be solved?

Furthermore, the real problem are not so much the people who fear to deal unjustly with others because scrupulous people who have such fears are probably already doing their best to be just. The problem is with those unscrupulous people who take advantage of orphans and other weak people without having a bad conscience when committing such injustice. Why is the Quran not (instead) addressing the community and giving them advice what to do if there is suspicion that a guardian of orphans is unjust to them?

Another observation: The topic of the section is "responsibility" and "justice". But the text says: "… then marry women whom you like (that seem good to you)", a formulation which seems to appeal more to the whims and desires of the men than to issues of responsibility and justice towards the unfortunate.

More problems become apparent when we imagine this situation:

The parents of five teenage daughters die in a car crash, and the father’s brother becomes their guardian. Assuming the verse recommends to marry the orphan(s), will the guardian become more likely to deal justly with all five of them if he marries two, three or four out of the five? Add to this the fact that Muslims are not supposed to marry sisters:

Forbidden to you are your mothers and daughters, your sisters, your aunts paternal and maternal, your brother's daughters, your sister's daughters, your mothers who have given suck to you, your suckling sisters, your wives' mothers, your stepdaughters who are in your care being born of your wives you have been in to -- but if you have not yet been in to them it is no fault in you - and the spouses of your sons who are of your loins, and that you should take to you two sisters together, unless it be a thing of the past; God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate; S. 4:23 Arberry

That understanding of Q. 4:3 would thus produce another contradiction. How can he even marry more than one of the orphan girls, yet the text starts with asking him to marry two? Actually, we do not need five sisters, two girls are enough to create the outlined problem.

Yet not all of the Muslims accepted Aisha’s explanation since some felt that this passage also addressed the fair treatment of other women:

*Lit., "such as are good for you" - i.e., women outside the prohibited degrees enumerated in verses 22-23 of this surah (Zamakhshari, Razi). According to an interpretation suggested by A’ishah, the Prophet's widow, this refers to the (hypothetical) case of orphan girls whom their guardians might wish to marry without, however, being prepared or able to give them an appropriate marriage-portion - the implication being that they should avoid the temptation of committing such an injustice and should marry other women instead (cf. Bukhari, Kitab at-Tafsir, as well as Muslim and Nasai). However, not all of Aishah's contemporaries subscribed to her explanation of this verse. Thus, according to Said ibn Jubayr, Qatadah, and other successors of the Companions, the purport of the above passage is this: "Just as you are, rightly, fearful of offending against the interests of orphans, you must apply the same careful consideration to the interests and rights of the women whom you intend to marry." In his commentary on this passage, Tabari quotes several variants of the above interpretation and gives it his unequivocal approval. (Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’an; source; bold emphasis ours)

Moreover, the renowned commentators al-Jalalayn and an exegesis attributed to Ibn Abbas accept explanation (c) above:

If you fear that you will not act justly, [that] you will [not] be equitable, towards the orphans, and are thus distressed in this matter, then also fear lest you be unjust towards women when you marry them; marry such (ma means man) women as seem good to you, two or three or four, that is, [each man may marry] two, or three, or four, but do not exceed this; but if you fear you will not be equitable, towards them in terms of [their] expenses and [individual] share; then, marry, only one, or, restrict yourself to, what your right hands own, of slavegirls, since these do not have the same rights as wives; thus, by that marrying of only four, or only one, or resorting to slavegirls, it is likelier, it is nearer [in outcome], that you will not be unjust, [that] you will [not] be inequitable. (Tafsir al-Jalalayn; source)

(And if ye fear that ye will not deal fairly by the orphans) and if you fear that you will not preserve orphans' wealth, you should also fear not dealing fairly with women in relation to providing sustenance and apportionment. This was because they used to marry as many women as they liked, as many as nine or ten. Qays Ibn al-Harth for example had eight wives. Allah forbade them from doing so and prohibited them from marrying more than four wives, saying: (marry of the women, who seem good to you) marry that which Allah has made lawful for you, (two or three or four) marry one, two, three or four but do not marry more than four wives; (and if ye fear that ye cannot do justice) to four wives in relation to apportionment and providing sustenance (then one (only)) then marry only one free woman (or that your right hands possess) of captives, and in that case you do not owe them any apportionment, and they need not observe any waiting period. (Thus it) marrying just one woman (is more likely that ye will not do injustice) that you will not incline to some at the expense of others or that you transgress regarding the provision of sustenance and apportionment to four wives. (Tanwr al-Miqbs min Tafsr Ibn ‘Abbs; source)

The interpretations proposed by the two Jalals and Ibn Abbas presuppose that Q. 4:3 is addressing two concerns, or two parties, i.e. the fair treatment of orphans and other women. Although this exegesis makes sense of the if/then construction, since it maintains the connection between the reference to orphans and with what follows, this is not the natural reading of the text. As we already discussed at length, the verse in question is discussing the just treatment of orphans and makes no mention of some other group of women whom Muslims must treat fairly.

The other problem that this passage raises is the exact number of wives a person can have at any one time. For instance, is this reference suggesting that a man can have up to four wives, or is it saying that a man can actually have a total of nine wives at one time? In other words, did the author of the Quran use the Arabic conjunction wa (and) to mean the same as "or," i.e. that a person can have either two, three, or four wives at any time, but cannot exceed four? Or did he intend for his readers to understand by the conjunction that they can actually add up all these numbers so as to arrive at a total of nine wives that a person can lawfully marry?

Traditional Islamic scholarship has sided with the up to four wives interpretation, be they orphans or other lawful women, an interpretation which the Quran-only camp have called into question.

There is still another issue which the text raises without providing an adequate explanation. Notice what the verse says in cases where a person is unable to treat his wives fairly:

but if you fear that you will not do justice (between them), then (marry) only one or what your right hands possess; Shakir

Again, is this saying to marry only one from among the orphans or from some other women? Or is it permitting a Muslim to take any woman from any lawful group as a wife?

Moreover, is the text saying that a Muslim can sleep with slave women in addition to having one wife, that a person can have unlimited number of concubines for sex, which is the traditional view? Or is it stating that a person should marry either a free woman or a slave girl if he can’t deal fairly with more than one wife? In other words, the text is not permitting Muslims to sleep with slave girls but is commanding them to marry from such women, which is the view of the late Muhammad Asad:

**Lit., "whom your right hands possess" - i.e., from among the captives taken in a war in God's cause (regarding which see notes on surah 2, notes 167 and 168, and surah 8, note 72). It is obvious that the phrase "two, or three, or four: but if you have reason to fear...", etc. is a parenthetic clause relating to both the free women mentioned in the first part of the sentence and to female slaves - for both these nouns are governed by the imperative verb "marry". Thus, the whole sentence has this meaning: "Marry from among [other] women such as are lawful to you, or [from among] those whom you rightfully possess - [even] two, or three, or four: but if you have reason to fear that you might not be able to treat them with equal fairness, then [only] one"- implying that, irrespective of whether they are free women or, originally, slaves, the number of wives must not exceed four. It was in this sense that Muhammad ‘Abduh understood the above verse (see Manar IV, 350). This view is, moreover, supported by verse 25 of this surah as well as by 24: 32, where marriage with female slaves is spoken of. Contrary to the popular view and the practice of many Muslims in the past centuries, neither the Qur’an nor the life-example of the Prophet provides any sanction for sexual intercourse without marriage. (Asad, The Message of the Qur’an; source; bold emphasis ours)

The passage also left some other issues untouched as the following Christian source notes:

Ja‘far al-Sadiq was asked about this verse: "Why is the main clause of the conditional sentence far from the conditional article without obvious reason?" His response was: "A camel load between the main clause and the subordinate clause from the Quran."

Other Islamic commentators offered solutions. Al-Razi said: "Marry of the women who seem good to you" does not include men slaves, since a slave cannot afford to marry unless he gets permission from his master. Sura al-Nahl 16:75 says: "Allah sets forth the parable [of two men: one] a slave under the dominion of another. He has no power of any sort." …

Any slave who would be married without the permission of his master is an adulterer. So the slave does not fall under the verdict of the above verse.

Most Islamic theologians said that a slave can marry four wives. Malik b. Anas said: "It is lawful for the slave to marry four wives." Al-Shafi said that marrying four wives is the right of the free person only. He quoted two Quranic verses to defend his idea. He quoted, "What your right hand possesses" while slaves do not possess, but are possessed by their masters. He also quoted "Take it and enjoy it" (Sura al-Nisa 4:4) even though slaves do not enjoy what is given them, because it is the property of their masters.

Some Muslims claim that it is lawful for a man to marry as many women as he wants. They use the following rationale:

1. "Marry of the women that seem good to you" is an absolute statement which embraces all numbers.

2. "Two, three, four" cannot be particularized for these numbers exactly, because one man can marry this number of women, and more above it. The verse is clear: marry whatever you want of women.

3. The Arabic wa ("and") implies the total of these numbers, which is nine. It can also mean eighteen.

Muslims support their views with these historical Islamic events:

1. Muhammad died while married to nine wives. It goes without saying that Allah commands us to "follow him," which implies nothing less than "permission."

2. To marry four wives was the way of the prophet who said: "If anyone turns away from my laws, he is not of me." Anyone who breaks this "golden rule" in Islam is guilty, as far as marrying four wives is concerned (see al-Razi’s commentary on Sura al-Nisa 4:3).

Yet some Islamic theologians stress enumeration, which is based on tradition. For instance, Ghilan became a Muslim with ten wives. The prophet said to him: "Keep four and depart from the rest." Nawfal b. Muawiya became a Muslim with five wives. Muhammad said to him "Keep four and depart from one."(True Guidance: Comments on Quranic Verses [Light of Life, PO Box 13, A-9503 Villach, Austria; First English Edition, 1994], Part 5, pp. 79-80)

Clearly, the injunction of Q. 4:3 is very incoherent and raises more questions than it gives answers. It is little wonder that there is so much confusion among the various English versions of the Quran since they are merely reflecting the chaotic and incoherent structure of the Arabic text!

Sam Shamoun and Jochen Katz


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