An-Nisa · Juz 4 · Qur'an Tafseer

Marry Only One If You Know You Won’t Be Fair

Tafseer Surah An-Nisa Ayah 3

Some people love throwing out statements such as, “In Islam, you can marry four women.” While it is permissible, very few people know that Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala has provided us guidelines and etiquette of such marriages.

Mufti Muhammad Shafi Usmani comments in ayah 2, guardians were warned against pilferage or misappropriation in the property of orphans. The present ayah is an extension of the basic command from another angle. Here, they are warned against any attempt to marry orphaned girls under their guardianship hoping to get away by fixing a dower of their choice and claiming their properties as an additional benefit.

Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala commands when someone is the caretaker of an orphan girl and he fears that he might not give her a dowry that is suitable for women of her status, then he should marry other women.

Orphaned Girls; Violation of Their Rights and Its Prevention

In the pre-Islamic era, the guardians of orphaned girls used to select the good-looking or those who owned properties of value and marry them or arranged to have them married to their sons. They would fix the dower of their choice, usually the lowest, and maintained them in whatever manner they elected for they were the guardians and caretakers for them. Their fathers were not there to take care of their rights and marry them to a suitable person.

Imam Bukhari recorded that ‘Aishah radhiAllahu ‘anha said, “A man was taking care of an orphan girl and he married her, although he did not desire to marry her. That girl’s money was mixed with his, and he was keeping her portion from her. So Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala revealed this ayah.

Imam Bukhari recorded that ‘Urwah ibn Az-Zubayr radhiAllahu ‘anhu said that he asked ‘Aishah radhiAllahu ‘anha about the meaning of the statement, “And if you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphan girls…” ‘Aishah radhiAllahu ‘anha 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 beside them.” She further said, “After the ayah, the people again asked the Messenger of Allah salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam so Allah revealed the ayah,

وَيَسْتَفْتُونَكَ فِي النِّسَاءِ ۖ قُلِ اللَّهُ يُفْتِيكُمْ فِيهِنَّ وَمَا يُتْلَىٰ عَلَيْكُمْ فِي الْكِتَابِ فِي يَتَامَى النِّسَاءِ اللَّاتِي لَا تُؤْتُونَهُنَّ مَا كُتِبَ لَهُنَّ وَتَرْغَبُونَ أَن تَنكِحُوهُنَّ وَالْمُسْتَضْعَفِينَ مِنَ الْوِلْدَانِ وَأَن تَقُومُوا لِلْيَتَامَىٰ بِالْقِسْطِ ۚ وَمَا تَفْعَلُوا مِنْ خَيْرٍ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ بِهِ عَلِيمًا
‘And they request from you, [O Muhammad], a [legal] ruling concerning women. Say: Allah gives you a ruling about them and [about] what has been recited to you in the Book concerning the orphan girls to whom you do not give what is decreed for them – and [yet] you desire to marry them – and concerning the oppressed among children and that you maintain for orphans [their rights] in justice. And whatever you do of good – indeed, Allah is ever Knowing of it.’” (4:127)

‘Aishah said, “Allah’s statement in this ayah, ‘and [yet] you desire to marry them…’ 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).”

The Permission to Marry Four Women

Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala says,

فَانكِحُوا مَا طَابَ لَكُم مِّنَ النِّسَاءِ مَثْنَىٰ وَثُلَاثَ وَرُبَاعَ ۖ
“…then marry those that please you of [other] women, two or three or four.”

Ibn Katheer writes in his Tafseer, it means marry as many women as you like, other than the orphan girls, two, three or four. In another ayah Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala says,

الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ فَاطِرِ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ جَاعِلِ الْمَلَائِكَةِ رُسُلًا أُولِي أَجْنِحَةٍ مَّثْنَىٰ وَثُلَاثَ وَرُبَاعَ
“[All] praise is [due] to Allah, Creator of the heavens and the earth, [who] made the angels messengers having wings, two or three or four.” [Fatir 35:1]

It 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. The ayah specifies what men are allowed of wives; this was the interpretation of Ibn ‘Abbas radhiAllahu ‘anhu and the majority of scholars.

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 salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam said to him,

“Choose any four of them (and divorce the rest).”

Had it been allowed for men to marry more than four women at the same time, the Prophet salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam would have allowed Ghilan to keep more than four of his wives since they all embraced Islam with him. When the Prophet salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam 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.

Marrying Only One Wife When One Fears He Might Not Do Justice to His Wives

Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala says,

فَإِنْ خِفْتُمْ أَلَّا تَعْدِلُوا فَوَاحِدَةً أَوْ مَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُكُمْ ۚ
“But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one or those your right hand possesses.”

Ibn Katheer said 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 subhanahu wa ta’ala said,

وَلَن تَسْتَطِيعُوا أَن تَعْدِلُوا بَيْنَ النِّسَاءِ وَلَوْ حَرَصْتُمْ ۖ
“And you will never be able to be equal [in feeling] between wives, even if you should strive [to do so].” (4:129)

Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala said,

ذَٰلِكَ أَدْنَىٰ أَلَّا تَعُولُوا
“That is more suitable that you may not incline [to injustice].”

The word ta’ulu [تَعُولُوا] is from the root ayn-wau-laam which means “to swerve, turn aside, neglect other side, do injustice/wrong, impose hardship, commit oppression or dishonesty.”

Mufti Muhammad Shafi Usmani comments the Qur’an has clearly declared that every excuse, device or stratagem set up to usurp the property of the orphan is impermissible. It is the duty of the guardians that they should protect the rights of the orphans honestly.

The Marriage of Minors

We have learned previously that in the terminology of the Shar’iah, a yateem is a boy or girl who has not yet attained the age of puberty. So, this ayah proves that the guardian of an orphaned girl does have the right to give her in marriage while she is a minor and has not attained the age of puberty, but on condition that this decision is based on wisdom and the future welfare of the girl. This is to avoid unfair practices common in some communities where a grown up girl is married to a child without any regard for the difference in their ages or without any investigation into the living conditions or character of the boy.

The orphaned girls who have attained the age of puberty are, no doubt, entitled to choose their husbands freely because of their maturity. Nevertheless, girls (in traditional Islamic societies) tend to be modest and shy and usually would not come strong or freely express their opinions in matters relating to their marriage in spite of being mature and having the right to choose. As a result, they are likely to accept what their guardians do for them in good faith. If so, it is the duty of guardians that they too should stay clear from taking any step that may violate the rights of orphaned girls.

In short, the ayah lays down the injunction that vigilance should be observed to make sure that the marital rights of orphaned girls are not violated in any manner. However, the responsibility of enforcing this injunction has not been directly placed on the shoulders of the governments as is usual with laws promulgated by governments. Instead of that, people themselves have been commanded to fear Allah and do what is right. That is, should they apprehend injustice in marrying orphaned girls, they must let go of the idea and marry elsewhere from a wide range of choices available.

Added to this Divine motivation to abide by the prescribed law is the responsibility placed on its enforcing agencies in the government. It is their duty to oversee that there occurs no such violation of rights in the society. If it does, they must use the force of law to ensure that these rights are fulfilled as due.


  • We learn that Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala loves the orphans – in this ayah, we particularly learn that He protects the rights of orphan girls since they are more at risk of being cheated or oppressed

  • We also learn that while Islam allows marrying up to four women, it is not a mandatory condition that every man must have four wives. People who criticize the marriages of Rasoolullah salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam should read the Seerah and learn the reason behind his marriages. Some also use the “four wives” ayah as a joke and to tease their wives. This is not a joke. This is an ayah from the Qur’an – a command from Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala. We should ask ourselves what we are making fun of.

  • While the critics of Islam point out this ayah as a mean of oppression against women, they fail to research “why” this command was given. In the pre-Islamic days, people used to keep as many as 100 wives at a time. Islam placed a cap on the number of women one could have at a certain time. It is unfair to women to be held captives or as a sex slave and not being given the rights that the marriage contract demands. Islam did not oppress women but protected their rights.

  • The words taba lakum point to the importance of “desire” in marriage. Sadly, we live in the times where the family tradition or society culture is given more importance than the Qur’an or the Seerah. Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala did not say, “You must give your daughter to whoever comes knocking at your door,” or “You must marry the woman that your mother presents to you.” Rather, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala advises us to give importance to your heart’s desire as much as you give to other things. If you do not desire a person – you do not like them – then do yourself and your family a favor by not marrying that person. One cannot be forced into marriage because their culture or family tells them to do so.

  • Girls should not be married without their consent

We ask Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala to grant us the opportunity to understand His Book as He revealed to His Messenger salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. And to implement its teachings in our daily life so that we do not oppress ourselves or others, ameen.

DOWNLOAD PDF:  Tafseer Surah An-Nisa Ayah 3

رَبَّنَا تَقَبَّلْ مِنَّا ۖ إِنَّكَ أَنتَ السَّمِيعُ الْعَلِيم
“Our Lord, accept [this] from us. Indeed You are the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.”
[Al-Baqarah 2: 127]

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