“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; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or that which your right hands possess. That will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice.” (Holy Qur’an 4:3)
I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been quizzed on this very issue. How many wives does Islam allow men to have? Before we can even begin to answer this question, we must consider the historical context of the verse above. The Holy Qur’an was revealed 14 centuries ago in 7th Century Arabia, a very different society to the ones in which almost anyone lives today.
Even those remaining regions, relatively undeveloped in Arabia, are still very different to the society in which the Holy Qur’an was revealed. After 14 centuries, so much has changed, for starters, the Holy Qur’an is believed in and recited in modern Arabia and to varying degrees modern Arabs, the majority of whom are Muslims, try to adhere to it’s teachings.
In the 7th Century CE, Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, started out by himself and then with a small, growing group of friends – the embryonic Muslim community. Many people were opposed to his teachings, preferring to ignore them and stay in darkness, rather than address the social issues of the day. The beginnings of the concept of human rights may well have started with King Cyrus, but were long forgotten in the 7thCentury! People were routinely bought and sold, few took issue with this practice. Women suffered especially badly, as one would perhaps expect, when all life was something valued more in terms of gold and silver, than as something priceless and sacred.
When people consider their brothers and sisters in humanity, as nothing more than a commodity to be exploited for financial gain, all respect goes out the window. Generally speaking, only men worked outside the house. Women were treated as less than second class citizens! Most women and girls were in fact seen as property, owned by either their father, husband or if really unfortunate, a slave owner.
Verse 4:3, should therefore be seen in this historical context. The verse is actually calling for the just treatment of orphaned children, and the fair and equitable treatment of wives. Something incredibly ahead of it’s time in 7thCentury Arabia! Before this verse was revealed, rich men often had innumerable wives and female slaves. This verse limits men to having four wives at the very most and even then, only under the strict condition the man looks after and supports each of them properly, fairly and equally. A revolutionary statement, which raised the status of women in Arabian society. Thus, this verse is actually encouraging women’s rights. There is no indication we should stop there either, thinking “okay, women are treated better now”. No! The verse even encourages men to marry only one wife, as this would be better, showing as elsewhere in the Qur’an, the equitability of men and women before God.
A point missed by many, is that this verse is mainly referring to orphans While it imparts guidance on marriage, the reason is to prevent injustice to orphaned children. As even an unusual marriage arrangement, is preferable to any kind of injustice, so long as it’s agreeable to all parties concerned. Lady Ayesha, peace be upon her, even clarified some of the points raised by this verse, during the early years of Islam:
Urwa bin Az Zubair narrated that he had asked Lady Ayesha 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.” (Holy Qur’an 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.” Lady Ayesha further said, “After that verse the people again asked the Prophet (about the marriage with orphan girls), so God revealed the following verses: ‘They ask your instruction concerning the women. Say: God 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…’ (Holy Qur’an 4:127)
What is meant by God’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.’ (Holy Qur’an 4:3) Lady Ayesha said, “God’s saying in the other verse: ‘Yet whom you desire to marry’ (Holy Qur’an 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).”
A state of affairs which Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, clearly didn’t like, but which he knew would take generations to change. Hence, the guidance found in the Holy Qur’an, encourages equitable treatment of men and women and undermines any form of slavery, through stressing the equality of everyone before God. How can we own other people, or disown them of their inherent human rights, when we’re all equal?
Lady Khadija, peace be upon her, was a businesswoman. However, she is the only lady of the time, usually mentioned in Islamic literature as being such. One can only assume businesswomen were unusual in preislamic Arabia. The economy was very primitive, when we compare to what we understand from our modern economies. Men often had their own trade which was passed down through the family. If skilled, they could become reasonably wealthy and enjoy a good standard of living for the time. Unskilled workers were at the bottom end of the scale, many even reduced to begging. Women generally were dependants of their fathers or husbands. Many men and women were slaves… There were few “jobs” in the sense that we understand them today, those there were, almost universally only offered to men. Thus, with very few exceptions, only men were financially independent.
Few options were available to free women living in the 7th Century, either they were supported by their fathers or married and supported by their husbands. Men were therefore allowed to marry up to four wives, to protect and support those women, who may otherwise have been left destitute or forced to turn to prostitution in order to survive. This is not a general injunction, that every man should go out and have plural marriages, but something appropriate for the time and place in which it was revealed. How much society has changed for the better! All praise be to God!
Reading religious scriptures and literature out of context, then trying to apply it in modern times, creates manifold problems.
The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, “An orphan virgin girl should be consulted about herself; if she says nothing that indicates her permission, but if she refuses, the authority of the guardian cannot be exercised against her will. The full information rest with the tradition narrated by Yazid.”
Abu Dawood 853, narrated by Abu Hurayrah.
This hadith highlights the absolute right of a woman to self determination, even in the case of arranged marriages. A father (or guardian) cannot force his daughter into a marriage she doesn’t wish for or approve of -such sham “marriages” are void in Islam!
Society has changed a great deal, Hence, we need to look deeper than mere first impressions, understanding the context, history and true meaning of the narrations. If we don’t, we’ll make Islam appear antiquated and perhaps even nonsensical, when if one looks a little deeper we can see clearly, this is far from being the case! The Holy Qur’an and other sources such as hadith, provide guidance which we can reflect upon and use in our daily lives. However, for this to be effective and useful, it must first be truly understood in it’s correct context and how the wisdom contained therein translates to the present day.
An excerpt of Paul Salahudin Armstrong’s article ‘Up To Four? And Independent Modern Women’
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