4:3 and Orphans

I’ve been meaning to write this post for quite a while, but it’s a difficult one to write due to the sheer quantity of misunderstanding surrounding these verses. The verses in concern are 4:3, 4:127, other sections of Surah Nisa, and parts of Chapter 33 (Surah Al-Ahzab). It’s hard to get an accurate understanding of what the verses are saying unless you cross-reference them to figure out which orphans are being referred to, which women are being referenced, what the surrounding social context is, and what the maqasid (higher purposes) of the injunctions are.

As a warning in advance, this exegesis is very long. And also, the header image has absolutely nothing to do with the post, but. Whatever.


Translation

“And if you fear you will not deal justly[1] with the orphans*, then marry from among the women those who are right/pure[2] for you, in twos and threes and fours (Arabic: mathnaa wa thulathaa wa rub’aa).[3] Then if you [still] fear you cannot be just/fair[4] [with them], then marry only one (wahidatan), or what possesses your right hands.[5] This is more suitable, so that you do not oppress or face hardship in provision.[6]”

*Note that the word for orphan in classical Arabic is yateem and denotes a child without a father but with a living mother. Yateem can also denote a divorced, widowed, or bereft adult woman. [Citation 2]

Footnotes:

  1. The word for justice here is qist, usually denoting legal or judicial justice.
  2. Maa taba’lakum. This phrase comes from the same root as tayyibah, meaning pure, right, good, or suitable. It has an established meaning of “purity” and does not denote sexual attractiveness, as some translators licentiously imply. *insert witty remark about thirsty male ulema here*
  3. This phrase literally means “twos and threes and fours,” not “two or three or four.” The latter in Arabic would be ithnaan aw thalaatha aw ‘arbah.
  4. The word for justice here is ‘adl, usually meaning the type of justice that pertains to fairness and equity as opposed to strictly legal justice.
  5. This translation comes from Citation 1. The Arabic for “what possesses your right hands” is maa malakat aymanakum, which is usually translated semi-incorrectly as “what your right hands possess.” The latter implies that one’s right hand owns the slaves, but the former implies that the slaves own one’s right hand, and thus are entitled to all the associated rights of said ownership. Consider the difference.
  6. Ta’ulu. This word is found only once in the Quran. It has two meanings: (1) to deviate, incline towards oppression, stray from the right path and (2) to find oneself failing in providing for one’s family, having an excessively large family [Citation 2]. In this verse, I feel it carries both meanings, because the verse concerns both social justice and monetary provision.

Background

Looking at verse 4:3, several questions come to mind. Firstly, we don’t know which orphans are being referred to or what injustice is being done to them unless we look at the rest of Surah Nisa. Verse 4:2 and 4:127, reproduced below, give some context. 4:2 explains that guardians of orphans (generally male) must avoid stealing the property of orphans, and must not assimilate orphans’ wealth with their own. 4:127 explains that the orphans in concern are mainly female. Male guardians at the time of the Prophet aimed to marry these orphan girls and steal their property in the process. The Quran forbids such marriages:

“And give to the orphans their properties and do not substitute the defective [of your own] for the good [of theirs]. And do not consume their properties into your own. Indeed, that is ever a great sin.” 4:2 [Sahih Int’nl]

“And if you fear you will not deal justly with the orphans, then marry from among the women those who are right/pure for you, in twos and threes and fours. Then if you [still] fear you cannot be just/fair [with them], then marry only one, or what possesses your right hands. This is more suitable, so that you do not oppress or face hardship in provision.” 4:3 [Misha Az-Zahra]

“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 [Sahih Int’nl]

Currently, there are two dominant understandings of verse 4:3. Both of them are wrong, as I am about to demonstrate.

  • The first interpretation says that men are instructed to stay away from the property of rich orphan girls, and thus they shouldn’t marry these girls. Instead, they should marry other women in twos and threes and fours. This is the traditionalist interpretation, and it quite hilariously (and dishonestly) distorts the verse to permit unrestricted polygyny. Traditionalist men completely ignore the context of verse 4:3, which concerns the rights of orphan girls, and instead transform it into a right to polygyny involving “any other women” that has nothing to do with orphans. The original Arabic, of course, does not say other women; this is an interpolation that changes the meaning of the text.
  • The second interpretation is a popular Quranist one. In this interpretation, men are told to marry fatherless girls or their widowed mothers so that they can provide for them. This understanding is wrong because the verse is initially speaking of orphan girls who already own property. They don’t need a father to provide for them. The injunction is, instead, to stay away from them and to not marry them, because marriage leads to unlawful assimilation of orphans’ property.

I’m going to suggest a more viable interpretation. There are two types of orphan girls in this verse: those with property and those without. Men must not marry orphans with property because they’ll steal it. Instead, they should marry the women who are “pure” for them. And who are these women? The disadvantaged women without property. The verse is still speaking of marginalized and disadvantaged women here, not “other women”; there is no indication whatsoever that the subject has changed.

And men should marry these women in twos and threes and fours precisely because they are marginalized. These women do not own property, unlike the wealthy orphans in 4:127, and thus are in need of provision. That is also why they are described as “pure for you” (in marriage): It’s because marriage to them is considered a righteous deed.

The verse then goes on to say that if you can’t be fair with multiple wives, then marry only one. Notice that fairness towards the women and girls in question is always the dominant concern. This verse has literally nothing to do with the interests of men looking for harems. It starts out describing different categories of disadvantaged women, and then explains which categories are suitable for marriage and which aren’t.

Unfortunately, male Muslim traditionalists lack reading comprehension. Verse 4:3 is usually shredded and excerpted with “marry women you like, two or three or four,” as if the verse has absolutely nothing to do with orphans and everything to do with some extravagant sexual fantasy. This bizarre misreading is not the result of ignorance; any sane individual can tell that 4:3 is referring to a situation involving orphans and marginalized groups. This is a deliberately constructed lie.


Generic Prohibitions

One should note that in the Qur’an, polygamy is prohibited by default. 4:3 states that under certain circumstances men may marry multiple women if they can remain just. 4:129 says that maintaining justice is impossible. Scholars have tried to evade this by saying the verses refer to different types of justice, i.e. monetary vs. emotional. But they’re forgetting that there are, in fact, two different words for justice already used in the Qur’an–qist and ‘adl–yet both 4:3 and 4:129 use the same word. 4:129 is a literal negation of 4:3, and this is very deliberate.

4:3. But if you fear you will not be just, then marry only one. (fa wahidatan)

[4:127-128 speaks of orphans’ rights again]

4:129. You will never be just among multiple women, even if you ardently desire. So do not incline heavily so as to leave one hanging. And if you reconcile, God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.

In 4:129, polygamy is classified quite explicitly as a sin, albeit a forgivable one in certain situations. It is described as being inherently unjust–thus by default it is prohibited, unless it is used to avert a greater injustice, such as avoiding placing marginalized women in a position of greater vulnerability. It is under precisely these circumstances that a man may be “forgiven” for committing this sin. 4:129 uses the word ghafur, which always means forgiveness. There is nothing to forgive if a sin has not been committed. Thus, polygamy is unequivocally a sin, but it is conditionally forgivable.

Compare the structure of 4:129 to 24:33, in which forcing a dependent woman into prostitution is forbidden:

“…And do not compel your slave girls to prostitution, if they desire chastity, to seek [thereby] the temporary interests of worldly life. And if someone should compel them, then indeed, Allah is [to them], after their compulsion, Forgiving and Merciful.” 24:33 [Sahih Int’l]

Prostitution is by default a sin. But 24:33 says that if a woman is forced, the blame is waived. The word ghafur is again used here to denote forgiveness. Ordinarily prostitution is a sinful, but since it was unavoidable here, forgiveness is automatically issued. (Consider the implications, by the way. If a woman is not provided for by her male family members as Islam commands, and is forced into prostitution to feed her children, she cannot be held responsible. Consider the legal implications.)

4:129 parallels the structure of 24:33. Polygamy is by default unjust, and since justice is a prerequisite, it is intended to be forbidden unless it is used to avert greater injustice, in which case one is forgiven.

Nahida has a slightly different interpretation, and holds that polygamy is wholly forbidden. You can read her exegesis here. She and I had a very long conversation about this issue a couple weeks ago, and interestingly, we came to almost the same conclusion about verse 4:3 within a day of each other: The “women pure for you” are disadvantaged and/or orphaned women without property. The verses themselves explain this, and it is quite self-evident in the context of orphans’ property being stolen against the background of a large marginalized population. However, Nahida and I differ slightly in our interpretations: She posits that “twos and threes and fours” does not refer to polygyny, while I think the phrase does. I’m not particularly interested in extensively debating the issue, because both of our interpretations encompass the Qur’anic holistic whole. We could have debates over fine points all day long and it would serve absolutely no purpose. I have never argued for perfect conformity in interpretation; rather, it is principled justice and textual reality that matter most.

In the comment section of her post, Nahida also discusses 4:23, which is often used to assert the permissibility of polygamy. This is amusing considering that 4:23 is actually curtailing a common expression of the practice, which was well-known to the Arabs of that time period: marrying two sisters at once.


Interpretive Incompetence

I would like to draw attention once again to how blinded and egoistic male scholars are. They say that men can marry multiple women in any situation as long as these men entertain the absurd fantasy that they can somehow treat them justly. (The Qur’an explicitly says they can’t.) God acknowledges that this is unjust, but according to male scholars, the inherent injustice of the situation is ignored because of the desires of men. This is madness, and those who issue such an interpretation must be permanently deprived of credibility. They have demonstrated that they fundamentally know nothing about God.

They’re literally saying this: Yeah, God expressly says polygamy is unjust, but whatever! It can still be practiced whenever you want because God doesn’t care! (LOLOLOL.)

This shows clear disregard for Qur’anic commands. According to the Qur’an, unjust acts are always prohibited–or are intended to be eradicated at some point (see slavery for example). Such acts are only permissible if the sinfulness of the act is outweighed by some potential harm.

Male scholars instead assert that God calls an act unjust and then permits it in accordance with male desire. This is not only disgusting but insulting to Islam. An unjust act can only be permitted to avert potential harm against the vulnerable. Such an act can never be permitted to accommodate the desires of the privileged. I am repeating this several times because the Muslim masses don’t recognize the magnitude of this infraction. This is not merely scholarly incompetence but downright condescension towards the order of God. These “scholars” portray God as a pimp for the privileged, tarnishing Islam’s entire legacy.


OK But Polygamy is Sunnah!!!

Yeah, no:

“O Prophet! We have made lawful to thee thy wives to whom thou hast paid their dowers; and those whom thy right hand possesses out of the prisoners of war whom Allah has assigned to thee; and daughters of thy paternal uncles and aunts, and daughters of thy maternal uncles and aunts, who migrated (from Makka) with thee; and any believing woman who dedicates her soul to the Prophet if the Prophet wishes to wed her;- this only for thee, and not for the Believers (at large); We know what We have appointed for them as to their wives and the captives whom their right hands possess;- in order that there should be no difficulty for thee. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” Qur’an 33:50 [Yusuf Ali]

Male exegetes claim that “This is only for you” refers to some sort of privilege in which the Prophet did not have to pay the bridal due. This has absolutely no support in the verse itself, and is completely invented.

Rather, this verse is saying quite explicitly that the Prophet could marry all women who wished to marry him–but this was only for him. The following verses, 33:51-52, clarify that even for the Prophet, this permission to marry any free women he wished was temporary, and 33:52 prohibits him from contracting any more marriages. He is now limited to marrying “those who possess his right hand.” (In the Qur’an, it seems that marrying multiple slave women is allowed, since it can lift them out of poverty–but regardless, this is clearly also not an ideal situation.)

ANYWAYS. I hope this exegesis made sense. If it was too long, I’ll probably write a TL;DR version and post it later for the sake of everyone’s sanity. Have a blessed Jum’ah.


Sources

  1. Tff. “The Oath Possesses Your Right Hand.” The Fatal Feminist. N.p., 24 Dec. 2017. Web. 05 Feb. 2018. <<https://thefatalfeminist.wordpress.com/2017/12/20/the-oath-possesses-your-right-hand/ >>
  2. Lane, Edward William, and Stanley Lane-Poole. An Arabic-English Lexicon. Beirut: Librarie Du Liban, 1980. Print.
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3 thoughts on “4:3 and Orphans

Add yours

  1. Salam Misha! Thank you for your analysis. But there is also another interpretation that aligns with the message of social justice.
    As you mention, “yatama” means fatherless children, both male and female. Your Sahih International translation renders verse 4:127 as talking about “orphan girls,” but I would argue this is a mistranslation. The Arabic says “yatama n-nisa” which is an idafa construction meaning “yatama OF THE women…” i.e. the fatherless children of (widowed) women whose property people were eager to abuse. Verse 4:3 also doesn’t mention the gender of the yatama, and I object to it being translated to “orphan girls” as Sahih International does, especially when verse 4:2 has a broad social justice meaning. What 4:3 may be saying is that if men don’t feel capable of dealing justly with the property of fatherless children as third party actors, they may, in that case, marry these children’s widowed mothers so that there is now a family bond and an expectation of responsibility. In that way, the Quran is guiding men to remarry widowed women with children whom misogynistic society often deems undesirable, burdensome, and “used up.”
    By limiting polygamy to only previously married widowed women (particularly those with children), society avoids one of the major ills of polygamy where there is a gender imbalance and other men find no one to marry. We see this in fundamentalist Mormon communities where older wealthier men marry (increasingly younger) multiple wives, leaving younger single men frustrated and taking to destructive behaviors. This may also explain why the Prophet, after Aisha, married only women who had previously been married (whether widowed or by divorce).
    Would love to hear your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, and I think this is a viable interpretation as well. I believe it could mean either marrying their mothers OR marrying suitable women without property, and I suspect that the verse was constructed with deliberate ambiguity: It says to marry “suitable” women, and the women referenced might be different groups according to the circumstances. The one thing that is clear, is that the verse intends to address a surplus of orphans and disadvantaged women, in the context of social justice.

      Like

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