Javed Ahmad Ghamidi

وَإِنْ خِفْتُمْ أَلَّا تُقْسِطُوا فِي الْيَتَامَى فَانكِحُوا مَا طَابَ لَكُمْ مِنَ النِّسَاءِ مَثْنَى وَثُلَاثَ وَرُبَاعَ فَإِنْ خِفْتُمْ أَلَّا تَعْدِلُوا فَوَاحِدَةً أَوْ مَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُكُمْ ذَلِكَ أَدْنَى أَلَّا تَعُولُوا  وَآتُوا النِّسَاءَ صَدُقَاتِهِنَّ نِحْلَةً فَإِنْ طِبْنَ لَكُمْ عَنْ شَيْءٍ مِنْهُ نَفْسًا فَكُلُوهُ هَنِيئًا مَرِيئًا (4: 3-4)

And if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry [their mothers] that are lawful to you, two two, three three, four four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly [with them], then only one, or those which your right hands possess. That will be more suitable to prevent you from doing injustice. And give these women their dowers also the way dowers are given; but if they, of their own good pleasure, remit any part of it to you, take it and consume it gladly. (4:3-4)

    The addressees of the above quoted verses are the guardians of the orphans. They are directed to marry the mothers of the orphans that are lawful to them if they fear that they would not be able to do justice to the onerous responsibility of protecting the rights of the orphans and taking care of their wealth and property. In other words, if they decide that if the mothers of the orphans share with them this responsibility they would be able to discharge it in a better way, they should go ahead and marry them. The reason is that the extent to which mothers are attached to their orphaned children, no other person can ever be.
    It is evident from this explanation that the above quoted verses were not primarily revealed to state any directive regarding polygamy. They were actually revealed to make use of the pre-existing practice of polygamy in Arabia for the welfare of the orphans. At other places, the Qur’an has clearly alluded to the fact that as per the norms of human nature, the real benefits and advantages of the institution of family manifest themselves in a monogamous family. Consequently, it is stated in various verses that the father of mankind: Adam (rta) was blessed with one wife. It is basically social, psychological, political and cultural needs from which arose the need for polygamy. Such needs existed in various societies to different extents. To cater for these very needs the Almighty never forbade this practice in the Shari‘ah He gave in various periods of time. Here, in these verses, Muslims are directed to make use of this practice to solve a social problem that had arisen in the time of the Prophet (sws). However, it has been made conditional upon two things:
    First, even for as noble an objective as the welfare of orphans, a person cannot marry more than four wives.1
    Second, if a person is not able to deal justly with all four wives he should not marry more than the number he can be just with. Justice is a value that has to be maintained at all costs and cannot be sacrificed even for such a noble cause.
    What are the limits of this justice? If this means equality in a person’s inner inclination and his outer behavior, then this is not possible for any person. If a person while being married to a wife he greatly loves marries a widow for the welfare of the orphans, it is impossible for him to show equal love and behavior for both these wives. Consequently, this very question had arisen in the period of the revelation of the Qur’an. So in 4:127-130 an answer was given to this question.
    In these verses, it is first explained that whether marriage has taken place to protect the rights of the orphans or for some other purpose, payment of dower and discharging of justice are the rights of the woman and the former must be given with the willingness of the heart, as is also pointed out in 4:3. Women are then counseled that if they fear that husbands may show indifference to them or even think of parting ways with them because of their insistence to be treated equally, it is alright if a husband and wife settle for a compromise. The Qur’an says:

وَإِنْ امْرَأَةٌ خَافَتْ مِنْ بَعْلِهَا نُشُوزًا أَوْ إِعْرَاضًا فَلَا جُنَاحَ عَلَيْهِمَا أَنْ يُصْلِحَا بَيْنَهُمَا صُلْحًا وَالصُّلْحُ خَيْرٌ وَأُحْضِرَتْ الْأَنفُسُ الشُّحَّ وَإِنْ تُحْسِنُوا وَتَتَّقُوا فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ خَبِيرًا (128:4)

And if [any of these] women fear cruelty or desertion on her husband’s part, there is no blame on them if they arrange an amicable settlement between themselves and [should consider that] such a settlement is best. And, [in reality], man is greedy by nature. But if you do good and practice self-restraint [you should know that], Allah is well-acquainted with all that you do. (4:128)

    While explaining the above quoted verse, Imam Amin Ahsan Islahi writes:

    This means that a wife may show lenience to her husband in her demand for justice as well as payment of dower and maintenance to her in order to dispense with the imminent fear of separation. The verse goes on to say that in settlements rest the welfare of all because it is in the interest of both husband and wife that this relationship once established should continue forever, even if a lot of sacrifice has to be made to keep it intact. Continuing with words of counsel, the verse says that greed is an evil found in human beings that affects mutual relationships; the remedy for this malady is that either both should get ready to make some sacrifice or if one of them is ill-enough not to be willing to do so, the other should take the initiative. So if the wife has to make some sacrifice to keep the family unit intact, it is better that she does so. In the end, the words ‘But if you do good and practice self-restraint’ of the verse urge the husband to adopt the way of sacrifice and selflessness and it is only befitting that he show magnanimity and piety in this regard. He should live up to his traditions of grit and character and instead of being a ‘receiver’ from the woman, he should let her be the ‘receiver’. The Almighty has knowledge of every deed a person does and He will greatly reward pious deeds.2
    The next verses delineate the bounds of justice in the following words:

وَلَنْ تَسْتَطِيعُوا أَنْ تَعْدِلُوا بَيْنَ النِّسَاءِ وَلَوْ حَرَصْتُمْ فَلَا تَمِيلُوا كُلَّ الْمَيْلِ فَتَذَرُوهَا كَالْمُعَلَّقَةِ وَإِنْ تُصْلِحُوا وَتَتَّقُوا فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ غَفُورًا رَحِيمًا  وَإِنْ يَتَفَرَّقَا يُغْنِ اللَّهُ كُلًّا مِنْ سَعَتِهِ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ وَاسِعًا حَكِيمًا (4: 129-130).

And even if it is your ardent desire, you will never be able to be totally just between women; so it is enough if you do not completely incline yourself to a woman altogether, so as to leave the other aside. And if you come to a friendly understanding, and fear Allah; Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. But if they disagree and [eventually] must part, Allah will provide abundance for each from His bounty. He is Bountiful and is Wise. (4:129-130)

    It is evident from the above quoted verses that the requirement of justice between wives does not mean justice between them regarding the husband’s inner inclination or external behavior. It is humanly impossible to be just in this matter because one has no power over one’s heart in such affairs. Therefore, in this regard the Qur’an requires of a husband to not completely lean towards one of the wives and show indifference to the other, as if she had no husband. Consequently, he is asked to show balance in his behavior towards them and in discharging their rights. In case of any fault or blemish in this matter, he should at once try to reform the state of affairs by making amends and keep fearing the Almighty. If in spite of the effort some thing remains amiss, hopefully the Almighty will have mercy on him: Allah’s mercy is all-embracing.
    The last part of the verse stresses that one should try everything to save the family from dismemberment. This is what Allah wants. However, if owing to compelling circumstances, separation does take place, one should hope for the best from the Almighty. It is He who provides sustenance to His creatures and assists them in hardships. He would fully help them and fulfill their needs through His grace. Imam Amin Ahsan Islahi writes:

The implication being that efforts that reflect selflessness and sacrifice are required from both the husband and wife in order to keep this relationship intact; however, this restoration must be done with honor and integrity: just as it is not permissible for either the husband or wife to show vanity in this regard, it is also not permissible to show accommodation beyond a certain point. Although the words used are general, it is evident from the context that the wife is encouraged to adjust and adapt to the situation as much as is possible and also show selflessness to achieve this end. However, she should rest assured that if in spite of her efforts the family does not remain intact, the Almighty is the one who provides and sustains all. He will completely fulfill her needs from His treasures.3

    Here, it should be kept in mind that the Prophet (sws) was exempted from the above mentioned restrictions so that he could discharge certain responsibilities that were entrusted to him in his capacity as the final messenger of God. The Prophet (sws) had wedded together his paternal cousin Zaynab (rta) and his liberated slave and adopted son Zayd (rta) in order to raise the status of slaves in the society.  However, when this marriage could no longer be pulled along, the Almighty bade the Prophet (sws) to marry her to comfort and solace her and to put an end to the evil social custom according to which a person could not marry the wife of his adopted son. At that time, the Prophet (sws) already had four wives. The Prophet himself thought that perhaps marrying Zaynab (rta) was the only way out because of what ensued between her and Zayd (rta), but he never expressed these thoughts. The Almighty revealed these inner thoughts and told him that the messengers of Allah do not care about the reaction of people while discharging their responsibilities. Consequently, the Prophet’s marriage with Zaynab (rta) was proclaimed by the Almighty Himself in the Qur’an:

وَإِذْ تَقُولُ لِلَّذِي أَنْعَمَ اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَأَنْعَمْتَ عَلَيْهِ أَمْسِكْ عَلَيْكَ زَوْجَكَ وَاتَّقِ اللَّهَ وَتُخْفِي فِي نَفْسِكَ مَا اللَّهُ مُبْدِيهِ وَتَخْشَى النَّاسَ وَاللَّهُ أَحَقُّ أَنْ تَخْشَاهُ فَلَمَّا قَضَى زَيْدٌ مِنْهَا وَطَرًا زَوَّجْنَاكَهَا لِكَيْ لَا يَكُونَ عَلَى الْمُؤْمِنِينَ حَرَجٌ فِي أَزْوَاجِ أَدْعِيَائِهِمْ إِذَا قَضَوْا مِنْهُنَّ وَطَرًا وَكَانَ أَمْرُ اللَّهِ مَفْعُولًا(37:33).

And remember [O Prophet!] when you were repeatedly saying to one who had received the favor of Allah and your favor: ‘Retain you [in wedlock] your wife, and fear Allah.’ And you were hiding in your heart that which Allah was about to make manifest: you were fearing the people, but it is more fitting that you should fear Allah. Then when Zayd broke his relationship with her, We joined her in marriage to you, in order that in future there may be no difficulty on the believers in the matter of marriage with the wives of their adopted sons when the latter have dissolved their relationship [of marriage] with them. And this command of Allah had to be fulfilled. (33:37)

    Right after this proclamation, the Almighty revealed detailed directives specifically for the Prophet (sws) regarding marriage and divorce. In these directives, the above quoted conditions for polygamy were repealed but certain other restrictions were imposed on him that were not imposed on other Muslims:

يَاأَيُّهَا النَّبِيُّ إِنَّا أَحْلَلْنَا لَكَ أَزْوَاجَكَ اللَّاتِي آتَيْتَ أُجُورَهُنَّ وَمَا مَلَكَتْ يَمِينُكَ مِمَّا أَفَاءَ اللَّهُ عَلَيْكَ وَبَنَاتِ عَمِّكَ وَبَنَاتِ عَمَّاتِكَ وَبَنَاتِ خَالِكَ وَبَنَاتِ خَالَاتِكَ اللَّاتِي هَاجَرْنَ مَعَكَ وَامْرَأَةً مُؤْمِنَةً إِنْ وَهَبَتْ نَفْسَهَا لِلنَّبِيِّ إِنْ أَرَادَ النَّبِيُّ أَنْ يَسْتَنكِحَهَا خَالِصَةً لَكَ مِنْ دُونِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ قَدْ عَلِمْنَا مَا فَرَضْنَا عَلَيْهِمْ فِي أَزْوَاجِهِمْ وَمَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُهُمْ لِكَيْلَا يَكُونَ عَلَيْكَ حَرَجٌ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ غَفُورًا رَحِيمًا  تُرْجِي مَنْ تَشَاءُ مِنْهُنَّ وَتُؤْوِي إِلَيْكَ مَنْ تَشَاءُ وَمَنْ ابْتَغَيْتَ مِمَّنْ عَزَلْتَ فَلَا جُنَاحَ عَلَيْكَ ذَلِكَ أَدْنَى أَنْ تَقَرَّ أَعْيُنُهُنَّ وَلَا يَحْزَنَّ وَيَرْضَوْنَ بِمَا آتَيْتَهُنَّ كُلُّهُنَّ وَاللَّهُ يَعْلَمُ مَا فِي قُلُوبِكُمْ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ عَلِيمًا حَلِيمًا  لَا يَحِلُّ لَكَ النِّسَاءُ مِنْ بَعْدُ وَلَا أَنْ تَبَدَّلَ بِهِنَّ مِنْ أَزْوَاجٍ وَلَوْ أَعْجَبَكَ حُسْنُهُنَّ إِلَّا مَا مَلَكَتْ يَمِينُكَ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ عَلَى كُلِّ شَيْءٍ رَقِيبًا(33 :50-2).

O Prophet! We have made lawful to you the wives whom you have paid their dowers and free women whom [you have gained in a military campaign] and the daughters of your paternal uncles and aunts and the daughters of your maternal uncles and aunts who migrated [from Makkah] with you and any believing woman who gifts her soul to the Prophet on the condition that the Prophet wishes to marry her. This directive is specifically for you alone and not for the believers. We very well know what We have imposed on them as obligations regarding their wives and slave girls – [a special directive for you] so that that there be no difficulty for you [in discharging your duties] and [and in case of any blemish], Allah is Forgiving and Merciful. You have the authority to keep any of them away from you and keep any of them near you and it is lawful for you to bring any of them near you whom you have kept away. There is no blame on you in this regard. This [explanation] is more proper so that they be contented and not be sorrowful – that they may feel satisfied with whatever you give them. And Allah knows what is in your hearts and Allah is All-Knowing and Most Forbearing. All other women besides these are not lawful for you nor can you change them for other wives, even though their beauty attracts you. Slave-girls, however [are still] allowed to you. And [in reality] Allah does watch over all things. (33:50-2)

    The statutes on which this group of directives is based are:
    Firstly, after contracting marriage with Zaynab (rta), the Prophet (sws) could marry further for the following objectives:
    i. To honor free women who were caught as captives in some military campaign.
    ii. To show kindheartedness to women who wanted to marry him just for the sake of associating themselves to him, and for this they were ready to gift themselves to him.
    iii. To console and sympathize with his maternal or paternal cousin sisters who had migrated with him from Makkah and left their houses and relatives merely to support and back him.
    Second, since these marriages of the Prophet (sws) were to be contracted only to fulfill certain religious obligations, he was not required to deal equally between the wives.
    Third, except for the women specified, he was prohibited to marry any other lady4; he could also not divorce any of his wives nor bring a new one in her place however much he liked her.
    Consequently, the Prophet (sws) married Jawayriyyah (rta) for the first objective outlined above, Maymunah (rta) for the second and Ummi Habibah (rta) for the third.
    It is also pointed out in these verses that the wives of the Prophet (sws) are the mothers of the believers; consequently, marriage is eternally prohibited with them. No Muslim should even think of marrying them after the Prophet’s death:

النَّبِيُّ أَوْلَى بِالْمُؤْمِنِينَ مِنْ أَنْفُسِهِمْ وَأَزْوَاجُهُ أُمَّهَاتُهُمْ (6:33).

The Prophet is closer to the believers than their own selves, and his wives are their mothers. (33:6)

وَلَا أَنْ تَنْكِحُوا أَزْوَاجَهُ مِنْ بَعْدِهِ أَبَدًا إِنَّ ذَلِكُمْ كَانَ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ عَظِيمًا (33: 53).

Nor is it right for you that you should marry his widows after him at any time. Truly such a thing is abominable in Allah’s sight. (33:53)

    It is evident from this discussion that these marriage directives were given to Muhammad (sws) as a religious obligation in his capacity as Prophet and Messenger of God. He followed these directives and there was no element of personal desire in these marriages. Consequently, the need arose to make these directives an exception to the general ones given to the Muslims in this regard.

(Translated from ‘Mizan’ by Shehzad Saleem)


1. It is narrated that Qays Ibn Harith had eight wives. Once he accepted Islam, the Prophet (sws) owing to this very restriction asked him to divorce four of them. (For details see: Abu Da’ud, No: 2241)
2. Islahi, Amin Ahsan, Tadabbur-i-Qur’an, 2nd ed., vol. 2, (Lahore: Faran Foundation, 1986), p. 399
3. Islahi, Amin Ahsan, Tadabbur-i-Qur’an, 2nd ed., vol. 2, (Lahore: Faran Foundation, 1986), p. 400
4. Consequently, because of these restrictions, the Prophet (sws) could not marry Mariyah (rta) and she remained in his house as a slave lady.