Allah says in the Quran:
And if you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphans, then marry those that please you of women, two or three or four. But if you fear that you will not be just, then one or those your right hand possesses. That is more suitable that you may not incline [to injustice].Quran 4:3
The meaning of this verse is not well-understood by many people today. Did this verse permit a man to marry four wives? What do the orphans have to do with anything? Is marriage limited to four wives?
There are several interpretations for this verse that were offered by the mufassiroon. Specifically, this article will focus on the question of what the orphans have to do with polygyny. Why does Allah connect them in this verse?
Consensus on the Permissibility of Polygyny
There is consensus among the Muslims and their scholars that a man is allowed to marry multiple wives, and there is also consensus that a woman may only marry one husband.
The proof of the first is in clear verses of the Quran and clear practice from the Sunnah. As for the Quran, among the verses that explicitly allow marriage to multiple wives is verse 4:3. As for the Sunnah, the Prophet (SAW) himself practiced marriage to multiple wives and his companions practiced it without him ever stopping them.
There is consensus that this allowance to marry multiple wives is not limited to marrying orphans or widows. Rather, it is allowed to marry any women.
The proof that a woman may only marry one husband is Allah saying:
And [also prohibited to you are] married women […]Quran 4:23
A man cannot marry a woman that is already married, and it is clear how that prohibits a woman from marrying multiple husbands.
The number of wives a man may marry is limited to four wives at one time, and this is also a matter of consensus.
Interpretation of the Verse
Since the matters of consensus are explained, this section will deal with the specific interpretations people gave to the verse and its relation to orphans.
Interpretation 1: Forbidding Unjust Marriage to Orphans
The context of the verse is a man who has an orphan girl under his care and wishes to marry her for her wealth or beauty. Allah forbade him from marrying her if he cannot do full justice by giving her the deserved mahr and treating her well. If he cannot guarantee full justice to her, he should stick to marrying other women.
Allah says: ⟪And if you⟫ feel like marrying an orphan girl but ⟪fear that you will not deal justly with the orphan⟫ girls you marry by giving them a mahr that is worthy of their status or treating them with the proper treatment wives deserve, ⟪then⟫ do not marry the orphans under your care, but rather ⟪marry those that please you of⟫ other ⟪women, two or three or four. But if you fear that you will not be just⟫ by giving the rights of each wife properly, ⟪then⟫ only ⟪one or those your right hand possesses. That is more suitable that you may not incline [to injustice].⟫
This interpretation is by Aisha (RA) and quoted in Sahih Bukhari (see here). Her interpretation does not directly explain the limitation of four wives. Among all the interpretations, this interpretation is the most authentic in chain to the companion it is attributed to (which is Aisha RA in this case).
Interpretation 2: Forbidding Unjust Marriage in General Using the Fear of Mistreating Orphans
The context is that people at the time used to be very careful in treating orphans well and respecting their property but did not have the same care and good treatment of wives. So, Allah commands them to treat their wives fairly and limits marriage to four wives because marrying more than that would likely lead to injustice.
Allah says: ⟪And if you⟫ are cautious about treating orphans well and ⟪fear not dealing justly with the orphans⟫ due to the many severe commands regarding orphans in the Quran, then also remember to fear being unjust with women and ⟪marry those that please you of women⟫ only up to when there is no fear of injustice and that can only be up to ⟪two or three or four⟫ because marrying more than that will lead to injustice. ⟪But if you fear that you will not be just⟫ even when marrying up to four, ⟪then⟫ only ⟪one or those your right hand possesses. That is more suitable that you may not incline⟫ towards injustice against women.
This interpretation is reported from Ibn Abbas (RA), Saeed ibn Jubair, As-Suddi, Dhahhak, Qatadah, and Rabee’ in the Tafsir of Tabari. The narration from Ibn Abbas is through Ali ibn Abi Talhah. This is the interpretation that Tabari prefers as the most correct one.
Interpretation 3: Forbidding Many Marriages to Safeguard the Wealth of Orphans
The context is that some people in Jahiliyyah (pre-Islamic times) used to marry up to ten or more wives and, when that caused them financial trouble, they would be tempted to take some wealth from the inheritance of the orphans under their care. To safeguard the orphans from such injustice, Allah limited people from marrying more than four wives.
Allah says: ⟪And if you⟫ take care of orphans and ⟪fear that you will not deal justly with the orphans⟫ and might be tempted to take their money because you have too many wives to take care of, ⟪then⟫ limit yourself and only ⟪marry those that please you of women, two or three or four. But if you fear that you will not be just⟫ to the orphans even with four wives, ⟪then⟫ marry only ⟪one or those your right hand possesses. That is more suitable that you may not incline⟫ towards injustice to orphans.
This interpretation is reported from Ibn Abbas and Ikrimah. The narration from Ibn Abbas is through Atiyyah ibn Saad and Tawus. It is reported that Ibn Abbas said: “Men were limited to four wives because of the wealth of the orphans.” (Tafsir Ibn Abi Hatim)
Interpretation 4: Fear Zina
Allah says: ⟪And if you⟫ are cautious about treating orphans well and ⟪fear not dealing justly with the orphans⟫ due to the many severe commands regarding orphans in the Quran, then also remember to fear Zina with women so ⟪marry those that please you of women two or three or four⟫ rather than committing Zina with them. ⟪But if you fear that you will not be just⟫ with your wives if you marry up to four, ⟪then⟫ only ⟪one or those your right hand possesses. That is more suitable that you may not incline⟫ towards Zina and injustice to women.
This interpretation is reported from Mujahid in the Tafsir of Tabari and Ibn Abbas (RA) in the Tafsir of Ibn Abi Hatim. Mujahid was a major student of Ibn Abbas.
His interpretation is similar to interpretation 2. Both interpretations think the mention of orphans is a reference to something people already fear and Allah uses this to highlight another issue He wants them to fear. The new thing Allah wants them to fear is injustice to women in marriage in interpretation 2 and Zina in this interpretation.
One can consider them almost the same by saying Zina itself is injustice to women because it is using them for pleasure without the proper protection that marriage provides. Another possibility is to say one interpretation talks about one extreme which is to not marry and commit Zina and the other talks about the other extreme which is to marry so many that you are unjust to your wives.
So, it is possible to consider interpretations 2 and 4 as extensions of each other.
Interpretation 5: Permission to Marry Orphans With Justice
The context is that Muslims were very afraid of being unjust to orphans because of the repeated warnings about it in the Quran, and this led to them being afraid to marry orphans at all. So, Allah permitted them to marry orphans and limited marriage to a number within which they could be just and fair to their wives.
Allah says: ⟪And if you fear not dealing justly with the orphans⟫ due to the many severe commands and this leads you to avoid marrying them, then no need to fear because I allow you to ⟪marry those that please you of women⟫ including orphans and limit you to ⟪two or three or four⟫ within which you can be just and fair. ⟪But if you fear that you will not be just⟫ even when marrying up to four, ⟪then⟫ only ⟪one or those your right hand possesses. That is more suitable that you may not incline⟫ towards injustice against women or orphans.
This interpretation is reported from Hasan al-Basri in the Tafsir of Tabari.
His interpretation is similar to interpretation 1 because it is simply the inverse of it (Mafhoom Mukhalafah in Arabic terms). Interpretation 1 forbids people from marrying orphans in their care if they think they will be unjust, and this interpretation gives the inverse meaning that it is allowed to marry those orphans if you can be just.
Overview of Interpretations
It can be seen that there are three major interpretations of the verse and the other two fold into one of the major three. Interpretation 4 folds into 2, and interpretation 5 folds into 1.
Interpretations 2 and 3 explain the limitation of four wives with reference to the orphans. In interpretation 2, people were limited to four wives to avoid injustice to women because it is as important as avoiding injustice to orphans. In interpretation 3, people were limited to four wives to avoid injustice to orphans.
Interpretation 1 is the most authentic in chain and is attributed to the Mother of the Believers and is reported in Sahih Bukhari. According to it, the verse forbids people from marrying orphan girls if they cannot guarantee they will do justice with them.
Some modern interpretations of this verse claim that the verse commands marrying the widows who are mothers of orphans.
They say: ⟪And if you fear not dealing justly with the orphans⟫ by not taking care of them, then ⟪marry those that please you of women⟫ i.e. the mothers of those orphans that have been widowed due to war up to ⟪two or three or four⟫ so that widows and orphans are not left alone. ⟪But if you fear that you will not be just⟫ when marrying up to four, ⟪then⟫ only ⟪one or those your right hand possesses. That is more suitable that you may not incline⟫ towards injustice against women or orphans.
This interpretation claims the “women” mentioned in this verse refer to the widows or mothers of orphans, and Allah allowed marriage to multiple wives so that men can take care of those widows.
The interpretation that “women” refers specifically to widows is a mistake because it contradicts all the opinions of the past scholars. It doesn’t fit into any of the five interpretations mentioned above, nor have I found reference to such an interpretation anywhere else in the books of tafsir.
However, Maududi in his tafsir mentions that widows would be included in the general command to marry women in the accepted interpretations. The mistake is in trying to limit the verse to widows or to think the verse intends to allow polygyny only so men can marry widows, which is not the case according to any of the accepted interpretations.
This faulty interpretation of the verse leads to many false beliefs about polygyny in Islam. Among them is the notion that men can only marry multiple wives if they marry widows to take care of them and their children. This goes against the consensus of scholars as mentioned in the beginning of the article. Among them is also the notion that polygyny in Islam has nothing to do with men fulfilling their desires even though one of the interpretations reported from the scholars (interpretation 4) explicitly links marrying multiple wives to fearing Zina.
Permission of Polygyny
Polygyny (one man marrying multiple women) was a well-known practice in most cultures in history, and Arab culture before Islam was no different. Polygyny was widely practiced in Arabia before Islam.
The default of all practices is that they are permissible until Allah forbids them. Allah never forbade polygyny. Hence, polygyny continues to be permissible till the Day of Judgement.
It is a mistake to think verse 4:3 legislated polygyny in Islam or allowed men to marry multiple wives. Rather, men were always allowed to marry multiple wives. The Prophet and the companions practiced polygyny even before this verse was revealed because it was allowed by default. The verse 4:3 only limits the number of wives men can marry. It did not legislate polygyny itself.
The practice of polygyny is permissible by default because Allah never forbade it. Allah did not forbid it because He did not deem it immoral.
However, we can say verse 4:3 is positive evidence for the permission of polygyny even thought it was not the original reason polygyny was considered allowed in Islam. In addition to that, the practice of the Prophet and his companions are positive evidences for the permissibility of polygyny. But, neither of these evidences made polygyny allowed themselves. It was always allowed.
And Allah knows best.