Marriage With “Slaves”: Surah 4:3

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Madinan verse (Mawdudi, and Dr. Muhammed Asad)

Analysing Verse

“And if you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphan girls, then MARRY those that please you of [other] women, two or three or four. But if you fear that you will not be just, THEN [MARRY ONLY] one or those YOUR RIGHT HAND POSSESSES. That is more suitable that you may not incline [to injustice].” – Quran 4:3

The verse was revealed as the result of men absorbing orphans wealth – they deceptively, and deliberately married orphans so to steal their wealth and also not giving the dowry due to them. Hence the verse was revealed that such was forbidden. That they were commanded to marry other women if they cannot fulfill the rights of the orphans, due to them.

The ruling surrounding “polygamy” will be discussed in a future article, we are restricting it to captives in this article.

When the religion of Islam came to Arabia, slavery, prostitution and many other things were rife in that society. Islam came to set rules and regulations and forbid prostitution. Those who were captured through warfare, for attempting overthrow the Muslim Government, Allah exhorts the Muslims then (1400 years ago) to marry them (Mawdudi). Islam elevated the status of captives that if one were to even slap a slave, Prophet Muhammed ordered that they be set free.

Sahih Muslim:

Hilal b. Yasaf reported that a person got angry and slapped his slave-girl. Thereupon Suwaid b. Muqarrin said to him: You could find no other part (to slap) but the prominent part of her face. See I was one of the seven sons of Muqarrin, and we had but only one slave-girl. The youngest of us slapped her, and ALLAH’S MESSENGER COMMANDED US TO SET HER FREE. (Sahih Muslim Book 15, Hadith 4082)

Jami at-Tirmidhi:

“We were seven brothers without a servant except one, and ONE OF US SLAPPED her, so THE PROPHET ORDERED US TO FREE HER.” (Jami` at-Tirmidhi volume 3, Book 18, Hadith 1542, Sahih Darussalam)

Historical reports tell us that the verse was revealed, ordered men who would not do justice with an orphan, or trying to marry four women, that they should settle with one woman i.e., marry one woman, who may be free or captive. That they should choose from the latter two in marriage.

Historical Reports

Sahih al-Bukhari:

“Narrated ‘Urwa: that he asked `Aisha about 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; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), THEN ONLY ONE, OR (THE CAPTIVES) THAT YOUR RIGHT HANDS POSSESS. That will be nearer to prevent you from doing injustice.’ (4.3) `Aisha said, “O my nephew! (This Verse has been revealed in connection with) an orphan girl under the guardianship of her guardian who is attracted by her wealth and beauty and intends to marry her with a Mahr less than what other women of her standard deserve. So they (such guardians) have been forbidden to marry them unless they do justice to them and give them their full Mahr, and they are ordered to marry other women instead of them.” (Sahih al-Bukhari volume 7, Book 62, Hadith 2)


Sahih al-Bukhari:

“Narrated `Urwa bin Az-Zubair: That he had asked `Aisha 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.” (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.” `Aisha further said, “After that verse the people again asked the Prophet (about the marriage with orphan ‘girls), so Allah revealed the following verses:– ‘They ask your instruction Concerning the women. Say: Allah 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…” (4.127) What is meant by Allah’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.’ (4.3) `Aisha said, “Allah’s saying in the other verse:–‘Yet whom you desire to marry’ (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).” (Sahih al-Bukhari volume 3, Book 44, Hadith 674)


Sahih al-Bukhari:

“Narrated `Urwa bin Az-Zubair: That he asked `Aisha regarding the Statement of Allah: “If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphan girls…” (4.3) She said, “O son of my sister! An Orphan girl used to be under the care of a guardian with whom she shared property. Her guardian, being attracted by her wealth and beauty, would intend to marry her without giving her a just Mahr, i.e. the same Mahr as any other person might give her (in case he married her). So such guardians were forbidden to do that unless they did justice to their female wards and gave them the highest Mahr their peers might get. THEY WERE ORDERED (BY ALLAH, TO MARRY WOMEN OF THEIR CHOICE OTHER THAN THOSE ORPHAN GIRLS.” `Aisha added,” The people asked Allah’s Messenger his instructions after the revelation of this Divine Verse whereupon Allah revealed: “They ask your instruction regarding women” (4.127) `Aisha further said, “And the Statement of Allah: “And yet whom you desire to marry.” (4.127) as anyone of you refrains from marrying an orphan girl (under his guardianship) when she is lacking in property and beauty.” `Aisha added, “So they were forbidden to marry those orphan girls for whose wealth and beauty they had a desire unless with justice, and that was because they would refrain from marrying them if they were lacking in property and beauty.” (Sahih al-Bukhari volume 6, Book 60, Hadith 98)


Sahih Muslim:

“‘Urwa b. Zubair reported that he asked ‘A’isha about the words of Allah:” If you fear that you will not be able to maintain equity amongst the orphan girls, then marry (those) you like from amongst the women two, three or four.” She said: O, the son of my sister, the orphan girl is one who is under the patronage of her guardian and she shares with him in his property and her property and beauty fascinate him and her guardian makes up his mind to marry her without giving her due share of the wedding money and is not prepared (to pay so much amount) which anyone else is prepared to pay and so Allah has forbidden to marry these girls but in case when equity is observed as regards the wedding money and they are prepared to pay them the full amount of the wedding money and ALLAH COMMANDED TO MARRY OTHER WOMEN BESIDES THEM ACCORDING TO THE LIKING OF THEIR HEART. ‘Urwa reported that ‘A’isha said that people began to seek verdict from Allah’s Messenger after the revelation of this verse about them (orphan girls) and Allah, the Exalted and Glorious, revealed this verse:” They asked thee verdict about women; say: Allah gives verdict to you in regard to them and what is recited to you in the Book about orphan woman, whom you give not what is ordained for them while you like to marry them” (iv. 126). She said: The wording of Allah” what is recited to you” in the Book means the first verse, i. e.” if you fear that you may not be able to observe equity in case of an orphan woman, MARRY WHAT YOU LIKE IN CASE OF WOMAN” (iv. 3). ‘A’isha said: (And as for this verse [iv. 126], i. e. and you intend” to marry one of them from amongst the orphan girls” it pertains to one who is in charge (of orphans) having small amount of wealth and less beauty and they have been forbidden that they should marry what they like of her wealth and beauty out of the orphan girls, but with equity, because of their disliking for them.” (Sahih Muslim Book 43, Hadith 7156)


Sunan an-Nasa’i:

“‘Urwah bin Az-Zubair narrated that he asked ‘Aishah about the saying of Allah, the Mighty and Sublime: “And if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphan girls then marry (other) women of your choice.” She said: “O son of my sister, this refers to a female orphan who is in the care of her guardian, and her wealth is joined to his, and he is attracted to her wealth and her beauty. So her guardian wants to marry her without being fair with regard to her dowry, and without giving her what someone else would give her. So they were forbidden to marry them unless they were fair to them and gave them the highest possible dowry that is customarily given, and they were COMMANDED TO MARRY OTHER WOMEN OF THEIR CHOICE.” ‘Urwah said: “‘Aishah said: ‘Then later on, Allah, the Mighty and Sublime, revealed concerning them: ‘They ask your legal instruction concerning women, say: Allah instructs you about them, and about what is recited unto you in the Book concerning the orphan girls whom you give not the prescribed portions and yet whom you desire to marry.’ ‘Aishah said: ‘What Allah, Most High, mentioned here that is recited in the Book is the first Verse in which it says: And if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with orphan girls then marry (other) women of your choice.’ ‘Aishah said: ‘What is referred to in the other Verse -and yet whom you desire to marry- is the desire of one of you not to marry orphan girl who is under his care if she is lacking in wealth and beauty. So they were forbidden to marry those orphan women to whose wealth they were attracted unless they were fair, because of their desire not to marry (those who were lacking in wealth and beauty.)'” (Sunan an-Nasa’i volume 4, Book 26, Hadith 3348, Sahih Darussalam)

I will leave readers with classical to contemporary exegesis on this verse (Surah 4:3)

Commentary On The Holy Qur’an by Zohurul Hoque & Hussain Nuri:

“4:3 Continuing with the healthy ways of taking care of the orphans and strictly for the purpose of the welfare of the orphans, the verse allows one to marry up to four women from among those who seem good to be the guardian provided that certain stipulations are maintained. The phrase who seem good to you attempts to qualify those women who are lawfully permitted (i.e. excluding those mentioned in vv. 22-24), ideally the orphans themselves or the mothers of the orphans, so that welfare of the orphans takes precedence over gratification of sexual desire. Additionally, the permission to marry more than one wife, up to maximum four is categorically restricted by strict conditions: to deal with each wife fairly, equally and justly, and only if the family, as a unit, will not suffer by the addition of wives. Thus, it is as much a test of man’s ability to treat the wives fairly and equally, as it is to take good care of orphans under one’s care. But then the Qur’ān declares man has no capability to treat all his wives equally (v. 129). Thus, from the conditions laid down in the verse, it is evident the Qur’ān clearly envisages directing the Muslim ummah towards strict monogamy, although in the early Islamic era, there was a historical bias and social need for limited polygamy in order to protect the security of surplus women. Polygamy was a legal tool to grant shelter to women in a society that only recently emerged from highly promiscuous sexual orientation. Androcentric interpretation of this verse is often made based on selected phrases, a trend particularly noticed in the past centuries, to allow Muslim men to take multiple wives mainly for sexual motives than anything else.
The phrase whom your right hand possessed qualifies those women who are taken captives during war (cf. 4:24,25,36; 16:71; 23:6; 24:31,33,58; 30:28; 33:50,52,55; and 70:30). The permission to marry two or three or four women includes women from two broad categories: who seem good to you mentioned in the first part of the verse and whom your right hand possessed. Regardless of which categories of WOMEN ARE TAKEN INTO MARRIAGE, the total number cannot exceed four.” (Commentary On The Holy Qur’an by Zohurul Hoque & Hussain Nuri – Online source)


Dr. Muhammad Asad:

“3 Lit., “such as are good for you” – i.e., women outside the prohibited degrees enumerated in verses 22-23 of this surah (Zamakhshari, Razi). According to an interpretation suggested by A’ishah, the Prophet’s widow, this refers to the (hypothetical) case of orphan girls whom their guardians might wish to marry without, however, being prepared or able to give them an appropriate marriage-portion – the implication being that they should avoid the temptation of committing such an injustice and should marry other women instead (cf. Bukhari, Kitab at-Tafsir, as well as Muslim and Nasai). However, not all of A’ishah’s contemporaries subscribed to her explanation of this verse. Thus, according to Said ibn Jubayr, Qatadah, and other successors of the Companions, the purport of the above passage is this: “Just as you are, rightly, fearful of offending against the interests of orphans, you must apply the same careful consideration to the interests and rights of the women whom you intend to marry.” In his commentary on this passage, Tabari quotes several variants of the above interpretation and gives it his unequivocal approval.
4 Lit., “whom your right hands possess” – i.e., from among the captives taken in a war in God’s cause (regarding which see notes on surah 2, notes 167 and 168, and surah 8, note 72). It is obvious that the phrase “two, or three, or four: but if you have reason to fear…”, etc. is a parenthetic clause relating to both the free women mentioned in the first part of the sentence and to female slaves – for both these nouns are governed by the imperative verb “MARRY“. Thus, the whole sentence has this meaning: “MARRY FROM among [other] women such as are lawful to you, or [from among] those whom you rightfully possess – [even] two, or three, or four: but if you have reason to fear that you might not be able to treat them with equal fairness, then [only] one” – implying that, irrespective of whether they are free women or, originally, slaves, the number of wives must not exceed four. It was in this sense that Muhammad ‘Abduh understood the above verse (see Manar IV, 350). This view is, moreover, supported by verse 25 of this surah as well as by 24:32, WHERE MARRIAGE WITH FEMALE SLAVES IS SPOKEN OF. Contrary to the popular view and the practice of many Muslims in the past centuries, neither the Qur’an nor the life-example of the Prophet provides any sanction for sexual intercourse without marriage. As regards the permission to marry more than one wife (up to the maximum of four), it is so restricted by the condition, “if you have reason to fear that you might not be able to treat them with equal fairness, then [marry only] one”, as to make such plural marriages possible only in quite exceptional cases and under exceptional circumstances (see also the first clause of 24:32 and the corresponding note). Still, one might ask why the same latitude has not been given to women as well; but the answer is simple. Notwithstanding the spiritual factor of love which influences the relations between man and woman, the determinant biological reason for the sexual urge is, in both sexes, procreation: and whereas a woman can, at one time, conceive a child from one man only and has to carry it for nine months before she can conceive another, a man can beget a child every time he cohabits with a woman. Thus, while nature would have been merely wasteful if it had produced a polygamous instinct in woman, man’s polygamous inclination is biologically justified. It is, of course, obvious that the biological factor is only one – and by no means always the most important – of the aspects of marital love: none the less, it is a basic factor and, therefore, decisive in the institution of marriage as such. With the wisdom that always takes human nature fully into account, Islamic Law undertakes no more than the safeguarding of the socio-biological function of marriage (which includes also care of the progeny), allowing a man to have more than one wife and not allowing a woman to have more than one husband at one time; while the spiritual problem of marriage, being imponderable and therefore outside the scope of law, is left to the discretion of the partners. In any event – since marriage in Islam is a purely civil contract – recourse to divorce is always open to either of the two partners. (Regarding the dissolution of a marriage at the wife’s instance, see note on surah 2, verse 229.)” (The Message of The Quran translated and explained by Muhammad Asad, page 155 – 157, online source)


Ali Unal:

“2. Some people wrongfully criticize Islam because it allows polygamy. Such a criticism, from several perspectives, is not justifiable; some of these perspectives are as follows: Polygamy is a very ancient practice found in many human societies. The Bible did not condemn polygamy. On the contrary, the Old Testament and Rabbinic writings frequently attest to the legality of polygamy. King Solomon and King David had many wives and concubines (2 Samuel: 5:13). According to Father Eugene Hillman in his insightful book, Polygamy Reconsidered, “Nowhere in the New Testament is there any explicit commandment that marriage should be monogamous or any explicit commandment forbidding polygamy.” Moreover, Jesus, upon him be peace, did not speak against polygamy, even though it was practiced by the Jews in his society. Father Hillman stresses the fact that the Church in Rome banned polygamy in order to conform to Greco-Roman culture (which prescribed only one legal wife while tolerating concubinage and prostitution). The Qur’an, contrary to the Bible, limits the maximum number of wives to four, and it imposes the strict condition that all the wives be treated equally and justly. This should not be seen as the Qur’an exhorting believers to practice polygamy, or that polygamy is considered as an ideal state. In other words, the Qur’an tolerates or allows polygamy, and nothing more. But why is polygamy permissible? The answer is simple: there are places and times in which there are compelling social and moral reasons for polygamy. Islam, as a universal religion suitable for all places and all times, cannot ignore these compelling reasons. In most human societies, females outnumber males. In America today, there are at least eight million more women than men. In a country like Guinea, there are 122 females for every 100 males. In Tanzania, there are 95.1 males per 100 females (Hillman, 88-93). What should a society do when faced with such an unbalanced sex ratio? There are various solutions; some might suggest celibacy, while others prefer female infanticide (which tragically happens in even some “civilized” societies in the world today) Yet others may think the only solution is that society should tolerate all manners of sexual permissiveness: prostitution, infidelity, homosexuality, etc. Such an imbalance in the sex ratios becomes truly problematic in times of war. Native American Indian tribes used to suffer highly unbalanced sex ratios after military losses. The women in these tribes, who, in fact, enjoyed a fairly high status, accepted polygamy as being the best protection against indulgence in indecent activities. After the Second World War, there were 7,300,000 more women than men in Germany (3.3 million of them were widows). Many of these women needed a man not only as a companion, but also as a provider for the household in a time of unprecedented misery and hardship. What is more dignified for a woman—to be an accepted and respected second wife, as in the Native Indians’ approach, or to be nothing more than a prostitute? In 1987, a poll conducted by the student newspaper at the University of California at Berkeley asked students whether they agreed that men should be allowed by law to have more than one wife. This question was posed in response to a perceived shortage of male marriage candidates in California. Almost all of the students polled approved of the idea (J. Lang, Struggling to Surrender, 172).
Up to the present day, polygamy continues to be a viable solution for some of the social ills in modern society. Philip Kilbride, an American anthropologist with a Roman Catholic background, proposes polygamy as a solution to some of the ills found in American society in his provocative book, Plural Marriage for Our Time. He argues that plural marriage may serve as a potential alternative for divorce in many cases, where it would obviate the damaging impact that divorce has on many children (Kilbride, 118).
It should be noted that in many Muslim societies today, the practice of polygamy is rare, since there is a better balance between the ratio of the sexes. One can safely say that the rate of polygamous marriages in the Muslim world is much lower than the rate of extramarital affairs in the West. In other words, men in the Muslim world today are far more monogamous, in the absolute sense of the word, than men in the Western world.
Moreover, many jurists allow women to stipulate in their marriage contracts (required for a Muslim marriage to be valid) that the husband may not take a second wife or that he must divorce the first wife (with all financial rights that accrue to her when the husband initiates a divorce) if he takes a second wife. Billy Graham, the eminent Christian evangelist has recognized this fact: “Christianity cannot compromise on the question of polygamy. If present-day Christianity cannot do so, it is to its own detriment. Islam has permitted polygamy as a solution to social ills and has allowed a certain degree of latitude to human nature, but only within the strictly defined framework of the law. Christian countries make a great show of monogamy, but actually they practice polygamy. No one is unaware of the part mistresses play in Western society. In this respect, Islam is a fundamentally honest religion, and permits a Muslim to marry a second wife if he must, but strictly forbids all clandestine amatory associations in order to safeguard the moral probity of the community.” (‘Abd ar-Rahman Doi, Woman in Shari’ah , 76)
There are even psychological factors calling for polygamy. For example, many young African brides, whatever their religion, would prefer to marry a man who has already proved himself to be a responsible husband. Many African wives urge their husbands to get a second wife so that they will not feel lonely (Hillman, 92–97). A survey of over six thousand women, ranging in age from 15 to 59, conducted in the second largest city in Nigeria showed that 60 percent of these women would be pleased if their husbands took another wife. In a survey undertaken in rural Kenya, 25 out of 27 women considered polygamy to be better than monogamy. These women felt polygamy can be a happy and beneficial experience if the co-wives cooperate with each other (Kilbride, 108–109) Modern civilization rejects polygamy as unwise and disadvantageous to social life. As observed even in animals and plants, the purpose for and wisdom in sexual relations is reproduction. The resulting pleasure is a small payment determined by Divine Mercy to realize this duty. Marriage is for reproduction and the perpetuation of the species. Being able to give birth at most once a year, able to become pregnant during half of a month, and entering menopause around 50, a woman is at a reproductive disadvantage compared to a man, so to speak, who can sometimes impregnate women until the age of 70 or more. That is why, in most cases, modern civilization is obliged to find new ways of impregnation at great cost. Even if the purpose of marriage were merely sexual gratification, polygamy would be a lawful way to realize it. (Summarized from Sherif Muhammad.)
3. The following points should be taken into consideration when viewing the matter of (female-) slavery from within the matrix of Islam:
Islam did not invent or establish the institution of (female-) slavery; rather it found itself in an international arena where (female-)slavery was practiced in the most abominable manner. Islam viewed the matter as related to wartime and dealt with this subject as if it were a matter of how to treat prisoners of war. Although (female-) slavery, in various forms, was in practice until recently, ISLAM ADOPTED A PROCESS TO ABOLISH IT OVER THE COURSE OF TIME, fourteen centuries ago. It was not Islam, but those who related themselves to Islam, that were responsible for certain objectionable practices that have been witnessed in some Muslim communities over the previous centuries. While international law in the modern world does not date back to more than a few centuries, Islam established principles and laws in matters concerning international relations, such as war and the treatment of the prisoners-of-war over fourteen centuries ago. Imam Muhammad al-Shaybani, who lived twelve centuries ago, was the first to write a book on international law, al-Siyar al-Kabir. This book is based on the relevant injunctions in the Qur’an and on the practice of the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings. Islam forbade the killing of prisoners-of-war, and in place of this, instructed that they be distributed among Muslim families. Great importance was attached to their education and their “owners” were advised to MARRY THE WOMEN AMONG THEM. Such “PRISONERS-OF-WAR” WERE TO BE GIVEN THE STATUS OF FREE WOMEN WHEN THEY GAVE BIRTH TO A CHILD. Islam aims at their final EMANCIPATION AND THE ERADICATION OF (FEMALE-) SLAVERY. AS RECOMPENSE FOR MANY SINFUL ACTS, SUCH AS BREAKING FAST BEFORE THE PROPER TIME, ISLAM REQUIRED THE EMANCIPATION OF A (FEMALE-) SLAVE, AND EXHORTED BELIEVERS TO EMANCIPATE THEIR (FEMALE-) SLAVES, STATING THAT THIS IS A VERY MERITORIOUS ACT. Without making any gender discrimination, Islam attaches great value to humankind. It aims at elevating all human beings to the true rank of humanity, as this is the best pattern of creation. It regards the women who have attained this rank with their level of education, character and virtuousness, as being muhsan (protected women). A woman devoid of such lofty moral and spiritual values, one who presents herself as merely a physical object of sex, cannot be a muhsan. Attaining this rank requires true education, and Islam has established rules for each stage or grade. Therefore, the matter of (female-) slavery has educational and psychological dimensions, in addition to social and international ones.
As pointed out before (Surah: 2, note: 95), with regard to legislation, Islam follows three principal ways: it retains the commandments that existed in previous Books or that prevailed in the community in which it appeared, and which were not contradictory to its essential principles; it corrected or amended the ones that were not in conformity with its principles; and finally, it installed new legislation. In each of these ways, Islam followed a gradual process, especially in matters where it required a long time to eradicate old habits or establish a new approach. The matter of (female-) slavery is one such issue, especially due to its international dimension.” (The Qur’an: With Annotated Interpretation In Modern English by Ali Unal, page 201 – 203)


George Sale commentary

“The commentators understand passage differently. The true meaning seems to be as it is here translated; Mohammed advising his followers that if they found they should wrong the female orphans under their care, by marrying them against their inclinations, ought, by reason of their having already several wives, they should rather choose to MARRY OTHER WOMEN, to avoid all occasion of sin. Other say that when this passage was revealed, many of the Arabians, fearing trouble and temptation, refused to take upon them the charge of orphans, and yet multiplied wives to a great excess, and used them ill; or, as others write, gave themselves up to fornication; which occasioned this passage. And according to these, its meaning must be either that if they feared they could not act justly towards orphans, they had as great reason to apprehend they could not deal equitably with so many wives, and therefore are commanded to marry according to their abilities.” (The Koran translated by George Sale: George sale commentary, online source)


Scholar Malik Ghulam:

“561. The expression, Ma Malakat Aimanukum, general signifies, women prisoners of war who are not ransomed and who are in the custody and control of their Muslim captors because they had taken part in a war which was waged to destroy Islam and thus had legitimately deprived themselves of their freedom. The term has been used in the Quran in preference to ‘Ibad and Ima’ (Slaves and bondwomen) to point to a just and rightful possession, the expression Milk Yamin signifying full and rightful possession (Lisan).
It includes both slaves and bondwomen, and it is only the context which determines what the expression signifies in a particular place. Much misunderstanding prevails as to what the expression ‘their hands possess’ signifies, and what are the rights and status of the persons to whom it applies. Islam has condemned slavery in unequivocal terms. According to it, it is a mortal sin to deprive a person of his or her liberty, unless, of course, he or she renders himself or herself of deprivation of it by taking part in a war waged to destroy Islam or Muslim State. It is also a grievous sin to buy or sell slaves. Islamic teaching on this point is quite clear, unequivocal and emphatic. According to it a person who makes another person his slave commits a grave sin against God and man (Bukhari, kitab al-Bai & Dawud as quoted by Fath al-Bari). It is worthy of note that when Islam came into the world, slavery was an integral part of the human social system and there existed a large number of slaves in every country. It was, therefore, not feasible, nor wise, to abolish with a stroke of the pen, an institution which had become so inextricably interwoven into the whole texture of human society, without doing serious injury to its mortal tone.
Islam, therefore, sought to abolish it gradually but effectively and surely. The ‘Quran has laid down the following very sound rules for the speedy and complete abolition of slavery: (1) Prisoners can only be taken after a regular battle. (2) They cannot be retained after the war is over, but (3) are to be set free either as a mark of favour or by exchange of prisoners (47:5). Those unfortunate persons, however, who, may fail to gain their freedom through any of these means, or should choose to remain with their Muslim masters, can purchase their emancipation by entering into a contract called Mukatabah with them (24:34). Now, if a women is taken prisoner in a war of the nature mentioned above and thus loses her liberty and becomes Milk Yamin, and she fails also to get her release by the exchange of prisoners of war, and the exigencies of government also do not justify her immediate release as a mark of favour, nor do her own people or government get her ransomed and she does not even seek to buy her freedom by entering into Mukatabah, and her master, in the interest of morality, marries her without her prior consent, in what way can this arrangement be regarded as objectionable. As regards establishing sexual relations with a female prisoner of war or a slave-wife without marrying her, neither this nor any other verse of the Qur’an lends any support to it whatever. Not only does the Qur’an not give any sanction for the treatment of female prisoners of war as wives without taking them into proper wedlock but there are clear and positive injunctions to the effect that these prisoners of war, like free women, should be married if they are treated as wives, the only difference between the two being temporary difference of social status, inasmuch as prior consent of prisoners of war to their marriage which they forfeit by taking part in a war against Islam is NOT considered necessary as in the case of free women. Thus the expression Ma Malakat Aimanukum, signifying female prisoners, according to the Qur’an LENDS NO SUPPORT whatsoever to the view that Islam has upheld concubinage. Besides the present verse, at least in as many as three other verses the injunction has been laid out down in clear and unambiguous terms that female prisoners of war should not remain unmarried (2:222; 4:26; 24:33). The holy Prophet is also very explicit on this point. He is reported to have said,
‘He who has a slave girl, and gives her proper education and brings her up in a becoming manner and then frees and marries her, for him is double reward.’ (Bukhari, Kitab al-Ilm). This saying of the Holy Prophet implies that if a Muslim wishes to have a slave girl as wife, he should first set her free and then marry her. The Holy Prophet’s own practice was quite in harmony with his precept. Two of the Holy Prophet’s wives, Juwairiyah and Safiyyah, came to him as prisoners of war. They were his Milk Yamin. But he married them according to Islamic Law. He also married Mariyah who was sent to him by the King of Egypt, and she enjoyed the status of free wife like the Prophet’s other wives. She observed Purdah and was included among “The Mothers of the Faithful.” The Qur’an makes it clear that the commandment regarding marriage applies to ‘whom your right hands possess’ as much as it does to ‘the daughters of the Holy Prophet’s paternal and maternal uncles and aunts.’ Both are to be wedded before they are treated as wives. All the three categories mentioned above were made lawful to the Holy Prophet through marriage (33:51). Further, the verse ‘And forbidden to you are married women, except such as your right hands possess’ (4:25) along with its preceding one deals with women whom it is unlawful for a man to marry and among these are included married women. But it makes one exception, which is that those married women who are taken prisoner in a religious war and then choose to remain with Muslims, can be married to their masters. The fact that they choose not to go to their former husbands is considered to be tantamount to the annulment of their marriage. IT MAY ALSO BE NOTED IN PASSING THAT IT IS NOT PERMITTED TO TAKE IN MARRIAGE SUCH FEMALE RELATIONS OF A BONDWOMAN AS CORRESPOND TO THE RELATIONS OF A FREE WOMAN within the prohibited degree. For instance, the mothers, sisters, daughters, etc., of a slave wife cannot be taken in marriage. It may further be stated that in view of the circumstances obtaining at the time of its revelation the Qur’an had to make a distinction between the social status of two classes of women. That distinction was expressed by the word zauj (a free woman taken in marriage) and MILK YAMIN (BONDWOMAN TAKEN IN MARRIAGE). The former word connotes a sense of equality between husband and wife while the latter implies a somewhat inferior status of the wife. That was, however, a temporary phase. THE QUR’AN AND THE HOLY PROPHET HAD STRONGLY RECOMMENDED THAT BONDWOMEN SHOULD FIRST BE GIVEN FULL FREEDOM AND FULL STATUS AND THEN MARRIED AS THE HOLY PROPHET HIMSELF HAD DONE. Besides, Islam does NOT ALLOW women taken prisoner in ordinary wars to be treated as bondwomen. The permission about marrying a bondwoman without her prior consent comes into operation only when a hostile nation first wages a religious war against Islam in order to extirpate it and to compel Muslims to abandon their religion at the point of the sword and then treats their prisoners – men and women – as slaves, as was done in the time of the Holy Prophet. At that time the enemy took away Muslim women as prisoners and treated as bondwomen. The Islamic injunction was only a retaliatory measure and was in its very nature temporary. It also served the additional purpose of protecting the morals of captive women. Those conditions have ceased to exist now. There are no religious wars now and hence no prisoners of war to be treated as slaves or bondwomen.” (The Holy Qur’an – Arabic Text With English Translation & Short Commentary By Malik Ghulam Farid, page 183 – 184)

Maulana Muhammed Ali:

“3a. This passage permits polygamy under certain circumstances; it does not enjoin it, nor even permit it unconditionally. It may be noted here that the explanation of this passage as generally understood is based on a report contained in the Muslim, according to which ‘A’ishah understood this verse as meaning that if the guardians of orphan girls feared that by marrying them they would not be able to do justice to them, they should marry other women. This explanation, even if the report be taken to be authentic, requires the insertion into the passage of a number of words which the original does not contain, and as the meaning is much more clear, and more in consonance with the context, without the addition of these words, the interpretation given below is preferable. It is admitted that this chapter was revealed to guide the Muslims under the conditions which followed the battle of Uhud, and the last chapter deals with that battle. Now in that battle 70 men out of 700 Muslims had been slain, and this decimation had largely decreased the number of males, who, being the breadwinners, were the natural guardians and supporters of the females. The number was likely to suffer a still greater diminution in the battles which had yet to be fought. Thus many orphans would be left in the charge of widows, who would find it difficult to procure the necessary means of support. Hence in the first verse of this chapter the Muslims are enjoined to respect the ties of relationship. As they all came from a single ancestor, a breadth is introduced into the idea of relationship, inasmuch as they are told that they are all in fact related to each other. In the second verse the care of orphans is particularly enjoined. In the third verse we are told that if they could not do justice to the orphans, they might marry the widows, whose children would thus become their own children; and as the number of women was now much greater than the number of men, they were permitted to marry even two or three or four women. It would thus be clear that the permission to have more wives than one was given under the peculiar circumstances of the Muslim society then existing, and the Prophet’s action in marrying widows, as well as the example of many of his companions, corroborates this statement. Marriage with orphan girls is also sanctioned in this passage, for there were the same difficulties in the case of orphan girls as in the case of widows, and the words are general. See also 127a. It may be added here that polygamy in Islåm is both in theory and in practice an exception, not a rule, and as an exception it is a remedy for many of the evils especially prevalent in Western society. It is not only the preponderance of females over males that necessitates polygamy in certain cases, but there is a variety of other circumstances, not only for the moral but also for the physical welfare of society. Prostitution, the great evil of civilization, which is a real canker, with its concomitant increase of bastardy, is practically unknown to countries where polygamy is allowed as a remedial measure.
3b. BY THAT WHICH YOUR RIGHT HANDS POSSESS ARE MEANT THE FEMALES WHO WERE TAKEN PRISONERS IN WAR. THE QUR’AN SANCTIONS MARRIAGE WITH THEM IN THIS VERSE. As for the conditions of that marriage, see 25a, where it is clearly laid down that marriage with a prisoner of war is allowed only when one cannot afford to marry free believing women.” (The Holy Quran Arabic Text with English Translation, Commentary and comprehensive Introduction [Year 2002 Edition] by Maulana Muhammad Ali, page 193 – 194)

Tafsir al-Jalalayn:

“If you fear that you will not act justly, [that] you will [not] be equitable, towards the orphans, and are thus distressed in this matter, then also fear lest you be unjust towards women when you marry them; marry such (ma means man) women as seem good to you, two or three or four, that is, [each man may marry] two, or three, or four, but do not exceed this; but if you fear you will not be equitable, towards them in terms of [their] expenses and [individual] share; then, MARRY, ONLY ONE, OR, RESTRICT YOURSELF TO, WHAT YOUR RIGHT HANDS OWN, OF SLAVE-GIRLS…” (Tafsir al-Jalalayn on Surah 4:3 – online source)


Tanwir al-Miqbas min Tafsir Ibn Abbas:

“(And if ye fear that ye will not deal fairly by the orphans) and if you fear that you will not preserve orphans’ wealth, you should also fear not dealing fairly with women in relation to providing sustenance and apportionment. This was because they used to marry as many women as they liked, as many as nine or ten. Qays Ibn al-Harth for example had eight wives. Allah forbade them from doing so and prohibited them from marrying more than four wives, saying: (marry of the women, who seem good to you) marry that which Allah has made lawful for you, (two or three or four) marry one, two, three or four but do not marry more than four wives; (and if ye fear that ye cannot do justice) to four wives in relation to apportionment and providing sustenance (then one (only)) THEN MARRY ONLY ONE FREE WOMAN (OR THAT YOUR RIGHT HANDS POSSESS) OF CAPTIVES, and in that case you do not owe them any apportionment, and they need not observe any waiting period. (THUS IT) MARRYING JUST ONE WOMAN (IS MORE LIKELY THAT YE WILL NOT DO INJUSTICE) That you will not incline to some at the expense of others or that you transgress regarding the provision of sustenance and apportionment to four wives.” (Tanwir al-Miqbas min Tafsir Ibn Abbas on Surah 4:3 – online source)


Scholar Abdullah Yusuf Ali:

“508 Notice the conditional clause about orphans, introducing the rules ABOUT MARRIAGE. This reminds us of the immediate occasion of the promulgation of this verse. It was after Uhud, when the Muslim community was left with many orphans and widows and some captives of war. Their treatment was to be governed by principles of the greatest humanity and equity. The occasion is past, but the principles remain. Marry the orphans if you are quite sure that you will in that way protect their interests and their property, with perfect justice to them and to your own dependants if you have any. If not, make other arrangements for the orphans.
509 The unrestricted number of wives of the “Times of Ignorance” was now strictly limited to a maximum of four, provided YOU COULD TREAT THEM WITH EQUALITY (C/ 33:4 and 33:51). (R).” (The Meaning of The Noble Qur’an by Abdullah Yusuf Ali page 51 – online source)


Asbab Al-Nuzul by Al-Wahidi:

“(And if ye fear that ye will not deal fairly by the orphans…) [4:3]. Abu Bakr al-Tamimi informed us> ‘Abd Allah ibn Muhammad> Abu Yahya> Sahl ibn ‘Uthman> Yahya ibn Za’idah> Hisham ibn ‘Urwah> his father> ‘A’ishah who said, regarding the words of Allah (And if ye fear that ye will not deal fairly by the orphans): “This was revealed about any custodian under whose care is a female orphan who possesses some wealth and does not have anyone to defend her rights. The custodian refuses to give this orphan in marriage out of greed for her money, harms her and treats her badly. And so Allah, exalted is He, says (And if ye fear that ye will not deal fairly by the orphans marry of the women, who seem good to you…) as long as they are lawful to you and leave this one”. This was narrated by Muslim> Abu Kurayb> Abu Usamah> Hisham. Sa‘id ibn Jubayr, Qatadah, al-Rabi‘, al-Dahhak and al-Suddi said: “People used to be wary of the wealth of orphans but took liberty with women and married whoever they liked. And sometimes they were fair to them and sometimes they were not. So when they asked about the orphans and the verse (Give unto orphans their wealth), regarding the orphans, was revealed, Allah, exalted is He, also revealed (And if ye fear that ye will not deal fairly by the orphans). He says here: ‘Just as you fear that you will not deal fairly by the orphan, so should you fear that you do not deal fairly by women. Therefore, marry only as many as you can fulfil their rights, for women are like orphans as far as weakness and incapacity are concerned’. This is the opinion of Ibn ‘Abbas according to the narration of al-Walibi”. (Asbab Al-Nuzul by Al-Wahidi on Surah 4:3 – online source)


Maulana Abdul Majid daryabadi:

“494. (even in a light degree, O Muslims!)
495. (in regard to their dower and other conjugal rights helpless as they are and in your charge).
496. ( – instead of taking those orphan-girls in marriage -).
497. ‘Polygamy was the rule among the Eastern peoples before Mohammad’s time’ (Roberts, op. cit., p.8). ‘When we see thousands of miserable women who crowd the streets of Western towns during the night, we must surely feel that it does not lie in Western mouth to reproach Islam for its polygamy. It is better for a women, happier for a woman, more respectable for a woman, to live in Mohammadan polygamy, united to one man only, with the legitimate child in her arms surrounded with respect than to be seduced, cast out in the streets – perhaps with an illegitimate child outside the pale of law – unsheltered and uncared for to become a victim of any passer-by, night after night, rendered incapable of motherhood, despised of all.’ (Mrs. Annie Besant).
498. i.e., the Muslim may marry women such are pleasing to him, two, three, or four, but not more. See Appendix at the end of the Surah.
499. (in an appreciable degree).
500. (towards all wives)
501. MONOGAMY IS THUS THE IDEAL; and polygamy is only allowed as a safeguard against greater social evils. ‘The often quoted prescriptions for marriage limit rather than introduce the practice of polygamy.’” (Tafsir-Ul-Qur’an – Translation and Commentary Of The Holy Qur’an [Published By Darul Ishaat Urdu Bazaar Karachi: Pakistan] By Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi, volume 1, page 301 – 302)




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