The trend among Muslims today is either blind traditionalism or outright rejection. The reason that Muslims fall within these two camps is that they have failed to appreciate the reformation of Muhammad (S) in the proper context. The conservative section will be ready to support anything that is found mention in the Quran, without giving proper weight to the context a verse was revealed in, nor the environment God was reforming through his Noble Prophet Muhammad (S). A typical example of this is their consistent chant of phrase ‘Marry women of your choice, two three or four" as an absolute justification of polygamy. When a Muslim raises an attitude of caution in regards to this statement, he is labelled as a person influenced by the liberal society of the West. The Muslim is then assaulted with a series of facts proving how bad a women is treated in the Western society, as if looking at the faults of others justifies the ‘Muslim’ position. On the other side of the spectrum, a Muslim, totally appalled at the culture he is raised in, may end up rejecting the very religion that was ordained by God, arguing that the Almighty could not have revealed injustice. Though he is correct in that God does not decree injustice, he is incorrect in asserting that the culture he is raised in defines Islam. Whatever position a person chooses actually reveals a gross misunderstanding of the Quranic phenomenon. The analysis that follows is a demonstration of why the Quran was so successful in reforming a society, at the same time, it reveals the weaknesses that are apparent in the approaches of the scholars who have never given weight to the Quran ITSELF.
THE VERSE OF POLYGAMY
Polygamy is one of the hot topics of debate involving the Muslims. While most scholars use verse 3 of Sura Nisa in order to support polygamy, the actual context of the verse of the Quran is in regards to the treatment of the orphans.
"If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the ORPHANS, Marry WOMEN of your choice, Two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess, that will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice." (Surah Nisa, verse 3)
Besides this verse being used to justify polygamy, the scholars argue that the women in the above verse, are the orphan girls. The natural conclusion to this argument is that men can marry women whom are minors.
The problem with this argument is that it reveals a serious flaw in the understanding of Islam, even by the learned. When the classical Arabic language is ignored in interpretation and Quranic directives are divorced from their context in favor of TRADITION, the understanding of revelation as a driving force behind the upliftment of society is totally missed.
What is the correct meaning of the verse?
According to classical Arabic, the word used for orphan, ‘yataama’, is NOT GENDER specific. Every time it is mentioned in the Quran, it is used in this specific sense. To argue that the one being referred to, in the context of marriage, is the orphan girls is in fact, not justified at all. Further, the claim of the scholars that identify these ‘nisa’ as the oprhan girls cannot be substantiated from the language point of view.
The word ‘nisa’ is never used in Arabic for a minor and it is always in the context of adult women. In fact, as Moiz Amjad points out, this is further substantiated by verse 6, when it says:
"Keep testing these orphans till the time THAT THEY REACH THE AGE OF MARRIAGE… (Al-Nisaa 4: 6)"
It becomes abundantly clear that if these orphans are marriageable and they constitute women, than the Quran would not have specified the age to which they would be handed back their wealth with the words when "they reach the age of marriage".
Thus, we have two clues to whom these "Nisa" are. It is obvious that they refer to the adult women, but is the Quran using women in a general or specific sense? The "Nisa" being spoken of are in fact the MOTHERS OF THE OPRHANS whom have lost their fathers. IN FACT, THIS IS PROVEN CONCLUSIVE WHEN ONE CONSULTS THE ARABIC DICTIONARIES. The orphan, according to the classical Arabic, does not refer solely to the one who has lost BOTH parents, but includes the one who has lost ONLY HIS/HER FATHER.
What the Quran is actually saying is that if the Muslim male feels that he may do injustice to the orphan that he has decided to take under his care, than he should consider marrying the mother of the orphan. This would create a deeper attachment to the child by solidifying the relationship emotionally. Also, marrying the mother would further safeguard the interests of the child because she would look out for the best interests of the child.
This is further substantiated by the context which leads us to point 2.
Why would one fear doing injustice to an orphan?
In pre-Islamic times, people would take the ‘responsibility’ of the orphan on their shoulders, because that orphan was to inherit the wealth of his father. They would then usurp this wealth through various means. This is clearly alluded to in the preceding verse of the Quran, when it says in surah Nisa, verse 2:
"To orphans restore their property (When they reach their age), nor substitute (your) worthless things for (their) good ones; and devour not their substance (by mixing it up) with your own. For this is indeed a great sin."
This verse introduces the whole issue of ‘polygamy’. Further, the next verse after polygamy says:
"And give the women (on marriage) their MEHR as a free gift; but if they, of their own good pleasure, remit any part of it to you, Take it and enjoy it with right good cheer."
One may argue, why does the Quran refer to the MEHR in a case involving the welfare of orphans? The Almighty, in this particular verse, is correcting the notion that may occur in the mind of the man who is marrying the mother of the orphan. One should not think that it is purely a favor the male is doing to the woman by marrying her, that he has to forgo what is her right, i.e. the mehr. He is to enter into marriage with honor and nobility. Thus, we see how radically the Quranic law engenders a psychological transformation in the man, especially in regards to the weak and oppressed in society. In fact, this transformation resulted in the Companions becoming so cautious in how they dealt with orphans that they even refused mixing their food when cooking with the food they were preparing for the orphans, fearing to even take a morsel from these poor souls. The Most Merciful in lieu of this revealed the verse 6 striking a delicate balance in the implementation of justice:
"Make trial of orphans until they reach the age of marriage; if then ye find sound judgment in them, release their property to them; but consume it not wastefully, nor in haste against their growing up. If the guardian is well-off, Let him claim no remuneration, but if he is poor, let him have for himself what is just and reasonable. When ye release their property to them, take witnesses in their presence: But all-sufficient is Allah in taking account."
The Quran says that what they are doing, i.e. their rigidity that they ahve placed upon themselves though may be noble, they do not need to go to extremes. The orphans are their brothers, and God knows that they are doing what is in the best interest of them. They should treat them as part of the family, and not be so rigorous that it makes it a difficulty. If the people taking care of the orphan is poor, they should not make it so difficult that they do not partake in the property that the orphan stands to inherit. But this partaking of the wealth MUST be just and reasonable. The primary purpose is that they secure the financial future of the orphan. The Quran says that for those that are well-off, they should not take anything as renumeration from the orphan once he has become mature enough to handle his wealth. This is a clear example of how balanced and refined the Quranic law is. It establishes the best for BOTH parties involved.
What is the point of bringing up this verse in the context of the Quranic reformation?
The following linguistical study and contextual analysis of the Quran reveals the actual movement of the Quranic directives. The Almighty was reforming a society to a more just and merciful social order TAKING INTO CONSIDERATION CERTAIN NORMS OF SOCIETY. Islam makes no statement regarding the NATURE of polygamy, nor did it INTRODUCE the custom. The Quran was using an already existing custom to continue its move towards a more just social order. THUS, THE IMPETUS BEHIND THE DIRECTIVE IS PURELY MORAL. As a side note, the Quran clearly hints to the essentially monogamistic nature of the male and female in the creation of Adam and Eve. They were created for each other, and complement each other.
In the same manner the Quran used an already existing custom to move towards a more beneficial social order for the orphans, it did the same thing for slaves. The revelation laid down directives which would lead to the ultimate abolishment of slavery as a whole. It started with directives that would change the ATTITUDE Muslims had towards their fellow human beings. This is why the Prophet (S) forbade the use of "Ghulam" for slaves, and told his followers to start referring to them as "Brothers" and also encouraged the caretakers to share their food and clothing with them.
This ultimately culminated in the Quran giving the right to the slave to come to a contractual agreement with his master to secure his freedom. One should notice also that the Quran does not ignore the economic costs the master had to bare in purchasing and maintaining the slave. The slave and the master need to come up with a mutually agreed upon contract, which in turn would minimize the loss as much as possible.
This Quranic move towards emancipation can be seen to have embedded itself in the Companions when Umar (R), upon hearing of a certain governor in Egypt using his position to protect a kin who abused a normal citizen, got extremely angry proclaiming to the people, "We have not been sent to make free men slaves". He further punished the governor and his son, who committed the act through lashing.
The importance of casual social relationships in creating a healthy society
When looking at the above, one should also be aware of how important the mutual affinity is with regards to the proper Islamic reformation. When dealing with orphans, the Quran advises the caretakers not to be rigid, and at the same time, establish relations with the orphan as if they are a member of their own family. They do not need to be so stringent as to separate their food from the orphan’s food in fear of being unjust, but they should eat together and enjoy each other’s company. In surah Maun, the Almighty says of those who reject the Day of Judgement, that they refuse to given even MAUN. As Ameen Ahsan Islahi points out, MAUN refers to items of ordinary usage that a neighbor may be borrow, such as utensils. This type of free relationship demonstrates an intimacy between members of society and is a sign of a healthy community.
The formation of law by the State in light of the issue of polygamy
With this in mind, can a society whose principles are found on the Quran and sunnah restrict polygamy? It is often asserted by certain Muslims that by doing it, one would be forbidding what God has allowed. Muslims need to be careful when they attribute certain positions to Islam, when in fact, the Quran may not even support that position.
As shown above, the Quran was actually dealing with the SITUATION OF ORPHANS, not laying down any injunction regarding the NATURE of polygamy.
Polygamy is not an institution of shareeah, but was a custom practiced in the society God revealed the Quran in. With this in mind, it opens up the possibility that the state may in fact restrict polygamy. Whatever decision the state makes should be ina ccordance with the noble and decent norms of society, or what is called ma’ruf in the Quran. If it is not something practiced ALREADY in society, in my opinion, it should be refrained from. Certain things that also need consideration are if it is practiced in society as a means to alleviate injustice, should it be limited only to cases of orphans. In my opinion it would be a clear "no", because the Quran clearly states what it is for. If a Muslim finds himself in a situation where marrying a woman may alleviate the oppressed and weak in society, and FURTHER, THE LAW OF THE LAND ALLOWS IT, he may use this recourse. But this recourse should be weighed from all the various aspects. Can he find a single man to marry the woman? How would his original wife react to the situation? By adding one wife, will it upset the original family structure? Will the noble efforts of a man trying to alleviating the condition of an oppressed create miserable conditions for another person? In fact, this seems to be hinted in the above verse when it says:
"but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess, that will be more suitable, TO PREVENT YOU FROM DOING INJUSTICE." (Surah Nisa, verse 3)"
The Quran clearly states that if the situation results in injustice to another party, than it should not be resorted to.
In the same spirit, one cannot argue on the basis of Islam that human rights charters that forbid men from taking slaves are against the shareeah. They are in fact, purely in accordance with shareeah and any Muslim supporting them is one showing a true understanding of the Divine Law.