Unjust Treatment of Wives (Qur'an 4:129)

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This article will examine a common misinterpretation of Qur'an 4:129 and evidence in the Sahih ahadith and from Islamic scholars as to the true meaning.

Qur'an 4:129[edit]

"And you have it not in your power to do justice between wives, even though you may wish (it), but be not disinclined (from one) with total disinclination, so that you leave her as it were in suspense; and if you effect a reconciliation and guard (against evil), then surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful."

Apologetic Claim[edit]

This verse is paired up with Quran 4:3 in order to show that the apparent endorsement to polygamy is actually an injunction. The apologist will state that Qur'an 4:3 requires a man to deal justly with all of his wives if he wishes to marry more than one. To further make this point, Qur'an 4:129 is next brought up to show that the Qur'an informs Muslims that this is not possible.

However this explanation hinges on the meaning and scope of the required "justice" within both verses and any possible remedies to any dealt injustices. As illustrated in another article, Qur'an 4:3's usage of the word "justice" only refers to the giving of an equitable Mahr and material provisions to any subsequent wives and as such, is not evidence of a polygamous injunction.

The evidence for the meaning of Qur'an 4:129 can be ascertained by looking at the pertinent verses in the Qur'an, relevant ahadith and Tafsirs. As with many verses in the Quran, these verses were required in response to a situation occurring in Muhammad's life at the time.

Analysis[edit]

Relevant Qur'an Verses[edit]

And if a woman fears ill usage or desertion on the part of her husband, there is no blame on them, if they effect a reconciliation between them, and reconciliation is better, and avarice has been made to be present in the (people's) minds; and if you do good (to others) and guard (against evil), then surely Allah is aware of what you do.

And you have it not in your power to do justice between wives, even though you may wish (it), but be not disinclined (from one) with total disinclination, so that you leave her as it were in suspense; and if you effect a reconciliation and guard (against evil), then surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.

And if they separate, Allah will render them both free from want out of His ampleness, and Allah is Ample-giving, Wise.
Qur'an 4:128-130

Evidence from Tafsirs[edit]

﴿وَإِنِ امْرَأَةٌ خَـفَتْ مِن بَعْلِهَا نُشُوزاً أَوْ إِعْرَاضاً فَلاَ جُنَاْحَ عَلَيْهِمَآ أَن يُصْلِحَا بَيْنَهُمَا صُلْحاً وَالصُّلْحُ خَيْرٌ وَأُحْضِرَتِ الأنفُسُ الشُّحَّ وَإِن تُحْسِنُواْ وَتَتَّقُواْ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ خَبِيراً ﴾

﴿وَلَن تَسْتَطِيعُواْ أَن تَعْدِلُواْ بَيْنَ النِّسَآءِ وَلَوْ حَرَصْتُمْ فَلاَ تَمِيلُواْ كُلَّ الْمَيْلِ فَتَذَرُوهَا كَالْمُعَلَّقَةِ وَإِن تُصْلِحُواْ وَتَتَّقُواْ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ غَفُوراً رَّحِيماً - وَإِن يَتَفَرَّقَا يُغْنِ اللَّهُ كُلاًّ مِّن سَعَتِهِ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ وَسِعاً حَكِيماً ﴾

(128. And if a woman fears cruelty or desertion on her husband's part, there is no sin on them both if they make terms of peace between themselves; and making peace is better. And human souls are swayed by greed. But if you do good and have Taqwa, verily, Allah is Ever Well-Acquainted with what you do.) (129. You will never be able to do perfect justice between wives even if it is your ardent desire, so do not incline too much to one of them so as to leave the other hanging. And if you do justice, and do all that is right and have Taqwa, then Allah is Ever Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.) (130. But if they separate (by divorce), Allah will provide abundance for everyone of them from His bounty. And Allah is Ever All-Sufficient for His creatures' needs, All-Wise.)


Allah states, and thus legislates accordingly, that sometimes, the man inclines away from his wife, sometimes towards her and sometimes he parts with her. In the first case, when the wife fears that her husband is steering away from her or deserting her, she is allowed to forfeit all or part of her rights, such as provisions, clothing, dwelling, and so forth, and the husband is allowed to accept such concessions from her. Hence, there is no harm if she offers such concessions, and if her husband accepts them. This is why Allah said,

﴿فَلاَ جُنَاْحَ عَلَيْهِمَآ أَن يُصْلِحَا بَيْنَهُمَا صُلْحاً﴾

(there is no sin on them both if they make terms of peace between themselves;) He then said,

﴿وَالصُّلْحُ خَيْرٌ﴾

(and making peace is better) than divorce. Allah's statement,

﴿وَأُحْضِرَتِ الأنفُسُ الشُّحَّ﴾

(And human souls are swayed by greed.) means, coming to peaceful terms, even when it involves forfeiting some rights, is better than parting. Abu Dawud At-Tayalisi recorded that Ibn `Abbas said, "Sawdah feared that the Messenger of Allah might divorce her and she said, `O Messenger of Allah! Do not divorce me; give my day to `A'ishah.' And he did, and later on Allah sent down,

﴿وَإِنِ امْرَأَةٌ خَـفَتْ مِن بَعْلِهَا نُشُوزاً أَوْ إِعْرَاضاً فَلاَ جُنَاْحَ عَلَيْهِمَآ﴾

(And if a woman fears cruelty or desertion on her husband's part, there is no sin on them both) Ibn `Abbas said, "Whatever (legal agreement) the spouses mutually agree to is allowed.. At-Tirmidhi recorded it and said, "Hasan Gharib. In the Two Sahihs, it is recorded that `A'ishah said that when Sawdah bint Zam`ah became old, she forfeited her day to `A'ishah, and the Prophet used to spend Sawdah's night with `A'ishah. There is a similar narration also collected by Al-Bukhari. Al-Bukhari also recorded that `A'ishah commented;

﴿وَإِنِ امْرَأَةٌ خَـفَتْ مِن بَعْلِهَا نُشُوزاً أَوْ إِعْرَاضاً﴾

(And if a woman fears cruelty or desertion on her husband's part), that it refers to, "A man who is married to an old woman, and he does not desire her and wants to divorce her. So she says, `I forfeit my right on you.' So this Ayah was revealed.

﴿وَالصُّلْحُ خَيْرٌ﴾

(And making peace is better). `Ali bin Abi Talhah related that Ibn `Abbas said that the Ayah refers to, "When the husband gives his wife the choice between staying with him or leaving him, as this is better than the husband preferring other wives to her. However, the apparent wording of the Ayah refers to the settlement where the wife forfeits some of the rights she has over her husband, with the husband agreeing to this concession, and that this settlement is better than divorce. For instance, the Prophet kept Sawdah bint Zam`ah as his wife after she offered to forfeit her day for `A'ishah. By keeping her among his wives, his Ummah may follow this kind of settlement. Since settlement and peace are better with Allah than parting, Allah said,

﴿وَالصُّلْحُ خَيْرٌ﴾

(and making peace is better). Divorce is not preferred with Allah. The meaning of Allah's statement,

﴿وَإِن تُحْسِنُواْ وَتَتَّقُواْ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ خَبِيراً﴾

(But if you do good and have Taqwa, verily, Allah is Ever Well-Acquainted with what you do) if you are patient with the wife you dislike and treat her as other wives are treated, then Allah knows what you do and will reward you for it perfectly. Allah's statement,

﴿وَلَن تَسْتَطِيعُواْ أَن تَعْدِلُواْ بَيْنَ النِّسَآءِ وَلَوْ حَرَصْتُمْ﴾

(You will never be able to do perfect justice between wives even if it is your ardent desire,) means, O people! You will never be able to be perfectly just between wives in every respect. Even when one divides the nights justly between wives, there will still be various degrees concerning love, desire and sexual intimacy, as Ibn `Abbas, `Ubaydah As-Salmani, Mujahid, Al-Hasan Al-Basri and Ad-Dahhak bin Muzahim stated. Imam Ahmad and the collectors of the Sunan recorded that `A'ishah said, "The Messenger of Allah used to treat his wives equally and proclaim,

«اللَّهُمَّ هَذَا قَسْمِي فِيمَا أَمْلِكُ، فَلَا تَلُمْنِي فِيمَا تَمْلِكُ وَلَا أَمْلِك»

(O Allah! This is my division in what I own, so do not blame me for what You own and I do not own) referring to his heart. This was the wording that Abu Dawud collected, and its chain of narrators is Sahih. Allah's statement,

﴿فَلاَ تَمِيلُواْ كُلَّ الْمَيْلِ﴾

(so do not incline too much to one of them) means, when you like one of your wives more than others, do not exaggerate in treating her that way,

﴿فَتَذَرُوهَا كَالْمُعَلَّقَةِ﴾

(so as to leave the other hanging. ) referring to the other wives. Ibn `Abbas, Mujahid, Sa`id bin Jubayr, Al-Hasan, Ad-Dahhak, Ar-Rabi` bin Anas, As-Suddi and Muqatil bin Hayyan said that Mu`allaqah ﴿hanging﴾ means, "She is neither divorced nor married. Abu Dawud At-Tayalisi recorded that Abu Hurayrah said that the Messenger of Allah said,

«مَنْ كَانَتْ لَهُ امْرَأَتَانِ فَمَالَ إِلى إِحْدَاهُمَا، جَاءَ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ وَأَحَدُ شِقَّيْهِ سَاقِط»

(Whoever has two wives and inclines to one of them (too much), will come on the Day of Resurrection with one of his sides dragging.) Allah's statement,

﴿وَإِن تُصْلِحُواْ وَتَتَّقُواْ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ غَفُوراً رَّحِيماً﴾

(And if you do justice, and do all that is right and have Taqwa, then Allah is Ever Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.) The Ayah states: If you do justice and divide equally in what you have power over, while fearing Allah in all conditions, then Allah will forgive you the favoritism that you showed to some of your wives. Allah then said,

﴿وَإِن يَتَفَرَّقَا يُغْنِ اللَّهُ كُلاًّ مِّن سَعَتِهِ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ وَسِعاً حَكِيماً ﴾

(But if they separate (divorce), Allah will provide abundance for everyone of them from His bounty. And Allah is Ever All-Sufficient for His creatures' needs, All-Wise. ) This is the third case between husband and wife, in which divorce occurs. Allah states that if the spouses separate by divorce, then Allah will suffice them by giving him a better wife and her a better husband. The meaning of,

﴿وَكَانَ اللَّهُ وَسِعاً حَكِيماً﴾

(And Allah is Ever All-Sufficient for His creatures' needs, All-Wise.) is: His favor is tremendous, His bounty is enormous and He is All-Wise in all His actions, decisions and commandments.
{ وَإِنِ ٱمْرَأَةٌ خَافَتْ مِن بَعْلِهَا نُشُوزاً أَوْ إِعْرَاضاً فَلاَ جُنَاْحَ عَلَيْهِمَآ أَن يُصْلِحَا بَيْنَهُمَا صُلْحاً وَٱلصُّلْحُ خَيْرٌ وَأُحْضِرَتِ ٱلأنْفُسُ ٱلشُّحَّ وَإِن تُحْسِنُواْ وَتَتَّقُواْ فَإِنَّ ٱللَّهَ كَانَ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ خَبِيراً }

And if a woman (wa-in imra’atun is in the nominative because of [it being the subject of] the explicative verb [that follows]) fears, anticipates, from her husband ill-treatment, if he looks down on her by refraining to sleep with her or by not maintaining her adequately, because he is averse to her and aspires to one more beautiful than her, or rejection, turning his face away from her, they are not at fault if they are reconciled through some agreement, in terms of shares and maintenance expenses, so that she concedes something to him in return for continuing companionship; if she agrees to this [then that is fine], but if [she does] not, then the husband must either give her all her due, or part with her (an yassālahā, ‘they reconcile’: the original tā’ [of yatasālahā] has been assimilated with the sād; a variant reading has an yuslihā, from [the fourth form] aslaha); reconciliation is better, than separation, ill-treatment or rejection. God, exalted be He, in explaining the natural disposition of man, says: But greed has been made present in the souls (al-shuhh is extreme niggardliness), meaning that they have a natural propensity for this, as if they [the souls] are ever in its presence, never absent from it. The meaning is: a woman would scarcely allow [another] to share her husband with her, and a man would scarcely allow her [to enjoy] him if he were to fall in love with another. If you are virtuous, in your conjugal life with women, and fear, being unjust to them, surely God is ever aware of what you do, and He will requite you for it.

{ وَلَن تَسْتَطِيعُوۤاْ أَن تَعْدِلُواْ بَيْنَ ٱلنِّسَآءِ وَلَوْ حَرَصْتُمْ فَلاَ تَمِيلُواْ كُلَّ ٱلْمَيْلِ فَتَذَرُوهَا كَٱلْمُعَلَّقَةِ وَإِن تُصْلِحُواْ وَتَتَّقُواْ فَإِنَّ ٱللَّهَ كَانَ غَفُوراً رَّحِيماً }

You will never be able to be just to, to treat equally, your wives, in terms of love, even if you be eager, for this; yet do not turn altogether away, towards the one you love with respect to the shares and maintenance expenses, so that you leave her, the one from whom you turn away, like one suspended, one that is neither a slavegirl nor a woman with a husband. If you set things right, by being just with the shares, and fear, injustice, surely God is ever Forgiving, regarding the inclination in your hearts, Merciful, to you in this respect.

{ وَإِن يَتَفَرَّقَا يُغْنِ ٱللَّهُ كُلاًّ مِّن سَعَتِهِ وَكَانَ ٱللَّهُ وَاسِعاً حَكِيماً }

But if they, the married couple, separate, by way of divorce, God will compensate each of them, [from the need] of the other, out of His plenty, that is, out of His bounty, by giving her another as husband, and giving him another as wife. God is ever Embracing, of His creatures in bounty, Wise, in what He has ordained for them.
al-Jalalayn Tafsir Quran 4:128, 129 & 130
{ وَإِنِ ٱمْرَأَةٌ خَافَتْ مِن بَعْلِهَا نُشُوزاً أَوْ إِعْرَاضاً فَلاَ جُنَاْحَ عَلَيْهِمَآ أَن يُصْلِحَا بَيْنَهُمَا صُلْحاً وَٱلصُّلْحُ خَيْرٌ وَأُحْضِرَتِ ٱلأنْفُسُ ٱلشُّحَّ وَإِن تُحْسِنُواْ وَتَتَّقُواْ فَإِنَّ ٱللَّهَ كَانَ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ خَبِيراً }

(If a woman) i.e. 'Umayrah (feareth) is aware of (ill treatment) i.e. refrains from having sex with her (from her husband) As'ad Ibn al-Rabi', (or desertion) not speaking or sitting with her, (it is no sin for them twain) the man and the woman (if they make terms of peace between themselves) between the husband and wife whereby both of them are made content. (Peace) such that the wife is pleased (is better) than transgression and aversion. (But greed hath been made present in the minds) souls are naturally inclined to be parsimonious, such that the wife withholds the share of her husband; it is also said that this means: her greed drives her to be pleased. (If ye do good) if you are equal in your treatment of the young wife and the elderly wife in the estates and maintenance (and keep from evil) avoid transgression and aversion, (Lo! Allah is ever Informed of what ye do) of transgression and aversion.

{ وَلَن تَسْتَطِيعُوۤاْ أَن تَعْدِلُواْ بَيْنَ ٱلنِّسَآءِ وَلَوْ حَرَصْتُمْ فَلاَ تَمِيلُواْ كُلَّ ٱلْمَيْلِ فَتَذَرُوهَا كَٱلْمُعَلَّقَةِ وَإِن تُصْلِحُواْ وَتَتَّقُواْ فَإِنَّ ٱللَّهَ كَانَ غَفُوراً رَّحِيماً }

(Ye will not be able to deal equally between (your) wives) as regards love, (however much ye wish (to do so)) even if you exert your efforts: (But turn not altogether away) with your bodies ((from one)) in favour of the young wife, (leaving her) the other one: the old wife (as in suspense) like a prisoner: neither unmarried nor married. (If ye do good and keep from evil) if you treat them equally and avoid transgression and aversion, (lo! Allah is ever Forgiving) of those who repent of transgression and aversion, (Merciful) towards those who die in a state of repentance.

{ وَإِن يَتَفَرَّقَا يُغْنِ ٱللَّهُ كُلاًّ مِّن سَعَتِهِ وَكَانَ ٱللَّهُ وَاسِعاً حَكِيماً }

(But if they separate) i.e. the man and the woman through divorce, (Allah will compensate each) the man and the woman (out of His abundance) from His provision: the man will be compensated with another wife and the woman with another husband. (Allah is ever All-Embracing) in relation to them as regards marriage, (All-Knowing) of that which He prescribed for them of justice. As'ad Ibn al-Rabi' had another young wife whom he favoured, and Allah forbade him from doing so and commanded that the young and the old wives were treated equally.
'Ibn Abbas Tafsir Quran 4:128, 129 & 130

Evidence from Hadith[edit]

Narrated Aisha: Whenever Allah's Apostle wanted to go on a journey, he would draw lots as to which of his wives would accompany him. He would take her whose name came out. He used to fix for each of them a day and a night. But Sauda bint Zam'a gave up her (turn) day and night to 'Aisha, the wife of the Prophet in order to seek the pleasure of Allah's Apostle (by that action).
Narrated Aisha: Whenever Allah's Apostle wanted to go on a journey, he would draw lots as to which of his wives would accompany him. He would take her whose name came out. He used to fix for each of them a day and a night. But Sauda bint Zam'a gave up her (turn) day and night to 'Aisha, the wife of the Prophet in order to seek the pleasure of Allah's Apostle (by that action).
'A'isha (Allah be pleased with her) reported: Never did I find any woman more loving to me than Sauda bint Zam'a. I wished I could be exactly like her who was passionate. As she became old, she had made over her day (which she had to spend) with Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) to 'A'isha. She said: I have made over my day with you to 'A'isha. So Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) allotted two days to 'A'isha, her own day (when it was her turn) and that of Sauda.
A hadith like this has been transmitted on the authority of Hisham with the same chain of narrators (and the words are): When Sauda became old (the rest of the hadith is the same) and in the narration of Sharik there is an addition (of these words:" She was the first woman whom he (Allah's Apostle) married after me."
Narrated Aisha: regarding the Verse: 'If a wife fears cruelty or desertion on her husband's part ...') (4.128) It concerns the woman whose husband does not want to keep her with him any longer, but wants to divorce her and marry some other lady, so she says to him: 'Keep me and do not divorce me, and then marry another woman, and you may neither spend on me, nor sleep with me.' This is indicated by the Statement of Allah: 'There is no blame on them if they arrange an amicable settlement between them both, and (such) settlement is better." (4.128)

Muhammad and Qur'an 4:129[edit]

Muhammad was not able to treat his own wives equally. In many hadiths it is reported that Khadijah was his favorite wife and Aisha was jealous of Muhammad's love for her:

'A'isha reported: Never did I feel jealous of the wives of Allah's Apostle (may peace be upon him) but in case of Khadija, although I did not (have the privilege to) see her. She further added that whenever Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) slaughtered a sheep, he said: Send it to the companions of Khadija I annoyed him one day and said: (It is) Khadija only who always prevails upon your mind. Thereupon Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) said: Her love had been nurtured in my heart by Allah Himself.

Given that Muhammad favored at-least one wife over the others and at-least one wife of his felt jealous of another wife, one could argue that Muhammad was unable to follow the order's of Qur'an which asked men not to marry multiple wives if they were not able to treat them equally. This makes the apologists claims that 4:129 is an injunction against the polygyny allowed in 4:3, not only an act of bid'ah (innovation) but also blasphemous.

Summary[edit]

Looking at the ahadith we see the these verses were revealed because Sauda feared that Muhammad would divorce her because she was older than his other wives. As a compromise she forfeited some of her own rights (her night in this case) and gave it to Muhammad's favorite living wife Aisha. Muhammad accepted this compromise in lieu of a divorce and then Qur'an 4:128-130 were revealed regarding this situation. Kathir further states: "By keeping her among his wives, his Ummah may follow this kind of settlement" This means that this was not a special case for Muhammad only. If a Muslim wants to divorce his wife, she can give up some (or all) of her own meager rights in order to avoid it.

Regarding the apologist's claims about polygamy, and this verse's relevance to Qur'an 4:3, this is soundly refuted by the evidence. Kathir, Jalalayn and 'Ibn Abbas all confirm that "justice" as mentioned in Qur'an 4:3 is in reference to material rights only; and has no bearing on feelings shown or felt toward each wife. All three scholars also make it clear that you cannot be just with each wife in terms of love, affection and other feelings, but this is not mentioned as a prohibition against taking more than one wife. On the contrary, the three scholars all indicate that if you are "just" with all of your wives in all that you are able, then Allah will forgive you the favoritism that you could not help feeling for some over others. Kathir goes further in stating in regards to this verse that you cannot do "perfect justice" to your wives. However Qur'an 4:3 does not demand perfect justice - just justice in those things that you have power over.

Jalalayan goes even further by suggesting situations where a man may be withholding the basic marital rights from his wife because of his dislike for her. This is a direct violation of Qur'an 4:3, which a Muslim man would have to abide by in order to justify his multiple wives. This means that a man can, at any time, ignore the mandate of material justice of Qur'an 4:3 and stop providing for his wife in any manner he sees fit. Her only recourse would be a divorce or forfeiture of her own rights in appeasement; which means he doesn't have to provide that which he was withholding in the first place.

This provides an 'out' clause for Muslim men as to the obligations they have towards their multiple wives and and leaves the wives themselves with little or no recourse to the whims of her husband. This renders Quran 4:3's requirement of material justice almost meaningless (except for the Mahr). In this way, the Quran permits injustice to be served to Muslim wives in place of the justice it appears to promise.

Conclusion[edit]

Qur'an 4:3 and Qur'an 4:129 cannot be 'tied together' to show an injunction against polygamy because the definition of "justice" as used in both is demonstrably different and does not carry the same meaning.

4:3 only mandates that material equality and equitable Mahr are required in order to fulfill its requirement of justice, whereas 4:129 deals with Muslim men who are tired of their wives and seek a concession of rights from them as an alternative to divorce as revealed after the Muhammad and Sauda situation. Qur'an 4:129 also gives Muslim men a workaround for the requirement of material equality as mandated in Qur'an 4:3 regarding the taking multiple wives.

The Qur'an does not prohibit polygamy; in fact it appears to make it much easier when the implications of both of these verses are taken into consideration.

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See Also[edit]

  • Misinterpreted Verses - A hub page that leads to other articles related to Misinterpreted Verses
  • Polygamy - A hub page that leads to other articles related to Polygamy