There has been a lot of eye-opening debate on the Free-minds discussion board about the topics of engagement and marriage. I wholeheartedly agree with the opinion that we need to understand the original Quranic language as opposed to interpretations where the meaning of the words has been twisted by Talmudic Muslim (Sunni) distortions. One example is the expression “ma malakat aymanukum” which literally means “that possessed by your oath.” When studying the Quran, I had found that in many cases the literal translation of expressions provides a more accurate and consistent indication of their meaning than traditional interpretations. For example, the expression “ma malakat aymanukum” has been traditionally translated as “spoils/captives of war” when in fact the Arabic word for captives of war is “asra” and the Prophet was strongly prohibited from keeping war captives (see 8:67). Moreover, slavery is against God’s natural system. Enslaving and raping women during conflict is not an act of righteous people, it is an act of tyrannical people such as the people of Pharaoh (For example, see 2:49). Only God knows how many mothers, daughters, and sisters have been violated this way since the institutionalization of this tyranny into the “Taghoot” hundreds of years after the Prophet’s death (For example, see Taghoot of Bukhari, Volume 1, Book of Salat, Hadith Number 367, or for the Arabic original see = 622, and many others).

I tried to apply logical analysis to reconstruct the appropriate sequence of events leading to marriage from the Quran. Before I start, I would like to give my interpretation based on the Quran alone of “ma malakat aymanukum” and as the analysis proceeds, we will be able to see if this interpretation is consistent with all the verses where the expression is mentioned, unless God wills otherwise.

There are two types of family relations in the Quran:

1. “Ulu al korba”: Those related to you biologically.

2 “Ma malkat aymanukum”: Those related to you by your oath. In the case of a single man this is the oath of engagement to marry. In the case of a custodian this is the oath of adoption or financial support. Following are the list of verses where this expression occurs and the context of each occurrence:

  • Who you made an oath to marry: (4:3,4:24, 4:25, 23:6, 33:50, 33:52, 70:30)
  • Who you made an oath to adopt/take custody of: (24:31, 24:33, 24:58, 33:55)
  • Who you made an oath to financially support in general: (4:33, 4:36, 16:71, 30:28)

Another important word that we need to understand is “mohsanat” (See 4:24,25, 24:4, 24:23, 24:33, 5:5) which comes from the root H(o)SN which means protect. So “mohsanat” literally means protected.

“Your mothers, and your daughters, and your sisters, and your paternal aunts, and your maternal aunts, and your nieces, and your mothers from the lactation, and your sisters from the lactation, and your wives' mothers, and your stepdaughters who are in your custody from your wives whom you entered/(had intercourse) with them, are forbidden to you. If you have not entered/(had intercourse) with them, then no offense is on you, and (also forbidden on you are) your biological sons' lawful wives and that you combine between two sisters, except what had passed. God is forgiving, merciful. And the protected (“mohsanat”) from the women except who your oath possessed/(who is engaged to you) as God decreed on you…” (4:23-24)

The word “except” in the verse logically implies that “ma malakat aymanukum” is a subset of “mohsanat” (see figure at the end of the article). Some have interpreted the exemption of the “ma malakat aymanukum” from being forbidden as a license to have intercourse with her. However, the word forbidden as it applies to all the women listed in 4:23 prohibits us from even having feelings of attraction towards them. Therefore, the exception to “ma malakat aymanukum” is simply a license to have feelings of attraction towards her and to express those feelings to her. The same logic can be applied to verses 23:5-6 where sexual intercourse is never mentioned.

All women are “mohsanat” or protected. They can be protected in two ways, either by their own maturity (self-protected) or by their parents. Verse 4:25 addresses those who are not able to directly reach women that they are attracted to in order to initiate the marriage courtship process. In this case, the man may seek an arranged marriage from a family-protected woman. However, because those women are identified as “ma malakat aymanukum,” the oath of engagement is mandatory:

“And who from you is not able to reach to marry the protected women, so marry from what your oath possesses from your immature/(family protected) believing women, and God is more knowing about your belief. You are from one another, so marry them with their families' permission, and give them their rewards with kindness, protected, not fornicating, and not taking multiple takers. So when they become self-protected (through marriage), if they commit illegal sexual activity, on them is half the punishment of the (already) self-protected, that is for those who feared corruption from you, and being patient is better for you, and God is forgiving, merciful.” (4:25)

Here “min ma malakat aymanukum” means from what you made the oath of engagement to. The use of the logical expression “from” is due to the fact that one may have to go through the engagement process several times until he finds a suitable bride.

From 24:33 it can be shown that parents should not coerce the women under their protection to marry:

“… And do not coerce your immature/(family protected) women on the unlawful/non-consenting seeking (of non-consentual marriage), if they wanted self-protection (from arranged marriage), to seek the low life's vanities, and whomever coerces them, then God after they have been coerced is forgiving, merciful.” (24:33)

Traditionally, the word “BaGhA’a” has been interpreted to mean prostitution. However, the word’s literal meaning is to seek beyond what is lawful/consentual. Also, as opposed to prostitution which is a gross sin, there are some examples of women who later became happy with men that they were coerced into marrying, hence God’s forgiving statement at the end of the verse.

When we read further in verse 4:24, it is clear that an important prerequisite for all men who want to marry is that they should be mature/self-protected (“mohsanin”):

“… And beyond that it is permitted for you that you seek (marriage) with your wealth, with self-protection (maturity), and without fornication. So what you enjoyed from them, give them their obligatory rewards, and there is no offense on you in what you mutually agreed on after the obligation, indeed God is knowledgeable, judicious.” (4:24)

Let’s summarize what we deduced so far from the Quranic verses:

  • Parent-protected women must be engaged for a period before getting married (i.e. they become “ma malakat aymanukum”), i.e. a period of engagement is mandatory.
  • It follows that in the case of self-protected women, the mandatory oath of engagement is optional and the couple can be married right away if they so desire.
  • Parent-protected women must be married with their family’s permission while it is optional for self-protected women to get their family’s permission to marry.
  • Parent-protected women cannot be coerced to marry if they decide at any time during the engagement period that they want to invoke self-protection (from arranged marriage).
  • Once they are married, or invoke self-protection from arranged marriage they are considered self-protected.
  • Now it may seem a little liberal for a woman to be considered mature/self-protected just by saying so. But remember the conditions for invoking self-protection have been created by the proposing man and the woman’s parents. The proposing man must have thought that she is mature enough to marry, otherwise he wouldn’t have proposed to her parents. Moreover, her parents agreed to the marriage so they must have also thought that she is mature enough to get married, thus she is mature enough to be self-protected.
  • If they do go through with the arranged marriage, then due to their relative immaturity and/or their marriage being arranged (perhaps not out of love), their punishment for having illegal sexual activity is half that of those who married while self-protected.
  • As for the men, there is no exception, they must have reached self-protection/maturity before they can get married.

The other meaning of “ma malkat aymanukum” is clear when parents are addressed as opposed to single men seeking marriage as we see in the first part of 24:33:

“And those who do not find marriage should refrain/be chaste until God enriches them from His blessing, and those who seek the (marriage) contract from those your oath possessed/(your adopted children), so make contract with them, if you knew goodness in them, and give them from God's wealth which He gave you...” (24:33)

In this case, since parents are addressed, what is meant by “ma malkat aymanukum” is one’s adopted children. God didn’t forbid adoption in the Quran. The only restriction on adopting children in the Quran is that they must be named after their biological father and it must be known to everybody that they are adopted (see 33:4,5). Verse 3:37 confirms that adoption is not forbidden since Zakaria adopted/took custody of Maryam. In addition, the Prophet himself adopted Zaid.

Following are the sequence of steps prescribed in the process of marriage.

Step 1. Oath of Engagement (mandatory for parent-protected, optional for self-protected):

“And there is no offense by you, in what you propose to engage women or you concealed in yourselves, God knew that you will remember them. However, do not date them secretly, except to say good/polite sayings, and do not intend the marriage’s bond until the (marriage) contract’s predetermined time is reached, and know that God knows what is in yourselves, so be cautious of Him, and know that God is forgiving, clement.” (2:235)

Verse 2:235 provides the definition for engagement. The word Kh(o)TB(a)t in 2:235 has the following connotations:

  • Explanation in response to query (20:95, 38:20)
  • Demand (38:23)
  • Engage in conversation (11:37, 23:27, 25:63)

Therefore the purpose of the couple getting engaged is to engage in conversation to find out if they are compatible before marriage. As clear from 2:235, engaged couples can meet in secret only if they do it to engage in conversation about good as opposed to sin. They are also not to intend to consummate the marriage through its physical bond (intercourse) before the preset time that is agreed on which, as we will see below, is after marriage.

Step 2. Marriage:

N(a)K(a)H: To marry (See 2:221, 2:230, 2:232, 2:235, 2:237, 4:3, 4:6, 4:22, 4:25, 4:127, 24:3, 24:32, 24:33, 24:60, 28:27, 33:49, 33:50, 33:53, 60:10)

Verses 33:49, 2:236 and 2:237 clearly demonstrate that “nakah” simply means “to marry” and it doesn’t imply intercourse:

“O, you who believed, if you married the believing women then you divorced them before having intercourse with them, then they do not owe you a waiting period for you to calculate, so gratify them, and release them a beautiful release” (33:49)

Accordingly, we can logically conclude that the predetermined time for the consummation of marriage (intercourse) must occur after marriage.

Step 3. Consummation of Marriage:

There are three expressions in the Quran that describe consummation of marriage:

- “Okdat alnikah,” Marriage’s physical bond, i.e. intercourse (See 2:235, 2:237)

- “M(a)Ss(a)Ss” (For example: 2:236, 2:237, 33:49…)

- “D(a)Kh(a)L” (For example: 4:23,…)

“…and do not intend the marriage’s bond until the (marriage) contract’s predetermined time is reached…”(2:235)

The final step is the consummation of marriage. A date for the consummation of marriage must be set prior to getting married. The predetermined date can be anytime after the marriage (step 2) above.

If a couple gets divorced after marriage but before its consummation, then only half the agreed upon grant is obligatory (see 2:237).

The Issue of Polygamy

Because people usually interpret it through the Sunni lens, verse 4:3 has been the source of much controversy. Now let’s see if we can correctly interpret it armed with our new Quran alone based understanding:

“And if you feared that you will not be equitable in the orphans, so marry those who consented to you from the women two (widows), three (widows), and four (widows). If you feared that you will not be just, so one (widow) or that who your oath possessed/(engaged to you), this is closer to you not incurring hardship” (4:3)

One of the difficulties that made the Sunni interpretation illogical is the logical operator “or” before “ma malakat aymanukum.” It just didn’t make much sense to be able to marry either one to four women on the one hand, or captives of war on the other hand. Also, the Sunni interpreters conveniently ignored the first part of the verse which specifically limits the ability to marry more than one woman to the case where orphans are involved, i.e. those women can only be widows. Since widows have been married before, they are considered self-protected and they don’t have to get engaged before getting married. The logical operator “or” now makes sense because it gives the choice between marrying one self-protected woman where the oath of engagement is not required or one family-protected woman where the oath of engagement is mandatory.

As far as we can tell from the Quran, the prophet Mohamed was the only one out of all God’s messengers who married more than one woman. The prophet had special license to marry and his wives were unlike other women. Hence the command to the Prophet in 33:52 not to marry more than the women he already married and not to divorce them, as well as the injunction against marrying his widows in 33:53.

There is no evidence in the Quran to suggest that other prophets traditionally seen as having multiple wives, such as Abraham, had except one wife. This common misunderstanding emerged from the misconception that his wife was infertile. However, according to 11:72 and 51:29 his wife was simply old but could have had Abraham’s other children when she was younger. Also, contrast this to the word infertile (“Aker”) describing Zakaria’s wife in 3:40, 19:5 and 19:8. Therefore, the only license to marry more than wife is in the case of widows to take care of orphans with equity.



“This is the book, no doubt, in it guidance for the prudent/forethoughtful.” [2:2]

Tomorrow our understanding of the Quran and the universe will evolve, except if God wills otherwise. This article reflects my personal interpretation of the Quranic verses as of September 5th, 2002. Please be humble by following the example set by the angels in 2:32, verify all information within for yourself as commanded by God in 17:36, and remember that simply “none” is the prudent/forethoughtful answer to God’s question in 45:6.


By Ayman (