Surah 4 (Al-Nisa/Women): 3

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).

[The Qur’an (Sahih International), 2010, (three female US converts)]


This verse is the basis of the well-known Islamic rule that a man is permitted to have up to four concurrent wives. Although it is often interpreted as a restriction upon Muslim men to have just four wives, this is not how the verse reads. The tone is not merely permissive but encouraging of taking multiple wives and the phrase ‘two or three or four’, with its incremental trajectory reads as an idiom that might easily have carried the original meaning ‘several’. This view is supported by the only other instance in the Qur’an in which the phrase ‘two or three or four’ appears, in which it is used in reference to the number of wings possessed by angels in {35.1} 〈14.〉 Applying the interpretation that is traditionally given to the phrase in {4.3} to {35.1} would lead to conclusion that some angels have two wings, some have three wings and some four, but that no angel had more than four wings: an interpretation that is highly unlikely to have been the one intended. It may well be that it was an unduly literalist reading of the Qur’an that led to a permissive verse being interpreted in a restrictive manner. Be that as it may, the four wife maximum was cemented by the production of a hadith in which a man with ten wives who converted to Islam and who was instructed by Muhammad to choose four of his wives to retain, and to renounce the other six .


The caveat that a man may not take multiple wives if he fears that he will not be just, may be linked to the observation in {4.129}, made to men within a passage dealing with divorce, that ‘You will not be able to deal fairly between women, even if it is your ardent desire, but do not turn away from one altogether so that you leave her as if suspended.’ On the face of it, in {4.129} God is revealing that the precondition for polygyny in {4.3}, i.e. the ability to treat multiple wives justly, can never be met, but this cannot sensibly be read as negating polygyny entirely, or there would have been no purpose in including {4.3} at all. The result of the two verses read together seems to be that a man is permitted to build up his hareem of wives so long as, at the time of each marriage, he does not fear that he will act unjustly towards his wives, although God knows that this optimism is bound to be ill-placed.


The connection drawn in {4.3} between the care of orphans and polygyny is obscure. It may have been intended as a comparison between the duty to act virtuously to orphans in one’s care and a similar duty with regard to wives, or it may have been intended to point out to any men who might be tempted out of lust to abuse their position as the guardian of female orphans, that taking a wife would be better for them than that ignoble course.


A male slave is traditionally limited to only two wives.

For a bespoke exception to marriage rules for Muhammad, himself, see 〈79.〉