Can One Marry Underage Orphans?
A passage of the Quran has persistently been interpreted as sanctioning marriage to young orphan girls:
! Disputed passage: The traditional rendering suggests that the objects of marital intention are the orphans, not the mothers.
|“They ask thy instruction concerning the women say: Allah doth instruct you about them: And (remember) what hath been rehearsed unto you in the Book, concerning the orphans of women to whom ye give not the portions prescribed, and yet whom ye desire to marry, as also concerning the children who are weak and oppressed: that ye stand firm for justice to orphans. There is not a good deed which ye do, but Allah is well-acquainted therewith.” (4:127)||They consult thee concerning women. Say: Allah giveth you decree concerning them, and the Scripture which hath been recited unto you (giveth decree), concerning female orphans and those unto whom ye give not that which is ordained for them though ye desire to marry them, and (concerning) the weak among children, and that ye should deal justly with orphans. Whatever good ye do, lo! Allah is ever Aware of it. (4:127)||And they ask you a decision about women. Say: Allah makes known to you His decision concerning them, and that which is recited to you in the Book concerning female orphans whom you do not give what is appointed for them while you desire to marry them, and concerning the weak among children, and that you should deal towards orphans with equity; and whatever good you do, Allah surely knows it. (4:127)||They ask you for divine instruction concerning women. Say, “God instructs you regarding them, as has been recited for you in the book about the rights of orphans whose mothers you want to marry without giving them their legal rights. You shall observe the rights of helpless children, and your duty to treat orphans with equity. Whatever good you do, God has full knowledge of it. (4:127)|
DISCUSSION OF 4:127
Though the Quran permits polygamy for men (4:3), it severely discourages its actual practice by requiring certain significant preconditions: men may marry more than one wife only if the later ones are widows with children, and they should treat each wife equally and fairly. (See 4:19-20; 127-129.). Unfortunately, verse 4:127 has been traditionally misinterpreted and mistranslated in such a way as to suggest that God permits marriage with juvenile orphans. This is clearly not the case.
The Arabic expression yatama-l nisai-l lati in 4:127 has been routinely mistranslated as “women orphans, whom…” The expression is also sometimes translated as “orphans of women whom…” This later translation, though accurate, makes the crucial reference of the objective pronoun “whom” ambiguous: Does the phrase after “whom” describe orphans or women?
As it happens, the Arabic plural pronoun in this verse is the female form, allaty (not the male form allazyna), and it can only refer to the women just referenced, not to the orphans. This is because the Arabic word yatama (orphans) is male in gender!
All the English translations of the Quran that we have seen have mistranslated this passage. This is remarkable, because correct translation requires only an elementary knowledge of Arabic grammar. This error is thus much more than a simple grammatical slip; it is, we would argue, willful misrepresentation. The traditional interpretation of this passage offers an apparent justification for marriage with children, which flatly contradicts the Quran.
Like so many passages in the Quran, 4:127’s meaning was severely distorted in order to gain the favor of rich, dominant males. Over the centuries, male scholars with active libidos have used fabricated hadith to pervert the meaning of this and other Quranic verses relating to marriage and sexuality. (See the discussion of 66:5, below.)
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