Surah al-nisa III (updated so posting again)

وَإِنْ خِفْتُمْ أَلاَّ تُقْسِطُواْ فِي الْيَتَامَى فَانكِحُواْ مَا طَابَ لَكُم مِّنَ النِّسَاء مَثْنَى وَثُلاَثَ وَرُبَاعَ فَإِنْ خِفْتُمْ أَلاَّ تَعْدِلُواْ فَوَاحِدَةً أَوْ مَا

مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُكُمْ ذَلِكَ أَدْنَى أَلاَّ تَعُولُواْ

And if you have reason to fear that you might not act equitably towards orphans, then marry what is agreeable or likeable to you from women, two and three and four: but if you fear that you will not act fairly or justly, so therefore one or what is in your hands/power to do. This is so not deviate from the right course

Let me tell you something that I just witnessed. I witnessed an orphan. My son. But he has a father. Me. How is he an orphan, you ask? He was sitting on the couch at 11 pm at night. He started crying and said something like: “Dad. I was such a nice boy when I was two years old. I never lied. I didn’t use bad words. I didn’t watch all the time. Now, I use bad words that I learned from youtube videos. You guys think I watch too much. I sometimes lie to get what I want. I am not a good person anymore dad! And he wept as he said all this.” This is NOT about my son. This is about the soul that is the same in each of us. The soul seeks affirmation that it is good.It longs for innocence and integrity and wholesomeness. And it finds itself stained and muddy and compromised. It finds itself beleaguered by the onslaught of temptations to go against itself and the wounds that this self-negation inflicts on it and on the heart. I cannot save my son from these wounds. I cannot cure or heal his orphanness. My existence and presence can, at best, be the means and not the source of healing that his soul needs. The soul is, as it finds itself in this world prior to encountering truth (which comes, for me, from my maker through revelation) is an orphan. It never quite stops beings one. Only, it may find that its orphanness (the Quran uses terms like faqr/poverty, state of deprivation etc) is not only meaningful but its main asset insofar as it’s purpose is to realize who its sustainer and Lord is (and that it is not its own Lord)! Anyways, not directly related to the verse at hand but still related I think. If you think God speaks to you in revelation about some “orphans” out there whom you and God both have pity for and who need your largesse, you are severely mistaken as far as I am concerned. Revelation is revealing me to myself. It is giving its description of me and my life and my world. I have my own idea of course. It uses what I already know or think as the basis for guiding me to a different point of view. I should not forget this. There is the starting point where my existing sense of things is acknowledged by the revelation. But this is the starting point. Revelation then wants a transformation – from what it calls a misguided perspective to a guided perspective. Only from the guided perspective can I look back and witness the truth of the Quran’s claim that my original perspective was a misguided and inadequate one. So the orphan, I may think at the start, based on basic knowledge of language, is someone without a father or without parents. The Quran is going to use this concept now to reveal something to me that I need to know for my soul/heart to be at peace while still here on earth.

The verse starts with an “if”. If what? If I am afraid about not being fair/equitable in the matters related to “the orphans.” Are you afraid about fairness in relation to the “orphan”? Have I wondered who or what makes me concerned about equity and about the needs of the orphan? Do I realize that in this relation (between the needs of the orphan and the concern I find in my soul about those needs, the names of my maker are revealed to me?) That I can become aware of Him? That the existence of this relation is for that purpose according to revelation? If not, it will be no surprise that the rest of the verse will have no meaning for me in reality. Of course, I can just repeat what “religion” tells me and pretend that it is meaningful as some injunction or law about the number of people I am allowed to “marry”, but I turn away from such meaninglessness. It makes no sense to me for my maker to speak to me to tell me how many people I can or should marry! I already have a pretty good sense of this. I expect a revelation from revelation. I personally find it strange to take this verse to be about the number of women men have permission to marry! It would have no meaning for me if I read it that way. I would not know whether what it says is truth or guidance from my maker.

I have to think about my worry and fear about the “orphan” not getting what it needs. About not finding the support it needs. About the inequity of finding oneself in need but not finding any way at all to fulfill those needs. Do I fear this? Do I fear this in relation to myself as an orphan, spiritually speaking? Do I see that all are orphans in this way? I do. And if you ask me, I will urge you to look honestly at yourself and people around you. Do we not all need a point of support, a source that can fulfill the needs of our soul, which we did not give to it but which we (to our suffering and much heartache) found our souls to have! All those whose souls are in need of happiness and satisfaction are orphans, waiting for news about how they might, if at all, ever find it. In our fear in regards to the needy (ourselves included) is revealed, if we choose to see the sign, the compassion of the One who makes us this way.

I read this verse and understand that to this orphan in me that worries about its needs and to this perception of all others, like me, as orphans facing possible inequity and unfairness (i.e. the non-fulfillment of their needs) , the verse speaks by taking “nikah” as an example. What is “nakaha”? If you say, “marriage”, you would have obscured the matter for yourself more than you would have understood it. Marriage is a cultural/social “institution” etc. What is marriage? Should I not expect my maker to describe this for me instead of leaving me relying on whatever social/cultural understanding i find myself with? Concepts like “marriage”, “morality” “law” etc have no inherent meaning on their own except what we may give to them.

But if you have paid attention to the first two verses, you can understand what the speaker means by “nakaha.” I understand this from revelation: When a needy person (orphan) exchanges something valuable with another needy person, who is in need of that valuable thing in the Name of the Owner/Lord of that thing and thus as a truthful, divinely-sent sustenance (sadaqa – we will meet this word in the next verse), this exchange is the kind of mingling between a “pair” or the kind of faithful relation of intimate exchange that is referred to as “nakaha” or “nikah” in the Quran. All relations where the existentially poor and orphaned souls (all of us) exchange (either receive or give) whatever they find given to them by their Maker and Sustainer are truthful relations…and “nikah” relations between men and women are one clear instance of such truthful exchange/relations. They are not the only important relation but their exclusivity and intimacy and assumed longevity as we shall shortly learn, makes them an important and effective sign for me to become aware (taqwa) about my maker and sustainer.

If you have understood what I have said, you will hopefully not misunderstand when I say that, to me, to “marry” someone is a long-term commitment to meeting the other’s needs, and one’s own needs (all of them) as “signs” pointing to the One in whose name those needs will be seen as being met. It is the coming together of people as orphans fearing inequity for the orphans (themselves and others) in the Name of the One who therefore is One who cares and is equitable. Parties to a “marriage” or “nikah” relation, the Quran says, are orphans driven by a concern for equity and fairness about the orphan’s needs. This, to me, is Quran’s definition of “marriage”, if you want to call it that. This fairness is not a worldly fairness only. It is fairness with respect to meaning, with respect to awareness of the divine sustainer. Through the temporary and imperfect meeting of needs through exchanges in His name, the parties to the relation are expected to find security/iman with the One who owns those beautiful names. They are expected to come to know and experience the One FROM whom they actually receive (through other people) and from whom they can expect, based on experiential evidence, the fulfillment of all their soul’s needs for perfect and lasting happiness and contentment. This is, in principle, the kind of relation nikah is. It is not “marriage” as commonly (almost always legally) understood, not for me anyway. Marriage, popularly understood, is meaningless and often oppressive and hierarchical and a burden. Nikah, as revelation describes to me, is meaningful and God-revealing.

The verse says to me: you find yourself a soul who loves to do something for others. You want to love others. You find many others lovable and agreeable. You find yourself wanting to be loved. How much? Do I find in myself a limit as to how much I want to be loved and how much I want to love others? Is there a “natural” limit in myself in terms of being someone that others (esp. the one’s whose wellbeing becomes a worry for me) can lean on and count on? Do I find a limit in me, a limit to which I would want to be loved and no more? I don’t. This is how my soul is. I don’t find it recognizing any inherent limits to how much it wants to be loved, how much it wants to be content and happy and how much it wants others, especially those I find agreeable and desirable (ma taaba lakum) to be happy and loved. This aspect of my soul finds affirmed in revelation’s suggestion of the “two, three and four” women in the verse. In the soul, there is no limit to the love and happiness it wants/needs for itself and wants/needs to offer other orphans. This desire of the soul, this limitless desire for fulfillment and for fulfilling others is the aspect of the soul that points to the One who is my Lord. He is One who loves and wants to fulfill my needs endlessly AND equitably and wants the needs of ALL filled absolutely and eternally. How do I know? I witness it in my soul when I think about the endless need to be loved it has and the endless desire for others to feel loved in the most intimate and fulfilling ways. In the desire for, and actual exchange of, care and love, I should become aware of the One who loves, who gives needs and then loves to fulfill them. This is who my Lord is. His names of compassionate provider, sustainer, lover and knower of needs and seer are the foundation upon which exchange between two parties in the world takes place. In each exchange, one is the receiver and the other the giver (of the other’s divinely-owned property). The roles switch frequently. In each such exchange, in each “asking and giving”, I can become aware of my Lord.

In short then, my soul has the desire, given to it by the One who owns it, to exchange love and intimacy and care with many others. It is moved by the needs of many/endless others and it is moved by endless need for love. These are signs to the justice/equity and provision of my Lord, the One who (I can now realize) wants to leave no one unfulfilled at all.

But interestingly, in this world, this equity-driven desire to provide for the “orphans” produces inequity! How? The soul is such that it also needs an exclusive intimacy and love as well. If it finds that the love it wants is something they have to share with others, it feels unfair. The soul wants the whole. This need for equitable, personal, intimate, one-to-one unique or special relations of exchange contradicts the need for endless intimacy with limitless others. Do you not see this in yourself? I see it. My soul finds joy in being exclusively loved AND finds joy in seeing everyone loved. What shall I choose then?

As if to immediately address this paradox, the verse moves to speaking of the need to have intimate exchange relations with just one person. My soul is moved by compassion and concern for equity about the needy/orphans (compassion of the compassionate One, not its own! mind you) to care for others. But revelation teaches that this urge can produce an inequity. The soul finds itself lacking the ability or power to exchange individual, personal, special care and intimacy with multiple others at the same time without causing inequity to itself and to those others. Equitable intimacy and love demands exclusivity in this limited world. And the soul finds its needs for love and care met meaningfully in relating “specifically” to another soul (and another soul relating exclusively to it) even as it also finds in it a desire for limitless and universal care and love, both for oneself and others. This need of the soul to experience exclusive and individuated love can suffer inequity by the soul’s expansive and general, limitless desire for equity and love for the needy/orphans (including itself) without limits. In this world then, intimate exchange with one other is the most equitable and most conducive to becoming aware of the One who is just and compassionate.

The verse thus says that if I fear I will not be equitable to myself or others i.e. I would leave my own specific needs and the needs of a specific, unique others inadequately addressed (within the limits of what a passing, created reality allows) if I tried to extend special commitment/love (and demand love) from multiple souls at the same time, then (and only then) I should commit to one person for a “nikah” relation. Since I personally do fear inequity in relation to meeting a special someone’s need if I tried to be intimate with multiple others, I understand that while I will try to meet the needs of as many people and things as best I can (ma malakat aimanukum means this to me and I find it a truthful guidance) and in so doing, become conscious of the One in whose name all those exchanges will take place, I am also reminded that I exist in a world where I and others have the need for one-to-one, long term, intimate partnerships and relations. In these sustained partnerships and pairings can I best see the One who intimately knows me and takes care of me. And I have not been given the power to attain equitable intimacy with limitless others while in this world. I can exchange and experience love, trust, care and compassion with a special someone in ways that I can’t if I tried to enact the soul’s need for intimacy with multiple/limitless others. Even with the one with whom I may have a personal and intimate relation, I can only do what is in my hands/power (what I have authority over, by my maker’s leave) to fulfill their needs. In this world, I am to do what I can to exchange love as widely and as specifically as possible.

The impossibility of realizing two perfections at the same time in this world (a just and universal desire to love all beings who need love AND the ability to only fairly love one particular person at any given moment ) ought to be a sign for me that the ideal (the ability to enjoy intimate, equitable love with endless others) that the soul yearns for is not of this world and not possible in this world. This ideal is, mysteriously, there in the soul (I will discuss this in another blog where I talk about the meaning of “And He taught Adam the Names, all of them). But these opposites (the desire to do something but the inability to attain it equitably here) resolve themselves for me in being securely connected to the One who is the owner of all the love and all the beauty manifest in all relations between all things. Only in a realm that is perfect and eternal would universal love without inequity to anyone be possible. I understand this. Only when I find such a One and when I find security about the existence of such a realm (the akhira), do the opposites cease to torture me while I am here and reveal, each in their own way, the face of the One. While in this world, I am to exchange intimate love and long-term commitment in His name as best I can (i.e. with one person) so I can know who he is and what I can expect from Him. As well, I am to see evidence in my soul for the endless desire for intimacy with limitless others without being inequitable to any and thus to affirm the existence of such a realm and thus hope for such an existence. This is a sign and evidence for me that the soul is meant for akhira (and paradise) as its real and final abode.

For me, this verse also addresses another issue: that human being is not a single being but rather has many many aspects and needs. I have multiple needs and others do too and sometimes they do not cohere or cannot be all simultaneously addressed or met. My need for honesty and truth sometimes comes into conflict with my need for kindness and support. When I meet the needs of another, I may meet two, three or four (some subset of a much larger number ) of their needs or my own. When I find myself not able to meet all the needs, my own or others’, I should focus on one perhaps. Do my best. For instance, if someone wants me to care about them in a certain way, perhaps I start with that. As I become conscious of the One who is Caring and compassionate, perhaps I will find myself able to also act wisely with them and fulfill their need for me to act with wisdom in relation to them. Since the intimate relation and the exchange is in His name, and He has many names, instead of getting overwhelmed about not having the ability to meet the others’ needs, I should focus on one important need. I start there. And do my best. And perhaps I will find that as I become aware of the Compassionate One, I will be moved, by the joy of finding myself in the presence of the Compassionate Lord, to also act fairly in relation to all the other needs of the person.

Just to remind you again: I am not here offering some curious new “Islamic” interpretation of this verse of the Quran so that it is more palatable to those otherwise troubled by it. I am sharing with you what truth and guidance I find in this verse and why I consider it revelation. If I did not understand it this way, I would have found no guidance or truth in it. I dont take what I am saying to be a “spiritual” reading of the text as opposed to a fiqihi/juridical reading. You may think that way about what I am saying. I don’t. And if you ask me, I would ask you to not think in that way. If anything, what I share should help you ask: why do you think this verse is truth from your maker and sustainer? And an “identitarian” answer (because I am Muslim and I believe it is revelation) should be unacceptable to you as a rational human being. Don’t claim to believe something to be true when you don’t know it is true. It wil be a lie. Don’t lie to yourself or others. Be honest. You don’t have to agree with the guidance from the verse but I think you should not hind behind identity claims and seek the truth.

I am sorry this post is soo long. To be continued….

Published by Faraz Sheikh

Faraz Sheikh

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