Sura 4 (from the Quran)

Prof’s Notes:

About the Quran

The Quran is the most important sacred text of Islam. Muslims believe the Quran is comprised of the words of God (“Allah” in Arabic). According to tradition, the archangel Jibril (Gabriel in Jewish/Christian scriptures) dictated the words of the Quran to Muhammad through period visions. Some twenty years after Muhammad’s death (ca. 650 CE), the first caliphs (political successors to Muhammad) compiled and organized the Quran into 114 chapters (suras), starting with the longest sura (1) and ending with the shortest (114).

The organization of the Quran does not, however, represent the chronological order in which Muhammad recited his visions to his growing band of followers. According to scholar of religion, Karen Armstrong, Muhammad delivered the earliest suras from Mecca. These Mecca suras tend to emphasize the character of God and God’s expectations of people in response to God’s revelations. The relatively brief Sura 55 falls into this category if you care to have a look.

Context for Sura 4

Muhammad delivered the later suras (24 in total) from the city of Yathrib (now Medina). Muhammad and the early converts to Islam from Mecca traveled to Yathrib to escape economic and social hostility from the ruling Quraysh tribe in Mecca (more on that in class). The leaders of Yathrib welcomed the budding Muslim community and saw Muhammad himself as a potential peacemaker for the warring tribes (all Arab, some polytheistic and some Jewish tribes) in the region. The polytheistic tribes eventually converted to Islam for the most part while the Jewish tribes held to their own fate.

Given the expansion of Islam in Yathrib, the Medina suras deal with the transition of the Muslim community from a small band of followers contained in a single city (Mecca) to a religious movement that eventually included almost all of the Arab tribes on the Arabian peninsula. The Medina suras deal with how best to organize and govern this new community of believers. The excerpt from Sura 4 (below) is a small part of a longer Medina sura.

As you read, consider how the rules proscribed in this sura might help organize an increasingly diverse group of people. Pay attention too to the rights and freedoms accorded to women and orphans. As is so often the case, we probably wouldn’t view most of these rules as precisely equal in modern Singapore. However, the commentary on women, orphans, and the responsibilities of men were progressive for their time and place.

About the Translation

I’ve given you selections from the English translation titled The Clear Quran by Dr. Mustafa Khattab. This is not the most faithful rendering of the text (others capture the poetry of the Arabic and the language of the 7th century more effectively). However, this translation has the benefit of providing additional context. The translator occasionally adds words [in the half brackets] to the text in order to clarify who a pronoun is referring to or to illuminate the meaning of a particular phrase. I think the relative clarity of the translation will aid our discussion better than a more accurate, but difficult to read, translation.

If you would like to compare this translation with others, I recommend which allows you to view multiple translations at once. Khaleel Mohammed’s 2005 review of English translations of the Quran also lends scholarly insight to who produced various translations and the perspectives contained in those translations.

An-Nisa (The Women); Sura 4 (Excerpts)

4.1 O humanity! Be mindful of your Lord Who created you from a single soul, and from it He created its mate, and through both He spread countless men and women. And be mindful of Allah—in Whose Name you appeal to one another—and ˹honour˺ family ties. Surely Allah is ever Watchful over you.

4.2 Give orphans their wealth ˹when they reach maturity˺, and do not exchange your worthless possessions for their valuables, nor cheat them by mixing their wealth with your own. For this would indeed be a great sin.

4.3 If you fear you might fail to give orphan women their ˹due˺ rights ˹if you were to marry them˺, then marry other women of your choice—two, three, or four. But if you are afraid you will fail to maintain justice, then ˹content yourselves with˺ one or those ˹bondwomen˺ in your possession. This way you are less likely to commit injustice.

4.4 Give women ˹you wed˺ their due dowries graciously. But if they waive some of it willingly, then you may enjoy it freely with a clear conscience.

4.5 Do not entrust the incapable ˹among your children and women˺ with your wealth which Allah has made a means of support for you—but feed and clothe them from it, and speak to them kindly.

4.6 Test ˹the competence of˺ the orphans until they reach a marriageable age. Then if you feel they are capable of sound judgment, return their wealth to them. And do not consume it wastefully and hastily before they grow up ˹to demand it˺. If the guardian is well-off, they should not take compensation; but if the guardian is poor, let them take a reasonable provision. When you give orphans back their property, call in witnesses. And sufficient is Allah as a ˹vigilant˺ Reckoner.

4.7 For men there is a share in what their parents and close relatives leave, and for women there is a share in what their parents and close relatives leave—whether it is little or much. ˹These are˺ obligatory shares.

4.8 If ˹non-inheriting˺ relatives, orphans, or the needy are present at the time of distribution, offer them a ˹small˺ provision from it and speak to them kindly.

4.9 Let the guardians be as concerned ˹for the orphans˺ as they would if they were to ˹die and˺ leave ˹their own˺ helpless children behind. So let them be mindful of Allah and speak equitably.

4.10 Indeed, those who unjustly consume orphans’ wealth ˹in fact˺ consume nothing but fire into their bellies. And they will be burned in a blazing Hell!

4.11 Allah commands you regarding your children: the share of the male will be twice that of the female. If you leave only two ˹or more˺ females, their share is two-thirds of the estate. But if there is only one female, her share will be one-half. Each parent is entitled to one-sixth if you leave offspring. But if you are childless and your parents are the only heirs, then your mother will receive one-third. But if you leave siblings, then your mother will receive one-sixth—after the fulfillment of bequests and debts. ˹Be fair to˺ your parents and children, as you do not ˹fully˺ know who is more beneficial to you. ˹This is˺ an obligation from Allah. Surely Allah is All-Knowing, All-Wise.

4.12 You will inherit half of what your wives leave if they are childless. But if they have children, then ˹your share is˺ one-fourth of the estate—after the fulfillment of bequests and debts. And your wives will inherit one-fourth of what you leave if you are childless. But if you have children, then your wives will receive one-eighth of your estate—after the fulfillment of bequests and debts. And if a man or a woman leaves neither parents nor children but only a brother or a sister ˹from their mother’s side˺, they will each inherit one-sixth, but if they are more than one, they ˹all˺ will share one-third of the estate—after the fulfillment of bequests and debts without harm ˹to the heirs˺. ˹This is˺ a commandment from Allah. And Allah is All-Knowing, Most Forbearing.

4.13 These ˹entitlements˺ are the limits set by Allah. Whoever obeys Allah and His Messenger will be admitted into Gardens under which rivers flow, to stay there forever. That is the ultimate triumph!

4.14 But whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger and exceeds their limits will be cast into Hell, to stay there forever. And they will suffer a humiliating punishment.

4.15 ˹As for˺ those of your women who commit illegal intercourse—call four witnesses from among yourselves. If they testify, confine the offenders to their homes until they die or Allah ordains a ˹different˺ way for them.

4.16 And the two among you who commit this sin—discipline them. If they repent and mend their ways, relieve them. Surely Allah is ever Accepting of Repentance, Most Merciful.

4.17 Allah only accepts the repentance of those who commit evil ignorantly ˹or recklessly˺ then repent soon after—Allah will pardon them. And Allah is All-Knowing, All-Wise.

4.18 However, repentance is not accepted from those who knowingly persist in sin until they start dying, and then say, “Now I repent!” nor those who die as disbelievers. For them We have prepared a painful punishment.

4.19 O believers! It is not permissible for you to inherit women against their will or mistreat them to make them return some of the dowry ˹as a ransom for divorce˺—unless they are found guilty of adultery. Treat them fairly. If you happen to dislike them, you may hate something which Allah turns into a great blessing.

4.20 If you desire to replace a wife with another and you have given the former ˹even˺ a stack of gold ˹as a dowry˺, do not take any of it back. Would you ˹still˺ take it unjustly and very sinfully?

4.21 And how could you take it back after having enjoyed each other intimately and she has taken from you a firm commitment?

4.22 Do not marry former wives of your fathers—except what was done previously. It was indeed a shameful, despicable, and evil practice.

4.23 ˹Also˺ forbidden to you for marriage are your mothers, your daughters, your sisters, your paternal and maternal aunts, your brother’s daughters, your sister’s daughters, your foster-mothers, your foster-sisters, your mothers-in-law, your stepdaughters under your guardianship if you have consummated marriage with their mothers—but if you have not, then you can marry them—nor the wives of your own sons, nor two sisters together at the same time—except what was done previously. Surely Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.

4.24 Also ˹forbidden are˺ married women—except ˹female˺ captives in your possession. This is Allah’s commandment to you. Lawful to you are all beyond these—as long as you seek them with your wealth in a legal marriage, not in fornication. Give those you have consummated marriage with their due dowries. It is permissible to be mutually gracious regarding the set dowry. Surely Allah is All-Knowing, All-Wise.

4.25 But if any of you cannot afford to marry a free believing woman, then ˹let him marry˺ a believing bondwoman possessed by one of you. Allah knows best ˹the state of˺ your faith ˹and theirs˺. You are from one another. So marry them with the permission of their owners, giving them their dowry in fairness, if they are chaste, neither promiscuous nor having secret affairs. If they commit indecency after marriage, they receive half the punishment of free women. This is for those of you who fear falling into sin. But if you are patient, it is better for you. And Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.

4.26 It is Allah’s Will to make things clear to you, guide you to the ˹noble˺ ways of those before you, and turn to you in mercy. For Allah is All-Knowing, All-Wise.

4.27 And it is Allah’s Will to turn to you in grace, but those who follow their desires wish to see you deviate entirely ˹from Allah’s Way˺.

4.28 And it is Allah’s Will to lighten your burdens, for humankind was created weak.

4.29 O believers! Do not devour one another’s wealth illegally, but rather trade by mutual consent. And do not kill ˹each other or˺ yourselves. Surely Allah is ever Merciful to you.

4.30 And whoever does this sinfully and unjustly, We will burn them in the Fire. That is easy for Allah.

4.31 If you avoid the major sins forbidden to you, We will absolve you of your ˹lesser˺ misdeeds and admit you into a place of honour.

4.32 And do not crave what Allah has given some of you over others. Men will be rewarded according to their deeds and women ˹equally˺ according to theirs. Rather, ask Allah for His bounties. Surely Allah has ˹perfect˺ knowledge of all things.

4.33 And We have appointed heirs to what has been left by parents and next of kin. As for those you have made a pledge to, give them their share. Surely Allah is a Witness over all things.

4.34 Men are the caretakers of women, as men have been provisioned by Allah over women and tasked with supporting them financially. And righteous women are devoutly obedient and, when alone, protective of what Allah has entrusted them with. And if you sense ill-conduct from your women, advise them ˹first˺, ˹if they persist,˺ do not share their beds, ˹but if they still persist,˺ then discipline them ˹gently˺. But if they change their ways, do not be unjust to them. Surely Allah is Most High, All-Great.

4.35 If you anticipate a split between them, appoint a mediator from his family and another from hers. If they desire reconciliation, Allah will restore harmony between them. Surely Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware.

4.36 Worship Allah ˹alone˺ and associate none with Him. And be kind to parents, relatives, orphans, the poor, near and distant neighbours, close friends, ˹needy˺ travellers, and those ˹bondspeople˺ in your possession. Surely Allah does not like whoever is arrogant, boastful—

4.37 those who are stingy, promote stinginess among people, and withhold Allah’s bounties. We have prepared for the disbelievers a humiliating punishment.

4.38 Likewise for those who spend their wealth to show off and do not believe in Allah or the Last Day. And whoever takes Satan as an associate—what an evil associate they have!

4.39 What harm could have come to them if they had believed in Allah and the Last Day and donated from what Allah has provided for them? And Allah has ˹perfect˺ knowledge of them.

4.40 Indeed, Allah never wrongs ˹anyone˺—even by an atom’s weight. And if it is a good deed, He will multiply it many times over and will give a great reward out of His grace.


  1. Some translations give this as “single cell” or “one self.” The point in either case is that all humans, according to the Quran, started from the same point and were created by Allah. In this regard, and many others, Islam overlaps with Christianity and Judaism whose creation stories (contained in Genesis 1 & 2) likewise have God creating all of humanity from a single person (Adam).

  2. Children who have lost their parent; in the tribal society that Islam grows out of, members of the community are expected to adopt and care for these orphans. Usually an uncle, aunt, or cousin adopts the child and serves as guardian of the child – as well as whatever wealth or possessions the child inherits from their parents.

  3. In this case “orphans” probably refers to female orphans. The verse is commenting on a common practice – male heads of household could and did marry female orphans under their care in order to fully gain control of the orphans’ property and wealth. This verse seems to say, if you can’t treat the orphans fairly (as in, can’t give them their wealth or can’t view them neutrally b/c of their wealth) then it’s better to marry women who are not orphans in your household.

  4. Polygamy was normal in both pre- and post-Islamic society on the Arabian peninsula (as it was in many other societies).

  5. This is most likely a reference to slaves within a household (usually women who entered slavery to pay off debts or women who were captured in battle)

  6. A dowry is property or wealth (money, cattle, possessions) brought by a woman into a marriage or given to a woman when she gets married.

  7. Here we enter into a number of verses that deal with inheritance laws and the division of property. It’s easy to get caught up in (and confused by) the details, so it’s worth stepping back and trying to figure out what the overarching point is here. What expectations are being outlined for the community? Who is included in these instructions regarding inheritance?

  8. While 4.15 lays out punishment for women who commit adultery, 4.16 calls for the discipline of both men and women convicted of infidelity. Scholars are unclear why these two verses are paired or why there is a separate verse for women.

  9. This verse and the next are incest taboos. Almost every culture has rules and customs about who you can marry and who you cannot. What’s interesting, though, is that an accommodation is offered here – “except what was done previously.” This suggests that the advice given here applies for the future, but does not require men to divorce women if they fall into the category of “father’s wife.”

  10. If you can’t afford to provide for a wife who is a free woman then the text seems to say it’s okay to marry a slave women if she’s already a believer. The verse goes on to say she should receive all of the privileges of marriage, but there’s some concessions if this slave woman (now wife) is accused of an “obscenity” (her punishment will be half of what a woman who is free would be).

  11. Context is everything. This command is spoken into a patriarchal society where men held most of the wealth and power. In this context, it makes sense to claim that men are the caretakers of women, have an obligation to care for them financially, and possess the responsibility to correct their behavior (as is the case for all members in their household)

  12. As I noted briefly in our class on the Persian Empire, the concept of “Satan” (a Hebrew noun meaning “adversary”) is most likely the result of Zoroastrianism’s influence on other monotheisms. The evil supernatural figure Angra Mainyu likely provided the template for a concept of Satan in Judaism – then Christianity and finally Islam by way of Judaism. For a very thorough and accurate overview, I highly recommend the Wikipedia article on Satan: