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2:226 For those who swear not to have sexual relations with their wives is a waiting time of four months

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For those who swear not to have sexual relations with their wives is a waiting time of four months, but if they return [to normal relations] – then indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.

These verses address the practice of a man staying away from his
wife but not divorcing her, leaving her without the sexual benefits of marriage
and without the freedom to marry another, which in pre-Islamic times could last
years (Q, R). In this context to forswear means to make an oath that one would
not have sexual relations with one’s wife. To forswear in this sense is not the
same as divorce, and the period of four months sets an upper limit on this
abstention within marriage. Specifically, it is understood to draw a line beyond
which the abstention is taken as an intent to cause harm to the wife (R). If they
return means that they resume intercourse; the return is still valid if one intends
to return to one’s wife, but is hindered for some reason, as the intent to cause
harm no longer exists, while for some it simply means that one bear witness that
he has returned (Q, Ṭ). Many understand God is Forgiving, Merciful in this
context to indicate that no expiation is necessary if they return (Ṭ), though others
believe some form of expiation, such as feeding the poor, is necessary, as
returning to one’s wife would then constitute going back on the oath of staying
away from her (Ṭ).
Some say that these stipulations only apply when the oath is made in anger
with the intent to cause harm, and that when someone swears not to have sexual
relations for some other reason, for example, with the intention of protecting the
well-being of a nursing child, the ruling of this verse does not apply (IK, Q, R,
Ṭ). Others say that the forswearing mentioned here can refer to any oath that
keeps one from having sexual relations with one’s wife, while others say that the
forswearing need not even pertain to sexual relations, but may pertain to any
matter where the intent is to cause harm to the wife, such as not speaking to her
or touching her (Ṭ). Perhaps the most serious point of disagreement is whether,
upon the completion of the four months, divorce is effected automatically in the
eyes of the Law or whether other steps must be taken. Some maintain that after
the period of four months, divorce could be imposed by a judge at the request of
the wife (Q, Ṭ).

References:

Nasr, Hossein (2015). Study Quran. http://www.islamicweblibrary.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/TheStudyQuran.pdf

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