If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, Marry women of your choice, Two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess, that will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice.
Lit., “such as are good for you” – i.e., women outside the prohibited degrees enumerated
in verses 22-23 of this surah (Zamakhshari, Razi). According to an interpretation suggested
by A’ishah, the Prophet’s widow, this refers to the (hypothetical) case of orphan girls whom
their guardians might wish to marry without, however, being prepared or able to give them
an appropriate marriage-portion – the implication being that they should avoid the temptation
of committing such an injustice and should marry other women instead (cf. Bukhari, Kitab
at-Tafsir, as well as Muslim and Nasai). However, not all of A’ishah’s contemporaries
subscribed to her explanation of this verse. Thus, according to Said ibn Jubayr, Qatadah,
and other successors of the Companions, the purport of the above passage is this: “Just as
you are, rightly, fearful of offending against the interests of orphans, you must apply the
same careful consideration to the interests and rights of the women whom you intend to marry.”
In his commentary on this passage, Tabari quotes several variants of the above interpretation
and gives it his unequivocal approval.
Lit., “whom your right hands possess” – i.e., from among the captives taken in a war in God’s
cause (regarding which see notes on surah 2, notes 167 and 168, and surah 8, note 72). It is
obvious that the phrase “two, or three, or four: but if you have reason to fear…”, etc. is
a parenthetic clause relating to both the free women mentioned in the first part of the sentence and to female slaves – for both these nouns are governed by the imperative verb “marry”. Thus, the whole sentence has this meaning: “Marry from among [other] women such as are lawful to you, or [from among] those whom you rightfully possess – [even] two, or three, or four: but if you have reason to fear that you might not be able to treat them with equal
fairness, then [only] one” – implying that, irrespective of whether they are free women or,
originally, slaves, the number of wives must not exceed four. It was in this sense that
Muhammad ‘Abduh understood the above verse (see Manar IV, 350). This view is, moreover,
supported by verse 25 of this surah as well as by 24:32, where marriage with female slaves
is spoken of. Contrary to the popular view and the practice of many Muslims in the past
centuries, neither the Qur’an nor the life-example of the Prophet provides any sanction for
sexual intercourse without marriage.
As regards the permission to marry more than one wife (up to the maximum of four), it is so
restricted by the condition, “if you have reason to fear that you might not be able to treat
them with equal fairness, then [marry only] one”, as to make such plural marriages possible
only in quite exceptional cases and under exceptional circumstances.
Asad, Muhammad (1980). The Message of the Quran. http://www.islamicweblibrary.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/55877864-54484011-Message-of-Quran-Muhammad-Asad-Islam-Translation.pdf