Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Quran and in the Bible

Sam Shamoun, James Arlandson & Jochen Katz

Answering Islam posted a short article that points out a strange divorce and remarriage law in Sura 2:230. Mohd Elfie Nieshaem Juferi (MENJ) issued a rebuttal that ranged far beyond this short article and attacked the Bible on divorce generally.

In MENJ's short rebuttal, he misinterprets and meanders around from Abraham and Hagar, the Law of Moses, Ezra and Nehemiah, the clear teaching of Jesus, and ends up with a brief, unsubstantiated claim about the Reformation. Skipping and jumping around more than 3,000 years of history in such a short article necessarily means MENJ's criticism is shallow and therefore suspect on such a profound topic as divorce.

We are glad about his straying, however, since we can expand on the original article posted at Answering Islam and offer clear and distinct differences between Islam and Christianity on the subject of divorce.

This article, though long—so we ask the readers’ indulgence—should clarify some issues for the Christian community. We hope it will clarify some matters for open-minded Muslims as well. Our response consists of the following parts.

The Unpleasant Truth behind Divorce in Sura 4:130

MENJ writes:

In Islam, the reason why a marriage can be terminated is to avoid unnecessary pain to either party, be it the husband or the wife, if a better solution cannot be found. Although a divorce is allowed in Qur’an, 4:130 whenever a friendly understanding cannot be reached between a husband and his wife, there is a further suggestion indicated via the Qur’an in an attempt to reconcile the marriage before the decision for a divorce is obtained:


Conveniently MENJ fails to look at the immediate context and the commentary provided by Muslims themselves:

And if a woman fears ill usage or desertion on the part of her husband, there is no blame on them, if they effect a reconciliation between them, and reconciliation is better, and avarice has been made to be present in the (people's) minds; and if you do good (to others) and guard (against evil), then surely Allah is aware of what you do. You will not be able to be equitable between your wives, be you ever so eager; yet do not be altogether partial so that you leave her as it were suspended. If you set things right, and are godfearing, God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate. But if they separate, God will enrich each of them of His plenty; God is All-embracing, All-wise. S. 4:128-130

In the above text, instead of warning the men against mistreating their spouses, women who fear mistreatment or desertion are told that they can seek a means of reconciliation. What many don’t realize is that this text refers to Muhammad’s mistreatment of his wife Sauda bint Zamah because she had gotten old:

Making peace is better than separation. An example of such peace can be felt in the story of Sawdah bint Zam'ah who WHEN SHE BECAME AGED, THE PROPHET WANTED TO DIVORCE HER, but she made peace with him by offering the night he used to spend with her to A'isha so that he would keep her. The Prophet accepted such terms and kept her.

Abu Dawud At-Tayalisi recorded that Ibn ‘Abbas said, "Sawdah feared that the Messenger of Allah might divorce her and she said, ‘O Messenger of Allah! Do not divorce me; give my day to 'A'ishah.’ And he did ...

In the Two Sahihs, it is recorded that 'A'ishah said that when Sawdah bint Zam'ah BECAME OLD, she forfeited her day to 'A'ishah and the Prophet used to spend Sawdah's night with 'A'ishah ...

<And making peace is better>. IT REFERS TO THE WIFE RELINQUISHING SOME OF HER MARITAL RIGHTS and his acceptance of the offer. Such compromise is better than total divorce, as the Prophet did when retained Sawdah bint Zam'ah. By doing so, the Prophet set an example for his Ummah to follow as it is a lawful act ... (the preceding citation taken and adapted from Tafsir Ibn Kathir - Abridged, Volume 2, Parts 3, 4 & 5, Surat Al-Baqarah, Verse 253, to Surat An-Nisa, Verse 147 [Darussalam Publishers & Distributors, Riyadh, Houston, New York, Lahore; first edition March 2000], pp. 599-601, and Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Part 5, Sura An-Nisa, ayat 24-147, abridged by Sheikh Muhammad Nasib Ar-Rafa’i [Al-Firdous Ltd., London, 2000 first edition], pp. 193-194; bold and capital emphasis ours)

One recent Muslim author says in a caption that:

Muhammad's personal and family life were not always smooth. His wives sometimes bickered amongst themselves and even once engaged in a petty plot against him. A'ishah, for example, disliked her Jewish co-wife, Safiyah, and insulted her periodically. Muhammad had to defend her status and honor a number of times and scold the youthful A'ishah. Hafsah became jealous of her co-wife, Maria, when she found her and Muhammad resting[sic] in her apartment one day. Sawdah gave up her allotted day with the Prophet WHEN SHE REALIZED HE WAS NOT REALLY ATTRACTED TO HER. As for the conspiracy, A'ishah agreed with two other co-wives to convince the Prophet that eating honey made him unpleasant to be around. When Muhammad vowed to never eat honey again, she privately repented to her co-conspirators. Though these incidents were not the norm, they demonstrate that the women in Muhammad's life were as human as the rest of us. (Yahiya Emerick, Critical Lives: Muhammad [Alpha Books, A Member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2002], p. 263; capital and underline emphasis ours) {1}

Commentator Al-Tabari stated that:

Umra bin Ali & Zaid bin Ahram said: second by Abu Dawud, said: second by Sulaiman bin Mu'ath, from Simak bin Harb, from Ikrimah, from Ibn Abbas, said: Saudah feared divorce by the messenger of Allah, so she said: Do not divorce me, and do not share with me! And he did, and this verse was revealed: And if a woman fears ill usage or desertion on the part of her husband.

Muhammad bin Husain said: He claimed that this verse came down in reference to the messenger of Allah, and Saudah bint Zama'h who became old, then the messenger of Allah wanted to divorce her, but they agreed that he will keep her but give her day to Ai'sha. (Arabic source; translated by Mutee’a Al-Fadi)

Al-Qurtubi wrote:

In this verse there are four issues: the first, Al-Tirmidhi told that Ibn Abbas said: Saudah feared that the messenger of Allah will divorce her so she said, "Do not divorce me and keep me, and give my day with you to Ai'sha." He did and this verse came down: "there is no blame on them, if they effect a reconciliation between them, and reconciliation is better." He said: this is a good and strange hadith. (Arabic source; translated by Mutee’a Al-Fadi)

The Sahihayn (the two Sahih collections) confirm that Sauda gave up her conjugal rights in order to please Muhammad:

Narrated Aisha:
Whenever Allah's Apostle wanted to go on a journey, he would draw lots as to which of his wives would accompany him. He would take her whose name came out. He used to fix for each of them a day and a night. But Sauda bint Zam’a gave up her (turn) day and night to ‘Aisha, the wife of the Prophet in order to seek the pleasure of Allah's Apostle (by that action). (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 47, Number 766)

‘A’isha (Allah be pleased with her) reported: Never did I find any woman more loving to me than Sauda bint Zam'a. I wished I could be exactly like her who was passionate. As she became old, she had made over her day (which she had to spend) with Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) to ‘A’isha. She said: I have made over my day with you to ‘A’isha. So Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) allotted two days to ‘A’isha, her own day (when it was her turn) and that of Sauda. (Sahih Muslim, Book 008, Number 3451)

The hadiths also mention that Sauda was an overweight woman:

Narrated Aisha:
Sauda (the wife of the Prophet) went out to answer the call of nature after it was made obligatory (for all the Muslims ladies) to observe the veil. She was a fat huge lady, and everybody who knew her before could recognize her. So ‘Umar bin Al-Khattab saw her and said, "O Sauda! By Allah, you cannot hide yourself from us, so think of a way by which you should not be recognized on going out. Sauda returned while Allah's Apostle was in my house taking his supper and a bone covered with meat was in his hand. She entered and said, "O Allah’s Apostle! I went out to answer the call of nature and 'Umar said to me so-and-so." Then Allah inspired him (the Prophet) and when the state of inspiration was over and the bone was still in his hand as he had not put in down, he said (to Sauda), "You (women) have been allowed to go out for your needs." (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 60, Number 318)

What this basically implies is that Muhammad no longer felt attracted to Sauda and wanted to abandon her because she was old and "fat". Hence, Sura 4:128-130 gives men the right to simply ignore wives whom they are no longer attracted to, denying them the pleasure of love and intimacy! How in the world could MENJ believe that Sura 4:130 is a fair and just command is simply beyond us.

Confusion over the Quranic Divorce Procedure

MENJ also says:

"Divorce is two times, then retain with kindness or gracious release." (Qur’an, 2:229)

This sums up the Islamic laws concerning divorce and reconciliation. Here, the Qur’an is clear that the couple is given an opportunity to reconcile twice before the third, and final divorce. Both the first and second divorce are effective unless and until the couple sues for a reconciliation [2]


However, the Quran is more ambiguous than MENJ would have us believe. Let us first quote the immediate context:

And the divorced women should keep themselves in waiting for three courses; and it is not lawful for them that they should conceal what Allah has created in their wombs, if they believe in Allah and the last day; and their husbands have a better right to take them back in the meanwhile if they wish for reconciliation; and they have rights similar to those against them in a just manner, and the men are a degree above them, and Allah is Mighty, Wise. Divorce may be (pronounced) twice, then keep (them) in good fellowship or let (them) go with kindness; and it is not lawful for you to take any part of what you have given them, unless both fear that they cannot keep within the limits of Allah; then if you fear that they cannot keep within the limits of Allah, there is no blame on them for what she gives up to become free thereby. These are the limits of Allah, so do not exceed them and whoever exceeds the limits of Allah these it is that are the unjust. So if he divorces her she shall not be lawful to him afterwards until she marries another husband; then if he divorces her there is no blame on them both if they return to each other (by marriage), if they think that they can keep within the limits of Allah, and these are the limits of Allah which He makes clear for a people who know. S. 2:228-230 Shakir

The formulation "may be (pronounced) twice" indicates a problem. What does twice mean? Does it talk about two pronouncements of divorce (and then a third)? Do all of these pronouncements refer to the same divorce; that is, is it only one divorce that is discussed here? The explicit wording of the Quran in these verses is ambiguous.

Moreover, what does divorce mean? In English usage, a divorce is a legal dissolution of a marriage after the couple has already separated physically and do not live together anymore. In the Islamic meaning it seems to be only an announcement of the intention of divorce, but the couple still lives together. So, that is not really a divorce yet, but a THREAT of divorce.

Both Deuteronomy 24:1 and the original article posted on Answering Islam talk about the actual divorce that has taken place while MENJ is talking only about the first or second threat of divorce after which the Muslim can still keep his wife.

So MENJ is using the same word but is talking about something else and then pretends that he is actually refuting the original article. All he is really doing is throwing up a smoke screen.

More importantly, and significantly, there is nothing explicit in these texts which state that the third pronouncement is the one which initiates the actual, irrevocable divorce. The reader should be aware that the word in parenthesis found in Surah 2:229, i.e. (pronounced), which we quoted above, is not part of the original Arabic text. The reference simply says divorce may be twice:

A divorce is only permissible twice: after that, the parties should either hold together on equitable terms… Y. Ali S.

Divorce can happen twice, and [each time] wives either be kept on in an acceptable manner or released in a good way… M.A.S. Abdel Haleem

Divorce is twice; then honourable retention or setting free kindly… Arberry

The divorce is twice, after that, either you retain her on reasonable terms or release her with kindness… Hilali-Khan

A marital relation can only be resumed after the first and second divorce, otherwise it must be continued with fairness or terminated with kindness… Muhammad Sarwar

What this means is that the citation is saying that a man can enact an actual divorce twice, which therefore means in light of 2:230 that he can then only return to his mate if she has remarried and slept with her other husband. In other words, Sura 2:229-230, when read together, state that a man has been given the right to divorce the same woman only twice, no more than that, and each time can then return to her only after she has married someone else and slept with him. The man cannot then divorce her a third time and return to her once again.

Furthermore, the plain reading of these texts introduce the dilemma of the man not being able to remarry his wife until she has married someone else. So if after the first divorce the woman refuses to go through the humiliating process of marrying another man and having to be intimate with him, then the man can never take her back!

MENJ is arguing his case from the position of the Islamic traditions, since it is these writings which contain statements which explicitly say that there must be three pronouncements of divorce before the irrevocable divorce actually takes place. MENJ is essentially reading back into Sura 2:229-230 the understanding of these Muslim narrations. He (seemingly) further assumes that these traditions uniformly agree that divorce is final only after the third pronouncement.

Not so, since there are narrations which speak of a single pronouncement of divorce counting as three and therefore final:

Yahya related to me from Malik that he had heard that Ali ibn Abi Talib used to say that if a man said to his wife, "You are haram for me," it counted as three pronouncements of divorce.

Malik said, "That is the best of what I have heard on the subject." (Malik’s Muwatta, Book 29, Number 29.1.6)

Yahya related to me from Malik from Nafi that Abdullah ibn Umar said that statements like "I cut myself off from you", or, "You are abandoned", were considered as three pronouncements of divorce.

Malik said that any strong statements such as these or others were considered as three pronouncements of divorce for a woman whose marriage had been consummated. In the case of a woman whose marriage had not been consummated, the man was asked to make an oath on his deen, as to whether he had intended one or three pronouncements of divorce. If he had intended one pronouncement, he was asked to make an oath by Allah to confirm it, and he became a suitor among other suitors, because a woman whose marriage had been consummated, required three pronouncements of divorce to make her inaccessible for the husband, whilst only one pronouncement was needed to make a woman whose marriage had not been consummated inaccessible.

Malik added, "That is the best of what I have heard about the matter." (Malik’s Muwatta, Book 29, Number 29.1.7)

Yahya related to me from Malik that he heard Ibn Shihab say that if a man said to his wife, "You are free of me, and I am free of you, " it counted as three pronouncements of divorce as if it were an 'irrevocable' divorce.

Malik said that if a man made any strong statement such as these to his wife, it counted as three pronouncements of divorce for a woman whose marriage had been consummated, or it was written as one of three for a woman whose marriage had not been consummated, whichever the man wished. If he said he intended only one divorce he swore to it and he became one of the suitors because, whereas a woman whose marriage had been consummated was made inaccessible by three pronouncements of divorce, the woman whose marriage had not been consummated was made inaccessible by only one pronouncement.

Malik said, "That is the best of what I have heard." Malik’s Muwatta, Book 29, Number 29.1.9)

The following manual on the Shafi’ school of Islamic jurisprudence states:

If the husband says, "You are divorced," and thereby intends a two- or threefold pronouncement, then whatever number he intends is effected, this rule holding for all words that effect divorce, whether plain or allusive. (O: The proof that a single pronouncement can validly effect a threefold divorce is the hadith classified as rigorously authenticated (sahih) by Ibn Hibban that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), when Rukana divorced his wife and then said, "I did not intend it except as one time," made him swear an oath to that effect, and then returned her to him. If a single pronouncement could not effect a threefold divorce, there would not have been any point in the Prophet’s making him swear the oath (Allah bless him and give him peace).) (Naqib al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveler: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law In Arabic English Text, Commentary And Appendices, edited and translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller [Amana Publications, Beltsville Maryland, revised edition 1994], section n3.5, "Words That Effect Divorce," p. 560)

To put it simply, MENJ has understood that the Quran in Sura 2:229-230 is stating that there must be three pronouncements of divorce before the actual divorce takes place, but not because this is the plain meaning of the verses. Rather, he received this understanding from the hadith literature or Muslim scholars. But these same sources also teach that there are certain expressions that one can utter which count as three pronouncements, thereby initiating an actual irrevocable divorce. Hence, if a person out of anger mistakenly utters words which count as three divorce pronouncements then, according to Sura 2:230, that person cannot return to his wife until she has married someone else, had sex with him, and either been divorced by that second spouse or widowed!


Muhammad's example demonstrates that Sura 4:130, which MENJ quotes to illustrate the "unparalleled justice" in Islam and which supposedly surpasses the "unclarity" of the Bible, is anything but just. Muhammad wanted to divorce one of his wives simply because she was overweight and old. Muhammad's example is in fact "paralleled" because it looks like Hollywood.

Next, the Quranic divorce procedure in Sura 2:228-230, which is touted as being merciful and clear, is actually unmerciful and unclear. These verses do not explicitly order a third pronouncement, so this implies that a couple may "divorce" twice without actually divorcing in the normal sense of that word. The couple lives in a kind of limbo. And since the husband is superior to his wife and therefore has the final authority in the Muslim household, this limbo tortures the wife more often than the husband. How is this merciful and clear?

Thus, the central thesis of the original article posted at Answering Islam is affirmed: the Quran requires a second marriage to another man and the divorce of this second marriage before the original couple is allowed to reunite. Strangely, but not surprisingly, that is the only clear aspect in Sura 2:228-230.

So much for MENJ’s arguments about the "unparalleled justice" (MENJ’s words) behind Islam’s laws on divorce.

MENJ proceeds to assault the Holy Bible. We will deal with those claims in Part 2: Divorce according to the Old and New Testaments.


{1} The Council of American Islamic Relationships (CAIR) actually distributes this book free of charge for the asking (here). We encourage our readers to request their free copy of this book.

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