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What does this verse mean? What message is it conveying

And give orphans their properties, and do not substitute the bad for the good. And do not consume their properties by combining them with yours, for that would be a serious sin.

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The verse you are asking about is:

وَآتُوا الْيَتَامَىٰ أَمْوَالَهُمْ وَلَا تَتَبَدَّلُوا الْخَبِيثَ بِالطَّيِّبِ وَلَا تَأْكُلُوا أَمْوَالَهُمْ إِلَىٰ أَمْوَالِكُمْ إِنَّهُ كَانَ حُوبًا كَبِيرًا

And give to the orphans their properties and do not substitute the defective [of your own] for the good [of theirs]. And do not consume their properties into your own. Indeed, that is ever a great sin.

— Surat An-Nisa' 4:2

And give to the orphans their properties (Arabic: وَآتُوا الْيَتَامَىٰ أَمْوَالَهُمْ)

The word "orphans" in this verse is used in its generic form to mean those who are orphans and those who were orphans before:

  1. For the current orphans (i.e., those who have not reached adulthood or puberty), the verse is referring to feeding, dressing and lodging said orphans by their guardian.
  2. For the ones who were orphans but have reached adulthood (i.e., no longer orphans) is to give them their full property (money, gold, real estate, etc.) for them to manage as they will with no further guardianship.

It is documented in multiple books of tafsīr that this verse was revealed to the Prophet ﷺ after a man from Ghatafān who was the guardian of an orphan boy, and upon reaching adulthood, he refused to give the orphan his property (no reason was given for his denying him his property). When the verse was revealed, the guardian returned the full property to the boy, and the boy donated all of his property to charity.

Worth noting is that the word ātu (Arabic: آتُوا), meaning to give or to bring forth, is in the plural form. Some scholars interpret this as being the collective duty of the society, not just the guardian, to provide means of living to the orphans and to return their property to them upon reaching adulthood.

And do not substitute the defective of your own for the good of theirs (Arabic: وَلَا تَتَبَدَّلُوا الْخَبِيثَ بِالطَّيِّبِ)

As-Suddi further explained that some guardians used to take a well-sized healthy sheep from the orphans' property and replace it with a smaller and weaker one from his, and say "a sheep for a sheep." Allah ﷻ forbids us to do such swaps of non-equivalent in an unfair manner. This was the opinion of Said ibn al-Musayyib and Az-Zuhri.

It was said that the verse is more general and that Allah ﷻ forbids us to leave what is defective but halāl from our own rightly-earned property at large for the sake of what is better but harām, being not rightfully ours, from the property of the orphans. This was the explanation given by Sufyan al-Thawri and Sa'id ibn Jubayr.

And do not consume their properties into your own (Arabic: وَلَا تَأْكُلُوا أَمْوَالَهُمْ إِلَىٰ أَمْوَالِكُمْ)

Mujahid ibn Jabr, Sa'id ibn Jubayr, and As-Suddi said this verse forbids us to mix our property with that of the orphans then declare them inseparable and take the entire property for ourselves. Mujahid ibn Jabr further added that the Arabs used to take from both properties (theirs and the orphans') to provide the daily food. The verse forbids doing so, but some scholars say this verse was abrogated by Qur'an 2:220 when it became increasingly difficult for the companions to observe the separation of properties.

Indeed, that is ever a great sin (Arabic: إِنَّهُ كَانَ حُوبًا كَبِيرًا)

Ibn 'Abbas said that hūb (Arabic: حوب) in this verse means sin. Therefore, this verse says that doing any of the above-mentioned forbidden acts constitute a great sin. This was also the opinion of Al-Hasan, Qatada ibn al-Nu'man, Mujahid ibn Jabr, Sa'id ibn Jubayr, Ibn Sirin, among others.


References

Multiple books of tafsīr were used in the answer above:

  • Al-Jāmi' li Ahkām al-Qur'an (Arabic: الجامع لأحكام القرآن), Shams ad-Din al-Qurtubi, 2nd Ed., Cairo, Egypt: Dār al-Kutub al-Masriyya, 1964.

  • At-Tafsīr al-Wasīt li al-Qur'an al-Karīm (Arabic: التفسير الوسيط للقرآن الكريم), Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy, 1st Ed., Cairo, Egypt: Dār Nahdat Misr, 1997-1998.

  • Ma'ālim at-Tanzīl fi Tafsīr al-Qur'an (Arabic: معالم التنزيل في تفسير القرآن), Abu Muhammad al-Husayn ibn Mas'ud al-Baghawi, 1st Ed., Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Dār Tība, 1997.

  • Tafsīr al-Qur'an al-Adhīm (Arabic: تفسير القرآن العظيم), Ismail Ibn Kathir, 1st Ed., Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-Kutub al-'Ilmiyya, 1999.

  • Taisīr Al-Karīm Ar-Rahmān fi Tafsīr Kalām Al-Mannān (Arabic: تيسير الكريم الرحمن في تفسير كلام المنان), Abdur-Rahman ibn Nasir as-Sa'di, 1st Ed., Mu'assast ar-Risāla, 2000.

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