Relationships Before Marriage According to the Quran
The Qur'an encourages marriage but does not prohibit a relationship before marriage with a potential marriage partner. Part of verse 2:235 refers to marriage stating, 'do not make a promise of marriage to them in secret except speaking an honourable saying'. As is often the case with interpretation of the Qur'an, the meaning becomes clear when considering the full context of the verse. In this case, reading verse 2:234 immediately before this verse reveals that the verses are referring to women whose husbands have died and they are in a 'prescribed term' which has to pass before they remarry:
Those of you who die and leave spouses behind them, they shall wait four months and ten days, and when they have fulfilled their term, there is no sin on you if they dispose of themselves in a just and honourable manner. God is well-acquainted with all that you do. You commit no error whether you make a hint of marriage or conceal it in yourself, God knows that you will remember them, but do not make a promise of marriage to them in secret except speaking an honourable saying. Do not confirm the marriage until the term prescribed is fulfilled. Know that God knows what is in your minds, so be conscious of Him. Know that God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Forbearing. (2:234-235)
The prescribed term is described as 'four months and ten days' in the above passage. Therefore, verse 2:235 is specifically referring to a ruling of not making promises of marriage to a woman who is still within that refraining period of four months and ten days. The verse is not a general prohibition of discussing marriage with a potential marriage partner.
In verse 4:23, a list of women is outlined whom a man is forbidden to marry. In the next verse, marriage is encouraged with those whom we are allowed to marry and God specifically mentions we can choose whomever we like for marriage:
And the emancipated from the women-except those committed to by your oath-is God's decree over you. And it is permitted for you to seek beyond this category that you employ your wealth, to be emancipated, not for illicit sex. So, for those of them you find pleasing, then you shall give them their dowries as an obligation; and there is no sin upon you for what you agree on after the obligation. God is Knowledgeable, Wise. (4:24)
The emphasis in the above verse is marriage while avoiding illicit sexual activities and encouraging permissible marriage to those whom we choose or have a liking for. In other words, the verse is about avoiding promiscuity/adultery but at the same time it is clear that God does not discourage using our own initiative for finding a suitable marriage partner.
In the verse below, God highlights that both men and women have been created in this world so that they may know one another. Hence, when seeking a potential marriage partner, God makes no restriction on making friends with the opposite gender for the purpose of general friendship or potential marriage:
Oh mankind, We created you from a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another. (49:13)
In the verse below, God explicitly states that believing males and females are friends to one another. As such, there is no prohibition on good interaction between males and females, for general friendship or potential marriage:
The believing males and the believing females are friends to one another. (9:71)
Note that the above verses do not restrict a male and female from meeting up on their own for the purpose of finding out more about each other or for social reasons. As long as the male and female have good intentions, this can be a good way of finding a potential marriage partner or to make new friends.
The following two verses encourage marriage but prohibit taking 'illicit partners':
And whoever of you cannot afford to marry the emancipated female believers, then from those committed to by your oath of the believing young women. And God is more aware of your faith, some of you to each other. You shall marry them with the permission of their parents, and give them their dowries in kindness. To be emancipated-not for illegal sexual intercourse or taking illicit partners. Once they are emancipated, then any of them who comes with an immorality shall have half of what is upon those already emancipated of the punishment. This is for those who fear a hardship from among you, but if you are patient it is better for you. And God is Forgiver, Merciful. (4:25)
Today, the good things have been made permissible to you, and the food of those who have been given the Book is permissible for you, and your food is permissible for them. And the emancipated females from those who are believers, and the emancipated females from those who have been given the Book before you; on condition that you give them their dowries. To be emancipated- not for illegal sexual intercourse or illicit partners. And whoever rejects belief, then his work has fallen, and in the Hereafter he is of the losers. (5:5)
The Arabic word used for 'illicit partners' is AKHDAN, based on the trilateral root letters Kha-Da-Na خ د ن , which according to Arabic Lexicons relates to an 'amorous companion' with a 'sensual appetency'. This kind of companion cannot be equally compared to a committed and sincere relationship between a couple who are intending and aiming for marriage. The verses refer to individuals who engage in illicit and meaningless relationships, or temporary 'love affairs', which are very different to faithful, loyal and committed relationships with marriage as their goal.
We may ask the question: 'If the Qur'an encourages people to get married, why should a couple remain in a relationship before marriage?' The answer is provided by verse 24:33, in which God acknowledges there are circumstances when a couple are not able to get married immediately, when they are encouraged to remain chaste until marriage is possible:
Let those who cannot find the ability to get married keep themselves chaste until God enriches them of His Bounty. (24:33)
In conclusion, if a couple like each other in a solely faithful relationship and they are sincere, committed and aiming for marriage like the Qur'an encourages, this is a very permissible type of relationship and is unlike the illicit relationships mentioned in the Qur'an. There are verses in the Qur'an which encourage positive interaction between males and females and allow potential couples to meet up, learn more about each other and become friends. In the situation where a faithful couple like or love each other, God does not say that they should stop having these affections, nor that they should immediately get married regardless of their circumstances. Instead, God encourages patience, but does not prohibit committed relationships until marriage is possible. By avoiding illicit type of love affairs and unlawful sexual activity, it is possible to remain chaste in a lawful relationship with a potential marriage partner. If the aim is for marriage and the couple are committed, sincere and faithful, there is no reason why such relationships would not be blessed or approved by God.