Relationships Before Marriage in 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 honorable 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 honorable 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." (Qur'an 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. Throughout the Qur'an, marriage is encouraged with those whom we are allowed to marry and God specifically shuns sex outside of marriage (i.e. illicit sex, fornication). Acts of fornication and adultery are seen as an abomination in the Qur'an.
The emphasis in several Quranic verses are to marry and avoid illicit sexual activities, while encouraging permissible marriage to those whom we desire. 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 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, or chaste relationships for potential marriage:
"The believing males and the believing females are friends to one another." (Qur'an 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 verse encourages marriage but prohibits taking 'illicit partners':
"...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." (Qur'an 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." (Qur'an 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 and learn more about each other. 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.