Polygamy in Islam

Reviewing by : A.J. Kassem

Polygamy in Islam

Legitimacy -  conditions-   Its purpose


  • An Introduction:

   Marriage in Islam is a noble relationship which is strongly recommended for adults.  Unlawful sexual relations are forbidden and considered adultery, a major sin and a punishable crime. Also, they are a disgrace in most social customs around the world. In the Islamic religion, there is freedom for a man to have more than one wife (polygyny), if he can bear the associated responsibilities. No person is forced to live with a spouse if they are not compatible, and there are several options if one or both spouses chooses to separate, such as male or female-initiated divorce or nullification.

   Polygyny is an acceptable family arrangement for Muslims who believe that God sent guidance in the form of revelation to perfect human behaviors and distinguish them from other creatures. Although He gave us free will, it is God's preference for mankind to follow specific rules in life as He knows what is best for us. Therefore, God specified that humans should fulfill their sexual needs only through lawful relations that give the woman her rights and support human dignity and pride. God is aware of all human needs, psychological and biological structures, so God's law is the most dynamic and beneficial. The Most Merciful says in the Quran, 

{ أَلَا يَعْلَمُ مَنْ خَلَقَ وَهُوَ اللَّطِيفُ الْخَبِيرُ }الملك14 .

"Should not He Who has created know? And He is the Most Kind and Well-Acquainted (with everything)" {AlMulk, 14}

In Islamic law, the woman is cared for, protected and supported by the man. The man here means the closest relatives beginning with the husband, if she is married, and then her father, brothers, grandfather, sons and uncles. In Islamic law, the supporter is expected to protect the woman's dignity as well as support her financially. A woman in Islam is not obligated to work to live unless she chooses to do so. There is no system in the world that protects, supports and helps women as comprehensively as the Islamic system.

Those who state that a woman’s life is miserable under Islamic law and polygyny is not a proper way of life in the era of knowledge, development, civilization globalization and freedom do so out of ignorance, enmity, or both, taking laws and history out of context.

Concerning the context of this issue, when Islam came, some men used to have ten or more wives. For example, Ghelan Ibn Omayyah had ten wives when he converted to Islam. The Prophet, peace be upon him, told him to choose only four to keep and divorce the rest of them.   Also, Al-Harith Ibn-Qays said, "I converted to Islam and had eight wives. I mentioned this to the Prophet and he said to me, “choose four of them”. Therefore, allowing up to four wives actually limited the number for the best interests of all parties while still allowing for the flexibility of choice necessary for the religion to be compatible with all cultures.  Also, it should be noted that all major religions, including Judaism and Christianity did allow for the possibility of multiple wives until people decided to change this rule for their own purposes and agendas. Also, polygyny is the norm in many African and other cultures. Therefore, we should understand that polygamy is not only an Islamic practice because it existed before Islam and in world cultures. Islam only made it a just and controlled practice.

 Allah says in the Quran:

{ فَانكِحُواْ مَا طَابَ لَكُم مِّنَ النِّسَاء مَثْنَى وَثُلاَثَ وَرُبَاعَ فَإِنْ خِفْتُمْ أَلاَّ تَعْدِلُواْ فَوَاحِدَةً أَوْ مَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُكُمْ ذَلِكَ أَدْنَى أَلاَّ تَعُولُواْ } النساء3.

"Then marry women of your choice, two, three or four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with them, then only one or (the women) that your right hand possess.  That is nearer to prevent you from doing injustice" {Annisaa, 3}

The application of the permission to marry more than one woman is conditional upon one’s ability to deal justly with them, especially with respect to the allocation of time, money, and resources, such as housing.

Imam AlQortobi’s interpretation of the mentioned verse was that the word “one” indicates  a prohibition on increasing the numbers of wives in a way that will that lead to injustice in treating wives, implying that justice is an obligation not a choice. Imams Ibn Katheer, Al-Showkani and Al Baghawi also had similar interpretations of the same verse.

Shaikh Al-Sadi says, in his interpretation of the same verse, that polygyny is allowed if a person can definitely be just, fair and confident that he will give his wives all of their rights equally, otherwise, he should have only one wife. Justice is the main and most important condition of polygyny from the prophetic age onward, as stated by God in the Qur'an, strongly   recommended by the Prophet, peace be upon him, and explained clearly by the scholars of Islam. 

Islam is a life system for humans. It is realistic, logical and compatible with human nature for all in all places in all times. Its values and principles take human dignity in to consideration for a better life and cleaner society.  Polygyny was legalized and allowed for many apparent reasons.  For example, there are more women than men in most societies because men are killed in wars, accidents, get sick and die earlier, and travel for business. This often leaves women in the house without protection or support.  Additionally, these days most men don't get married or delay marriage for financial reasons.  Furthermore, with the recent emergence of homosexuality as an acceptable gender orientation, many more men are becoming ineligible or unwilling to get married and support a family. Therefore, in this situation, there are only three choices:

1-A man marries only one woman and leaves other women single for the rest of their lives in a game of musical chairs vying for limited family positions.

2-A man marries only one woman but gets involved with others unlawfully, betraying himself and his wife.

3-A man marries more than one woman lawfully, solving this social problem for a better society.

Although the third family arrangement is, most likely, not ideal for any of the women involved, it is considered the best solution for the greater good in many cases because it is important that every woman is helped, supported and protected so she can live with pride, dignity and free from extra financial responsibilities.

Polygyny can be a solution for widows with children who are unlikely to be accepted by single men. Similarly, unattractive or deformed/disabled women can be second wives for capable men.  Although some scholars of Islam say that a woman may stipulate the condition of being the only wife for the man before marriage, this means that she will have the choice to leave the marriage, and the man will make his choice, as well.

In general, it is better for a woman to be a second wife than to be single for the rest of her life, living alone, having illegal sexual relations and, possibly, becoming a single parent. It should also be considered that the fertility period of a woman, lasting up to the age of fifty, is shorter than that of a man, which can last to the age of eighty or beyond. So, if every man marries only one woman until she reaches menopause while he is still fertile, his fertility will be wasted if he stays with her, she will be abandoned if he marries again, or he will have relations with a mistress or girlfriend, which is considered to be repugnant and ultimately damaging to everyone’s reputation and lives.

Some westerners have advocated the idea of polygyny in society. Gostav Lubon said, "Polygamy is a good system. It raises the ethical standard of nations, strengthens family bonds and gives women respect and happiness that is not found in Europe"

Bernard Shaw said, " Europe will be forced to turn to Islam (for its solutions to social problems( before the end of the twentieth century, wanted or not".

After evaluating the issue of the permissibility of polygyny as a valid family structure for those who freely choose it, it is clear that its benefits outweigh its disadvantages for individuals and society.  If modern western nations, such as America, can debate the issue of allowing two men or women to be considered married to each other, with no possibility of natural child-bearing, as an issue of personal choice and freedom, then, surely, we are prepared to seriously consider the legalization of and respect for a man marrying multiple wives, as we find in nature and in human history, out of personal choice as well.

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