Islam 5.5 Polygamy
Objectives: to consider and explain the practice of polygamy.
Polygamy: being married to more than one person at once.
Polygyny: is the most common and accepted form of polygamy, entailing the marriage of a man with more than one woman.
Consider: Would it better to be one of a few wives instead of being on your own? Could polygamy mean that fewer children grow up lonely? A man who wants a child may benefit from having more than one wife.
The Qur’an allows men to have up to four wives. This is known as polygamy. The Prophet (peace be upon him) had several wives, as did his Companions. The Prophets of the Bible also engaged in polygyny, such as Abraham, Solomon and others.
A man is allowed to marry two, three or four women due to the saying of Allāh:
فَانكِحُوا مَا طَابَ لَكُم مِّنَ النِّسَاءِ مَثْنَىٰ وَثُلَاثَ وَرُبَاعَ ۖ فَإِنْ خِفْتُمْ أَلَّا تَعْدِلُوا فَوَاحِدَةً
“So, marry other women of your choice, two or three, or four but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with them, then marry only one…” An-Nisaa 4: 3
Shaikh Al-Fawzān stated: “So a man is able to marry a free single woman (if she agrees), and it is allowed for him to marry up to four. The benefits of polygamy are numerous both for the husband and his wives – and these benefits are not concealed from the person who has true insight, because if a man was restricted to just one woman whilst there are numerous women in a society, then many women will be deprived of husbands.” He continued: “Men have to take on the responsibility of maintenance and care over the women, whilst the women are looked after. So the woman is in an advantageous position because she is maintained, cared for, and is given a dwelling to live in as well as the fulfilment of passions. So this is to her advantage and benefit also, so she does not remain single, deprived of a (loving, caring and responsible) husband.”
Only men who are certain that they can treat all their wives fairly are allowed to marry more than one wife. That means, among other things, that they must be able to provide the same standard of housing, food and clothing for each wife, and treat each one with equal kindness and consideration as well as spending time with them equally. The Qur’an reminds men that to treat wives with justice is very hard; which (in reality) rules out polygamy for most men.
It is unfortunate that promiscuous sexual behaviour, fornication and adultery have become normal practices in many societies while plural Islamic marriage for men is outlawed; and people are indoctrinated (from an early age) into believing that polygyny is oppressive, demeaning to women and violates women’s rights (even if those women choose to be co-wives).
The question begs: Which of the many codes of behaviour in our times gives women their true rights, gives them the respect they deserve, protects them from exploitation and gives them the ability to make reasoned choices?
In adulterous and promiscuous relationships, women are treated like sexual objects having no rights over the man who uses them and discards them. These men are not called to account, they conceal their mistresses and sexual exploits from their wives, their mothers and families. The girlfriend (or mistress) is treated like a creature to be ashamed of, who must be hidden from the family and only of use for sexual gratification; the (in the meantime) wife is deceived into thinking that her husband is a loyal and loving man! Men often visit prostitutes or “sex-workers” and view filthy pornography on websites; the dramatic increase in street prostitution, brothels and online pornography all proves that this is a fast-growing industry.
How can any of this be preferable to a legitimate marriage? How many married men (or young men) are saved from these transgressions? That is why Islam gives the Muslims and society at large wise, honourable far-reaching solutions that protect citizens from disorder, chaos, disharmony, and self-harm that comes about as a result of family breakdown, promiscuity, prostitution, sex outside of marriage, etc. A balanced and caring society does not outlaw good family practices while permitting immoral and indecent sexual behaviour (in the name of liberalism and freedom).
So, in an Islamic polygynous marriage, a woman is provided for, honoured, shielded from harm, sheltered (provided with a home that she lives in as her own), she inherits from her husband after he death, her children are considered legitimate and given full rights of kinship, lineage and inheritance. In short, she and her children are fully fledged equal members of the family, and not oppressed.
Part of a marriage contract:
From the husband: “While I am married to you, I will not take another wife except with your approval. If it is Allah’s will that I cannot father children for you, and if He has made my body in such a way that this is impossible, then I will allow you a divorce if that is what you want.”
From the wife: “If it is not God’s will that I bear your children, and if He has made my body in such a way that this is impossible, then you may take another wife (who is chaste and righteous). This is preferable to me than divorce.”
- Imagine a situation in society where there were more women than men; what advantages could polygamy have in such a situation?
- Read the extract from the marriage contract above, would you allow your husband (or in the case of males: would you object to your sister’s husband) to take a second wife? What would be your concerns, if any?
- Would you be willing to allow your wife to seek a divorce if you could not bear her children? Give reasons for your answer.
Most men only have one wife but there are some circumstances under which it may be better to have more than one. Islam teaches that it is natural for human beings to want both sexual relations and children and that it would not be right to deny someone the blessing of either of them. It also teaches that marriage is the lawful way that sexual desire can be expressed in Islam. Remember both of these facts as you tackle the next activity:
- Read the two scenarios given below. Explain why polygamy might be the best option in each of these cases. Can you think of any more situations in which polygamy might be the best choice?
Scenario 1: A man wants to have children, but his wife is unable to have any. His options are: to remain childless; to divorce and remarry; or to take another wife.
Scenario 2: A wife becomes seriously ill and unable to satisfy her husband’s sexual needs. His options are: to do without sex; to have sex outside marriage (prostitute or a mistress); to divorce and remarry, or to take another wife.
Summary: You should now be able to explain the practice of polygamy (polygyny), and know that although Muslims believe that God has allowed polygamy, it is a very serious commitment where maintaining justice is important.
- What advantages and disadvantages do you think there could be for children growing up in a family where the father has more than one wife?
Some women prefer to live in stable married relationships as co-wives refusing to be girlfriends to men who have many sexual partners or to be mistresses of unfaithful married men. Do you see why these women would think like that? Explain your thoughts.