Polygamy in Islam: What It Means?
Almost thirty years ago, I was a young man who had recently arrived in Ireland from Pakistan. Ireland was a deeply religious country, mostly Catholic. Back then it was not a politically active country on the international stage. The wars in the Middle East had just started. America had attacked Iraq. Islam was coming into focus for the Westerners.
The Irish are very friendly and happy people. Working in the hospital, the most common question I faced was “Can you marry four women?” I was young and naive with little knowledge of my own religion. According to my limited understanding the answer to this question was an emphatic yes. When I asked the “religious scholars,” they also defended polygamy vigorously. Of course some of them who could perceive the irony hidden in this question tried to recount the benefits and virtues of polygamy. None was willing to place any limitations on it. What if the woman was chronically sick? What if she was unable to bear children? What if there were more women in the society than men such as in times of war? I also memorized these benefits and defended polygamy without any restrictions. But deep down my soul could not accept these explanations. If a wife is chronically sick, should the husband abandon her and go enjoy with a new wife? If she could not bear children for him, instead of getting treatment should he marry another woman? What about adoption? I was not content with these explanations. “Religious scholars” could not answer such questions intelligently. They just parroted what they had learned in the “madrassa.” There was no intellectual depth in their explanations. There was not even recognition from them that polygamy was a disaster for the first wife.
I understood then that religion cannot be learned from these “religious scholars.” At the same time I could not accept that the religion of Islam has no good explanation for polygamy or that it sought oppression of women.
Now many years later with much study and discussion with “non-religious” but sharp and smart Muslims, I have a much better understanding of this issue as well as many others facing the religion of Islam today.
In the present day, Islam is under attack at two fronts. One is the issue of Violent Jihad. I don’t mean the fight in the Middle East as that is mostly a geo-political issue and has nothing to do with Islam. I mean the extreme intolerance of different views among the Muslims. Muslims are killing other Muslims just for a difference in the interpretation of religion. Their sensitivities are extreme. They are easily provoked by inconsequential issues. They are quick in declaring other Muslims as infidels and an enemy of Islam and are willing to kill unarmed civilians, women and children. They have created many idols such as their religious leaders and many revered figures from the past. Any perceived insult of these idols can result in a violent attack on the perpetrator. This extreme ideology is being promoted by the leaders of the religion for their personal benefits.
The other front is the teachings of the religion of Islam most commonly the women issues, family law and criminal law. Polygamy is one such issue.
Polygamy is when a man has more than one wife at the same time.
No woman could agree with polygamy. No wife would like to share her husband with another woman. Yet when it happens, against the wishes of the first wife, many of them would accept this less than perfect arrangement and prefer this over getting a divorce. The reasons of this acceptance could be many but following few are the most common.
1. Financial dependence of woman on her husband, due to lack of education, vocational skills and permission or opportunity to work.
2. Societal and family pressure to maintain the marriage no matter what.
3. Religious indoctrination and flawed explanation of the scriptures.
But as God predicted in the Holy Quran, women issues are gaining more importance. Many religions and countries are addressing them. In most Western countries polygamy is against the law. Almost all major religions have renounced polygamy despite no prohibition in their scriptures. Islam is the only religion which allows and in some instances promotes polygamy. This statement may be shocking to some Muslims, but is a fact. What Islam says about polygamy is very different from what the Muslims believe it to be.
There is permission in the Holy Quran for polygamy, but with restrictions and limitations.
The verse of the Holy Quran which grants permission for polygamy is in the context of the orphans. This is the translation of it:
And give to the orphans their wealth. And do not take filth in exchange of what is pure. And do not embezzle their wealth by mixing it with yours. This is indeed a great sin.
And if you fear that you will not be just in the matter of the orphans then marry the women which you like, two three or four. But if you fear that you will not be equitable between them, then marry only one, or those whom your right hands possess. This is the least you could do to avoid injustice. (Ch. 4, Verse 3 & 4)
It is clear from this verse that the permission of polygamy is in the context of orphans. This is not a general permission. It means that if you were the guardian of orphan girls you may wish to marry one of them. Since they are orphans and you are the guardian, you may be unjust to them by not giving them their bridal gift (mehr). In that case you should marry other women who have societal support and you will have to deal with them justly. Even in this context the permission is restricted and comes with instructions. Marry only four at the most. It should be proper marriage with all the legal rights of marriage. There should be equity between the wives. Do not bend on the side of one and leave the others hanging. (Ch. 4, Verse 130) And most of all the purpose of this permission is so the man does not commit sin. There are women under his supervision and the situation is ripe for sin.
A widespread interpretation of this verse, attributed to the Prophet’s wife Ayesha is that it concerns orphan girls who were vulnerable to abuse by their male guardians. Since an orphan girl’s guardian was often also her wakil (advocate) – the male guardian was legally able to give her in marriage – he might seek to marry her to himself or others without her consent, seek to marry her himself for a discounted bridal gift (mehr), or refuse to marry her to anyone in order to keep her wealth for himself while mistreating her. The verse instructs men who might be tempted toward these abusive practices to marry women not in their custody and thus not vulnerable to these abuses. (Jami al biyan an ta wilay al Quran by Muhammad ibn Jarir al Tabari, Tafsir al Quran al-Azim by Imad al DinAbul Fida Ismail ibn Umar ibn Kathir)
This is the only verse of the Holy Quran which permits polygamy. There is no other place in the entire book where polygamy is permitted. As with all permissions there has to be conditions and restrictions. Just as an example, when the speed limit is 40 miles an hour and the sign is posted on the road, it does not mean that everyone has to drive at this speed. The circumstances of the traffic will determine the speed and we can still be stopped by the police and charged with reckless driving even when we are driving under the speed limit. So the context and circumstances are important when a permission is being used. We also see that this disclaimer is not posted with every road sign. But somewhere in the law it is mentioned and people know it. Even when they claim ignorance this is not a legal defense. Same is true of all permission in the religion. They are only permissions and can be used only when the right circumstances exist. Otherwise they will be considered illegal and their use can bring investigation and punishment. This is also an accepted principal of Islamic Jurisprudence (Fiqah). Wudu is necessary only when it is time for prayers. Otherwise it is not required.
Talking about polygamy the Promised Messiah (as) said:
About polygamy it is clear words of two, three or four in the Holy Quran. But in the same verse equity is also mandated. If equity is not possible or love goes only in one direction, or the resources are limited or he is impotent then one should not marry more than one wife. In my view it is best that one should not do this, because God says in the Holy Quran, “He does not like those who cross the limits” (Ch. 2: Verse 191). (Malfuzat Vol 1, page 154)
At another place he says:
The Law of God should never be used against its intent. Nor should it be made an excuse for the carnal desires. This would be a sin. God says this again and again that you should not be overcome with canal desires. In every matter righteousness should be your goal. If polygamy is practiced for carnal desires by making sharia an excuse, the only result would be that the other nations will raise objections that Muslims have nothing else to do except polygamy. Fornication is not the only sin. Getting overwhelmed with carnal desires is sin. Influence of this world should be minimal in one’s life, so you can be a reflection of the verse, “Laugh less and weep more” (Ch. 9, Verse 82) One who has too much indulgence in this world and he is busy in his wives day and night, when would he be weeping? Most people are such that they follow one view and do everything for it but fall away from the real purpose of God. Even when God has granted permission for certain things it does not mean that the entire life is spent doing them. God says in praise of his servants that they spend all night prostrating and standing before Him. (Ch. 25, Verse 65) Now look at the person who is busy in his wives day and night. He is only creating associates with God. (Malfuzat Vol. 4 page 50-51)
In the context of polygamy this is clearly illustrated by the writings of the first Ahmadi preacher in the USA, Hadhrat Mufti Muhammad Sadiq. He writes in “Muslim Sunrise” in July of 1921:
I have not come here to teach plurality of wives. If a Muslim will ever preach or practice polygamy in America he will be committing a sin against his religion. This was my reply to the immigration officer’s first question put to me when I reached the American shore. In the religion of Islam there are some commandments and some permissions. I must always follow the commandments, but the permissions can be avoided. For example, Islam commands that we must worship One God and permits that I may eat beef. No government can make me worship more than One God. But if I go to a country where the government does not allow cow-killing and beef-eating (as in some parts of India), there, I as a Muslim will never eat beef. ….. For another example, Islam commands that I must obey the Law of the government under which I live. And polygamy, even if allowed with all its limitations and conditions, falls under the category of permissions and not commandments. And that permission is taken away under the commandment that I must obey the law of the ruling government of the country. If a Muhammadan in Europe or America marries more than one wife he violates not only the law of his country, but also a great commandment of his Faith. Thus the religion of Islam PROHIBITS polygamy for the Muhammadans in Europe and America. No Muslim can ever think of plurality of wives here. His religion does not allow it. (Muslim Sunrise, July 1921)
Permissions of the Holy Quran apply only when a need or circumstances exist. Use of these permissions without need or justification is a sin. One example is Jihad (War to protect the core religious rights. It does not include political wars). The concept of Jihad is so important in Islam that “Qital” is mentioned in the Holy Quran more often than “Salat!” But in the current day nearly every Muslim would agree that “Qital” (violent jihad) is not applicable. (because everyone is free to practice their religion) If circumstances changed surely it will come into action again, but not under the current circumstances. We are also aware that the permission of jihad has many limitations and rules that come with it. (Migration before jihad. God’s land is vast) Even when jihad becomes necessary, there are rules and regulations. In exactly the same way in the present day, the need for polygamy does not exist. Orphans are not under the control of individuals. There are governmental institutions taking care of them. Moreover regulations and rules must be followed to make sure that women are not being abused. These could include an assessment of mental status of a man to determine if he needs psychological counselling or to identify physical defects such as impotence, etc. Medical assessment of infertility should also be performed in relevant cases. Stigma against adoption should be addressed by campaigns of public education during Friday sermons. The financial ability of the man should also be evaluated. After all if a permission is granted to proceed with polygamy, the relationship should be constantly monitored to make sure that the man is following the intent and word of the Holy Quran perfectly.
It is clear that the religion of Islam has been used extensively to usurp the rights of women over the centuries. The dire situation of women in Muslim countries is a testament to this tragedy. Women are forced to follow the desires of men on the pretext of their religion. It is time according to the prophecy of the Holy Quran to address this injustice and set it right.