Polygamy, or co-marriage to multiple wives, is discussed in the Quran as a response to a specific social situation. In the context of war-torn society in seventh-century Arabia, one which left many women widowed and children orphaned, the discussion of polygamy was revealed as part of a directive to treat female orphans justly. It was not advocated as a carte blanche to all Muslim men to allow them to fulfill their sexual desires, as is commonly misinterpreted.
Polygamy should be viewed as a component of justice in the treatment of widows, but is mainly conditioned upon the need to offer fair care to orphans, according to the literal reading of the verse. It served a functional purpose for that time period, in allowing widows and orphans to be taken care of in a society in which women usually did not have independent means of financial support. But the text is clear that polygamy is only permissible if all wives are treated justly. The Quran then goes on to say that it will never be possible for a husband to treat all of his wives fairly. This effectively limits the possibility of polygamy today. A detailed rendering of the relevant verses in Surah an Nisaa follows.
"And if you have reason to fear that you might not act equitably towards orphans, then marry from among [other] women such as are lawful to you - [even] two, or three, or four: but if you have reason to fear that you might not be able to treat them with equal fairness, then [only] one - or [from among] those whom you rightfully posses. This will make it more likely that you will not deviate from the right course." (Surah an Nisaa - Women, 4:3). The first imperative in this verse is to deal justly with orphans, and is directed towards their male guardians who would be managing their property or wealth on their behalf. Marriage to female orphans is only advocated if and when the guardian fears that he will not be able to carry out his duty honestly. The assumption is that marriage to the orphan will give the husband a greater stake in carrying out his financial responsibility towards her. It does not by any means represent a requirement for all male guardians to marry their female wards. Second, the verse emphasizes justice towards the wife/wives as well. In other words, polygamy is only possible if the husband will be able to treat his wives justly. Otherwise, he is to marry only one wife, or even a female slave. 1 The key theme is to prevent him from doing injustice towards the woman (or women) concerned. 2 "And it will not be within your power to treat your wives with equal fairness, however much you may desire it; and so, do not allow yourselves to incline towards one to the exclusion of the other, leaving her in a state, as it were, of having and not having a husband. But if you put things to rights and are conscious of Him-behold, God is indeed much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace" (Surah an Nisaa- Women, 4:129).
Polygamy is treated variably in the legal codes of different Muslim countries. While Tunisian and Moroccan personal status law prohibit polygamy altogether, 3 Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Malaysia have made polygamy subject to court permission, and only granted when certain conditions are fulfilled. These "include the infertility of the existing wife, attainment of a "lawful benefit", the just character of the husband and his financial ability to maintain a second wife. Some countries have also stipulated the consent of the existing wife to the proposed marriage, which must be given before the court." 4 However, these conditions do not have any express Quranic sanction, and are determined through social custom and practice.
In conclusion, we subscribe to monogamy as the preferred norm for marriages today. Polygamy is not necessary or relevant today for two main reasons. One, the specific historical context that legitimized polygamy does not exist today. Women have more choices allowing them to be financially independent, even in cases where they are widowed or orphaned. The second, and more compelling reason, is the imperative to do justice, which prohibits having multiple wives, since, as human beings, men cannot ever be perfectly fair and just among them.
1. This is specifically relevant to the social structure of Arabian society at the time, since female slaves or concubines were common. It should not be interpreted today as a sanction for slavery.
2. Barlas, pp. 190-191
3. Tunisian Law of 1957 and the Moroccan Law of 1958, respectively.
4. Kamali, Fredoom, Equality and Justice in Islam, p.77.
Excerpted from the book "In Pursuit of Justice".
IN PURSUIT OF JUSTICE
This book covers various human rights subject matters from an Islamic perspective. Subjects include Justice, Constitutionalism, Democracy, Sanctity of Life, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, The Status of Women etc.
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Following is the background of the main author of this book:
Maher Hathout is a leading spokesperson for the American Muslim community, is a retired physician best known for his tireless commitment to public service. He is an international figure who is highly regarded as a positive voice of Islam offering a unique and valuable perspective on national and international issues involving Muslims. Among the numerous offices he holds, Dr. Hathout is MPAC's (Muslim Public Affairs Council) Senior Advisor. He is also a Charter Member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, the western partner of the Council on Foreign Relations, and sits on the Board of Directors of the Interfaith Alliance. Dr. Hathout has been invited to Capitol Hill and the State Department several times to address a variety of topics such as "Islam and U.S. Policy," "Islamic Democracy," "Emerging Trends in Islamic Movements," and "the Future of the Middle East." He has traveled to Australia, Egypt, Kuwait, Malaysia, Pakistan, and South Africa to lecture on Islam and Muslims. Dr. Hathout has written extensively on Islam, human rights, democracy, Middle East politics, and Bosnia. His articles and interviews have appeared in such prominent newspapers as The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Christian Science Monitor. He appears frequently on national television and radio talk shows.
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