A Quranic perspective on Polygamy

Category: Featured, Women, World Affairs Topics: Orphans, Polygamy, Women Values: Justice Views: 24511

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.


Notes:

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
The Jurisprudence of Human Rights in Islam


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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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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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  29 Comments   Comment

  1. Hassan from Saudi Arabia

    What is the Islamic view on polygamy?

    Islam permits polygamy on condition that the husband treats the wives in a just manner. However the number of wives should not exceed four. It is sinful and mean to have extra-marital relations. As per the strict code of Islam, on no account should a man stray towards another woman. A man who cannot satisfy his thirst for sex with one wife is allowed to resort to polygamy. Islam completely bans the heinous practice of disowning responsibility after having sexual relation with a woman. Instead, Islam permits, in unavoidable circumstances, a sacred arrangement for keeping wives legitimately, where they are protected and allowed their rights without any partiality. There are contexts where the practice of polygamy becomes more of a social necessary than a personal need, especially when the number of women in a society exceeds that of men. Generally women out number men. During war times the proportion varies further, as men are more likely into account situations like this, when polygamy becomes socially indispensable, and permits it conditionally.

  2. Altaf from US

    Well Arooj, is it good to marry only one wife just for sexual desires ? so the question of marrying just for sexual desires is irrelevant to polygamy. I think we should be actually advising men not to sleep around and use women as sexual objects. If desire marry them, pay their right due and treat their children's as your own. The need of the hour is discouraging illegal affairs and encouraging right course not vice versa.

    As far fair treatment of wife or wife's, its applies to every one.

    The Author tell us the history of polygamy ? as if Quran and Sunnah failed in this regards ?

    And to the Editor of Islamicity, can you please shed some light on the authors Islamic academic knowledge if any, and under whom he learn Islam (Meaning of Quran and life of Prophet etc..) as required to write articles this subjects dealing as vast as marriages in Islam, and what school of thought he belong if any. His credentials as you describe has no mention of his source of Islamic knowledge.

  3. Aftab from US

    I think this inference of this article is a little misleading. I understand what the author is trying to say but implying some ruling in the quran does not apply to our times is dangerous as it begs the next question as to where do we draw the line?

  4. Arooj from usa

    Response to Sidki's comment

    Where do you even think it says in this article that the author says polygamy isnt allowed in this day? Please read over the article again. There isnt a single paragraph where the author says polgamy is not allowed. He is only clearing misinpertations..that do not marry more wives for wrong reasons like just to please sexual desires. He is telling us the history on which polgamy had started upon. I wish people would read more clearly. It was a good article. Thank you posting this article on your site.

  5. Altaf from Canada

    I am surprised to see why Islamic city is downgrading itself, is it all about getting some commission from sales of this book ? No information is provided about the authors background and qualifications. It seems any A, B and C can write anything they want and promote it on Islamicity.

    Please don't let your credibility goes down by allowing this kinds of unprofessional contents on your website.

  6. Sidiki Konneh from Liberia

    I am taken aback by this author. How on earth can sonme one say that the ayat authorizing polygamy is not applicable to our days. The Ayat remains relevant and applicable till the day of resurrection. There is absolutely no indication time bound in the Ayat. If god had wanted to set a time frame to polygamy, he would definitely had, just as he limited the number of wives to four. Please stop giving false interpretation to the Quran.

  7. Kane Chrif from Mauritania

    Bismillaah hir RAHMAAN nir RAHIIM, all Praises to ALLAAH, the Lord of the Universe and peace and blessings of ALLAAH upon our beloved Prophet (SAW), his family, companions and all Muslims who abide by his way till the end of this world. As'salaamu aleikum wa rahmatullaahi wa barakatuh.

    I do not agree with the author on subscribing to monogamy as the preferred norm for marriages today. The verse in Surah Nisah will be relevant till end of this world as long as the man who wants polygamy fulfills its conditions. Even if today, women have better finanacial status, do not forget their sexual desires. Do not forget too that in almost all countries women are more numerous than men. Moreover, our Prophet (SAW) will compete with the other Prophets (SAW) on the day of judgment with regard to the size of their Ummah. Was'salaamu aleikum wa rahmatullaahi wa barakatuh.

  8. Ameen from US

    To Sylvia

    Your said

    "Yes, I agree having the rights and responsibilities of marriage is better

    than just sleeping around with anyone, but that doesn't make polygamy better than a monogomous marriage in which each spouse has the full attention of the other. Wouldn't the Quran advocate the best possible situation for us? "

    Brother Quran and Sunnah teach us the best way of living and inturn having a peacefull society, yes every one want to live in the best case secnario, but hey we live in real world, and the reality is we do have instances in which there is always some one is vanuaralbe and someone is strong enough to support them and Islam acutally fill this gap and its mercy of Allah to have regulated this so no one can transgress other by expoliting vanurables. Its just one of those islamic obligations which is balancing out the equation between have and have nots. What is more better than a peacefull society.

    Islam not only talk about peace but have practical salutions to bring and protect

    peace. Polygamy is one of the practical saliution to some of our problems.

    Alhumdulillah, for his special mercy on Muslims.

  9. Asif from US

    To Darwin

    .., a majority of Muslims (if not currpted by cultural and western influnce) are the best with regards to women, unlike any other religions Muslim are responsible and support more women (mother, siste, wife, Aunts, Daughters) with dignity, honour and respect not just wifes, dont compare with the wide spread expolitaion of women in west with with the action of few bad apples among Muslims.

  10. Ibn Adam from US

    Its as simple as this,

    There is allways someone is venerable in a society and there is always someone who have more

    than enough to share, in peace or war, if they both accept each other with in the rules and regulations (as per Islam) its good for the whole society and bring peace. Else the venerable will

    suffer. If you appose polygamy you are indirectly supporting evils in the society.

    The Author dosent have a simple maturity and rationality let alone knowledge of Islam to write on this subject.

  11. sylvia from US

    I agree with the article and I think the interpretation is sound. The ayat clearly says, "IF [you cannot treat orphans fairly], THEN [marry up to four women]..." This is a conditional statement, so the first clause must be true before the second can take place.

    Yes, I agree having the rights and responsibilities of marriage is better than just sleeping around with anyone, but that doesn't make polygamy better than a monogomous marriage in which each spouse has the full attention of the other. Wouldn't the Quran advocate the best possible situation for us?

    As far as the "fairness" issue, I think we can learn from the life of Muhammad. First of all, many non-Muslims may not know that he was married at age 25 to Khadija when she was 40. This was a monogomous marriage for around 25 years, until she died, and she was the only wife he had children with. Later, he married several women, mostly older women whom he married largely to cement political ties,not because he was oversexed.

    But even he loved one wife more than the others. He TREATED them all equally because of the kind of human being he was, but even his other wives knew he loved Aisha most, evidenced by the fact that they let him spend his last days alone with her.

    Just because the authors are saying something different than what we are used to hearing doesn't mean they are wrong.

    And even if readers don't agree with the interpretation, they don't need to call the authors un-Islamic or 'apologists' We can disagree without calling into question people's sincerity or faith.

  12. Jibrail from United States

    Assalamu alaykum,

    This article is obviously directed towards pleasing a western audience. However we must be reminded that before pleasing anyone we please Allah (SWT). These "scholars" that make the halal haram and vise versa are in a deep predicament; trying to sugar-coat and change the deen to fit someone else's view. The Quran is perpetually relevant, so don't try to use the "it does not apply to us today" astaghfirullah, brother fear Allah. And whatever some "islamic" country does or doesn't do has no right over the Quran and Sunnah, since these counties do not follow shariah.

  13. Mohammad Shafique from Canada

    Brother you have articulate perhaps the right information at the

    beginning of the article but beg to differ from your conclusion

    that polygamy is not applicable in the context of present

    modern world. No wonder what Quran said 14 hundred years

    back is still applicable and is the best solution to serious

    problem of illegal sex, serious disease like aids and many more

    social problems can be solved if we make the best use of it

    according to Quranic instruction. The best example is the social

    problem in Kosovo, Bosnia, Chechina, Kashmir the recent

    burning example is the Iraq war. Every day hundreds of man

    dying obviously creating an imbalance in mail female ratio. It is

    going to be a problem and is a problem in the Western word too.

    Don't you think every women desires to have a decent married

    life too.

  14. Darwin Al-Sayeed from USA

    Salaam-

    None amoungst us will ever get the ignorant worshipper to stop viewing our sisters as more than a means to reproduce.

    Islam is the first religion to specifically address the female and her position within this world ...

    Muslims are the worst at threating women as human beings.

  15. Saifudin Hasaan from USA

    As-Salaam Alaykum,

    May Allah bless you for your opinion however in the world today polgyny is needed more than ever when we look at the condition of the world. First of all it is naturally known that women wiil alwyas outnumber men. The only two countries in the world that this is not the case still practice female infanticide. When I visited one Muslim country I found that many of the women could not get married for many different reasons. This has caused a great social problem leaving many of our sisters without husbands. Polygyny is a solution for nmany of the ills of this time as well as before. As far as being just the messenger of Allah made dua Oh Allah This is my division in regard to what I can control. Then do not take me to task regarding what you control and I d not. So the prophet was talking about his heart and the love for one over the other as it was known that he loved Aisha more than the other wives and this is beyond our control. Equity is in that which is outward as far as maintaining them equally. I really feel that we have become apologetic about this while in the West they have polygyny without responsibility. They have girlfriends and mistresses with no responsibility. Let us not be so aplogetic for what Allah has made a solution for the many women who cant find husbands. This is more for them than the man.

  16. IBRAHIM from USA

    This brother who wrote this article is projecting his own opinion and deviating from the well known opinions of all jurist when he says that justice prohibits multiple wives.

    This brother should repent. Also it is unbalanced in reference to how he mentions the law of some countries that prohibit and then regulate co-marriage, but he fails to mention at all those countries that leave the matter to the husband to do justice and the wife and her family's consent to a marriage with an existing co-wife.

    Overall while written in good English, this article is unbalanced, self-opiniated, directed towards personal goals, and deviated from the right path.

  17. Ron Dobson from WA

    Our ex president has more mistresses then our finger. Monica does not have any right or protected in a marriage law. We in the west can have as many mistresses as we wish but not wife!! Are we hidden our dark side.

    There are mathematical value too, if men marry 4 and women marry 4, if just one of then carry a deadly virus, the entire communities will carry it. If only 1 man with 4 wife if ant of them is a carrier only 5 are affected!! See the wisdom!!

  18. muxiyadeen from usa

    This article is completely fallacious and is only an individual`s own incorrect interpretation. It is totally devoid of any iota of scholarly viewpoint

  19. AbdulHaq from UK

    The Author seems to be a narrow minded and Islamically unqualified to write on this vast subject, he provides no references of what so ever from any authentic Ahadiths.

    Polygamy is not just in the case of widows, its a protection for men and women from the eveils and vanurabilities of the society, its not bound to time and place.

    Get some knowledge of Islam before writing or if you are a Shia your shariat dosent applies to sunnies.

  20. Ahmed from Toronto, Canada

    Those were the obvious cases who need protection, now about common joe and normal people like me and you, tell me how many Muslims have two wife ? just look in your friend circle and in your own family, now even 2%, and now check out in your non Muslim friends, ask him how many women he been with, most of the time he would say I stop counting when I was teenager, so if a Muslim perform polgamy its immoral and if this people expolite and abuse women day and night they are civilized. Why in this would will a person think of marrying and take all the responsibility comes with it, when he can go around and sleep with as money with little inconvience ? No wounder we have so many single parents with father less childerns then we ever had.

    Polygamy is a mercy of Allah, its a big responsibility on men, and its a protection of women and childerns and the society, its the answer to many problems existing in this

    society, no power can find a solution to these problems, its enourmous, only Islam has the salution, which is every person whom Allah provieded more than enough can

    take some more responsiblity (as long as he knows the rights of a wife in polygomus marriage) by acting the way as provided in Quran and Sunnah.

    The Authors seems living in a cave away from the reality of the world, and he present no evidence.

  21. Ahmed from Toronto, Canada

    Assalamalakum

    Brothers, as a Muslim I accept what Allah gives and his messanger gives me, I myself dosent need any evidence from this world to believe in Islam, I believe that polygamy is allowd in Islam and its for all the generations to come and at all times as long as a person fullfill the requirements as mention in Quran in Sunnah he can perform polygamy.

    From what I see in this world the need for ploygamy is more pressing need of the hour to save the human race(not just women) from distruction right now than ever.

    Just today I was reading how girls are being smuggled from Assam in India for prostitution to other major cities, I am not talking about hundreds, but they are in thousands. This is the goverment figures, why this happening ? this is not just in India, its common in may parts of the world, and even in west, its most common in Europe, women are smuggled from ex soviet republics to work in London and Paris as sex workers on streets, even UN is worried about this problem but no one seems to have a saliution. And most of the time its the financial problem and and some time its local conditions like wars which contribute to this, if there women had a choice to be a second wife and live with dignity they will do it happily. But todays society is run by man made rules, the god given protection of women has been taken away, if this women become wifes who will fullfill the position of mistresses, prostitites, massagers, stippers and what about the huge income, which goes to the pimps to mafia to captalist, who cares if this womens living like dead bodies, who cares if their childerns have no fathers, who cares if they suffer from STD and AIDS, its a big money making machine from the brothels in calcutta to redlight distirct in Amstradam to the mighty prono industry of Hollywood. Its big money and men control this machinery.

    Continue....

  22. Syed from Canada

    The authors seems to be working on anti-Islamic propoganda, how come a subject as big as this (marriage in Islam) dosent have a single reference from authentic Ahadiths ?

  23. Shaikh from USA

    Assalamo Alaykum

    Misleading article.....When I read this article I thought i was the

    1st and only one who is going to criticise this article but later I

    saw all the brothers criticised this misleading article.

    This author is atepping his foots in allah's authority and he need

    to repent, learn about Islam and polygamy as his mind is really

    sick n narrow and trying to please western societies by

    undermining the law of allah.

    I humbly request islamicity to remove this article as it is

    misleading and against Quran and Hadith. By reading this article

    people may committ Zina which is fire of hell.

    May allah guide this authours.

    Allah Knows Best

    Wassalam

  24. AbdalMalik YusufZai from USA

    Some opinions of the Salaf...

    (i) There is the view of 'A'ishah who says that men tended to marry orphan girls who were under their guardianship out of consideration for either their property, beauty or because they thought they would be able to treat them according to their whims, as they had no one to protect them. After marriage such men sometimes committed excesses against these girls. It is in this context that the Muslims are told that if they fear they will not be able to do justice to the orphan girls, then they should marry other girls whom they like. (This interpretation seems to be supported by verse 127 of this surah.)

    (ii) The second view is that of Ibn 'Abbas and his disciple 'Ikrimah who expressed the opinion that in the Jahiliyah period there was no limit on the number of wives a man could take. The result was that a man sometimes married as many as ten women and, when expenses increased because of a large family, he encroached on the rights either of his orphan nephews or other relatives. It was in this context that God fixed the limit of four wives and instructed the Muslims that they may marry up to four wives providing they possessed the capacity to treat them equitably.

    (iii) Sa'id b. Jubayr, Qatadah and some other commentators say that while the Arabs of the Jahiliyah period did not approve of subjecting orphans to wrong, they had no concept of justice and equity with regard to women. They married as many women as they wanted and then subjected them to injustice and oppression. It is in this context that people are told that if they fear perpetrating wrongs on orphans they ought to be equally worried about perpetrating them on women. In the first place they should never marry more than four, and of those four, they should marry only as many as they can treat fairly.

  25. AbdalMalik YusufZai from USA

    I am very much surprised to see such an apologetic article on this trusted website.

    I have read this sort of opinion for the first time in my life. It also deviates from the understanding of the salaf(The Sahaba).

    What is wrong in marrying more than one wife if you want to protect your chastity? You are marrying them not keeping them as mistresses. Marriage means giving the women certain rights and protection.

    I suspect your opinion possibly could open the door of zina when you shut the door of Halal satisfaction. A practicing muslim is more inclined towards marriage than committing zina, and being God fearing, he'll treat them equally.

    Look at the women out there, how they have to struggle to earn money to study, to eat, to pay the bills. When they are in desperate situation they are exploited & humiliated by the porn industry and other exploitors.

    Nikah apparently is a protection for the women, even if it is a polygamus relationship. Relationship without strings attached is extremely disastrous for women, emotionally, psychologically and health wise.

    What if a financially independent woman wants to marry a married muslim, should he divorce the first wife and marry her like the others do here? If the second one agrees to be in the polygamous relationship, would it not be better for all 3 of them?

    Justice between wives is required in the areas of financial support and spending time with them. As far as love is concerned Prophet Mohammed SAS loved Aisha RA more than any one else.

    We need to have trust in the teaching of our deen. They perfectly fit the needs of the society.

    We should not try to twist them just because others don't like it.

    I am sorry if I hurt the feelings of the authors.

    Jazakallah Khair.

  26. Shaikh from USA

    Assalamo Alaykum

    This article is not the correct interpretation of polygamy mentioned in Quran and Hadith. Beside taking care of widows there many instances where polygamy is neccessary and allowed by ulemas in the light of quran and hadith.

    This author by publishing this article is trying to please the western society by showing only one way of polygamy. Please remove this article as it is misleading and is not the correct interpretation of polygamy.

    Allah Knows Best.

    wassalam

  27. Surprised from Canada

    It is one thing to say that it in this day and age, the custom of people has become to marry only one wife. It is one thing to say, that given the social milleu it is preferable for a man to marry only one woman. It is another to try and psychoanalyze Quranic content to suit one's preffered course. Hajarat Umar (RA)did suspend the penal code for stealing food in the time when there was extreme poverty. In Islam we can rethink things over time and choose to do things differently but we should not put words in the Quran's mouth. The prophet Muhammad practiced polygamy, his dear wife Aisha was not a widow nor an orphan. The prophet is described as "the walking Quran" he lived and made plain in his teachings and actions the meaning and application of the Quran. Based on this, it appears clear to me that polygamy in Islam is not as restricted as the authors would have us believe. As polygamy is not mandatory in Islam people should make it a non-issue and pretty much decide in their own personal lives whether they want to practise it or not and put into consideration the prevailing laws and customs in their communities.

  28. mike from USA

    As a Muslims, how can I have a normal sex life then? Here, in the US, men can pick up ladies from bars when their wives are incapable of giving them sex for whatever reason. Should the Muslim here do the same? I guess it is ok according to the article!!!

    Love to All