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How Many Wives?

Interpretations of the Quran's teachings on the practice of polygyny

Position One: Islam restricts or forbids polygyny.

Position Two: Islam allows polygyny because it can be positive.

Position One: Islam restricts or forbids polygyny.

The following text is from an editorial published by the organization Sisters In Islam in Malaysia on August 20, 1990. Sisters in Islam is a group of Muslim professional women in Malaysia committed to promoting the rights of women within the framework of Islam. The article was commenting on a then-current divorce case involving polygyny.

Another case involving polygyny is also discussed in the recent PBS Frontline documentary Muslims.

Let us point out what the Qur'anic verses on polygamy actually say: "If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry 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 only one." (Al-Nisa', 4:3)

A subsequent verse states: "You are never able to be fair and just between women even if that were your ardent desire." (Al-Nisa', 4:129)

It is clear from this verse that:

First, the Qur'an does not give men the blanket right to have more than one wife. Polygamy is not a right, but a responsibility to ensure social justice for orphans. What Allah has granted is in fact a restriction on an existing practice of that time when men could marry as many wives as they wanted.

Second, because polygamy is not a right, Allah placed conditions on its practice. There is an overriding concern for justice in this short verse, and conditions are set to ensure that justice is done.

  • Condition A: Polygyny is permitted within the context of war and orphans. It is permitted only if the men fear they would not be able to deal justly with the orphans.

  • Condition B: The man who wants to be polygynous must have the capacity to be fair and just to all his wives. The verse is a call for just conduct towards women, not a right for men to fulfill their alleged lustful desires or their egos. And just treatment here means more than a man's financial capacity to support more than one wife: He must be fair in all ways, including in the time, support, and companionship he provides to his wives and children.

  • Condition C: If the man fears he cannot deal justly with all his wives, then Allah advocates that he should marry only one as this will ensure equality. This is explicitly stated in the verse.

Third, it is often forgotten that there was a socio-historical context within which the verse was revealed. That context was a period of tragedy in Islam after the battle of Uhud, when dozens of men from the still formative Muslim community in Medina were killed in one day. Numerous women and children were left without support. To deal with this problem, Allah revealed the verse permitting men to be polygamous. Given the tragedy of the battle of Uhud, Allah could have sanctioned the existing practice of unlimited polygyny; but instead, while allowing men to be polygynous, Allah restricted the number to four. We wish to emphasize that the clear intention in the Qur'an is to restrict polygyny. Unfortunately, in practice, the restrictions imposed in the Qur'an have often not been applied, and the context within which the verse was revealed has been completely overlooked. By stressing the need for just conduct toward women and the need for equal treatment of each wife and recognizing the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of doing so (4:129), this verse, in fact advocates monogamy as the original and ideal state of marriage in Islam.

Another interpretation concludes:

Muhammed Asadi, a contemporary author and independent rationalist scholar of Islam, has published an extensive Web site and several books arguing, for example, that Islam and science are complementary. He views Islam as more progressive than other world religions in regard to women.

... The Koran restricted the practice of Polygamy and suggests MONOGAMY as the ONLY acceptable form of marriage for Society in general.

Polygamy is only encouraged by the Koran where it concerns "oppressed or the orphans among women" (4:3), if justice can be done by marrying more than one. If justice cannot be done by marrying more than one from among the "oppressed (yatama)" class of women, then the Koran suggests monogamy as the ONLY acceptable marriage bond in Islam. "...THEN MARRY ONLY ONE!" (Koran, 4:3).

Position Two: Islam allows polygyny because it can be positive.

This viewpoint was put forward in recent years by Syed Munawwar Hasan, Secretary General of Jamaat-I Islami, a conservative Islamist political party in Pakistan. As a political party in opposition in Pakistan, the statements of the Jamaat-I Islami can be seen as part of an ideology for changing Pakistani society if they come to power.

One may observe that, although it has been abused in some times and some places, polygamy has under certain circumstances a valuable function. In some situations it may be considered as the lesser of two evils, and in other situations it may even be positively beneficial arrangement.

The most obvious example of this occurs in times of war when there are inevitably large numbers of widows and girls whose fiances and husbands have been killed in the fighting. One has only to recall the figures of the dead in the first and second world wars to be aware that literally millions of women and girls lost their husbands and fiances and were left alone without any income or care or protection for themselves or their children. If it is still maintained that under these circumstances a man may marry only one wife, what options are left to the millions of other women who have no hope of getting a husband? Their choice, bluntly stated, is between a chaste and childless old maidenhood, or becoming somebody's mistress; that is, an unofficial second wife with no legal rights for herself or for her children. Most women would not welcome either of these since most women have always wanted and still do want the security of a legal husband and family....

There may be other circumstances unrelated to war -- individual circumstances, where marriage to more than one wife may be preferable to other available alternatives -- for example where the first wife is chronically sick or disabled. There are of course some husbands who can manage this situation, but no one would deny its potential hazards. A second marriage in some cases could be a solution acceptable to all three parties.

Again there are cases in which a wife is unable to have children, while the husband very much wants them. Under Western laws a man must either accept his wife's childlessness if he can, or if he cannot, he must find a means of divorce in order to marry again. This could be avoided in some cases if the parties agreed on a second marriage.

There are other cases where a marriage has not been very successful and the husband loves another woman. This situation is so familiar that it is known as the Eternal Triangle. Under Western laws the husband cannot marry the second woman without divorcing the first one. But the first wife may not wish to be divorced. She may no longer love her husband, but she may still respect him and wish to stay with him for the security of marriage, for herself and their children. Similarly the second woman may not wish to break up the man's first family. There are certain cases such as this where both women could accept a polygamous marriage rather than face divorce on the one hand or an extra-marital affair on the other.

I have mentioned some of these examples because to the majority of Westerners polygamy is only thought of in the context of a harem of glamorous young girls, not as a possible solution to some of the problems of Western society itself. I have given some time to it not in order to advocate its indiscriminate use, but in an attempt to show that it is a practice not to be condemned without thinking of its uses and possible benefits in any community.

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