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Sister's Page: The Meaning of Polygamy

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The True Meaning of Polygyny

Polygamy was a way of life until the Quran was revealed 1400 years ago. When the Earth was young and scarcely-populated, polygamy was actually a way to solve the problem: the one way of populating it and bringing in the human beings needed to carry out Allah's plan. By the time the Quran was revealed, the world had been sufficiently populated, and the Quran put down the first limitations against polygamy.

Polygamy is permitted in the Quran, but under strictly observed circumstances. Any abuse of this divine permission incurs severe retribution. Thus, although polygamy is permitted by Allah, it behooves us to examine our circumstances carefully before saying that a particular polygamous relationship is permissible.

Our perfect example here is the Prophet Muhammad. He was married to one wife, Khadijah, until the day she passed away. He had all his children, except one, from Khadijah. Thus,she and her children enjoyed the Prophet's full attention for as long as she was married to him; twenty-five years. For all practical purposes, Muhammad had one wife - from the age of 25 to 50. During the remaining 13 years if his life, he married the aged widows of his friends who left many children. The children needed a complete home, with a fatherly figure, and the Prophet provided that. Providing a fatherly figure for orphans is the only specific circumstance in support of polygamy mentioned in the Quran (An Nisaa:3).

Other than marrying widowed mothers of orphans, there were three political marriages in the Prophet's life. His close friends Abu Bakr and Omar insisted that he marry their daughters, Aisha and Hafsah, to establish traditional family ties among them. The third marriage was to Maria the Egyptian; she was given to him as a political gesture of friendship from the ruler of Egypt.

This perfect example tells us that a man must give his full attention and loyalty in marriage to his wife and children in order to raise a happy and wholesome family. The Quran emphasizes the limitations against polygamy in very strong words:

"If you fear lest you may not be perfectly equitable in treating more than one wife, then you shall be content with one." (An Nisaa:3)

"You cannot be equitable in a polygamous relationship, no matter how hard you try." (An Nisaa:129)

The Quranic limitations against polygamy point out the possibility of abusing Allah's law. Therefore, unless we are absolutely sure that Allah's law will not be abused, we had better resist our lust and stay away from polygamy. If the circumstances do not dictate polygamy, we had better give our full attention to one wife and one set of children.

The children's psychological and social well-being, especially in countries where polygamy is prohibited, almost invariably dictate monogamy. A few basic criteria must be observed in contemplating polygamy:

 1. It must alleviate pain and suffering and not cause any pain or suffering.
 2. If you have a young family, it is almost certain that polygamy is an abuse.
 3. Polygamy to substitute a younger wife is an abuse of Allah's law (An Nisaa:19).

NO Polygamy in Islam

Polygamy is defined in many dictionaries as:

"Any person (Male or female) may unconditionally marry unlimited number of spouses at the same time."

This means that a male or female may marry unlimited number of males or females at the same time. In other cultures and faiths, a male may marry unlimited number of wives, at the same, for any reason, and unrestricted with any conditions. Such practices are totally prohibited in Islam.

What is allowed in Islam is that in a specified restricted circumstances, a Muslim male may marry other females provided that there are circumstances that needs this kind of arrangements and it is restricted with several clear conditions.

Those conditions are :

    Financial 1. financial,
    Physical and emotional ability 2. physical and emotional ability,
    Equal treatment of the wives 3. equal treatment of the wives,
    The approval of the prospective ... 4. the approval of the prospective female to this kind of marriage,
    The wives are among those who are not ... 5. the wives are among those who are not prohibited for him to marry either permanently (such as aunts, foster daughters and others, or temporary such as marrying two sisters at the same time),
    the number of wives ... 6. and that the number of wives is limited to up to four.

So this is a legal provision that can be properly understood in the context of Islamic position on this important issue:

First, in Islam, the family is considered the cornerstone of a society; any extra-marital relationship is seen as devastating and damaging to the family, hence it is strictly prohibited. Married life is most desirable in Islam, Allah wants a woman to be a respected, and an honourable wife, never a secret mistress and Allah wants all men to be a respected and responsible husbands also, never indulging in secret affairs. Both men and women have to make sacrifices to make their family life a success.

Second, Islam and Islamic laws are for all times (past, present, future) and for all circumstances and situations. Therefore, it must accommodate all possible social and individual situations.

Third, in Islam, every Muslim man should have a wife and every Muslim woman should have a husband. One may observe that, although it has been abused in some times and places, this practice can have a valuable function in certain circumstances, in some situations it may be considered as the lesser of two difficult situations, and in others it may be even a beneficial arrangement.

The obvious example of this occurs in times of war, when there are inevitably a large number of widows and orphans left without companionship, love, money, care or protection.

If it is still maintained under these circumstances that a man may marry only one wife, other females will be deprived from having a family that includes a loving husband, a companion for life, lovely children, and a father for the children. What options is left for those women who have no chance to marry? They could either stay alone, or become someone's mistress.

Most women would not welcome either of those two options. A mistress is just an unofficial second wife who has no legal rights or security for herself or her children. The fact is that women under these circumstances may prefer to share a husband than to have none at all.The ugly consequences which usually comes along with the tag as somebody else's mistresses has made them choose this alternative. Thus, there is no doubt that it is far easier and better to share a husband when it is legally established than when it is carried on secretly with attempts to deceive the first wife.

There are other situations where this kind of practice may be preferable for all parties, such as

     1. if the first wife is chronically ill,
     2. if she cannot have children,
     3. if a woman cannot earn a living and needs emotional and financial support.

These examples are mentioned because the society (especially the West) at large has wrongly understood the misconception of polygamy as having a large number of glamorous young girls (harem)having to serve and to please the man. Obviously this is not a real solution to some difficult and "real" social problems.

The first verse in the Quran that allows this practice was revealed following the battle of Uhud, in which thousands of Muslim men were killed, leaving widows and orphans whose care was the responsibility of the Muslim male survivors. In the Quran Allah says:-

"To orphans restore their property when they reach their age, and do not substitute your worthless things for their good ones, and devour not their substance by mixing it up with your own. For this is indeed a great sin. 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 MARRY ONLY ONE." (Quran An Nisaa:2-3)

From these verses, a number of facts are evident:

This permission is not only associated with mere satisfaction of passion, but it is rather associated with compassion towards widows and orphans, a matter that is confirmed by the atmosphere in which these verses were revealed. Even in such a situation, the permission is far more restricted than the practice that existed before or even now (unlimited number of wives and no restricted conditions). Dealing justly with one's wives is an obligation in Islam. This applies to housing, food, kind treatment, etc., that is to say that the husband has complete obligation towards all of his wives and their children without any discrimination. If one ONLY is not sure of being able to deal justly with them, Allah says to marry only one wife.

This practice is far better and honourable than the case where the husband is secretly having mistresses or involved with prostitutes (adultery). This practice is also better than the case where the husband divorces his ill wife and marry another one.The requirement of justice between wives rules out the fantasy that a man can have as many wives as he pleases, it also rules out the concept of a "secondary" wife, for all wives have exactly the same status and are entitled to identical rights and claims over their husband.

The verses say "marry" not buy, seduce, or select, since in Islam, marriage is a civil contract which is valid only when both parties consent to it. Thus no wife can be forced or given to a man who is already married, except if she agrees and her family agree, and since in Islam there is no suc thing as secret marriages, then it is a free choice of both parties.

It is evident that the permission is consistent with the realistic Islamic view of the varying social needs, problems, and cultural variations throughout time and in all places.

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