PUCL Bulletin, June 2002

Polygamy in Islam - Concept and Practice
By Asghar Ali Engineer

Polygamy has been a very controversial issue in Islam. The Orthodox `Ulama maintain that it is part of Islamic Shari'ah and hence men can take upto four wives, if they want to, without any reasonable cause even. The modernists and champions of women's rights, on the other hand, argue that polygamy is only permissible in certain conditions with the strict proviso for equal justice with all the wives. According to the modernists, man just cannot take more than one wife simply because he likes some other woman or gets enamoured of her beauty. They also argue that the Qur'anic norm is monogamy but polygamy is permissible in certain exceptionable circumstances with strictly enforceable condition for justice.

The orthodox 'Ulama justify polygamy on the grounds which have not been stated in the Qur'an. They argue that men's sexual needs are greater than those of women; secondly, they argue that women go through periods or give birth to children and it is not possible to have sexual intercourse with them during these periods and hence man needs more than one wife. They also argue that if a woman is terminally ill it is better to marry another woman rather than divorce her and make her psychological wreck. Also, if she is barren and cannot give birth to another child, it is better to take second wife without divorcing her and add to her woes. She already suffers from lack of children.
Of course, as pointed out above, these arguments are not there in Qur'an or sunnah of the Prophet (PBUH). These arguments have been invented by some `Ulama to justify polygamy.

Apart from these arguments, they also argue that there are more women than men and hence polygamy ensures dignified life for women rather than life of infamy and breaching the limits set by Allah.

The modernists and those championing women's rights, on the other hand, rebut all these arguments. They argue that it is not at all biologically and scientifically proven that women's sexual needs are any less than that of man. It is her social conditioning, which makes her sexually less active. Given proper environment a woman will also be equally sexually active.

The champions of women's rights also maintain that man is not created a mere sexual animal that he cannot restrain his sexual activity during menstrual period of his wife or when she gives birth to a child. Thousands of men do so. All men are not prone to polygamous marriages. Most of them, on the contrary, are monogamous. They can restrain themselves from sexual activity even when their wives are ill for long time and cannot cohabit with them. Even when they are terminally ill, they can go without sexual activity and this sacrifice is worth making for a life time partnership. One cannot sacrifice this companionship just because she is terminally ill or is not capable of cohabitation. Those upholding women's rights argue that marriage is not all about sexual gratification only. The institution of marriage is much more than that. It is for life long partnership between the two, besides creating children and ensuring continuity of human life on earth.

This can be ensured with minimum sexual activity. In fact polygamy is a medieval institution, which was invented by man to fulfil his sexual lust and to keep women under his authority.

As for barrenness there seems to be some weight in taking another wife to procreate, as procreation is one of the objectives of marriage. But, in our society often blame is foisted on woman for failing to give birth to child. Man can also be barren and man often is. Unless it is medically tested one should not rush to the conclusion that woman is barren and hence man should take another wife to have children. Only and only when it is proved that a wife has medical problem in giving birth to a child or is completely barren she could be responsible for lack of child. Perhaps then there could be some justification for taking second wife. But thanks to modern scientific advances there are other possibilities: test tube babies. May be there is no ijma' so far about Islamic validity of test tube baby.

We will have to leave it to the conscience of the persons concerned whether they would like to have test tube bay or not. Similarly adoption is also not permissible in Shari'ah law. Here is some bind for a conscientious Muslim. One can say in such case (i.e., when it is medically certified that wife, and not husband, is barren) husband could be permitted to take second wife. The other alternative is to remain childless. Some might prefer that way. Only when a wife is proved to be medically unfit for conceiving the husband perhaps could seek her permission (without using coercion in any form) to take second wife and provided, he is capable of doing equal justice to both of them, as required by the Qur'an.

Another argument for polygamy is that rather than let women lead sinful life it is better that one takes them as co-wives. Firstly there are very few societies wherein there are many more women than men. Even if there are more women, it is marginally so. Only during world wars when millions of people were killed there were substantially more women, than men. But it was a temporary and not lasting period. Perhaps there could have been some justification for polygamy during that period. But it is not correct to say that prostitution is because of more women in society than men. There is prostitution even when there is excess of men over women.
In India, for example, there is excess of men over women there being 1000 men for every 930 women and yet there is widespread prostitution. There are other reasons for prostitution than excess of women over men in a society. Prostitution has been in the world throughout history. In fact it is known as one of the oldest institutions in the world. Uneven distribution of wealth, migration of men to other countries or to urban areas in search of livelihood and extreme poverty in women's families, lax morals and organised crime are some of the factors responsible for prostitution. Mere polygamy, as some knively believe, cannot eradicate prostitution from the society. Even stringent law drives it underground rather than abolish it.

Thus all these arguments in favour of polygamy are hardly valid. These arguments have been invented for justifying polygamy; they hardly explain its existence. There are reasons other than the ones advanced above for persistence of this institution for so long. One must understand those causes and try, as much as possible, to control and regulate the institution of polygamy.

The Qur'an And Polygamy
Then one can justifiably ask why Qur'an permits it? Or what view the Qur'an takes of polygamy? One must take up the verses on polygamy in the Qur'an and explain them not merely as isolated verses but in the total spirit of the Qur'an. No verse of the Qur'an can be explained as an isolated verse. It is the context (in the light of asbab al-nuzul, i.e., occasions of revelation) and norms of the Qur'an which have to be taken into account in order to understand the real intention of the Qur'anic verses. Also, it is not enough to refer to one verse on the subject but all concerned verses should be taken into account. Often one verse is quoted to prove one's point of view. It is not proper.

There are two verses in the Qur'an as far as multiplicity of wives is concerned, i.e., 4:3 and 4:129. However, to take an overall view of Qur'anic spirit we will have to take more verses into account besides these two. Those other verses are equally important to determine the Qur'an approach to the controversial issue of polygamy.

First let us take the two verses which make direct pronouncement on polygamy, i.e., 4:3 and 4:129. The first verse, i.e., 4:3 appears to permit taking up to four wives while 4:129 seems to caution against hazards of multiplicity of wives. Needless to say both the verses must be read together in order to determine Allah's intention. While the first verse takes given context into account and seems to permit multiplicity of wives, the second one takes long term view and also the likely consequences of taking second wife and this verse tends to be more normative than the other.

The first verse says: "And if you have reason to fear that you might not act equitably towards orphans, then marry from among women such as are lawful to you - 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 those whom you rightfully possess." (4:3). This verse could be interpreted differently. It is not very clear whether it means two or three or four at a time or during ones lifetime. If up to four was meant it could have said "upto four". But the Qur'an rather chooses more complex way of putting it.

Even if what is meant is two or three or four at a time, the Qur'an does not permit it according to the whims of a man. It lays down strict condition for treating all wives with equal fairness and if you have reason to fear that they cannot be treated with equal fairness then marry only one. Thus if one reads even this verse alone literally, it would be obvious that more emphasis is on equal and fair treatment rather than having more than one wife. And this should not be determined by husband alone whether he can treat his wives with equal fairness or not.

Here in this verse the words "if you have reason to fear that you might not be able to treat them with equal fairness" are addressed to whole Muslim society and hence society as represented by its judicial institutions ('adalah) will determine whether the person has capability to treat his second or third or fourth wife with equal fairness or not and also whether there is any need for it. Thus it is obvious that taking of more than one wife should be socially regulated and should not be an individual decision. Unfortunately often decision is made individually as if it is personal privilege and no social intervention can be tolerated. The Qur'anic spirit, on the other hand, does require social intervention as equitable and fair treatment of wives is very essential.
There is also debate whether equitable and fair treatment implies only equal maintenance and equal facilities to all the wives or it also includes equal love. Some commentators, especially of the Mu'tazilah persuasion insist that equal love is also a necessary condition for all wives.

And they argue that since equal love is humanly impossible (a man will always tend to love one of his wives more than the other wife or wives) polygamy is as good as banned by the Qur'an. Justice in treating all the wives equally is so important that the verse ends with the words alla ta'ulu (this is more proper that you may not do injustice.

Thus in verse 4:3 fear of injustice is stressed twice. Thus this moral dimension of polygamy cannot be taken lightly. Therefore, either it should be banned or should be strictly regulated or taking of second wife should not be left entirely to an individual. Social intervention is highly needed.

Also, the verse 4:3 should be read in conjunction with another verse on polygamy i.e. 4:129. This verse states, among other things, "Ye are never able to be fair and just as between women even if it is your ardent desire. But turn not away (from a woman) altogether so as to leave her (as it were) hanging (in the air). If ye come to a friendly understanding, and practice self-restraint, Allah is oft-forgiving and Merciful."

This verse is so clear on the question of justice and fair treatment with all wives that polygamy is almost impossible to practise. The words that you cannot do justice "even if it is your ardent desire" are so clear that there is no need for any further discussion. It is humanly impossible to treat all wives equitably (especially in matters of love) and one should not leave one woman hanging in the air and incline totally towards the other. Here it is important to point out the Qur'anic methodology in social matters like slavery, polygamy and similar other matters. At the first stage the Qur'an permits an existing practice with proviso for reforms and improvement so as to lessen its negative impact but subsequently it points out in no uncertain language that it is best be abolished. A good example in this respect is of slavery. The Qur'an first requires Muslims to treat slaves in a humane way and also encourages their manumission as compensation for not able to keep obligatory fast or for expiation of sins etc. Bu subsequently it says that "All children of Adam have been honoured equally (laqad karramna bani Adam) (17:70). Thus all children of Adam deserve equal dignity and some cannot be slaves and others master. This makes institution of slavery totally redundant. But the Qur'an first accepts institution of slavery with necessary reforms and subsequently makes it clear that it is against human dignity.

Similarly approach has been adopted for the institution of polygamy. First it is permitted with strict proviso for fair and equal treatment and cautioning against injustice against any of the wives. It is also important to note that this verse (i.e.4:3) has been revealed along with the verse pertaining to the problems of widows and orphans (yatam). This verse on polygamy begins with the words "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…."

Thus polygamy was permitted by the Qur'an to do away injustice to orphans and widows (actually the Arabic word yatama includes widows also). The Arabs, as per Zamakhshari of Al-Kasshshaf (Vol. I, Beirut, 1977, pp-496), would marry orphans and widows with beauty and wealth (far in excess of four women) and then try to usurp their wealth and do injustice to them in treatment. The Qur'an, in order to save these orphans from such injustices (and hence it begins with the words (If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with orphans….) those Arabs were permitted to marry up to four (thus reducing the number of wives one could take drastically) to avoid injustice to the orphans.

Thus polygamy (without any restriction as to the number of wives) already existed in the society and also injustices to the orphans. Thus with this verse (4:3) the Qur'an, which considers justice as most fundamental moral category, tried to stop abuse of orphan girls' properties (and this was vitally necessary) on one hand, and injustices to the women who were taken as wives without restriction to any number, and not treated fairly and equitably. This verse thus accomplished two objectives in one stroke - justice to orphans and justice to helpless wives by restricting their numbers to four and requiring oral responsibility of equal and fair treatment.

But, the Qur'an was aware that this is not the ideal solution as far as women were concerned. Thus in the second verse on polygamy (4:129) it was made clear that it is not possible to do equal justice to all wives even if one ardently desired and so the men were cautioned not to leave the first wife hanging in the air (fatazaruha kal mu'allaqatin). Thus, if both the verses are read together - and one must - monogamy would be the norm and polygamy a merely permitted measure to meet the given situation.

Thus the real intention of the Qur'an, is to ultimately abolish polygamy albeit gradually. It is also to be noted that marrying orphans to misappropriate their properties was peculiarly an Arab phenomenon, not a universal one. And polygamy was permitted by the Qur'an only in that context. It has also been pointed out by some commentators that the verse 4:3 was revealed after the battle of Uhud when more than 10% of Muslim men population was killed and there were many orphans and widows in the society and they had to be taken care of. Perpetuation of polygamy forever was far from the Qur'anic intention.
Thus the noted translator of the Qur'an Abdullah Yusuf Ali also says in the footnote to the above verse (4:3), "The unrestricted number of wives of the 'Times of ignorance' was now strictly limited to a maximum of four, provided you could treat them with perfect equality, in material things as well as in affection and immaterial things. As this condition is most difficult to fulfil, I understand recommendation to be towards monogamy." (The Holy Qur'an, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Vol. I, Hyderabad, India, n.d.pp-131)

More arguments can be advanced from other verses of the Qur'an if one takes the Qur'anic verses in totality as one must. The Qur'an uses the word zawj for husband and wife and zawj implies couple. So basically there should be one husband and wife - a couple - and not one husband and several wives. Adam, the first Prophet had one wife Hawwa'. The Qur'an also describes husband and wife as each other's garment (2:187). Also the Qur'an says, "And the believers, men and women, are friends one of another. They enjoin good and forbid evil and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate and obey Allah and His Messenger." (9:71)

Whole spirit of this verse is of equality and friendship between men and women. Thus this noble spirit of the Qur'an in respect of man and woman does not admit of four women being lorded over by one man. Also the verse 33:35, which makes men and women equal in every respect hardly, can admit the institution of polygamy. Also, 2:228 establishes equality between men and women and can hardly admit of the polygamous marriages. Thus it will be seen that all these verses militate against polygamy. Polygamy can at best be an exception rather than a rule. As for the Holy Prophet's sunnah is also concerned he preferred monogamy over polygamy. He remained highly faithful to his first wife Khadijah as long as she lived though she was much senior (by fifteen years) to him. He never took second wife in her lifetime. He was a very loyal and devoted husband. He married A'ishah only after the death of his first wife Khadijah. And A'ishah was the only virgin wife he took. All other wives were either divorcees or widows and were more in the nature of political and tribal alliances than marriages for fulfilling sexual needs. Had he so desired he could have taken young women as his wives. But he never did after A'ishah.
He also strongly disapproved of Hazrat Ali, husband of his daughter Fatima, taking second wife during her lifetime. He was very angry when he learnt that Ali wanted to take second wife when Fatima was around. All this goes to show that the Prophet (PBUH) also stressed monogamy and one must follow his sunnah in this respect also.

Today's Qur'anic approach to justice and equality is much more relevant than before. Women's rights are being greatly stressed and if their rights to equality are to be respected, and one must, polygamy should be permitted only in highly exceptional circumstances. Actually monogamy should be the rule. The Qur'an foresaw this 1400 years ago and stressed concept of justice in sexual relations also and never accepted woman to be subordinated to man. The Qur'an, in fact gave dignity to woman by accepting her legal entity. However, through the ages she lost out to man in sexual politics. There is great need to restore dignity to her which is fundamental requirement of the Qur'an. She is equal partner to man in every respect


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