When polygamy is allowed in Islam

Published: March 6, 2015

A hard bargain, to say the least; particularly when one considers the punishments which await the ‘unjust’ in the grave, and in the hereafter as per another important article of Muslim belief. PHOTO: AFP

Of the various core tenets of Islam which, since the birth of the said Abrahamic religion, have continued to attract heated criticism from a large variety of non-believers in the faith, as well as some adherents who claim an ancestral kinship to it by way of inheritance alone – whilst harbouring no affinity to it by virtue of any rigorous practice, whatsoever, on their part – the institution of polygamy certainly emerges as a focus for much targeted scrutiny and vitriolic debate.

The notion that a Muslim male, by virtue of his sex and position, in a world which has only ever been a firmament for observing a domineeringly patriarchal culture, is allowed to marry and maintain a total of four wives as an inherent right, has always been deemed excessively controversial and a concept hard to empathise with by the masses.

To women, in particular, this idea is particularly bothersome and understandably so; what with the torrential outpouring of ‘virtuous’ men who inhabit the Muslim world today. This statement, however, is in no way meant to stereotype Muslim men; since unsavoury male characters exist, as a result of an unfortunate incidence of birth, in virtually every corner of the globe. The same, of course, can be said of certain not-so-genteel and sinister women.

Indeed, the many so-called apologists of the faith, throughout the ages have, more often than not, found themselves hard-pressed to offer a defence of this injunction, which is both plausible in its logical scope as well as justifiable in an increasingly individualistic culture marked by such zealous movements as 20th century feminism, among others.

It is saddening to note that this dearth of quality Muslim scholarship, which otherwise might have attempted to bring about some degree of appeasement to the minds of genuinely concerned sceptics, has continued well into this post 9/11 epoch.

As a Muslim continually striving to live by the often hard-to-abide dictates of the faith – primarily due to living in a hypocrisy-laden society which is on offer to all individuals resident in the subcontinent; where the guise of religion is used to pursue selfish personal interests – and one who often succumbs to a variety of sins which are common to the species (for as the saying goes: to err is human), I have often pondered over the issue of polygamy, in the light of my still-feeble yet continually expanding knowledge of Islam.

In fact, truth be told, I have been forced to reflect upon it, with the meditative process costing me many an evening which might have been spent pursuing some other (less worthy) interest; the impetus for doing so being the passionate conversations I have found myself to be embroiled in, with several non-Muslims curious about the Islamic perspective on the matter.

I earnestly believe that it does not do to label oneself as a practitioner of a faith, and to continue to remain in an intoxicated state of pleasurable ignorance with respect to its central doctrines. I believe that people who define themselves as ‘moderates’ are only kidding themselves. A true distinction, which may hold any real meaning, can only be made between those who are regarded as ‘practicing’, and those who are defiantly ‘non-practicing’. Again, the intention here is not to judge, but to elaborate on an opinion.

The provision for polygamy is mentioned in very clear and eloquent diction, in one of the opening verses of the fourth chapter of the Holy Quran.

To even the most cursory of readers, there can be no confusion with respect to the literal meaning of this verse.

A Muslim man, as the verse puts it, is allowed to marry a maximum of four wives, provided that he deals with them in a manner thoroughly bound by the dictates of justice.

It is important then, in a logical progression of thought which should arise as a natural next step in this analysis, to understand what this ‘justice’, so eloquently referred to in the Holy Quran, actually entails.

In order to ascertain the meaning of this term, I looked it up in one of the most celebrated of English language dictionaries available for non-commercial use on the internet; namely, the Oxford Dictionary.

A note to the theist: I would like to make mention of the fact that the Arabic language, one of the richest, and most diversified of languages known to modern-day linguists, features multi-contextual, and often numerous meanings, derived from a single term. This facet of the language, when coupled with the awe-inspiring notion that the Holy Quran, as per Muslim belief, is the direct communiqué of God to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is surely enough to make the discerning reader understand that God’s conception of justice must undoubtedly be more elaborate and more thorough in its scope than any argument, or postulation, put forward by such mundane, and ‘worldly’ instruments of knowledge, as man-made ‘dictionaries’.)

According to the said lexicon, the term ‘injustice’ is broadly defined as:

Lack of fairness or justice

Fairness, of course, implies equal treatment.

In the case of polygamous Islamic unions, the concept of fairness demands that a husband treat all his wives with complete, and unfailing, magnanimity; showering on each his equal and undivided attention. The husband needs to provide for the physical, emotional, and monetary, in effect, the complete ‘worldly’ welfare, of each of his wives, without making any allowance for a compromise on his multi-faceted and lavishly distributed affections for each; or his favouring of one spouse over another.

It is only in such cases of ‘properly’ allocated justice, then, that the demands of fair treatment may be met. Anything short of this would be considered as a violation of the Holy Quran’s recommendation for observing justice.

A hard bargain, to say the least, particularly when one considers the punishments which await the ‘unjust’ in the grave, and in the hereafter as per another important article of Muslim belief.

A whole corpus detailing the types of these punishments, to this effect, exists in the hadith literature, sayings of the Prophet (pbuh), clearly warning men who, without just cause, seek to inflict harm or aggression on their wives or children.

When one ponders over this Quranic injunction, even minutely, it is not hard to fathom that very few Muslim men would be able to shoulder such a responsibility in today’s world, let alone succeed in fulfilling it completely.

Assuredly, is it not better, in retrospect, to follow the advice rendered by the above mentioned verse in its latter part and attempt to do complete justice to just one wife?

Such a prescription must surely sound more equitable in today’s world, where closed-door incidents of domestic violence come about as common everyday occurrences and for a man to maintain even one wife with the honour due to her station, is fast becoming an endangered concept.

In a world where women are beaten, raped, and oppressed mercilessly, and subjected to such heinous crimes as acid-scarring and genital mutilations, to haunt them till their very last days. Where women have their inheritances usurped by their male relatives, their children snatched, their basic rights trampled upon and their voices effectively silenced, all to satisfy the whims of an ever-insecure male ego.

It is such barbaric and vile men as these, who as a result of the violence seemingly inherent in their natures smear the name of those few men who actually seek to do good to their female relations and women in general.

As a modern-day Muslim man, it is indeed hard and painful for me to admit that such transgressions against women, more often than not, occur almost pervasively, and with complete, unaccounted-for impunity in today’s Muslim world, perpetrated by savage men who claim to be the followers of a man who showed the utmost, kindest, and almost breath-taking regard for his wives and daughters.

A man of incomparable virtue, and a moral stature which encompassed every endearing trait, who in his last reported sermon explicitly commanded his followers to safeguard, honour and defend women (referring to them as the very trust of God, with inviolable rights) and left behind a noble legacy which only a few men nowadays, if any, truly aspire to follow.

Komayal Hassan

Komayal Hassan

A writer, blogger, social critic and a cultural non-conformist with a penchant for poking in just about everything. The author is a political science and English major from Forman Christian College and a closet high-achiever.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Anon

    Nice article!

    I would also like to add to it by mentioning the backdrop of the Battle of Uhud after which this Quranic injuncation actually came about. It was a battle that the early Muslims lost causing many Muslims to be martyred. As a result, many women were widowed and orphaned. With the loss of their breadwinners and no one to support their households, this order came about to allow Muslim men, who could afford to support them, to marry these women granted they would treat them with justice.

    This adds another aspect to this Ayat signalling when polygamy should actually be practiced.Recommend

  • Critical

    Polygamy was allowed in ancient Arabia because they used to lose lot of men in battles and they could get lost while trading….
    In order to protect the widows from starving and prostituting themselves,polygamy was allowed….

    But in current world,the female population is lesser than male population because mammals are designed to produce more males when they have abundance in food and resources and more females when food is in scarce supply (proven scientific fact)

    Applying 7th century laws in current world and justifying them is wrong…Had Prophet Mohammed been born in 21st century,he might not have recommended polygamy….

    Also,the case of Adam-Eve and Noah’s Ark follows the case of incest but why is it still a taboo??Recommend

  • omair

    The verbosity of your text drowns the core message/analysis.Recommend

  • Abdullah

    The binding of 4 wives was for the powerful Arab Bedouins of 7th century who used to marry minimum 10 women, not applicable in this century anyways.Recommend

  • Gamma

    I am sure these verses were issued for bedouins of arabia but they were/ are never bothered. They are marrying 15-20 women till date. Only Pakistanis (poor slaves) believe these verses are for eternity.Recommend

  • http://think-islam.blogspot.com/ PostMan

    The verse you are talking about is 4:03 in which the latter part of the verse is ‘always’ read to justify 4 marriages but the earlier part of the verse is ‘always’ discarded where it is mentioned that the 4 marriages are to be made with widows for the protection of orphans – and not otherwise. It aint merrymaking.

    http://think-islam.blogspot.com/2008/02/polygamy-in-islam-quranic-perspective.htmlRecommend

  • BlackJack

    I am always confused when I read such comments. I am told on one side that thousands of prophets were sent to earth with the same message that got corrupted over time, and the Quran is the only sacrament that survives without any changes. On the other side, you people keep bringing up historical context for several of the ayats (even saying that some of them were only meant for that period, such as the killing of pagans wherever you find them, for example), indicating that none of these could possibly have been part of the original message sent through other prophets. Does anyone care to reconcile the obvious contradiction here?Recommend

  • Jehangir Qazilbash Mescanzai.

    This blogger is writing this for sensationalism. And pandering. Period.
    Muslims were allowed to marry.four women because of the wars that
    were waged. Which resulted in numerous widows. And females of
    marriageable age, With no males to marry them. That was the pure
    unadulterated reason. This has been done in other cultures too. It is
    not restricted to Muslims only.Recommend

  • ThoughThinkingItself

    ‘A Muslim woman, is allowed to marry a maximum of four husbands, provided that she deals with them in a manner thoroughly bound by the dictates of justice’.

    If this would have written in Quran, would that be allowed?Recommend

  • Ahmed

    No. Thats not right. What Prophet(pbuh) has said and which has been finalized and is complete till the end of time. That’s why Allah made Him(pbuh) the last Prophet and Messenger.Recommend

  • Ahmed

    It doesn’t mean that they weren’t allowed to marry after the period of war ended. The Salaf(the first three generations) married more than one woman at same time even while not being in the state of war.
    It is allowed even now.Recommend

  • Ramchand.

    Only in India the ratio is skewed. There are more males than females.
    For very obvious reasons. Females are killed at birth. Even in this day
    and age.Recommend

  • Queen

    What you have said is a hypothetical statement. Islam focuses on giving rights to everyone and children have rights in Islam too. When a man dies his wealth is left to his family. How can the court know who to give the wealth of a man, if he was one of several husbands to a woman? How would a child know who his father was? Should DNA testing be carried out for every child? No society has ever supported the concept of a woman being married to two or more men at the same time but almost every society supported the concept of a man having more than one woman. Yet, they did not limit the number nor did they provide the protection and maintenance that Islam insists on.Recommend

  • RFD

    Look that up in the Bhagvad Gita,..better still ask Maharaj of Banaras or
    Sadhvi Prachi. She is an expert. Or you can ask “wb” resident ET troll
    The Swami Mullah.Recommend

  • RFD

    “…you people keep bringing up…” That is rich ! Coming from
    a culture that believes in Hinduism. The Apex religion of Bharat.
    That has 3643 deities…and possibly more. The names are kept
    at a temple in Varanasi. by a head Swami named Maharaj.Recommend

  • seismann

    Mullahs even insist on this in periods of peace,That is where the wrongdoing is.Recommend

  • seismann

    If they were,how do tthey apply in the modern world.Why mullahs insist on it?Recommend

  • Sibtain

    You suffer from comma-obsession.Recommend

  • Hassan

    Yes if that was in Quran that would have been followed. We hear and we obey what ever Allah tells us to do. That is the point of being Muslim, we have submitted to the will of Allah.

    But, having said that, there is nothing of the sort you are suggesting is written in Quran, nor it has been observed in the Sunnah of the Prophet and his companions, so I hope this answers your question.Recommend

  • Hassan

    What is allowed in Islam is allowed for Muslims. You cannot change it because you desire it. Similarly what has been disallowed is disallowed that includes torturing, raping, mutilating etc etc of women. This article does not make any sense at all.Recommend

  • Maximus Decimus Meridius

    yeah quite true, the mention of polygamy is in the context of widows and orphans. Whenever there are widows in society muslim men are given the privelege of marrying more than one wife.Recommend

  • Sonia Khawaja

    Great topic but unfortunately your writing style makes it extremely painful to read. O
    n average Your sentence has 100 characters ( if not more) and mid way through the sentence, the reader forgets the point being made. Sorry but this was a complete wasteRecommend

  • Critical

    India has a heavily skewed sex ratio because of the female infanticide.However it has been scientifically proved that there 107 males births per 100 female births..this is due to the fact that male babies are more susceptible to deaths than females…

    Also,the women womb automatically aborts male babies when there is scarcity in resources and bring more females..it has been noted in during WWII and several famines…

    Check these articles you will get a better understanding…Since in the 21st century,the resources are abundant,we would have more men and women and we should actually start practicing polyandry instead of polygamy…

    http://www.livescience.com/33491-male-female-sex-ratio.html

    http://news.sciencemag.org/biology/2014/12/why-women-s-bodies-abort-males-during-tough-timesRecommend

  • kamacho

    lil. nice story. BTW where was superman at that time?Recommend

  • Jehangir Qazilbash Mescanzai

    Very hard to convince a hindu. A religion where widows were
    forced to commit suttee. In reality there were NO widows.
    in hinduism. They committed suicide.Recommend

  • Ayesha

    Wow …. very interestingRecommend

  • Ayesha

    Ill agree … the blogger writes very well – his writing is very fancy, but it doesn’t make the blog enjoyable to read.Recommend

  • Ayesha

    go ahead Ahmed, take a second wife, we know you want to.Recommend

  • Sarah Uzair

    If it were in the Quran, it would NEVER have been followed given the unfair shit that goes on against women.Recommend

  • Sarah Uzair

    Great, great article.
    Plus one thing I would like to add here. What exactly makes males think they can go ahead and marry four wives? Because it is the Sunnah of Muhammad pbuh? Then what about his other practices? Loyalty and gentleness towards his wives, he used to wash his own clothes and do his own dishes – how many ‘muslim’ men do that nowadays?
    Because they like to marry more than one woman they consider it permissible and force the compulsion upon their first wife that it is allowed so stfu. But the other stuff is unmanly?
    Such men I swear should be lynched because what they do is follow the unjust treatment of women as is done in Indian states where abuse and maltreatment of women is so common – although things are changing now.
    If the first wife does not feel okay with sharing her guy with other 3 women, he should have enough sense to not go for it. If he does, please for damn sake at least he shouldn’t consider himself a saint like all men do. They laud their wife with house chores, kids’ duties, mother in law’s tantrums and what not and then drag the sunnah of 4 wives to fit their definition of what is okay and what isnt.
    Illiterate selfish liars.Recommend

  • Visibly

    And from a secular point of view:
    If a man should have the right to marry 4 women, then of course, a woman should have the right to marry 4 men. And by the way: Critically considering, it is much more likely that one woman can please 4 men than one man can please 4 women.Recommend

  • RFD

    Are there any widows allowed in Hinduism ? No.
    not a one. they must throw themselves on their
    husbands funeral pyres. No exceptions.Recommend

  • islooboy

    hah hindus in Pakistan keepl blurping around that hindu marriage is for life and divorce is not allowedRecommend

  • Maximus Decimus Meridius

    how do you solve the question of who is the father?
    how do you solve DNA deterioration.
    with four husbands her fertility rate skyrockets. what of the huge increase in population? what of the women’s health who falls pregnant each year?
    How do you solve the question of where shall she live? I hope you will not say that she stays one day with each husband with no home to call her own. cuz that is borderline prostitution.
    lots more questions once you solve these.Recommend

  • Maximus Decimus Meridius

    a woman marrying four men , who inturn marry four women, who in turn marry four men. what happens to the next generation? incestuos much?Recommend

  • Adpran

    I am a widower, a Muslim. I’ve ever married for almost 19 years without ever thought to have another wife. My reason to have only one wife was simple, I could not handle if I had two or more wives and they jealous to each other. It would make me get headache.

    Muslims are allowed to have up to four wives, but allowed is different than encouraged. If had multiple wives would make the wives not happy, it’s better if a Muslim man has only one wife.

    My beloved wife passed away in mid of 2013. Now I am planning to get married again, but with only one woman. I realize, I am not able to handle a marriage with multiple wives.Recommend

  • Ashraf

    Are you just envious that you cannot support more than one wife. The problem is inside yourself. Polygamy is allowed in Islam 100%.Recommend

  • Maximus Decimus Meridius

    quite true, cannot support more than one wife. I don’t earn that much. btw mr teapot, its kettle here and I want to ask you if you have four wives.Recommend

  • observer

    A very devious and camouflaged article, from an apologist, that cleverly justifies polygamy and male dominance and discrimination of women. We are living in an age of enlightenment, logic and human awareness of right and wrong. We are not living in barbaric 7th century Arabia where women were nothing more than commodities and sexual slaves and as such we don’t need to follow the male dominated concepts, holy or not. We don’t need a holy book and word or god to know right from wrong.Recommend

  • observer

    Why not adopt these poor women as sisters and daughters instead of making them “wives” aka sex-slaves?Recommend

  • observer

    So you are okay with your husband marrying four wives as long as he treats them with “loyalty, gentleness and wash his own clothes and does dishes”?Recommend

  • kulwant singh

    I think you are referring to Sati which was banned long ago.Recommend

  • kulwant singh

    The Sutee has been banned by law long ago and no man is allowed to have more than one wife. Agreed Muslims were allowed to have four wives as it was the need of the hour why you still stick to it and not make law prohibiting polygamy.Recommend

  • Arun

    sati stopped long back, we reformed. But you still have ‘slaughter the non-believers’ in your book. Now whos backward & regressive. Atleast Hinduism doesnt pave way for trash like ISIS, no? aww, feel bad for u..Recommend

  • intelektual

    Polygamy was allowed so the man would not choose the path of sin when struck with Lust.. Its a can not a should !
    It was allowed so that women would have someone to provide for them..
    It was a bargain allowed to God fearing men not at all a recommendation ! If you are so terribly struck with lust for another woman or a poor woman needs support !
    The patriarchal clergy never saw it that the requirement of Justice is taken care of by the law was the failure …Recommend

  • fightforwomen

    i’ll try to do better next timeRecommend

  • Red-Taz

    What most thick skinned Muslims forget to understand, is that it was allowed under special circumstances – Not to quench a mans lust – It was applicable for protecting widows or women who didn’t have any resources to take care of themselves. It is only permissible under the above mentioned stipulations even today – It is not a luxury that should be considered obligatory.
    Taseer Hussain
    Interior Designer
    Lecturer Islamic Art & Architecture
    http://www.facebook.com/gmtdesignstudioRecommend

  • rationalist

    In those “special circumstances” why were not Muslims encouraged rather to adopt those women as sisters, daughters instead of making them sex objects?Recommend

  • Hasan

    To the author: It’s a nice run around but it’s still a run around. You did not answer why polygamy is allowed in Islam. You didn’t even bother theorizing. Praising the Prophet of God isn’t an answer; it’s simply praising him. And you attempting to follow the faith or not is irrelevant. The truth is, nobody knows. There are a lot of things in the Quran that nobody knows. Slavery for instance was not abolished. Freeing slaves is recommended but not abolished. Alcohol is not banned but intoxication is. Is there a difference? Only God knows. Usury is banned but apparently the Muslim world has been unable to find another viable alternative to interest. Is usury equal to interest? God knows. And no alternative because nobody lends money for free. Similarly, to say you need to be a perfect man blah blah blah doesn’t answer the question of why it has been allowed and why was it not allowed to the people of Moses and Jesus? We don’t know.

    So don’t criticize the so-called liberals. Nobody knows. The man who knew died 1400 years ago. The rest of us are trying to live up to his example and wisdom along with the Message he brought from God as best we can.
    Recommend

  • Empiricism

    Haha…leave it to the rationalists to dig up dirt from where there is none…sir your comment is laughable…psychoanalysis into the ‘hidden’ meanings of words does not always lead to correct conclusions my friend ;)Recommend

  • Leila Rage

    To the writer:

    “I earnestly believe that it does not do to label oneself as a practitioner of a faith, and to continue to remain in an intoxicated state of pleasurable ignorance with respect to its central doctrines”

    Polygamy is not a “central doctrine” of the Islamic faith. Central doctrines refer to the 5 pillars of faith. Just thought this should be pointed out.Recommend

  • candice

    perhaps if you were to read the text closely, you would discover that such an assertion was never made. the statement is general, in my opinion…Recommend

  • observer

    Lot of vacuous words but no logical counter arguments. ’nuff said.Recommend

  • Red-Taz

    The true form of Shariah which most Muslims blatantly ignore, discourages women to be treated as house maids. It is not a woman’s job to clean, cook, do the dishes and laundry by default under any Islamic law – it is more down to cultural traditions. These women that are wedded under special circumstances, should be taken care of, instead of them taking care of an entire household – only according to the true form of Shariah.Recommend

  • seismann

    Hindus have outlawed these wrong practices long time ago.Mullahs want to keep their polygamy.Recommend

  • Jagmohan Trivedi

    It is important discussion between what is allowed in religion and what is practically
    possible in the present times.During old days there had been frequent wars as
    the society was based on tribal system,and casuality of male members had been
    quite high and now who would feed widows and their children and take long
    period liability? No body would take widows as daughters or sisters, as the human
    nature or even contract law asks for consideration.Hence the consideration was
    to have maximum of 4 wives and follow true duty of husband and wife, even though
    it was/is impossible to give same/equal love,as any person will shower more
    affection on the youngest and most beautiful wife.It is god given human nature.
    But the real problem is in modern times how can a person
    of moderate means or not so robust health can maintain 4 wives,even for a rich
    person it is impossible to please 4 wives as there are physical limitations and a
    woman is stronger than man in marital matters.YET there is total and legal
    permission to muslims to have maximum of 4 wives at a given time and by
    simple talaq any new wives can be taken in one’s life time.This great freedom
    is not available in other religions and a good number males seek conversion to marry and avoid divorce of existing wife.Any way more than one wife is a special
    gift to muslim brothers and let them enjoy,who wish and can afford.Recommend

  • Dawd

    Agreed, what discussions like these do is that they often conflate the legality of marrying more than one wife and the benefit and wisdom of doing so.
    In terms of legality you will find the early fuqaha held one condition (justice) but allowed marrying more than one woman for a multitude of reasons (including attraction), and thus any consummation of a marriage done for this purpose is legal from an islamic pov
    The separate question comes in to play is it advisable and beneficial. There may be times where it can be advised that a man does not marry one woman let alone two or more, for a number of reasons. And a second wife can be tricky since the husband should (note here I am not talking in the sense of haram/halal but as an advisory) consider the implications on his first wife/children and decide if his action will draw him closer to Allah or not .
    In our modern context polygamy does have a place, i believe, divorcees, widows are often marginalized in society and we see an increase in unmarried older women (for various reasons).Recommend

  • shumaila

    i ageedRecommend

  • nope

    You are an idealist my dear. When men will start raping these “sisters” and “daughters”, what will you do? So, let them marry them.Recommend

  • nope

    Please excuse him. His information is limited to what is fed to us in our elementary text books. He has not ever bothered to check facts. And similar nonse is fed to your younger generation about us. This is called “education” these days.Recommend

  • nope

    Are you offering match making services? :)Recommend

  • FearThe Fire

    Not only your stats on current world are wrong but your argument of why Polygamy/Polygyny shouldn’t be followed is incorrect.

    Check this out. http://www.fearthehellfire.com/2015/05/does-polygyny-violate-basic-rights-of.htmlRecommend

  • FearThe Fire

    Have shared my point-of-view on this topic that summarises four key areas:
    – Negating a divine decree from Allah;
    – Polygyny is an option;
    – What a wife needs to understand;
    – What a husband must understand

    http://goo.gl/WAm64NRecommend