8.6 Polygamy in Islam

8.6 Polygamy in Islam

The idea is widely put about that the Qur’an supports or condones polygamy. This view is not entirely wrong, but nor is it right in all circumstances. To find the true position we need to dig a little deeper than hearsay or a superficial reading.

The verses which are often used to support the idea of polygamy are:

(4:2,3) Give unto orphans their wealth, exchange not the good for the bad (in your management thereof) nor absorb their wealth. Lo! That would be a great sin. And if ye fear that ye will not deal fairly by the orphans, marry of the women who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if ye fear that ye cannot do justice (to so many) then one (only) or (the captives) that your right hand possess. Thus it is more likely that ye will not do injustice.

From the last verse it must be emphasised that the Qur’anic position is that – unless one is able to treat his wives with just equality – one must not consider taking more than one wife. In practice, this condition is most difficult to fulfil and so it must be understood that the general recommendation is towards monogamy. Also, polygamy, as the verse suggests, can only be justified under particular circumstances. In any case, there is no escaping the fact that a man has ultimately to justify all his actions before Allah, remembering that Allah knows what is in his heart. The following verse emphasises the fact that it would be extremely difficult to deal justly between more than one wife. If one does put himself in that situation, it is only right to insist that one should not ignore the first wife, but fulfil all the outward duties that are obligatory on him in respect of her.

(4: 129) Ye will not be able to deal equally between (your) wives, however much ye wish (to do so). But turn not altogether away (from one), leaving her in suspense. If ye do good and keep from evil, lo! Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful.

In seeking to understand more of reasons for the introduction of polygamy in Islam we might consider the following quotation from a paper submitted by Aisha Lemu at the International Islamic Conference held in London, from 3rd to 12th April, 1976. Mrs. Lemu, an Englishwoman, embraced Islam about fifteen years prior to this conference.

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 fiancees 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.

The compromise, therefore, is for women under these circumstances to face the fact that if given the alternative many of them would rather share a husband than have none at all. And there is no doubt that it is easier to share a husband when it is an established and publicly recognised practice than when it is carried on secretly along with attempts to deceive the first wife.

And it is no secret that polygamy of a sort is widely carried on in Europe and America. The difference is that while the Western man has no legal obligations to his second, third or fourth mistresses and their children, the Muslim husband has complete legal obligations towards his second, third or fourth wife and their children8

She says further: ‘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 to all three parties’.

She goes on to conclude: ‘I have mentioned some of these examples because to the majority of the Westerners polygamy is only thought in the context of a harem of glamorous young girls, not as a possible solution to some of the problems of Western society itself’ 9

According to the Qur’an, however, marital problems and discord need to be tackled by proper consultation and conciliation — involving the spouses and their families. The Qur’an does not subscribe polygamy for any other reason than what is in verses 4:2-3.