Why does Islam permit polygamy?
1. Definition of Polygamy
Polygamy means a system of marriage wherein one person has more than one spouse. Polygamy can be of two types; one is polygyny wherein a man marries more than one woman, and the other is polyandry, wherein a woman marries more than one man. Islam permits limited polygyny while prohibiting polyandry completely.
2. Legal Position of Polygyny in Islam
Muslims derive the permissibility of polygyny in Islam from the Qur’anic verse:
“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…” [Al-Qur’an 4:3]
From this verse, it is evident that polygyny is neither mandatory, nor encouraged, but merely permitted. The Qur’an also warns about the difficulty of dealing justly between multiple wives:
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 practise self-restraint, Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.
Nevertheless, it made fair and equitable dealing with wives an obligation. If one is not sure of being able to deal justly with wives, the Qur’an says: “then (marry) only one” (Qur’an 4:3).
The Qur’anic injunction, thus, made polygyny restrictive, when compared with the prevalent practice in the world.
Dr. Jamal Badawi, a Canadian Islamic scholar says:
“The requirement of justice rules out the fantasy that man can “own as many 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. It also implies, according to the Islamic Law, that should the husband fail to provide enough support for any of his wives, she can go to court and ask for a divorce.”
3. Is Polygyny Exclusive to Islam?
The question that arises is: “Did the institution of polygyny originate in Islam”? A brief look at major world religions and cultures clearly indicates that this is not the case.
a) Polygyny is permitted in Judaism. According to Talmudic law, Abraham had three wives, and Solomon had hundreds of wives. The practice of polygyny continued until Rabbi Gershom ben Yehudah (960 C.E to 1030 C.E) issued an edict against it. The Jewish Sephardic communities living in Muslim countries continued the practice until as late as 1950, when an Act of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel extended the ban on marrying more than one wife.
b) There is no passage in the New Testament that expressly prohibits polygamy except in the case of bishops and deacons. This was the understanding of the early Church Fathers and for several centuries in the Christian era.
Westermarck, the noted authority on the history of human marriages states:
“On various occasions Luther speaks of polygamy with considerable toleration. It had not been forbidden by God: even Abraham, who was a “perfect Christian”, had two wives. It is true that God had allowed such marriages to certain men of the Old Testament only in particular circumstances, and if a Christian wanted to follow their example he had to show that the circumstances were similar in his case; but polygamy was undoubtedly preferable to divorce.
In 1650, soon after the Peace of Westphalia, when the population had been greatly reduced by the Thirty Years’ War, the Frankish Kreistag at Nuremberg passed resolution that thenceforth every man should be allowed to marry two women. Certain sects of Christians have even advocated polygamy with much fervor.
In 1531 the Anabaptists openly preached at Munster that he who wants to be a true Christian must have several wives. And the Mormons, as the entire world knows, regard polygamy as a divine institution.”
c) Many Hindu religious personalities, according to their scriptures, had multiple wives. King Dashrat, the father of Rama, had more than one wife. Krishna had several wives.
4. Polygyny is a Solution
Let us consider a few honest questions: What is the situation in countries that have banned polygamy? Do they really enjoy sincere and faithful “monogamy” as the norm? Are infidelity and secret extramarital sexual relationships more moral than the legitimate, legally protected husband-wife relationships, even under polygamy if there is a pressing need for it? Which of the two situations is better?
There are societies where women outnumber men. Besides these, wars take a heavier toll on men as compared to women. For unmarried women who cannot find husbands and widows who aspire to a respectable family life, polygyny is often an acceptable alternative.
The association of polygamy with Islam is a serious misunderstanding. Polygamy was practiced, often without limitations, in almost all cultures. In Islam, polygyny is not a substitute for monogamy, but merely a permission to practice limited polygyny, which is consistent with Islam’s realistic view of human nature, as well as social needs.
As Dr. Jamal Badawi states: “Rather than requiring hypocritical and superficial compliance, Islam delves deeper into the problems of individuals and societies, and provides for legitimate and clean solutions that are far more beneficial than would be the case if they were ignored.”
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