Today, one of the Islamic regulations that is the cause of many prejudgments about Islam in western countries is the law of polygamy in Islam. This practice refers to a form of marriage that allows a man to have two, three, or four wives at the same time, but, on the contrary, never ever allows a woman to have more than one husband simultaneously.
In this article, you will read the philosophy behind this law from different perspectives and finally see Islam’s recommendation on that.
Polygamy was practiced long before Islam among different nations and was considered as an acceptable common deed in the history of some other faiths including Christianity and Judaism, although it is frowned upon and forbidden in their cultures now.
According to the Jewish encyclopedia: “While there is no evidence of a polyandrous state in primitive Jewish society, polygamy seems to have been a well-established institution, dating from the most ancient times and extending to comparatively modern days” .
In Christianity also, polygamy does not contradict their Scripture: “Nowhere in the New Testament is there any explicit commandment that marriage should be monogamous or any explicit commandment forbidding polygamy” .
Islam did not invent the system of polygamy, neither did it ban this tradition which was practiced unlimitedly by Arabs. Instead, it restricted it to four wives and gave it specific conditions and terms.
It is explicitly stated in the Holy Quran that:
“If you fear that you may not deal justly with the orphans, then marry [other] women that you like, two, three, or four. But if you fear that you may not treat them fairly, then [marry only] one, or [marry from among] your slave-women. That makes it likelier that you will not be unfair” (4:3).
This verse was revealed in regard to the Arabs in the period of ignorance, who were seldom free from wars and fighting, and among whom death by killing was a common occurrence. So, there was always a great number of orphans and widows among them.
Usually, the leaders of tribes and people of power and influence took the orphan girls (with their properties) as wives and behaved with them unjustly. They would often turn them out after swallowing their property; the helpless girls would become poor; neither they had any money to live on, nor was there anyone willing to marry and maintain them. The Quran, then, has reproached those Arabs very severely for this evil habit and prohibited very strongly doing any injustice to orphans or devouring their property. Allah says in the previous verse:
“Give the orphans their property, and do not replace the good with the bad, and do not eat up their property [by mingling it] with your own property, for that is indeed a great sin” (4:2) [i].
On the whole, Allah urges them to be careful regarding the orphans, so much so that if they are afraid that they would not be able to treat the orphan girls equitably and therefore do not like to take them, wives, then they had better not marry them; instead they should marry other women- two, three or four .
Both the Quran and Sunnah (the Prophet’s (PBUH&HP) and infallible Imams’(AS) tradition) clearly indicate the legitimacy of polygamy in Islam and most of Islamic Jurists and Scholars agree with that. It is noteworthy, however, that Quran’s recommendation to marry two, three, or four does not in any way imply an obligation; neither has it been seen as a necessity in any of the Islamic sects. Now we will shed light on the reasons why Islam did not absolutely abolish this tradition.
There are two different stances among Muslim scholars about polygamy in Islam; some have denied it as a general Islamic law by saying that it was suited to that specific time -i.e., the time and occasion in which the verse (4:3) was revealed- in history. The others, on the other hand, make any attempt to defend this law by reasoning it and saying its benefits; some of their arguments are:
Men’s sexual desire is stronger and lasts longer than women’s.
Women are not capable of fulfilling men’s sexual desire fully because of the restrictions they have, viz. menstruation, pregnancy, menopause, etc.
There are usually more marriageable women than men due to women’s longer lifespan and men’s more frequent fatal casualties because of the dangerous incidents that happen to them, etc.
Among these reasons, the third one -if we suppose that it existed in the past or continues to be common in the present day- is of great importance in justifying polygamy in Islam. Not only that, but it creates a right in favor of women and duty and responsibility for men and society.
Clearly speaking, if, in any case, the number of women fit to be married exceeds the number of marriageable men, then a group of women would be left without husbands and would remain deprived of the right to family life, so the law restricting marriage to monogamy will be inconsistent with this natural right. Accordingly, it is only by the provision of the law of polygamy (of course with special conditions) that this natural right is revived.
What’s more, Islam disagrees with the belief that man is a born polygamist and that his nature is at variance with monogamy. Islam, also, is against the idea that loyalty is impossible for men, and that one woman is created for one man, and one man for all women.
Polygamy, in the Islamic perspective, rises from a social difficulty and is not due to the innate nature of men. If there did not exist in society the problem of an excess of the number of women in need of marriage over the number of marriageable men, the custom of polygamy would have ceased to exist or would have rarely existed .
Now read the second part of this article to see the Islamic restrictions on the law of polygamy in Islam.
As stated in the first part, Islam brought about reforms in the customs previous nations, including Arabs, had in practicing polygamy in Islam:
The first reform Islam enforced was the restriction it imposed upon polygamy. Before the advent of Islam, there was no limit to the number of wives. One man could keep hundreds of wives and thus establish a harem for them, just as the ones some kings had, which is strictly banned in the religion of Islam.
However, Islam put a maximum limit on their number, and an individual was not allowed to have more than four wives simultaneously.
The other reform that was made upon polygamy in Islam was the condition under which there must never be, for any reason, discrimination between the wives or their children. The Holy Quran explicitly commands:
"But if you fear that you may not treat them fairly, then [marry only] one" (4:3)
As a matter of fact, those men who can observe full justice with a number of wives are very few. It is clearly stated in the following verse of the Quran which is in association with the previous verse:
"you will not be able to be fair between wives, even if you are eager to do so..." (4:129)
Allah explains here that justice between the wives in its true sense - to stand exactly in the middle of the extremes - is beyond human power even if one may wish it. What a man is obliged to do is that he should not be totally inclined to one of them, leaving the other one as she were in suspense… .
Besides these two main restrictions, there are other responsibilities and duties polygamous men have to fulfill toward all their wives; such as Nafaqah (alimony) and Mahrieh (marriage portion), etc. [see the article about the rights of the wife over her husband]
Ultimately, there is no dispute about the fact that monogamy is better; it is actually the best and most natural form of marriage in Islam. Obviously, the spirit of marital life which is oneness and unity is attained better and with more perfection with a single spouse.
It is only within this form of marriage that family commitment makes sense, and the great bond that unites the hearts of husband and wife makes them become one soul and one flesh .
Polygamy in Islam, on the other hand, rises from a social problem that rests heavily on the shoulders of all men and married women and for which a better solution has not yet been found. We have to face the fact that monogamy is not practical in specific social circumstances, and polygamy -under the mentioned conditions- is the most significant saving factor for monogamy.
One of two alternatives should be chosen: either the restricted acceptance of polygamy -as a duty rather than pleasure-, or the love affairs system, which is common in some societies these days. In other words, a few married men should marry more than one wife -of course under the condition of fulfilling all the above-mentioned responsibilities of a husband in a polygamous family-, and these will certainly not exceed a few percents, and unmarried women should settle, get home and make a life for themselves; or else open the way for love affairs.
In the case of the second alternative, the women deprived of family life may associate at her own free will with several men, and, as a result, almost all married men will in practice be polygamists.
Even then the matter will not end. The wives who will find their husbands to be unfaithful will think of taking revenge upon them and thus will themselves become unfaithful. This final result has been summarized in the well-known Kinsey report in one sentence: “The men and women of America have surpassed all other nations in unfaithfulness” .
Now, which alternative do you think is better?
When you hear this question the first thing that comes to your mind is probably the following: “Do husbands have rights too?” and "What are husband's rights in Islam?" In today’s modern societies whenever the issue of rights is discussed, particular groups are considered; mainly women and children.
However, it seems that men’s or husband's rights have been neglected or never talked about since no one thought it was necessary!
Here we want to pay our attention to MEN and specifically those men who are involved in family life, say husbands!
Since in Islam, the family is seen as an essential entity of the society, the wife-husband relations, their responsibilities and rights over one another is to be seen in the light of their status in the family.
When a man is called ‘husband,’ it means so much to him. He has to provide, has to fulfill his wife’s needs emotionally and economically. There are so many responsibilities that a man as a husband has towards his wife, and when it comes to Islamic culture and teachings, it is even more demanding.
The only provider in Islam is considered to be the husband, and wife has no responsibility whatsoever to provide for the family, unless she works and earns money only for her own pleasure (She may voluntarily, however, support the family financially. As it is the case in many Muslim families nowadays).
The Prophet (PBUH&HP) said: 'Man is the guardian of his family and every guardian has responsibilities towards those under his guardianship' .
Also, it is mentioned in the Quran that the husband is the ‘manager’:
‘Men are the managers of women, because of the advantage Allah has granted some of them over others, and by virtue of their spending out of their wealth...’ (4:34)
A modern reader of this verse may wonder why men should be the managers. One of the reasons mentioned in the above verse is due to his financial role in the family: ‘and by virtue of their spending out of their wealth...’
However, one may argue that, in today’s societies, this is not always the case. Today both men and women work, both earn money, both are educated, and they both have the same virtues. Then, what feature(s) of men has made them capable of being in charge of the family?
‘Righteous women are obedient..’ (4:34)
What does it mean to be obedient? Can it be applied to today’s societies in which men and women are considered the same?
Modern thinkers have mainly focused on the similarities between men and women to defend women’s rights. They have strived to show that women have the same power as men to build the history . At the end of the day, however, they are two ‘unique’ creatures of God, each of them possessing their beauty and strengths that fit well with his or her purpose of being. This is well addressed in the following verse:
‘And of His signs is that He created for you mates from your own selves...’ (30:21)
The word ‘mate’ in the above verse refers to the fact that man and woman are incomplete on their own, and they need each other .
In other words, men are created to be fathers, the same way that women are created to be mothers! Is it not enough to understand their different duties, rights, and responsibilities?
Islam advocates the priority of neither gender; rather it allows every person to fulfill their potentials, without any discrimination.
Alexis Carrel, the well-known French physiologist, and biologist admits the fact that men and women have been made differently according to the law of creation and he also confirms that these dissimilarities make their duties and rights dissimilar .
When Islam introduces husband as the manager, it means he is fully responsible for all family affairs. Accordingly, one of his rights is to be obeyed by family members including his wife and children.
What is primarily important here is that there should be a balance between rights and duties for each member of the family. When a family is seen as a big picture in which every member has their own role, different rights and duties of husband, wife and children can be easily explained.
Parallel to his duties and responsibilities, a husband also has some rights over his wife. Sexual satisfaction is one of them. A wife has to sexually submit herself to her husband unless during the wife’s state of menstruation:
‘They ask you concerning [intercourse during] menses. Say, ‘It is hurtful.’ So keep away from wives during the menses, and do not approach them till they are clean’ (2:222)
This is indeed one of the advantages that Islam gives to women to protect them.
One might argue why sexual availability is considered as a duty for the wife and one of the husband's rights? An examination of the philosophy of marriage in Islam will be helpful to find the answer .
In Islam wife is considered as husband’s mate towards whom husband take comfort as you can see in the following Quranic verse:
‘And of His signs is that He created for you mates from your own selves that you may take comfort in them, and He ordained affection and mercy between you...’ (30:21)
From the Islamic point of view, if a man is sexually and emotionally satisfied at home he will be protected against corruption outside. Same goes for women of course; hence we have many instructions for men on how to care for their wives and pay attention to their sexual needs.
We can never talk solely about husband's rights or wife’s rights. They are members of one social unit called ‘family’; a unit that is of high value and importance in Islamic teachings. Husband, like the wife, has his own rights and duties.
As for his duties, he is considered as the only provider for the family, and as the guardian, he has to take care of his wife and children. As for husband's rights, he has to be sexually and emotionally satisfied by his wife. Also, as the manager of the family, the husband is to be obeyed.
Wife and children must recognize the role of man in the family for the family to stay on the right track. However, man is to provide whatever means possible to fulfill his wife's and children’s needs emotionally and economically.
- Mustadrak, vol 2, p 550.
- Mutahhari Murtadha, The Rights of Women in Islam
- Almizan, Tafir, Vol 16. Sura Rum, verse 21
- The Importance of Marriage in Islam’,