Islam and the question of polygamy

Even though allowed in many religious and cultural traditions, polygamy is most often identified only with Islam in the Westerner minds and to people of other major religions. Many are convinced with the assumption that Islam is a religion that has introduced polygamy and that it degrades the statues of women by allowing man to marry more than one wife. We would like to share with you some FACTS about the idea of polygamy and about polygamy in Islam. We hope that you would consider these facts as you form your opinion about Islam in general and about women in Islam in particular.

1- DEFINITION OF POLYGAMY

Polygamy -or more precisely, polygyny- means a system of marriage whereby one person has more than one spouse. The negative image presented in movies in the west about polygamy in Islam is no more than pure movie makers' fantasies and has nothing to do with reality, as we will see.

2- WHY POLYGAMY

There have been almost the same reasons that had led many cultures and religions to accept polygamy as a recognized custom or tradition. The major reason is that during wars, there are more men killed as compared to women. Other reasons for the shortage of men is the fact that more men die due to natural disasters than women, because usually men are working at the fields or trying to save somebody else. In modern times, there are even a grater host of reasons contributing to the lose of men. For example, accidents to those working with heavy machinery or in work fields that are usually equipped by men.

Statistic may surprise you, but there are more women than men almost every where in the world [1]. After the WWII, there were 7.3 million women more than men in Germany, (3.3 million of them were widows). Russia had nine million more females than males. Today, other countries such as England there are about 94 males per 100 females. In Guinea there are 122 females for every 100 males. In Tanzania, there are 95.1 males per 100 females. According to Census 2000, there are about 6 million women more than men in the U.S, New York alone has an estimated one million more females than males [2].

Because of all these reasons -with war being the major one, the chances for men to die is grater than women and the average life span of females is more than that of males, thus, at any given time one finds more widows in the world than widowers. This is a well-known fact to the insurance companies and this is why most life insurance companies have two policies, one for men and another for women. Here is an example you could verify for yourself with the insurance companies. According to one insurance company: A life insurance policy with the face amount of $150,000 for a male whose age is between 31-35 would cost him $22.50 a month. Yet the same amount for a 31-35 years old female would cost here only $16.50 a month. The difference between the two payments is $ 6.00 or about 27 percent more in the case of being a man.

3- A BRIEF HISTORY OF POLYGAMY

Because of the shortage of men as explained above, mankind has practiced polygamy for thousands of years. Here is a brief look to history of polygamy in major religions:

4- POLYGAMY IN ISLAM

When the Quran -or Koran, the Holy book of Islam- was revealed, it accommodated other religions and people who were living in that era. At the same time, it recognized earlier Messengers of God and their authentic Messages, which have allowed and organized polygamy. Since the problem of shortage of men still existed then -and until today- Islam dealt with the problem instead of sweeping it under the rug or by ignoring it and looking the other way.

The Quran, too, allowed polygamy, but with more restrictions: "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 only one". (The Holy Quran, chapter 4: verse 3).

The Quran, contrary to all other scriptures, limited the maximum number of wives to four under the strict condition of treating the wives equally and justly. Some may think that it is a common sense that man should treat all his wives equally and justly, yet all other religions teach that you should not kill for example. If these religions depended only on common sense then there would have been no need to teach that you should not kill, since it calls for even less common sense not to kill another person.

The Qur'ân is the only religious book, on the face of this Earth, that contains the command; ‘marry only one’. There is no other religious book that instructs men who could not fulfill the conditions of being fair and just to their wives to have only one wife

The Qur'an and the Shariaa -the Islamic law, make it even harder not easier on man to have more than one wife. They stipulate that a man is responsible for the maintenance of his wife or wives. If a man has more than one wife, he has to provide separate living accommodation for each of his wives. The woman is not obliged to spend on herself even if she is rich. Nor is she obliged to work to share in the family expenses. If a man could not support more than one wife, then he could not marry another one. No other religion, custom or tradition in the world restricts man to this condition except Islam.

According to the holy Quran (2:256): "Let there be no compulsion in religion", which means that a Muslim could not force another Muslim to comply with God’s rules. It has to be the person’s own submission to follow the commandments. If a woman refuses a polygamous marriage, the Quran says she could not be forced.

Islam is the first religion to allow certain conditions to be added to the marriage contract, which is something similar to today’s civilized -not religious- prenuptial agreement. With that, Islam cares for the religious side of the holy matrimony as well as the financial and the social sides. Islam organizes all aspects of life for its followers and not limited only to the religious aspect. Thus, full consent is a major corner of the marriage contract in Islam. This means that the bride has full right to refuse a polygamous marriage.

According to Shariaa -Islamic law, a co-wife will inherit a part of the dead husband’s estate, the children will too. In a monogamous culture, children who were born outside of wed lock will inherit but their mother will not.

It should be clear to you by now that the Quran does not exhort the believers to practice polygamy, or that polygamy is considered as an ideal. In other words, the Quran has "tolerated" or "allowed" polygamy, and no more, but why? Why is polygamy permissible? The answer is simple: There are places and times in which there are compelling social and moral reasons for polygamy. As the above Quranic verse indicates, the issue of polygamy in Islam cannot be understood apart from community obligations towards orphans and widows. Islam as a universal religion suitable for all places and all times could not ignore these compelling obligations.

Multiple marriages are a heavy responsibility on the male. It is not a pleasure trip as some people may assume. Some may even imagine all kinds of sexual exploits involving a man and his wives altogether. However, such activity is not permissible in Islam. A man must divide his time equally among his wives. He may, for example, spend one night with each wife on a rotating schedule.

Because of all these burdens on men to have multiple marriages, having more than one wife is not the norm of marriage in Islam, multiple marriages still exist, but not everywhere as they do in Hollywood movies.

It may be useful at this point to see what some NON-MUSLIM writers are now saying on this much misunderstood subject after having the chance to learn the truth about it.

John Esposito says: "Although it is found in many religious and cultural traditions, polygamy (or more precisely, polygyny) is most often identified with Islam in the minds of Westerners. In fact, the Qur'an and Islamic Law sought to control and regulate the number of spouses rather than give free license". (John Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path, Oxford University, 1988, p. 97).

Esposito then goes on to explain that in a society, which allowed men an unlimited number of wives, Islam limited the number of wives to four. Then he continued to say: "The Qur'an permits a man to marry up to four wives, provided he can support and treat them all equally. Muslims regard this Quranic command as strengthening the status of women and the family for it sought to ensure the welfare of single women and widows in a society whose male population was diminished by warfare, and to curb unrestricted polygamy" (p. 97).

Karen Armstrong explains much the same in her book entitled Muhammad: A Western Attempt to Understand Islam (Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1991, p. 191). She says: "We have to see the ruling about polygamy in context. In seventh-century Arabia, when a man could have as many wives as he chose, to prescribe only four was a limitation, not a license to new oppression".

It is unfortunate that the Western media often gives the wrong impression of what Islam is all about. Karen Armstrong writes: "Popular films like Harem give an absurd and inflated picture of the sexual life of the Muslim sheikh which reveals more about Western fantasy than it does about the reality" (p. 190).

Some people incorrectly assume that because of this ruling most Muslim men would have four wives. However, as Huston Smith points out: "Multiple wives are seldom found in Islam today" (The World's Religions, p. 252). Ira Zepp, Jr. says: "Less than 2% of Muslim marriages are polygamous" (A Muslim Primer, p. 180).

About this being a solution for the problem of surplus women, Ira Zepp, Jr. comments on page 181 of his book: "The Roman Catholic Church is facing the same problem today in parts of Africa. Social and economic reasons are forcing the Church to reconsider polygamy as a Christian option". (See Polygamy Reconsidered by Eugene Hillman, New York: Orbis Press, 1973).

5- FACTS ABOUT MONOGAMY

Monogamy does not solve the problem of the shortage of men. Even if every man in the world today got married to a woman, there would still be about 30 million females who would not be able to get husbands. There is only one of three choices for the unmarried women in this case:

  1. Her full equal rights as the other wife, including housing, finance, time and attention.
  2. Her children will grow up in a healthy family with a father and a mother.
  3. She and her children enjoy all legal rights, medical insurance for example.
  4. She and her children will inherit if the father dies and not only the children.

After World War II, the international youth conference held in Munich in 1948, the problem of the highly unbalanced sex ratio in Germany was discussed. When it became clear that no solution could be agreed upon, some participants suggested polygamy. The initial reaction of the gathering was a mixture of shock and disgust. However, after a careful study of the proposal, the participants agreed that it was the only possible solution. Consequently, polygamy was included among the conference final recommendation. This is another proof that polygamy is the answer to the problem when carefully studded, even by those who are not Muslims.

Some western cultures take the position that monogamy protects the rights of women. The truth of the matter is that because there is a shortage of men, monogamy protects them and allows them to "play around" without responsibility. Easy birth control and easy legal abortion has opened the door of illicit sex to woman, and she has been lured into the so-called sexual revolution. But she is still the one who suffers the trauma of abortion and the side effects of the birth control methods. Men are the ones protected by monogamy while women continue to be victims of men's desires. Polygamy forces men to face up to responsibility and fidelity. It forces them to take responsibility for their polygamous inclinations and protects and provides for women and children.

Rejecting polygamy and not dealing with the problem have forced such cultures to adopt systems whereby children who are born outside the wedlock would still enjoy many rights. In other words having affairs with married men is not a crime, having children born that way, is also OK. The child will get a child support, and if the man is rich the child will inherit part of his wealth anyway. However, the most important part of having children, which is having a responsible father, and having a companion to care for the mother’s needs as a husband could not -and will not- be met that way. This makes one wonder; are monogamous cultures really against that way of life?

Polygamy allows only those who are responsible, caring and willing to bear more than one family’s responsibility, to step forward and to do so. Monogamy -with the shortage of men- protects those who are irresponsible when they carelessly have children who would be -at least- just like them.

The shortage of men is a real problem whether other major religions choose to recognize it or not. Refusing to deal with the problem would not make it go a way, and could only make it worse. Religious institutes and scholars who oppose polygamy owe their followers a precise justification from their scriptures to back their opposition, and to introduce an alternative by which the problem could be practically solved. Otherwise, they would not be following their own scriptures.

6- POLYGAMY IN JUDAISM

According to the Biblical scriptures, the Torah and the Talmudic law, polygamy is permitted in Judaism as long as the two rules mentioned above regarding inheritance of sons of different wives and not taking a wife's sister for a rival wife are observed. Today, some Jewish scholars reject polygamy without a sound justification from their scriptures or by offering another solution to the problem of shortage of men.

As explained above, Islam grants women the right whether to enter a polygamous marriage contract or not. However, according to the Jewish tradition, the Bible, sometimes resorts to forcible marriages, here are two examples from the Bible:

  1. A childless widow, who lived in the same house with the brother in-law, must marry her husband's brother. Even if he is already married, regardless of her or his consent according to Deut. (25:5-7): "If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger. Her husband's brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband's brother unto her. And it shall be, that the firstborn which she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother which is dead, that his name be not put out of Israel. And if the man like not to take his brother's wife, then let his brother's wife go up to the gate unto the elders, and say, My husband's brother refuseth to raise up unto his brother a name in Israel, he will not perform the duty of my husband's brother".
  2. A girl who was raped, must marry the man who raped her according to Deut. (22:28-29): "If a man find a damsel (a girl) that is a virgin, which is not betrothed (engaged), and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found. Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days".

7- POLYGAMY IN CHRISTIANITY

Even though most Christians are convinced that it is forbidden to take more than one wife, the idea of monogamy doesn’t provide an alternative practical solution to the problem of shortage of men as discussed above. Jesus (peace be up on him) was not known to have spoken "directly" against polygamy. The verses used to justify forbidding polygamy usually are not direct commands to do so. But mere interpretations of verses that could not be taken literally, and they could be interpreted in many other ways. If polygamy was evil or unclean as some claim, Jesus (peace be up on him) would have spoken against it directly and not leave it to ones interpretations. Further more, if God has allowed it and sat laws for it - as discussed above, forbidding it later would make one wonder: What will happen to the surplus of women, or what is alternative practical solution to the problem?

There are those who hope for a perfect world where unmarried men and women would not have any unlawful affairs or where men are not killed in wars. This might be true; a perfect imaginary world wouldn’t have this problem. However, God already knows how do we think and act in our real world, and that we will always have wars for one reason or another. That’s why He gave us many rules or commandments to follow, so that we might better our world, and these rules are most practical and logical [5].

While many are convinced that an average person could not follow the Mosaic law to the "t". Logically, following any part of the law -polygamy for example- could not in any way make one; "a non-believer or an anti-Christ".

Some believe that Jesus (peace be up on him) had fulfilled the law and thus they are under no obligation to follow it today. Which makes one wonder:

Knowing Jesus (peace be up on him), if monogamy was vital to the religion, the community or the culture, he would have put it on the top of his list of teachings and not ignore it or taking it lightly by speaking against it indirectly. Many are aware that monogamy was introduced into Christianity at the time of Paul when many revisions took place in Christianity. This was done in order for the church to conform to the Greco-Roman culture where their celebration of the ‘Sun god’ took place on the 25th of December [6] and where the ROMAN LAW allowed men to marry one but owned many slaves who were free for them to use. In other words, when the ROMAN LAW allowed polygamy, BUT WOULD NOT LEGALIZE IT.

8- CONCLUSION

Other cultures and religions have practiced polygamy, some still do until today. Islam did not introduce polygamy, thus all questions about polygamy should be asked to other religions as well.

God sat rules to organize it, if it was evil, He would have forbade it from the beginning.

Islam does not promote nor force polygamy, it only allows it as it recognizes the problem instead of ignoring it.

Comparing the idea of polygamy in other religions to that of Islam should proof fruitful too.

Polygamy in Islam restricted men and gave women more rights than what any other religion gave them. In other matters regarding women rights, what Islam gave them should be compared to what other religions gave to women.

Polygamy in Islam is the most practical answer for the welfare of the widows and the orphans. Furthermore, it is the only honorable way for the unmarried women to have families of their own.

Recognizing the real world we live in and following God’s commandments as humanly as possible will better our lives. Ignoring reality and doing the opposite of what God has commanded, is distant to worsen the lives of those who do so.

Notes

1)- India along with a few other countries, in which the female population is less than the male population. The reason lies in the high rate of female infanticide, and the fact that more than one million female fetuses are aborted every year in that country, after they are identified as females. If this evil practice is stopped, then India too will have more females as compared to males.

2)- Find these statistics at the census bureau for the U.S and The New Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 17, pp. 34, 270, 244.

3)- Deuteronomy (21:15-17): "If a man have two wives, one beloved, and another hated, and they have born him children, both the beloved and the hated; and if the firstborn son be hers that was hated. Then it shall be, when he maketh his sons to inherit that which he hath, that he may not make the son of the beloved firstborn before the son of the hated, which is indeed the firstborn. But he shall acknowledge the son of the hated for the firstborn, by giving him a double portion of all that he hath: for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his".

4)- Lev. (18:18): "Neither shalt thou take a wife to her sister, to vex her, to uncover her nakedness, beside the other in her life time".

5)- Our reference; "most practical and logical" is to the rules and commandments of Islam.

6)- The Roman’s also made their most holy day to be the SUN-day. As for the birth date of Jesus (peace be up on him) there is no reference anywhere to the exact date.

Bake to main page

Suggested articles: