Myths about Islamic polygamy

Attacks against Islamic polygamy and the conservative defence of the practice ignore the Qur’an’s history.

By Moin Qazi

Polygamy is anathema to modern legal and moral standards. The general impression is that the conjugal mores of seventh-century Arabia—and the problems that come with them—have taken root in Islamic societies because Islam is a misogynistic religion. This is not so. If you dig deeper into the history of the religion you will find that polygamy is generally anathema to Islam too. Polygamy only continues because Islam’s drowsy cultural and religious watchdogs either look the other way or have an implicit vested interest in it.

Children also learn from an early age that females are unworthy of exclusive affection and therefore hold less value than males. Moreover, if common, polygamy creates legions of unhappily unmarried young men who are ripe for radicalisation. Yet, in societies that practice it, polygamy can also function as a social safety and security net.

Quranic sanction of polygamy

The Quranic institution of polygamy is a piece of social legislation which was designed, not to gratify the male sexual appetite and lust, but to provide for widows, orphans, and other vulnerable women. It ensured that unprotected women were decently married off to men who could provide for them, and that the opportunities for the loose, irresponsible sexual liaisons of men were reduced and that higher standards of male sexual behaviour were better established.

The Quran permitted polygamy as a solution to the pressing social welfare problems during the time of revelation, roughly 1,400 years ago. The reasons behind polygamy had nothing to do with satiating men’s sexual appetites or curbing their wandering eyes. The first mention of polygamy appears in the Quran’s fourth chapter:

“Give orphans their property, do not replace their good things with the bad, and do not consume their property with your own. That is a serious crime. If you fear you will not deal justly by the orphans, marry the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if you fear that you cannot do justice (to so many) then one (only) or the captives that your right hands possess. Thus it is more likely that you will not do injustice.” (4:2-3)

The primary concern in the Quran’s sanction for polygamy was for orphans. Indeed, the Quran is notable as the only book which has so many verses overflowing with profuse compassion for orphans. Note that in the Quran, polygamy and orphans—which in Arabic refers to fatherless children—are generally mentioned in the same sentence. These ‘polygamy verses’ were revealed shortly after the battle of Uhud, in which the Muslim forces lost many soldiers. The gender imbalance after the battle, and the fact that in that time and place women largely depended on men for their economic survival, made polygamy a pragmatic solution.

Polygamy in the modern family

Answering why Muslims engage in polygamous marriages in modern society is a highly charged enterprise. It is certain that most Muslims who engage in polygamous marriages are not marrying widows and even if they do marry widows, these marriages are not generally inspired by the welfare of orphans—a litmus test laid down by the Quran.

In the Quranic context, polygamy implies that there has to be a relationship between the wives or else between the new wife and any orphans who are being adopted. The Quran stipulates that a Muslim man must act justly, not only to his adopted children but also to all the women he may marry. A Muslim family unit is built on the Islamic notion that the husband must always be the primary breadwinner and a wife must always be the primary caregiver.

The real question for the student of Islamic practice is why the taking of more than one wife is even mentioned in the Quran if the ideal situation for most Muslims is monogamy? Any answer to this must involve the historical context of the holy book. The Prophet lived at a time when continual warfare produced large numbers of widows, who were left with little or no provision for themselves and their children. In these circumstances, polygamy was encouraged as an act of charity. Needless to say, the widows were not necessarily sexy young women, but more often mothers of up to six children.

Sometimes polygamy makes sense?

On this point, Muslim law is more elastic and can be more in harmony with the requirements of society than many other systems of law which do not permit polygamy. To take a practical example, suppose there is a family in which the mother, who has young children, falls chronically ill. The husband has no means of employing a maid to do the housework while he earns the household wage. Supposing also that the sick woman gives her consent to her husband taking a second wife, and there is another woman who would like to marry the father of the family. The present Western custom would prefer that any arrangement like this take place outside the law. Surely Muslim law on polygamy comes closer to common sense and decency in this case.

The worst tragedy for many women is when the husband passes away and, as a widow, the responsibility of maintaining the children falls upon her alone. In the Eastern world, where women often do not go out to earn a wage, the problems of widowhood are substantial. Prophet Muhammad upheld the cause of widows. Most of his wives were widows. In an age when widows were rarely permitted to remarry, the Prophet encouraged his followers to marry them.

A plurality of wives was also a sociological mechanism, to ensure that men with barren wives could marry again and reproduce. However, it was certainly not a licence for lust, as suggested by the Orientalist fantasy of the harem. The Quran explicitly states that a man intending to take more than one wife is only allowed to do so if he treats each wife equally. He must lavish his love and affection equally, and financially support each wife equally to the penny.

Do not hurry to legislate

The sacred scriptures were meant to teach lessons for the good of human society. But this does not negate the presence of the darker human passions, even in a religious society. Humans have both angelic and satanic traits. We have the means of taming our worse instincts—laws for punishing them, norms for shaming them, and cures for healing them. But society should not let this aim of curbing harmful behaviour express itself through prejudice against the traditions of others, without taking the time to understand them.

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