One among many fallacies being spread to denigrate Muslims is that “Islam is the only religion that encourages polygamy’ i.e. a man can marry more than one wife. While Islamophobes blame Qur’an for what they say ‘encouraging’ polygamy, feminists criticize it for not ‘extending the similar rights to women’. Are both these groups right in their criticism, or are they just lost in the immense worldwide propaganda against Islam? Let us make an attempt to find out.
Before we discuss polygamy, let us try to understand how these people try to rationalize their criticism of Islam. As has been written and spoken about in many forums, these people want Islam to what they say ‘reform’ just like other religions like Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism etc. have undergone to keep pace with the modern (rather western) world.
As a matter of fact, one would like to convey to these people that reformation of their religions (I don’t mean to denigrate any religion) in itself underlines their incompleteness. And if you believe in God, you can’t imagine Him to be imperfect! After all, He is the Creator of everything!
In religious scriptures like The Bible, Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana, Mahabharata or even The Talmud, there is no mention of the restriction on the number of wives. How many wives or husbands one can have, these books have no answer. So, how was it that followers of these religions restricted the number of wives to one?
In India, the land where Hindus live, it was brought about by an Act of Parliament called Hindu Marriage Act, 1954. Similarly, the Church restricted the number of wives to one among Christians a few centuries ago. In Judaism, polygamy was banned sometime around 1000 CE when Rabbi Gershom ben Yehudah issued an edict against it. The Jewish Sephardic communities living in Muslim countries, however, continued the practice till as late as 1950, until an Act of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel extended the ban on marrying more than one wife.
Associating polygamy with Islam is not just false, but preposterous too. Various religions, before the advent of Islam in 14th century, sanctioned it and almost all nations of antiquity recognized it. King Dashrath, described as father of Rama, according to Hindu scriptures had multiple wives. Even Krishna or Makhan chor (butter thief), had several wives, according to these scriptures. Similarly, there was no restriction on the number of wives a man can have among the ancient Babylonians, Assyrians, and Persians. Rome and Greece, according to historians, were not polygamous societies, as they had effectively replaced it concubinage.
Abraham, Moses, Jacob, David, and Solomon – revered equally by Muslims, Jews and Christians – were all polygamous.
Abraham had three wives (Genesis 16:1, 16:3, 25:1)
Moses had two wives (Exodus 2:21, 18:1-6; Numbers 12:1)
Jacob had four wives (Genesis 29:23, 29:28, 30:4, 30:9)
David had at least 18 wives (1 Samuel 18:27, 25:39-44; 2 Samuel 3:3, 3:4-5, 5:13, 12:7-8, 12:24, 16:21-23)
Solomon had 700 wives (1 Kings 11:3).
Hindus More polygynous Than Muslims
The percentage of polygamous marriages among Hindus from 1951-61 was 5.06% while it was 4.31% among Muslims during the same period, according to a report of the ‘Committee of The Status of Woman in Islam’, published in 1975. This clearly shows that despite not being illegal for Muslims, the polygamous marriages are just an exception, not a rule.
Polygamy In The Qur’an
Qur’an, is the only known world scripture that not only explicitly limits polygamy but also places strict restrictions upon its practice.
“If you fear that you would not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry two, three or four of the women who are lawful for you. But if you fear that you would not be able to deal justly [with them] then [restrict yourself to] one only.” (Qur’an. 4:3)
As can be seen in the above verse, the Qur’an has limited the maximum number of wives to four, and marrying more than one is conditional: you should deal justly with them in terms of physical, emotional and economical needs. During the early days of Islam, all people who would join its fold were required to divorce the extra wives. Islamic Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) has stated it in clear terms that Muslims can’t discriminate among the wives or their children.
“You are never able to be fair and just as between women even if it is your ardent desire” [Al Qur’an 4:129]
So, first Islam has restricted polygamy by allowing a maximum of four women, then asks man to be fair with them and then makes the remark that it is not possible to be fair and just between women. Therefore, one can conclusively say that polygyny is not a rule, but just an exception.
The bigger question is why allow polygamy? If we take a tour of Surat An-Nisa (woman), we can clearly see that most of its verses deal with the reformation of the society. And as we can see the first part of the verse quoted above, men are allowed to marry more than one women not for physical needs, but to “deal justly with the orphans”. Since orphans are the weaker sections of the society, the God wanted Muslims to provide welfare to them and therefore asked men to marry their mothers if they were afraid that wouldn’t be able to take proper care.
This verse, asking Muslims to marry more than one woman, was revealed after many Muslims were martyred in battles in Medina and they left a number of widows and orphans.
Polygamy A Solution To Social Ills
Undisputedly, Qur’an mentions it in clear terms that a family comes into being through the union of a single man and woman, but the society could benefit from polygamy (conditions apply) if and when exceptional circumstances arise.
In our society, there would always be young widows and divorcees with small kids living a life of tribulations and sufferings with no one around to take them as wives. These people can benefit from polygamy.
In many Muslim societies today the practice of polygamy is rare, and according to some researchers, not more than 2% of married Muslim males practice polygamy. So, one can safely say that the rate of polygamous marriages in the Muslim world is much less than the rate of extramarital affairs in the West. In other words, men in the Muslim world today are far more strictly monogamous than men in the Western world.
Billy Graham, an eminent Christian evangelist says Christian countries make a great show of monogamy, but actually they practice polygamy. “No one is unaware of the part mistresses play in Western society,” he says.
He says Islam has permitted polygamy as a solution to social ills and has allowed a certain degree of latitude to human nature but only within the strictly defined framework of the law.
“In this respect Islam is a fundamentally honest religion, and permits a Muslim to marry a second wife if he must, but strictly forbids all clandestine amatory associations in order to safeguard the moral probity of the community.”
Philip Kilbride, an American anthropologist of Roman Catholic heritage, in his controversial book, Plural marriage for our time, proposes polygamy as a solution to some of the ills of the American society at large.
He argues that plural marriage may serve as a potential alternative for divorce in many cases in order to obviate the damaging impact of divorce on many children. He maintains that many divorces are caused by the rampant extramarital affairs in the American society.
According to Kilbride, ending an extramarital affair in a polygamous marriage, rather than in a divorce, is better for the children, “Children would be better served if family augmentation rather than only separation and dissolution were seen as options.” Moreover, he suggests that other groups will also benefit from plural marriage such as: elderly women who face a chronic shortage of men and the African Americans who are involved in man-sharing.
Marriage in Islam, unlike a sacrament in the Christian sense, is secured with a contract – providing rights to both partners and the children they beget. Not only this, mariage and polygamy in Islam are a matter of consent. And as such, no one can force a woman to marry a person who is already married. One thing that needs to be mentioned is that a woman, at the time of her marriage, may stipulate in her pre-nuptial contract that her husband must not take a second wife.