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Polygamy and Islam

Not only one…..


In many cultures, in many lands and in many civilizations, the treatment of women has been diverse. They have been looked upon as slaves, given no share in inheritance, treated as mere machines for progeny, looked down upon, branded as week and taken as pieces of entertainment. This article does not intend to relate the tale of their sufferings. Instead it tries to impress on the role of Islam in restoring and amending the wrongs done to them.

Some of the women rights in Islam are :

1. Permission for widow remarriage,

2. Granting inheritance rights for women,

3. Permitting them to participate in politics and judiciary,

4. Accepting them as witnesses in courts, forbidding dowry,

5. making it mandatory for the men to take up financial responsibilities of the family while declaring the same as optional for women.

And finally permitting the practice of polygamy are Islam’s contribution to establish a decent livable environment for women which most cultures deny – or it’s better for her to be a mistress!!!-

Of the above things there is nothing that is more controversial than Polygamy. People might wonder how on earth does Polygamy make way for a decent livable environment for women? Isn’t Polygamy an evil that is an insult to women? Well, lets find out.

Firstly let me clarify that Islam does not impose polygamy as a universal practice. The Prophet himself was a monogamist for the greater part of his married life, from the age of twenty-five when he married Khadija until he was fifty when she died.
One should therefore regard monogamy as the norm and polygamy as the exception.

One may observe that, although it has been abused in some times and some places, polygamy has under certain circumstances proved to be a valuable option. In some situations it may be considered as the lesser of two evils, and in other situations it may even be a positively beneficial arrangement.

1. The most obvious example of this occurs in times of war when there are inevitably large numbers of widows and girls whose fiancees and husbands have been killed in action. One has only to recall the figures of the dead in the first and second world wars to be aware that literally millions of women and girls lost their husbands and fiancees and were left alone without any income or care or protection for themselves or their children. If it is still maintained that under these circumstances a man may marry only one wife, what options are left to the millions of other women who have no hope of getting a husband? Please keep in mind that in any war more men die than women. Their choice, bluntly stated , is between a chaste and childless old maidenhood, or becoming somebody’s mistress, that is an unofficial second wife with no legal rights for herself or for her children. Most women would not welcome either of these since most women have always wanted and still do want the security of a legal husband and family.

The compromise therefore is for women under these circumstances to face that if given the alternative many of them would rather share a husband than have none at all. And there is no doubt that it is easier to share a husband when it is an established and publicly recognized practice than when it is carried on secretly along with attempts to deceive the first wife. This is where Islam comes into picture by legalizing Polygamy.

2. And it is no secret that polygamy of a sort is widely carried on in Europe and America. The difference is that while the Western man has no legal obligations to his second, third or fourth mistresses and their children, the Muslim husband has complete legal obligations towards his second, third or fourth wife and their children. This is where Islam comes into picture by legalizing Polygamy.

3. There may be other circumstances unrelated to war–individual circumstances, where marriage to more than one wife may be preferable to other available alternatives– for example, where the first wife is chronically sick or disabled. There are of course some husbands who can manage this situation, but no one would deny its potential hazards. A second marriage in some cases could be a solution acceptable to all three parties. This is where Islam comes into picture by legalizing Polygamy.

4. Again there are cases in which a wife is unable to have children, while the husband very much wants them. Under Western laws a man must either accept his wife’s childlessness if he can, or adopt a child which will not compensate for a child from his own flesh and blood, or if he cannot he must find a means of divorce in order to marry again. This could be avoided in some cases if the parties agreed on a second marriage. This is where Islam comes into picture by legalizing Polygamy.

5. There are other cases where a marriage has not been very successful and the husband loves another woman. This situation is so familiar that it is known as the Eternal Triangle. Under Western laws the husband cannot marry the second woman without divorcing the first one. But the first wife may not wish to be divorced. She may no longer love her husband, but she may still respect him and wish to stay with him for the security of marriage, for herself and their children. Similarly the second woman may not wish to break up the man’s first family. There are certain cases such as this where both women could accept a polygamous marriage rather than face divorce on the one hand or an extra-marital affair on the other. This is where Islamic laws come to the rescue and grant women what they want.

6. In most human societies, females outnumber males. In the U.S. there are at least  eight million more women than men. In a country like Guinea there are 122 females for every 100 males. In Tanzania there are 95.1 males per 100 females.

-Eugene Hillman, Polygamy Reconsidered: African Plural Marriage and the Christian Churches (New York: Orbis Books, 1975) pp. 88-93.

What should a society do towards such unbalanced sex ratios? There are various solutions. Some might suggest celibacy, others would prefer female infanticide (which does happen in some societies in the world even today !). Others may think the only outlet is that the society should tolerate all manners of sexual permissiveness: prostitution, sex out of wedlock, homosexuality etc. But for other societies , like most African societies today, the most honorable outlet is to allow polygamous marriage as a culturally accepted and socially respected institution.

7. To impress the benefit of Polygamy let me cite an example. If your sister fails to get an unmarried man, what would you have her do? Make her stay unmarried for the rest of her life? let her be in live-in relationships? let her be someone’s mistress with no legal rights for her and her children? Tolerate all manners of sexual permissiveness: prostitution,  sex out of wedlock,  homosexuality  etc? OR let her marry a man who is already married and live a decent and recognized life,  enjoying all rights equally that the first wife has? The choice Is yours.

I have mentioned some of these examples because to the majority of the Westerners,  polygamy is only thought of in the context of a harem of glamorous young girls, not as a possible solution to some of the problems of Western society itself. I have given some time to it not in order to advocate its indiscriminate use, but in an attempt to show that it is a practice not to be condemned without thinking of its uses and possible benefits in any community.