Polygamy is defined as the condition or practice of having more than one spouse at a time. Though it has existed in many cultures throughout the world, polygamy is still very prevalent in most Islamic societies today. There are however several guidelines laid out in Islamic law governing the practice. Here we will examine the practice of polygamy in Islam and those laws which govern its legality. Muhammad did not introduce this practice, as has so often been wrongly alleged.
The Scriptures and the other sacred books bear abundant proof of the fact that is was recognized as lawful and, indeed, widely practised by patriarchal prophets, Zoroastrians, Hindus and Jews. In Arabia and all the surrounding countries a system of temporary marriages, marriages of convenience, and unrestricted concubinage was also prevalent: this, together with polygamy, had most disastrous effects on the entire moral and social structure, which Muhammad remedied. Muhammad married Khadija at the age of 25, and he took no other wife during the twenty-six years of their married life.
He married Aisha . . . at the age of 54, three years after the death of Khadija. After this marriage, he took other wives, about whom non-Muslim writers have directed much unjust criticism against him. The facts are all these ladies were old maids or widows left destitute and without protection during the repeated wars of persecution, and as head of the State at Medina the only proper way, according to the Arab code, in which Muhammad could extend both protection and maintenance to them was by marriage.
The only young person was Maria the Copt, who was presented to him as a captive of war, and whom he immediately liberated, but she refused to leave his kind protection and he therefore married her. Islamic law allows a man to marry as many as four wives, with a mild restriction. The text of the Quran (which is the governing text of Islam) indicates that a man who has several wives should treat them equally and avoid injustice. If he feels incapable of treating several wives equally, he is advised to remain monogamous.
The verse appears in the Quran as: Marry other women who seem good to you: two, three, or four of them. But if you fear that you cannot maintain equality among them, marry one only. No further explanation exists in any of the Islamic religious texts as to what would constitute unequal treatment. The husbands subjective appraisal of his ability for fairness constitutes the only restriction. It should be immediately apparent that the Qur’anic stance on marriage is more complex than the traditional rule of up-to-four-wives-at-once.
To begin with, a man is only allowed more than one wife if they can be treated equitably. The stated purpose of polygamy is for the sake of social justice: to enable society to “act justly towards the orphans”. In the context of Muhammad’s early Medinan community this makes plenty of sense, as the widows and children of martyred Muslims had few options to fall back upon for survival other than remarriage. Since warfare against the Meccan opponents of Islam killed many of the male Muslims, it was necessary to allow their widows to remarry the surviving men.
This would ensure that each widow and her children had a male to look out for their interests, without which their situation could have been difficult in the often patriarchal tribal society. This was especially important among the early Muslims of Medina, among whom much wealth was accumulated in the form of the spoils of battle and ransoms paid for enemies captured. Such wealth was controlled by the men who gained it in battle, and these were the ones who would have the means to provide for additional wives and children.
Though it is not as prevalant as it once was, today around 3% of all marriages in the nation of Islam are polygamous. Polygamy contains few if any benefits to the women of the marriage, most women who support and allow a polygamous marriage do so for economic reasons, as it provides a form of economic security for women who have no independent means. Wars had reduced the male population considerably. Women and children were left without a male in their household. In the seventh-century Arab milieu, socially and economically it was difficult for women to pick up the pieces and carry on with their lives.
Hence, the Quranic decree permitting men to take on more than one wife to help those who were dispossessed. A man may take a second wife and, at the same time, keep his barren first wife instead of divorcing her. Polygamy allows the first wife to remain legally married. Since, according to Islamic law, marriage obligates a man to support his wife, the first wife remains entitled to economic support. Polygamy also makes levirate marriages possible. A man who is already married may nevertheless marry his brothers widow and support her and her children.
Since in the Middle Eastern patrilineal kinship system children belong to their fathers kin group, a levirate marriage allows the woman to go on living with her children in the family of her deceased husband. Without the levirate marriage, she might be separated from her children for the rest of her life. The legality of polygamy also has another, very different set of implications. It is likely to affect the emotional life of the spouses and the nature of the tie between husband and wife. The legality of polygamy by definition implies a conception of the marital bond as nonexclusive.
Since a man may either repudiate his wife or take a second, third, or forth wife, there is little incentive for him to invest much of himself in the relationship with any one wife. The same pressures apply to the woman, but for different reasons. She may be repudiated on her husbands whim, or she many have to share her husband with one, two, or three other women. The law discourages attachment to the spouse and emotional investment in the marital union. Polygamy is often used as an heir-producing device in the Middle East, but it is a device only available to some.
If his first wife is barren, the legality of polygamy allows a man to marry a second wife in the hope of having heirs, particularly male heirs. This matters because the presence of sons has historically contributed to a mans social status, his power in the kin group and his security in old age. Not everyone can afford a polygamous marriage, however. A man has to be rather well-off to pay two or more bride prices and to support several wives. If several of his wives have children, he must support the children as well. Polygamy in Islam serves a strictly religious purpose.
Polygamy was a way of life until the Quran was revealed 1400 years ago. When the earth was young and under-populated, polygamy was one way of populating it and bringing in the human beings needed to carry out God’s plan. By the time the Quran was revealed, the world had been sufficiently populated, and the Quran put down the first limitations against polygamy. Polygamy has become an established part of traditional Islamic law and practice; Muslims are accustomed to accepting that a man’s right to more than one wife is firmly established in the Qur’an and the Hadith.
Polygamy (specifically polygyny, the marriage of one man to many women) is thus considered unquestionably moral, even though it is obviously unfair; only men are allowed the privilege of it. However, a close study of the Qur’an can enable one to see that the Islamic ideal of marriage is monogamous, with only husband-wife pairs. In fact, the Qur’anic stance on polygamy is the same as its stance on slavery; both are objectionable on ethical grounds, but tolerated due to the particular circumstances of Muhammad’s community.