Summary of 7.31 Polygamy in Islamic Law I (Historical Perspectives)

First we started by clarifying the terms and we said that polygamy is a broad term which includes any form of plural marriages which may include one wife having more than one husband which is called polyandry and this is not what we are dealing with because Islam does not allow it.’ Also, polygamy deals with polygyny which is the husband having more than one wife at the same time which i the subject that we are dealing with.’ We said that if we use the term polygamy that we actually mean polygyny not polyandry.

Secondly, we indicated that the assumptions and ideal in the structure of a Muslim family in Islamic Law is monogamy not polygyny.’ The norm that Islam requires is having one husband and one wife, unlike other common notions.’ In the meantime Islam neither prohibited polygyny nor did it require or encourage it.’ We started putting the subject into historical perspectives.’ We tried to look at ancient civilizations where we concluded that from many authorities it is obvious that the practice of polygyny was in existence in virtually all ancient civilizations.’ We have shown also that in the case of Judaism and Christianity there is textual evidence and or manifestation in history which shows that polygyny was accepted.’ We referred to examples of Prophets who had more than one wife and we referred to church councils or rabbi councils who only prohibited it in later centuries (several hundreds of years after the advent of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)).’ We ended by indicating that this was not only limited to the 11th century in the case of Judaism or 17th century as in the case of Christianity.’ We referred to some Christian sects like Anna Baptist who encouraged the practice of polygyny and even the Mormons (more recent sect) who approve of polygyny and consider it a divine institution.

7.32′ Polygamy in Islamic Law II (Historical Perspectives)

Host:’ Do Mormons still support and encourage polygyny?

Jamal Badawi:

The way it developed is in 1847 when the Mormons started to establish themselves in what they considered to be the Promised Land (particularly in Utah)’ they adopted polygyny quite widely during days of Brigham Young (the founder).’ In 1890 polygamy was outlawed by federal statutes in the United States and as a result (since the Church openly advocated polygamy) their property were confiscated.’ This might have been one of the reasons that lead the Mormon church to issue an official manifesto banning any form of polygamy.

However, we find that the church president Wilford Woodruff later declared a that this manifesto had been divinely inspired.’ Which raises the question as to why it was divinely inspired only after the Church property was confiscated?’ God knows what the motives behind the change were.

We find in a periodical call Journal an interesting article by Ben Merson published in June 1967 Husbands With More than One Wife.’ The article was written on the basis of visits and actual interviews with polygamous families in Utah, where a large number of Mormons live.’ He says that ‘it is estimated that in Utah alone over 30,000 middle class Mormons Americans secretly cling to the practice of plural marriages.” I recall that he mentioned in the article that in some schools the teacher would as a child what their name was John Smith and Gary Smith and they would be the same age and in the same class.’ So he would ask if they were brothers and they would say yes (they were brothers from two different wives to the same husband).

One has to be careful because first of all officially in the 19th century polygamy was permitted by the Mormon sect but even after the first declaration, which might have been connected with the confiscation of Church property, the practice did not necessarily stop.’ It still exists now.

Host:’ What is the reason for the practice of polygamy in all civilizations, cultures and religions?’ From a sociological side?

Jamal Badawi:

I would like to refer to Hammudah Abd al-Ati in an interesting book The Family Structure in Islam where he as sociologist summarizes the views of many sociologists.’ He indicates that many sociologists after researching the issue more carefully (aside from emotions) have come to the conclusion that the practice of polygamy is not something irrational, non rational, anti social or immoral.’ Sociologists feel that it is an issue which is multidimensional which involves lots of complex combinations of reasons which may be personal, demographic, social or anything else.

Some of the reasons sociologists give.’ For the explanation of personal reason they claim that an individual who is married may be overwhelmingly attracted to another woman (other than his wife) for whatever reason (sexual or aspiration or status).’ In some cultures having more than one wife may be a symbol of wealth and status.’ It could also be an attraction on the part of the woman.’ Some women in some cultures may prefer to marry, as a second wife, to someone who is rich and prominent than getting marrying a poorer person (this is not an Islamic perspective but from a sociological perspective).

There is also a possible demographic explanation.’ As it happens in many places the sex ration is low, whereby there are relatively more females than males.’ In this case in order for the extra females to have any sense of family life or marriage would be impossible if monogamy is upheld.

Some refer to a biological explanation (I am not saying I agree with each of these reasons) referring to the fact that man’s sexual nature might make him comparatively more predisposed to polygamy than a woman is.’ This takes into consideration a male’s aggressive sexual arousal, the capacity for physical dominance are possible explanation for polygamy.

Some sociologists suggest social explanations which point out that in some cultures polygamy might be one element in binding families and tribes together.’ It is a sort of pact of interfamily or intertribal alliance.’ Some may add that this may lighten the household duties or chores on the women involved in the same marriage.

There are also economic explanations which point out that in certain poor areas in the world where the infant mortality rate is high and where families are poor and there is a need for more hands to work for the family is essential which may lead men to marry more than one wife to make up for fatality of children and to provide human resources.’ For example, some cultures seem to except polygamy without much fuss just as much as monogamy is regarded as the ideal in Western communities.’ In a book by D. Campbell entitled In the Heart of the Bantuland published London 1922 he mentioned something of this nature, and the preference of women to marry into polygamy as a social norm.’ Another book by H. Corey called Socoma Law and Custom published in New York 1953 in page 52 he mentions something similar to that.

I think it is quite useful as Abd al-Ati concludes on page 110 in The Family Structure in Islam that ‘One should not forget however that these complex hosts of reasons (that we mentioned) are too complex in a way that (like in a system approach) they interact with each other.’ They interact internally, and then the combinations of those reasons also interact with the total social forces, which include traditions, customs, conception of public morality, law, and all of those forces which interact both internally and externally.” So it is not a matter that one can make over generalized statements about polygamy.’ All of these forces may contribute to make polygamy comparatively more or less acceptable. depending on the mode of these interactions of forces.

Host:’ What is Islam’s position with respect to polygamy?’ It appears that Islam did not introduce the practice of polygamy but simply sanctioned existing polygamy.

Jamal Badawi:

It is correct that Islam neither invented nor introduced polygamy.’ We have seen that it existed among many persons, many nations, cultures and religions including Judaism and Christianity.’ The question of Islam sanctioning existing polygamy is also acceptable but with some precaution.’ Islam did not sanction the practice of polygamy the way it existed before the advent of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).’ Indeed Islam is the only monotheistic faith which restricted the practice of polygamy that was in existence at its advent. It regulated it and added conditions which might even be regarded as stringent conditions before it might be acceptable in some situations.’ It is legislation by acceptation rather than a norm that should exist in society.

It is also useful to remember that polygamy in Islam is not an obligatory duty.’ It does not say that a Muslim must practice polygamy, nor is it an article of faith or a principle where one is a sinner if it is not implemented.’ Polygamy is not even a commendable act that makes one a better believer.’ It is something that is not prohibited nor unqualified permissible but is conditionally permissible.’ The other thing that may relate from the purely legal stand point from Islamic Law.’ From a purely legal standpoint in Islamic Law acts that are conditionally permissible can become detestable, unlawful or even prohibited.’ In other words they may be allowed in principle but under certain circumstances they might be detestable or outlawed.’ An example would be in the case of committing injustice: if there is an obvious case of injustice if the person takes a second wife, even though the act in itself is permissible, under these circumstance it may be declared as unlawful.’ Islam is the only faith that did not ignore the practice of polygamy and did not keep silent on it, nor did it condone it and consent to it as it existed but stepped in to restrict it, limit it and provide regulation for its practice even though it is not the norm for an Islamic family.

Host:’ Is there explicit mention of polygamy in the Quran?

Jamal Badawi:

There is one key verse which is an obvious referance to the permissibility of polygamy which appears in (4:3) ‘If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, Marry women of your choice, Two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess, that will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice.” We can make a number of observations from the text of this verse.’ To start with the verse is not an injunction but it says that one should practice polygamy and that it is not a crime or an offense to practice polygamy.’ Second, the permission here is conditional because it says one has to deal justly with them.’ If one feels that he would not deal justly if he had more than one wife then they should only marry one.’ Third, there is a restriction on the practice of polygamy unlike how it was practiced before Islam.’ Before Islam people had no upper limit to how many wives the person had.’ We had seen in the Bible the number of wives going to 700 and in the days of Islam among the pre-Islamic Arabs had ten wives more or less.’ The upper limit here is four it says two, three or four not two plus three plus four which would mean nine and is a mistake contrary to the Arabic language.’ The fact is that the Prophet allowed people to have four wives and if he had more than four he would ask them to divorce the rest.’ The consensus of jurists throughout Muslim history has been that it is not two plus three plus four but two, three or four being the maximum upper limit under any circumstances no matter how low the sex ratio is.’ This is an explicit restriction found in the Scripture.’ In addition it is important to note that in the very beginning of the verse it says ‘If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans’ which shows that the main philosophy behind permitting polygamy is not just satisfaction of sexual needs but prevents injustice to women under certain situations or circumstances.

Host:’ Can you expand on the context of the revelation of this specific verse?’ And the circumstances resounding it?

Jamal Badawi:

The same question was directed to the wife of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) Aisha and as narrated in Abu Dawood, Bukhari, Nassai and Al Tirmithi she said : This verse was revealed with respect to a guardian who had guardianship over one or more orphan girl/s and he gets attracted to her beauty and wealth and he wanted to marry her but without giving her a just marriage gift.’ Dowry should be fair with no minimum or maximum but it should be fair.’ He may worry that because he is her guardian he may exploit her position by not being paying a fair marriage gift to her.’ So what it means that one should not marry the orphans under his guardian ship unless he is fair to them and is able to give them their due rights rather than exploit his position.’ If he is afraid of being just, aseptically when Islam makes it a big offense to devour the wealth of orphans or weaker people in the community, he could marry from other places.’ If one needs a second wife and is afraid of injustice then he can marry because God has permitted it.

Zamakhshari one of the major interpreters of the Quran in his book Alkashshaaf A Tafsir also mentions that this verse seems to imply that polygamy is permitted when there is fear of commission of adultery.’ More specifically he says that when people heard verses in the Quran threatening people who devoured the wealth of the orphan that some of them were so reserved that they stopped marrying orphans under their guardianship.’ So what it says here is that if one is afraid of doing that and afraid of committing adultery and if one has no way out then that is what one should do.’ In addition the timing of this verse is quite revealing.’ This verse was revealed after the battle of Uhud in which many Muslims were martyred leaving behind young daughters of marriageable age, widows (some who were young and had a lot more to fulfill in their lives) and small children who need help and support.’ Of course the notion of getting married as a second wife to some of those unfortunate women and looking after their needs is much more humane than simply giving them a handout.’ This provides for their physical sexual needs as well as the need for warmth, marital life and the need for a father for their children.’ This was practiced by early Muslims in order to provide this mutual support women and their children.

Host:’ What is meant by the justice as a condition of plural marriages?

Jamal Badawi:

First, justice is an absolute condition for the validity of polygamy.’ One should not get a second wife according to Islamic Law even if they have good reasons unless justice can be achieved.’ The verse is very clear that if one does not have justice between the wives then one should only marry one (which is the norm).’ Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as narrated in Abu Dawood, Al Tirmithi, Al Nasaai and Ibn Maja said that whomever had two wives and he was bias towards one of them he will come forth on the Day of Judgement with one of his halves lowered or imbalanced.’ This is a kind of warning for one not to be bias and if one fears being bias they should only marry one.

What it really means is the maximum humanly attainable justice.’ This means if a person happens to have two wives the amount and quality of food provided for both should be the same, the quality and amount of clothing for both should be the same, medication, recreation, housing and the amount of time that the husband spends with each should be the same.’ Mercy, compassion and good treatment is required for both of them.’ However, there is one aspect of justice which is not humanly attainable, which has to do with his internal emotions.’ It is not humanly possible for one to have the same humanly emotion of love towards both in the exact same way.’ This is not humanly possible and God does not ask people to go beyond their human capacity.’ This is why Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said as narrated in Abu Dawood, Al Tirmithi, Al Nassai and Ibn Maja ‘Oh God this is my justice in what I could control.’ Don’t blame me in what you control and I don’t control.” Finally, the Quran alludes to this in (4:129) ‘Ye are never able to be fair and just as between women, even if it is your ardent desire: But turn not away (from a woman) altogether, so as to leave her (as it were) hanging (in the air).” One should try to be just and equatable only in cases of extenuating circumstances which justify deviating from the norm which is monogamy.