Summary of 7.32 “Polygamy in Islamic Law II (Historical Perspectives)

In the last program we started by giving some of the anthropological and sociological explanation of the existence of polygamy in a variety of cultures throughout different points in history.’ We discussed the various reasons such as personal, demographic, social, biological, economic and so on.’ We concluded that each of these explanations in itself does not provide a satisfactory explanation or understanding of the whole picture of such a complex institution like polygamy.’ All of those reasons interact with each other and in tern they interact with other social sources (legal, cultural, traditional etc) which may shape the attitude towards polygamy being acceptable or not.

The bulk of the program addressed the nature of polygamy in Islamic Law.’ We started by referring to the mention of polygamy in the’ Quran.’ We indicated that there are two verses in the Quran that deal with this in (4:3) and (4:129).’ We tried to analyze the circumstances for the revelation which might shed light on the spirit behind it’ We have seen that these verses were connected with the question of guardianship of orphans and the fear of doing injustice to them.’ We have seen that being connected according to explanation of Zamakhshari that this is related to the fear of adultery (it is better for one to get a second wife than to have illicit relationships).

We have seen that the verses were revealed after the battle of Uhud where many Muslims died leaving behind widows and children who were in need of care that was more than handouts.’ They were in need of a family or home atmosphere in order to look after their needs.

We concluded that if one looks closely at the verses revealed in the Quran one is bound to conclude that monogamy is the norm that the Quran encourages.’ In the mean time it allows polygamy not as a requirement, not as a commendable act but as a conditional permission which seems to be designed to deal with certain situations and extenuating problems.’ Even then there is the requirement of ability to look after more than one wife financially and of being just.

7.33′ Polygamy in Islamic Law III (Historical Perspectives)

Host:There are people who suggest that the Quran prohibits polygamy.’ What would your response be to this view?

Jamal Badawi:

People with this kind of interpretation say that in verse (4:3) it says that one may marry more than one wife and it requires justice and that it says that if one fears that they can not do this then marry only one.’ Then they say that in verse (4:129) where it says’Ye are never able to be fair and just as between women, even if it is your ardent desire.” It says justice is a requirement and on the other hand it says one will never be just and equitable if one has more than one wife and this implies that it is prohibited.

This is not a well founded interpretation.’ The very same verse they refer says that one could marry more than one wife.’ It would not make sense to say that one has two options: monogamy or polygamy if need be, but it is forbidden to be polygamous.’ Why give two choices to start with, if one of the options is non existent.’ On the other hand it has been authentically shown during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and many of his companions who had practiced polygamy.’ How could they deliberately violate the teaching of the Quran without the prophet objecting to it?’ This shows that permission was given and there was no absolute prohibition.’ I think the confusion about this whole issue as to whether the Quran really prohibits polygamy or not arrises because of the meaning of the term adl.’ Justice is used in both verses (4:3) and (4:129) but it is used in different contexts with different meanings.’ In the first verse it talks about human justice which is possible (equal amount of support, clothing, food, housing and time).’ If someone fears that they would not be just in what is humanly possible then they should not marry more than one wife.’ The term adl which is sometimes translated to justice or balance which is mentioned later on in (4:129) deals with justice in a sense of having equal feelings.’ If one recalls from the previous session that we discussed the issue of feelings and that it is something that one does not control.’ The Prophet himself that one can not divide something that they can not control.’ This is why the verse says that one would not be just and equitable between women if one tries to and then it says don’t be overly inclined (leaving one wife in suspense or feeling hurt and bitter).’ This means try your best but if you can’t have equal feelings it beyond your control.

Host:’ Is there any significance to the maximum number of wives that one is permitted to marry?

Jamal Badawi:

If the verse said five we would say why five, or if tit was three we would say why three.’ Some people tried to explain some of the possibilities for that particular number.’ Some argued that it would be too much for a wife to be away from her husband for more than three days.’ So if the person is married to four each woman will get her share at least once every three days, which they think is the maximum time that they can spend apart.’ Some people say that if one marries more than four, even in the most extenuating circumstances it becomes very difficult to be just, equitable and it is rare for a person to have enough wealth to be able to support four wives.’ This might be a partial explanation.’ I don’t think that these reasons by themselves give satisfactory answers.’ I think the point that is forgotten is that this number is not arbitrarily place but it comes in the Quran which is the world of God, and God’s wisdom exceeds ours and we will not be able to fully comprehend any specific maximum.’ On the other hand we are not prohibited from trying to find possible explanations in order to better understand it.’ It may be kept in mind that the number 4 stands somewhere in between an extreme restriction of monogamy and going into a marriage with such a large number of wives which might look like a purely sensual type of relationship.’ Perhaps four would cover a variety of extenuating circumstances such as war, low sex ration and it is unlikely that the need would arise where people would need more than four wives (for personal reasons or because of social reasons or problems).

The other thing to remember also is that the number 4 is mentioned in the verse as an absolute maximum which means that if the problem can not be solved in specific setting except by having four wives then that is fine, if the problem can be resolved by having three wives that is even better, two is even better and monogamy which is the norm according to Islam is even better.’ This number was established as a cut off line in order to establish the unrestricted practice of polygamy that existed before in different cultures and religions.’ This is an absolute maximum rather than something that is regarded as the average or norm.

Host:’ If the norm is to only have one wife why did Islam allow for polygamy in the first place?

Jamal Badawi:

Most writers when discussing this topic move into listing possible reasons of possible circumstances which may make polygamy a more moral solution of certain problems (which is fine).’ My approach to this is that before getting into any of those reasons, especially in a topic like this which evokes very severe reaction and emotions, is that we should remember that this conditional permission of polygamy is not a law that has been set by a human being.’ If the law was made by men we would say they are bias because they are male if it was made by women we would say they are bias because they are females.’ God is neither male or female and when He established these rules or allowed certain things, He definitely has good reason behind it and has no reason whatsoever of being unjust to males or females.’ It is impossible to believe in God and to believe He is unjust.’ As indicated earlier this does not mean we do not have the right to explore these reasons.’ But a believer would not say that if I don’t get reasons then I don’t believe in what God says.’ A believer should say that they believe in God and that they try their best to understand these things.

The point here is that Islam, as the seal of revelation of all the prophets as there is no prophet after Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and there is no Holy book after the Quran, is the culmination of all the messages and the mission of all God’s prophets.’ If Islam is not intended as a religion for the Middle East, Arabs or Westerners but for the whole world as a universal faith.’ It would not be eligible to be called a universal faith unless it has enough flexibility in its laws so as to be able to solve problems in different times, different places and different circumstances.’ It is good for different times because Islam as a last revelation would not be universal if it only addressed the problems faced by the people during the time of the Prophet, only our time, or the time in between but it must meet the needs of these different times, it should not be time bound.’ It can not be a universal faith if it is tailored for the Arabs, Americans or Canadians.’ It must have the flexibility to deal with different cultures in different settings.’ It has to be a faith which is not place bound.’ Third, it can not be a faith bound by circumstances.’ One can not have a universal faith that solves problems under certain circumstances under certain certain cultural practices or norms but fails to cover other practical problems of other circumstances.’ So again in order to be universal it must be a faith which not bound by circumstances.’ For these reasons we realize that there may be circumstances on an individual level or collective level which may make it very difficult to find a solution if we did not have this conditional permission for polygamy.

Host:’ What are some of the social reasons for polygamy?

Jamal Badawi:

First of all in some places and times there are constant complaint of a lower sex ratio (larger number of females than males).’ This might include girls of marriageable age, widows and divorcees.’ If in such kind of settings there is insistence that anything other than monogamy is wrong and illegal what would happen to these women who want to get married but are not able to because of the shortage of males.’ In Islam their basic needs can not be satisfied in any illicit way , so what other practical solution is there?’ Of course if they don’t want to get married that is their choice but if they do why should the law make it very restricted.

Second, which is quite normal in human history.’ We all hate wars, no body really wants wars as it is part of the basic human instinct to strive for peace.’ On the other hand it is unfortunate that so long as there is good and evil in this world, human capricious claims and arrogance of power remains to be part of the fact of life at present and will probably continue till the Day of Judgement.’ In most cases’ the casualties of these wars, even though it may include women and children, is mostly males who are killed.’ Of course if we look at the First and Second World Wars there were a large number of men killed which caused an imbalance and lower sex ratio.’ What is to be done in situations like this?’ After the Second World War there were demands in Europe for some form of polygamy to be permitted.’ In Munich in 1948 after the war there was an international youth and a discussion went on regarding how to solve the shortage of men after the casualties of war.’ Many suggestions were offered non of which seemed to be very practical.’ Some of the attendees were Muslims proposed the notion of allowing polygamy under these extenuating circumstances.’ Of course in the beginning like any Western reaction they were disgusted and surprised at these suggestions.’ But after things were discussed on an objective reasonable and rational basis the people who were attending who represented a variety of cultures and religions agreed to adopt polygamy as a recommendation that would solve this problem.’ In 1949, the residence of the city of Bonn, Germany actually made a request to their government that the constitution should have a provision permitting polygamy when the need arrises.

Another circumstance that is very similar to the question of wars, is that in human history even at present despite the fact that women have been involved in lots of work and jobs that were traditionally mens jobs, we still find that jobs which involve a great deal of danger (mining, construction, truck driving) are still mostly mens jobs.’ The deaths in these jobs are relatively higher for men than women which would result in lower sex rations and the presence of widows and others who might prefer to have a family life instead of being alone.

There may be some individuals with and overwhelmingly strong sexual drive and if strict monogamy is insisted upon they would have no alternative but to commit adultery and involve themselves in illicit relations which are regarded as a major sin in Islam.’ This is regarded as an offense not only against God or one’s self but against society because women will be exploited, people have illegitimate children as a result.’ In some cultures polygamy seems to be part of the social structure (example: African countries that we discussed last time).’ Even among non-Muslim societies in Africa it was reported several times that even the missionaries and some Churches permitted people who converted to Christianity to keep their wives (because some of them were polygamous when they were pagans).’ All of these show that there are circumstances on a social level which make polygamy a much more viable and more wholesome approach than doing things illegitimately to solve these social problems.

Host:’ What are the individual circumstances that can possibly justify polygamy?

Jamal Badawi:

Supposed we have a young man in his twenties who marries a girl (about the same age), their family life is good, they love each other, they had two babies (one is a year old and the other is two) then all of a sudden the wife contracts a serious disease which would effect her availability to him (for marital relations).’ It could be something that causes a slow death like cancer or leukemia, it could be a sudden mental disease, it could be a coma (some people can stay in comas for years).’ What kind of alternatives does the husband have?

One, he can control his instinctive needs (if this situation continues for 5,10 years or forever) and he should sacrifice and not satisfy these needs.’ Islam does not object to this if this is his choice.’ If a person is able to control their basic sexual drive for that long or forever there is nothing that explicitly says one should not do that.’ How many people or what percentage of young people who are in their 20s are able to take this route?

Second, he can keep his wife (because he believes monogamy is the only mode of marriage) and he can go from the back door and have mistresses.’ This from an Islamic perspective is not permissible because it is adultery.

Third, he can divorce his wife and marry another in order to satisfy his needs.’ This is like dumping one’s beloved in the time of need, which is cruel.’ What is an alternative to these three that is better than all of them and more practical?’ To marry another woman, satisfy his needs, maybe having someone to look after his kids and home and if she is noble enough she would help sever the first sick wife.’ The practical solution which might be surprising because many of the viewers are raised in a Western atmosphere where it is inconceivable to think of a person marrying two wives.’ But practically speaking when we look at a situation like this what meets the criteria of morality, practicality and kindness?’ This may not be the best solution; but it is the best one that we can think of in a situation like this.’ If not this than what is a practical and moral way that is better?