Islam is criticized for allowing polygamy, for popular culture in the West views polygamy as relatively backward and impoverished. For many Christians, it is a license to promiscuity, and feminists consider it a violation of women’s rights and demeaning to women. A crucial point that needs to be understood is that for Muslims, standards of morality are not set by prevalent Western thought, but by divine revelation. A few simple facts should be borne in mind before any talk of polygamy in Islam.
Islam Did Not Initiate Polygamy
Islam did not introduce polygamy. Among all Eastern nations of antiquity, polygamy was a recognized institution. Among the Hindus, polygamy prevailed from the earliest times. There was, as among the ancient Babylonians, Assyrians, and Persians, no restriction as to the number of wives a man might have. Although Greece and Rome were not polygamous societies, concubinage was a norm. Islam regulated polygamy by limiting the number of wives and bringing responsibility to its practice. In fact, according to David Murray, an anthropologist, historically polygamy is more common than monogamy.
Polygamy Practiced by God’s Prophets
The great Hebrew patriarchs equally revered by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – Abraham, Moses, Jacob, David, and Solomon, to name a few – were polygamous. According to the Bible:
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).
The example of Jesus, who otherwise overlooked polygamy, is irrelevant as he did not marry during his earthly ministry.
Marriage in Islam
Marriage is a legal arrangement in Islam, not a sacrament in the Christian sense, and is secured with a contract. Islamic marriage lays rights and corresponding responsibilities on each spouse. Children born in wedlock are given legitimacy and share in inheritance from their parents.
The primary purpose of marriage in Islam is regulating sexuality within marriage as well as creating an atmosphere for the continuity and extension of the family. This is in sharp contrast to growing trends on marriage in the West. In recent decades, there are more alternatives to marriage than ever before. Cohabitation – living together outside of marriage – has greatly increased among young, never-married adults, as well as the divorced. More American women are having children outside of marriage, ignoring the traditionally sanctioned sequence of marriage followed by childbearing.
Polygamy in the Quran
The Muslim scripture, the Quran, is the only known world scripture to explicitly limit polygamy and place strict restrictions upon its practice:
“… marry women of your choice, two or three or four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with them, then only one.” (Quran 4:3)
The Quran limited the maximum number of wives to four. In the early days of Islam, those who had more than four wives at the time of embracing Islam were required to divorce the extra wives. Islam further reformed the institution of polygamy by requiring equal treatment to all wives. The Muslim is not permitted to differentiate between his wives in regards to sustenance and expenditures, time, and other obligations of husbands. Islam does not allow a man to marry another woman if he will not be fair in his treatment. Prophet Muhammad forbade discrimination between the wives or between their children.
Also, marriage and polygamy in Islam is a matter of mutual consent. No one can force a woman to marry a married man. Islam simply permits polygamy; it neither forces nor requires it. Besides, a woman may stipulate that her husband must not marry any other woman as a second wife in her prenuptial contract. The point that is often misunderstood in the West is that women in other cultures – especially African and Islamic – do not necessarily look at polygamy as a sign of women’s degradation. Consequently, to equate polygamy with degrading women is an ethnocentric judgment of other societies.
Even though we see the clear permissibility of polygamy in Islam, its actual practice is quite rare in many Muslim societies. Some researchers estimate no more than 2% of the married males practice polygamy. Most Muslim men feel they cannot afford the expense of maintaining more than one family. Even those who are financially capable of looking after additional families are often reluctant due to the psychological burdens of handling more than one wife. One can safely say that the number of polygamous marriages in the Muslim world is much less than the number of extramarital affairs in the West. In other words, contrary to prevalent notion, men in the Muslim world today are more strictly monogamous than men in the Western world.
All mandates of the religion of Islam are from God, the Wise, and thus one deduces that all things which are permitted are due to the fact that their benefit to the self and society outweighs their harms. When one analyzes the reasons and results of the allowance of polygamy, it will be found that indeed the rulings of the religion of Islam are truly those which suits all times and places, as their source is God Almighty, the Wise and the Knowledgeable.
As the Quran indicates (4:3), the issue of polygamy in Islam is understood in the light of community obligations towards orphans and widows. Islam, as a universal religion that is suitable for all times and places, can not ignore these compelling obligations.
Islamic polygamy addresses the social problems of prostitution and extramarital affairs common in the West. Instead of cheating – infidelity is one of the top reasons for divorce in the West – Islam allows a man to marry more than one wife, with full recognition of the rights of both of them. The basic principle in Islam is that men are held responsible for their behavior towards women just as women are responsible for their behavior towards men.
The number of women in the world exceeds that of men. The surplus is a result of men dying in wars, violent crimes, and women outliving men. The upsurge in homosexuality further increases the problem. Bertrand Russell wrote, “And in all countries where there is an excess of women, it is an obvious injustice that those women who, by arithmetical necessity, must remain unmarried should be wholly debarred from sexual experience.” Polygamy, then, is the only responsible solution for this predicament.
Let us take the US as an example. Why are extramarital affairs so widespread? “What makes this state of affairs possible, of course, is a supply of willing women. Most are single, both because of the growing numbers of unmarried women (there are 34 million in the United States today) and because single women generally have more free time and energy than do their married counterparts. Consider these statistics: One out of every five women today has no potential mate because there are simply not enough single men to go around. A 25-year-old single woman faces a serious undersupply of available men to start with, and the situation gets worse the older a woman gets. Divorced men are much more likely than divorced women to remarry (and they tend to marry younger women), so that there are more than twice as many single women as there are single men in their 40s. Indeed, a woman who divorces at 35 today is likely to remain single for the rest of her life. Caught in a demographic bind while seeking greater autonomy, more and more single women are opting for involvement with married men.”
In addition, surplus of women who are not financially maintained by a husband is a cause of increased prostitution in the society. For example, Germany has 0.96 males/female. Under Germany’s welfare reforms, any woman under 55 who has been out of work for more than a year can be forced to take an available job – including being a prostitute in the sex industry – or lose her unemployment benefit! A 1994 study found that 16% of 18-59 year old men in a US survey group had paid for sex (Gagnon, Laumann, and Kolata 1994).
Furthermore, the problem of the unbalanced sex ratios can worsen during times of war. The WWII war-bride phenomenon is a case in point. After the WWII there were 7,300,000 more women than men in Germany alone (3.3 million of them were widows). There were 100 men aged 20 to 30 for every 167 women in that age group. Many of these women needed a man not only as a companion but also as a provider for the household in a time of unprecedented misery and hardship. The soldiers in the victorious Allied Armies exploited these women’s vulnerability. Many young girls and widows had liaisons with members of the occupying forces. Many American and British soldiers paid for their pleasures in cigarettes, chocolate, and bread.
Polygamy is an alternative to divorce in case of some marital problems. Instead of divorcing a sick or infertile wife, Islam permits a man to marry another woman while taking care of the first if she chooses to stay with him.
The teachings of Islam, including polygamy, conform to human nature. Men and women differ in their desire for sexual variety. These differences are universal. According to evolutionary scientists men are “hard-wired” to spread their seed. Men everywhere – whether single or married – want more sexual partners than women do. The Islamic solution provides the only responsible alternative to the naturally ingrained desire in men.
There is a universal biological constraint in male and female reproduction. A woman’s reproductive capacity declines after her 20s and ends with menopause, but even a man in his 70s retains the ability to father children. Polygamy is a solution for a man who desires more children, especially in traditional, agrarian societies. This may seem irrelevant in the Western context where childbearing is increasingly becoming independent of marriage. Polygamy is also an alternative for a man who desires to satisfy his natural sexual relations within the bounds of marriage, but whose wife may be averse to them due to age or sickness. Moreover, Islam prohibits sexual relations during a woman’s monthly cycles. Therefore, the prolonged menstrual period of the woman which prevents the husband from having sex with her, or a man whose sexual urge is not satisfied by one wife, may marry another. Islam permits such men to realize their desire within a legal framework, making them responsible for their sexuality, so he does not have to resort to cohabitation or prostitution.
Institutional polygamy controls the spread of sexually transmitted diseases like Herpes and AIDS. Such venereal diseases spread in promiscuous societies where extra-marital affairs and prostitution are widespread. This may be due to a husband’s bringing back the diseases he is infected with in an extramarital affair when he returns back to his ‘monogamous’ relationship with his wife.
One can clearly see that there are many benefits which result from the allowance of polygamy. Many societal ills are left untreated, if not created or worsened, due to modern restrictions placed on polygamy. One should not always regard their culture and time the most superior in history, but rather they should analyze customs, traditions and beliefs based on solid and tangible facts. When people do so, keeping and open mind and heart, they will draw nearer and nearer to the truth until it becomes clear as the light of day.
Polygamy in the global community is common, normal and accepted. According to the Ethnographic Atlas Codebook derived from George P. Murdock’sEthnographic Atlas recorded the marital composition of 1231 societies, from 1960-1980. Of these societies, 186 societies were monogamous. 1041 were polygynous. According to Joseph Ginat, the author of ‘Polygamous Families in Contemporary Society,’ a third of the world’s population belongs to a community that allows it.
Polygamy in the West Today
The Western attitude towards polygamy is ethnocentric and hypocritical. The point that is often misunderstood in the West is that women in other cultures – especially African and Islamic – do not necessarily look at polygamy as a sign of women’s degradation. Consequently, to equate polygamy with degrading women is an ethnocentric judgment of other societies. The ethnocentric revulsion for polygamy is best reflected in US Supreme Court’s 1878 opinion in Reynolds vs. United States. The court refused to recognize polygamy as a legitimate religious practice, dismissing it as “almost exclusively a feature of the life of Asiatic and African people.” In later decisions, the court declared polygamy to be “a blot on our civilization” and compared it to human sacrifice and “a return to barbarism.” Most tellingly, the court found that the practice is “contrary to the spirit of Christianity and of the civilization which Christianity has produced in the Western World.”
In the West today, it is common for married men to have extramarital relations with mistresses, girlfriends, and prostitutes. Consequently, the Western claim to monogamy is a misnomer. How common are they? Estimates range between 23-50% men and 13-50% women in the US had an extramarital affair during their lifetimes. More than 15% of all husbands say they have had a series of affairs, and nearly 70% of married men younger than 40 expect to have an extramarital relationship.
The fact that Western concept of monogamy is based on double-standards can be illustrated with an example. Cohabiting women is legal, socially acceptable, and even mass-marketable for airing as a reality TV show, but a polygamous marriage involving moral and financial responsibility towards a woman and her children is considered socially immoral and illegal! There are even some who support “open marriages”, in which each spouse is free to have “extramarital” partners. Playboy magazine’s November 2005 edition displays its 80 year old founder-owner, Hugh Hefner’s three live-in women. This is in co-ordination with a reality TV show on E! called, “Girls Next Door.” Cameras follow his three “official” girlfriends as they live with him essentially as “wives;” they just lack a government marriage license.
Monogamy does not protect women, but the men who exploit her. Polygamy protects the interests of women and children in society. Man is opposed to polygamy, not because monogamy is moral, but because he wants to satisfy his desire for variety by indulging in unlimited adultery. Sin, not fidelity, has taken the place of polygamy. That is why man is opposed to plurality of wives which commits him to many duties and responsibilities, financial and otherwise. Monogamy allows him to enjoy extra-marital affairs without obligatory economic consequences. He can “play around” without taking responsibility for his sexual conduct. Legalized polygamy would require him to spend on his additional wives and their offspring.
Birth control and the ease of abortion have opened sex for fun to Western women. But she is still the one who suffers the trauma of abortion and the side effects of birth control methods. If a man wishes to have a second wife he takes care of, whose children carry his name, he is considered a criminal who may be sentenced to years in jail. However, if he has numerous mistresses and illegitimate children his relation is left unpunishable in many countries.
In the past, even for a licentious man, opportunities for sin were limited. That is why he had to take recourse to polygamy and, in spite of some evading their many duties, he still had to shoulder certain responsibilities in respect to his wives and children. Today, a man who has ample opportunities of enjoyment does not see any necessity of making the least commitment; hence, his aversion to polygamy.
The hypocrisy of the West towards polygamy can also be seen in the fact that taking a second wife, even with the free consent of the first wife, is a violation of Western law. On the other hand, cheating on the wife, without her knowledge or consent, is legitimate in the eyes of the law. What is the legal wisdom behind such a contradiction? Is the law designed to reward deception and punish honesty? It is an unfathomable paradox of the modern ‘civilized’ world. Furthermore, homosexuality is legal, but polygamy is illegal and, in some cases, criminal.
Moreover, on top of leaving a substantial number of women ‘on the shelf’ by denying their attachment to a man as a second wife, western nations further deprive surplus woman of the male sex by legalizing homosexuality. It is inhuman to have a woman as a second wife, according to these biased standards, but if the second “wife” happens to be a male “mistress,” then it is not a crime. Homosexuality, we are told, is an acceptable lifestyle in conformity with the requirements of the modern man! The Western attitude is the logical outcome of rejecting God’s revelation that brings harmony between human beings and their innate nature.
Polygamy is not a practice limited to the religion of Islam; rather, it is something well-known in the history of the People of the Book, the Jews and the Christians, as well. It is only in the later times that their religious men frowned upon it or forbade it outright. However, when one looks into the early history of the religions, they will find that it was at least an acceptable practice, if not encouraged.
Polygamy in Judaism
Polygamy existed among the Israelites before the time of Moses, who continued the institution without imposing any limit on the number of marriages which a Hebrew husband might contract. The Jewish Encyclopedia states,
While there is no evidence of a polyandrous state in primitive Jewish society, polygamy seems to have been a well-established institution, dating from the most ancient times and extending to comparatively modern days.
Another common practice was the taking of concubines. In later times, the Talmud of Jerusalem restricted the number by the ability of the husband to maintain the wives properly. Some rabbis, however, counseled that a man should not take more than four wives. Polygamy was prohibited in Judaism by the rabbis, not God. Rabbi Gershom ben Judah is credited by forbidding polygamy in the 11thcentury outlawing it for a 1,000 years (that ended in 1987) to Eastern European Jews (Ashkanazi). The Mediterranean (Sephardic) Jews continued to practice polygamy. Consequently, according to Will Durant, ‘polygamy was practiced by rich Jews in Islamic lands, but was rare among the Jews of Christendom.’According to Joseph Ginat, professor of social and culture anthropology at the University of Haifa, it is common and growing among the 180,000 Bedouin of Israel. It is also frequent among Mediterranean Jews living in Yemen, rabbis permitting Jews to marry up to four wives. In modern Israel, where a wife cannot bear children or is mentally ill, the rabbis give a husband the right to marry a second woman without divorcing his first wife.
Polygamy in Christianity
Jesus, who otherwise overlooked polygamy, is irrelevant as an model for marriage customs, since he did not marry during his earthly ministry. According to Father Eugene Hillman, ‘Nowhere in the New Testament is there any explicit commandment that marriage should be monogamous or any explicit commandment forbidding polygamy.’ The Church in Rome banned polygamy in order to conform to Greco-Roman culture that prescribed only one legal wife while tolerating concubinage and prostitution.
The Roman emperor, Valentinian I, in the fourth century, authorized Christians to take two wives. In the eighth century Charlemagne, holding power over both church and state, in his own person practiced polygamy, having six, or according to some authorities, nine wives. According to Joseph Ginat, the author of Polygamous Families in Contemporary Society, the Catholic Church frowned on the practice, but occasionally sanctioned second marriages for political leaders.
St. Augustine seems to have observed in it no intrinsic immorality or sinfulness, and declared that polygamy was not a crime where it was the legal institution of a country. He wrote in The Good of Marriage (chapter 15, paragraph 17), that polygamy
…was lawful among the ancient fathers: whether it be lawful now also, I would not hastily pronounce. For there is not now necessity of begetting children, as there then was, when, even when wives bear children, it was allowed, in order to get a more numerous posterity, to marry other wives in addition, which now is certainly not lawful.”
He declined to judge the patriarchs, but did not deduce from their practice the ongoing acceptability of polygamy. In another place, he wrote, “Now indeed in our time, and in keeping with Roman custom, it is no longer allowed to take another wife, so as to have more than one wife living.”
During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther said, “I confess for my part that if a man wishes to marry two or more wives, I cannot forbid him for it does not contradict the Scripture.” He advised Philip of Hesse that he should keep his second marriage a secret to avoid public scandal. One of the greatest poets of the English language and the famous English Puritan, John Milton (1608 – 1674), wrote, ‘I have not said ‘the marriage of one man with one woman’ lest I should by implication charge the holy patriarchs and pillars of our faith, Abraham and others who had more than one wife, at the same time, with habitual sin; and lest I should be forced to exclude from the sanctuary of God as spurious, the whole offspring which sprang from them, yea, the whole of the sons of Israel, for whom the sanctuary itself was made. For it is said in Deuteronomy (xxii. 2,) “A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of Jehovah even to the tenth generation.” On February 14, 1650, the parliament at Nürnberg decreed that because so many men were killed during the Thirty Years’ War, that every man was allowed to marry up to ten women.
African churches have long recognized polygamy. They stated in the 1988 Lambeth Conference, “It has long been recognized in the Anglican Communion that polygamy in parts of Africa, and traditional marriage, do genuinely have features of both faithfulness and righteousness.” Mwai Kibaki, the Christian president of Kenya, whose victory was attributed to ‘the hand of the Lord’ by the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, is polygamous.No longer under the previous rule of Christian whites, post-apartheid South Africa has also legalized polygamy.
Early in its history, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints practiced polygamy in the United States. Splinter groups left the Church to continue the practice after the Church banned it. Polygamy among these groups persists today in Utah, neighboring states, and the spin-off colonies, as well as among isolated individuals with no organized church affiliation.
In the United States, polygamy is illegal, but it exists unofficially, with an estimated 30,000 to 80,000 people living as polygamists in the West. Typically, these families are Mormon fundamentalists or Christian groups that maintain polygamy is a time-honored and scriptural practice.
Before one points the finger at Islam and Muslims when discussing polygamy, it is necessary that one have enough knowledge of the subject and its history. One should not judge practices held acceptable throughout history though the narrow mind of the present times. Rather, one should research the subject thoroughly and most importantly, seek divine guidance.
Polygamy has been practiced by mankind for thousands of years. Many of the ancient Israelites were polygamous, some having hundreds of wives. King Solomon is said to have had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. His father, David had ninety-nine, and Jacob, from whom the tribes of Israel descended, had four. Advice has been given by some Jewish wise men stating that no man should marry more than four wives.
No early society put any restrictions on the number of wives or put any conditions about how they were to be treated. Jesus, himself, was not known to have spoken against polygamy. As recently as the 17th century, polygamy was practiced and accepted by some sects of the Christian Church. The Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints) have allowed and practice polygamy in the United States, even today.
Monogamy was introduced into Christianity at the time of Paul when many revisions took place in Christianity. This was done in order that the church conform to the dominant Greco-Roman culture where men were monogamous but owned many slaves, who were free for them to use: in other another word, they as good as practiced unrestricted polygamy.
Early Christians invented ideas that women were “full of sin” and man was better off to “never marry.” Since this would spell the end of mankind if put into practice, these same people compromised and said “marry only one.”
Many times in the American society when relations are strained, the husband simply deserts his wife. He may then cohabit with a prostitute or with another immoral woman without going through the legalizing ritual of marriage. Women sometimes do the complementary act, deserting their husbands and then living with a new partner in an immoral relationship. More common, however, is the practice of ‘living together’ immorally before marriage, possibly trying out several partners before settling on someone to marry.
Actually there are three kinds of polygamy practiced in Western societies:
(1) Serial polygamy, that is; marriage, divorce, marriage, divorce and so on any number of times;
(2) A man married to one woman but having and supporting one or more mistresses;
(3) An unmarried man having a number of mistresses. Islam condones but discourages the first and forbids the other two.
Wars cause the number of women to greatly exceed the number of men. In a monogamous society these women, left without husbands or support, resort to prostitution, illicit relationships with married men resulting in illegitimate children with no responsibility for them being taken on the part of the father, or lonely spinsterhood or widowhood.
Some Western men take the position that monogamy protects the rights of women. But are these men really concerned about the rights of women? Society has many practices that exploit and suppress women, and this is what has lead to the formation of women’s liberation movements, from the suffragettes of the early twentieth century to the feminists of today, and which still drive these movements to continue their campaigns for equal treatment socially, as well as before the law.
The truth of the matter is that monogamy protects men, allowing them to “play around” without responsibility. Easy birth control and easy legal abortion has opened the door for illicit sex to women and she has been lured into the so-called sexual revolution. But she is still the one who suffers the trauma of abortion and the side effects of birth control methods.
Taking aside the plagues of venereal disease, herpes and AIDS, the male continues to enjoy himself free of worry. Men are the ones protected by monogamy while women continue to be victims of men’s desires. Polygamy is very much opposed by the male dominated society because it would force men to face up to responsibility and fidelity. It would force them to take responsibility for their polygamous inclinations and would protect and provide for women and children.
Among all the polygamous societies in history there were none that limited the number of wives. All of the relationships were unrestricted. In Islam, the regulations concerning polygamy limit the number of wives a man can have while making him responsible for all of the women involved.
“If you fear that you will not deal fairly by the orphans, marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with them, then only one or one that your right hands possess. That will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice.” (Quran 4:3)
This verse from the Quran allows a man to marry more than one woman but only if he can deal justly with them.
“You will never be able to do perfect justice between wives even if it is your ardent desire, so do not incline too much to one of them (by giving her more of your time and provision) so as to leave the other hanging (i.e. neither divorced nor married).” (Quran 4:129)
The Prophet, may the mercy and blessings of God be upon him, was given inspiration from God about how to deal with multiple marriages and the difficulties encountered therein. It is not an easy matter for a man to handle two wives, two families, and two households and still be just between the two. No man of reasonable intelligence would enter into this situation without a great deal of thought.
The bottom line in the marriage relationship is good morality and happiness, creating a just and cohesive society where the needs of men and women are well taken care of. The present Western society, which permits free sex between consenting adults, has given rise to an abundance of irresponsible sexual relationships, an abundance of “fatherless” children, and many unmarried teenage mothers; all of them becoming a burden on the country’s welfare system. In part, it is such an undesirable welfare burden that has given rise to bloated budget deficits which even an economically powerful country like the United States cannot accommodate. Bloated budget deficits have become a political football which is affecting the political system of the United States.
In short, we find that artificially created monogamy has become a factor in ruining the family structure, and the social, economic and political systems of the country.
It must be a prophet, and indeed, it was the Prophet Muhammad, who directed Muslims to get married or observe patience until one gets married. Abdullah b. Mas’ud reported God’s Messenger as saying:
“Young men, those of you who can support a wife should marry, for it keeps you from looking at strange women and preserves you from immorality; but those who cannot should devote themselves to fasting, for it is a means of suppressing sexual desire.” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari, Saheeh Muslim)
Islam wants people to be married and to develop a good family structure. Also, Islam also realizes the requirements of the society and the individual where polygamy can be the solution to many problems. Therefore, Islam has allowed polygamy, but has limited the number of wives to four.
In the Muslim societies of our times, polygamy is not frequently practiced despite legal permission in many countries. It appears that males without recourse to limited, responsible polygamy are, in contrast, frequently polygamous in an unregulated way, getting away with not taking responsibility for the families they should be responsible for.
(In this article, polygamy has been used to mean polygyny meaning having two or more wives. Islam forbids polyandry, meaning having two or more husbands.).