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Polygamy in Islam
Social Issues
Dr. Shehzad Saleem


Among many other misconceptions about Islam is the notion that it unconditionally allows a Muslim to have four wives. In this regard, some scholars have gone as far as to say that keeping four wives is a man's essential physiological need. We are afraid that this point of view is in direct contradiction with the Qur’ān. It is, in fact, a distortion of the stance of Islam and as such has gone a long way in disillusioning many a people from the call of this faith.

The opening verses of Surah Nisaa, in which this matter is discussed, read as follows:

"If you fear that you would not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry two, three or four of the women who are lawful for you. But if you fear that you would not be able to deal justly [with them] then [restrict yourself to] one only." (4:3)

Three implications of the verse quoted above are very clear:

Firstly, Muslims have been allowed to have more than one wife only in case of some indispensable need. In the time of the Prophet (sws), one such need arose when many Muslims were martyred in various battles. Many helpless widows and children were left behind. In this situation, Muslims were urged to look after these children and if they feared that they would not be able to do justice to them, they should marry their mothers. It is, therefore, obvious from this that the permission of marrying more than one wife has nothing to do with a man's lust for more than one wife. A person can have more than one wife if a moral or social need arises and a man's lust is certainly no such need.

Secondly, whatever the need be, the number of wives cannot exceed four in any circumstances.

Thirdly, howsoever important the need be, if a person cannot maintain balance and do justice to his wives, he must restrict himself to one. However, as clarified by the Qur’ān*, justice and balance do not entail that he should have equal inclination towards all his wives, for this is not humanly possible. What is required is that he should treat them equally as far as their rights are concerned.

Furthermore, according to the Qur’ān, in normal circumstances, a family comes into being only through wedlock between a single pair of man and woman. A subtle reference to this is made by the Qur’ān where it alludes to the fact that when the Almighty created Adam, he made Eve for him as his only wife. Naturally, had the Almighty intended that a man should have more than one wife, he would have created more wives for Adam instead of just one. This shows us that as far as a man's physiological needs are concerned, they are completely satisfied even if he has a single wife. Also, in normal circumstances the ideal family is one formed by a single couple.

Moreover, if it is felt that people are exploiting the permission granted to them by marrying not owing to some need, but merely to satisfy their desire, an Islamic government can legislate against this trend. It can obligate a person to satisfy a court that his marriage is due to some social or moral need. However, the prevailing law in this regard, in accordance with which a person has to seek permission of the first wife, is not practicable at all.

It is clear from this discussion that polygamy in Islam is conditional upon certain circumstances. It is certainly not a license for men to satisfy their lust. The permission is, in fact, a proof of the universal applicability of Islam. A number of problems can be solved by using this attitude which would have been impossible to overcome had Islam totally forbidden polygamy. For example, in our society, many young widows and divorced women with small children have to live a life of misery and no one is willing to accept them as wives. Such widows and children can lead normal lives if this permission is benefited from.

We have presented the stance of Islam on polygamy. It can be seen that, in present times, the fog of alien concepts has enveloped it. Once it is got rid of, the stance of Islam dazzles with the splendor of the midday sun.

The Qur’ān says:

"You shall never be able to deal justly [as far as the inclination of the heart is concerned] between your wives, even if it is your ardent desire. So turn not away [from a wife] altogether so as to leave her suspended [in a state of uncertainty]." (4:129)

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