Polygamy in an Islamic context means “having more than one wife with a limitation of four wives at the same time”. Islam allows polygamist marriages but its permission is different as compared to other religions permitting polygamy. It is the distinction of Islam that in Islamic Legal system marriage is a sacred contract that confers rights and liabilities to both the partners and again it is Islam that in the case of plural marriages restricts the number of wives to four and strives on justice with all the wives, justice in all the matters of marital life.
Polygamy is discussed in the third verse of the fourth chapter of Holy Quran named as “Al-Nisa” (The Women). The verse says “and if you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphan girls, then marry those that please you of (other) women, two or three or four. But if you fear that you will not be just, then (marry only) one….” (Qur’an 4:3). It is important to note the time and background of the revelation of this verse. It is evident from the beginning of the same verse and from the verses prior to this verse that it is not only about the plural marriage rather it deals with the rights of orphan children as well. The verses prior to this one and those coming after this verse deal with the rights of orphans and the obligations of their guardians.
In the most authentic book of Hadiths, Al-Bukhari it is narrated by Urwah bin Az-Zubayr that he said that he asked A’ishah about this verse she replied that it is about an orphan girl living with her guardian. The Guardian now wants to marry her just because of the wealth she possesses. That girl is likely to be deprived of an adequate dowry in this marriage. So, such guardians were asked to not to marry those orphan girls and could marry other free women of their choice even up to several four. We see that the basic essence of the ayah is to protect the rights of the weak i.e. orphan girls. As her father is not alive to defend her rights she may not be treated fairly by her husband especially when he is marrying her just for the sake of her wealth.
At the same time when plural marriages are allowed the Holy Quran puts a strict condition here “If you fear that you will not be Just to everyone, then marry only one”. Islam wants the husband to be just with all the wives and to treat them equally. Justice to the wives needs to be done in all aspects of life such as the provision of housing, addressing their emotional needs, spending time with them, providing them food and clothing and taking care of their conjugal rights. It is evident that plural marriage is not encouraged nor it is made mandatory. If someone is not sure that he will be able to deal with all the wives justly then Quran strictly says “then (marry) only one.” (Qur’an 4:3).
This requirement of justice with wives is also mentioned in some other verses as well. It is evident that this strict requirement of just demolishing the flight of imagination that a man can own as many wives as he pleases, it also demolishes the concept of the secondary wife as all wives possess exactly equal claim on their husband and they all have identical rights. Provisions of Islamic Law state that if the husband fails to do justice with any of his wives she is entitled to go to court and claim her rights or divorce. Marriage, as valued in Islam, is a sacred civil contract which is not valid without the consent of both the parties so no woman can be forcefully married to a man who is already married. Statistics show that actual practice of polygamy is quite uncommon in Muslim societies. Some researchers show that not more than 2% males practice polygamy, even the people who are financially capable of having another wife fear to bear the burden of psychological matters. It is important that this ratio is very much less than that of extramarital relations in countries where polygamist marriage is illegal.
Polygamy versus Monogamy: Man is usually inclined towards polygamy and it is not against nature. Though many of the western countries have banned polygamy it is a fact that western psychologists and experts of sociology are generally of the view that man is a polygamist by nature and monogamy is an act considered against nature. Will Durant a renowned American historian and philosopher state that nature has not built a male human being for monogamy. Men are naturally inclined towards having numerous wives. The moral pressures from one’s own wife and the society and the economic conditions are the reasons that impose monogamy upon him.
Many other German, American and French philosophers support the same opinion with different arguments. They say that naturally, man is always in search of variety in his affairs of love and pleasure and if there is no lawful way out he is ready to go against the right path in a reasonable number of cases. On the other hand, the woman is totally on the opposite side of this behavior she is rather made for one man. One of the French theories is that it is totally impossible for a man to be monogamist rather he is made for all women and for the life. In principle, it is beyond nature for a man to not to have a wish of new wife after a few years of marriage. If a man is found unfaithful his wife herself consoles by thinking that the only body of her husband is shared and not his soul and emotions of love. Though these researchers and theories are based on the behavior and moral values of respective societies yet it is important to see that even after the state has declared polygamy illegal what is the effect on the behavior of society towards polygamy.
Polygamy before Islam: It is a universal truth that long time ago before the beginning of Islam Polygamy was permissible in all the ancient religions and societies. It was prevalent in The Arabs, Indians, in Iran and Egypt and many other nations and religious ethnicities like Jews and Christians. It is important to know that the declaration of polygamy as illegal is brought by the religious heads and not by the holy books or testaments followed by the Christians or Jews.
Most of the nations and especially Arabs who embraced Islam were accustomed to polygamy. Arabs used to have as many wives as they wished to, there was no limitation on the number of wives. In some cases, a husband would dislike any of his wives but he will not divorce him and marry another woman and the first wife was not set free by divorce and she was not provided with any rights. So, Islam did not initiate the polygamy rather Islam laid down strict rules for the happy living of women, limited the number of wives and stressed the husband to fulfill all the rights of his wives. It is a matter of fact that when this verse revealed and several wives got restricted to four, many of the Companions of The Holy Prophet (Blessings and peace be upon Him) had to divorce their wives to be in the limit of four wives at a time. Many non-Muslim historians, for example, Gustave Le Bon are of the same view and are advocates of the mentioned thesis.
The matter of fact is that Islam did not initiate polygamy rather it regulated it and placed restrictions on it. Teachings of Islam blessed the society and especially the women with their rights on pleasures of life and ensured respect for them as a woman. Any other legal system or religion that wants to create an atmosphere of modesty in society has to consider the legality of polygamy. It is not only a great barrier against adultery and extra marital affairs rather there are many other logical reasons for allowing polygamy.