Polygamy means having multiple spouses. In Islam, only men can practice polygamy, which is known as polygyny, to be specific. Polygamy in the Quran is among the controversial topics about which many people have argued and still argue as they believe polygamy is an unjust practice by men who are after lust and sexual pleasures, hence, it is an oppressive act against the dignity of women. Is this really the case? Does the Quran approve of having more than one spouse?
This article answers this question and provides the following information:
How many wives can you have according to the Quran?
Polygamy in the Quran is mentioned in a number of verses, one of which is in chapter Nisa,’ meaning women, restricting the number of wives to four.
وَإِنْ خِفْتُمْ أَلَّا تُقْسِطُوا فِي الْيَتَامَىٰ فَانْكِحُوا مَا طَابَ لَكُمْ مِنَ النِّسَاءِ مَثْنَىٰ وَثُلَاثَ وَرُبَاعَ ۖ فَإِنْ خِفْتُمْ أَلَّا تَعْدِلُوا فَوَاحِدَةً أَوْ مَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُكُمْ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ أَدْنَىٰ أَلَّا تَعُولُوا ﴿3﴾
If you fear that you may not deal justly with the orphans, then marry [other] women that you like, two, three, or four. But if you fear that you may not treat them fairly, then [marry only] one, or [marry from among] your slave-women. That makes it likelier that you will not be unfair. 1
There was a practice in the pre-Islamic era that men fostered orphan girls and acquired their possessions. Some of these men married these girls but did not have a fair treatment towards them and did not care to pay them their Mahr (bridal gift).
Four points can be understood from this verse regarding polygamy in the Quran:
- The Quran instructs these men to marry other women if they fear that they may not deal justly with these orphans.
- The Quran instructs men to marry only one wife if they fear that they may not have a fair treatment toward their wives.
- There is another alternative for marrying orphans in the Quran: To marry their slave-women.
- All along the stress of the Quran is on fair treatment of women. The term Qist (قسط) meaning justice has been stated once at the beginning of the verse and the term ‘Adl (عدل) meaning fair treatment is mentioned twice in this verse.
How are Qist and ‘Adl different?
Qist and Adl meaning justice differ from one another. Qist is a superior level of justice whereas Adl is a typical form of justice. Qist has been used with regards to Orphaned wives and Adl with regards to ordinary wives. This is because an orphan girl has lost her father and is in need of more support and the man who marries her has to be extra careful to treat her fairly and to respect her honor and rights.
Polygamy in the Quran and restriction on this practice
Prior to the advent of Islam, there were people who married numerous women and there was no limit to this number. In some cases, the more powerful and affluent the men, the more the number of their wives. What Islam did was
- To say that polygamy is not for all men,
- To put a limit to this practice and
- To stop the oppression against women as many men who were practicing polygamy had an unfair treatment of their wives.
Polygamy in the Quran and the unfair treatment of women
What is meant by unfair treatment of women?
Based on the third verse of Surah Nisa’, if men fear that they may not be able to treat their wives fairly, they are to marry only one wife. Nevertheless, in the same Surah, it has been stated that men cannot be fair between their wives even if they really wish to do so:
وَلَنْ تَسْتَطِيعُوا أَنْ تَعْدِلُوا بَيْنَ النِّسَاءِ وَلَوْ حَرَصْتُمْ ۖ فَلَا تَمِيلُوا كُلَّ الْمَيْلِ فَتَذَرُوهَا كَالْمُعَلَّقَةِ ۚ وَإِنْ تُصْلِحُوا وَتَتَّقُوا فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ غَفُورًا رَحِيمًا ﴿129﴾
You will not be able to be fair between wives, even if you are eager to do so. Yet do not turn away from one altogether, leaving her as if in a suspense. But if you are conciliatory and Godwary, Allah is indeed all-forgiving, all-merciful. 2
According to commentators of the Quran, “you will not be able to be fair” mentioned in this verse, refers to the emotional feeling of men which is an inner and subjective feeling of love that a man may have for one wife and less or no love for another wife. In the case that a man has decided to adopt polygamy in life, even if it is the case that he feels differently between his wives, he should not show it in his actions and behavior to the point of abandoning one wife and leaving her as if she is without any husband. Instead Allah (SWT) instructs such men to conciliate and fear Him.
What does the Quran say about 4 wives?
As mentioned in the Noble Quran, polygamy cannot be practiced by all men because when a man marries even one wife, her life expenditures become his responsibility based on Surah Nisa’ verse 34:
الرِّجَالُ قَوَّامُونَ عَلَى النِّسَاءِ بِمَا فَضَّلَ اللَّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَىٰ بَعْضٍ وَبِمَا أَنْفَقُوا مِنْ أَمْوَالِهِمْ ۚ ﴿34﴾
Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. 3
This is the responsibility of a man to make sure that he takes care of her emotional and financial needs and he is constantly on guard to meet her rightful demands. Now if a man is incapable of meeting the financial needs of even one wife, he cannot practice polygamy and marry a second, third or fourth wife.
Besides financial issues, a man is to divide his time and nights equally among his wives. If he takes one wife on a trip or buys one a gift, he has to do the same for the others. This is what is meant by fair treatment of the wives in polygamy in the Quran.
Why did Islam not abolish polygamy?
Nobody forgets the millions of men who were killed during the first and second world wars. After that, many women and girls lost their husband, fathers and brothers who were sources of economic and emotional support and many children became orphans without any father to raise and support them.
The point is that many young men were not willing to marry widows when they had the option of marrying single girls. So what option do these widows have if there was no case of polygamy?
One of the instances where polygamy can come to help is this scenario. In fact, this is a good approach of supporting the vulnerable women whose husbands have lost their lives in supporting their land and dignity.
When you look back at the history of Islam, you see that marrying widows of the martyrs of wars was a common custom among the Muslims.
Among the wives of the prophet, you can see many widows who had lost their husbands and were supportless.
Polygamy in the Quran and the Prophet’s wives
Prophet Muhammad (S) married Lady Khadijah in the prime time of his youth and was with her in a monogamous relationship for 25 years, meaning two third of his marital life. After the demise of this heavenly lady, when the messenger of God (S) was in his 50s, his holiness married other wives and at the time of his demise he had 9 wives.
One cannot make the claim that the prophet’s intention for exceeding the four wives as allowed by Islam was lust and carnal desires because when we look at his marriage cases we come to the conclusion that there were three main reasons for his marriages:
All of the wives of the Prophet with the exception of Ayesha were middle-aged widows. For instance, look at the case of Maimunah, daughter of Harith, who was according to some historical accounts 59 and some other accounts 35 years old when she married the prophet or Umm Salam in her thirties with two orphans.
Were Prophet Muhammad’s marriages (S) an indication of his love for pleasures of the material world?
As a matter of fact, Muhammad (S) was not after worldly pleasures. There is a beautiful verse in the Quran which states,
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّبِيُّ قُلْ لِأَزْوَاجِكَ إِنْ كُنْتُنَّ تُرِدْنَ الْحَيَاةَ الدُّنْيَا وَزِينَتَهَا فَتَعَالَيْنَ أُمَتِّعْكُنَّ وَأُسَرِّحْكُنَّ سَرَاحًا جَمِيلًا* وَإِنْ كُنْتُنَّ تُرِدْنَ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ وَالدَّارَ الْآخِرَةَ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ أَعَدَّ لِلْمُحْسِنَاتِ مِنْكُنَّ أَجْرًا عَظِيمًا ﴿29﴾
O Prophet! Say to your wives, ‘If you desire the life of the world and its glitter, come, I will provide for you and release you in a graceful manner. But if you desire Allah and His Apostle and the abode of the Hereafter, then Allah has indeed prepared a great reward for the virtuous among you.’ 4
After the victorious wars at the beginning of the Islamic era, many war booties were divided between the Muslims. The Prophet’s wives also demanded a more comfortable life from the Prophet (S). But his holiness had chosen a simple lifestyle as the leader of the Islamic Ummah and instead had preferred a comfortable life in the next abode. Moreover, he knew that there was no end to a luxurious life in this life yet he did not want to force his wives to accept his lifestyle, hence he gave them two choices:
- If they desired the glitter of the world, the Prophet (S) would not force them to stay with him. He would divorce them in a graceful manner;
- If they desired God, His apostle, and the otherworldly life, they could stay with the prophet and enjoy a great reward.
What religions allow multiple wives?
Polygamy was a practice in the Pre-Islamic era among people of many nations. Even now, polygamy is practiced by the followers of other faiths and religions, such as Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism. Hence, Islam is not the initiator or promoter of polygamy.
There are many verses in the Bible from which we can see the practice of polygamy among the followers of this book.
Polygamy in the Old Testament
There are many verses in the Old Testament regarding rulings of polygamy:
- If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. 5
- If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him children, and if the firstborn son belongs to the unloved, then on the day when he assigns his possessions as an inheritance to his sons, he may not treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the unloved, who is the firstborn, but he shall acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the unloved, by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the firstfruits of his strength. The right of the firstborn is his. 6
As can be seen in these two verses, the Jewish man who practices polygmy should have a fair treatment of his wives and children born to these wives.
Note that verses on polygamy in Jewish and Christian holy scriptures do not mean that the followers of this faith actually practice polygamy. Keep into consideration that according to the Catholic church, polygamy is banned and no Catholic is allwoed to mary more than one wife; Nevertheless, there are non-Catholic Christian sects who still practice polygamy.
Polygamy in the New Testament
There are three verses in the New Testament based on which some are of the view that polygamy is allowed for men other than certain religious figures such as bishops and deacons. The three verses are as follows:
- Now a bishop[a] must be above reproach, married only once. 7
- Let deacons be married only once,[a] and let them manage their children and their households well. 8
- someone who is blameless, married only once,[a] whose children are believers, not accused of debauchery and not rebellious. 9
There are Christians who regard these verses as a ban on polygamy altogether.
Polygamy in the Quran deals with an issue which was practiced by many even prior to Islam. What Islam tried to do was to put a limit on this practice and specify the conditions so that women would be treated fairly and not in an oppressive way.
The Noble Prophet of Islam also practiced polygamy but looking at the evidences, one can understand that there were social, political, and religious reasons behind his marriages and as long as he was in the prime time of his youth, he only had one wife, Lady Khadijah.
There are also many verses in the Bible which show that polygamy was practiced among the followers of this faith.
- The Quran, 4:3 (Qarai).
- The Quran, 4:129 (Qarai).
- The Quran, 4:34 (Yusuf Ali).
- The Quran, 33:28-29 (Qarai).
- Exodus 21:10 ESV.
- Deuteronomy 21:15-17 ESV.
- 1 Timothy 3:2 NRSV.
- 1Timothy 3:12 NRSV.
- Titus 1:6 NRSV,