Islam allows a man to have more than one wife, what is the significance of this? Do you think this degrades womanhood? I have wondered about this aspect of Islam but on asking various people.. I have never got a consistent reply.
I was wondering if you could clear this for me.
It is more than obvious that an ideal family setup is the one in which one man and one woman decide to live their lives as man and wife. Islam makes no exception to this rule. There are a few points from which we can clearly derive from the Qur’an that according to the God’s basic scheme for this world, a family should consist of one husband and one wife only. For instance, we can see that when God created Adam, it was not a team of women created for his service, but just one, to be his partner. In the same way, even today the balanced setup for a household is normally where one man and one woman combine to form a family. There is nothing in the teachings of the Qur’an or the narratives ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh) that negates this rule.
But even though an ideal family setup consists of one husband and one wife, there can be a number of situations where the society demands of a person to compromise the ideal family setup and enter into a second marriage for the general good of the society. It is exactly such a situation that is mentioned in Surah Al-Nisa’, where the practice of polygamy has been referred t01). I would like to present a brief analysis of the related verses of the referred surah, so that the context in which this reference is made may be clear to you.
The setup in which the verses were revealed is that the Muslims in the battle of Uhud had lost many lives due to which many women had become widows and many children had become orphans. In this setup God says (the following is not a translation, but the theme of the related verses):
People, you must remember that you are all the creation of one God and the children of one mother and one father; the orphans in your society are but your brethren and kinsfolk. It is, therefore, your responsibility to look after the well being and interests of these orphans; if they are young and cannot look after their assets themselves, you must look after these assets for them, and in doing so, you must not unjustly consume their assets fearing that you will have to return it to them at the time of their maturity. In case you fear that you shall not be able to fulfill your responsibilities (regarding the assets and well being of these orphans) in a just manner, God allows you to marry the mothers of these orphans; up to four marriages. But in case you fear that you shall not be able to deal with these wives in a just manner then you must not enter into a second marriage.
As can be seen from the above context, the practice of polygamy has been referred to not for increased pleasure but to provide ease in fulfilling a socio-moral responsibility. In this context, we may say that there are two conditions in which the Qur’an has referred to the practice of polygamy: 1) There should be a socially justifiable reason for it; 2) If a person fears that he shall not be able to maintain a just balance in his dealings with his wives, he must not enter into the second marriage.
It is obvious that when a permission is granted for something, people may take advantage of such permission and use it for satisfying their personal pleasures. The Islamic state, in such a case can take action to check the misuse of such allowances.
In the present times, where a second marriage is looked upon with disgust, there are many instances where a widow has to spend the rest of her life all alone and nobody wants to marry a divorced woman etc. A man, who is naturally inclined towards marrying a young woman for his only wife, may be willing to take an older divorced or widowed woman for a second wife. One of the results of the tradition of taking a second wife, in the Arab society, was that men took upon themselves, as a responsibility, the support of divorced and widowed women by taking them as their wives. This, as can be clearly seen was a great advantage of the referred tradition.
To summarize the above points, Islam does not in any case advocate polygamy, it has only referred to the practice of polygamy, which was an accepted norm of the prevalent Arab society, in a particular situation where a person feels that a second marriage may help him in carrying out an important socio-moral responsibility that, in his opinion, he should fulfill.
25th April 1998
- It is important to note that the Qur’an actually has only referred to an existing and a well accepted institution of the prevalent social system. Polygamy is neither an allowance nor a prohibition of the Qur’an. It was an accepted norm of the society in which the Qur’an was revealed. The Qur’an has only referred to this practice while prompting the Muslims to take care of the orphans and the widows in the society. The Qur’an is neither an advocate for, nor one against polygamy. It is only an advocate for the moral well being of humanity. (Moiz Amjad, 22nd May 2000 [↩]