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A Second Wife With or Without the Permission of the First?


May a husband take another wife against the wishes of his current wife?

I have heard three answers to this

  1. Taking a second wife without the consent of the first creates an 'imbalance' between the wives and therefore is not allowed.

  2. A second wife can be taken with or without the first wife's approval unless it was agreed upon differently in the marriage contract.

  3. The right to take more than one wife is given by Allah and therefore neither the first wife nor a marriage contract can stop it.

What does the Qur'an  say on this issue? What is the general practice?

Question from United States of America

As I have already mentioned in one of my earlier replies to a question[1], Islam has referred to the practice of taking a second or a third wife in specific circumstances.

Under those specific circumstances, the Qur'an  recognized that if a person feels that he shall be in a better position to meet or fulfill his social obligations (in the specified case, towards the orphans), by marrying a second wife (in the referred case, the mother of these orphans), provided he can deal with his wives in a just and equitable manner then he may marry the woman (the orphan's mother in the specified case). The Qur'an  does not hold the consent of the first wife of the person as a mandatory requirement for a second marriage. In view of this fact, I believe that the first answer (that you have referred to) is difficult to agree with. As far as the second answer is concerned, I cannot disagree with it because of the fact that once a Muslim has entered into an agreement with another person, whoever it is, the injunction of the Qur'an  is: "Believers, fulfill your obligations". (It must be remembered that the Arabic word translated as "obligations" also includes the obligations arising out of contracts and agreements). I, therefore, feel that once a person has made an agreement with his wife that he shall not marry another woman without the first wife's approval then he should fulfill his agreement. However, I also believe that such agreements, even though they are not prohibited, should be avoided.

I don't think that it is now required to comment on the third answer. You can easily determine my opinion regarding the third answer from my comments on the first two answers.

Although, the above should suffice as answer to your question, I would like to give my point of view about the essence of the problem behind the question of the first wife's approval for a second marriage.

As we can easily determine, the problem actually lies in the fact that although the Qur'an  has allowed a person to take a second wife in a situation that socially and morally justifies this action, but we have seen time and again that a man may misuse a permission given to him and ignore the conditions attached with such permission. For example, he may ignore the condition of justice between wives or even the condition of a pressing social and moral requirement. It is basically to solve this problem that some people have suggested that a second marriage must be preceded by the permission of the first wife. As should be clear from my explanation above, the permission of the first wife has not been given as a mandatory requirement by the Qur'an . Therefore, it cannot be taken as a requirement of the Shari`ah. In view of this fact, we need to see that if the society does impose the first wife's permission as a condition for second marriage, would it solve the problem that needs to be solved without, in any way, restricting such second marriages which really are socially and morally justified, and regarding which the Qur'an  seems to be positively urging men to take such a responsibility.

In my opinion, the first wife of such a person who is considering a second marriage is not in a very good position to provide a balanced check, under the circumstances. The reason, as I see it is that the first wife does not hold a neutral position. She, naturally, is likely to be against such decision by her husband. Thus, giving the first wife a veto in such cases would actually be like giving one of the parties to a particular dispute the position of a judge. This may ultimately result in the undoing of the wisdom for which such a provision has been kept in the Shari`ah. Moreover, a person who has decided on a second marriage, may be able to get his first wife's approval through coercive measures. The woman may be forced into giving a written approval. This has been the case in our society[2] where the permission of the first wife for a second marriage has been recognized as a legal requirement.

In view of the above, I would propose that rather than making the permission of the first wife a mandatory requirement for a second marriage, an Islamic state may promulgate a law whereby a person is required to satisfy a court of law regarding the social and moral justification of his decision regarding second marriage. The court, if it is satisfied that the action is being taken in conjunction with the provisions of the Shari`ah may allow such a second marriage, and where it is not, the court may disallow it[3]. In this way, we shall not only be able to protect against nullifying the wisdom of the Shari`ah but shall also safeguard the misuse of the allowance given by the Qur'an .

26th November 1998

[1]  The reference is to the previous question.

[2]   Reference is to Pakistan.

[3]  Even though the Qur'an has not made the permission of the first wife a mandatory condition for a second marriage, yet it seems that the social environment in which the Qur'an was revealed is a major factor for ignoring the inclinmations of the first wife, in the matter under consideration. It cannot be denied that polygamy was an accepted norm of the Arab society. Wives, under normal circumstances, would not have any objections to their husband's taking another wife. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that the number of wives was considered to be an indication of a person's high social standing. Thus, a woman would normally see the increased number of her husband's wives with pride, even if it meant sharing the love of her husband with other women as well as entering into competition with other women in becoming the favorite wife. However, it cannot be ignored that over the centuries, a tremendous change has taken place in the social attitudes toward second marriage. Most of the modern day societies are, generally, averse in accepting it. The existing wife of a person, obviously, is no exception. That, which at the time of the revelation of the Qur'an was looked upon with pride, is now generally seen with disgust. That, which could safely be presumed as acceptable, is now likely to fire endless feuds and to completely ruin the the peace of one's household. In view of this considerable change in the social (as well as domestic) acceptability of second marriage, it would only seem prudent that a person should not even consider a second marriage, unless he is certain that his decision shall meet acceptance of his existing wife and children. A second marriage, which risks the foundations of the existing family is not approved by Islam. It, however, deserves to be added here that there have been a number of negative social implications of the general attitude of aversion toward taking a second wife, (especially for the widows and the divorced women in the society). Nevertheless, the fact remains that such a change has actually taken place. In view of this fact, it seems reasonable to add that while giving permission for a second marriage (as suggested in my reply) the court of law should primarily judge whether such a marriage would meet the approval and acceptance of the existing household of the concerned person or not. If the court feels that such a marriage would not be accepted by the existing wife and children of the person and may ultimately result in the undoing of the existing family, it may then try to dissuade the person from such a marriage. (Moiz Amjad, 22nd May 2000)

Answer published by Moiz Amjad