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Why Islam allows Polygamy

Why Islam Allows Polygamy

Reasons and Causes

Polygamy, the practice of having more than one wife at the same time is permitted to a Muslim male, though it is limited by both the number of wives a man could have, and the condition of equal treatment. A Muslim male may have up to four wives at one and the same time. Says the Qur’an:

Marry women of your choice, two or three or four; But if ye fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them) then only one

(The Women: 3)

That four was the maximum number of wives allowed is seen from the example of  Ghailan Bin Salamah who had ten wives in the pre-Islamic days of ignorance. When he embraced Islam the Prophet commanded him to keep only four and separate from the rest (Ahmad).  A Muslim woman may however have only one husband at a time, a rule based also on the Qur’an which prohibits marriage with women already married (The Women: 24).

This does not at all mean Islam ordains polygamous unions like the Mormons do. Rather, it seeks to limit it as far as possible. In fact, it goes on to state, after permitting it:

Ye are never able to be fair and just as between women even if it is your ardent desire. But turn not away (from a woman) altogether. So as to leave her (as it were) hanging in the air

(The Women:129)

Here God Himself is saying that a man can never do justice between two wives, so who is man to think otherwise. Such a man who contracts multiple marriages puts himself in an impossible position. At the same time God does not wish for the women who have entered into such a marriage to suffer because of it and hence insists that he should not divorce her, but rather fulfil his duties to the best of his ability. Even the Prophet himself found it hard to treat all his wives equally. Although he loved his young wife Ayisha,the departed Khadija still held the most favoured place in his heart. He often spoke of her which made Ayisha jealous, so much so that one day she called her ‘a toothless old woman’. This displeased him very much. After all, who could be dearer to him than Khadija, the woman who had made the first move in proposing marriage to him when no other woman dared go beyond the social norms of her day, the woman who stood by him when the rest of the world had rejected him.

A Concession to Human Nature

Islam permits polygamy only as a concession to human nature. This is because some men are by nature oversexed and find it difficult to content themselves with one wife. There are even those Western writers like Edward Westermarck who in his work on The History of Human Marriage argued that a major cause of polygamy was man’s taste for variety, the sex instinct being dulled by long familiarity and stimulated by novelty. Such a man confined to one wife will lose interest in sex altogether which will also affect his partner who will not only be deprived of the sexual relations she longs for but also the love of her man. On the other hand, if he is given ample scope to take another wife or two, his sex instinct will improve, which will benefit all the wives equally.

Thus it is more prudent for the good of society to allow such a man to take a second or even a third or fourth wife rather than make him a virtual eunuch or pave the way for him to resort to illicit sexual liaisons or seek the services of prostitutes with its attendant dangers such as venereal diseases. Had the naughty founder of the Church of England, Henry VIII been allowed polygamy, he would have had no need to behead one wife after another on false charges of adultery to satisfy his lusts. Had it been permitted in the West, there would be no need for men to resort to prostitutes or carry on extra-marital liaisons and pass on venereal diseases to their own wives as a result. Nordan Max was perhaps overstating it when he wrote in Conventional Lies of our Civilization: “Man lives in a state of polygamy in the civilized countries, in spite of the monogamy enforced by law; out of a hundred thousand men, there would barely be one who could swear upon his deathbed that he had never known but one single woman during his whole life”. But the fact is that there are many, many men in the west who think so and will act as such. Ask yourself: why is it that brothels flourish where men are deprived of having more than one wife and brothels disappear no sooner polygamy is legalized. Doesn’t this say enough?

A Social Necessity at Times

Polygamy also becomes a social necessity in certain circumstances, like in times of war, which throughout history have taken a greater toll of men than women, because it is almost always the men who do the fighting. Since a greater number of men die, it upsets the male female ratio resulting in a greater number of women in the population.

Not only does it result in war widows who have lost their husbands in war, but also in more young women who are unable to find husbands since unmarried men too go to war, more often than married men. This was even illustrated in the early Islamic period, like in the battle of Uhud where seventy out of seven hundred Muslims were martyred. The surplus women had to be absorbed and polygamy provided the ideal solution. The Prophet himself set an example by marrying many widows who would have otherwise been left destitute.

Little is it known that the precedent set by the Prophet was even followed in Christian Germany a little over three hundred years ago, when in 1650, shortly after the Peace of Westphalia ended a bitter 30 year war, the Frankish Kriegstag based in Nuremberg passed a resolution allowing every man to take two wives.

But it’s not only war that results in a lower male population in societies, there are other factors as well including greater male mortality at birth. In fact all nations on the face of the earth have a surplus of women except those that practice female infanticide or foeticide, by which I mean india. The US has a surplus of over 7 million women, Germany 5 million and the UK 4 million. War only makes the situation worse. A female correspondent of the Sunday Chronicle had this to say in the British Press in the aftermath of World War II: “Over three million women in Britain are doomed to lonely lives without hope of husbands, child or a real home. The surplus women have gradually increased in the last century. In September 1939 (When the War began) there were 2,818,343 more women than men in Britain. Now the toll of war has taken nearly 3,000,000 men”. She then answers: “What is to become of thousands of girls who have lost husbands and sweethearts, is one of Britain’s Post-War problems”.

In fact, shortly after the Second World War in Germany alone, there were found to be more than 7 million more women than men, almost half of them war widows. In such situations a large number of women could be denied husbands who serve the dual role of breadwinner and sex partner. Such women could be left destitute with a good many women remaining spinsters all their life. Such women would naturally lust after men to satisfy their sex urges. They might seduce already married men or adopt a promiscuous lifestyle only to their own detriment with the risk of venereal disease and unwanted pregnancies hanging over them like a Damocles Sword. Others, for want of both money and sex could opt to become prostitutes which puts them at even greater risk, subject to all the lust and perversions of dirty men without any sense of morality or responsibility. They become a mere plaything in the hands of naughty men, for they are no more than sex slaves.

It is this pathetic situation that prompted well known social reformer Annie Besant to observe in her Life and Teachings of Muhammad:

There is pretended monogamy in the West, but there is really polygamy without responsibility; the ‘mistress’ is cast off when the man is weary of her, and sinks gradually to be the ‘woman of the street’ for the first lover has no responsibility for her future and she is a hundred times worse off than the sheltered wife and mother in the polygamous home. When we see thousands of miserable women who crowd the streets of Western towns during the night, we must surely feel that it does not lie in the Western mouth to reproach Islam for polygamy. It is better for woman, happier for woman, more respectable for woman, to live in polygamy, united to one man only, with the legitimate child in her arms and surrounded with respect, than to be seduced, cast out into the streets perhaps with an illegitimate child outside the pale of law, unsheltered and uncared for to become the victim of any passer-by night after night, rendered incapable of motherhood, despised by all

A Mercy to Women

The obvious solution in such cases is polygamy where men who can afford to maintain a second wife could marry these poor women in a legal manner, giving them all the rights to which a wife is entitled to, a union between equals, not one between master and maidservant. A woman in such a situation would certainly prefer to marry a married man than remain a spinster throughout her life or in the alternative become a mistress without any legal rights for herself or her children. Prostitution is unknown or very rare in Muslim countries where polygamy is legally recognized. Why, because it simply removes the conditions for it to thrive.

There may also be instances where a woman is infertile and the husband wishes for offspring or even cases where a woman is ill or unable to have sex due to some ailment or other. The story of Basil is very instructive in this connection. Basil judges his father only to have the father tell him his wife was ailing and he could not have sex with her, leading him to lavish his lust on his maideservant. These are things that happen not just in novels, but in real life.

Thus husbands driven by the need for sex or offpring or both might be driven to divorce their wives and take other women in their place. Now, I ask you, is it not better to let a man take another wife while keeping his first wife instead of driving him to divorce such a helpless woman for no fault of hers?

Now, it may be asked for the sake of equality, why if men are allowed to have more than one wife, why women cannot have more than one husband?

Let me put it this way. Women by nature prefer a single sex partner and having multiple husbands goes against the grain, against their feminine feelings and their very nature. A woman likes to have sex with a man with whom she bonds and forms an attachment. That is the nature of women. This is precisely why women find it so hard to accept polygamous males, because they judge men from their perspective. They are, to put it simply, wired differently. Besides they are not as easily aroused as men. They need to be familiar with a man before they give themselves to him. If God had not created them as such, the world would not have been able to sustain itself. There would have been unbridled promiscuity, overpopulation, breakdown of the family and the end of civilisation itself.

But there’s also a practical reason why women ought not to marry many husbands at the same time. If she were to, it would not be possible to know the biological father of the child, and as you know it is only natural that a father would dote only on his child and not another’s. so if there is no love in the father’s heart, how can the child be given the love and affection he so needs to live and enjoy a healthy upbringing? The family, after all, is the basis of society, you harm it and you harm the very fabric of society.

Finally, it must be said that polygamy is not usually tolerated in Muslim societies. Many Muslim women in the Arab world make sure to insert a provision in their marriage contract that their husbands shall not take a second wife, and that if they do so, they have the right to divorce their husbands. There are even countries that have gone even beyond this, invoking the Qur’anic verse: You are never able to be fair and just as between women, even if it be your ardent desire (The Women:129) to penalise polygamy with imprisonment and heavy fines for both such a man and a woman who knowingly enters into a polygamous marriage.

Polygamy in Other Faiths

All this is certainly a better option for women than having no option at all such as happened with the Jews of old who allowed a man to contract multiple marriages with absolutely no condition. If you care to read the Bible you will learn that the patriarchs had many wives. Jacob had two wives Leah and Rachel and two concubines Zilpah and Bilhah through whom he fathered his twelve sons Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachor, Zebulun, Joseph, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher, the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. David had two wives Abigail and Ahinoam and later took more wives and concubines in Jerusalem. His son Solomon went further, taking 700 wives and 300 concubines. In fact even in the modern state of Israel, Jewish men are permitted to have four wives without any obligations whatsoever.

Also nowhere in the New Testament is marriage required to be monogamous, nor is there any commandment prohibiting polygamy. It was very likely Saint Augustine who made it a requirement to conform to Roman Law: “Now indeed in our time and in keeping with Roman custom” said he “it is no longer allowed to take another wife”. In fact Protestant leaders like Martin Luther found nothing wrong with polygamy and even deduced its permissibility from the Parable of the Ten Virgins spoken of in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus himself envisages the possibility of a man simultaneously marrying as many as ten girls. As Luther said: I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture. If a man wishes to marry more than one wife he should be asked whether he is satisfied in his conscience that he may do so in accordance with the word of God. In such a case the civil authority has nothing to do in the matter.

We also learn from history, that the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne had two consorts Himilitrude and Hildegard and as many as five concubines through whom he fathered many children, one of who became an abbot and another an abbess, all this while the Catholic Church winked at it. We also know that Phillip of Hesse bigamously married Christine of Saxony and Margarethe Von De Saale with the blessings of the Lutheran Church. As recently as the 16th century the Anabaptists were preaching that he who wants to be a true Christian must have several wives with its German Bernhard Rothmann who lived in Germany taking as many as nine wives. It is also common knowledge that in much later times the Mormons in 19th century America were preaching the same thing, allowing its men to take as many wives as they pleased.

In India until very recent times, Hindu men could take any number of wives as laid down in the Code of Manu. In fact, even during British times, the Bengalis had this odious custom of marrying their girls to high caste Brahmin men which was known as kulinism. By this means, a Brahmin man might have upto a hundred wives or so without any responsibilities towards them whatsoever. What made it all the more reprehensible was the fact that when such a husband died, the young widows could never remarry as Hindu law prohibited widow marriage. In earlier times such women were compelled to immolate themselves on their husbands’s funeral pyre and had it not been for the British who outlawed this custom called Sati, millions of Hindu women would have perished in the flames. In spite of all this, the British dare not lay a finger on this unbridled polygamy. It was only in 1954 that the Indian Parliament passed the Hindu Marriage Act prohibiting Hindu men from taking more than one wife.