Women’s Rights in Islam : Polygyny in Islam


People sometimes talk as if polygyny were an institution of Islam. It is no more an institution of Islam than it is of Christianity (it was the custom in Christendom for centuries after Christ) but it is still an existing human tendency to be reckoned with, and in the interests of men and women (women chiefly), to be regulated. Strict monogamy has never really been observed in Western lands, but for the sake of the fetish of monogamy, a countless multitude of women and their children have been sacrificed and made to suffer cruelty. Islam destroys all fetishes, which always tend to outcast numbers of God’s creatures. In Europe, side by side with woman worship, we see the degradation and despair of women.

In Arabia, the lot of poor widows was particularly hopeless prior to the coming of Islam. The Holy Qur’an sanctions the remarriage of widows. It legalizes divorce and marriage from another husband, thus transforming marriage from a state of bondage for the women to a civil contract between equals, terminable by the will of either party (with certain restrictions, greater in women’s case for natural reasons, intended to make people reflect seriously before deciding upon separation) and by death. The Prophet, when he was the sovereign of Arabia, married several windows, in order to destroy the old contempt for them and to provide for them as ruler of the State. [Pickthall]

Islam is the only religion limiting the number of permissible wives to four. To this fact John Esposito, a renowned professor of religion and international affairs and Islamic studies at Georgetown University, writes:

Although it is found in many religious and cultural traditions, polygamy (or more precisely polygyny) is most often identified with Islam in the minds of Westerners. In fact, the Qur’an and Islamic law sought to control and regulate the number of spouses rather than give free license. In a society where there no limitations existed, Muslims were not told to marry four wives but instead to marry no more than four.  The Qur’an permits a man to marry up to four wives, provided he can support and treat them equally. Muslims regard this Qura’nic command (4:3) as strengthening the status of women and the family, for it sought to ensure the welfare of single women and widows in a society whose male population was diminished by warfare, and to curb unrestricted polygamy. [John L. Esposito]

The idea of limited polygyny was introduced by the Qur’an as a solution to social dilemmas like the increased number of widows and fatherless orphans following wars. It also plays a great role satisfying the natural needs of a large sector of people, especially in societies where the number of women is exceeding that of men.

An-Nisa: 3 “And if you fear you will not be just to the orphans, then marry what is good for you among the women two, three, or four. But if you fear that you will not be just [to them], then only one, or whom your right hands possess. That is more likely that you will not do injustice.”

When this regulation regarding polygyny was firstly introduced, it was in reality a restriction to the unlimited polygyny the pre-Islamic Arabs used to practice.

Though, the regulation gives men the right, for good reasons, to practice polygyny but they should adhere to the strict conditions and responsibilities behind it. Polygyny was restricted by Islam and not fully banned to satisfy the polygynous nature of men while restricting and severely punishing men who seek extramarital relations. Islam, by restricting polygyny and decreeing strict conditions regarding its practice, took a moderate stance between the unrestricted polygyny of the Old Testament and the practice of Romans, Persians and pre-Islamic Arabs and the unobserved celibacy that some latter Christian saints preached.

Therefore, to solve the problem of fatherless households, the Qur’an is encouraging men who can bear the responsibility and be just to take into their care the destitute families by marrying the eligible widows and female orphans who are victims of tragedies. One rationale behind this measure is to save the society in general from indulging into immoral practices either because of poverty or the natural sexual desire on the part of the unmarried women.

Open-minded people can accept natural and reasonable solutions to their problems while recognizing full right and legitimacy to the women and their children. In his book Struggling to Surrender, Jeffrey Lang, (1995), reported on a program aired on Public Television at that time investigating whether or not men were innately polygamous and women innately monogamous. In 1987, the student newspaper at the University of California, Berkley, polled a number of students, asking whether they thought men should be legally permitted to have more than one wife in response to a perceived shortage of male marriage candidates in California.

To the surprise of many feminists, almost all of those polled approved of the idea. One woman even stated that a polygamous marriage would meet her emotional and sexual needs.[Jeffrey Lang, 1995] A segment of the Church, the Mormons, which has become one of the established churches in the United States, propagates polygyny among its increasing members.[T. Sullivan, K. Thomson, R. Wright, G. Gross and D. Spady]

Jane Goodwin (1994), an American sociologist, thinks that many American women would prefer the status of a second wife rather than living a lonely life in a gloomy apartment in New York or Chicago in the society of freedom.[in Zerekly 1997] As a matter of fact, males in general continue to be protected by monogamy, especially in a society that does not punish extramarital practices, while prostitutes, call girls, mistresses, secretaries, models, actresses, store clerks, waitresses and girl friends remain their playground. In reality, polygyny is vehemently opposed by the male-dominated western society because it would force men to adopt fidelity.

Regardless of my opinion towards the issue of polygamy, Dr. Le Bon advocates: “A return to polygamy, that natural relationship between sexes, would remedy many evils; prostitution, venereal diseases, Aids, abortions, the misery of the illegitimate children, the misfortune of the millions of unmarried women and widows, resulting from the disproportion between the sexes and wars, even adultery and jealousy.” [Suayman A. S.A-Shaqasy]

The Islamic system, when completely practiced does away with the dangers of seduction, the horrors of prostitution and the hard fate which befalls countless number of women and children in the West, as the consequence of unavowed polygyny. “Islam’s basic principle is that a man is held fully responsible for his behavior towards every woman, and for the consequences of his behavior. If it does away likewise with much of the romance which has been woven round the facts of sexual intercourse by Western writers, the romance is an illusion, and we need never mourn the loss of an illusion.

Take the most widely read modern European literature, and you will find the object of man’s life on earth is depicted as the love of women (i.e., in the ideal form as the love of one woman, the elect, whom he discovers after trying more than one). When that one woman is discovered, the reader is led to suppose that a “union of souls” takes place between the two. And that is the goal of life. That is not common sense – it is rubbish. But it is traceably a product of the teaching of the Christian Church regarding marriage. Woman is an alluring but forbidden creature, by nature sinful, except when a mystical union, typifying that of Christ and his Church has happened, thanks to priestly benediction”. [Pickthall]

Author : Abdallah H. Al-Kahtany


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