By Arshad Alam for New Age Islam
2 Jan, 2013
The recent trial court judgment admonishing a Muslim man and punishing a maulvi for polygamy should be welcomed by one and all. The court rightly observes that polygamy in Islam is not a license to keep four wives at a time but rather should be seen as an institution which makes sense in extraordinary circumstances such as if done for the welfare of destitute women. Historically, it appears that in pre Islamic Arabia, there were no limitations on the number of wives that a man could take. The Islamic injunction of marrying upto four wives therefore should rightly be seen as a restriction rather than a justification and license for polygamy. Moreover, the Quran itself attests that only if the man is certain that he can treat all the wives equitably, should he marry more than one, otherwise being monogamous is better.
Clearly, the Quran and the Islamic code are historically contingent and specific to the time about which they speak. However, there are certain core values enshrined in the Quran which the Muslims do and should regard as eternal. And one of these messages in about respect and giving a dignified presence to women in our society. Islam was the first among all religious traditions to give women a share in property, something revolutionary to even comprehend during the times in which this was enshrined in the law. Similarly, through the nikahnama, Muslim women were granted rights which women of other religious traditions could not even think of. It took hundreds of years of struggle for western women to get property rights and the right to claim public space as their own.
Those who argue that every word of the Quran is true for all times freeze Islam in a time warp and do not understand the true spirit of the scripture. As argued above, there are certain core values within the Quran which should only be considered as eternal. The details have always been historically specific. Thus the injunction permitting polygamy should be read contextually to the effect that Quran is trying to solve a problem of sexual regulation during a particular period in history. However, the spirit behind this permission is not eternal and that spirit is one of understanding the women as an individual in her own right, with her own likes and dislikes. If the core message of Quran is about justice, one just does not understand how it can sanction such an institution as polygamy which is morally and ethically unjust towards women. The idea of polygamy therefore should be treated as peripheral to Islam, as something which can only be permitted under special circumstances. Those circumstances could be war, distressed migration or some natural calamity, precisely the kind of factors that the Quran is talking about. Under normal circumstances, permitting polygamy is essentially against the spirit of the Quran.
I want to raise another related issue here. During the times of Quranic revelation, the Islamic state was in a nascent state. The strength of Islam came from the pious society which was founded on the idea of brotherhood and piety. It was not possible for the still fledgling state to look into important aspects such as poverty and destitution of women as a result of war, etc. It makes perfect sense in such a state of affairs that the society was asked to evolve a set of code which could protect poor and vulnerable women. Polygamy was an easy answer, as apart from being a sexual regulator, it also provided emotional and economic sustenance for many a woman. However, the question to ask in the present times is this: if the state today is strong and can take care and is duty bound to care for its own citizens, then what is the justification of polygamy today? Modern welfare states are built on the assumption that they would care most importantly for the weaker sections of the citizenry and women should naturally be of utmost concern for a modern state like India. It was considerations such as this which outlawed polygamy in Muslim societies such as Turkey and Tunisia and heavily restricted it in countries like Indonesia. If these societies can understand the Quranic injunction contextually, then what stops the Indian Muslims from doing so? It is time that the Ulama take a call on this and declare polygamy as something which is no longer necessary, as something whose time has long gone, as an institution whose utility one can no longer see. It is time to abolish and banish polygamy from our midst. This is not to say that it will make a big impact on the actual existing reality since the majority of Muslims are not polygamous. In fact, the economic costs of polygamy mean that Indian Muslims would be least prone to take another wife. However, the declaration of abolishment will serve a bigger purpose: that Muslims are now ready to move with the times.
Arshad Alam is a writer and commentator on Muslim minority issues. He teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.