Bigamy/ Polygamy are allowed only under exceptional and legally justifiable circumstances
By Muhammad Yunus, New Age Islam
(Co-author (Jointly with Ashfaque Ullah Syed), Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009)
December 18, 2011
In an epochal declaration (4:1), the Qur’an sweeps away all the demeaning, discriminatory and oppressive rules, customs and taboos that were reserved for womenfolk in all major civilizations:
“O Humankind! Heed (attaqu) your Lord who created you from a single self and created from it its spouse (zauja) and scattered from the two countless men and women. Heed God (attaqu al-Lah) through whom you demand (your mutual rights) and (heed) the wombs (arham)” (4:1)
The verse begins with a reminder to heed God, captures the procreative process of humanity in a flash, and concludes with a call to heed (show reverence) to the wombs (arham) that obviously symbolizes the women folk. With this, we proceed to expound its laws on marriage, beginning with the third verses of the same Sura:
“If you fear that you cannot do justice (qist) by the orphans, marry women who please you - two or three or four; but if you still fear that you cannot treat (them) equitably (‘adilu), then only one, or (marry) someone under your lawful trust. Then it is most likely that you will not act unjustly” (4:3).
The verse has an undeniable existential dimension. A relatively large number of women were rendered unprotected by any male next of kin (father, husband, brother) due to war casualties. The Qur’an allows the custodians of these women to marry up to four such women only if they could deal with them equitably. In a later verse, however, the Qur’an declares that it is not possible for a man to have equal affection for each of his wife:
“You will never be able to treat (more than one) wife equitably (‘adilu), however eager you may be…” (4:129).
Pieced together, the pronouncements of the verses 4:3 and 4:129 suggest that the primary recommendation of the Qur’an is for monogamy. The Qur’an furnishes copious illustrations to corroborate this notion.
i) Wherever the Qur’an refers to the wives of other prophets, such as those of Abraham (11:71, 51:29), Noah (66:10), Lot (11:81, 15:60, 29:33, 66:10), Imran (3:35), Job (38:44), and Zakaria (3:40, 21:90), it is suggestive of each Prophet having one living wife.
ii) The Qur’anic word zauja for spouse denotes a pair: one each of opposite sex. Thus, Adam’s spouse is referred to in the singular form (2:35, 7:19, 20:117), and the two of them are referred to as a pair (2:36, 7:20-22, 20:121).
iii) The Qur’an’s reference to the wives of its other characters, such as Pharaoh (28:9, 66:11), the Egyptian nobleman who had bought Joseph (12:21, 12:23-26), and Abu Lahab (111:4) are suggestive of each having one living wife.
iv) The Qur’anic inheritance laws’ reciprocity between one husband and one wife (4:12) as against the plurality in the shares of sons and daughters (4:11), two or more daughters (4:11), brothers and sisters (4:176), two sisters (4:176), more than two brothers and sisters (4:12).
v) The Qur’anic permission to a woman who just lost her husband, to avail of a year’s maintenance and lodging at her deceased husband’s home (2:240) is suggestive of a man leaving behind one widow.
These Qur’anic illustrations clearly demonstrate that the Qur’an espouses monogamy as a social norm. This view was propounded as early as the third century of Islam and is shared by many eminent Islamic scholars, notably Yusuf Ali , and Ameer Ali . Muhammad Asad and Husayn Haykal refer to the conditional clause of the verse 4:3 and observe that such plural marriages are allowed only in ‘exceptional circumstances.’[3,4]
If recommendation was ‘towards monogamy’, why wasn't it clearly spelled out?
This question may arise in the mind of some people and needs answering.
Strict monogamy would have resulted in increased suffering and exploitation of women both in the immediate context of the revelation and the broader historical context.
i) In the context of the revelation, introduction of monogamy in a single step would have required the new polygamous converts to part with all but one of their wives, leaving a good number of women without the social protection of a husband – that is virtually without a legal identity. This would have created serious problems relating to the status, preoccupation, livelihood and future of these women, and the custody and maintenance of the children born to them after their separation from their former husbands.
ii) In historical perspective, only men folk took part in trading missions or other civil, political or military assignments leaving their wives behind, as journey to distant places was hazardous and took long. These men, living away from their wives for months and sometimes years, needed women to meet their physical, emotional and biological needs. Strict monogamy in such a setting would have inevitably led such travelers to use women without the bond of marriage resulting in gross exploitation of women and concomitant social vices.
iii) As a universal fact of life, a man's wife may be permanently impaired from discharging her marital role because of ill health, accident etc. Strict monogamy would prevent any second marriage of such a man, and inevitably drive him either to divorce his incapacitated wife and remarry, or to keep a mistress with no marital responsibilities. In either case, the injustice to womenfolk, and to the society as a whole, would be far greater than if the man was to take a second wife, and maintain his first disabled wife as well.
iv) A lifelong divinely ordained monogamous relation can create very serious problems to a widow who will have no prospect to ever getting married as, until recent centuries, was the case in many cultures with dreadful consequences for such widows.
Conclusion: Given the context specificity of the Qur’anic verse on polygamy (4:3), its restrictive clause and that of the verse 4:129, and other compelling Qur’anic illustrations in favor of monogamy as tabled above, the Qur’anic message can be interpreted to support monogamy as the social norm.
The critics who insist on labeling Islam with polygamy may cite the example of the Prophet who had taken many wives. But the fact remains, the Prophet lived in monogamy with his first wife Khadija for about 25 years until her death, and his later marriages were the result of exceptional circumstances. Moreover, the Qur’an makes it amply clear that the Prophet was accorded unique privileges and restrictions with regard to marriage (33:50, 33:52) and therefore his example is not normative for the Muslims. Besides, if the Muslims were required to follow his example, they would have been appalled by the idea of marrying a widow some 15 years older to begin their conjugal life in their prime and live with her in honest monogamy for the next 25 years.
It is time for the Muslim jurists and doctors of law to shed their patriarchal notions and reform the Classical Sharia Law of Islam to preventing a man from taking a second wife except under legally justifiable circumstances, even if the existing wife gives her consent – for a Muslim woman cannot break the law of the Qur’an, without due grounds. The jurists insist on the contractual nature of Islamic marriage but they cannot allow either partner of the marriage to transgress the Qur’anic principle of monogamy with love and mercy between the spouses as a social norm by incorporating any clause in the marriage contract:
“And among His signs is that He has created for you, of yourselves, spouses (azwaj), that you may feel tranquility and relief (taskunu) in her and (He) has set love (mawaddah) and mercy (rahmah) between you. There are signs in this for a people who reflect” (30:21).
Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an, Lahore 1934, reprinted, Maryland 1983, note 509.
Syed Ameer Ali, The Spirit of Islam, Delhi 1923, reprinted 1990, p. 229.
Muhammad Asad, Message of the Qur’an, Gibraltar 1980, Chap. 4, Note 4.
Muhammad Husayn Haykal, The Life of Muhammad, English translation by Ismail Ragi, 8th edition, Karachi 1989, p. 293.
The word is a derivative form of sakinah that connotes with divine bliss that God sends down upon the Prophet and his companions at moments of utmost anguish and despair:
As the Prophet and Abu Bakr lay hiding from their enemies in a cave outside of Mecca on way to Medina (9:40).
As the unarmed companions of the Prophet waited in the planes of Hudaibiyya, in utter despair and growing uncertainty, for permission to enter Mecca to perform the Umra (48:4)
As the unarmed companions of the Prophet at Hudibiyya swore allegiance to him to defend him against any attack from the Meccan army (48:18)
As the Muslims began to enter Mecca and the most fanatic among the Quraysh tried to resist and provoke them (48:26).
As the Hawazins ambushed the marching Muslim forces, and scattered them into a rout (9:26)
Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.