THE WISDOM FUND: Issues & Answers

Polygamy in Islam

Karen Armstrong, Muhammad: A Biography Of The Prophet
In seventh-century Arabia, when a man could have as many wives as he chose, to prescribe only four was a limitation, not a license to new oppression. Further, the Quran immediately follows the verses giving Muslims the right to take four wives with a qualification which has been taken very seriously. Unless a man is confident that he can be scrupulously fair to all his wives, he must remain monogamous. Muslim law has built on this: a man must spend absolutely the same amount of time with each of his wives; besides treating each wife equally financially and legally, a man must not have the slightest preference for one but must esteem and love them all equally. It has been widely agreed in the Islamic world that mere human beings cannot fulfill this Quranic requirement: it is impossible to show such impartiality and as a result Muhammad's qualification, which he need not have made, means no Muslim should really have more than one wife. In countries where polygamy has been forbidden, the authorities have justified this innovation not on secular but on religious grounds. -- p. 191
Sir Abdullah Suhrawardy, The Sayings of Muhammad
With regard to polygamy, Muhammad did not introduce this practice, as has so often been wrongly alleged. The Scriptures and the other sacred books bear abundant proof of the fact that is was recognized as lawful and, indeed, widely practised by patriarchal prophets, Zoroastrians, Hindus and Jews. In Arabia and all the surrounding countries a system of temporary marriages, marriages of convenience, and unrestricted concubinage was also prevalent: this, together with polygamy, had most disastrous effects on the entire moral and social structure, which Muhammad remedied.

Muhammad married Khadija at the age of 25, and he took no other wife during the twenty-six years of their married life. He married Aisha . . . at the age of 54, three years after the death of Khadija. After this marriage, he took other wives, about whom non-Muslim writers have directed much unjust criticism against him. The facts are all these ladies were old maids or widows left destitute and without protection during the repeated wars of persecution, and as head of the State at Medina the only proper way, according to the Arab code, in which Muhammad could extend both protection and maintenance to them was by marriage. The only young person was Maria the Copt, who was presented to him as a captive of war, and whom he immediately liberated, but she refused to leave his kind protection and he therefore married her.

. . . 'Ye may marry of the women who seem good to you two or three or four, but if ye fear that ye cannot observe equity between them, then espouse but a single wife' (iv.3) . . . the growing majority of Muslims interpret the above verse as a clear direction towards monogamy . . . -- p. 41-43

Khurshid Ahmad, Family Life in Islam
There are people who object to polygamy, but accept polygamous life as a form of human behaviour. Many eyebrows are raised at having a second wife, 'but to have at many 'mistresses' or 'girlfriends' as one likes is accepted in good grace. The contradiction between these two attitudes is conveniently ignored. It may be instructive to quote Mrs. Annie Besant and Dr. Havelock Ellis on this point. Mrs. Besant says: "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 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 within 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 in the Street - perhaps with an illegitimate child outside the pale of the law -unsheltered and uncared for, to become the victim of any passerby, night after night, rendered incapable of motherhood despised by all." -- Annie Besant, The Life and Teachings of Muhammad, Madras, 1932, p.3.

Dr. Havelock Ellis writes: "It must be said that the natural prevalence of monogamy as the normal type of sexual relationship by no means excludes variations, indeed it assumes them. The line of nature is a curve that oscillates from side to side of the norm. Such oscillations occur in harmony with changes in environmental conditions and no doubt with peculiarities of personal disposition. So long as no arbitrary and merely external attempt is made to force Nature the vital order is harmoniously maintained. The most common variation, and that which must clearly possess a biological foundation, is the tendency to polygamy, which is found at all stages of culture, even in an unrecognised and more or less promiscuous shape. In the highest civilisation...'The path of social wisdom seems to lie on the one hand in making marriage relationship flexible enough to reduce to a minimum of these variations - not because such deviations are intrinsically bad but because they ought not to be forced into existence - and on the other hand in according to these deviation when they occur such a measure of recognition, as will deprive them of injurious influence and enable justice to be done to all the parties concerned. We too often forget that our failure to recognise such variations merely means that we accord in such cases an illegitimate permission to perpetrate injustice. In those parts of the world in which polygamy is recognised as a permissible variation a man is legally held to his natural obligations towards all his sexual mates and towards the children he has, by those mates. In no part of the world is polygamy so prevalent as in Christendom; in no part of the world is it so easy for a man to escape the obligations incurred by polygamy. We imagine that if we refuse to recognise the fact of polygamy, we may refuse to recognise any obligations incurred by polygamy. By enabling man to escape so easily, from the obligations of his polygamous relationship we encourage him, if he is unscrupulous, to enter into them; we place a premium on the immorality we loftily condemn. Our polygamy has no legal existence. The ostrich, it was once imagined hides his head in the sand and attempts to annihilate the facts by refusing to look at them; but there is only one known animal which adopts this course of action and it is called Man." -- Ellis, Havelock, The PsychoIogy of Sex, 1910, Vol. IV. Pp.491-92, 493-94.

Sherif Abdel Azeem, Women In Islam Versus Women In The Judaeo-Christian Tradition
Why are there four female converts for every male convert in the US? This paper provides clues by examining the teachings of the three monotheistic faiths with respect to women.

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