Polygamy – Breaking the Self-Made Façade [Part One]

Polygamy remains one of the most stressed about Islamic practices in our society and even though men and women speak of it with the same zeal and passion, they do so with different perspectives. Men celebrate polygamy as an obligation upon them while women shun such practice as an abomination. The true position in Islamic law is, however, quite distinct whereby polygamy is neither compulsory nor prohibited; it is merely permissible. The religion of Islam is moderate, balanced and centered on the truth (through divine revelation) with regard to polygamy. The Holy Quran in Surah Nisa, chapter 4, verse 3, states the following:

“If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two or three or four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one…..to prevent you from doing injustice.” [Emphasis added]

Polygamy, therefore, by definition is when a man is married to more than one woman at the same time.

A plain reading of the abovementioned verse clarifies that,

  1. it is directed towards men;
  2. who can marry women of their liking;
  3. up to four;
  4. at one time;
  5. on the condition that they (men) should deal justly and fairly with their wives.

The verse further instructs that if men do not have the capacity—due to whatever valid reasons—to do justice between the wives, they should marry only one woman as it would actually save men from committing injustice, not just towards other women but to themselves as well. Therefore, it is very important for men before getting married to understand and evaluate the need for polygamy and the idea of justice it specifically entails.

Furthermore, the requirement of justice, fairness and equality (among wives) in a polygamous marriage can be divided into three broad categories, namely:

  • social;
  • economic; and
  • physical (sexual).

All the wives in a polygamous marriage should be treated socially, economically and sexually equal.

  • Socially, all the wives have equal rights, liberties and status including, but not limited to, the freedom of expression and equal access to certain public places, etc. In terms of freedom of expression, for example, if one wife likes to discuss law and politics with her husband, the husband cannot refuse or restrict the other wife from sharing her thoughts on the same subject.
  • With regard to economic equality, all the wives are entitled to the same or similar maintenance by the husband. If one wife, for example, is receiving twenty thousand rupees per month from her husband, the other wife should also be paid the same or similar amount (in cash or kind) by the husband.
  • As far as sexual rights are concerned, each of the wives have equal rights to enjoy the person of her husband. This may be done, for example, by establishing intimate relations with each of the wives on alternate days.

Some might argue that polygamy has been abrogated in light of the following verse of the Holy Quran (Surah Nisa, chapter 4, verse 129): 

You 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). If you come to a friendly understanding, and practise self-restraint, Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.” [Empahsis added]

This is not an accurate interpretation. A proper reading of the complete verse reveals that after men have entered into polygamous marriages they should strive to do justice between the wives and not neglect the latter altogether. The husbands should be patient with their wives and resort to a friendly understanding or agreement with them in order to keep the marriages intact and workable with the same intention prescribed by Islamic law i.e. to live in peace, harmony and love with each other. The two verses of the Holy Quran are neither in conflict with each other nor has one abrogated the other. Both verses have different contextual meaning relating to polygamy. To reiterate, the earlier verse addresses the decision of a man before entering into a polygamous marriage whereas the later verse guides about the reasonable and friendly treatment of the wives after a man enters into a polygamous marriage. The husband will find it very difficult to do complete justice amongst his wives but at the same time he has been instructed by God to keep the bond of marriage strengthened by showing love, care, friendship and patience towards his wives.

Additionally, a Muslim husband should also be heedful of the glorious words of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in this regard. Abu Hurairah (may God be pleased with him) narrates that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said,

A man who has two wives and he does not deal justly with them will be resurrected on the Day of Judgment with half his body paralyzed…

– [Jami’i Tirmizi, Hadees No. 1141/1144].

Unlike the façade that most of us have put up for polygamy, it is evident from the interpretation above that it remains the duty of the man to ensure justice, equity and fairness amongst his wives if, after careful consideration, he decides to marry more than one woman. Since the right of polygamy (restricted) has been bestowed upon men by God, it correspondingly becomes the responsibility of men to adhere to its bounds, failing which, without a doubt, will not just make a man sinful in the sight of God but will also make it probable for penal sanctions to be imposed upon him in an Islamic state. Such a state has been empowered by Islamic law to legislate (read: incriminate) on any matter the procedure for which has not been expressly mentioned in revelation i.e. the Holy Quran, or the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any other organization with which he might be associated.

Asad Sami Butt

Author: Asad Sami Butt

The writer is an Advocate of the High Court, Partner at Asad Sami Butt Law Associates and law graduate of the University of London.