POLYGAMY AND ISLAM
Solution to a Problem
ONE of the commandments given in the Quran as a matter of social organization concerning polygamy, is permission for a man to marry up to four women:
If you fear that you cannot treat orphans with fairness, then you may marry such women (widowed) as seem good to you: two, three or four of them. But if you fear that you cannot do justice, marry one only. (4: 3)
This verse was revealed after the Battle of Uhud 625 CE, in which seventy Muslims were martyred. Suddenly, seventy homes in Madinah were bereft of all male members, and the question arose as to how all these widows and orphans were to be cared for. This was an acute social problem. It was solved by the revelation of this verse asking the people who could afford it to take care of the orphans, by marrying the widows and keeping their orphaned children under their guardianship.
The background and wording of this verse appear to express a commandment that should be only temporary in effect. That is to say that it applied only to a particular state of emergency when, due to loss of men in battle, the number of women exceeded the number of available men. But the Quran, despite its having been revealed at a particular time and place, is universal in its application. One of the great characteristics of the Quran is that it describes eternal realities, with reference to temporal issues, this commandment being typical of this special quality of the Quran.
The permission to practice polygamy in Islam was not given in order to enable men to satisfy their carnal urges. It was designed as a practical strategy to solve a particular problem.
Looked at from a practical angle, the above commandment of the Quran can be complied with only if that particular situation exists in society that existed in Madinah after the Battle of Uhud—that is, there is a disproportion in the ratio of men and women. In the absence of such a situation, this commandment of the Quran would be inapplicable. But studies of human society and its history have shown that the situation in ancient Madinah was not one that existed only at a particular point in time. It is a situation that had almost always been prevalent throughout the world. That situation of emergency is, in fact, the general situation of humankind. This commandment is yet another proof of God’s omniscience. His commandment, seemingly elicited by an emergency, became an eternal commandment for the whole of our world under similar circumstances.
The Willingness of Women
The presence of a greater number of women in a society is not the only prerequisite for polygamy. It is, in addition, compulsory that the woman who is the object of the man’s choice should be willing to enter into the married state. This willingness on the woman’s part is a must before a marriage can be lawful in Islam. It is unlawful to marry a woman by force. There is no example in the history of Islam where a man has been allowed to force a woman into marriage.
Solution to a Problem rather than a Commandment
The permission to marry more than one woman is provided as a solution to a social problem in the Islamic Shariah. The principle of polygamy, as enshrined in the Islamic Shariah is designed, in fact, to save women from the ignoble consequences of being alone. This commandment, although apparently general in application, was given only as a solution to a specific social problem. It provides an arrangement whereby surplus women may save themselves from sexual anarchy and have a proper stable family life. That is to say, it is not a question of adopting polygamy rather than monogamy. The choice is between polygamy and sexual anarchy.
If the commandment to practice polygamy is seen in the abstract, it would appear to be biased in favour of men. But when placed in the context of social organization, it is actually in favour of women.
If the commandment to practice polygamy is seen in the abstract, it would appear to be biased in favour of men. But when placed in the context of social organization, it is actually in favour of women. Polygamy is both a proper and a natural solution to women’s problems.
The permission to practice polygamy in Islam was not given in order to enable men to satisfy their carnal urges. It was designed as a practical strategy to solve a particular problem. Marrying more than one woman is possible only when there are more women than men. Failing this, it is out of question. It is inconceivable that Islam, just to satisfy man’s desires, would give us a commandment that is neither possible nor practical.
To have more than one wife is not an ideal in Islam. It is, in essence, a practical solution to a social problem.