POLYGAMY

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Islam is a way of life consonant with human nature, provides human solutions to complex situations, and avoids extremes. This characteristic can be observed most clearly in the issue of polygamy, which Islam allows only to resolve pressing individual and social problems. Many peoples and religions prior to Islam permitted marriage to as many women as one desired. Islam, on the other hand, laid down definite restrictions and conditions.

Some people criticize Islam wrongly as being polygamous. However, such criticisms are not justifiable for several reasons, as follows:

  • Polygamy is an ancient practice found in many societies. The Bible does not condemn it, and the Old Testament and rabbinic writings frequently attest to its legality. King Solomon and King David had many wives and concubines (2 Samuel 5:13). According to Father Eugene Hillman in his insightful book, Polygamy Reconsidered: “Nowhere in the New Testament is there any explicit commandment that marriage should be monogamous or any explicit commandment forbidding polygamy.” Moreover, Jesus did not speak against it, even though it was practiced by the Jews of his society. Father Hillman stresses that the Church in Rome banned polygamy in order to conform to the Greco-Roman culture (which prescribed only one legal wife while tolerating concubinage and prostitution). The Qur’an, contrary to the Bible, limited the maximum number of wives to four and mandated equal and just treatment for each wife. The Qur’an does not encourage polygamy or consider it an ideal. Rather, it tolerates or allows it and no more, for the following reason: There are places and times in which there are compelling social and moral reasons for polygamy. Islam, as a universal religion suitable for all places and all times, could not ignore such compelling obligations.
  • In most societies, women outnumber men. For example, America currently has at least 8 million more women than men. What should be done about such unbalanced sex ratios? There are various solutions, such as lawful polygamy or celibacy, female infanticide (which still happens), or sexual permissiveness (e.g., prostitution, extramarital sex, and homosexuality). This problem becomes truly problematic at times of war. Native American Indian tribes used to suffer highly unbalanced sex ratios after wartime losses. Their women, who enjoyed a fairly high status, accepted polygamy as the best protection against indulgence in indecent activities. After WWII, there were 7.3 million more women than men in Germany (3.3 million of them were widows). Many needed a man for companionship as well as to provide for the household in a time of unprecedented misery and hardship. What is more dignifying for a woman: to be an accepted and respected second wife or a virtual prostitute? In 1987, a poll conducted by the student newspaper at the University of California at Berkeley asked students whether polygamy should be permitted as a way to deal with a perceived shortage of marriageable men in California. Almost all of the students polled approved of this idea.
  • Polygamy continues to be a viable solution to some of the social ills of modern societies. In his provocative Plural Marriage for Our Time, Philip Kilbride, an American anthropologist of Roman Catholic heritage, proposes polygamy as a solution to some of America’s social ills. He argues that plural marriage may be a potential alternative for divorce, in many cases, in order to obviate divorce’s damaging impact upon children.
  • Polygamy is quite rare in many contemporary Muslim societies, for there is no large gender imbalance. In fact, one can say that the rate of polygamous marriages in the Muslim world is far less than the rate of extramarital affairs in the West. In other words, Muslim men are far more monogamous than their Western counterparts.Billy Graham, the eminent Christian evangelist, has recognized this fact:

    Christianity cannot compromise on the question of polygamy. If presentday Christianity cannot do so, it is to its own detriment. Islam has permitted polygamy as a solution to social ills and has allowed a certain degree of latitude to human nature but only within the strictly defined framework of the law. Christian countries make a great show of monogamy, but actually they practice polygamy. No one is unaware of the part mistresses play in Western society. In this respect Islam is a fundamentally honest religion, and permits a Muslim to marry a second wife if he must, but strictly forbids all clandestine amatory associations in order to safeguard the moral probity of the community. (Abd alRahman Doi, Woman in Shari’a, London 1994, 76.)

  • There are even psychological factors calling for polygamy. For example, many young African brides, whether Christian, Muslim, or otherwise, prefer to marry a married man who has already proved himself to be a responsible husband. Many African wives urge their husbands to get a second wife so that they do not feel lonely. A survey of over 6,000 women, ranging in age from 15 to 59, conducted in Nigeria’s second largest city showed that 60 percent of them would be pleased if their husbands took another wife. In a survey undertaken in rural Kenya, 25 out of 27 women considered polygamy better than monogamy and felt that it could be a happy and beneficial experience if the cowives cooperated.
  • Modern civilization rejects polygamy as unwise and harmful to social life. As observed even in animals and plants, the cardinal purpose for and wisdom in sexual relations is reproduction. The resulting pleasure is a small payment determined by Divine Mercy to realize this duty. Marriage is for reproduction and perpetuation of the species. Being able to give birth at most once a year, to become pregnant during half of a month, and entering menopause around 50, one woman is usually insufficient for a man, who can sometimes impregnate until the age of 70 or more. That is why, in most cases, modern civilization is obliged to admit prostitution. Even if the purpose of marriage were sexual gratification, polygamy would be a lawful way to realize it. The condition that Islam lays down for permitting polygamy is that the husband be able to treat each wife equitably as regards food, drink, housing, clothing, expenses, and spending time with them. Any man who feels that he cannot fulfill such obligations justly cannot have more than one wife: But if you fear that you will not be able to do justice (among them), (marry) only one (4:3).