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Did Polygamy Come In Existence Due To Islam?

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Islam has always been targeted, not just for terrorism but also for the validating polygamous marriage. How is it that when the word Islam means peace, such practices are accepted? Even The Economist has said that the practice of Polygamy prevailing in the Islamic world is likely to create civil wars in societies. Polygamy has been criticized by the UNHRC on the grounds of violating international covenant on civil and political rights which cited “equality of treatment with regard to the right to marry”, it violates the dignity of women and should be outlawed.

In order to understand these statements, let us clear the false tales surrounding polygamy especially in connection with Islam. Also, did polygamy come in existence due to Islam, is it a spiritual obligation for a Muslim man to be polygamous? Or, does Islam support the present day injustices arising due to polygamy?

Polygamy is referred to as a marital practice where one spouse, in most cases men (polyandry for women) has more than one wife. The practice of polygamy is pre-Islamic and has existed, not only in the Arab peninsula, but also in other parts of the world. In the period before Prophet Muhammed’s birth, Arabs were by all accounts of authentic history, a polygamist community. Native Jews and Christians of Arabia, and also foreigners including Indians of Zut (Jat) and Ahamira (Buddhists) groups were generally polygamist. It thus was a system of unrestricted, unprincipled and undisciplined polygamy.

The Prophet himself was a monogamist till the death of his first wife Khadija, who herself was married twice, her former husband died by the time she married the Prophet. During his marriage with Khadija, the Prophet had started his prophetic mission and after the death of his first wife, he was remarried to Sauda, who was an aged, destitute widow. His third and fourth wives were Hafsa and Zainab, who were also widows and the latter being an infirm widow. His fifth wife was Zainab II who was his cousin and had faced the indignity of first marriage and then divorce by a slave. The subsequent wives were Safiya and Umme Habiba who were divorced by their former husbands. Among all his wives, the only woman who was young at the time of marriage and whose marriage to the prophet was her first marriage was Ayesha. Thus, the Prophet who remained a strict monogamist during the first 25 years of his married life, had become a polygamist. This was done to meet the exigencies of his prophetic mission.

In the Holy Quran, there are three verses relating to polygamy. They are found in Chapter IV (Surah Al-Nisa) titled ‘The Women”. These are verse 3, part of verse 23, and verse 129.

Quran 4:03

“And if you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphan girls, then marry those that please you of [other] women, two or three or four. But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one or those your right hand possesses. That is more suitable that you may not incline [to injustice].”

Quran 4:23

“Prohibited to you [for marriage] are your mothers, your daughters, your sisters, your father’s sisters, your mother’s sisters, your brother’s daughters, your sister’s daughters, your [milk] mothers who nursed you, your sisters through nursing, your wives’ mothers, and your step-daughters under your guardianship [born] of your wives unto whom you have gone in. But if you have not gone in unto them, there is no sin upon you. And [also prohibited are] the wives of your sons who are from your [own] loins, and that you take [in marriage] two sisters simultaneously, except for what has already occurred. Indeed, Allah is ever Forgiving and Merciful.”

Quran 4:129

“And you will never be able to be equal [in feeling] between wives, even if you should strive [to do so]. So do not incline completely [toward one] and leave another hanging. And if you amend [your affairs] and fear Allah – then indeed, Allah is ever Forgiving and Merciful.”

The context in which the first verse on Polygamy (IV:3) appears in the Quran, viz, the problems of orphans and widows, show that the permission is indeed exceptional and not general. If this is true, one must have necessity or justification for having an additional wife. The Quranic context of permission of polygamy was extended by the jurist to some other exceptional situations as well. Among these were,

(a) a desire to have a child while the first wife is barren
(b) the excessive sexual desire of a man not under his control
(c) chronic illness of the wife whom the man does not want to leave helpless, at the same time desiring to have a healthy wife
(d) excess of women in a particular society where they outnumbered men eligible for marriage (scarcity of men due to the aftermath of wars)

The key words in verse IV:3 are “two, three or four” whilst polygamy was a system of unrestricted, unprincipled and undisciplined, Islam reformed this institution both in terms of the number of wives allowed and the circumstances and conditions attached thereto.

As regards the jurist and the judges, the books of history does record cases where a man was either directed or advised not to contract another marriage or where the wife of a polygamist was given due relief against the excess committed by her husband. One of the cases, as recorded, was a dialogue between Imam Abu Hanifa and the Caliph, Mansur. The scene is of Caliph Mansur’s royal palace where he, his wife and Imam Abu Hanifa were present and the Caliph decided to bring in a second wife and his first wife has objected it. The Imam is summoned by the Caliph for consultation.

Caliph: “How many wives are allowed to a Man under the Quran? Only one or more?”

Abu Hanifa: “Up to four”

On hearing this, the Caliph has a contemptuous look at his wife and triumphantly tells her:
“Have you heard what the great Imam says?”

On this the Imam retorts-
“But, the second wife is not allowed to Mansur.”

Caliph: “You have just said that the Quran allows up to four wives. How can you make an exception for me?”

Abu Hanifa: “It is the Quran that makes the exception, not I. Only he is permitted a second wife, who can treat two wives justly.”

Caliph: “How do you know that I will not treat my two wives justly?”

Abu Hanifa: “You have mistreated your first wife right now, in my presence. The way you have talked to her about your intended second marriage makes it clear that you will not be able to treat her justly with another wife. And so, in my opinion, the Quran prohibits bigamy for you.

From this dialogue, it can be seen how strictly and meticulously the condition of equality between co-wives could be enforced by the jurists.
Now, the question arises, what are the material things in which equality of treatment of wives is limited to providing equal company and maintenance. According to him (Imam Abu Hanifa), control of the mind is in the hands of Allah, so a man is not guilty if his mind, naturally, turns to one wife.

On the other hand, some scholars do not relate the equal treatment to merely company with the wives, but extend it to love and affection as well. Alfred Guillaume, while commenting in the verse, holds that an absolute justice in the matter of feeling is impossible. He takes the expression as insisting on emotional equality. He observes that the Quran imposes a moral obligation on the husband and that he should be able to treat his wives equally.

A coherent reading of Quranic verse on polygamy leads to the conclusion that in view of the Quran, in ordinary and normal circumstances, a man would better have only one wife. This will enable him to keep away from the sin of injustice, which he is likely to commit if he has more than one wife, and also help him in keeping the size of his family limited. Injustice is the most probable, if not the unavoidable result of polygamy. It must be avoided and the best way to do so is to keep away from polygamy.

Neither the Quran nor the Prophet laid down any worldly penalties for the violation of Quranic law on Polygamy. Of course, one violating the sacred law would be punished.

But, does the practice of polygamy have legal validity presently? The answer to that question is a Yes and a No.

Yes, it’s legally and constitutionally acceptable to practice polygamy in the Muslim Majority countries and in countries with a sizable Muslim population. And, also in some parts of the African and Asian countries where it’s practised, irrespective of people being Muslims or not.

And no, it is prohibited by Indian Family Laws, such as Christian and Hindu Laws, and also in European and Western countries which have placed a ban on it.

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