Thoughts on Polygyny

"Those who follow the Messenger, the unlettered Prophet, whom they find mentioned in their own (scriptures), - in the law and the Gospel; - for he commands them what is just and forbids them what is evil; he allows them as lawful what is good (and pure) and prohibits them from what is bad (and impure); He releases them from their heavy burdens and from the yokes that are upon them. So it is those who believe in him, honour him, help him, and follow the light which is sent down with him, - it is they who will prosper." (Al-Qur’an: 7:157)

Allah (SWT) has most graciously sent down the guidance in the form of the Qur’an and the Sunnah to establish order in human life with a view to make its existence easy and comfortable on earth. He, in His infinite Wisdom, permits what is good for human life and forbids what is bad and harmful.

The terms 'polygamy' means 'the plurality of mates' whereas polygyny means having more than one wife at the same time. But both of the terms are generally used 'interchangeably' for one connotation and that is having more 
than one wife at the same time. There is another term called 'polyandry' that denotes having more than one husband at the same time. But when there is a mixture of men and women in marital bond then it is called 'group marriage' or 'communal marriage'. (Abdalati, Hammudah, Islam in Focus, Doha, 10th edn, 1997, p.164). All these types of marriage were prevalent in ancient times (the first one being most common) in different parts of the world among various communities.

In the recent time another term has come out as a gift(?) of the Western civilised(?) world and that is 'mate swapping', the meaning of which is obvious with all its filthy and nasty implications. Islam does not permit such plurality of mates except polygyny and this is to put a sort of discipline when necessary in the human life.

Before the advent of Islam, a propensity was there among the people to whimsically marry limitless number of women. Islam disallows such unbridled freedom and restricts it to four. There are many examples that tell us about Prophet’s (SAWS) advice to the new Muslims who had had more than four wives to keep only four of them. Ghilan Ibn Salma became a Muslim while he had ten wives, so the Prophet (SAWS) said to him, "Choose four of them and leave (divorce) the others"[Transmittedby Al-Termithy (1128) and Ibn Majah (1953) on the authority of Ibn 'Umar]. The same thing happened to those who embraced Islam while having eight or five wives; they were ordered by the Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) not to keep more than four. (Qaradawi, Dr. Yousuf Al.; Sheikh Mohammed Gemeaah (tr.); The Status of Women in Islam; Cairo, Egypt, Islamic Home of Publishing and Distribution, 1997).

So it is clear that Islam did not make the first move to initiate polygyny. It had persistently continued throughout the human history. In many civilizations men had been marrying a limitless number of women, "ten of them, even a hundred, without any conditions or limitations. The Old Testament mentioned that David had three hundred women and that Solomon had seven hundred, some of whom were wives, while others were concubines" (Ibid). What Islam did in this respect is to check such excessiveness and allows up to four wives only if certain conditions are met. But unfortunately the Western world and the secularists have launched a grossly wicked campaign against Islam in the question of polygyny in such a way that as if polygyny was non-existent before in human history and it was Islam that instituted it for the first time?

A polygyny phobia is observed in the Western societies where sexual permissiveness and promiscuity is the norm. Many people are there in this society who take a new sex partner at every new dance party or any other such social gathering. Moreover, in general, many people here maintain a number of sexual relations without satisfying any sequential obligations to the second, third or fourth mistresses and their children. And in such cases, it is the woman who is the sufferer. Because when a man changes his sex partner, he left the previous one with her children by him and the woman, being a single parent, has to maintain them by herself. Strangely enough many of the so-called Western thinkers and the secularists covertly support this sexual promiscuity detrimental to the interest of women. But the Muslim husband is under complete obligations towards his second, third or fourth wives and their children (Polygamy;, 01.12.2001).

Dr Yousuf al-Qaradawi relates an interesting story in his book The Status of 
Women in Islam. It goes in the following manner:

"A Muslim living in an African-Arab country which had laws against polygamy secretly married another wife through a legitimate conventional contract, abiding by all its conditions except that it was not authenticated. This is because the country's established law refused to authenticate or admit it and considered such a marriage a crime for which he would have to be punished. The man used to frequent the house of his (second) wife, so the police watched him and came to assume that she was his wife and that he had committed an offence against the law. One night they waited for him, 
arrested him at his wife's place and took him to court accusing him of marrying a second wife.

"The man was clever and asked those interrogating him, ‘But who told you she is my wife? She is not a wife. She is a mistress whom I took as a companion and I call on from time to time.’ The interrogators were taken aback and 
told the man very politely, ‘We are awfully sorry for the misunderstanding. We thought she was a wife and did not know she was a companion.’ Thereupon, they released him because, to them, to have the illicit company of a woman as a mistress to commit adultery, which is considered within the framework of personal freedom, is protected by the law."Before going to details of the Islamic treatment of the concept of polygamy let’s have a look at the verse that talks about the issue: "And if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards orphans, thenmarry such women as seem good to you, two and three and four; but if you fear that you will not do justice (between them), then (marry) only one or what your right hands possess; this is more proper, that you may not deviate from the right course." (4:3) Commenting on the verse above Dr Jamal Badawi makes the following remarks:

a. Polygamy is not a must for every Muslim [it is simply a permission in certain cases].

b. The permission to marry more than one wife is conditional.

c. There is permission to marry maximum of four wives, whereas before, as was shown earlier, it was possible to have many wives.

d. The verse connects permission to marry more than one wife with a specific situation: the question of dealing justly with any orphans that a Muslim may have under his wardship.

According the Aisha (RA) the above verse was revealed, "to guide the Prophet in the matter of a man who was guardian of some orphan girls. It is important to note that this verse was revealed soon after the Battle of Uhud in which many Muslim men were martyred leaving behind young children, girls of marriageable age and young widows. These widows and orphans not only needed food and shelter but also a family environment and so they were placed with guardians. It happened that one guardian had become attracted to one of the orphan girls and wished to marry her as his second wife, but without paying her an appropriate marriage gift for a girl of her beauty and wealth. This verse of the Qur’an warns the Muslim to be just to orphan girls and not to marry them unless he is willing to pay the full marriage gift 
that is due to her. If this is not possible, and the man would still like to marry, he can take two, three or four wives from elsewhere. One of the famous scholars of the Qur’an in his ‘Al Kashaf al Tafsir’ says that this verse permits plurality of wives if there is fear of committing adultery. He said that the Qur’an’s stern warnings against injustice to orphans on the one hand and against adultery on the other hand made sincere Muslims very scared and polygamy was a concession which enabled them to escape falling into one of these two evils, although the verse does also say that the man 
considering taking another wife must be certain that he will deal justly with his wives." (Badawi, Dr Jamal, Islamic Teachings Course; vol. 3, G-32)

So the very context of the verse of polygyny came in the shape of a command to do justice, which is also the precondition of its permissibility. If a Muslim feels self-confident to ensure fair treatment to his wives in food, drink, clothing, housing and sustenance (including emotional needs to some extent) only then he is allowed to marry more than one i.e. maximum four. Because Allah says: "But if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one". [Surah 4:3] The Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) said, "Whoever has two wives and is more inclined towards one of them, he will come on the Day of Judgement dragging one of his sides while it is drooping".[Transmitted by Abu Dawud - his own wording (3133), Al-Termithy (1141), Al-Nisa'i, 7/63, IbnMajah (1969), Al-Doramy p.539, and Ahmad, 2/347, 471. All on the authority of Abu Huraira.]

But in terms of emotional inclination towards one wife, over which man has little control, Allah forgives such human weakness. The Almighty says: " You will never be able to do perfect justice between wives even if it is your ardent desire, so do not incline too much to one of them (by giving her more of your time and provision)". (4:129) For this reason, the Prophet (SAWS) used to divide equitably between his wives and say, "Allah, that is my division as it is in my power to do so. Do not blame me for what You have and I have not. [Transmitted by Abu Dawud (2134), Al-Termithy (1140), Ibn Majah (1971), Al-Doramy Book of Marriage p.540, and Ahmad 6/144 on the authority of Aisha.] By what he had not got, he meant feelings and inclination towards one of them in particular. Whenever he used to travel, 
he turned to drawing lots; the one whose arrow appeared would accompany him. He resorted to that in order to avoid jealousy and to satisfy them all. (The Status of Women in Islam).

A very minority of Muslim scholars think the verse 4:129 (by stating "You will never be able to do perfect justice between wives. .. .") virtually disallows polygyny as Allah (SWT) terms it quite impossible for humans to do perfect emotional justice between the wives, which, according to them, implies its forbiddance. This is simply a whimsical misinterpretation of the verse in isolation from the whole spirit of Islam. (For details please read the chapter on polygamy in The Status of Women in Islam by Dr Yousuf Al Qaradawi available on

The vast majority of Islamic scholars (on the basis of the general spirit of Islam) think that polygyny, which is a remedy for many ills involved in marital life in some cases, is absolutely permissible when certain situations are met. Basically the tone of the verse 4:129 is not of prohibition, rather it is an assurance of forgiveness from Allah (SWT) to His Prophet (SAWS) in particular and the Muslims in general that if they fail to maintain perfect emotional justice between the wives, which is beyond human control, Allah (SWT) out of his infinite mercy may forgive.

Dr Jamal Badawi makes three points against those who subscribe the view to abolish polygyny:

1. No one has any authority to prohibit what Allah (SWT) has permitted.

2. As it is practised by less than 1% Muslims, polygyny does not cause "an alarming problem which demands such a drastic response as outright prohibition."

3. Its prohibition does not privide any alternative solutions to the problems it solves.

Home - Quran & HadithCharity - Family & HealthIslamMiscellaneousMatrimonials

Human Rights - WomenNewscenterBoycottChechnyaPalestine - Links