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POLYGAMY IN THE JUDEO-CHRISTIAN TRADITION, IN THE WEST AND IN ISLAM

Islam has not totally abolished polygamy, but has restricted it. On the one hand, it has fixed the maximum number of wives, which one can have, at four, and, on the other, it has stipulated certain conditions and has not allowed everyone to indulge in having several wives.

It is surprising that during the Middle Ages, when anti Islamic propaganda was at its highest, the opponents of Islam used to say that it was the Prophet of Islam who, for the first time, invented the custom of polygamy. They claimed that this custom was the basis of Islam and the rapid spread of Islam among the various people of the world was due to it. At the same time, they claimed that polygamy was the cause of the decline of the people of the East.

Will Durant in his ‘History of Culture’. Vol.1, says that the ecclesiastics of the Middle Ages believed that polygamy was an invention of the Prophet of Islam, whereas this is not a fact. As we know, the matrimonial life in most of the primitive societies proceeded according to this system. There are many causes of its emergence. In the primitive societies men were mostly busy in hunting and fighting and the rate of mortality among them was naturally high. As the number of women exceeded the number of men. it became essential to adopt this system. It was not possible to allow some women to remain unmarried, for the rate of mortality being high in the primitive societies, every woman was required to procreate children. There is no doubt that this system suited those societies, not only because of the excess of women over men, but also because it strengthened them numerically. In modern times the most strong and healthy men usually marry late in life and beget only a few children. But in the olden days the strong men could have the best wives and could procreate a large number of children. That is why this practice continued to exist for a very long time, not only among the primitive people but even among the civilized ones. It is only recently that it has gradually begun disappearing from the countries of the East. Agriculture has stabilized the life of men and reduced the hardships and perils of the ancient times, with the result that the number of men and women has almost equalized. Now polygamy, even in primitive societies, has become a privilege of a small wealthy minority and the masses have to be content with only one wife and, as an additional enjoyment, they can only indulge in adultery, whenever possible.

Gustav Leabeon in his book, ‘History of Culture’, says that no Eastern custom is so infamous in Europe as polygamy, nor has Europe misjudged any other custom to the extent that it has misjudged this. The European writers have believed polygamy to be the basis of Islam and the main cause of its spread. They also hold this custom to be mainly responsible for the decline of the Eastern people. Other objections apart from these, showing sympathy with the women of the East, are raised alleging that these ill-fated women are detained within the four walls of their houses, under the hard-hearted eunuchs. They further say that the slightest action on their part, which may displease the head of the household, renders them liable to be put to death. Such notions have no basis at all. ‘[he unbiased Europeans should know that it is the custom of polygamy that has strengthened the family relations and uplifted the moral spirit of those people among whom it is prevalent. It is due to this custom that woman in the East enjoys more respect than she does in Europe. Before proving this point, we must make it clear that this custom is in no way related to Islam. Even prior to Islam, it was practiced by all the people of the East, including the Jews, the Iranians, the Arabs etc. The people who embraced Islam in the East did not derive any benefit in this respect. So far, no such mighty religion has appeared in this world as could invent or abolish such a custom as polygamy. It has not been first introduced by any religion. It is the creation of the climatic and the racial characteristics and other causes related to the way of life in the East. Even in the West, where the climate is not congenial to the existence of such a custom, monogamy is a thing which is found in law books only. In actual life there is no trace of it. It is not known how and in what way the lawful polygamy found in the East is inferior to the clandestine polygamy of the people of the West. Apparently, the former is better and more dignified than the latter. The people of the East, when they visit a European country and are confronted with the European criticism of their custom, are naturally bewildered and feel offended.

It is a fact that Islam has not invented polygamy. It has only restricted it. It has prescribed a maximum limit for it. It has laid down strict conditions for it. This custom already existed among most of the people who accepted Islam. They were only compelled to comply with the conditions laid down by Islam.

In his book, ‘Iran During the Sassanian Period’, Christenson writes: “Polygamy was considered to be the basis of the family. Practically, the number of wives, which a man could have, depended on his means. The poor people apparently could not afford to have more than one wife as a general rule. The head of the family had special rights as such. One of the wives was regarded as the favourite wife and enjoyed full rights. Some other wives were treated as servants only. Legal rights of these two categories widely differed. The slave girls were included among the servant wives. It is not known how many favorite wives a single man could have. But there has been a mention of two favorite wives in the course of several legal discourses. Each of them was called the lady of the house. Apparently they lived in separate houses. The husband was bound to maintain the favorite wife so long as she lived. Every son till he reached the age of puberty, and every daughter till she was married, had the same rights. But only the male children of the servant-wives were admitted to the paternal family”.

In the ‘Social History of Iran from the fall of the Sassanians to the fall of the Omayyads’ the late Sa’id Nafisi writes: “The number of women whom a man could marry was unlimited and at times it is observed in the Greek documents that one man had hundreds of women in his house.”

Montesquieu, quoting a Roman historian, says that several Roman philosophers, who were being tortured by the Christians because they refused to embrace Christianity, fled from Rome and took refuge in the court of the Iranian King, Khusro Parviz. They were astonished to see that not only polygamy was legal there, but the Persian men had intimacy with the wives of others also.

It may be pointed out here that the Roman philosophers took refuge in the court of the Persian king, Anushirwan, and not in the court of Khusro Parviz. Montesquieu has mentioned the name of the latter owing to some misunderstanding.

During the pre-Islamic period, the Arabs could have an unlimited number of wives. It was Islam that prescribed a maximum limit. This naturally created a problem for those who had more than four wives. In exceptional circumstances, some had even ten. They had to part with six of them.

From the above it is evident that polygamy is not an invention of Islam. Islam only restricted it. Anyhow, it did not abolish it totally. In the following chapters we shall discuss the causes which gave rise to this custom and shall explain why Islam did not do away with it. We shall also discuss the reasons which in modern times have impelled both men and women to rise against this custom.

Polygamy in the Judeo-Christian tradition

The Bible did not condemn polygamy. To the contrary, the Old Testament and Rabbinic writings frequently attest to the legality of polygamy. The Bible claims that King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3) Also, king David is said to have had many wives and concubines (2 Samuel 5:13). The Old Testament does have some injunctions on how to distribute the property of a man among his sons from different wives (Deut. 22:7). The only restriction on polygamy is a ban on taking a wife’s sister as a rival wife (Lev. 18:18). The Talmud advises a maximum of four wives [51]. European Jews continued to practice polygamy until the sixteenth century. Oriental Jews regularly practiced polygamy until they arrived in Israel where it is forbidden under civil law. However, under religious law which overrides civil law in such cases, it is permissible.

What about the New Testament? 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 has not spoken against polygamy though it was practiced by the Jews of his society. This means that since Jesus came in the footnotes of Moses in Shari‘a, he confirmed polygamy. Father Hillman stresses the fact 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). He cited St. Augustine, “Now indeed in our time, and in keeping with Roman custom, it is no longer allowed to take another wife.” African churches and African Christians often remind their European brothers that the Church’s ban on polygamy is a cultural tradition and not an authentic Christian injunction.

The Quran, too, allowed polygamy, but not without restrictions:

“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” (4:3).

The Quran, contrary to the Bible, limited the maximum number of wives to four under the strict condition of treating the wives equally and justly. It should not be understood that the Quran is exhorting the believers to practice polygamy, or that polygamy is considered as an ideal. In other words, the Quran has “tolerated” or “allowed” polygamy, and no more, but why? Why is polygamy permissible ? The answer is simple: there are places and times in which there are compelling social and moral reasons for polygamy. As the above Quranic verse indicates, the issue of polygamy in Islam cannot be understood apart from community obligations towards orphans and widows. Islam as a universal religion suitable for all places and all times could not ignore these compelling obligations.

In most human societies, females outnumber males. In the U.S. there are, at least, eight million more women than men. In a country like Guinea there are 122 females for every 100 males. In Tanzania, there are 95.1 males per 100 females. What should a society do towards such unbalanced sex ratios? There are various solutions, some might suggest celibacy, others would prefer female infanticide (which does happen in some societies in the world today!). Others may think the only outlet is that the society should tolerate all manners of sexual permissiveness: prostitution, sex out of wedlock, homosexuality, etc.

For other societies, like most African societies today, the most honorable outlet is to allow polygamous marriage as a culturally accepted and socially respected institution. The point that is often misunderstood in the West is that women in other cultures do not necessarily look at polygamy as a sign of women’s degradation. For example, many young African brides , whether Christians or Muslims or otherwise, would 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 six thousand women, ranging in age from 15 to 59, conducted in the second largest city in Nigeria showed that 60 percent of these women would be pleased if their husbands took another wife. Only 23 percent expressed anger at the idea of sharing with another wife. Seventy-six percent of the women in a survey conducted in Kenya viewed polygamy positively. In a survey undertaken in rural Kenya, 25 out of 27 women considered polygamy to be better than monogamy. These women felt polygamy can be a happy and beneficial experience if the co-wives cooperate with each other.

Polygamy in most African societies is such a respectable institution that some Protestant churches are becoming more tolerant of it. A bishop of the Anglican Church in Kenya declared that, “Although monogamy may be ideal for the expression of love between husband and wife, the church should consider that in certain cultures polygamy is socially acceptable and that the belief that polygamy is contrary to Christianity is no longer tenable.” After a careful study of African polygamy, Reverend David Gitari of the Anglican Church has concluded that polygamy, as ideally practiced, is more Christian than divorce and remarriage as far as the abandoned wives and children are concerned [59]. I personally know of some highly educated African wives who, despite having lived in the West for many years, do not have any objections against polygamy. One of them, who lives in the U.S., solemnly exhorts her husband to get a second wife to help her in raising the kids.

The problem of the unbalanced sex ratios becomes truly problematic at times of war. Native American Indian tribes used to suffer highly unbalanced sex ratios after wartime losses. Women in these tribes, who in fact enjoyed a fairly high status, accepted polygamy as the best protection against indulgence in indecent activities. European settlers, without offering any other alternative, condemned this Indian polygamy as ‘uncivilized.’ After the second world war, there were 7,300,000 more women than men in Germany (3.3 million of them were widows). There were 100 men aged 20 to 30 for every 167 women in that age group. Many of these women needed a man not only as a companion but also as a provider for the household in a time of unprecedented misery and hardship. The soldiers of the victorious Allied Armies exploited these women’s vulnerability. Many young girls and widows had liaisons with members of the occupying forces. Many American and British soldiers paid for their pleasures in cigarettes, chocolate, and bread. Children were overjoyed at the gifts these strangers brought. A 10 year old boy on hearing of such gifts from other children wished from all his heart for an ‘Englishman’ for his mother so that she need not go hungry any longer. We have to ask our own conscience at this point: What is more dignifying to a woman? An accepted and respected second wife as in the native Indians’ approach, or a virtual prostitute as in the ‘civilised’ Allies approach? In other words, what is more dignifying to a woman, the Quranic prescription or the theology based on the culture of the Roman Empire?

It is interesting to note that in an international youth conference held in Munich in 1948 the problem of the highly unbalanced sex ratio in Germany was discussed. When it became clear that no solution could be agreed upon, some participants suggested polygamy. The initial reaction of the gathering was a mixture of shock and disgust. However, after a careful study of the proposal, the participants agreed that it was the only possible solution. Consequently, polygamy was included among the conference final recommendations.

The world today possesses more weapons of mass destruction than ever before and the European churches might, sooner or later, be obliged to accept polygamy as the only way out. Father Hillman has thoughtfully recognized this fact,

“It is quite conceivable that these genocidal techniques (nuclear, biological, chemical..) could produce so drastic an imbalance among the sexes that plural marriage would become a necessary means of survival....Then contrary to previous custom and law, an overriding natural and moral inclination might arise in favour of polygamy. In such a situation, theologians and church leaders would quickly produce weighty reasons and biblical texts to justify a new conception of marriage.”

To the present day, polygamy continues to be a viable solution to some of the social ills of modern societies. The communal obligations that the Quran mentions in association with the permission of polygamy are more visible at present in some Western societies than in Africa. For example, In the United States today, there is a severe gender crisis in the black community. One out of every twenty young black males may die before reaching the age of 21. For those between 20 and 35 years of age, homicide is the leading cause of death. Besides, many young black males are unemployed, in jail, or on dope. As a result, one in four black women, at age 40, has never married, as compared with one in ten white women. Moreover, many young black females become single mothers before the age of 20 and find themselves in need of providers. The end result of these tragic circumstances is that an increasing number of black women are engaged in what is called ‘man-sharing’. That is, many of these hapless single black women are involved in affairs with married men. The wives are often unaware of the fact that other women are ‘sharing’ their husbands with them. Some observers of the crisis of man-sharing in the African American community strongly recommend consensual polygamy as a temporary answer to the shortage of black males until more comprehensive reforms in the American society at large are undertaken. By consensual polygamy they mean a polygamy that is sanctioned by the community and to which all the parties involved have agreed, as opposed to the usually secret man-sharing which is detrimental both to the wife and to the community in general. The problem of man-sharing in the African American community was the topic of a panel discussion held at Temple University in Philadelphia on January 27, 1993. Some of the speakers recommended polygamy as one potential remedy for the crisis. They also suggested that polygamy should not be banned by law, particularly in a society that tolerates prostitution and mistresses. The comment of one woman from the audience that African Americans needed to learn from Africa where polygamy was responsibly practiced elicited enthusiastic applause.

Philip Kilbride, an American anthropologist of Roman Catholic heritage, in his provocative book, Plural marriage for our time, proposes polygamy as a solution to some of the ills of the American society at large. He argues that plural marriage may serve as a potential alternative for divorce in many cases in order to obviate the damaging impact of divorce on many children. He maintains that many divorces are caused by the rampant extramarital affairs in the American society. According to Kilbride, ending an extramarital affair in a polygamous marriage, rather than in a divorce, is better for the children, “Children would be better served if family augmentation rather than only separation and dissolution were seen as options.” Moreover, he suggests that other groups will also benefit from plural marriage such as: elderly women who face a chronic shortage of men and the African Americans who are involved in man-sharing.

In 1987, a poll conducted by the student newspaper at the university of California at Berkeley asked the students whether they agreed that men should be allowed by law to have more than one wife in response to a perceived shortage of male marriage candidates in California. Almost all of the students polled approved of the idea. One female student even stated that a polygamous marriage would fulfill her emotional and physical needs while giving her greater freedom than a monogamous union. In fact, this same argument is also used by the few remaining fundamentalist Mormon women who still practice polygamy in the U.S. They believe that polygamy is an ideal way for a woman to have both a career and children since the wives help each other care for the children.

It has to be added that polygamy in Islam is a matter of mutual consent. No one can force a woman to marry a married man. Besides, the wife has the right to stipulate that her husband must not marry any other woman as a second wife. The Bible, on the other hand, sometimes resorts to forcible polygamy. A childless widow must marry her husband’s brother, even if he is already married (see the “Plight of Widows” section), regardless of her consent (Genesis 38:8-10).

It should be noted that in many Muslim societies today the practice of polygamy is rare since the gap between the numbers of both sexes is not huge. One can, safely, say that the rate of polygamous marriages in the Muslim world is much less than the rate of extramarital affairs in the West. In other words, men in the Muslim world today are far more strictly monogamous than men in the Western world.

Billy Graham, the eminent Christian evangelist has recognized this fact: “Christianity cannot compromise on the question of polygamy. If present-day 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.”

It is of interest to note that many, non-Muslim as well as Muslim, countries in the world today have outlawed polygamy. Taking a second wife, even with the free consent of the first wife, is a violation of the law. On the other hand, cheating on the wife, without her knowledge or consent, is perfectly legitimate as far as the law is concerned! What is the legal wisdom behind such a contradiction? Is the law designed to reward deception and punish honesty? It is one of the unfathomable paradoxes of our modern ‘civilised’ world.

Polygamy in the West

We deem it necessary to give a brief account of polygamy in Europe during the Middle Ages, as described by an eminent Western historian. This account should convince those who criticize the East for polygamy that in spite of all its defects it is much more dignified than what existed in Europe.

Will Durant in his book, History of Civilization, vol.17, gives an interesting account of the state of morality in Italy during the renaissance. We give below a summary of what he has said under the heading ‘Morals in Sexual Relations’.

In the course of his brief introduction he says that before describing the morals of the laity it may be pointed out that by nature man is polygamous. Only strict moral restrictions, an adequate amount of hard work and poverty, and a continuous vigilance of the wife can compel him to maintain monogamy.

Then he says that adultery was not uncommon during the Middle Ages, prior to the Renaissance. As during the Middle Ages the guilt of adultery was extenuated by chivalry, similarly, during the Renaissance period, it was watered down among the educated classes by the craving for the polished manners and the refined spirit of the females. Girls belonging to respectable families were, to a certain extent, kept segregated from the males not connected with their own family and were taught the merits of pre -marital chastity. Sometimes these instructions were exceptionally effective. It is reported that a young woman, after being assaulted, drowned herself. That must have been an exceptional case, because a bishop took the trouble of installing her statue after her death to commemorate her chastity.

The number of pre-marital affairs must have been considerable, because there were innumerable children born of illegitimate relations in every town of Italy. It was a matter of pride not to have an illegitimate child, but to have one was not a matter of shame. Usually a husband persuaded his wife at the time of the marriage to bring her illegitimate child with her, to be brought up along with his children. Illegitimacy was not a slur on the reputation of anyone. Furthermore, a certificate of legitimacy could easily be obtained by bribing a clergyman. In the absence of other lawful or eligible heirs, an illegitimate son could inherit property and even a crown, as Frante-I, succeeded Alfonso-I, King of Naples. When in 1459 Pius-II came to Bavaria, he was received by seven princes, all of whom were illegitimate. Rivalry between the legitimate and illegitimate sons was an important cause of a long series of commotions during the Renaissance period. As far as homosexuality is concerned, it was only a revival of the ancient Greek tradition.

San Bernardino found this sort of perversion so common in Naples that he thought it to be threatened with the fate of Sodom. Artino found the perversion equally prevalent in Rome. The same thing can be said about prostitution. In 1490, out of a total population of 90,000, there were 6,800 registered prostitutes in Rome. Of course, this figure does not include clandestine and unofficial prostitutes. According to the statistics of 1509, out of a population of 300,000 of that city, there were 11,654 prostitutes. In the 15th century, a girl who had reached the age of 15 without having a husband, was regarded as a slur on the fair name of her family. In the 16th century, the ‘age of disgrace’ was extended up to 17 years, to enable the girls to receive higher education. Men, who enjoyed all the facilities provided by widespread prostitution, were attracted to marriage only if the woman concerned promised to bring a considerable dowry. According to the system of the Middle Ages, husband and wife were expected to love each other and share each other’s joy and grief. Apparently in many cases this expectation came true, but still adultery was rampant. Most of the marriages of the upper classes were diplomatic unions contracted for political and economic gains. Many husbands regarded it as their right to have a mistress. The wife might feel dejected, but usually connived at the situation.

Among the middle classes, some people thought that adultery was a lawful pastime. Machiavelli and his friends apparently did not feel uneasy about the stories of their unfaithfulness which they exchanged with each other. When in such cases, the wife followed the example of her husband to wreak vengeance upon him, he usually connived at her behaviour and did not feel jealous or perturbed.

This was a specimen of the life of the people who regard polygamy as an unpardonable crime of the East and have occasionally blamed its climate for this supposedly inhuman custom. As far as their own climate is concerned, it does not allow them to be unfaithful to the wives and to exceed the limits of monogamy!

By the way, it should be remembered that the absence of lawful polygamy among the Europeans, whether good or bad, has nothing to do with the religion of Christ, who never prohibited it. On the other hand, it confirms the rules of the old Testament, which expressly recognize polygamy. Thus we can say that, in fact, the religion of Christ allows polygamy, and the ancient Christians have actually practiced it. Hence, the legal abstinence of the Europeans from it must have some other reason or reasons.

Modern man and polygamy

Modern man is averse to polygamy, not because he wants to be content with one wife, but because he wants to satisfy his sense of variety by indulging in unlimited adultery, for which ample facilities are available. Sin and not fidelity has taken the place of polygamy. That is why modern man is opposed to plurality of wives which commits him to many duties and responsibilities, financial and otherwise. In the past, even for a licentious man, opportunities of sin were limited. That is why he had to take recourse to polygamy and, in spite of evading many duties, he still had to shoulder certain responsibilities in respect of his wives and children. The modern man who has ample opportunities of enjoyment does not see any necessity of making the least commitment. Hence he is averse to polygamy.

The modern man employs women as secretaries, typists etc. for his enjoyment, and credits the expenses to the account of the government, his firm or any other organization in which he may be working, without having to pay a single penny from his own pocket.

The modern man changes his mistress after every few days without undergoing any formalities of dower, maintenance and divorce. M. Tshombe was vehemently opposed to polygamy, but he always had a young, beautiful secretary at his side whom he changed every year. With such possibilities there is evidently no need to countenance polygamy.

We read in the life account of Bertrand Russell, who was a severe opponent of polygamy, that two women, besides his grandmother, played an important role in his life. One was his wife, Alice, and the other was his sweet-heart, Morrel. Morrel who was one of the most prominent women of that period, was on friendly terms with a number of the writers of the early 20th century. Evidently such a man could not support polygamy.

Apparently it was Russell’s extra marital love which put an end to his relations with Alice. He himself writes that one afternoon, while he was going on a bicycle to a summer resort in the suburbs, he suddenly felt that he no longer loved Alice.

Polygamy prohibited, homosexuality permitted!

The British Government instead of acting upon the advice of Lord Russell and solving the problem of unmarried woman has taken a step in the opposite direction. It has more than ever deprived woman of the male sex by legalising homosexuality. At present polygamy is prohibited in Britain, but homosexuality is lawful.

In the eyes of the British people it is inhuman to have a woman as a second wife. But if the second “wife” happens to be a male, then there is no harm. They regard homosexuality to be a dignified act in conformity with the requirements of the 20th century. According to the verdict of the British authorities, plurality of wives is not objectionable provided the wives other than the first one have whiskers. It is said that the Western world has solved the sexual and family problems, and we should follow its example. This is how it has solved them.

This Western action is not surprising in the least, for it is a logical outcome of the way the West is going.

What is surprising is that our people, especially the educated young men, have lost their power of independent thinking and analysing problems. They have lost their personalities. They are too credulous. If they have a diamond in their hand and the people from the other side of the world say it is a walnut, they throw it away. But if they see a walnut in the hand of an alien and are told that it is diamond, they readily believe that.

Islam and Polygamy

Islam neither invented polygamy (for it had been in existence for centuries before the inception of Islam), nor did it abolish it, for there existed no other solution of certain social problems. Islam only reformed this ancient custom.

Limitations

Before Islam, one could have an unlimited number of wives and could form a harem. Islam prescribed a maximum limit. It did not allow anyone to have more than four wives. Those who had more than four wives at the time of embracing Islam were required to release the extra wives.

We come across the names of several such people in the early history of Islam. A man named Ghaylan bin Aslamah had ten wives. Another man named Nawfal bin Mu’awiyah had five. The Holy Prophet ordered them to part with their extra wives.

The Shi’ah traditions report that during the days of Imam Sadiq (P) a Zoroastrian embraced Islam. He had seven wives. The Imam was asked as to what that man should do with his wives. The Imam said that he must part with three.

Justice and equal treatment

Another reform introduced by Islam was the condition of giving equal treatment to all the wives. Islam does not allow any discrimination between the wives or between their children. The Holy Qur’an expressly says: “If you [ear that you will not do justice (to them) then have one only”. (Surahan-Nisa,4:3)

The Pre-Islamic world observed equality neither between the wives nor between their children. We have already quoted Christenson and others who say that during the Sassanian period polygamy was customary in Iran. One or more wives were called favourite wives and they enjoyed full rights and others known as servant-wives had lesser legal rights. Only the male children of the servant-wives were recognised to be the members of the paternal family.

Islam abolished all such customs and usages. It does not allow any wife or her children to be regarded as inferior to the other wife or children of her husband.

Will Durant in his book, History of Culture, Vol. I, says:

“When a person accumulated wealth he feared that if it would be divided among all his children, each one of them would receive only as small portion of it. So he felt anxious to make a distinction between his real and favourite wife and other mistresses to enable the children of the real wife only to inherit from him.”

This shows that in the ancient world discrimination between the wives and between their children was common. Anyhow, surprisingly enough Will Durant adds: “Till recently this continued to be the case in Asia. Gradually the real wife took the position of the sole wife. Other wives either disappeared or became clandestine mistresses.”

Will Durant did not take notice of the fact, or he did not want to do so, that 14 centuries ago Islam abolished discrimination between the children. To have one real wife and several secret concubines is a European and not an Asian custom. It has only lately infiltrated into Asia.

Anyhow, the second reform which Islam introduced in the domain of polygamy was the abolition of discrimination between the wives and between their children. No form of favouritism with any particular wife is permissible. Almost all jurists are unanimous on this point. Only a few minor juristical schools have interpreted the rights of women in a way that smacks of discrimination. But there is no denying the fact that their view is in contradiction with the correct interpretation of the Qur’anic passage. The Holy Prophet is reported by both the Shi’ah and the Sunnis to have said: “He who has two wives but does not treat them equally and shows leaning towards one of them, will be raised on the Day of Resurrection in such a state that one side of his body will be dragging along the ground. He will eventually go to Hell”.

Justice is the greatest moral virtue. To prescribe the condition of justice and equal treatment means that the husband is required to be in possession of the highest moral qualities. As the feelings of man in respect of all his wives usually are not the same, observation of justice and abstinence from unequal treatment is one of his most onerous duties.

We all know that the Holy Prophet, during the last ten years of his life, that is, during the period of his stay in Madina, married several women. This was a period of Islamic wars and at that time the number of women, who had nobody to look after them, was quite large. Most of the wives of the Prophet were widowed and aged. Several of them had children by their former husbands.

The only maiden he married was Ayesha, who often proudly said that she was the only woman whom no husband other than the Prophet, had ever touched.

The Holy Prophet, always gave strict equal treatment to all his wives and never discriminated between them. Urwah bin Zubayr was a nephew (sister’s son) of Ayesha. He inquired of his aunt as to how the Holy Prophet treated his wives. Ayesha said that he treated them with justice and complete equality.

He never gave preference to anyone of them over anyone else. Almost daily he called on every wife and inquired after her health etc. He passed the night with one wife, turn by turn. If by chance he wanted to pass a night with another wife, he formally came to the wife whose turn it was and took her permission. If the permission was given, he would go, otherwise he would not. Ayesha said that she personally declined to give permission as and when he asked for it.

Even during his last illness which led to his death and when he was too weak to move, the Holy Prophet scrupulously adhered to the principle of equality in his treatment with his wives. His bed was shifted from one room to another daily. At last, one day he called all his wives and asked them to permit him to stay in one room. With their permission he stayed in the room of Ayesha.

At the time when he had two wives, Imam Ali (P) was so particular that he performed even ablution before prayer (wuzu) in the house of the wife whose turn was there.

Islam attaches so much importance to the principle of justice and equality in treatment that it does not allow the husband and the second wife to enter into an stipulation at the time of their marriage, by which the second wife agrees to live on unequal terms with the first wife. This means that it is an obligatory duty of the husband to treat each wife on terms of strict equality, and that he cannot renounce this responsibility by entering into a prior agreement with anyone of his wives. All that the second wife can do is to forego some of her rights for practical purposes. But no such condition can be stipulated, nor is it possible that she should not have equal rights. Similarly, the first wife also can voluntarily forego some of her rights for practical purposes, but she cannot formally renounce them.

Once Imam Baqir (P) was asked whether by mutual consent it could be stipulated that the husband would visit one of his wives only once a week or once a month, or that the maintenance allowance of one wife would not be equal to that of another wife. The Imam said that such stipulations were not valid even with the consent of any wife. By virtue of marriage, every wife was entitled to full marital rights. All that she could do was to forego some or all of her rights after marriage, either to please her husband or for some other reason.

With all these strict moral conditions polygamy becomes a duty instead of being a means of pursuit of pleasure. Pursuit of pleasure and licentiousness are possible only in an atmosphere of complete freedom to pursue one’s desires. But where there is a question of discipline, justice and duty, there can be no room for lewdness.

Those who indulge in licentiousness under the pretext of polygamy misuse an Islamic law and the society has every right to call them to account and punish them.

Apprehension of not doing justice

To be fair, it must be admitted that the number of those, who observe in letter and spirit all the conditions laid down by Islam in respect of polygamy, is very small. According to the Islamic law, if a man apprehends that the use of water may be harmful to him he should not perform ablution for prayers, and if he apprehends that fasting may be harmful to him he should not keep fast. You come across many people who inquire of you whether they should or should not perform ablution, or whether they should or should not keep fast, for they apprehend that performing ablution or keeping fast might be harmful to them. Such inquiries are in order. Such people should not perform ablution and should not keep fast.

But the Holy Qur’an specifically says that if you fear that you will not treat your wives equally, you must have only one wife. Still you do not come across a single person who may say that he apprehends that he might not be able to treat two wives equally, and may inquire whether in his circumstances he should or should not have a second wife. It is evident that some people knowing well that they will not be able to do justice, still have several wives. They do so under the cloak of Islamic law. These are the people who bring a bad name to Islam by their unworthy action.

Last Updated on November 13, 2000

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