Polygamy and the Quran

Published August 6, 2010

IF polygamy were something to be encouraged and supported in God's scheme of things the ratio of men to women throughout history would not have relatively remained the same.

The Arabic word for spouse in the Quran is zawj, meaning one of a pair. This word is applied even to a pair of shoes or socks. A husband is the zawj of the wife and the wife is the zawj of the husband. As a rule, and like in all pairs, husband and wife are supposed to be one each in number. It is only in exceptional situations that this rule is allowed to be broken.

In his book Fiqh-ul-Quran, Maulana Umar Ahmed Usmani says that in Surah Al Nisa it is stated that God created mankind from one nafs and created its mate from it and then produced from them an unlimited number of men and women (41). Even at the time when there was a need to multiply in order to populate the earth, only one man and one woman were created. He also says that the verses about polygamy were revealed in connection with an increase in the number of women because of battles which left many widows and female orphans behind.

We will have to look at the verse in the Quran which is said to sanction polygamy. Surah Al Nisa, verse 3, was revealed after the battle of Uhud in which 70 out of a total 700 men were martyred. The problem of widows and orphans, especially orphaned young women, reached an alarming proportion.

The traditional translation and interpretation of this verse is “If you feel you cannot be just to orphan [girls], then marry [other] women of your choice, two, or three, or four. But if you fear you cannot treat them with equity, then marry only one” (43). Maulana Usmani thinks there is no indication of 'other women' in the original. These verses were also revealed to limit the maximum number of wives to four. According to some, this verse can be said to limit the number of wives to one.

Later, in the same Surah mention is made of 'yatama an-nisa' or orphaned women“Whatever is recited to you in the Book about orphaned women, whom you do not give their rightful dues yet desire to marry, and about young children, that you should remain steadfast in the matter of yatama” (4127). The word yatama is also applicable to widows, or those women who do not have a supporter or a guardian.

According to the Arabic-English Lexicon, amatun means, “she became bereft of her husband by his death ... and remained without marrying.” Imam Abubakr Razi says that the word yateem is sometimes used for the child who is left fatherless and sometimes for the woman who, either because of her husband's death or due to being divorced, is left single. Even aged women who have lost their husbands are called yateema.

According to Maulana Usmani, in the light of the above definition of yateema, if we go back to look at verse 3 of Surah Al Nisa, we understand it means that if you cannot be just to the yateema in your charge, then marry the yateema not in your charge, up to four.The use of al nisa makes 'the women' definite, that is 'those already mentioned.' Usmani also thinks that this permission of polygamy is conditional upon social conditions, such as providing homes to the yateema.

The Prophet's (PBUH) wife Ayesha related that before these revelations, the guardians would be attracted to female orphans who were rich and beautiful. They would want to marry them for the least possible mehr. The Quran forbade them from marrying such girls since they did not plan to be just to them. When we look at the example of the Prophet (PBUH) we find that except for Hazrat Ayesha, all of his wives were yateema, or women who had lost their husbands.

In the case of taking more than one wife, the conditions of equal treatment are stated clearly “You do not possess the power to treat your wives equally, even if you try. So do not become totally absorbed in one, leaving the other suspended” (4129). Concern is shown at every step for women so that the conditional concession of polygamy might not be misused against them.

From the above verses it can be concluded that monogamy remains the ideal while polygamy is discouraged and is only a special concession in a stressful situation, especially to provide security to the yateema the orphans, divorcees and the widows.

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