Is There A Place for Polygamy In The Modern World? – II
We have established in the previous part of this article that there is only one main verse in Surah al-Nisa (4:3) in the Quran which deals with polygamy. This verse not only mentions the sanction but also highlights the precondition attached to this extraordinary situation.
There are some other verses in the Quran mentioning polygamy but they are specific to Prophet Muhammad (SAW). Nonetheless, they offer guidance in maintaining a balance in relationships within multiple marriages (Quran 4:129).
The Quran allows more than one marriage under some very specific conditions. And so, for instance, a wife being chronically ill, childless or bearing a son or daughter against the wishes of her husband (Quran 42:50) are not valid reasons to indulge in polygamy. Quranic law allows a wife to be replaced through divorce (which has its own laws).
There is no justification for what happened due to the Scriptural “permission” for polygamy in the harems of Baghdad, Damascus, Andalusia and Constantinople in the past. Lane (1989) in his commentary on Arabian society in the Middle Ages gives us a few glimpses. One Muhammad al-Tayib, a dyer of Baghdad (423 AH), is said to have married and divorced more than 900 women!
The Sultan of Qatar, even in the early part of 20th century, married a new wife every month or fortnight; divorced her soon afterwards, and placed her on pension. Times may have changed but polygamy is still rife amongst rich Muslims, particularly in the Middle East.
When the Earth was young, polygamy was perhaps a way of populating it to carry out God’s plan. By the time the Quran was revealed, the world was sufficiently populated so the first restrictions were placed on polygamy. In the post–Vedic periods, polygamy also declined in Hinduism and is now considered immoral. The Church has outlawed polygamy. The State of Israel made monogamy binding upon all Jews following a national rabbinic conference in 1950.
The spirit and the real conception of the Quranic injunction regarding polygamy is that it is the responsibility of a society, not simply about the whims of an individual man. Current laws around polygamy in most Islamic countries, therefore, contradict the essential message of Islam because they permit polygamy in conditions not mentioned or approved by Scripture. Much of this legislation is owed to corrupt clergy and maintained by similar rulers.
Commitment isn’t a lazy business – we essentially choose to give up the bodies of others as a tribute to the one we love. We honour promises that we make if they are important to us.
Among Muslim countries, Tunisia alone explicitly prohibits polygamy. In some countries including Pakistan, written permission of the first wife is required if her husband wishes to marry a second, third or fourth wife. It is overdue that Islamic countries legislate by taking direct guidance from the Quran and address the genuine needs of civilised Muslim societies.
Polygamy should be declared immoral and illegal in Muslim countries unless conditions of horrific conflict prevail, whereupon the relevant states may apply this extraordinary permission granted in the Quran its real spirit.
Muslims have lived in the West and non-Muslim countries for a long time and adhered to monogamy without any dire consequences. It would improve the status and lives of millions of Muslim women if Islamic governments follow suit and update their legislation to reflect the status of women in contemporary society. The alternative is a status quo that deliberately abuses the rights given to women in the Quran.
Multiple marriages continue to be seen as “legalised concubinage” in civilised societies.
“They [think to] deceive Allah and those who believe, but they deceive not except themselves and perceive [it] not.
The writer is a political psychiatrist based in London
M. Aamer Sarfraz is a philosophical psychiatrist based in London.