Question: Why Does Islam Allow Polygamy (a man marrying more than one wife)?
One of the most frequently asked questions about Islam is regarding the topic of polygamy. Polygamy is the practice of a man marrying more than one woman. Islam allows a man to marry up to four women at any one time, and there are important reasons for this, which we will try to explain in the following paragraphs.
However, one of the most important concepts we must first understand is that Muslims believe that this is a ruling from God. When God prohibits a certain thing or allows a certain thing, the sincere and practicing Muslim does not argue with the rulings of God. This is because if a person really does believe that there is a God who created everything in existence, and that this God is the most wise, all knowing and most merciful, and that this God has sent us a religion to follow that contains instructions on how we should live our lives, then this person will not hesitate to follow these instructions. This is because God, being the most wise, all knowing and most merciful, certainly knows what is best for us as humans, since God is the one who created us. God wants us to live a happy and peaceful life, and so anything that is prohibited or allowed is made to be so because God knows that it will improve our live and enable us to achieve happiness and fulfillment.
Of course, as human beings, we are always searching for the meaning of things. God created us with a free mind and made us question everything. This is what makes us intelligent beings, and this is what makes us different than animals, as they are driven purely by their instincts and are not able to question or reason. Therefore, Islam encourages Muslims to try to find the wisdom behind all of the teachings of Islam. In fact, in many verses of the Holy Quran, God tells us to ponder upon the verses, and to try to find signs of the wisdom and knowledge of God from these verses. So the answer to this question is simply an attempt to understand the reasons and wisdom of why Islam allows polygamy.
One of the most important questions that we must first answer is this: Does Islam encourage polygamy? The answer is no. Islam merely allows it, but does not encourage it. In fact, Islam discourages from polygamy, because it teaches that a man who is married to more than one woman must achieve a perfect balance between his wives financially and in terms of his time. The Quran explicitly instructs Muslim men that if they are afraid they will not be able to be just between their wives, then they are to marry only one woman. This justice is only achieved if the man is able to provide the same amount of time to each of his wives, and the same material lifestyle. For example, they must live in similar accommodations, have a similar amount of financial support, and the same level of material possessions. Islam prohibits polygamy if a man is not able to achieve this, or if he even fears that he will not be able to achieve this.
But the question remains, even after these restrictions and conditions, why does Islam allow men to marry more than one woman? The fact is that Islam recognizes the reality of the human existence. Islam does not ask people to do something that they are not able to do. This is one of the basic principles of Islam, because it is a religion that is to be fully implemented in a Muslim's life. It is a complete way of life that covers every aspect of the life of the Muslim, and it is suitable for every person, living in every place and in every generation and period of time.
The reality of life is that there are a lot of men who are not monogamous, regardless of their faith. Monogamy is the practice of having only one partner. According to some recent researchers, up to 70% of men cheat on their partners. The rates of women cheating on their husbands were lower. But what is very interesting is that most researchers find that men who cheat on their wives usually give the reason as being a craving for more sex and sexual variation. On the other hand, women usually cite a lack of emotional connection to their husband, or that a stronger emotional connection has developed with the man they are cheating with.
So what does all of this mean? Islam recognizes that men have a stronger drive to have multiple partners than women. This does not apply to all men equally. Some men do not have such a desire, other men are able to control it and live happily with one partner, while others are not able to. Islam wants every man, regardless of which category they fall into, to be able to practice Islam fully and not fall into sin. Once a person falls into a life of sin, and if they feel that they will not be forgiven and there is no way out, they will continue to commit other sins, thinking that they have nothing to lose. In order to prevent this from happening to anyone, Islam allowed polygamy. It is only allowed, not obligated. So those men who are content with one wife can live happily without committing a sin. Those who are able to control this desire, are discouraged from polygamy because it comes with a heavy burden of having to ensure justice and equality between wives, which if it is not achieved will result in sin and punishment on the Day of Judgement. However, for those men who feel it is necessary for them to marry more than one wife, Islam permits them to do so without feeling guilty about it, so they can live a life of honour and dignity like everyone else. They do not have to hide, and they do not have to have secret relationships. They do not have to lie to their first wife or live a second hidden life that no one is to find out about.
At the same time, by making polygamy prohibited except for those who are just between their wives, Islam protects the rights of the wife. If a man finds no other way but to marry a second wife, he must be just with the first wife. He must divide his time equally between the two, meaning that he must spend one night with his first wife, and one night with the second, and alternate in this way. He must provide both wives with similar housing, and the same amount of financial support. If he has children from either or both of his wives, he is fully responsible for them financially and socially, and must be a good father to them and a good husband to their mother. The first wife is not devastated by finding out that her husband has been secretly having an affair for many years. In fact, Islam gives the first wife the right to ask for the divorce if she is not willing to continue with the marriage.
In most societies, affairs do happen, though they happen secretly. As mentioned by the research cited earlier, the majority of husbands in most societies will cheat on their wife with at least one other woman. However, all of this happens secretly. The wife does not find out, unless she discovers some evidence of the affair, which leads to feelings of betrayal and hatred. The other woman having the affair has no rights. The man can have an affair with her and not give her any of his time, emotional or financial attention. He can simply stop seeing her at any time. If he has children from her, he may deny that fact and she may have to go to court to prove he is the father. All these problems do not exist when the Islamic system of polygamy is implemented.
So what about women? Research shows that women also cheat on their husbands, although it happens at a much lower rate. However, as mentioned earlier, women usually cite emotional issues as a reason for them to cheat. Usually, their husbands have lost interest in them, frequently due to their husband having an affair, or being too busy with their work, or travels frequently. In order to take care of this aspect, Islam makes it an obligation on the husband to spend sufficient time with their wife. This is one of the rights of a wife upon her husband in Islam, and nothing justifies taking it away from her, not even spending the time in worship and prayer. Islam also makes it obligatory upon men to treat their wives with the utmost respect, dignity and love. In fact, Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) teaches us that:
"The best of you are those who treat their wives in the best way."
By this, Islam tries to eliminate the reasons for cheating and to maintain the most loving and merciful relationship between the spouses. When such a relationship is maintained, it is very unlikely that either the husband or wife will want to damage it by cheating or by the husband taking a second wife.
But why does Islam not allow women to marry more than one man? Doesn't research show that there is also a high rate of women cheating on their husbands? Well, these statistics simply reflect the fact that the cheating men need partners to cheat with. It is quite often that a man will initiate an affair. Rarely does a woman make the first move, especially if the woman has a strong emotional relationship with her husband. On the other hand, men are usually driven to commit adultery by their sexual desire, even if they have a good relationship with their wife at home. This is also one of the reasons for Islam requiring both men and women to dress modestly, and not to flirt with each other, because this is how the majority of affairs begin.
Another point to consider is the complexity of the family structure that would result if women were also allowed to marry more than one man. First, it would be difficult to determine the father of any children that such a woman would have. Recently, DNA testing can be used to determine this. However, it is inevitable that conflicts will arise disputing DNA test results, and some will even forge DNA results to prove their case. Polygamy does not have this problem, because the mother can always be easily determined, and each mother is married to only one man. This makes it easy to determine with full certainty whom the two parents of the child are. Also, conflicts between the multiple husbands of a single woman would frequently turn to violence, which would likely lead to increases in violent crime. This is less common between multiple wives of a single man, because women do not usually resort to violence as quickly or as frequently as men. Additionally, the family structure becomes impossibly complex if both men and women are allowed to marry multiple spouses. Endless chains of people could be engaged in a huge marital relationship. For example, if a man marries four women, and each of those women marries four men, there would be 21 people in this family! If those men are also married to four women each, the family gets even bigger! And this marital chain can continue with no end, resulting in a complex situation that would not be manageable. Would all of their children be considered step-brothers and sisters? Would it be appropriate for those children to marry amongst each other? Who would inherit from whom? Clearly, the disadvantages of such a system would be immense, and would clearly outweigh any possible benefits.
Some may ask, what about the emotional distress that polygamy causes for women, specifically for a woman whose husband has just married a second wife? As mentioned earlier, Islam obligates upon men to treat their wives with the utmost of kindness, love and mercy. However, there are situations that occur where the husband and wife are simply not getting along. There are situations where irreconcilable differences arise between the husband and wife. This is why Islam permits divorce, even though in Islam divorce is considered to be the most frowned upon of all permissible actions. It is strongly discouraged, but Islam realizes that in some situations, it is really for the best. Similarly, Islam does recognize that in some cases, a man will want to have a second partner. Instead of resorting to secret affairs, Islam allows the husband to legally marry a second wife. This second wife must be made aware that the husband is already married, and she is free to accept his marriage proposal or to reject it. Similarly, the first wife must be made aware that her husband married a second wife, and in that case she has the option of asking for a divorce.
Therefore, although it is a painful situation, the woman does have the choice whether she is willing to accept this arrangement or not. It is similar to a man divorcing his wife to marry another woman, it is still a very painful situation. However, Islam allows the option of keeping the first marriage. This may be beneficial for both the first wife and the husband. The first wife can maintain the marital relationship, and will still have all the rights of a wife. The children, if there are any, can still continue to have a family where both parents are present and are still in a loving relationship. And the husband is able to marry the second woman, while not losing his family and his first wife whom he may still love and respect.
In fact, when you consider the complexity of life and the relationships between people, you will find that there are certain cases where polygamy is really the best answer. Nothing in this world is ideal or perfect, and everything has advantages and disadvantages. In some cases, polygamy may be the best answer for some people, in some places and at some times. Since Islam is a religion meant for all people, living in all places and at all times, it allowed polygamy in order to take those cases into account where it is really the best solution.
Consider for example a case where a husband and wife get married, and then it becomes apparent that the wife is not able to have children. Some men may be able to live with this situation. Others may wish to try other medical solutions such as "test tube" babies or having another woman carry the baby for the couple. Others may pursue adoption of an orphan. However, some men will want to have children by a natural birth. This is just a basic human desire and instinct. Without polygamy, such a man either has to live the rest of his life having been deprived of this opportunity to be a father, or would have to divorce his wife and marry another woman who is able to have children. Both are very painful options, especially if he and his wife love each other very much and do not want to be apart. In such a case, polygamy may be a good solution. The man and his wife can maintain their loving marriage. The man can enjoy the feeling of having natural biological children. The wife can also enjoy having children in her life. The second wife that the man will marry and who will bear children for him, she will also be happy to be in a loving marital relationship and for having children of her own. Generally, a woman who has many opportunities for marriage will not accept to be a second wife, and will wait for a proposal from a man who is not yet married. So the second wife will probably be either divorced or widowed, or having other issues that would make it difficult for her to get married. So for her being a second wife is also a great option because she may otherwise have not had the opportunity to get married at all.
Another situation to consider is a man whose wife becomes seriously ill, such that she is not able to have sexual relations with her husband. It is difficult for a man to continue to live for a long period of time without satisfying his sexual needs. In such a case, without polygamy the man will either have to suppress their sexual desire, or they will more likely have an affair, or they will simply have to divorce their sick wife and get married to another woman. All of these options are bad. Polygamy provides an option where the wife can continue to get the love, emotional and physical support of her husband. The husband can continue his loving relationship with his sick wife and provide her all the support he possibly can. At the same time, he is able to fulfill his sexual desire. The second woman, as mentioned previously, will be happy to be married because she may not have had this opportunity otherwise.
One has to also remember that the world is a vast place, and living conditions are completely different between a small village in Africa and life in modern city in North America or Europe. In some societies, children provide support for their tribes and their parents, and so maximizing the number of children is essential. Polygamy is used in those societies, regardless of their faith, in order to achieve this. In fact, some Christian churches in Africa have allowed polygamy or at least have not made it a major issue, because they realize that the societies they are preaching in are not at a stage where it can be given up. There are also other places in the world where brutal wars have been going on for many years, and the life expectancy of men is many years less than that of women, and many young men are killed every day. This results in large numbers of widows and orphans. In those places, it is sometimes not easy or even possible for a woman to work in order to support herself and her children. The only option they have is to practice polygamy in order for those widows and orphans to be taken care of.
Given the previous discussion, it can be seen that the basic rule in Islam is monogamy, which means that each man marries a single woman. However, Islam does permit polygamy in order to accommodate certain circumstances where it is a better option, and as a way to reduce the number of secret affairs and illicit relationships that exist in every society. Islam simply allows these relationships to become legitimate and open, if certain conditions are met, and if the rights and interests of all parties are protected. Therefore, although polygamy is not the ideal situation and in fact may be harmful if not practiced in the proper way, Islam allows it in order to avoid the greater harm of keeping such relationships secret and illegitimate. Polygamy protects the rights of women by giving them the full rights of a wife. Instead of being a secret "mistress" involved in an affair with a man, where the woman whom has no rights, and is in fact kept a "dirty secret" that no one is allowed to find out about, she becomes an honoured wife with all the rights and privileges that come with being a wife. Instead of any children being "illegitimate" and having to possibly resort to the court system to prove who their father is and to get alimony or child support, these rights are protected by the institution of marriage. For these reasons, Islam regards polygamy as being preferable to adultery. So even if polygamy has many disadvantages, it is still a better option than having adultery become common in the society. This is why Islam allows polygamy.