Polygamy In Islam, in the sense of having more than one wife at the same time, has been one of the chief issues due to which severe criticism has been directed against Islam. Non-Muslims decry Islam for permitting polygamy and allowing a man to have up to four wives at the same time, thus debasing women and slighting their status in society.
It should be made clear that polygamy is allowed in Islam only as an exception. It is succinctly so stated in the Glorious Quran (which means): “And if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards orphans, then marry 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) one only.” [Quran 4:3]
This is the only verse in the Glorious Quran that speaks of polygamy and it is evident that it does not enjoin polygamy; it only permits it bound by certain conditions. First, polygamy is allowed permissible in general, but it becomes more recommended only when there are orphans to be cared for by an uncle or a relative, that relative may marry the mother of these orphans if he feels that he cannot do them justice unless he is bound by marriage to their mother.
Such a marriage would enable him to care for the orphans and have free access to them without fearing social slander. This is an acceptable social condition that caters for the welfare of the orphans and the dignity of women.
Another condition is imposed in the same verse, which limits this marriage to the man who feels that he can do justice to his wives. He should provide them with similar dwelling places, similar food and clothing and give them the same physical attention. If he feels unable to do so, he should be satisfied with one wife.
The value of this permission for polygamy becomes evident in times of war when men die on the battlefields and women are left behind to feed and care for their children. Many of these women may not possess the qualifications for the humblest job. The last resort for such women would be prostitution with all its negative physical, social, moral and psychological consequences.
When Islam permits polygamy, it preserves a woman’s dignity and humanity and cares for the social moral and economic well-being of orphans. The same principle applies when the number of women exceeds that of men in society. This would lead to moral depravity, which threatens the very essence of civilization.
It may be argued that the modern State can make other arrangements for the maintenance of widows and orphans. That may be true, but the State cannot provide them with a family life; in Islam, the family is considered the real source from where all the good qualities of love and affection spring, which are the greatest asset of society and civilization. Even if it be “half a home” that the woman and children find in a polygamous family, it is better than having no home at all.
Monogamy is without doubt the right form of life under normal conditions, but when abnormal conditions are brought about by the presence of more females than males monogamy fails, and it is only through a limited form of polygamy that this difficulty is faced.
It may be further argued that polygamy, which has been instituted by Islam as an exception and a remedy, has been largely abused by sensual people. That is true, but there are people in every society who abuse any institution, however necessary that may be to the healthy growth of human society. In countries where polygamy is not allowed, the sensuality of man has invented a hundred other ways of giving vent to his carnal desires and these comprise a far greater threat to the security and welfare of society than the abuse of polygamy.
Rather than debasing women or belittling their status in society as some feminists claim, Islam recognizes the position of women to be equitable to that of man when it comes to worship and accountability. Allah Almighty Says (what means): “And whoever does good deeds, whether male or female, and he (or she) is a believer-these shall enter the Garden.” [Quran 4:124]
In some cases, polygamy is a practical solution and a better alternative. When a man’s wife suffers from a chronic disease and fails to respond to her husband’s physical needs, Islam offers two alternatives: divorce or polygamy. Many wives would commend the second alternative, as it saves them the humiliation of being without any means of income, particularly if they have no jobs to support themselves.
The same thing applies when it is proven that the wife is sterile and the husband longs to be a father. According to Islam, he can divorce his wife or take another wife who can bear him children. The second alternative may prove most convenient to the sterile wife.
The question may be raised, what if the husband is sterile or suffers from a chronic incurable disease, would the wife entertain the same right and have a second husband? The answer is no, for practical reasons. Most of the societies all over the world are patriarchal where the father assumes the leading role. If the mother assumes the lead, this would be a backward step to the savage matriarchal age.
This system is still dominant in a few backward tribes in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Besides the confusion that would prevail in the household as a result of having more than one husband, there would emerge the problem of relating the children to the father, who can decide who is the real father of the child if there are more than one husband? Problems of inheritance and moral values would emerge in due time.
Islam forbids a woman from having more than one husband at the same time. However, if the husband is sterile or suffers from a chronic disease that prevents them from consummating a conjugal life, the wife may ask for divorce and marry another man.
In societies where women outnumber men, there would be two alternatives: polygamy or prostitution. It is natural for every human being to seek a mate for various psychological, social, economic and sexual reasons. If that mate were not available due to certain reasons such as females outnumbering males, monogamy would not solve the difficulty. The supernumerary women would seek physical satisfaction in adultery and economic support in prostitution.
If society permits polygamy, such a woman would enjoy a dignified life where her physical and economic needs are satisfied without losing self-respect or social acceptance. Her children would enjoy the protection and the care of a father. It may be argued that in such case she would have “half a husband”, but that is better than having no husband, no protection and no roof over her head.