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Polygyny has to be one of the greatest bug-bears around today, one that stalks even monogamous Muslims. The corny old stereotype of the “Shaykh” (usually pronounced “Sheek”) or “Pasha” with the well-stocked harem is one that simply will not go away. From movie to novels to kids’ cartoons, the “Moslem” male with anything from two or two hundred wives is all too familiar.


Horror stories abound. Western journalists and researchers love to unearth cases of polygyny gone wrong. Then they can related the tragic tales of neglected first wives, abandoned but not divorced wives “back home.”




It should be pointed out here that the term “polygamy”, which is most commonly used to describe such marriages, in fact may apply to either a man having more than one wife or a woman having more than one husband. It has been pointed out that this word is too vague, [2] especially as Islamic polygamy is quite specific and is for men only: Muslim women are not allowed to have more than one husband at a time. More precise words relating to plural marriage are polygyny (polygamy in which a man has more than one wife) and “polyandry” (polygamy in which a woman has more than one husband). I will use the word polygyny to refer to Islamic polygamy in this discussion. The Arabic term, by the way, is ta‘addud az-zawjaat (literally: plurality of wives).


Polygyny is Part of the Islamic Set-Up


Some Muslims attempt to explain polygyny away as strongly discouraged, because of the verse: “If you fear that you will not be able to deal justly with them, then marry only one.” (Q, 4:3)


Subscribers to this opinion say that no man can ever be 100% fair to two or more wives, so in effect the Qur’an is recommending monogamy. Those who favour plural marriages are equally passionate in defending and advocating the custom. We have to bear in mind the fact that Muslims must accept the undisputed teaching of the religion: “It is not fitting for a believer, man or woman, when a matter has been decided by Allah and His Messenger, to have any option about their decision.” (Q, 33:36)


Whatever our own personal feeling and preferences (and many Muslim women honestly feel that they could not cope with their husband taking another wife), no Muslim can say that polygyny is not allowed. When we take into account the Qur’an, the practice of the Prophet and his Companions, and the writings of Muslim scholars throughout history, we cannot get away from the fact that polygyny is sanctioned by Islam. Both monogamy and polygyny are acceptable within the social framework of Islam, and surely this is an indication of the universality of Islam, the religion which we are always proud of saying is the religion of all times and all places.


Polygyny as Proof of Islamic Universality


Monogamy is supposedly the norm in western cultures (although in fact an enormous amount of hypocrisy exists), and Islam allows for this preference. A Muslim man who has one wife is doing nothing wrong. There are numerous parts of the Muslim world where the overwhelming majority of men have just one wife. On the other hand, in many regions of the world, such as parts of Africa, [3] polygyny is the norm, for complex socio-economic reasons, so in societies where Islam is spreading, converts need not fear that the new religion will require them to tear their families apart, or make the appalling and painful decision to keep just one wife, and divorce the rest. Islam is in direct contrast to the approach of missionaries in Africa, most of whom sought to impose a rigid European monogamy on their neophytes.


Western Hypocrisy


The supposed monogamy of Western cultures, however, is nothing more than a species of hypocrisy, in many instances. Although Christianity preaches “one man, one wife”, many nominally-Christian men are, in fact, polygynous. The “other woman”, “mistress” or “bit one on the side” is an all too familiar figure in the popular mind. Historically, in England, it has always been taken for granted that anyone from the king downwards might have a “kept woman”. Bigamists – such as an individual who had a wife and kids on each side of the river that flowed through his city, all of whom showed up at this funeral and fought for the role for grieving family  – are at the very least regarded as eccentric, but more usually are roundly condemned in literature and newspapers (not to mention being liable to punishment by law), whilst people turn a blind eye to illicit affairs which mistresses. No-one ever expresses much concern towards the wife and legitimate children, who may be devastated when they learn of the unsavoury antics of the husband and father, and all too often have to bear the shame and humiliation in silence.


Islam – as has been point out by many writers – takes hold of the natural urges of human beings, which Allah has created in us for a reason, and limits and channels those energies, setting up safeguard and seeking to preserve the best interest of both individuals and society as a whole.


Fairness (‘Adl) in Plural Marriages


In the case of polygyny, the natural urge of some men to have more than one partner is controlled, and boundaries are set which will allow the man to enjoy more than one relationship whilst not shirking his duties towards each wife and any children that may be born. This urge is thus limited and controlled: a maximum number of wives is set, and there are clear conditions for polygyny: the man should have sufficient financial resources to support a second family, and he should be able and willing to treat both wives equally with regard to all rights given to them by Islam. If he is unable to comply with these conditions, then he should not take a second (or subsequent) wife. Furthermore, strict guidelines are set out by Muslim scholars regarding the time to be spend with each wife, and the provision of food, clothing, shelter, etc. These may be outlined as follows: [4]


Time: The husband with two or more wives is obliged to divide his time equally between his wives; a new may have three or seven days in a row, as a kind of “honeymoon”, then the division of time starts over again. The husband is obliged to include in this rota wives who may be menstruating, bleeding following childbirth, post-menopausal, or ill – including mental illness. This should make it abundantly clear that polygyny is not just about physical pleasures (contrary to popular notions). Scholars emphasise the wives’ human need for companionship and support; a regards the conjugal relationship, they remind us that both husband and wife have an equal and mutual right to satisfaction, but the details to the intimate relationship are something to be kept private, and this is one area which is not for discussion among co-wives or with anybody else.


Travel: If the husband is travelling and can only take on wife with him, he is not allowed to play favourites. He must use an impartial way of deciding who is to accompany him, such as casting lots – which is the way the Prophet made such decisions.


Gifts:  If the husband chooses to buy a gift for one wife, he should give a gift to all his wives, but the gifts need not be identical as tastes and preferences differ. He may give the other wife or wives the monetary value of the gift, or another gift of equivalent value.


Spending: The husband is obliged to provide at least the basics for each wife, according to his means, local conditions etc. However, the spending need not be identical in each case – Philips and Jones give the example of one wife’s refrigerator breaking down whilst the second wife’s fridge is working perfectly well, so money should be spent for the first wife but not, in this case, for the second. Another example is one wife being of a larger size than another, in which case her clothes would necessarily cost more.


Children: The rights of children are considered independently of their mothers. A wife with, say, six children will obviously require larger accommodation and expenditure than a wife with two or no children. As the husband may easily find himself spending more time in the home of a wife with children than one with no children, it is suggest that he take the children out to parks etc., or else take them to the home of the wife to whom his time is allotted, if this is possible (in some plural marriages this is not a problem at all; in other – human nature being what it is – it would cause more problems than it would solve. Each case is unique and the partners involved must make their own decisions).


Common Sense and Maturity


All Muslims are supposed to have a common-sense and mature attitude towards life, but these qualities are extra important to partners in plural marriages. The husband has a responsibility to be fair, but his wives also have a responsibility not to make his life a misery. If the co-wives get along well, then all well and good, but if they do not, they should not be forced to spend time together and “make friends”. A co-wife writing in Islamic Sisters International describes that apart from their husband, she and his other wife have nothing in common; their interest, tastes and personalities are so different that it is better for all concerned parties to keep their distance from one another. [5] It is also unfair and immature to use one’s own children (or those of a co-wife) as pawns in whatever rivalries may exist – leave the children out of it!


Can a Wife stipulate in the Marriage Contract that the Husband May Not Take Another Wife


A question that arises is whether a wife can insert a condition in the marriage contract preventing her husband from taking another wife. There are two opinions among the scholars: one is that a marriage contract should not ban any practice which is allowed in Islam; another view is that the woman is allowed to state terms which protect her rights, including living in her own locality, and stopping her husband from taking another wife. [6]


The Positive Side of Polygyny


Despite all the negative images and horror stories, polygyny can work. I have met sisters who enjoy their “free time” when the husband is with his other family; they use this time to socialise with other sisters, hold or attend study circles, study, read, sew, etc. Maryam Jemeelah, an American convert and author of numerous books, is known to have chosen to be a second wife so that she would be able to continue to study and write. In an ideal situation, the wives can be friends – then there is an inbuilt support system, help with the kids when one wife is sick, etc. A number of accounts written by co-wives describe such close, warm and supportive relationships within plural marriages. [7]




[1] Jan Goodwin, Price of Honor, p. 190 ff.


[2] See Islamic Sisters International, vol. 3, no. 1, Jun/Jul 1994, p. 3.


[3] Abdur-Rahman Doi, Woman in Shariah, p. 60 ff.


[4] For a further discussion (in English) of the issue of justice and fairness in plural marriages, see Bilal Phillips and Jameelah Jones, Polygamy in Islam, chapter 4 “Division in Plural Marriages.


[5] Islamic Sisters International, vol. 3, no. 2, Aug/Oct 1994, p. 31.


[6] Dr. S. M. Darsh, “What You Ought to Know,” Q News, 7-14 April, 1995


[7] See Islamic Sisters International, vol. 3, no. 1, June/July 1994, and vol. 3, no.2, Aug/Oct 1994.


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