Polygyny is a misunderstood or oft-exploited provision in Islam, quite often it is ignorantly portrayed as a form of exploitation of women, yet such portrayal betrays a most superficial view of this provision.
Islam is the only monotheistic religion that puts a limit on the practice of polygyny and places stringent conditions on it. A number of the biblical prophets and messengers of God had a multitude of wives, through the Qur`an, God placed a limit on this practice and allowed men to marry up to four women only. “… Marry what appears good to you of women, two, three and four …” (The Noble Qur`an 4:3)
Before a person may practice polygyny, this person must ensure that he can satisfy the essential requirement, that is, this person must not have a fear that he would not be able to deal justly with them, as the Qur`an states: “… If you fear that you cannot treat them equitably, then one …” (4:3)
In addition to this, the prophet Muhammad peace and blessings upon him stated that any person who has more than one wife and he does not treat them equally, this person will be brought forth on the day of judgement with one side of him inclining. That is, this person will not be able to walk straight. This Hadith further emphasises the essential condition attached to polygyny and that is to treat wives equally.
Whilst conjugal duties are natural expectations from a marriage, from the Islamic perspective, they do not form the main object of marriage. Marriage brings together people on foundations of love, compassion, respect, understanding and a premise that they will be there for one another under difficult as well as happy circumstances. The Islamic understanding of marriage adds a requirement on the husband to provide for his wife even if she is able to independently support herself. Therefore, when a Muslim male takes on a wife, this male takes on the full support of this wife, he must provide for all her living expenses. By the same token, if a Muslim man takes on a second wife, he must also provide for this second wife and must ensure that he provides for her equally. He must spend equally on the second wife and share his time with her equally. The conjugal aspects of the marriage are always private and the husband may not engage in conjugal acts with his wife unless this was in total privacy. He may NOT do so in the presence of another woman. When a devout Muslim male takes on additional wives, he is in fact taking on additional responsibilities, he is not merely marrying to satisfy personal lust. In the circumstances, when a Muslim man takes on an additional wife, he does so out of a sense of social responsibility to ensure that these women have a provider not only financially, but also a husband that provides them with emotional and physical support.
Verse 129 of Chapter four states: “You will never be able to treat women equally even if you try your best, so do not incline completely leaving her in suspense, if you do good and act with consciousness of Allah, Allah is Oft forgiving, Merciful.” Some would claim that this verse is an instruction that husbands cannot treat their wives equally so they should stop at one. Such an interpretation would appear out of context as the preceding and succeeding verses deal with marriage counselling, reconciliation and separation. Hence a better interpretation would be more contextual, to state that this verse is a discouragement to polygyny goes against the practices of the great prophets and messenger of God and against the practices of the righteous predecessors.
Keysar Trad ©