On Polygamy

A recent radio program on Asian Network Reports Special focused on the increase of polygamy among British Muslim men. Although bigamy is banned in the United Kingdom, according to Islamic Sharia Council, there has been a noticeable increase in the rates of polygamous marriages in the last 15 years.

This became clear to the Sharia Council from the applications for divorce, where 95% were filed by women and 43 of 700 applications cited polygamy as the reason. Moreover, most of the women who cited polygamy come from a Indo-Pakistani background. The types of men mentioned in the report who are polygamous are:

1. conservative Muslims who think that polygamy is not only right but a duty,

2. men who were forced into marriages and are unhappy and who, rather than divorce their first spouse, marry a second wife, and

3. men who have parents living abroad and want someone to care for them.

Of course, this report raises questions about the practice of polygamy, which is often associated with Islam. The Prophet Muhammad is often depicted as a womanizer because he was polygamous later in his life. While polygamy is permitted in Islam, there are clear guidelines and reasons for the practice.

The permissibility of polygamy stems from verse 3, chapter 4 of the Qur’an:

If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two, or three, or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or that which your right hands possess. That will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice.

This verse was revealed after the Battle of Uhud, when many women were widowed. The key term in the verse is “justly.” According to Muslim scholars, men who choose to marry more than one woman are required to be fair and just in their treatment of each of their wives. This means that they must deal equally with all their wives, financially and emotionally. Thus, if there is any possibility that there will be a discrepancy in their treatment of their wives, they are commanded in this verse to have only one wife. Moreover, some scholars say that polygamy should only occur in very specific circumstances (e.g., a widow after war) and that monogamy is really the norm. In other words, it is recognized that polygamy sometimes occurs but it does not need to. They cite another verse in the same chapter to emphasize this point:

Ye are never able to do justice between wives even if it is your ardent desire: but turn not away (from a woman) altogether, so as to leave her (as it were) hanging (in the air). If ye come to a friendly understanding and practice self-restraint, Allah is Oft-Forgiving Most Merciful. (Chapter 4, Verse 129)

When read together, these two verses put a heavy burden on men who engage in polygamy to make sure that they are absolutely fair in their treatment of multiple wives, to the point that it is almost impossible to do so. This is even more relevant in Western contexts where the state prohibits polygamy and only recognizes the first wife, which often means the second wife’s rights are not protected.

The Prophet Muhammad is often depicted negatively because he had multiple wives, but it is important to underscore a few points. First, polygamy is not a practice invented by Islam; rather, it was a common practice in many cultures, including among the pre-Islamic Arabs who did not have any guidelines for the practice. In addition, the Prophet Muhammad was in a monogamous marriage for the first 25 years of his life. He only had multiple wives the last 12 years of his life. All of the marriages in that later period, with the exception of Ayesha, were to women who were widowed or divorced. These marriages provided for these women in a society where male protection was important. Finally, as was the case with many other leaders, some of these marriages helped to cement political bonds. Thus, this image of the Prophet Muhammad as a womanizer is problematic.

While polygamy does occur among Muslim men now, as articulated in the report, I would argue that the vast majority of Muslim men are monogamous. Thus, it is wrong to assume that this is a common practice among Muslim men or that Muslim women in general would accept having a co-wife–because most of the time they do not. I certainly would not.

What do you think of this report? Do you think that the numbers are significant? Do you think that most Muslim men are in monogamous marriages? Are their situations where a polygamous marriage would be acceptable? Should the UK allow Muslim men to engage in polygamy? Please share your comments below.

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