This article is not put together in defense of polygyny (plural marriage) for Allah has already confirmed its validity as clearly stated in the Noble Quran: “Marry of the women that please you, two, three or four, but if you fear that you will not be able to deal justly with them, then only one.” Moreover, the Prophet (pbuh) demonstrated in detail how polygyny should be put into practice by his divinely guided lifestyle.
Polygyny was the practice of most of the major companions of the Prophet (pbuh) as well as many outstanding Muslim scholars from the earliest time of Islam up to the present. Polygyny was also practised among a portion of the general masses in most Muslim countries before and after the advent of European colonization.
In fact, it is only in recent times (early twentieth century) that a loud new cry has been raised by non-Muslims attacking the institution of marriage in Islam due to its recognition of polygyny and the ease with which divorce may be obtained. They propose the replacement of the Islamic form of marriage with restrictive impractical monogamy practiced in the West, arguing that it is the only just and civilized form of marriage. However, to this day, polygyny continues to be practised by some Muslims throughout the Muslim world.
Having said that, however, there are a few points raised by the opponents of Islam which should be answered. Firstly, among these is the totally erroneous claim that Christianity’s introduction of monogamy not only protected the rights of women but also had a civilizing effect on the world in the realm of human relations. First of all, it should be noted that there are no scriptural accounts of Jesus prohibiting polygyny, and early Christians were polygynous, following Jewish tradition. Some of the Church Fathers accused the Jewish rabbis of sensuality, yet not a single church council in the early centuries opposed polygyny nor was any obstacle placed in the way of its practice. In fact, St. Augustine declared openly that he did not condemn it. Luther, on occasion, spoke of it with considerable toleration and was known to have approved the bigamous status of Philip of Hesse. In 1531, the Anabaptists openly preached that a true Christian must have several wives. There was even a time in 1650 when some of the Christian leaders resolved that every man should be allowed to marry two women. It is also recorded that the German reformers, even as late as the sixteenth century, admitted the validity of a second and third marriage contemporaneously with the first in default of issue and other similar causes. In fact, it was only after Christianity was revised according to Paulian doctrines that concepts of monogamy were introduced into Christian philosophy in order for it to conform to Greco-Roman culture. Greece and Rome had evolved an institutionalized form of monogamy in societies where the majority of the population were slave women who could be used freely for sexual purposes. Hence what was termed monogamy in theory was in fact unrestricted polygamy.
Secondly, along with the development of monasticism there arose a philosophy which regarded every gratification of the sexual impulse with suspicion and disgust. For those who chose celibacy or self-denial as their way of life, the greatest challenge was their own sexual desires. The writings of early monks are filled with their descriptions of dreams in which they are tormented by beautiful and alluring women. Many Christian saints were reported to have been convinced that they were tempted at night by voluptous and lascivious female demons called succubi that tormented them. While nuns and other Christian women, on the other hand, asserted that they were visited at night by equally alluring beings called incubi who had sex with them. Women were despised and blamed for corruption based on Eve’s supposed submission to the Devil and her subsequent encouragement to Adam to eat from the forbidden tree. Some Christian scholars of the past even interpreted the forbidden tree as sex itself. The following are statements of canonized saints of Christianity concerning women: “Woman is the daughter of falsehood, a sentinel of Hell, the enemy of peace; through her Adam lost paradise (St. John Damascene)”. “Woman is the arm of the Devil, her voice is the hissing of the serpent (St. Anthony)”. “Woman has the poison of an asp, the malice of a dragon (St. Gregory the Great)”. Hence, sex was looked upon as an evil impulse necessary for procreation but despised for pleasure. And, the acceptable form of marriage was reduced to the simplest possible terms, monogamy.
The question remains why a male-dominated society should be so opposed to polygyny when such a large number of its married members practise a form of it by engaging in illicit or casual relationships. Some males self-righteously assert that monogamy is maintained to protect the rights of women. But, since when has the western male been concerned about women’s rights? Western society is riddled through and through with socio-economic practices which oppressed women and led to the upsurge of women’s liberation movements in recent years, from suffragettes of the early nineteen hundreds to those of recent times.
The reality is that monogamy protects the males right to play around without any responsibility, since the incidence of infidelity among them is usually much higher than among females. The birth control pills and easy access to abortions opened the door to illicit sex and the female became tempted to join in the fun. Inspite of her natural and general inclination towards meaningful relationships, she became caught up in the so-called sexual revolution. However, she is still the one who suffers from the side effects of the pill, coil and the loop or the trauma of abortion in much the same way as she suffered in the past the shame of child birth out of wedlock. Meanwhile the male continues to enjoy himself worry free, aside from the recent plagues of venereal disease, herpes and A.I.D.S., which are now causing many to reassess their sexual habits. Males in general continue to be protected by monogamy, while prostitutes, call girls, mistresses, secretaries, models, actresses, store clerks, waitresses and girl friends remain their playground. The fact is that polygyny is vehemently opposed by male-dominated Western society because it would force men to fidelity. It would encourage them to take socio-economic responsibility for the fulfillment of their polygynous desires and provide protection for the weaker members of society, women and children from mental and physical abuse.
Some might argue that if the stigma of illegitimacy were removed, the problem could be solved without having to resort to the legalization of polygyny. However, every child has a natural desire to know its parents and the resulting chaos in ancestry could easily lead to incestuous relationships. Females have a vested interest in institutional polygyny because of the obvious socio-economic protection it provides. For the preponderance of females in the world is an established fact. The death-rate at birth is much higher for boys, and women as a whole live longer than men; not to mention the large numbers of men who die daily in the various wars around the world. Thus, although the ratio may vary from country to country the results are still the same; women outnumber men. This apparent imbalance has been further aggravated by the fact that homosexuality appears to be more frequent among men than among women. Hence there are more females competing for a diminishing number of males. Consequently, there will always remain a large segment of women unable to fulfill their sexual and psychological needs through legitimate means in monogamous societies. Their presence in an increasingly permissive society also contributes to the break down of Western family structure. A strong family structure is an absolute requirement for a strong and a healthy society. And, the only way that the family can remain strong and responsive to the needs of its male and female members is through the Islamic form of marriage of which polygyny is a part.
The Monogamous marriage system, clearly, does not take into consideration the real needs of human society. It limits possibilities for both men and women while claiming to protect the latter. Instead of providing protection for women, it provides a hypocritical shield for men to hide behind while favoring a wife to the detriment of a girl friend or vice versa. Islam has a complete marriage system which takes into account all the human variables and provides men and women with viable options. To deny the validity and legality of polygyny is tantamount to denying the comprehensiveness of the Islamic marriage system and the wisdom of the divine decree. It is not possible that everything in life should happen according to our feelings and desires. Nor is it possible to live without experiencing pain. On the contrary, Allah has stated in the Noble Quran that Muslims shall be tested:
“Be sure that We shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits (of your labor), but give glad tidings to those who are patient.”
“Do men think that they will be left alone on saying, ‘We believe’, and that they will not be tested?”
Neither tests nor pain, whether physical or emotional, can be avoided in this life. Nor can any aspect of the Islamic system be negated merely to justify a particular individual’s or groups’ opinions. Although polygyny may be painful for some women, it is also beneficial for other women and society as a whole. Muslims must accept the whole of Allah’s message and submit to the fact that Allah’s wisdom is superior to our opinions.