Praise be to Allah, Lord of the worlds, and the most honorable prayer and peace be upon the master of the first and the last, our master, Muhammad, the chosen, the trustworthy, and upon his pious and pure family, his faithful companions, and those who followed them in goodness until the Day of Judgment, may Allah Almighty be pleased with them all.
Since all humans are equal in Islam, as they all were created from the father and mother, Adam and Eve, why are men allowed to have more than one wife, up to four wives, while it is totally haram for women to have more than one husband? Isn’t that against equality?
To answer this question, we need to distinguish between a revealed religion which has certain rules that are set to be compatible with every time and place, and a man-made law which may deal with an incident in a given time and place. The latter may change according to the diversity of incidents; thus, it is strictly legislated to solve a problem in the given time. As for the revealed religion, namely Islam, the situation is different as it is set by Allah, who knows every detail about his creation, and knows what is suitable and what is bad for them. Allah says in the Qur’an, “Shall He who has created (all things) not know? He is the Subtle, the Aware” (suarah 67, ayah 14). Islam is not meant for just Arabs or just Westerners. Islam is meant for all humans who live in cities, villages, deserts and elsewhere.
Polygamy is not only permissible in Islam but also exists in other religions and cultures. Judaism and Mormon interpretations of Christianity are good examples of where we have found polygamy. Jewish King David had multiple wives and concubines, as did Saul. Mormons also have engaged in having multiple wives. Thus, we see polygamy is related to cultures, as it was accepted and practiced in many civilizations in the past and still is in many places in the present time. Islam respected these cultures and made polygamy permissible but not obligatory. Therefore, if a culture does not support polygamy, then there is no compulsion to engage in it. Men can respect the local laws and customs and live with one wife.
But as Islam did not coerce anyone to practice polygamy, according to Islam, no one should be allowed to prevent it as well. Diversity is respectable, and Allah created us diverse to know each other, as Allah says in the Qur’an, “People, We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes that you might know one another. The noblest of you before Allah is the most righteous of you. Allah is the Knower, the Aware” (surah 49, ayah 13).
For someone to be from a different culture does not give him or her the right to condemn other cultures as right and wrong, as these views may be relative in such aspects. For instance, modern Western culture allows men to have multiple wives, just not at once, which is achieved by divorcing and remarrying, sometimes repeatedly. Islam also allows divorce, but by allowing for polygamy it provides a different and we believe more just solution than divorce for men who want more than one woman.
Historically, we must also note that Islam came at a time when the culture in Arabia was allowing polygamy without any conditions. A man could have as many women as he wanted, which certainly lead to injustices. As a result, Islam did not forbid polygamy, but it put certain conditions for a man to practice it. First of all, he must have the financial and sexual ability to marry more than one woman. Second, it is forbidden to marry more than four women in the same time. Third, the man has to treat all his wives equally, but if he knew that he could not treat them equally, then he must have only one wife. Allah says in the Qur’an, “If you fear that you cannot act justly towards the orphans, then marry such women as seem good to you; two, three, four of them. But if you fear that you cannot do justice, then one only” (surah 4, ayah 3). Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, warned the man who is not just to his wives. He said, “Anyone who has two wives and inclines to one of them will come on the Day of Resurrection with a side (of his body) inclining” (Abu Dawud, 2133). Some modern scholars explained this hadith and said that the man who has two wives or more and inclines to one of them will come in the Day of Resurrection suffering from hemiplegia (paralysis of one side of the body).
Let us now deal with this issue logically. There are often more women than men, particularly in the past, following times of war. This is due to many factors, such as male children dying more often than female children due to their fragility, and men being killed in war is the most predominant factor, as most of the victims are men rather than women. Thus, there are times and places where there are not enough husbands for all the women. Some women want very much to marry, have a sex life, and to have children, but if there are not enough men available to marry, they will be sexually frustrated and grieving and may be tempted to have sinful relations. To achieve their goals and to live in piety, they may not mind being a second or a third wife of a successful man. Justice is to give such women the right to satisfy their longings, as it is their personal choice, and they have the full right to accept or reject this choice. Legislating certain rules that forbid polygamy thus limits their legitimate options to also have a pious sex life, children, and family.
If Islam gave men the right to have more than one wife, why didn’t it also permit women to have more than one man? No one can read the mind of Allah the all-knowing, but we can trust that Allah, who created man and woman, knows better what is good for man and what is good for woman. It could be that Islam, which also asserts on the integrity of the family and made it obligatory to respect the child’s right to have a father whom he knows, would thus not accept a mother who has many partners. For example, if a child’s mother has four men, how can we know who is his father? Some might say through DNA testing, but DNA testing is not 100% accurate, so we still have a margin of uncertainty. There is another possible reason which is related to the psychology of men and women. Men may more easily engage in sexual relations with more than one woman while still very much loving each of them, while women, in general, find it harder to do so unless they cease to love the other. This may be an ingrained trait of women to attach to and strongly bond with the man with whom they are risking a pregnancy, as they will likely need his support if a pregnancy results. Men have no such risk when they engage in sex for pleasure alone, not worrying into the future about their potential to become dependent on their partner should a pregnancy result. In any case, we cannot know for sure why Allah did not give this right to women, but we must respect that he did not.
We should note that a man who takes a second, third or fourth wife is not to do it in secret. Marriage is a public affair and each wife and family deserves to be viewed openly as married to the man who takes multiple wives. Likewise, his wife may reject the idea and divorce him over it, so there are risks to him in taking this route. Likewise, as the Quran accurately noted, it is difficult for a man to be impartial and fair and he will be judged by Allah if he fails to keep his sexual life within the confines of marriage, even multiple marriages and be fair to all of his families, and that is why scholars says that polygamy is to solve a problem, not to create one!
Finally, if we think that monogamy can be achieved through strict rules and harsh legislations, then we might be wrong. We know that forbidden relationships occur even when strict rules are in place. Additionally, “The Monogamy Myth” by Peggy Vaughan found that about 75% of men in the West cheated on their wives at least once after marriage although other studies find that women also cheat, about half as often as men. This is considered a major sin in Islam. Islam pays special attention to family in specific, and society in general, and legislated many rules to protect their integrities, including giving a provision for multiple sexual partners to men only to occur with strict rules to contain the man who might otherwise cheat on his wife. Allowing a man to have multiple wives can protect all the women involved. If the man engages in polygamy rather than cheating, each of the woman involved has rights and children are born from such liaisons legitimately into a marriage and family and each wife and family should be equally respected by the man and the community surrounding them, according to Islam.
Marriage is a divine relation, and only Allah knows its spiritual implications on humans and societies, and He told us to follow his path to have a prosperous and clean life, and He warned us from following the steps of Satan. Allah says in the Qur’an, “Believers, do not follow in the steps of Satan, for those who follow the steps of Satan, he bids to indecency and dishonor. But for the bounty of Allah to you, and His Mercy no one of you would ever have been purified; but Allah purifies whom He will; Allah is the Hearer, the Knower” (surah 24, ayah 21). This is the path of Allah, and we have the choice to believe or disbelieve, as Allah says, “Say: ‘This is the truth from your Lord. Let whosoever will, believe, and whosoever will, disbelieve it. ‘ For the harm doers, We have prepared a Fire, the pavilion of which encompasses them. When they cry out for relief, they shall be showered with water as hot as molten copper, which will scald their faces; how evil a drink, and how evil a resting place” (surah 18, ayah 29). Thus we must take seriously Islam’s provisions for a moral sexual life, limited to within marriage, including multiple marriages for men, lest we suffer the punishments of Allah in the afterlife for failing to do so.
Praise be to Allah, Lord of the worlds