The History of Polygamy and the Interpretation of Islamic Verses Supporting It

Categories: IslamPolygamy

Islam is one of the religions that encourages marriage and pushes enabled males to do so. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said, “Marriage is my tradition and whoever stays away from it is not from amongst me”(Bukhari). Marriage is the ultimate rule of God that everyone should strive to follow, as humans and other creatures were created in pairs (Zawj). Marriage acts as an outlet to satisfy love and affection feelings of both sexes as well as to establish a family that is the fundamental unit of forming societies.

However, Islam is one of the religions that does not permit any intimate relationships outside the marriage bond. Islam allows polygamy and restricts it to four women per man. It was only mentioned once in the Quran and followed by other verses to explain the certain rules and restrictions that come with it. For instance, the concept of justice extends into finance, place to live, gifts and kindness, and respectful treatment. In the following essay, we will explore the history of polygamy before and after Islam, verses that support polygamy and different interpretations of them.

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Also, we will cover advantages and disadvantages of polygamy and the many marriages of Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H).

History of Polygamy

The practical definition of polygamy is “marriage in which a spouse of either sex may have more than one mate at the same time” (Mariam Dictionary). Polygamy is a practice that has existed in many civilizations before Islam such as ancient Greece and Egypt. In fact, polygamy was practiced in Judaism and Christianity.

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For instance, most of the old testament prophets were polygamous including Abraham, David, and Solomon. The prohibition of polygamy came in the 11th century in Judaism. In Christianity, certain sects favor polygamy and view it positively. In The year 1531, Anabaptists preached that “who he wants to be a true Christian must have several wives” and the Mormons are known to treat polygamy as a divine institution (Badawi, 2012). When Islam emerged in Arabia, it was a tribal, Arab population where it was popular for men to have as many wives as they want. The concept of marrying four women was introduced later when Islam became strong and was eventually introducing the prohibition of alcohol, and gambling. Islam allowed polygamy for men and limited it to four women per man, but under certain rules and conditions. The verse of polygamy was revealed after the battl of Uhud, where a lot of Muslims soldiers were killed. The number of widows and orphans was high. In this context, this verse was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H) to protect the widows and children from being treated unjustly. For instance, survivors were allowed to marry more wives to provide for them and protect them (Mashhour, 2005).

The Interpretations of the Polygamy Verse In Quran

Polygamy was mentioned once in Muslim’s holy book, the “Quran”, in Al- Nisa chapter  “Marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if ye fear that ye cannot do justice (to so many) then one (only) or (the captives) that your right hands possess.” (Quran 4:3).  This verse was interpreted by many scholars and concluded many valuable facts out of it. First, polygamy is neither mandatory, nor encouraged, but merely permitted. Second, the practice of polygamy is not associated with satisfaction of passion. It is rather associated with compassion toward widows and orphans, a matter that is confirmed by the atmosphere in which the verse was revealed. Third, dealing justly with wives is an obligation which includes housing, food, clothing and gentle treatment (Mashhour, 2005).

Another verse was followed by this verse that talked specifically about justice between wives in the same chapter: “And you will never be able to be equal [in feeling] between wives, even if you should strive [to do so].”  In this verse, God addresses the fact that feeling is uncontrollable and men could find themselves attracted to one woman more than the others. Furthermore, Quran advises the husband to try his best to be fair in his feelings between his wives.  Another interpretation made by Azizah Al- Hibari stated that if you can be just among women, then you can marry up to four women. However, If you cannot be just among women, then you may marry one woman. Then Quran stated that you could not be just and fair among women. Therefore, the logical conclusion is that you marry only one wife.

One famous rule (fatwah) based on the scholarly studying of Islam- made by Ibn Tayymiah, one of the outstanding jurists in the Islamic world stated that he does not validate the marriage until the husband ensures fair distribution of marital support. In addition, he said that it is better to let go of undesired wife, rather than leaving her restrained in an unloving relationship. She can be free to find herself a new husband and start a new life (Nasir, 2008).

The concept of “justice” that is used in the two verses in the Quran is not clearly illustrated. Though, many commentators of the Quran have expanded on this word saying that it means equal treatment in housing, food, traveling and some extend the equality into love which is impossible to accomplish. Hadith “ sayings narrated of Prophet Muhammad,” emphasized the importance of being just between one’s wives. It was narrated that Prophet would divide (his time) equally between his wives and said: “O Allah! This is my division on what I have control over, so do not punish me for what You have control over which I do not have control over.” Prophet gave an example of justice in time (Altermithi, narrated by Anas Bin Malek). Also, The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: When a man has two wives, and he is inclined to one of them, he will come on the Day of Resurrection with a side hanging down [i.e. paralyzed].(Hadith – Sahih Bukhari 3.130, Narrated by Aisha).

The rule of justice dismisses the concept that men can “marry as many as he pleases.” He has to be able to afford to marry other women and provide them with the same amount of money. It also dismisses the concept of “ secondary wife,” as all wives should have the same status and are entitled to the same rights over their husband (Badawi, 2012). Finally, if the husband fails to provide enough support for any of his wives, she has the right to go to the court and ask for a divorce (Al-Jaziri, 2003).

Advantages of Polygamy

No woman would want to share her husband with any other woman. In fact, “Fatimah” prophet Muhammad’s daughter did not like her husband to marry other women. Prophet Muhammad told the story on the pulpit  “Banu Hisham bin Al-Mughira have requested me to allow them to marry their daughter to `Ali bin Abu Talib, but I don’t give permission, and will not give permission unless `Ali bin Abi Talib divorces my daughter in order to marry their daughter, because Fatima is a part of my body, and I hate what she hates to see, and what hurts her, hurts me.” ( Sahih Al-Bukhari 163, narrated by Qutibah).

However, in some situations, polygamy could be the solution to various social and individual problems. Starting with social benefit of polygamy, many anthropologists say that polygamy could have social and economic benefits. In some poor areas in the world, the infant mortality rate is very high, and children are a source of additional labor earning source for the family. Thus, many Christian missionaries in Africa justify their permission to local people to practice polygamy without being excluded from the church. Another problem is women outnumbering men, wars that usually result in many men getting killed. Single women and widows will be aspiring to have a family life and polygamy, in this case, could be a possible solution. Throughout history, polygamy was used to help preserve and increase the number of the population. In the year 1650, Germany allowed men to marry up to ten wives due to the high number of men killed in the thirty years of war. In 2001, the president of Sudan encouraged men to marry more than one wife to increase the population (Vallely, 2006).

Secondly, polygamy could be one of the solutions to various individual problems such as the infertility of the woman even after treatment, marrying another woman for the sake of having children. If the first wife accepts, the marital relationship could be preserved. Another case is when the wife becomes chronically ill, and the husband may want to satisfy his instinctive sexual needs. Polygamy could be an outlet for this man to satisfy his needs without leaving his sick wife (Badawi, 2012).

Disadvantages of Polygamy

Many women do not accept polygamy; in many cases, it could lead to divorce and broken families. A lot of women ask to be divorced once they find out that their husband is pursuing another marriage. From a social perspective, a polygamous man will not be able to spend as much time with each wife and her children as a monogamous man. Also, finances may become harder to manage due to having multiple homes with kids who will most likely need financial support. From a psychological perspective, it was found that polygamous women are less satisfied with their lives due to jealousy from other wives and sometimes neglect from the husband (Al-Krenawi and Gharaibeh, 2011).

Furthermore, polygamy could have negative effects on the mental health of adolescents and teenagers. Some of the noticed problems among polygamous families are aggressive behavior, father negligence and poor self-image due to the constant family conflicts that may arise in polygamous households (Hamdan and Apter, 2009)

From an Islamic perspective, the issue of fairness becomes far more important. The polygamous husband should constantly remind himself that he should be fair in everything that is done for his wives and their children. God says in Al – Nahl Chapter “ Indeed, Allah orders justice and good conduct” ( Quran, 90). And in Al- Nisa chapter “ And live with them in kindness.” (Quran, 19) These two verses talk about the way women should be treated in the marriage institution. Under the Islamic law, women should not be forced into accepting married man and can ask to be divorced in the marriage contract in case he married another woman (Al jaziri, 2003).

Polygamous Prophet of Islam

Many Muslim men use the example of Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H) marrying multiple times after the death of his first wife, Khadija. He stayed in a monogamous marriage for up to 25 years. According to Ibn Ishaq, prophet Muhammad has married thirteen women, one of them was virgin and two of them died during his lifetime. In examining his multiple marriages, we can see that all of his wives except Aisha were war widows and previously married (Roded, 2006).

Some of his wives were very old with children such as Um-Salamah, Sawada and Zainab bent Jahsh. He married them to provide and protect them. Two of Prophet Muhammad’s wives were captured during battles, and they were from politically famous families. For instance, Safiyah was captured during” Khaibar battle” and descended from Banu- Al- Nadeir clan, that was a famous Jewish tribe (Roded, 2006). Juwayreeyah belonged to the Banu Mustaliq tribe, which was very powerful. The entire tribe was a bitter enemy of Islam from the start, and military action finally suppressed them. When the Prophet (P.B.U.H) married Juwayreeyah, the Muslims released all their prisoners, saying that they could not keep the prophet’s relatives in bondage. It was due to this marriage that the whole clan of Banu Mustaliq accepted Islam and became peaceful and obedient to the laws of the new Islamic state (Roded, 2006).

In addition, he married Mary the Copt who was a slave girl sent to the Prophet as a present from the Christian Muqauqas of Egypt. However, he freed her from slavery and married her to be later, the mother of his son Ibrahim who died young (Roded, 2006).

Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H) had certain qualities which were unique to him only, marrying more than four wives was unique to him due to his position in the community. Ordinary people nor his friends ( sahabah)did not have more that four wives if they were polygamous. Prophet Muhammad have spoken about his relationship with his family and wives saying “ the best of people are the best to their families, and I am the best to my family” (Sahih Muslim, Hadith)

In conclusion, polygamy was practiced across centuries by different cultures prior to Islam. However, Islam regulated the practice and placed rules to make it more humane. Quran insisted on the fairness in treatment among wives and required the husband to ensure his ability to provide equal rights for each of his wives prior to marriage. Through the verses revealed, a lot of commentators infer that polygamy is conditional when it is needed rather than an action that should be taken by each Muslim men. The general rule in Islam is monogamy, not polygamy.

Many men from the world  misuse the verse of polygamy to marry and divorce as many women as they want. They establish their own rules of polygamy by marrying young, attractive women rather than those who are in need. They claim that they are following the prophet steps, but in reality, they are using the religion to satisfy their worldly desires.

It is fair to say that polygamy has some advantages in preserving and increasing the number of population. In addition, it was helpful sometimes in saving marriages when infertility and chronic illnesses occur. On the other hand, polygamy could destroy families and lead to divorce. Many studies have proven that children and teenagers of polygamous families are more likely to suffer from mental disorders. Finally, every Muslim should fear God punishment if he does not act justly with his wives and always stick to the main rule rather than the exception.


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The History of Polygamy and the Interpretation of Islamic Verses Supporting It. (2021, Oct 11). Retrieved from

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