Polygyny in Islam

Allah (swt) has said in His Noble Book:

“Marry women of your choice, two or three, or four but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one or what your right hands possess. That is more fitting so that you do not deviate from the right course”. [An- Nisaa`: 3]

This verse was revealed to the Prophet (saw) in the 8th year of the Hijrah. It was revealed to limit the number of wives one can marry to four. At the time of revelation of this verse, there was no limit to the number of wives one could marry. On reading and understanding the verse, it becomes clear that it was revealed to limit the number of wives to four. The meaning of the verse is: marry of the women, two, three or four who are permitted and agreeable to you. Twos, threes and fours are mentioned instead of repeated enumerations i.e. marry the women of your choice from these mentioned numbers twos, threes and fours. The speech is addressed to everybody; therefore, there has to be a repetition so that each suitor who wishes to marry a number of women can choose whatever he wants of number, on condition that the combination he desires is restricted to this number. In other words, each suitor who wishes to marry more than one woman can marry as many as he likes from the number that is made optional for him. Just as we would say to a group: distribute this money. Let’s say there was a thousand dinars for example. We would say: distribute dinars by twos, threes and fours. If you made your statement in the singular form then it would have no meaning. So the expression twos, threes and fours is inevitable so that each individual can choose what he wants from the specific number in the expression. So, when Allah (swt) says „each one of you can marry the woman of his choice two, three or four‟, this effectively means: marry all of you twos, threes or fours i.e. each of you can marry two, three or four.

“But if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then marry only one”. [An- Nisaa`: ]3

This means that if you fear that you shall not be able deal with these numbers of wives justly, you should simply choose one wife and relinquish the marriage to more than one wife immediately. The issue revolves around justice. Wherever you find it just, adhere to it. Marrying only one wife is closer to not doing injustice. So that you should not deviate (from the right course of action) means it is more fitting so that you do not do injustice, because the deviation here means injustice. It is said the ruler has deviated from the right course when he has committed injustice. ‘Aisha (ra) narrated about the Prophet (saw) that he said:

“So that you may not deviate (from the right course): so that you do not make injustice.” [Reported by Ibn Hibbaan in his Sahih

The ayah permits the plurality of wives and limits it to four. However, it orders justice between them and enjoins the restriction to one wife when it is feared there would be injustice, because the restriction to one wife when there is fear of committing injustice is closer to avoiding injustice, a matter a Muslim is obliged to avoid.

Indeed, it should be known that the justice mentioned here is not a condition for marrying more than one wife. Rather, it is a ruling for the man who wishes to marry a number of wives that he must observe in the event of marrying more than one wife, and an exhortation to restrict himself to one wife if he fears he will not be able to deal with them justly. This is because the meaning of the sentence is completed in the verse by His (swt) saying:

“Marry women of your choice, twos or threes, or four” [An- Nisaa`: 3] This means there is an absolute permissibility of marrying more than one wife. Thus, the meaning of the sentence is completed. In another statement, He (swt) said:

“But if you fear”. The phrase:

“But if you fear” cannot result in being a condition because it is not linked with the first verse as a conditional clause. Rather it is a resumption of a new statement. If Allah (swt) had wished to make it a condition then he would have said: Marry women of your choice, twos or threes, or fours if you can deal

with them justly, but that is not the case, so it is established that justice is not a condition, rather it is another Shar‟a ruling different to the first ruling. So firstly, He (swt) permitted the plurality of marriages up to four, then He came with another ruling, which is that it is better to restrict oneself to one wife when one believes that marriage to more than one wife will make him incapable of dealing with them in a just manner.

From the above it becomes clear that Allah (swt) has permitted polygyny without restriction, condition or any recourse to any justification. Rather, every Muslim has the right to marry two, three or four wives of his choice. That is why Allah (swt) says:

“…women of your choice,” [An- Nisaa`: 3] which means: those women whom you find agreeable to you. It is clear that Allah (swt) has ordered us to be just between our wives and exhorted us that, if we fear we will not be able to do justice between our wives, we should restrict ourselves to just one wife, because the restriction of marrying one wife will make us more likely not to commit injustice.

As for what constitutes the desired justice between wives, it is not ‘absolute justice’. Rather, it is justice in the marital life between wives which is within the ability of the man since Allah does not impose on man that which he cannot bear. He (swt) said:

“Allah burdens not a person beyond his scope” [Al- Baqarah: 286]

It is true that the phrase ‘be just’ has been mentioned in the verse with a general import, as He (swt) says:
“But if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them)”. [An- Nisaa`: 3]

This encompasses all aspects of justice, but this general order has been specified in another verse to capability. Thus, Allah (swt) said:

“You will never be able to do perfect justice between wives even if it is your ardent desire, so do not incline completely to one of them so as to leave the other suspended”. [An- Nisaa`: 129]

Allah (swt) has clarified in the verse that it is impossible to achieve justice and equality between wives, where the husband would not be inclined to one of his wives or where there is no increase or decrease in what is obligatory to provide for them. Due to this, He (swt) has lifted from us the complete and full extent of justice and He (swt) has not imposed on us except that which one can bear, on condition that we exert our utmost effort and energy. For the imposition of what one is not able to do is tantamount to oppression:
“And your Lord treats no one with oppression”. [al-Kahf: 49]
And He (swt) says:

“So do not incline completely to one of them”. [An-Nisaa`: ]129
As a comment on His (swt) saying:

“You will never be able to do perfect justice”. [An- Nisaa`: ]129 and as a reference for it, is an evidence that its meaning is: you will never be able to deal with them justly and equally with regards to love. The implicit meaning (mafhoom) is that one can be just in all things except love. This is what the previous verse obliges, as it has specified the desired justice to be other than love, and made love and sexual intercourse excluded from justice, because it is not obliged in these two issues, since a human is not able to be equal in his love. This meaning is supported by what has been reported about ‘Aisha (ra) that she said:

“The Messenger of Allah (saw) used to distribute things and do justice to all and used to say, “Oh My Lord, this is my distribution of what is in my control, but do not blame me for what is in Your control and over which I have no control.” i.e. his heart. [Reported by al-Haakim and Ibn Hibbaan]

It has been narrated from Ibn ‘Abbas (ra) concerning the saying of Allah (swt):

“You will never be able to do perfect justice between wives” [An- Nisaa`: .]129He said “this is with regards to love and sexual intercourse”. Allah (swt) has

ordered us to abstain from completely inclining towards one wife. This means He has permitted the inclination because the prohibition of the complete inclination indicates the permissibility of some inclination. An illustration of this is the prohibition of unrestrained and excessive generosity mentioned in His (swt) saying:
“Nor stretch your hand forth to its utmost reach”. [Al-Isra: ]29

Which means it is permitted to stretch your hand by giving to the needy. Therefore, Allah (swt) has permitted the husband to incline towards some of his wives to the exclusion of others. However, He has forbidden this inclination to include all matters. Rather, the inclination should be to whatever it applies, which is the love and desire. So the meaning of the verse is: refrain from the absolute inclination towards a wife, because if the complete inclination occurs from you, it will leave the other wife suspended, i.e. one who is neither divorced nor possessing a husband. It has been narrated by Abu Hurayrah (ra) that the Prophet (saw) said:

“Whosoever has two wives and he inclines towards one to the exclusion of the other, he will come on the Day of Judgement with half his body dropping or bending down.” [Reported by Ibn Hibbaan in his Sahih]

Thus, the justice which is obligatory upon a husband is the equality between his wives in that which he has control over such as staying overnight, providing food, clothing and lodging etc. As for what falls under the meaning of inclination, which is love and desire, it is not obligatory to be just in these aspects because that is impossible, and so they are excluded by the Qur’an.

This is the subject of polygyny as mentioned in the Sharee‟ah texts. By studying these texts and limiting oneself to their Shar‟a and linguistic meanings in terms of what they indicate and what is deduced from them, it becomes clear that Allah (swt) has generally permitted the marriage to more than one wife (up to four) without restriction or condition. The text concerning this matter did not include any cause (‟illah). On the contrary, Allah (swt) has expressed this in such a way which indicates the rejection of any justification (ta‟leel). So He (swt) said:
“(Marry) women of your choice”. [An- Nisaa`: 3]

Therefore, we must stop at the limit of the Shar‟i text and at what is derived from it in terms of Sharee‟ah ruling. It is not permitted to justify this ruling with any reason („illah), or justify it with justice, need or anything else, because the text did not bring „illah for the ruling, nor can any reason („illah) be found in any other Shar‟a text. The reason (‟illah) of the ruling should be a Shar‟a reason i.e. there must be a text to mention it so that the ruling which is derived from it can correctly be considered a Shar‟a ruling. If the reason is rational or not mentioned in any text, then the ruling which is derived by means of it will not be a Shar‟a ruling. Rather it will be a man- made law and it will be haraam to adopt and apply.

This is because it will be a kufr ruling, since any ruling which is not a Shar‟a ruling is a kufr ruling. However, since the definition of the hukm shar’i (Sharee‟ah ruling) being ‘the speech of the Legislator’ makes it inevitable that the ruling is derived from the speech of the Legislator, either explicitly mentioned in the text, or from its meaning, or by indication, or due to the presence of a sign (amaarah) in the text which points to the Shar‟a ruling, such that every ruling which has that sign (amarah) will be a divine ruling. This sign (amaarah) is the Shar‟a reason („illah Shar’iyyah) which is mentioned in the text either explicitly, or by indication, inference or analogy. And if this sign (amaarah) i.e. this „illah, is not found in the text, it has no value. Consequently, it becomes clear that it is not allowed to justify polygyny with reason („illah), since no‟illah is to found for it in the speech of the Legislator. An „illah has no value in making a ruling into a Shar‟a ruling except when it is found in the speech of the Legislator.

However, the absence of an explanation of a Shar‟a ruling by an „illah does not mean it is not permitted to explain the reality of what will take place in terms of the effect of this Shar‟a ruling, and the reality of what it solves in terms of problems. Rather, this is an explanation of a reality and not justification for a ruling. The difference between explaining the reality and justifying a ruling is that the justification of a ruling by an ‟illah is that the „illah should constantly exist in the ruling, and analogy of other things to this ruling is made whenever the „illah is found in them. As for explaining the reality, this is the clarification of the reality at the point in time when it is explained. The reality may cease, so it is incorrect to make an analogy to it with other things. Hence, it becomes clear from the effect of polygyny of wives that, in the community in which it is permitted, there will not be a plurality of mistresses, and in communities which forbid the plurality of wives, there will be a plurality of mistresses. In addition, polygyny solves many other problems, which take place in a human community in its capacity as a human community, which depends on polygyny to solve them. The following are some examples of these problems:

1. There are some men with unusual dispositions, who are unable to satisfy themselves with one wife. Either such men will oppress or hurt their only wife or they will look at other women if they find the door shut in front of them to take a second, third or fourth wife. There is a danger of this happening in terms of the spread of indecency and fornication amongst people and the creation of suspicion and doubts within families. Therefore, it is essential that a person who possesses such a disposition should have the option to satisfy his strong physical urge in a halaal manner i.e. in a way that Allah (swt) has legislated.

2. It may be that a woman is barren and therefore cannot bear children but her husband still loves her dearly and vice versa, which makes them determined to continue with their happy married life. The husband may however desire offspring and have a love for children. If it is not permitted for him to marry another wife and he finds no options available to him he will have to either divorce his first wife, a matter that would lead to the destruction of the stability of the household and the end of a happy marriage, or he is deprived from enjoying offspring. This will lead to the suppression of the aspect of fatherhood present in the procreation instinct. Therefore, it is essential that such a spouse is given the opportunity to marry another wife in addition to the existing wife, so that he can have the offspring which he desires.

3. The wife may be ill with a disease which excuses her from having conjugal relations or looking after the house and seeing to the husband and children. She is still cherished and dearly loved by her husband, who has no wish to divorce her although he cannot live his life properly with just her alone (and consequently without another wife). It is imperative that in such a situation the opportunity is given to him to marry more than one wife.

4. Wars and uprisings might take place which claim the lives of thousands, even millions of men, which may upset the balance between the numbers of men and women, which actually happened especially in Europe, in the First and Second World War. If a man is not able to marry more than one wife, what are the rest of the women supposed to do? They will be deprived from a family life and the happiness of a home and the ease and comfort of married life, not to mention what the procreation instinct if stimulated can lead to in terms of the danger to morality.

5. It may be that in a nation, people, or region, the number of males and females is not equal. The number of females may be higher than males so the numerical balance between men and women is upset – and this is the case amongst many peoples and nations. In such a situation, there is no solution to this problem except to allow polygyny.

These are real problems faced in the human community among peoples and nations. If polygyny is outlawed then such problems remain, since there is no solution for these problems except by allowing polygyny. Hence, polygyny should be permitted so that these problems which humans face are dealt with. Islam has permitted polygyny, but has not obliged it. The permissibility of polygyny is inevitable, although it should be known that the situations outlined above and their like are real problems which occur, but they are not an „illah (divine reason) for marrying more than one wife, nor are they a condition for the permissibility of polygyny. Rather, the man is allowed to marry a second, third and fourth wife, whether problems which require polygyny as a solution have arisen or not.

Because Allah (swt) says:

“Marry women of your choice, two or three, or four” [An- Nisaa`: 3]
And He (swt) said: “of your choice”. He (swt) has made this general, without restriction or condition. As for the restriction of marrying one wife, the Sharee‟ah has preferred this in only one situation, which is where there is a fear that one is not able to do justice between his wives. As for anything other than that, there is no expressed preference to marry only one wife in any of the texts. In spite of the fact that polygyny is a Shar‟a ruling found in the clear text of the Qur’an, Capitalist culture and Western propaganda, particularly that against

Islam as opposed to other religions, has portrayed marriage to more than one wife as a hideous and repugnant practice and depicted it as a deficiency and a source of shame in the Deen. The motive for this is not because a defect has been noticed in the laws of Allah (swt) but in order to disparage Islam, and there is no motive for it other than this. This propaganda has greatly affected Muslims, particularly the ruling faction and the educated youth. This drove those who were moved by Islamic emotions to stand for Islam. Such Muslims adopted false interpretations to forbid polygyny, as they were actually influenced by the false propaganda circulated by the enemies of Islam.

That is why we must warn the Muslims that pretty actions (hasan) are what the Shar‟a deems to be pretty (hasan), and ugly actions (qabeeh) are what the Shar‟a deems to be ugly (qabeeh), and whatever the Shar‟a permits is pretty (hasan), and whatever the Shar‟a forbids is ugly (qabeeh). Also we must warn the Muslims that polygyny- whether it has a tangible good effect or not and whether it solves problems which have occurred or not- the Sharee‟ah has permitted, and the Qur’an has stated that clearly. Therefore, it is a pretty action, and the prohibition of polygyny is ugly because it is a kufr ruling.

It must be made clear that Islam did not make polygyny fard on the Muslims, nor mandoob (preferred). Rather, it made it one of the mubaah (permissible), which is allowed for them to do if they wished to do so. The fact that Islam made it permissible means that it has placed before the people a solution that they can use whenever it is necessary to do so, and it has permitted them not to deprive themselves from the women of their choice if in their view they were to incline towards them. Thus, permitting polygyny and not making it obligatory is what makes it one of the most effective solutions for humans in the community and society.

Sheikh Taqiuddin an Nabhani – The Social System of Islam


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