THERE is a widespread misconception that Muslim societies are essentially polygamous. However, in the Quran permission to marry more than one wife is given under highly exceptional circumstances and with stringent conditions attached.
After his hijrah to Madina from Makkah in 622 AD, Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) laid the foundations of the first Muslim society which from the start faced grave threats from the Meccans who waged three major wars against it — the battles of Badr (624 AD), Uhud (625 AD) and Khandaq (627 AD). At a time when the Muslim community in Madina was very small in number, the death of many men in these wars left a large number of dependent children and women who had lost the male member(s) of their family, and had to be provided for.
In addition, the property of the orphans had to be protected. In English, the word `orphan` refers to a child who has lost both parents. However, in Arabic, it refers to a child who has lost his or her father. The Quran, showing deep concern regarding this matter enjoined in Surah 4 An-Nisa` 2, “Render unto the orphans their possessions, and do not substitute bad things (of your own) for the good things (that belong to them), and do not consume their possessions together with your own this, verily, is a great sin.”
In prescribing moral or legal norms which believers are required to follow in the future, the Quran upholds the highest ethical ideals. However, it also recognises that most human beings would not selflessly undertake the responsibility of caring for disadvantaged children and women, and states in Surah 4 An-Nisa` 3 “And if you have reason to fear that you might not act equitably towards orphans, then marry from among (other) women such as are lawful to you — (even) two, or three, or four but if you reason to fear that you might not be able to treat them with equal fairness, then (only) one — or (from among) those whom you rightfully possess. This will make it more likely that you will not deviate from the right course.”
In order to understand the full meaning or implications of the verses referred, a systematic analysis of the text is required. The well-being of orphans is the primary concern of this text, and verse 2 begins by enjoining Muslim men to safeguard their property. Verse 3 begins with the words, “And if you have reason to fear that you might not act equitably towards orphans, then marry from among (other) women such as are lawful to you — (even) two, or three, or four.” The implications of this statement are as follows
One, equitable treatment of orphans is of primary importance and, therefore, the Quran stipulates that justice must be done to orphans; two, the best moral course for a Muslim man is to treat orphans justly simply because this is what God desires; three, if a Muslim man is not fearful that he cannot do what God desires selflessly, then — and only then — is he allowed to marry more than one woman, and up to four.
Permission for polygamy was given in order to safeguard the rights of orphans. This means that there has to be a relationship between the woman or women whom the Muslim man marries and the orphans, because marrying a woman unrelated to orphans will not be of help in safeguarding their rights. While doing justice to orphans is mandatory, so also is doing justice to all the women whom a Muslim man marries. If he cannot do justice to all his wives, he must have only one.
Polygamy, then, is permitted by the Quran — not readily but reluctantly as the last resort — and only in conditions of great social hardship and for humanitarian purposes. It is very important to note that there are two commandments to do justice in Surah 4 An-Nisa` 2-3, and that polygamy was allowed for the benefit of orphans and the women who were their guardians or caretakers.
If understood correctly in its Quranic context, polygamy was a grave responsibility for Muslim men. In practice, however, it has often been regarded as a male privilege intended for the pleasure of men. The stringent conditions relating to justice which are stated in Surah 4 An-Nisa` 2-3 have generally been disregarded by the traditional interpreters.
The writer is a scholar of Islam and Iqbal, teaching at the University of Louisville, Louisville, US.