Why is Polygamy Allowed in Islam? How is it Best Practiced?

By Zahra Grant

“And among His signs is that He created mates for you from yourselves that you may find comfort and repose in them, and He put between you love and compassion; most surely there are signs in this for a people who reflect.” (Quran 30:21)

After reading Mehrunisa Qayyum’s article, “Polygamy: A Practical Option,” on Altmuslimah, I found myself ruminating on the value of this discussion as it relates to women and their right to autonomy and self-determination.

Polygamy is a loaded, often polarizing topic and the overwhelming response (73 comments to date) to Qayyum’s article testifies to just how strong an emotional trigger this subject is.  While I commend Qayyum for challenging herself and her readers by going beyond the knee-jerk Orientalist reaction to polygamy, the piece fails to discuss the practice of polygamy within an Islamic framework.

As a Muslim woman, I have personally observed many polygamous unions in the community in which I was raised, but my aim here is not to deny any shortcomings or promote any benefits of this marital arrangement. What I would like to do is to address the historical context of the permissibility of polygamy in Islam and take a look at how it is practiced in modern day Muslim societies.

First, let us understand why Islam mandated the permissibility of up to four wives. The Qur’an permitted polygamy as a solution to the pressing social welfare problems during the time of revelation, roughly 1,400 years ago. The reasons behind polygamy had nothing to do with satiating men’s sexual appetites or, as Qayyum suggests, curbing their wandering eyes.   We first read about polygamy in the Qur’an’s fourth chapter:

Give orphans their property, do not replace their good things with the bad, and do not consume their property with your own. That is a serious crime. If you fear you will not deal justly by the orphans, marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if you fear that you cannot do justice (to so many) then one (only) or the captives that your right hands possess. Thus it is more likely that you will not do injustice (4:2-3).

Note that polygamy and orphans — which in Arabic refers to fatherless children — are mentioned in the same sentence. We see this unusual pairing because polygamy is allowed in the specific context of caring for orphans. In the early 7th century because Muslims and non-Muslims routinely faced one another on the battlefield, men had high mortality rates and lower life expectancies, leaving many women widows with fatherless children.  The time at which these verses were revealed is a clear indication of one of the reasons why polygamy is permissible in Islam.

These “polygamy verses” were revealed shortly after the battle of Uhud, which was a devastating loss to the early Muslim community with many men dying on the battlefield.  The gender imbalance, and the fact that in that time and place women largely depended on men for their economic survival, made polygamy a pragmatic solution for a woman seeking protection for herself and protection for her children who no longer had a father but often had valuable property to their name that could be stolen or mismanaged by male guardians. So it is clear that the Quran permits polygamy for the purpose of caring for orphaned children and defending their assets.

Pinning down a reason for why some Muslims practice polygamy today is more difficult. Let’s be frank, it is highly doubtful that the majority of men engaging in polygamous marriages in the 21st century married widows and decided to do so in order to protect these women’s children from injustice and exploitation.  And while the numbers vary from region to region, we see women throughout the world being educated and employed at much higher rates than in the distant past; they are increasingly becoming self-reliant and less dependent on a husband for financial security or for the welfare of their children.

These changing social conditions  make it difficult to identify and explain why polygamy is justified in modern Muslim society. While my personal understanding of how and when polygamy should be practiced leads me to conclude that the conditions of modern Muslim societies do not meet Quranic standards, the Quran reminds us that “there is no compulsion in religion.”  If Muslim laypeople and scholars agree that polygamy remains permissible, although certainly not the ideal setup, today as it was centuries ago, they are free to pursue it.

Having established the original reason behind the permissibility of polygamy, we turn to how Muslims practice this unusual marital arrangement in modern day society, as opposed to the why. In order for a polygamous marriage to be successful, I firmly believe that each party must enter into the union knowing precisely what is expected of him or her and what he or she will give in return.

Whether a woman becomes one of multiple wives because, as Qayyum points out, her biological clock is ticking, her career consumes her time or because she believes the arrangement will eliminate a man’s likelihood to cheat, she must play a role in the decision-making process through which this marriage comes about. Technically a Muslim husband may take on a second wife without the consent of the first (although the ethics of this executive decision-making can be debated), but it is also perfectly within the rights of a Muslim wife to stipulate in her marriage contract that her husband must seek her counsel and consent before taking another wife and if he fails to, it constitutes valid and legal grounds for separation and/or divorce.

This is the sort of pro-active, pragmatic approach a woman must take if she plans to enter into a polygamous marriage, but most Muslim women do not insist on putting these sorts of key protective mechanisms in place before signing their name to the paper.

Muslim women tend to be unaware of their rights in a polygamous marriage, while men are usually ignorant of their responsibilities. According to verses two and three in the fourth chapter of the Qur’an, polygamy in Islam is permitted in the context of social welfare, so this arrangement is less about demanding rights from one’s wives and more about treating them with special care and consideration.

Yet, many Muslim men use this so-called “right” to multiple wives as a means to excuse themselves from the monogamy that Islam actually implores of them in favor of polygamy.  This sort of self-serving attitude leaves many women in these unconventional unions in a state of neglect, emotional distress, and without the comfort that Islamic marriage is supposed to provide.

My hope in contributing to this discussion is that more Muslim women, whether considering polygamous marriage or already in such a relationship, take a close, hard look at their God-given rights within these unions and assert these privileges to ensure that they are as happy and as gratified as possible in their marriages.

Zahra Grant is University of Toronto Graduate with a research interest in gender narratives in the context of religion. She is a proud Muslim woman, wife and mother who is dedicated to supporting women’s right to critically engage in their faith and determine the journey of their lives. This article originally appeared in altmuslimah.

  • Usamah

    Salaam….. Beautifully written treatise on this subject…. But let me call to mind a detail that is INCORRECT. Islaam does NOT prefer monogamy over polygyny. NOR does Islaam prefer polygyny over monogamy. As you stated from the Book of Allaah: ” …….marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if you fear that you cannot do justice (to so many) then one (only) or the captives that your right hands possess. Thus it is more likely that you will not do injustice (4:2-3)…………. If see the wording and ALLAAH is PRECISE in this. He (‘azza wa jalla) starts this part of the ayat with the word WOMEN (النساء) the PLURAL form and goes on to say “IF”…. So according to the Ulamaa in accordance with Ahlus Sunnah As-Salafiyya, a man may choice EITHER monogamy OR polygyny… As even today, taking on a second, third, or even fourth wife is SILL permissible AND the reasonings that Allaah has put forth are as valid in THIS as it was then, and ALWAYS will be until the day of Judgement. BUT, NONE of this negates the responsibility that men have by maintaining his family/families. Also, In a marriage contract, there can be NO such stipulation that if man and woman marry that she can make a clause that he can NOT marry nor get permission from him. WHY? Because the Book of Allaah is clear. She can NOT make clause that infers that he give up his right given to him by his Lord. YET, if he does so in marrying a second, etc., he MUST be equitable between them…. If not, he then SHOULD be divorced because he is doing an injustice to those women he has married and causing more harm than good…….. And Allaah knows best

    • Desley Noneofyerbiz

      This is so fucked up I can’t even find the words…

      • airkatmama4

        Are u muslim???

    • Rin

      You can get divorced in the States for any reason, and thank God, but the solution is not divorce but prevention. Sister, do you realize that you’re advocating breaking a woman’s trust by marrying secretly?

      You -and many others- are concentrating too much on legalities at the expense of the spirit of Islam, which enjoins compassion and justice. Many women are not comfortable with polygamy, which is why their husbands deceive them. Islam does not advocate deceit, even dressed up conveniently as “omission.” Women are not comfortable with polygamy, and the men engaging in this should realize the bald truth: it is not consent to force a woman uncomfortable with polygamy to accept it, it’s brute force and exploitation, because women staying in these relationships are usually doing so because they’re vulnerable in one way or another, either because they’re financially dependent, they believe themselves unmarriageable (age is often a factor), they already have children with the man, etc. Consent is not just a “technicality.” I also wonder if there can be consent at all if one is ignorant -if one has no experience with polygamous families- or deluding oneself. In science, consent must be “informed.”

      At the same time, women have to empower themselves. This means we shouldn’t place marriage on such a pedestal that women place it before everything else and accrue social status from it. We should encourage daughters to pursue careers, so they’re financially independent, and encourage women to be self-confident, so they’re not at the mercy of these men. We should also encourage monogamy in our sons and stop dangling polygamy as a bandaid for marital problems. It is not; it is another relationship. I still think it is glorified in some macho circles, and it is certainly irresponsible to encourage having as many children as humanly possible or to prioritize biological children above step or adoptive children. Astaghfirallah. No one should be encouraged to have children simply to have children. They’re human beings, not bumper stickers.

    • Jessica Khan

      a marriage contract brother is an agreement. she cannot force the husband to make such a clause but if he agrees to it in the initial contract then it is valid.

  • Umaima Zainab

    واٍلی هذا ذهب الامام أحمد ورجحه این تیمیة واین القیم وذهبوا کذ لک إٍلی أن الشرط عٍکن أن یکون لفظیا، وفی بعض الأحوال عٍکن أٌن یکون عرفیأ ، أٍذا جاءت الفتاهٔ من أّسرة یٌعرف عنها أٌنها لاتقبل أٌن یتزومج أٌن علیها زوجها
    انتی کلام

    This is the opinion of Imam Ahmed, founder of the Hanbali school and is further preferred by Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn-Al-Qayyim. They also allowed the condition to be verbal (not necessarily written) or if it is the norm (urf) for the girl’s family, i.e. if the girl’s family is known to oppose having another wife next to their daughter. (Fiqh Al Sunnah, Volume 6, Page 231-232)

    So if you make a condition in the marriage contract to not marry a second wife, then it becomes obligatory on the husband to not marry a second wife. In case he does the first wife can get divorce.

    If monogamy is urf (custom) for the girl’s family, then the monogamy condition exists automatically in the contract even if the condition was not stated or written down by the wife during the contract. Because what is known by custom is the same as what is explicitly stated as a condition. Ibn Qayyim discusses this principle at length in I’lam al Muwaqi’in where he explains why the Prophet did not let Ali take a second wife while Fatima was alive.

  • airkatmama4

    I am a first wife and muslim convert , I have been married for 6 years and I love my husband . When we married we agreed in a second wife I agreed because I cannot have more children ( I have 4 from my previouse marriage) my husband came into my life and acepted my 4 children and has helped in raising the 2 youngest as muslims . The time has come and my beloved hubby is now engaged to a woman from his country.the only issue is she doesn’t know that we are still married . She believes that we are divorced .my husband is building a house for me in his country and I wonder how it will be if I go there someday to live . There definatly is a greiving prosess when you know your not the only wife anymore but I am a loving ,careing woman and I’m not saying I won’t get jealouse at times but I will try to keep these feelings at bay in order to not hurt my husbands feelings. I will be supportive and will love his children as if they were my own , in a way they are my stepkids . But it saddens me that I will not be around the other wife . I guess I had a sweet dream where we could be like true sisters and really help eachother .I hate being a secret, I am the first wife and yet I feel like a mistress. But our religion allows polygamy and I am a true believer after all you may hate something that is indeed good for you .and you may indeed like something that is truely bad for you

  • Mehreen

    I also read that article and this is precisely the point i tried to make in at least four comments where people just equated polygamy as cheating. trying to adapt the principle in todays times is unlikely but still possible in third world countries where divorced women or widows have no benefits or security however polygamy does not apply in the sense that a married man might end up having multiple interests and in an attempt to justify adultery performs polygamy THAT is wrong and sufficient grounds for a seperation.

  • khadija

    This is what i want to point out with my husband who is being influenced by his culture and country’s tradition which is not Islamic. Muslims should be more focused on Islam not tradition…Parents usually do emotional blackmail so that their family honor will not be stained though their sons or daughters are very pressured they still insist what they want……The worst thing is when first wives really love their husband even though its hurting them they cannot do anything but to accept the second wife halfheartedly — :(