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Qur'anic Views on Polygamy

 by Ibrahim B. Syed, Ph. D. 
Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc.
7102 W. Shefford Lane
Louisville, KY 40242-6462, U.S.A.



Polygamy (ta'adud-e-izdiwaj) 1

For either spouse the word used in Arabic is zawj, which means both husband or wife.  Thus the very word zawj implies one husband and one wife.  For marrying the word in Arabic is zawwaja or tazawwaja ( I married) and this means he married one woman ( or zawwajat, ie., she married a man). Zawwaja cannot mean the on one side there would be one man and on the other four or five women.

"O people, keep your duty to your Lord, who created you from a single                        soul and created its (zawjaha) of the same (kind), and spread from these two many men and women."…..  The Qur'an 4: 1

In this Qur'anic verse Allah has created a couple (zawj, i.e., man and woman) and then created men and women from this couple.  Thus in the beginning there was one male and one female and not many females for one  male, though at that time there was greater need for this to increase the human population rapidly (it is not correct to say that polygamy leads to rapid increase in human population).  This Qur'anic verse usually is recited while solemnizing the marriage (khutbah-e-nikah) but our 'ulama do not reflect deeply the implications of this verse.  Obviously this verse clearly implies one female for one male and not many females for one male.

Let us refer to another verse of the Qur'an (2: 35) which says, "And We said: O Adam, dwell thou and thy wife in the garden, and eat from it a plenteous (food) wherever you wish, and approach not this tree, lest you be of the unjust."

Adam was the first person sent on earth and Allah had created only one wife for him and not several wives.  Wherever Adam's story has been referred to in the Glorious Book, it refers to Adam and Hawwa' (Eve).  For example, in verse 20: 117 it is said, "We said: O Adam, this is an enemy to thee and thy wife; so let him not drive you both out of the garden so that thou art unhappy."  This verse also clearly refers to only one wife of Adam. 

Let us refer to the verses 75: 36-39: "Does man think that he will be left aimless? Was he not a small life germ in sperm emitted? Then he was a clot; so He created (him), then made (him) perfect.  Then He made of him two kinds, the male and the female."  This verse also refers to men and women being made into zawjain, i.e., couples which clearly means one woman for one man. Thus God creates couples right from day one.  Allah does not create ten women for one man.  It is man,  one can  argue, who changes this equation. 

But if it happens (i.e., more women for one man) it is due to some social crisis.  The Noble Qur'an, one can argue, has shown us the solution.  But during the normal period Allah creates only one woman for one man and man has to remain content with one woman only.  But if someone marries a woman and be comes to dislike her, the Qur'an does not suggest that you then marry another one as four wives have been permitted.  On the other hand the Qur'an says:

" O you who believe, it is not lawful for you to take women as heritage against (their) will.  Nor should you straighten them by making them part of what you have given them, unless they are guilty of manifest indecency.  And treat them kindly.  Then if you hate them, it may be that you dislike a thing while Allah has placed abundant good in it.  And if you wish to have (one) wife in the place of another and you have given one of them a heap of gold, take nothing from it.  Would you take it by slandering (her) and (doing her) manifest wrong? And how can you take it when you have gone in unto each other, and they have taken from you a solemn covenant?"

The Qur'an requires that if you dislike your wife you better reconcile yourself to it because you may dislike something and Allah may have hidden something better for you in that.  So it is better that you change your dislike into love.  This may be good for you.  No one is virtue personified nor anyone is evil personified.  The wife you dislike may have certain virtues.  But if you cannot overcome your dislike and you decide to divorce and marry another one (here the Qur'an does not suggest taking another wife along with the first but divorcing one and taking another one) you cannot take back from her what you had given her by way of mahr or gift, even if it be a heap of Gold.  Thus the Qur'an puts pressure on the husband to think twice before divorcing one wife to take another in her place. The Qur'an persuades man to stick to the first wife and not to divorce her.  Thus the Qur'an does not approve of polygamy even in such circumstances.  It permits it only in highly exceptional circumstances or only in a crisis situation.

One should focus the verses on polygamy, i.e., verses 4: 2-3, to show that polygamy has been permitted only in highly exceptional circumstances, i.e., when a large number of women have been rendered yatim  (orphans) due  to devastating wars (which was not at all unusual at that time in Arabia. The Noble Prophet himself had to fight many such wars in which a large number of men were killed). The word yatim used in the above verse means not only orphans but also widows according to the classical Arabic usage. Even Imam Abu Bakr Jassas agrees to this meaning of the word yatim.  Thus it is quite natural that in war time a large number of girls and women became orphans or widows and many of them possessed valuable properties.  Their wards would either eat away this property or would exchange a bad one of their own with the good one of these orphans and widows.  Thus in order to protect the properties of these women and to find shelter for them the Qur'an permitted marrying up to four wives.  One can quote extensively from the Hanafi Imam Abu Bakr Jassas to support the above arguments.

The Meaning of verse 4: 3  is that you should marry these orphans or widows only, not other women.  The words min al-nisa' and not min nisa'in clearly indicate that the Qur'an means those very women rendered orphans and widows in wars.  Many commentators of the Qur'an maintain that a man can marry any other woman up to four whom he likes and quote a hadith to this effect from A'isha, the Prophet's wife. 

Whatever is conditional would remain valid only if the condition is fulfilled.  The number of marriages up to four has been permitted only on the condition that there are large number of orphan girls and widows who are not being taken care of or injustices are taking place with them or no one is there to look after them.  Only if these conditions persist, up to four marriages will be permitted to Muslim men.  But if such a condition does not prevail in the society, the permission to marry more than one wife will not be valid.  This injunction in the Qur'an is not general but conditional. The verse pertaining to polygamy begins with wa in khiftum alla tuqsitu fi' al-yatama  (if you fear you cannot do justice to orphans and widows) and hence this is the main condition.  Thus it is obvious that one can take more than one wife only from among orphans and widows with whom one cannot do justice otherwise.

If the verse on polygamy permits more than one wife only in crisis situations why was it not understood in this perspective in the early Islamic period and why does this practice ( of polygamy) continue among the Muslims  unabated? In the early Islamic period,  as well as until the end of the Abbasid rule, the period was full of wars. During the Noble Prophet's time a number of battles had to be fought.  Then during early period of Khilafat-e-Rashidah a number of wars were fought and then began the period of civil war among the Muslims.  It was followed by the Umayyad period which was also full of conflict and turmoil.  The Umayyads were subsequently overthrown and the Abbasid rule began.  The wars continued. Sometimes with Daylams, sometimes with Saljuqs and sometimes  Tartars.  Ultimately the Tartars reduced the Abbasids to dust.  This in these wars a large numbers of Muslim men continued to be killed and more and more orphan girls and widows came into existence.  "Thus Muslim men continued to marry more than one wife and polygamy remained in practice.  Because of its persistence for so long it became a strongly entrenched tradition and then followed the period of taqlid (blind imitation) and hence it persists in our times as well  though Qur'anically speaking, it has no validity whatsoever today.

Polygamy 2

Polygamy was a way of life until the Quran was revealed 1400 years ago. When the earth was young and under-populated, polygamy was one way of populating it and bringing in the human beings needed to carry out God's plan. By the time the Quran was revealed, the world had been sufficiently populated, and the Quran put down the first limitations against polygamy.

Polygamy is permitted in the Quran, but under strictly observed circumstances. Any abuse of this divine permission incurs severe retribution. Thus, although polygamy is permitted by God, it behooves us to examine our circumstances carefully before saying that a particular polygamous relationship is permissible.

Our perfect example here is the prophet Muhammad. He was married to one wife, Khadijah, until she died. He had all his children, except one, from Khadijah. Thus, she and her children enjoyed the Prophet's full attention for as long as she was married to him; twenty-five years. For all practical purposes, Muhammad had one wife - from the age of 25 to 50. During the remaining 13 years of his life, he married the aged widows of his friends who left many children. The children needed a complete home, with a fatherly figure, and the Prophet provided that. Providing a fatherly figure for orphans is the only specific circumstance in support of polygamy mentioned in the Quran (4:3).

Other than marrying widowed mothers of orphans, there were three political marriages in the Prophet's life. His close friends Abu Bakr and Omar insisted that he marry their daughters, Aisha and Hafsah, to establish traditional family ties among them. The third marriage was to Maria the Egyptian; she was given to him as a political gesture of friendship from the ruler of Egypt.

This perfect example tells us that a man must give his full attention and loyalty in marriage to his wife and children in order to raise a happy and wholesome family.

The Quran emphasizes the limitations against polygamy in very strong words:

"If you fear lest you may not be perfectly equitable in

treating more than one wife, then you shall be content with one."

(4:3) "You cannot be equitable in a polygamous relationship, no matter how hard you try." (4:129)

The Quranic limitations against polygamy point out the possibility of abusing God's law. Therefore, unless we are absolutely sure that God's law will not be abused, we had better resist our lust and stay away from polygamy. If the circumstances do not dictate polygamy, we had better give our full attention to one wife and one set of children. The children's psychological and social well-being, especially in countries where polygamy is prohibited, almost invariably dictate monogamy. A few basic criteria must be observed in contemplating polygamy:

1. It must alleviate pain and suffering and not cause any pain or suffering.

2. If you have a young family, it is almost certain that polygamy is an abuse.

3. Polygamy to substitute a younger wife is an abuse of God's law (4:19).


Polygamy 3

The PUM (Persatuan Ulama Malaysia), it appears, is also piqued by a couple of writers and an NGO that have criticized groups, which offer unconditional support for polygamy.  Here again, it is an indisputable truth that the Quranic position differs radically from the stance associated with an important section of mainstream ulama.  The Quran, there is no doubt, permits polygamy only in the most extraordinary circumstance, as a way of delivering justice to orphans.  Neither the financial status of the male nor his sexual needs nor the inability of the wife to bear a child is, from a Quranic point of view, a justification for practicing polygamy.  Indeed, “monogamy is the preferred marital arrangement of the Quran” as many commentators have asserted from time to time in the course of the last few centuries.  Amina Waded provides some insights into this and other related concerns in her Quran and Woman (Petaling Jaya: Fajar Bakti 1992).  It is perfectly legitimate therefore for Muslims who are committed to Quranic principles to question those who have elevated polygamy to a sacrosanct law on par with the fundamental teachings of the religion.

As with apostasy, the conservative ulama may not be fully cognizant of the adverse consequences of their utterances on polygamy upon Islam, women and society.  They create the impression that Islam is a religion that sanctions patriarchal power and dominance.  Women are not only marginalized; whatever little rights they possess are given on sufferance.  In the thinking of pro-polygamy ulama, gender equality, which is one of the major trends that transformed traditional society in the last hundred years, is nothing more than a mirage.



1.      The Qur'an, Women and Modern Society, Asghar Ali Engineer, Select Books, India, 1999

2.   This is a reprint from appendix 30 from Dr. Khalifa's translation of the Quran.

3.   Ulama, Hegemony and Reform   Chandra Muzaffar       16 February 2002


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