Is it a truth universally acknowledged that a married man must be in want of a second wife? Some Muslim scholars seem to think so.
In communities in India and the wider world, Islam’s allowance for a man to marry up to four women is increasingly being made the source of a plethora of advice, insinuations and crude jokes. Its moral objectives are capitalised on; at the same time its conditions and regulations are overlooked. Whilst misrepresented by the west, particularly feminist parties, to depict Islam as an oppressive, male-dominated system, this divine moral code is now equally under threat of exploitation by individuals in our communities, including renowned scholars. This article aims to discuss the Qur’anic perspective on this issue in the light of key Islamic principles and regulatory factors that must be considered. It also seeks to highlight the social and moral inequities resulting from the misapplication of this allowance, which is gradually becoming more common in our society today.
The Qur’anic verse that permits and sets conditions for a man to marry more than one woman (“And if you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphans, then marry those that please you of [other] women, two, three, or four” 4:3) is situated within a surah and surrounding text that deals with aspects of guardianship, inheritance and the property of orphans. These issues are in turn situated within a context of ongoing warfare, in which vulnerable factions of society are left without means of financial support. From this, we may deduce that Islam undoubtedly permits multiple wives in these circumstances and arguably, by extension, in others.
However, we must take into account the extraordinary situation in which the Qur’an decides to introduce this concession, to allow a proportionate view of things. The Qur’an couches the permission to have more than one wife in terms of a moral justification: it is a solution to a dire social need. Even in these extraordinary circumstances, the Qur’an does not compromise its stance on justice: “But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one or those your right hand possesses. That is more suitable that you may not incline to injustice.” 4:3. We are reminded that even in doing good, the rights of one human being cannot be infringed for the rights of another. It is also interesting that the Qur’an views one wife as the default and the norm: if a man does not meet the conditions for marrying again, he keeps himself to one.
Finally, and most importantly, the Qur’an does not address an individual in these verses, but an entire Muslim society. In such cases, there is an assumption of the presence of a neutral third party, be it a court or alternative structure, that would regulate the process practically in the light of many factors. Such a structure would ensure that all other Islamic principles are being upheld, and would take into account the rights of all parties. When the Prophet (SAW) was present, he was the figure of authority to whom all issues were addressed, such that he nullified marriages on certain occasions. This role was taken up by the righteous leaders after him and the systems that they established. The question is what happens when, as in non-Muslim countries, this is no longer present?
In a country like India, there is no longer a system in place to regulate marriage and polygamy. Not only is there no Islamic court or code of law, but there are also no established social systems that have a just, Islamically-informed moral basis. In the past, societal pressures from family and the wider community succeeded in preventing some injustices. Ignoring traditions and cultural norms could damage a person’s reputation. For example, ostracization from wider society amid a backlash from the wife’s family may have once acted as a deterrent to a wealthy landowner from marrying again, and could, in the process, have ensured the emotional and financial rights of his wife. However, regulations based on social pressures are often neither just nor moral and can lead to other injustices. They tend to be governed by the views of the vocal majority. In this case, society may be left with little provision for orphans or single mothers. Thus, in India, due to cultural factors, we have seen the establishment of an extreme. An attempt to change this state of affairs is certainly worth considering, but there is currently no common understanding in society of how to regulate behaviour and practices for polygamous marriages, if it is indeed the current solution to society’s problems.
There are currently some scholars who encourage second marriages in their communities and justify it as being for ‘a greater good’. So far, this has come across not as an effective attempt to fight the taboo against polygamy, but simply as individuals encouraging men in their circles of influence to consider a second wife. They highlight, and perhaps accurately, the issues that women in the community face, and persuade men that what they do will evoke divine approval. The reality is that these intellectuals are taking the Qur’an’s moral code for an entire society into their own hands as individuals, with no third party available to ensure people’s rights if an injustice were to occur.
As a result of this, some men may be encouraged to marry again whilst disregarding the devastating mental, emotional and social consequences for their families. The psychological trauma that women may undergo upon having their spouse marry another woman is debilitating. This can cause a person to question their self-worth, their standing in life, their position in society, and the efforts that they have invested in their family and marriage. Aside from the loss of a relationship as they knew it, the sheer emotional impact will affect their physical health and the wellbeing of the children who rely on their love and care. Men will often justify themselves by publicly claiming they are acting with compassion and justice, and that their wife is in agreement. However, in a society where women have limited financial independence, and social pressures to conform, this agreement is often involuntary. Whilst husbands bask in the congratulations of their fellow men, their wives and children, if victims of injustice, have no independent party to hold their husbands to account.
There is a tendency in a patriarchal Muslim community to make women and polygamy the subject of comedy, which is treated as harmless. By doing this, it trivialises the feelings of women, downplays their rights and also downplays the responsibilities of men. It is used to brush aside women’s objections as an over-reaction that is irrational and irrelevant. This attitude may be the result of a misconception that to marry again is a man’s God-given right when, in fact, by specifying conditions, the Qur’an presents it as more of a privilege that cannot simply be claimed. This misconception is sometimes exploited by men to pressure women into accepting their circumstances. Religious guilt is invoked to convince women that it is their duty to accommodate this ‘right’. In any humane society, this would be classified as psychological abuse and a crime against the person.
The conditions that the Qur’an highlights for marrying up to four women are not limited to financial capability or impartial treatment. Nor are they presented in a vacuum, but within the context of all other Islamic values and general moral principles of compassion, openness, honesty and faithfulness. Therefore, polygamy should not occur without taking into account factors such as the stability of the family, the emotional, psychological and physical wellbeing of the first wife, and the impacts on children. These can all be undermined when there is no regulatory system in place. In a country like Malaysia, when men apply for polygamous marriages in court, the state’s sharīʿah court judges would consider these factors. They would rule against the marriage if there was a danger of the first wife’s rights not being secured, financially, or because she was pressured into accepting the marriage. They may assess how well a man is already able to fulfil the needs of his wife, and the emotional and educational demands of his children, an issue that is a crisis in many societies today. It is only a neutral, third party who can implement this with justice.
It is the responsibility of both Muslim men and women to critically evaluate injustices in our society and identify plausible solutions in the light of the Qur’an and Sunnah. There is no doubt that there are widows, divorcees, those without guardianship and other women whom our communities have failed in providing with familial stability and care. The Qur’an’s concession for men to marry more than once should therefore be considered as a solution to this problem, and, more importantly, the idea of having more than one wife should not be made a taboo.
However, it is crucial that we first accurately pinpoint how current these problems are according to statistics, and then seek the reasons that underlie them. We may in fact find more pressing issues to first address; are there men who are not getting married and why? Is there a way to facilitate marriage for them, rather than persuade already married men to take second wives? Should we perhaps be encouraging unmarried men to consider the vulnerable – the widows, divorcees, the poor – in their first marriages? We must reform our way of thinking if we indeed claim to follow the sunnah of our beloved Prophet (SAW), whose first marriage was to a widow with children, and whose companions (many of them youths) proposed to such women in their first marriages,
There are many things in our communities that can be rectified, and many solutions that can be pursued. However, the disruption of stable families because of ignorance and lack of regard for due procedure is not an option. This disruption by specific individuals through both example and advice could have even more dire consequences. If the Qur’an’s allowance for polygamy were to be oversimplified and misused, it would become the perfect target for organisations with other agendas to exploit the issue for their own misrepresentation of Islam and Muslims.
If, as in the triple talaq crisis, scholars fail to collaborate and provide regulations to prevent misapplication, they set up a ready target for such attacks. If scholars and intellectuals truly see polygamy as a solution to society’s problems, they must, through the collaboration of both men and women, take the responsibility of setting up a system that regulates this process. When suggesting this idea to married men on an individual basis, they must realise that not only are they responsible for the pain and injustice they cause to families, but that, in the long term, they are breeding greater chaos. When others come forward to exploit this issue for particular agendas and ‘liberate women’, it will be due, once again, to the unashamed heedlessness of their male counterparts.