Polygamy in the Quran

James M. Arlandson

The Quran is allegedly the final Testament to all humankind, so its teaching should spread around the world for the good of humanity.

However, one of its clear teachings says that men may be polygamous.

This Muslim feminist says that polygamy, which she relabels polygyny, is no threat to society because it is used only in extraordinary circumstances:

Muslims view polygyny as an institution which is to be called into use only under extraordinary circumstances. As such, it has not been generally regarded by Muslim women as a threat. Attempts by the feminist movement to focus on eradication of this institution in order to improve the status of women would therefore meet with little sympathy or support.

However, in normal usage "polygyny" is worse than polygamy because it denotes sexual liasons without marriage. But her article seeks to protect the Quran on this issue without eliminating the practice—having your cake and eating it too.

However, this traditional Muslim website says that polygamy has wisdom behind it. The male Muslim scholar lists eight reasons, such as this one:

There are some men who may have strong physical desires, for whom one wife is not enough. If the door is closed to such a man and he is told, you are not allowed more than one wife, this will cause great hardship to him, and his desire may find outlets in forbidden ways.

But is polygamy or polygyny or plural marriages the best path for all of humanity?

What does New Testament Christianity say on the matter?

Polygamy with a maximum of four wives

For the historical and literary topical contexts of Sura 4, please visit this webpage.

The Quran in Sura 4:3 says:

And if you be apprehensive that you will not be able to do justice to the orphans, you may marry two or three or four women whom you choose. But if you apprehend that you might not be able to do justice to them, then marry only one wife, or marry those who have fallen in your possession. (Maududi, The Meaning of the Qur’an, vol. 1, p. 305)

The key clauses are "you will not be able to do justice to the orphans" and "you may marry two or three or four women whom you choose." Maududi (d. 1979) is a respected traditional and conservative commentator on the Quran. So we should let him explain what they mean. He says that the clauses accomplished three things:

First, in pre-Islamic Arabia, guardian men married the orphan girls under their care, so the Quran says that they should direct their attention to women other than the orphans.

Second, in pre-Islamic days men used to marry a limitless number of women and grab the property of their orphan nephews and nieces to support their wives.

Third, in pre-Islamic days, men could marry as many women as they wanted and "treat them cruelly and unjustly" with impunity. So the Quran limits the number to four, and only if the man could keep care of them all: "But if you apprehend that you might not be able to do justice to them."

Maududi concludes that probably all three correctives were intended by this verse (vol. 1, pp. 306-07, note 4).

Also, the clause "marry those who have fallen in your possession" means slave-girls who were captured in a war. Men may "marry" them because slaves do not incur very much expense, not as much as free women do. Maududi paraphrases the meaning of the clause: "If you need more than one [wife] but are afraid that you might not be able to do justice to your wives from among the free people, you may turn to slave girls because in that case you will be burdened with less responsibilities" (note 6). This is not surprising, since the slave-girl was sexual property (see Sura 4:24). This means that the limit of four wives is artificial. Men could have sex with as many women as they wanted from among their slaves.

Despite these different conditions, we should step back and look at the big picture. It may be true that Muhammad was curtailing the polygamous custom of Arabs who lived around him, but he did not go far enough. A man may "marry" four wives, but have sex with his slave-girls, and the number of these latter is not limited. According to the timeless and universal Quran, therefore, Muslims today have the right to practice polygamy. Wherever Islam engages in the slave trade or captures women prisoners of war, Muslims may have sex with them.

Muhammad’s special marriage privileges

It seems that Allah gave Muhammad special permission to marry as many women as he desired or take them as slaves or concubines, just as in the pre-Islamic days of ignorance. In his own example and life, he seemed to perpetuate the pre-Islamic practices.

The Quran in Sura 33:50 grants Muhammad wide latitude in his marriages:

O Prophet, We have made lawful to you those of your wives, whose dowers you have paid, and those women who come into your possession out of the slave-girls granted by Allah, and the daughters of your paternal uncles and aunts, and of your maternal uncles and aunts, who have migrated with you, and the believing woman who gives herself to the Prophet, if the Prophet may desire her. This privilege is for you only, not for the other believers . . . . (Maududi vol. 4, p. 111, emphasis added).

For the historical and literary topical contexts of Sura 33, visit this webpage.

This lengthy verse says that besides those women whose dower Muhammad paid, he may marry slave-girls—that is, he may have sex with them. Maududi references three slave-girls taken during raids, and Mary the Copt, a gift from an Egyptian ruler. Muhammad had sex with her, and there does not seem to be a political need for this. Second, Muhammad may marry his first cousins, and Maududi cites a case in which this happened. Third, if a believing woman offers herself to Muhammad, and he desires her, then he may marry her (Maududi vol. 4, note 88).

This latter permission is the most suspect. Revelations that sexually benefit a founder of a religious movement raise some concern for objective outsiders to this movement, unless someone has the prior belief that the founder has achieved sinless perfection and can do no wrong—even with this special sexual permission.

But the capstone of these "special" marriages occurs when Muhammad also marries the ex-wife (Zainab) of his adopted son (Zaid). His son-in-law divorced her with the prophet lurking in the background. In fact, early Islamic sources say that Muhammad caught a glimpse of his daughter-in-law in a state of undress, and he desired her. Once the divorce is final, Allah reveals to him that this marriage between father-in-law and daughter-in-law is legal and moral in Sura 33:36-44. Did this revelation come from Allah or Muhammad?

If readers would like to see these verses in multiple translations, they should go to this website. This one has three translations, and this one is funded by the Saudi royal family.

Many have written on these outlandish special privileges. Here are two articles.

This article shows how many wives and concubines Muhammad allows himself.

This article analyzes Muhammad’s marriage with Zainab (Zaynab), citing the hadith and commentators and refuting modern defenses.

How to get rid of one of the wives

A husband may naturally favor some wives over another one, but he has the option of keeping or divorcing the undesirable wife.

The Quran in Sura 4:129 says:

It is not within your power to be perfectly equitable in your treatment with all your wives, even if you wish to be so; therefore, (in order to satisfy the dictates of Divine Law) do not lean towards one wife so as to leave the other in a state of suspense. (Maududi, vol. 1, p. 381)

Maududi interprets the verse, writing that it is only natural for a husband to like one wife over another or the others:

Allah made it clear that the husband cannot literally keep equality between two or more wives because they themselves cannot be equal in all respects. It is too much to demand from a husband that he should mete out equal treatment to a beautiful wife and to an ugly wife, to a young wife and to an old wife, to a healthy wife and to an invalid wife, and to a good natured wife and to an ill-natured wife. These and like things naturally make a husband more inclined towards one wife than towards the other.

This means that wives are the source of a man’s inability to treat all of them equally. One is beautiful, while another is ugly. How can Allah demand super-human strength from a husband under changing circumstances in his wives?

Maududi continues on the topic of unequal affection:

In such cases, the Islamic law does not demand equal treatment between them in affection and love. What it does demand is that a wife should not be neglected as to be practically reduced to the position of the woman who has no husband at all. If the husband does not divorce her for any reason or at her own request, she should at least be treated as a wife. It is true that under such circumstances the husband is naturally inclined towards a favorite wife, but he should not, so to say, keep the other in such a state of suspense as if she were not his wife.

Thus, Maududi says here that the wife should not be suspended between marriage and divorce. If the husband stays with the no-longer-desirable wife, then he should treat her fairly and provide for her (vol. 1, pp. 383-84, note 161).

Sura 4:129 presents another problem. At first glance, the verse seems to abrogate or cancel Sura 4:3, which permits polygamy only if the husband may treat each wife equitably. But Sura 4:129 says this equal treatment is impossible. Therefore, polygamy was impossible in practical terms. Maududi rebukes anyone who reaches this conclusion:

From this verse some people wrongly conclude that though the Qur’an allows more than one wife, it practically cancels this permission by asserting, ". . . it is not possible for you to be perfectly equitable in your treatment with all your wives . . . ." They forget that this is only a part of the whole instruction and the Qur’an does not stop at this but adds, ". . . do not lean towards one wife . . . ." As this Commandment takes into consideration the existence of more than one wife allowed by the Qur’an, it leaves no loophole of escape for the followers of Christian Europe from the fact that Islam does allow polygamy under certain conditions.

Thus, Maududi rightly coordinates Sura 4:3 and 4:129. This latter verse simply instructs a Muslim polygamist how he should treat a wife whom he no longer desires: keep her and provide for her, or divorce her. It says nothing about abrogating or canceling Sura 4:3.

All of this boils down to one thing: Allah gives the husband control over his small bevy of wives. If the husband keeps the undesirable wife, he must provide for her; thus she lives in a perpetual state of emotional rejection. On the other hand, he may divorce her, thus rejecting her on the shaky grounds of her being no longer desirable to him.

Clearly, Islamic law is patriarchal.

Questions about polygamy in the Quran

Will moderates win out in their interpretation of the Quran?

Let us say that a Muslim moderate, a feminist, for example, interprets Sura 4:129 as canceling polygamy in Sura 4:3. This only lands the Quran in interpretive difficulties. How can Allah permit a practice in one verse in the sura and fail to see a man’s inability to carry it out in a later verse in the same sura? Why not prohibit polygamy altogether from the start? This would also break with pre-Islamic Arab custom more clearly and surely than merely reducing the number of wives to four, as if this is a substantial improvement on the custom. Yet we should not be too hard on the moderates. Their attempt at eliminating polygamy makes them noble—nobler than the Allah-inspired Muhammad himself, who had many wives, beyond the four he allows his fellow Muslims.

But Maududi is right, when he says that these Muslims are violating the clear teaching of the Quran.

He says:

As regards those who consider polygamy to be an evil, they are free to oppose the Qur’an and condemn polygamy, but they have no right to ascribe their own perverted views to the Quran, for it makes this lawful in very clear language without employing any words that might be stretched in any way to imply that the Qur’an means to abolish it (vol. 1, p. 308, note 5).

True followers of the Quran have no means of throwing polygamy away. If they do, then they oppose the sacred text that was brought down directly from Allah to Muhammad through Gabriel.

Is it coincidental that polygamy originates in heavily male-dominated cultures?

Male outsiders to Islam surely must feel that this permission to marry four wives is wrong for a deep reason. Many (not all) men desire multiple partners. It is difficult to escape the feeling that polygamy was fabricated to religiously justify this desire. Allah gives men permission to fulfill their fantasy. Also, men exert too much control. No verse says that women may marry up to four men. Why not? Women would then control things.

What does Christianity teach?

Christianity fills the globe, so it shapes our outlook even if someone is not a devout Christian. Jesus endorses the model in the Garden of Eden: one man and one woman (Matthew 19:3-6). Some may believe that because some Old Testament patriarchs or kings had more than one wife, this may excuse Muhammad and other Muslims. But Jesus fulfills and interprets the Old Testament for Christians, and Eden is his choice.

To conclude, the Quran is allegedly God’s last Testament to humanity, so it should spread around the world for the good of humanity. However, its ruling on polygamy is too culture-bound and patriarchal to be relevant today. May the Muslim moderates win out on this serious matter and move away from this teaching in the "eternal" and "inerrant" sacred book.

But no one should count on this happening any time soon.

Supplemental Material

This hadith gives a possible historical context of Sura 4:3.

This hadith says that Muhammad was intimate with his slave-girls.

This hadith says that one wife teases another, thus causing strife. This is one of the drawbacks of polygamy, which even the Old Testament hints at (Genesis 16:4; 1 Samuel 1:3-7). Therefore, Jesus holds up the model in Eden—one man and one woman.

This hadith says that Muhammad refuses to give another wife to his son-in-law Ali because this would hurt his first daughter Fatima, whom he fathered by his first wife Khadija. Fatima was married to Ali, and another wife for him would hurt her. Thus, Muhammad’s permission for polygamy goes only so far and does not apply to his son-in-law and daughter. This implies that Muhammad deeply understood how hurtful polygamy was, but he still would not forbid it.

This hadith says that Muhammad used to visit eleven (or nine) wives in one night. See the parallel hadith here and here and here.

For a more thorough analysis of polygamy in the Quran, go to this online booklet and click on Chapter 12.

This article further explains why Christians do not accept polygamy.

This short section in an online book explains the situation with Zaid, Zainab, and Muhammad.

This short article also deals with Muhammad’s questionable marriage to his daughter-in-law Zaynab (Zainab).

This section in an article also analyzes Muhammad’s marriage to Zainab (scroll down to "Mohammed and His Wives").

This short chapter in an online booklet has a partial list of Muhammad’s wives, with a short biography of them. This short chapter in the same booklet has another list and short biographies. And this chapter lists women to whom Muhammad proposed marriage, but the marriages did not work out.

This page has many links to articles on women in Islam and Christianity.

This page in an online index explains polygamy.

Copyright by James Malcolm Arlandson.

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