Polygyny – A
The issue of polygyny has perhaps been the most controversial topic since reformers of the nineteenth century began to question the plausibility of Islam’s traditional marriage law. It is certainly one of the key issues that women in the Arab-Muslim world today face in their struggle for liberation and emancipation. If this issue is ever to be resolved once and for all, Muslim-Believers worldwide must come to terms with the modern age and the problems that come with it.
The reform we propose is to understand the verses of polygyny, contained in the umm al-kitab, as hudud verses (pointing to upper and lower limits), which allows us to legislate in accordance with concrete historical conditions in society and to appeal to the most noble and universal aspects of all human beings.
The verse of polygyny, or should we say the verse about its abolition, can be found in Surat al-Nisa”, the fourth sura and hence right at the beginning of the Book. It only consists of one verse, 4:3, and nowhere else in the entire text is polygyny mentioned again. The mistake of traditional exegetes has been to treat this verse consistently detached from its textual context ignoring the preceding verses which discuss how to avoid injustice to orphans. As a result polygyny was legislated for in isolation from the issue of marriages to widowed mothers of orphans and thus in isolation from its divine ratio legis.
In order to rectify this mistake, we will give the reader the exact sequence of the first verses of Surat al-Nisa”. The sura begins with God’s call to humankind to show reverence to the ‘Guardian-Lord’: O [humankind]! Reverence your Guardian-Lord, who created you from a single person, created, of like nature, His mate, and from them twain scattered (like seeds) countless men and women. Reverence God, through whom you demand your mutual (rights), and (reverence) the wombs (that bore you); for God ever watches over you. (Nisa”:1)
It continues in verse 2 with a call to humankind not to squander the property of orphans but to take good care of it:
To orphans restore their property (when they reach their age), nor substitute (your) worthless things for (their) good ones; and devour not their substance (by mixing it up) with your won. For this is indeed a great sin. (Nisa”:2)
Then comes the crucial third verse in which humankind is ordered to allow marriage to two or three or four wives on condition that people fear that they are unable to deal justly with orphans (the condition is underlined):
If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly [الا تقسطوا] with the orphans, marry women of your choice [ما طاب لكم], two or three or four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly [الا تعدلوا] (with them), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess [او ما ملكت ايمانكم], that will be more suitable, to prevent you from [having too great of a burden] [الا تعولو(Nisa”:3) Verse 4 follows by ordering the obligation of a bridal gift and asks women to ‘take it and enjoy it with right good cheer’, while verse 5 forbids people from handing over their property to the feeble-minded, but requires them to ‘feed and clothe them, and speak to them words of kindness and justice’. After this, verse 6 returns once more to the question of orphans: Make trial of orphans until they reach the age of marriage… (Nisa”:6).
These verses mention the matter of justice several times, using terms such as qist and ‘adl. Both terms are autoantonyms or contranyms, words that have opposite and self-contradictory meanings. The word qist, for example, can mean both ‘doing justice’ (as in 5:42, ‘For God loves those who judge in equity المقسطون]’) and ‘doing injustice’ (as in 72:15, ‘But those who swerve [ القاسطون], they are (but) fuel for Hell-fire’). And ‘adl denotes ‘equality/balance’ on the one hand, and ‘inequality/imbalance’ on the other.
Moreover, there exists a subtle semantic difference between قسط and عدل, even if they both mean ‘justice/equality’: whereas qist implies that justice is done by only one side of the involved parties, ‘adl connotes a demonstration of justice by all, or at least two sides. The morphological root of the mathematical term ‘equation’ (معادلة), indicating an equality between two sides (as in x=y), can be found in ‘adl, but not in qist.
Orphans, whether male or female, are legal minors (children that have not yet reached puberty), and they are fatherless. In the context surat Nisa” they are orphans whose mother is still alive. Verse 6 says: ‘Make trial of orphans until they reach the age of marriage…’ (Nisa”:6), indicating that orphans have not yet reached sexual maturity.
And the absence of their father is pointed out in the following verse: ‘As for the wall, it belonged to two youths, orphans, in the town; there was, beneath it, a buried treasure, to which they were entitled—their father had been a righteous man…’ (Kahf:82), as well as in the two passages that imply the absence of the guardian who normally takes care of children’s property: ‘And come not nigh to the orphan’s property, except to improve it…’ (An’am:152) and ‘To orphans restore their property (when they reach their age)…’ (4:2).
These verses urge people to take care of orphans’ property as they have become fatherless and are living with their (now widowed) mother. The case that orphans have lost both parents, including their mother, is not covered in the polygyny verse (4:3), because if both parents had died, the question of remarriage would not occur at all, and if they were motherless orphans who stay with their (widowed) father, the father’s steps for a possible remarriage were legally unproblematic and are, therefore, not in any way discussed in the verse.
Allah wants us to be kind to orphans who are minors and who have lost their father, and He wants us to take care of their property until they have reached majority. How are we supposed to do this?
If we, for instance, fear that we cannot do justice to all of them equally (‘If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (الا تقسطوا) with the orphans…’) we may, as the polygyny verse suggests,
consider marrying their mothers (‘marry women of your choice’). These men who are addressed here and who are asked to consider marriage to a widowed mother of orphans are men who are already married to one wife and who have children of their own.
The verse explicitly says, ‘marry […] two or three or four’, starting to count with two (not one), thereby excluding men who are single and also those who have no children.
Hence, Allah does not give unconditional permission for polygyny.
First, he requests that the second, third, or fourth wives are widowed mothers of fatherless minors. Second, such polygynous marriages are only allowed if there is justifiable fear that one cannot give orphans equal shares. If these two conditions are not met a polygynous marriage cannot be considered legally valid.
Allah’s qualification ما طاب لكم, which contains His permission to take more than one wife, has been the subject of lengthy debate among exegetes. It has often been understood as a free license for polygyny in the sense of ‘marry women of your choice’. It is unthinkable for us that God could have meant that men can have as many wives as it pleases them, and that it was revealed to encourage men’s arbitrary selection of whatever woman was available. If Allah had really intended to please men’s sexual desires He would have said: ‘marry women you want’. Instead, He said ما طاب لكم, which means: ‘marry such women as seem good to you’.
Such expression demands kindness and generosity towards women who have lost their husbands, the provider of the family and the guardian of their children, and who are at the mercy of whatever suitor is willing to take them. ‘As seem good to you’ calls for men’s generosity, an open heart, and their compassion for the plight of the poor women who have to care for their orphaned children. Justice, kindness, and fairness are at the heart of the polygyny verse!
And yet, Allah must have anticipated that this powerful appeal to humanity, as expressed in this verse, might lead to a situation in which some men, in their relentless endeavor to please God, fulfil this obligation and marry widowed women with children without actually having the means to maintain them. This would result in many emotional and economic tensions whereby they are pulled between their own children of their first wife and the adopted orphaned children from their co-wives, resulting in a state of imbalance and injustice.
This is the reason Allah revealed the second part of the verse in which people are advised about the pitfalls of polygyny and are urged to stay monogamous. Some exegetes thought that this refers to the danger that in a polygynous marriage a husband might not give his several co-wives the same conjugal rights.
However, the verse is not about equal sexual satisfaction of co-wives but about equality in terms of social and economic justice. The verse deals, after all, with the issue of orphaned children, not with marital problems, since it discusses the question of how to treat orphans justly (that is, equal to the husband’s own children).
The verse ends with an admonition to avoid injustice by not committing yourself to a polygynous marriage (‘to prevent you from [having too great of a burden] [الا تعولوا]…’, that is from having too many dependents to care for).