Polygyny – B

article picked 4U by - Mohammad Shahrour

July 6, 2021

 Polygyny – B

The verse of polygyny was intended to solve a crisis in the nascent Islamic community.

The Arabian society of the seventh century was exhausted by the many wars that were fought in defense of the new religion, and the streets of Mecca and Medina were full of orphaned children who had lost their fathers on the battlefields. In those difficult years, Allah’s revelation of the polygyny verse was a great relief for a society that did not know orphanages or state-sponsored charities for children. The polygyny verse should better be called the verse of adoption because it basically aims at regulating the process of adopting orphaned children into existing families. It does not deal with the marital issue of polygyny as such.

The danger is that this verse is read in isolation from the historical circumstances of its revelation and is interpreted as Allah’s eternal order to unconditionally marry up to four wives regardless of the social or historical context (e.g., regardless of whether orphaned children exist or not).

It would be extremely irresponsible to allow the practice of polygyny in a society in times of peace when there is no significant numerical imbalance between men and women, where the number of widowed women with small children is insignificantly low, and where there are properly functioning systems of adoption and care through orphanages. Some fuqaha” have fabricated long lists of reasons why men are allowed to marry more than one wife.

They have said, for example, that polygyny could be justified if a woman cannot give birth, or if she is chronically ill, or if she has acquired some sort of physical or mental disability. These reasons are in our opinion totally unacceptable and completely against the essence of Allah’s revelation. We need to ask the fuqaha”, ‘why only women’?

Can men not become sterile, barren, and impotent? Are there not men who are disabled or chronically ill? Why do you not allow women to be polygamous and let them marry a second, third, or fourth co-husband?

Let us reiterate that Allah’s main concern was to create justice for orphaned children and to call for mercy for widowed mothers of young children. Polygyny was proposed as a solution to the social dilemma of not being able to care justly for orphans.

It was not to solve the sexual problems a marital couple might have! And a restriction to monogamy was issued immediately afterwards covering the situation where a father faced the social problem of an unbalanced treatment between his blood children and the children he  adopted.

Verse 4:127 of the same sura basically reissues the moral appeal of verses 4:2–6:They ask you for instruction concerning the women; say: ‘God does instruct you about them. And (remember) what has been rehearsed unto you in the book, concerning the orphans of women [ يتامى النساء] to whom you give not the portions prescribed, and yet whom you desire to marry, as also concerning the children who are weak and oppressed: that you stand firm for justice [ al-qist] to orphans. There is not a good deed which you do, but God is well-acquainted therewith’. (Nisa”:127)

This verse has not escaped the superficial readings of traditional exegetes. Although the verse reiterates the previous call for ‘justice to orphans’ (ليتامى بالقسط) almost word for word, most commentators do not link this verse with 4:2–6, because of their misreading of ‘orphans of women’ (يتامى النساء), which they understood to mean ‘orphan women’.

There are several considerations that speak against this interpretation by scholars. The Arabic يتامى النساء contains a genitive construct (literally ‘the orphans of the women’) and not an attributive compound of noun and adjective (i.e., women who are orphans, or orphan women). Also, the Arabic term nisa” is the plural of imra”a, a woman who has reached marital age. Orphans, however, are by definition (4:6) not yet of marital age, thus, to call someone an orphan woman is a contradiction in terms,  and as nonsensical as to call a male person an ‘orphan man’ (because male orphans are by definition minor boys). In sum, verse 4:127 must be understood in connection with the orphan verses 4:2–6 because both similarly call upon people to stand up for justice to orphans (children!). To interpret 4:127 in the context of orphan women is a mischievous attempt to draw the attention away from the true message of the verse.


The Application of the Theory of Limits


The verse of polygyny contains an upper and lower limit whose exact definition has to be stated in quantitative and/or qualitative terms.

  1. Quantitative limits:

The purely quantitative calculation is based on the passage ‘marryb[…] two or three or four’, starting with the number two, that is, double the number of the first wife. Since a man cannot marry himself or half a woman, we infer that the lower limit of marriage is one and that the upper limit is four. The separate presentation of each number, ‘marry […] two or three or four’, instead of saying ‘marry up to four’ stresses that we are dealing here with whole numbers, not with fractions, implying a ‘whole’ commitment, not just a ‘fractional’ 0.9, for example. If we prohibited polygyny completely we would still be within Allah’s limits as we would legally (and quantitatively) stand on the lower limit (of one).

No verse of the Book explicitly prohibits us from doing so. If we allowed polygyny with up to four women, we would move between Allah’s limits towards the upper limit (of four).

By focusing on a purely quantitative interpretation of the polygyny verse, traditional Islamic legislation has done exactly this and has allowed polygynous marriages without any qualitative considerations.

The only qualification permitted, with regard to the conditional clause ‘but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly’, was to demand a balanced treatment of all co-wives. As this condition is difficult to meet, some schools of law came to the conclusion that one wife  should be the norm and that only in exceptional circumstances should polygynous relationships be permitted.

  1. Qualitative limits:

The qualitative limits are defined by the virginal status of the woman. If she is still a virgin she will be treated differently from a woman who has lost her virginity. And if she has lost her virginity, one will have to qualify whether she is a divorced woman or a widow. This qualitative assessment is needed to link the conditional clause ‘If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans…’ to the response ‘[then] marry women of your choice, two or three or four…’. If we include these qualitative criteria in our analysis of polygyny, we come to the following conclusion:

1) with regards to the first wife, no specification is given: she might be a virgin, a divorcée or a widow;

2) the marriage to co-wives two, three and four is, however, qualified by a reference to ‘justice to orphans’, from which we infer that co-wives two to four must be widowed mothers of orphans, women who have lost their virginity.

In this case, the quantitative limits are still between one and four, while the qualitative criteria restrict polygynous relationships to marriages of widows with small children. The marriage contract must include the adoption and financial support of the orphaned children by a man who is already married to a first wife.

legislators are encouraged to issue polygyny laws in the light of the social and cultural conditions of the time. If in times of war we face, for example, a serious shortage of men and a sudden increase of fatherless children, legislators may consider changing laws that prescribe monogamous relationships and introduce laws that allow polygyny of up to four widows.

This may include permission to marry more than two widow-wives who have no children at all. Absolutely forbidden are marriages to widows if the potential husband is not willing to adopt the orphans whom the widow wanted to bring into the new marriage.