Polygyny – C
The Wives of the Prophet
Some clarifying words are now in order with regards to Muhammad’s polygynous marriages (to more than four wives) which has caused enormous irritation amongst the critics of Islam in the past. What we need to consider is that Muhammad’s mission took place during a transition period between two historical epochs of humankind.
History has been in two stages: the ages of human civilizations before Muhammad’s mission and after it.
The current age (‘after his mission’) will last until the coming of the Last Hour. Even though Muhammad’s messengerhood introduced the beginning of the second historical epoch (‘after his mission’), his own marriages were still arranged according to the traditions and customs of the old epoch (‘before his mission’). This is confirmed by the following verse:
There can be no difficulty to the prophet in what God has indicated to him as a duty. It was the practice (approved) of God [ سنة الله] amongst those of old who have passed away. And the command of God is a decree determined. (Ahzab:38)
We should avoid judging his polygynous marriages by the standards and norms of the second historical period he helped to initiate. We should not, for example, postulate that to marry more than four wives was a special dispensation for prophets since this presupposes that a restriction on polygyny was already in place as a norm at Muhammad’s time, but this clearly was not the case.
It follows from this that we are not supposed to imitate Muhammad’s example with regard to his marriages. Note that the previous verse explicitly uses the term ‘prophet’ (nabiy) and not ‘messenger’ (rasul ), and we know that only what Muhammad did as a messenger is meant to be a role model to be followed by the Muslim-Believers:
You have indeed in the apostle [rasul] of God a beautiful pattern (of conduct)… (Ahzab:21) Verse 38 of Surat Ahzab makes the point that Allah had asked His Prophet to do things that were ‘practice amongst those of old who have passed away’, which is a clear sign for us not to follow Muhammad in that. Two things can be deduced from this:
- The normative study of the Prophet’s marriages is a pointless exercise because it would inevitably mean to assess his polygynous relationships from the perspective of contemporary norms and practices. It would confuse the standards of his pre-mission marital practices with the post-mission marital norms that his messengerhood (and this excludes his marriages!) aimed to introduce.
- In as much as Muhammad’s polygynous marriages cannot be a model for us to follow, the same is true regarding the behavior of Muhammad’s wives. Allah says: ‘O consorts of the prophet! ( يا نساء النبي) You are not like any of the (other) women…’
(Ahzab:32). This verse addresses only the ‘women of the prophet’, indicating that no legislation is intended here, just information that is not binding legally (it is just suggested practice)
Concluding Remarks on Polygyny
We have seen that permission of polygyny is conditional (expressed in the clause ‘if you fear…’). Allah gave it, as we pointed out, in order to solve an acute social problem (surplus of women) in the war-torn society of seventh-century Arabia. It is now up to us to either use Allah’s permission if, and only if, the condition (fear) is fulfilled and the social circumstances are similar. If the condition and circumstances are not given, we must not permit polygyny.
This may lead to a situation in which one country will introduce a polygyny law, while another country may abolish it because the country’s political and economic situation is entirely different. In both instances, however, legislators have to back up their decision by statistical data, representative surveys of existing marital relationships, and consultation with the population. If legal decisions are taken on the basis of sound empirical evidence, and a country like Syria allows polygamy while Saudi Arabia prohibits it, we will have to accept that the two legislative decisions, even if contradictory, are both sound. Should the social circumstances in these countries change again, polygyny legislation will have to be reconsidered; therefore neither the decision in Syria nor that in Saudi Arabia is forever fixed and eternally valid.
The dilemma of traditional jurisprudence is that the fuqaha” never bothered to consult people and ask what they think about polygyny.
They have been so occupied with the task to implement Allah’s rule on earth, based on their narrow understanding of the concept of حاكمية, that they forgot to ask what this rule actually meant for people in their daily life. Far from being a practical solution to real problems, polygyny has become a matter of ‘right or wrong’ (haram au halal ), while they ignore the fact that a haram interdiction is all comprehensive and implies an eternally valid taboo, and that halal allows for changing legislation on the basis of empirical proof, statistical data, and proper parliamentary debate.
As a matter of fact, polygynous relationships are not a matter of ‘right or wrong’. If a country has ruled that polygyny is forbidden (on the grounds that the state provides enough care for orphaned children and sufficient financial support for widowed mothers of small children), a violation of that law must be sanctioned by social disapproval and prosecuted by the state authorities, but it must not be classified (religiously) as ‘adultery’ or ‘sin’. If a country decides to ban polygyny it does not mean, as some claim, to prohibit what Allah has allowed since God gave us the right to legislate in these matters.
If someone, for example, wants to ban smoking in public places (which Allah allowed), this person will have to provide hard evidence for the harmful effects of smoking on people’s health, and on this basis parliament might then decide to ban smoking in pubs, restaurants, and workplaces. Such a ban neither deliberately ignores Allah’s permission nor is it eternally fixed (because one might in future develop a kind of tobacco that is not harmful). One has to draw a fine line between absolutely forbidden things (haram taboos) and those that are temporarily banned (ممنوع). Human legislation can never claim to have stipulated absolute taboos (the prerogative of Allah) because circumstances might change that require new legislation;
and those practices (e.g., polygyny, smoking) that used to be permitted might be found to undermine public good, health, and welfare which would necessitate their public ban (although not forever).
We need to understand the status of the prophetical Sunna in similar ways. During his lifetime, Muhammad exercised ijtihad in matters of Allah’s permission (by either ordering or banning what Allah had permitted), but none of Muhammad’s decisions have eternal validity.
Today, prophetical Sunna is embodied in the many academic institutions and legislative assemblies that a modern nation-state possesses. Matters of rituals and religious worship are different; they are not part of Muhammad’s prophetical Sunna (only of his Sunna as a messenger) and are therefore dealt with by muftis and their إفتاء councils.