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Polygamy in Islam


By Sami Zaatari





The Quran allows Muslim’s to marry more than one wife, up to 4 maximum, the Quran says:


YUSUFALI: If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, Marry women of your choice, Two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess, that will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice.

PICKTHAL: And if ye fear that ye will not deal fairly by the orphans, marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if ye fear that ye cannot do justice (to so many) then one (only) or (the captives) that your right hands possess. Thus it is more likely that ye will not do injustice.

SHAKIR: And if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards orphans, then marry such women as seem good to you, two and three and four; but if you fear that you will not do justice (between them), then (marry) only one or what your right hands possess; this is more proper, that you may not deviate from the right course.


This issue has come under attack by Islamic critics, they claim that this is simply made to bring more sexual pleasure to Muslim man, and that it is something very uncivilized to be married to 4 women at once.

In this article we shall see what the Islamic scholars say regarding polygamy and what its function is, by doing so it will clear several misconceptions, and shall help non-Muslims have a better understand of Islam, while at the same time it shall explain things to Muslims as well if they had some difficulties with the passage.

Let us first post the tafsir of Ibn Kathir regarding this verse:

The Permission to Marry Four Women

Allah's statement,

[مَثْنَى وَثُلَـثَ وَرُبَاعَ]

(two or three, or four), means, marry as many women as you like, other than the orphan girls, two, three or four. We should mention that Allah's statement in another Ayah,

[جَاعِلِ الْمَلَـئِكَةِ رُسُلاً أُوْلِى أَجْنِحَةٍ مَّثْنَى وَثُلَـثَ وَرُبَـعَ]

(Who made the angels messengers with wings, - two or three or four) [35:1], does not mean that other angels do not have more than four wings, as there are proofs that some angels do have more wings. Yet, men are prohibited from marrying more than four wives, as the Ayah decrees, since the Ayah specifies what men are allowed of wives, as Ibn `Abbas and the majority of scholars stated. If it were allowed for them to have more than four wives, the Ayah would have mentioned it. Imam Ahmad recorded that Salim said that his father said that Ghilan bin Salamah Ath-Thaqafi had ten wives when he became Muslim, and the Prophet said to him, "Choose any four of them (and divorce the rest).'' During the reign of `Umar, Ghilan divorced his remaining wives and divided his money between his children. When `Umar heard news of this, he said to Ghilan, "I think that the devil has conveyed to your heart the news of your imminent death, from what the devil hears during his eavesdropping. It may as well be that you will not remain alive but for a little longer. By Allah! You will take back your wives and your money, or I will take possession of this all and will order that your grave be stoned as is the case with the grave of Abu Righal (from Thamud, who was saved from their fate because he was in the Sacred Area. But, when he left it, he was tormented like they were).'' Ash-Shafi`i, At-Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah, Ad-Daraqutni and Al-Bayhaqi collected this Hadith up to the Prophet's statement, "Choose any four of them.'' Only Ahmad collected the full version of this Hadith. Therefore, had it been allowed for men to marry more than four women at the same time, the Prophet would have allowed Ghilan to keep more than four of his wives since they all embraced Islam with him. When the Prophet commanded him to keep just four of them and divorce the rest, this indicated that men are not allowed to keep more than four wives at a time under any circumstances. If this is the case concerning those who already had more than four wives upon embracing Islam, then this ruling applies even more so to marrying more than four.

Marrying Only One Wife When One Fears He Might not Do Justice to His Wives

Allah's statement,

[فَإِنْ خِفْتُمْ أَلاَّ تَعْدِلُواْ فَوَحِدَةً أَوْ مَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَـنُكُمْ]

(But if you fear that you will not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one or what your right hands possess.) The Ayah commands, if you fear that you will not be able to do justice between your wives by marrying more than one, then marry only one wife, or satisfy yourself with only female captives, for it is not obligatory to treat them equally, rather it is recommended. So if one does so, that is good, and if not, there is no harm on him. In another Ayah, Allah said,

[وَلَن تَسْتَطِيعُواْ أَن تَعْدِلُواْ بَيْنَ النِّسَآءِ وَلَوْ حَرَصْتُمْ]

(You will never be able to do perfect justice between wives even if it is your ardent desire) [4:129]. Allah said,

[ذلِكَ أَدْنَى أَلاَّ تَعُولُواْ]

(That is nearer to prevent you from Ta`ulu), meaning, from doing injustice. Ibn Abi Hatim, Ibn Marduwyah and Abu Hatim Ibn Hibban, in his Sahih, recorded that `A'ishah said that, the Prophet said that the Ayah,

[ذلِكَ أَدْنَى أَلاَّ تَعُولُواْ]

(That is nearer to prevent you from Ta`ulu), means, from doing injustice. However, Ibn Abi Hatim said that his father said that this Hadith to the Prophet is a mistake, for it should be attributed to `A'ishah not the Prophet ... Ibn Abi Hatim reported from Ibn `Abbas, `A'ishah, Mujahid, `Ikrimah, Al-Hasan, Abu Malik, Abu Razin, An-Nakha`i, Ash-Sha`bi, Ad-Dahhak, `Ata' Al-Khurasani, Qatadah, As-Suddi and Muqatil bin Hayyan that Ta`ulu means to deviate [from justice].

So as you can see, there are certain conditions that must be met before a Muslim can carry out the action of polygamy. He must be able to deal with each wife fairly and equally, and if this is not in his capacity then he should not go through polygamy since it would be unfair on the women, and would be too hard for him, which would result in a total collapse of the marriage which will cause many problems.

One Sheikh writes:

1 – The ruling on plural marriage in Islam: 

The shar’i text which permits plural marriage is: 

Allaah says in His Holy Book (interpretation of the meaning): 

“And if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphan girls then marry (other) women of your choice, two or three, or four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one or (slaves) that your right hands possess. That is nearer to prevent you from doing injustice”

[al-Nisa’ 4:3] 

This is a Qur’aanic text which shows that plural marriage is allowed. According to Islamic sharee’ah, a man is permitted to marry one, two, three or four wives, in the sense that he may have this number of wives at one time. It is not permissible for him to have more than four. This was stated by the mufassireen (commentators on the Qur’aan) and fuqaha’ (jurists), and there is consensus among the Muslims on this point, with no differing opinions. 

It should be noted that there are conditions attached to plural marriage: 

1 – Justice or fairness. 

Allaah says (interpretation of the meaning): 

but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one”

[al-Nisa’ 4:3] 

This aayah is indicates that just treatment is a condition for plural marriage to be permitted. If a man is afraid that he will not be able to treat his wives justly if he marries more than one, then it is forbidden for him to marry more than one. What is meant by the justice that is required in order for a man to be permitted to have more than one wife is that he should treat his wives equally in terms of spending, clothing, spending the night with them and other material things that are under his control. 

With regard to justice or fairness in terms of love, he is not held accountable for that, and that is not required of him because he has no control over that. This is what is meant by the verse, 

“You will never be able to do perfect justice between wives even if it is your ardent desire”

[al-Nisa’ 4:129 – interpretation of the meaning]. 

2 – The ability to spend on one’s wives: 

The evidence for this condition is the verse: 

“And let those who find not the financial means for marriage keep themselves chaste, until Allaah enriches them of His Bounty”

[al-Noor 24:33 – interpretation of the meaning] 

In this verse Allaah commands those who are able to get married but cannot find the financial means, to remain chaste. One such example is not having enough money to pay the mahr (dowry) and not being able to spend on one’s wife. (al-Mufassal fi Ahkaam al-Mar’ah, part 6, p. 286). 

2 – The wisdom behind permitting plural marriage 

1 – Plural marriage helps to increase the numbers of the ummah (nation, Muslim community). It is known that the numbers can only be increased through marriage, and the number of offspring gained through plural marriage will be greater than that achieved through marriage to one wife. 

Wise people know that increasing the number of offspring will strengthen the ummah and increase the number of workers in it, which will raise its economic standard – if the leaders run the affairs of state well and make use of its resources in a proper manner. Ignore the claims of those who say that increasing the numbers of human beings poses a danger to the earth’s resources which are insufficient, for Allaah the Most Wise Who has prescribed plural marriage has guaranteed to provide provision for His slaves and has created on earth what is more than sufficient for them. Whatever shortfall exists is due to the injustice of administrations, governments and individuals, and due to bad management. Look at China, for example, the greatest nation on earth as far as number of inhabitants is concerned, and it is regarded as one of the strongest nations in the world, and other nations would think twice before upsetting China; it is also one of the great industrialized nations. Who would dare think of attacking China, I wonder? And why? 

2 – Statistics show that the number of women is greater than the number of men; if each man were to marry just one woman, this would mean that some women would be left without a husband, which would have a harmful effect on her and on society: 

The harmful effect is that she would never find a husband to take care of her interests, to give her a place to live, to spend on her, to protect her from haraam desires, and to give her children to bring her joy. This may lead to deviance and going astray, except for those on whom Allaah has mercy. 

With regard to the harmful effects on society, it is well known that this woman who is left without a husband may deviate from the straight path and follow the ways of promiscuity, so she may fall into the swamp of adultery and prostitution – may Allaah keep us safe and sound – which leads to the spread of immorality and the emergence of fatal diseases such as AIDS and other contagious diseases for which there is no cure. It also leads to family breakdown and the birth of children whose identity is unknown, and who do not know who their fathers are. 

Those children do not find anyone to show compassion towards them or any mature man to raise them properly. When they go out into the world and find out the truth, that they are illegitimate, that is reflected in their behaviour, and they become exposed to deviance and going astray. They may even bear grudges against society, and who knows? They may become the means of their country’s destruction, leaders of deviant gangs, as is the case in many nations in the world. 

3 – Men are exposed to incidents that may end their lives, for they work in dangerous professions. They are the soldiers who fight in battle, and more men may die than women. This is one of the things that raise the percentage of husbandless women, and the only solution to this problem is plural marriage. 

4 – 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. 

In addition to that, a woman menstruates each month, and when she gives birth, she bleeds for forty days (this post-partum bleeding is called nifaas in Arabic), at which time a man cannot have intercourse with his wife, because intercourse at the time of menstruation or nifaas is forbidden, and the harm that it causes has been proven medically. So plural marriage is permitted when one is able to be fair and just. 

5 – Plural marriage does not exist only in the Islamic religion, rather it was known among the previous nations. Some of the Prophets were married to more than one woman. The Prophet of Allaah Sulaymaan (Solomon) had ninety wives. At the time of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him), there were some men who became Muslims who had eight or five wives. The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) told them to keep four wives and to divorce the rest. 

6 – A wife may be barren, or she may not meet her husband’s needs, or he may be unable to have intercourse with her because she is sick. A husband may long to have children, which is a legitimate desire, and he may want to have a sex life within marriage, which is something permissible, and the only way is to marry another wife. It is only fair for the wife to agree to remain his wife and to allow him to marry another. 

7 – A woman may be one of the man’s relatives and have no one to look after her, and she is unmarried or a widow whose husband has died, and the man may think that the best thing to do for her is to include her in his household as a wife along with his first wife, so that he will both keep her chaste and spend on her. This is better for her than leaving her alone and being content only to spend on her. 

8 – There are other shar’i interests that call for plural marriages, such as strengthening the bonds between families, or strengthening the bonds between a leader and some of his people or group, and he may think that one of the ways of achieving this aim is to become related to them through marriage, even if that is through plural marriage. 


Some people may object and say that plural marriage means having co-wives in one house, and that the disputes and enmity that may arise between co-wives will have an effect on the husband, children and others, and this is harmful and should be avoided, and the only way to prevent that is to ban plural marriage.  

Response to the objection: 

The response to that is that family arguments may occur even when there is only one wife, and they may not even happen when there is more than one wife, as we see in real life. Even if we assume that there may be more arguments than in a marriage to one wife, even if we accept that they may be harmful and bad, the harm is outweighed by the many good things in a plural marriage. Life is not entirely bad or entirely good, but what everyone hopes is that the good will outweigh the bad, and this principle is what applies in the permission for plural marriage.  

Moreover, each wife has the right to her own, separate accommodation as prescribed in Islam. It is not permissible for the husband to force his wives to live together in one house. 

Another objection: 

If we allow men to have plural wives, why are women not allowed to have multiple husbands, why does a woman not have the right to marry more than one man? 

Response to this objection: 

There is no point in giving a woman the right to marry multiple husbands, rather that is beneath her dignity and she would not know the lineage of her children, because she is the one who bears the offspring, and it is not permissible for the offspring to be formed from the sperm of a number of men lest the lineage of the child be lost and no one will know who is responsible for bringing up the child; this will lead to breakdown of families, loss of ties between fathers and children, which is not permitted in Islam as it is not in the interests of the woman or of the child or of society as a whole.

 Al-Mufassal fi Ahkaam al-Mar’ah, part 6, p. 290

Other Islamic scholars on polygamy:

we would like to cite for you the following fatwa issued by Sheikh `Attiyah Saqr, former head of Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee, in this regard. It reads:

“In fact, there is a great Divine wisdom behind the permissibility of marrying more than one wife. According to the dictate of man's nature, his sexual desire may reach the stage that one wife may not be sufficient for him. As for woman, there are situations and natural phenomena that control and restrict her sexual desire; part of this is the nursing period, menstruation and in many other things that are pertaining to her nature.

In addition, if we are to allow such a degradation of allowing woman to marry more than a husband at one time, she will be no more than a mere object of sexual satisfaction. What makes the matter worse is the fact that conflict and dispute over the child lineage will emerge, and this will result in a total chaos and sexual deviation.

Viewed in another perspectives, polygyny is, in fact, a thing in favor of women themselves. If it happens that a wife becomes invalid or even disinterested in sexual intercourse, how does she expect her husband to behave? Also, if we suppose that a woman is infertile and her husband has a very great desire for having children, what should he do? Should he resort to adoption or engage in some illicit affairs? The best way to solve the problem is to seek a second wife that helps the first one and preserves the husband from resorting to deviation. Indeed, the society will be safe and secure, and both parties will experience a happy marital life.”

In addition, we would like to cite for you the following article on polygyny and polyandry; it reads:

"First, we’d address the issue of men having four wives before answering the question as to why women cannot have multiple husbands.

I think that among many other misconceptions that people have about Islam is their belief that Islam unconditionally allows a Muslim to have four wives. In this regard, some scholars have gone as far as to say that keeping four wives is a man’s essential physiological and psychological need. I am afraid that this point of view is in direct contradiction with the Qur'an. It is, in fact, a distortion of the stance of Islam.

According to the Qur'an, in normal circumstances, a family comes into being only through wedlock between man and woman. A subtle reference to this is made by the Qur'an in the verse that reads: “ O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate and from them twain hath spread abroad a multitude of men and women.”(An-Nisa': 1) where it alludes to the fact that when Almighty Allah created Adam, He created for him Eve as his wife.

Naturally, had Almighty Allah wished that a man should have more than one wife, He would have created more wives for Adam instead of just one. This shows us that as far as a man’s physiological and psychological needs are concerned, they are completely satisfied even if he has a single wife.

Let us now take a look at the verses, generally thought to be the basis of polygyny; But we'll firstly make a brief word about their background.

A greater part of surat An-Nisa', in which these verses occur, deals with the society and its reformation. In this regard, the foremost sphere in which directives were given was that of the welfare of the orphans since they are one of the weakest sections of society.

In Madinah, there came a time when many Muslims were martyred in various battles. As a result, many children were orphaned. In this situation, Almighty Allah called upon Muslims to look after these children and guard their wealth and property. In this regard, the already in-practice custom of polygyny in the Arabian society was resorted to. Muslims were told that if they were afraid that they would not be able to take proper care of these orphans, they should marry their widowed mothers.

We will now take a look at the following Qur'anic verse: “If you fear that you would not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry two, three or four of the women who are lawful for you. But if you fear that you would not be able to deal justly [with them] then [restrict yourself to] one only." (An-Nisa': 3)

Three implications of this verse are very clear:

Firstly, polygyny is related to some social need.

Secondly, the number of wives should not exceed four in any circumstances.

Thirdly, if a person cannot maintain balance and do justice to his wives, he must restrict himself to one.

In other words, while in normal circumstances, a family comes into being through the union of a single man and woman, there may be certain exceptional circumstances in which the practice of polygyny may be benefited from with the restrictions mentioned in the above-mentioned verse.

For example, in our society, many young widows and divorcees with small kids experience a life full of misery with no one around to take them as wives. Such widows and children can lead normal lives if the dispensation of polygyny is benefited from. Similarly, many young women who, after embracing Islam, have been abandoned by their non-Muslim husbands need Muslims to marry them. So, a number of problems can be solved by using this permission, which would have been impossible to overcome had Islam totally forbidden polygyny.

With this background, we will now come to your question regarding polyandry (woman having many husbands at the same time). It is common sense that if a family is to come into being, not only should there be only one head but also one person should not be placed under the command of multiple heads, otherwise, great anarchy would result.

Since, in Muslim family, husbands takes the horn of leadership, if a wife has more than one husband, she would be placed under the authority of many husbands at the same time. This of course would only hasten to tear apart the fabric of a family unit. Furthermore, the lineage of the child borne by a woman having more than one husband cannot be ascertained. How would the father be ascertained?

Someone might say that a DNA test would be able to do so. However, even if this test is used, there still are great chances of dissent between all the husbands with one claiming to be the father and the other denying him.

Owing to these reasons, Islam makes it forbidden for a woman to be married to more than one husband at a time."

Also Salem al-Hasi writes:

Among the numerous misconceptions about Islam, is that it is the only religion that permits polygamy, and that Muslims are the only people who might practice it. On the contrary, polygamy was never prohibited in Judaism and Christianity, until a few centuries ago. Besides the fact that most of the prophets mentioned in the Old Testament were polygamous - both Jews and Christians practiced polygamy throughout a long period of their history. However, when examining the teachings of both faiths, neither Christianity nor Judaism provided clear guidelines and regulations in regards to this practice.

In contrast with Judaism and Christianity, Islam dealt with polygamy more clearly. It provides legal requirements that restrain it, to a certain extent and this amounted to the discouragement of practicing polygamy.

First of all, you should know that the general norm in Islam is monogamy and not polygamy. Also, the position of Islam towards polygamy is that it is neither mandatory nor encouraged, but merely permitted. More importantly, the permission to practice polygamy is associated with compassion towards widows and orphans, and is not associated with mere sexual satisfaction. Allah says:

If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, Marry women of your choice, Two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess, that will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice.

Surah 4 Verse 3

Dr. Jamal Badawi, a prominent Egyptian scholar residing and teaching in Canada,wrote in an essay titled, Polygamy in Islamic Law:

‘It is evident that the association of "polygamy" with Islam is not only unfair or biased but based on a serious misunderstanding. Polygamy was practiced, often without limitations nor regulations , in almost all cultures. It was sanctioned by various religions, and practiced, both before Islam, and for many centuries thereafter. The Mormons presently practice it - though secretly. Christian missionaries, in Africa and other areas, where polygamy is a social necessity, also allow it.

It is both, honest and accurate, to say that it was Islam that regulated this practice, limited it, made it more humane and instituted equal rights and status for all wives. What the Qur’anic decrees amount to, taken together, is a discouragement of polygamy, unless necessity for it exists.’

Now, we come to the main part of your question; which is why in Islam polygamy is permissible, whereas polyandry (a woman marrying more than one man) is prohibited. I believe that the answer has many dimensions, which are related to the physical nature of woman and her position in the society.

Yet, above all reasons, comes the fact that polygamy fits within the framework of the purpose of shari`a (Islamic law), whereas polyandry goes directly against its objectives. The purpose of revealing shari`a was to serve the interests of people (masalih al-`ibad).

According to scholars of Islam, these interests are preserving:

  1. Belief (deen)
  2. Life (an-nafs)
  3. Intellect and reason(al-`aql)
  4. Wealth (al-maal)
  5. Family and lineage (an-nasl)

All the rules, regulations, and laws in the Islamic legal system are dedicated to preserve these five major interests. They are known as the five ultimate objectives (al-kuliyaat al-khams).

Hence, the rules and regulations related to marriage and polygamy were drawn to preserve an-nasl (family and lineage). The wisdom of preserving an-nasl is to assure the recognition of the right lineage of people and their children, by which the social kinship and social network is kept sound and stable.

Since lineage through the fathers is hard to demonstrate compared to mothers, it would be saved and preserved through polygamy. On the other hand, it would be impossible through polyandry. In the case of polygamy, the father of a child is always known and therefore the lineage is easily determined. As for the case of polyandry, the father is not necessarily obvious and therefore the lineage of a child is also obscured. It was mentioned in answer Absent fathers that DNA is still not accepted as sufficient evidence to prove lineage by Muslim Jurists.

I would like at the end, to add shortly that the philosophy of dealing with body and sexuality in Islam is a very important issue here and comparative insights are very revealing. Giving the human being the ultimate control over the body without any shared norms and accepting relativist morality to rule in this domain might guarantee satisfaction of desires, but it would not allow the society to be built on strong pillars of a sound concept of the family, social coherence and also common civic virtues.

Polygamy did not disappear in modern societies, but it just became practiced outside the bonds of marriage. It may be under the label of individual choice and freedom, but is happens with no commitment, rights or responsibilities put on the shoulders of either party.

It resulted in the dissolution of norms of sexuality in orientation, preference, forms and practices. So from a realistic point of view, Islam addresses realities and sets boundaries and formulates balances of reciprocal rights and responsibilities. Needless to say, that in order to understand the social logic of Islam, this issue needs to be framed within the whole set of norms and rules upon which the Islamic society is built. If we do otherwise, our view is no longer comprehensive but partial and superficial.

knows the best

Prominent scholar Dr.Zakir Naik writes:


Q. Why is a man allowed to marry more than one wife in Islam? Or why is polygamy allowed in Islam?

1. Definition of Polygamy

Polygamy means a system of marriage whereby one person has more than one spouse. Polygamy can be of two types. One is polygyny where a man marries more than one woman, and the other is polyandry, where a woman marries more than one man. In Islam, limited polygyny is permitted and polyandry is completely prohibited. Now coming to the original question, why is a man allowed to have more than one wife?

2. Qur’an is the only religious scripture in the world that says “marry only one”

Qur’an is the only religious book, on the face of this earth, that contains the phrase ‘marry only one’. There is no other religious book that instructs men to have only one wife. In none of the religious scriptures like the Vedas, the Ramayan, the Mahabharat, the Geeta or the Bible does one find a restriction on the number of wives. According to these scriptures one can marry as many as one wishes. It was only later, that the Hindu priests and the Christian Church restricted the number of wives to one.

Many Hindu religious personalities, according to their scriptures, had multiple wives. King Dashrat, the father of Rama, had more than one wife. Krishna had several wives.

In earlier times, Christian men were permitted as many wives as they wished, since the Bible puts no restriction on the number of wives. It was only a couple of centuries ago that the Church restricted the number of wives to one.

Polygyny is permitted in Judaism. According to Talmudic law, Abraham had 2 wives, and Solomon had hundreds of wives. The practice of polygyny continued till Rabbi Gershom ben Yehudah. (960 A.D to 1030 A.D) issued an edict against it. The Jewish Sephardic communities living in Muslim countries continued the practice till as late as 1950, when an Act of the chief Rabbinate of Israel extended the ban on marrying more than one wife.

3. Hindus are more polygamous than Muslims

The report of the ‘Committee of The Status of Woman in Islam’, published in 1975 mentions on page numbers 66,67 that the percentage of polygamous marriages between the year 1951 -1961 was 5.06 among the Hindus and only 4.31 among the Muslims. According to Indian law only Muslim men are permitted to have more than one wife. It is illegal for any non-Muslim in India to have more than one wife. Despite it being illegal, Hindus have more multiple wives as compared to the Muslim. One can imagine what would have been the percentage of polygamous marriages among the Hindus if the Indian government had made it legal for them. Earlier, there was no restriction even on Hindu men with respect to the number of wives allowed. It was only in 1954, when the Hindu Marriage Act was passed that it became illegal for a Hindu to have more than one wife. At present it is the Indian Law that restricts a Hindu man from having more than one wife and not the Hindu scriptures.

Let us now analyse why Islam allows a man to have more than one wife.

4. Qur’an permits limited polygyny

As I mentioned earlier, Qur’an is the only religious book on the face of the earth that says ‘marry only one’. The context of this phrase is the following verse from Surah Nisa of the Glorious Qur’an: ‘Marry woman of your choice in twos’ threes’ or fours’ but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly, (with them), then only one’ [Al-Qur’an 4:3]

Before the Qur’an was revealed, there was no upper limit for polygyny and many men had scores of wives, some even hundreds. Islam put an upper limit of four wives. Islam gives a man permission to marry two, three or four women, only on the condition that he deals with them justly. In the same chapter i.e. Surah Nisa verse 129 says: ‘It is very difficult to be just and fair between women’. [Al-Qur’an (4:129)]

Therefore polygyny is not a rule but an exception. Many people are under the misconception that it is compulsory for a Muslim man to marry more than one wife.

Broadly, Islam has five categories of Do’s and Dont’s.
(i)      Farz i.e compulsory
(ii)     Mustahab i.e recommended or encouraged
(iii)    Mubah i.e permissible
(iv)    Makruh i.e ‘not recommended’ or discouraged
(v)     Haram i.e prohibited or forbidden

Polygyny falls in the middle category of things that are permissible. It cannot be said that a Muslim who has two, three or four wives is a better Muslim as compared to a Muslim who has only one wife.

5. Average life span of females is more than that of males

By nature males and females are born in approximately the same ratio. During paediatric age however, in childhood itself a female child has more immunity than a male child. A female child can fight the germs and diseases better than the male child. For this reason, there are more deaths among males as compared to the females during paediatric age.

During wars, there are more men killed as compared to women. More men die due to accidents and diseases than women. The average life span of females is more than that of males, and at any given time one finds more widows in the world than widowers.

6. India has more male population than female due to female foeticide and infanticide.

India is one of the few countries, along with the other neighbouring countries, in which the female population is less than the male population. The reason lies in the high rate of female infanticide in India, and the fact that more than one million female foetuses are aborted every year in this country, after they are identified as females. If this evil practice is stopped, then India too will have more females as compared to males.

7. World female population is more than male population

In the USA, women outnumber men by 7.8 million. New York alone has one million more females as compared to the number of males, and of the male population of New York one-third are gays i.e sodomites. The USA as a whole has more than twenty-five million gays. This means that these people do not wish to marry women. Great Britain has four million more females as compared to males. Germany has five million more females as compared to males. Russia has nine million more females than males. God alone knows how many million more females there are in the whole world as compared to males.

8. Restricting each and every man to have only one wife is not practical

Even if every man got married to one woman, there would still be more than thirty million more females in USA who would not be able to get husbands (considering that America has twenty five million gays). There would be more than four million females in Great Britain 5 million females in Germany and nine million females in Russia alone who would not be able to find a husband.

Suppose my sister happens to be one of the unmarried women living in USA, or suppose your sister happens to be one of the unmarried women in USA. The only two options remaining for her are that she either marries a man who already has a wife or becomes public property. There is no other option. I have posed this question to hundreds of non-Muslims and all opted for the first. However a few smart people before accepting, said they would prefer their sisters to remain virgins. Biologically, it is not possible for an average man or a woman to remain celibate throughout life. It may be possible in exceptional cases of one in ten thousand. In the vast majority, the person either gets married or performs illicit sex or indulges in other sexual perversions. Sex hormones are released in the adult body every day. That is the reason why Islam has prohibited monasticism.

In Western society it is common for a man to have mistresses and/or multiple extra-marital affairs, in which case, the woman leads a disgraceful, unprotected life. The same society, however, cannot accept a man having more than one wife, in which women retain their honourable, dignified position in society and lead a protected life.

Thus the only two options before a woman who cannot find a husband is to marry a married man or to become public property. Islam prefers giving women the honourable position by permitting the first option and disallowing the second.

There are several other reasons, why Islam has permitted limited polygyny, but it is mainly to protect the modesty of women.


Dr. Jamal A. Badawi wrote a lot concerning polygamy, he wrote a work titled Polygamy in Islamic Law; we shall reproduce some of his writings regarding polygamy:


 The verse which allows polygamy “was revealed after the battle of Uhud in which many Muslims were killed, leaving widows and orphans for whom due care was incumbent upon the Muslim survivors.(Abd Al-Ati, Hammuda, Islam in Focus, The Canadian Islamic center, Edmonton Alberta, Canada, 1963, p.103.)

The translation of the verse is as follows:

If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two, or three, or four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with them), then (marry) only one….                                  (Qur’an 4:3)

From this verse a number of facts are evident:

  1. That polygamy is neither mandatory, nor encouraged, but merely permitted.
  2. That the permission to practice polygamy is not associated with mere satisfaction of passion. It is rather associated with compassion toward widows and orphans, a matter that is confirmed by the atmosphere in which the verse was revealed.
  3. That even in such a situation, the permission is far more restricted than the normal practice which existed among the Arabs and other people at that time when many married as many as ten or more wives.
  4. That dealing justly with one’s wives is an obligation. This applies to housing, food, clothing, kind treatment..etc., for which the husband is fully responsible. If one is not sure of being able to deal justly with them, the Quran say: “then(marry) only one.”                                                                 (Qur’an 4:3)

 This verse, when combined with another verse in the same chapter, shows some discouragement of such plural marriages. The other verse plainly states:

“You are never able to be fair and just as between women even if it is your ardent desire…”                                                                      (Qur’an  4: 129)

The requirement of justice rules out the fantasy that man can “own as any as he pleases.” It also rules out the concept of “secondary wife,” for all wives have exactly the same status and are entitled to identical rights and claims over their husband. It also implies, according to the Islamic Law, that should the husband fail to provide enough support for any of his wives, she can go to the court and ask for a divorce.

  1. The verse says “Marry,” not kidnap, buy, or seduce. What is “marriage” as understood in Islam? Marriage in Islam is a civil contract which is not valid unless both contracting parties consent to it. Thus no wife can be forced or “given” to a husband who is already married.

 I is thus a free choice of both parties. As to the first wife:

    1. She may be barren or ill and see in polygamy a better solution than divorce.
    2. She may divorce him (unilaterally) if he is married to a second wife provided that the nuptial contract gives her the right of unilateral divorce (Ismah).
    3. She can go to court and ask for a divorce if there is evidence of mistreatment or injustice inflicted upon her.

 But if polygamy is discouraged and loaded with such constraints, could it have been better if the Quran simply forbade it? To answer this question, we may have to raise another one:



Scholars in the past and at present, Muslims and non-Muslims, have consistently pointed out such cases. The following are a few examples which are tied in with the general approach of Islam to individual and social problems.

  1. Individual cases:

1. A man who discovers that his wife is barren, and who at the same time instinctively aspires to have children and heirs.

In a situation as this, the man would either have to:

-Suffer the deprivation of fatherhood for life.

-Divorce his barren wife and get married to another woman who is not barren.

 In many cases, neither solution can be considered as the best alternative. Polygamy would have the advantage of preserving the martial relationship without depriving the man of fathering children of his own.

2. A man whose wife becomes chronically ill would have one of possible alternatives:

 -He may suppress his instinctive sexual needs for the rest of his life.

 -He may divorce his sick wife at the time when she needs his compassion most, and get married to another woman, thus legally satisfying his instinctive needs.

 -Or he could compromise by keeping his sick wife, and secretly take for himself one or more illicit sex partners.

Let us discuss these alternatives from the point of view of the Islamic teachings. The first solution is against human nature. Islam recognizes sex and sexual needs and provides for legitimate means for their satisfaction. The second solution is clearly less compassionate, especially where there is love between the two parties. Further more divorce is described by Prophet Muhammad (P) as the “permitted thing which is hated most by God.” The last solution is plainly against the Islamic teachings which forbid illicit sexual relations in any form.

To sum up, Islam being against immorality, hypocritical pretense of morality, and against divorce unless no better solution is available, provides for a better alternative which is consistent with human nature and with the preservation of pure and legitimate sex relationships. In a situation like this, it is doubtful that any solution would be better than polygamy, which is, after all, an optional solution.

b. Social cases

  1. Anthropologists tell us that among various tribes and societies, polygamy is a social and economic necessity. In some very poor areas, the infant morality is very high. Children on the other hand, are a source of additional labour for the earning capacity of the family. To have more children under such situations would require the practice of polygamy. It is by this very reason Christian missionaries in some African regions justified their permission to local people to practice polygamy without being excommunicated from the church. One researcher has even found, through his studies that women in such societies not only accept polygamy, but some of them even prefer this. (See for example Campbell, D., In the Heart of the Bantuland, Seeley, service and Co.,Ltd., London, 1922, p. 160, and Cory H., Sukuma Law and Customs, Oxford University Press, N.Y., 1953, p.52.)
  2. Aside from cases where women outnumber men, devastating wars, in the past and at present, have taken their roll mainly among men. The result is not simply more women who cannot find husbands, but even more widows who may aspire to a respectable family life. In such a situation, if polygamy is bad, the limitation on polygamy is even far worse.

Both unmarried women and widows are human beings. Unless their instinctive needs are legitimately satisfied, the temptation is great for corruption and immorality. But aside from the moral question these women are also exploited. They are used as tools for men’s pleasure, yet have no guarantees, no rights or security, financial or emotional. Should they become pregnant, it is their burden alone. But even if such women are ready to pay the price for this personally, society also suffers seriously from such situations. The increasing number of illegitimate children born today under conditions such as these provides a potential base for tomorrow’s maladjusted and even criminals. Further more it is inhuman, humiliating for those children to grow up without knowing who their fathers were and without enjoying a lean and normal family life.


Finally, Sherif Abdel Azim writes:

The Quran, too, allowed polygamy, but not without restrictions:

"If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two or three or four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with them, then only one" (Quran 4:3).

The Quran, contrary to the Bible, limited the maximum number of wives to four under the strict condition of treating the wives equally and justly. It should not be understood that the Quran is exhorting the believers to practice polygamy, or that polygamy is considered as an ideal. In other words, the Quran has "tolerated" or "allowed" polygamy, and no more, but why? Why is polygamy permissible ? The answer is simple: there are places and times in which there are compelling social and moral reasons for polygamy. As the above Quranic verse indicates, the issue of polygamy in Islam cannot be understood apart from community obligations towards orphans and widows. Islam as a universal religion suitable for all places and all times could not ignore these compelling obligations.

In most human societies, females outnumber males. In the U.S. there are, at least, eight million more women than men. In a country like Guinea there are 122 females for every 100 males. In Tanzania, there are 95.1 males per 100 females. 55 What should a society do towards such unbalanced sex ratios? There are various solutions, some might suggest celibacy, others would prefer female infanticide (which does happen in some societies in the world today !). Others may think the only outlet is that the society should tolerate all manners of sexual permissiveness: prostitution, sex out of wedlock, homosexuality, etc. For other societies , like most African societies today, the most honorable outlet is to allow polygamous marriage as a culturally accepted and socially respected institution. The point that is often misunderstood in the West is that women in other cultures do not necessarily look at polygamy as a sign of women's degradation. For example, many young African brides , whether Christians or Muslims or otherwise, would prefer to marry a married man who has already proved himself to be a responsible husband. Many African wives urge their husbands to get a second wife so that they do not feel lonely. 56 A survey of over six thousand women, ranging in age from 15 to 59, conducted in the second largest city in Nigeria showed that 60 percent of these women would be pleased if their husbands took another wife. Only 23 percent expressed anger at the idea of sharing with another wife. Seventy-six percent of the women in a survey conducted in Kenya viewed polygamy positively. In a survey undertaken in rural Kenya, 25 out of 27 women considered polygamy to be better than monogamy. These women felt polygamy can be a happy and beneficial experience if the co-wives cooperate with each other. 57 Polygamy in most African societies is such a respectable institution that some Protestant churches are becoming more tolerant of it. A bishop of the Anglican Church in Kenya declared that, "Although monogamy may be ideal for the expression of love between husband and wife, the church should consider that in certain cultures polygyny is socially acceptable and that the belief that polygyny is contrary to Christianity is no longer tenable." 58 After a careful study of African polygamy, Reverend David Gitari of the Anglican Church has concluded that polygamy, as ideally practiced, is more Christian than divorce and remarriage as far as the abandoned wives and children are concerned. 59 I personally know of some highly educated African wives who, despite having lived in the West for many years, do not have any objections against polygamy. One of them, who lives in the U.S., solemnly exhorts her husband to get a second wife to help her in raising the kids.

The problem of the unbalanced sex ratios becomes truly problematic at times of war. Native American Indian tribes used to suffer highly unbalanced sex ratios after wartime losses. Women in these tribes, who in fact enjoyed a fairly high status, accepted polygamy as the best protection against indulgence in indecent activities. European settlers, without offering any other alternative, condemned this Indian polygamy as 'uncivilised'. 60 After the second world war, there were 7,300,000 more women than men in Germany (3.3 million of them were widows). There were 100 men aged 20 to 30 for every 167 women in that age group. 61 Many of these women needed a man not only as a companion but also as a provider for the household in a time of unprecedented misery and hardship. The soldiers of the victorious Allied Armies exploited these women's vulnerability. Many young girls and widows had liaisons with members of the occupying forces. Many American and British soldiers paid for their pleasures in cigarettes, chocolate, and bread. Children were overjoyed at the gifts these strangers brought. A 10 year old boy on hearing of such gifts from other children wished from all his heart for an 'Englishman' for his mother so that she need not go hungry any longer. 62 We have to ask our own conscience at this point: What is more dignifying to a woman? An accepted and respected second wife as in the native Indians' approach, or a virtual prostitute as in the 'civilised' Allies approach? In other words, what is more dignifying to a woman, the Quranic prescription or the theology based on the culture of the Roman Empire?

It is interesting to note that in an international youth conference held in Munich in 1948 the problem of the highly unbalanced sex ratio in Germany was discussed. When it became clear that no solution could be agreed upon, some participants suggested polygamy. The initial reaction of the gathering was a mixture of shock and disgust. However, after a careful study of the proposal, the participants agreed that it was the only possible solution. Consequently, polygamy was included among the conference final recommendations. 63

The world today possesses more weapons of mass destruction than ever before and the European churches might, sooner or later, be obliged to accept polygamy as the only way out. Father Hillman has thoughtfully recognized this fact, "It is quite conceivable that these genocidal techniques (nuclear, biological, chemical..) could produce so drastic an imbalance among the sexes that plural marriage would become a necessary means of survival....Then contrary to previous custom and law, an overriding natural and moral inclination might arise in favour of polygamy. In such a situation, theologians and church leaders would quickly produce weighty reasons and biblical texts to justify a new conception of marriage." 64

To the present day, polygamy continues to be a viable solution to some of the social ills of modern societies. The communal obligations that the Quran mentions in association with the permission of polygamy are more visible at present in some Western societies than in Africa. For example, In the United States today, there is a severe gender crisis in the black community. One out of every twenty young black males may die before reaching the age of 21. For those between 20 and 35 years of age, homicide is the leading cause of death. 65 Besides, many young black males are unemployed, in jail, or on dope. 66 As a result, one in four black women, at age 40, has never married, as compared with one in ten white women. 67 Moreover, many young black females become single mothers before the age of 20 and find themselves in need of providers. The end result of these tragic circumstances is that an increasing number of black women are engaged in what is called 'man-sharing'. 68 That is, many of these hapless single black women are involved in affairs with married men. The wives are often unaware of the fact that other women are 'sharing' their husbands with them. Some observers of the crisis of man-sharing in the African American community strongly recommend consensual polygamy as a temporary answer to the shortage of black males until more comprehensive reforms in the American society at large are undertaken. 69 By consensual polygamy they mean a polygamy that is sanctioned by the community and to which all the parties involved have agreed, as opposed to the usually secret man-sharing which is detrimental both to the wife and to the community in general. The problem of man-sharing in the African American community was the topic of a panel discussion held at Temple University in Philadelphia on January 27, 1993. 70 Some of the speakers recommended polygamy as one potential remedy for the crisis. They also suggested that polygamy should not be banned by law, particularly in a society that tolerates prostitution and mistresses. The comment of one woman from the audience that African Americans needed to learn from Africa where polygamy was responsibly practiced elicited enthusiastic applause.

Philip Kilbride, an American anthropologist of Roman Catholic heritage, in his provocative book, Plural marriage for our time, proposes polygamy as a solution to some of the ills of the American society at large. He argues that plural marriage may serve as a potential alternative for divorce in many cases in order to obviate the damaging impact of divorce on many children. He maintains that many divorces are caused by the rampant extramarital affairs in the American society. According to Kilbride, ending an extramarital affair in a polygamous marriage, rather than in a divorce, is better for the children, "Children would be better served if family augmentation rather than only separation and dissolution were seen as options." Moreover, he suggests that other groups will also benefit from plural marriage such as: elderly women who face a chronic shortage of men and the African Americans who are involved in man-sharing. 71

In 1987, a poll conducted by the student newspaper at the university of California at Berkeley asked the students whether they agreed that men should be allowed by law to have more than one wife in response to a perceived shortage of male marriage candidates in California. Almost all of the students polled approved of the idea. One female student even stated that a polyganous marriage would fulfil her emotional and physical needs while giving her greater freedom than a monogamous union. 72 In fact, this same argument is also used by the few remaining fundamentalist Mormon women who still practice polygamy in the U.S. They believe that polygamy is an ideal way for a woman to have both a career and children since the wives help each other care for the children. 73

It has to be added that polygamy in Islam is a matter of mutual consent. No one can force a woman to marry a married man. Besides, the wife has the right to stipulate that her husband must not marry any other woman as a second wife. 74 The Bible, on the other hand, sometimes resorts to forcible polygamy. A childless widow must marry her husband's brother, even if he is already married (see the "Plight of Widows" section),regardless of her consent (Genesis 38:8-10).

It should be noted that in many Muslim societies today the practice of polygamy is rare since the gap between the numbers of both sexes is not huge. One can, safely, say that the rate of polygamous marriages in the Muslim world is much less than the rate of extramarital affairs in the West. In other words, men in the Muslim world today are far more strictly monogamous than men in the Western world.

Billy Graham, the eminent Christian evangelist has recognized this fact: "Christianity cannot compromise on the question of polygamy. If present-day Christianity cannot do so, it is to its own detriment. Islam has permitted polygamy as a solution to social ills and has allowed a certain degree of latitude to human nature but only within the strictly defined framework of the law. Christian countries make a great show of monogamy, but actually they practice polygamy. No one is unaware of the part mistresses play in Western society. In this respect Islam is a fundamentally honest religion, and permits a Muslim to marry a second wife if he must, but strictly forbids all clandestine amatory associations in order to safeguard the moral probity of the community." 75


So it is crystal clear that the act of polygamy in Islam is completely legitimate and valid, and is not something disgusting or perverted as many like to claim.

Praise Allah!