In our last post, we discussed polygamy in the Bible. In summary, polygamy was permitted under God’s sovereignty during Old Testament times, but even then it contravened His blueprint for marriage given in Genesis 2:24. Jesus re-instates monogamous, heterosexual marriage in Matthew 19:4-6, even using the analogy of the Bridegroom (Christ) being united with his Bride (the church) in an exclusive, faithful, lasting covenant in the new creation. Nor was polygamy taught or practised by the early church, although there was debate about divorce and re-marriage (1 Corinthians7.)
Jesus summarises the Christian view of marriage in Matthew 19:4-6:
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
One man and one woman are joined together spiritually by God, just as they become one through sexual intimacy. It’s a holy union, which is why dissolving it is such a serious matter. Compare this with Sura 4:1
“O mankind, fear your Lord, who created you from one soul and created from it its mate and dispersed from both of them many men and women. And fear Allah, through whom you ask one another, and the wombs. Indeed Allah is ever, over you, an Observer.” (Sahih International)
Adam and Eve come from one (genderless?) soul for the purpose of procreation rather than relationship. Allah is distant, to be feared. Always watching, he creates them, but doesn’t celebrate their gender distinction or their coming together as ‘one flesh.’ The ‘wombs’ in this verse, according to the tafsirs, aren’t referring to the wife’s unique reproductive function, but more loosely to ‘ties of kinship’, meaning something like ‘remember your family ties’. Verses 2 and 3 continue:
“And give to the orphans their properties and do not substitute the defective [of your own] for the good [of theirs]. And do not consume their properties into your own. Indeed, that is ever a great sin.” (Sahih International)
“And if you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphan girls, then marry those that please you of [other] women, two or three or four. But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one or those your right hand possesses. That is more suitable that you may not incline [to injustice].” (Sahih International)
It’s not clear from the text who the man is to marry in verse 3 – whether the orphans themselves or more wives to act as additional guardians for the orphans. Influential twentieth century scholar Maududi takes the latter view, that these verses were sent down as a corrective to the pre-Islamic practices of marrying orphans and plundering their inheritance (verse 2) to support an unlimited number of wives – hence Allah limits the number of wives to four. And if you can’t do justice to four, then better stick to one wife. But this doesn’t include “those your right hand possesses” i.e. your slave girls. So even if you decide to stick with one official wife, you can have an unlimited number of sex slaves. A far cry from the exclusive sexual intimacy between man and wife Jesus teaches about. Notice also the lack of mutuality – it’s all about the man’s requirements, not what’s best for the man and the woman.
Not only that, the Qur’an actually contradicts itself on this issue within the same Sura. Sura 4:3 tells believers to only marry one wife if they are afraid they won’t be able to treat their wives equally. But Sura 4:129 tells men they will never be able to treat their wives equally!
“Ye are never able to be fair and just as between women, even if it is your ardent desire: But turn not away (from a woman) altogether, so as to leave her (as it were) hanging (in the air). If ye come to a friendly understanding, and practise self- restraint, Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. – 4:129″(Yusuf Ali)
Maududi summarises the classical tafsir writers’ interpretation of this verse, that while the husband is bound to provide equally for his wives, he will never hold them in equal affection:
“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….
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.”
Allah is clearly not that bothered by the wives’ emotional needs. Not only that, but Muhammad, the best example to mankind (Sura 33:21) flagrantly disregarded Allah’s injunction to show “self-restraint” and come to “a friendly understanding” with his wives, for example in this hadith. (More on Muhammad’s special privileges in another post.)
Are we just taking these verses out of their historical context? Don’t they only apply to 7th century Arabia? Have they been abrogated? No. Polygamy is acceptable in both Sunni and Shi’a schools of Islamic law. Polygamy matchmaking service Second Wife , quotes Sura 4:3 on its website. “We believed this is a Sunnah we needed to revive,” it says. Apparently it has 100,000 users.
The reason polygamy persists in Islam, apart from the fact that it is sanctioned forever by Allah’s eternal speech, the Qur’an, is because Allah is not a personal, covenantal god. Allah doesn’t make men and women in his image or interact with them personally, let alone make or keep his promises to them. The Qur’an’s teaching on marriage is confused, over-sexualising men and diminishing women. And there is no great wedding feast to look forward to in a new creation. Just as Allah prioritises men’s sexual needs on earth, Islamic paradise is more of the same – lots of sex for men (Sura 55:70-6). How different to the God who kept His covenant with us, died to rescue us and waits as a faithful Bridegroom for all who love Him.
For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
7 Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.” (Revelation 19:7)
With grateful thanks to James M. Arlandson for his article, from which all the Maududi quotes come.
2 thoughts on “Polygamy in the Qur’an”
I think the purpose of seventh century polygamy was to let the old men take care of the young women so Muhammed could raise an army of Jihadi’s to conquer the world. If you get too many wives per husband, the young men will leave the group and the faith. We see this in the US with Mormons who are still practicing polygamy.