Can a Muslim man marry more than one? This seems to be a very easy enough question to answer today, and for many the answer is “Yes, a Muslim man has the right to marry up to four women”. Many are the young Muslim men who have exercised this right, seeking to satisfy their insatiable lust with an excuse of carrying out God’s commandments. This however is the wrong answer, born out of a patriarchal interpretation of a verse dealing with social welfare, to satisfy the lustful desires of a male-dominated community. Evidence from the Holy Quran and history point to a very different conclusion:
A Muslim man has no right whatsoever to marry more than one wife. In fact the Muslim has a responsibility to cater for the orphans and vulnerable in the society, and a man can only marry more than one if that is the only way to fulfil this responsibility.
Two key evidence exist to support this view. First is the Holy Quran, and second is the life of the Holy Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him (PBUH). The part of the Holy Quran that deals with the subject of polygamy is Sura An-Nisa (The Women). The relevant Ayat is Quran 4:2 – 3:
2. Give the orphans their property, and do not substitute what is bad for what is good, and do not eat up their property along with your own. It is surely, a great sin.
3. And if you fear that you will not do justice to the orphans, then, marry the women you like, in twos, in threes and in fours. But, if you fear that you will not maintain equity, then (keep to) one woman, or bondwomen you own. It will be close to abstaining from injustice.
One Imam (spiritual leader) actually pointed out to me that in Verse 3, the number of women you can marry actually starts from two, hence making it un-Islamic to marry only one. For a full appreciation of this verse, it is important to first understand the context within which it was revealed.
Sura An-Nisa (The Women)
Sura An-Nisa is thought to have been revealed largely after the battle of Uhd. Allamah Muhammad Hussein Tabatabai in the Tafsir Al-Mizan states that “it is a Medinite chapter revealed after hijrah”. Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi in Tafhim al-Qur’an estimates that the Surah was probably revealed “between the end of A.H. 3 and the end of A.H. 4 or the beginning of A.H. 5” and concludes that verses 1 – 28 were revealed after the battle of Uhd.
The battle of Badr preceded the battle of Uhd by a year. The Muslims’ lost a lot of men between these wars, and especially in the battle of Uhud. Due to the refusal of the archers to heed the direction of the Holy Prophet, more than 70 of the Muslim men were killed and many got injured. The matyrs left behind widows and orphans, giving rise to the questions of how property should be shared among those orphans and widows and how to ensure a sustainable welfare for them.
Verses 1 – 28 of An-Nisa were revealed to deal with these matters. It is instructive to note that in ancient Arabia, a man could not house a female adult who was not a relation under his roof. Hence, unlike the male orphans, for many of the adult women left as orphans or widows, it would prove more difficult to find a man who could give them shelter under his roof.
A Social Welfare Mechanism
With this background in mind, it is easy to see why an allowance was made for multiple marriages. As a social welfare measure, the Muslim men were allowed to take up the orphaned women and widows as wives to make it easy to cater for them. They essentially became “family” or “relatives” by virtue of the marriage. The verse was essentially an emergency social welfare intervention to manage the sanity of a society at a crucial point of its history.
The popular notion among many Muslims is that only the first part of Verse 3 refers to the orphaned girls, and the rest of the verse deals with marriage in general. An explanation given by Sayyidah Aishah (R.A.A) (Bukhari) was given as follows:
“If you apprehend that you will not fulfil the obligations towards the orphan girls, then avoid marrying them, and marry other women who are lawful to you…to eliminate an unjust custom that was prevalent in Arabia. If a cousin became the guardian of a beautiful or rich orphan girl, he would marry her without giving her the due rights of dower and maintenance and without treating her as his wife on an equal basis.”
There are two problems with this understanding of the verse. First, this interpretation of the verse is not consistent with the subject of the verse. The popular explanation for the first part of the verse has been that if you fear that you cannot do justice to the orphans you marry, then you can essentially forget them and marry any other woman of your choice, in twos, threes and in fours.
This is a classical display of the misogynistic thought process where ‘orphans’ has been translated into only orphan girls, and women morphed into “other women”. In truth, the subject of this verse is orphans, and an alternate more consistent understanding of the verse is that if you feel you cannot treat all the orphans (male & female) with justice because they are unrelated to you, then you can marry the women amongst them.
This marriage essentially creates a family bond allowing you to treat them as one of your own. And for those that make reference to equity among wives as a condition to marry more than one, the condition of equity is in truth a condition to marry the additional orphaned/vulnerable women, not just any other woman.
Secondly, the situation referred to where men married the orphans without giving them their dower is dealt with in verse 4, not verse 3. Verse 4 of An-Nisa states:
“Give women their dower in good cheer. Then, if they forgo some of it, of their own will, you may have it as a pleasant and joyful.”
It’s actually interesting that we understand “women” in this instance to mean the orphan women and prefer to understand women in verse 3 to mean “other women”. The excuse often given for second, third and fourth marriages by many Muslim men is that they are unhappy with their current wife. A look at Verse 20 of Surah An-Nisa leads me to conclude that the religion does not consider such a situation. Verse 20 states:
“If you want to take a wife in place of the one (you have), and you have given her plenty of wealth, then do not take any of it back. Would you take it through imputation and open sin?”
Here, when referring to marrying another wife, the Quran treats it as replacing your existing wife, not as marrying an additional wife, a clear indication that in general, multiple marriages is not explicitly allowed.
Without doubt, An-Nisa verse 3 deals with the responsibility towards the orphaned and vulnerable in our society, and allows polygamy only if that is the only way to fulfil that responsibility.
To the Imam who made a reference to twos, threes and fours, I say that is a palpable recognition of the fact that most men who will be called upon to take up this duty will often already be in their real marriage, the one that was not born of the duty to care for orphans or vulnerable.
The life and marriages of the Holy Prophet of Islam clearly demonstrate this principle. All his marriages, except the first one, were done to satisfy a greater good for the religion / society. His first marriage remained monogamous until the death of his wife Khadija (RAA). We can argue that his wife after this was Aisha, even though she was too young to have their marriage fully consummated. Their marriage served to solidify the political base of the muslim by creating a link between the Holy Prophet and Abu Bakr (RAA). Their marriage was eventually consummated when Aisha came of age.
The prophet also took as a wife a widow with six children who had gone through several hardships after the death of her husband. By one account, “there was great surprise in Mecca that the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) would choose to marry a widow who was neither young nor beautiful.” Then you have Hafsa (RAA) (widowed by the Battle of Badr), Zaynab bint Khuzayma (RAA) (widowed by the battle of Badr), Umm Salama Hind (RAA) (widowed by the battle of Uhd), Zaynab bint Jahsh (a widow and divorcee) etc.
From the evidence, Islam treats marrying multiple women purely as a social welfare matter, very much in contrast to the situation today where Muslim men marry multiple women to satisfy certain erotic fantasies and adventure. It is the realisation of this that has driven Muslim countries like Morocco to fashion out laws that make it almost impossible for men to practice polygamy.
Abdul-Nasser Alidu is a banking, technology and marketing professional from Ghana with over 8 years of working experience in key African markets.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of Circumspecte.