Campaign for Monogamy; By the Coalition on Women’s Rights in Islam
16 March 2003
The Coalition on Women’s Rights in Islam today launched the Campaign for Monogamy. The members of this Coalition came together out of deep concern that the rights of Muslim women in Malaysia are being eroded. The rules and practice of polygamy are increasingly placing women in a vulnerable position. At the same time, the power of women to make informed choices about their lives are being diminished. We believe that the religion of Islam protects the rights of women. Islam does not force a wife to have to suffer in a polygamous marriage if she does not agree to her husband taking another wife. Islam promotes monogamy and this is evidenced in the Qur’an as well as the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.).
We also firmly believe that the authorities as well as members of the public have a responsibility to ensure that Muslim women know their rights and are not coerced into situations which may cause them hardship. To this end, we launch this campaign which aims to:
1. inculcate a common understanding among Malaysians that polygamy is not the norm for marriage in Islam;
2. promote a conscious commitment to the practice of monogamy;
3. enable a wife who is not willing to tolerate her husband taking another wife be given the option to obtain a divorce through ta’liq;
4. develop procedures which help women make informed decisions about their lives by;
a. promoting the right of women to know the marital status of the men they are about to marry;
b. ensuring that the existing wife/wives know about the proposed marriage;
c. ensuring that a wife who chooses to remain or to leave a polygamous marriage will not suffer any financial or economic injustice.
Monogamy – one husband, one wife – is the norm for marriage in Islam. Surah an-Nisa’ 4 : 3 states “if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with your wives) then marry only one”. The Qur’an imposes limitations upon the then-existing practice of polygamy and is the only scripture to contain the phrase “marry only one”.
Polygamy in Historical Practice
In pre-Islamic Arabia, unlimited polygamy was practised and Islam introduced reforms by restricting the maximum number of wives to four, as well as by commanding monogamy if there is fear of injustice to the women. Moreover, Surah an-Nisa’ was revealed after a battle which had resulted in many men being killed, leaving behind many war widows and war orphans. As the breadwinners were chiefly men, the widows found it difficult to provide for their children. It was in this context that polygamy was tolerated in Islam, to provide for the welfare of widows and their orphaned children. In fact, it is remarkable that even in that post-war situation, the Qur’an discontinued the then-existing practice of unlimited polygamy.
From the historical point of view, polygamy was an institution that existed not only in pre-Islamic Arabia, but also in various civilizations, religions and cultures in many parts of the world. Polygamy was practised among the Jews, Chinese, Indian and Mormon Christians, until it was abolished by law. For instance, the United States of America banned polygamy under the Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862, and the Mormon Church officially renounced polygamy in 1907 after their efforts to challenge the law in the Supreme Court were unsuccessful. In Malaysia also, polygamy was practised among the Chinese and Indian Hindu communities until it was forbidden under the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act which came into force in 1982.
Unfortunately, with the abolition of polygamy among the people of other faiths, confusion has arisen which increasingly associates polygamy with the religion of Islam. This misconception appears to regard polygamy as an exclusive right conferred upon Muslim men, and those who object to the abuse of polygamy among the Muslims are often accused of going against the teachings of Islam and of being influenced by the West.
Monogamy as the Norm for Marriage in Islam
Those who support polygamy often refer to the Sunnah (practice) of the Prophet (s.a.w.) and tend to forget the fact that the Prophet (s.a.w.) was monogamous for more than 25 years, i.e. throughout the lifetime of his first wife Siti Khadija (r.a.) and that his polygamous marriages after her death were to widowed or divorced women for political and tribal reasons. The only virgin he married was his second wife, Aishah (r.a.).
There is also an authentic Tradition that the Prophet (s.a.w.) forbade his son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib (r.a.) from marrying another woman unless Ali first divorced the Prophet’s daughter, Fatimah (r.a.) A great-granddaughter of the Prophet (s.a.w), Sakinah binti Hussein, a granddaughter of Ali and Fatimah, put various conditions in her marriage contract, including the condition that her husband would have no right to take another wife during their marriage.
It is therefore clear that giving a wife such an option for obtaining a divorce through the marriage contract or ta’liq is not against Islamic teachings. It is not a new interpretation which has only arisen in these modern times. On the contrary, it is supported by traditional practices from the early days of Islam. It is not an innovation introducing anything that is unlawful, since divorce by ta’liq is also lawful in Islam.
The Hanbali school of law, which is regarded as the most conservative school among the four schools in Sunni Islam, did not hesitate to recognize the wife’s right to exercise such an option. This right is now recognized in various Muslim countries in the Middle East, including among the Muslim communities who are not followers of the Hanbali school, e.g. in Jordan, Morocco, Egypt and Iran. Tunisia has gone further and forbade polygamy outright, on the ground that it is impossible in these days for a man to be able to deal justly with more than one wife.
Although it is difficult for other Muslim countries to accept the controversial Tunisian provision, most Muslim countries has imposed various conditions and restrictions on polygamy. Their intention is to ensure that permission is granted only for those polygamous marriages which do not cause injustice, as well as to give the wife who does not consent to her husband’s new marriage the option to get a ta’liq divorce.
Our campaign for monogamy to be the norm for marriage in Islam is not a radical call for reform, but an assertion of a long tradition in Islam that promotes monogamy and only permits polygamy in very exceptional circumstances.
Sisters In Islam