Islam and Polygamy

Sisters in Islam welcomes the decision of the Selangor Shari’ah Appeal Court judgement in the case of Aishah Abdul Rauf vs Wan Mohd Yusof Wan Othman.  The judgement reflects the true spirit of the teachings of the Qur’an and true practice of polygamy.

We would like to point out the popular misconceptions surrounding the Qur’anic verses on polygamy.

  • Many men believe that polygamy is a God-given right enshrined in the Qur’an.
  • Many believe that Islam, by allowing polygamy has found the ideal solution to men’s alleged insatiable sexual drive.
  • Many also believe that if a woman allows her husband to take on a second wife, she is assured of a place in heaven.

The Selangor Shari’ah Appeal Court judgement of Aishah Abdul Rauf vs Wan Mohd Yusof Wan Othman brought to public debate these misconceptions which have been mistakenly elevated to be the word of Allah.

Let us point out what the Qur’anic verse on polygamy actually say: “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…that will be more suitable to prevent you from doing injustice.” (Surah an-Nisa’, 4:3)

A subsequent verse states: “You are never able to be fair and just between women even if that were your ardent desire” (4:129).

It is clear from this verse that:

First, the Qur’an does not give men the blanket right to have more than one wife. Polygamy is not a right, but a responsibility to ensure that socio-economic justice be done to orphans. What Allah has granted is in fact a restriction on existing practice of that time when men could marry as many wives they wanted.

Second, because polygamy is not  a right, Allah placed conditions on its practice.  There is an overriding concern for justice in this short verse.  Conditions are set to ensure that justice is done.

  • Condition A: Polygamy is permitted within the context of war and orphans.  It is  permitted only if the men fear they would not be able to deal justly with the  orphans.
  • Condition B: The man who wants to be polygamous must have the capacity to be fair and just to all his wives.  The verse is a call for just conduct towards women, not a right for men to fulfil their alleged lustful desires or their ego. And just treatment here means more than a man’s financial capacity to support more than one wife.  He must be fair in all ways, including the time, support and companionship he provides to the wives and children.
  • Condition C: If the man fears he cannot deal justly with all his wives, then Allah advocates that he should marry only one as this will prevent injustice. This is explicitly stated in the verse.

Third, it is often forgotten that there was a socio-historical context within which the verse was revealed. That context was a period of tragedy in Islam after the battle of Uhud when dozens of men from the still formative Muslim community in Medina were killed in one day.  Numerous women and children were left without support.

To deal with this problem, Allah revealed the verse permitting men to be polygamous.  Given the tragedy of the battle of Uhud,  Allah could have sanctioned the existing practice of unlimited polygamy; but instead, while allowing men to be polygamous, Allah restricted the number to four.

We wish to emphasise that the clear intention in the Qur’an is to restrict polygamy.  Unfortunately, in practice, the restrictions imposed  in the Qur’an have often not been applied and the context within which the verse was revealed has been completely overlooked.

By stressing the need for just conduct toward women and the need for equal treatment of each wife and recognising the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of doing so (4:129), this verse, in fact advocates monogamy as the original and ideal state of marriage in Islam.

There is also nothing in the Qur’an to support the popular misconception that women who allow their husbands to take a second wife will go to heaven.  As far as our research shows, no authoritative hadith exists to support this misconception.  Nevertheless, this belief is often used to persuade women that it is their religious obligation to accept their husbands’ polygamy.

This is a destructive tactic to manipulate women into feeling that they would be bad Muslim wives if they object to their husbands’ polygamy.

Finally, we would like to emphasise that it is reprehensible for Muslims to say that polygamy is Islam’s solution for men’s alleged unbridled lust.  Islam teaches self-control, self-discipline and self-purification.

The solution to an immoral society, whether in the West or in the Muslim world, is not polygamy.  The solution, as found in the Qur’an and the hadith, is a change of attitude from indulging in promiscuity to one of self-discipline and respect for the opposite sex.

We urge our sisters and brothers in Islam to go back to the Qur’an and read its words carefully.  To allege that the recent judgement of the Selangor Syariah Appeal Court is against Hukum Syarak is a gross denial of the true intent and spirit of justice so insistently enjoined by the Qur’an.

Sisters in Islam
Kuala Lumpur
18 August 1990

  

This letter, the first letter to the editor written by Sisters in Islam,  was published in The Star, The New Straits Times, Berita Harian, Utusan Malaysia  and Utusan Melayu.

 

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