Misunderstanding the Prophet’s Sunnah on Polygamy

In reference to the letter “It isn’t polygamy but the way its practiced” in New Straits Times, 14 January 2002, saying it is wrong and offensive to recommend a ban on polygamy for Muslims because it is the sunnah of the Prophet, we would like to correct the many misunderstandings about Prophets practice of polygamy.

Many Muslims who regard polygamy as the Sunnah of the Prophet (saw), forget or fail to fully understand the type of polygamy that the Prophet practised. First of all, the Prophet himself was monogamous throughout his 25 year marriage to his first wife Khadijah (r.a.), and his polygamous marriages after her death in the tenth year of his prophethood were to widowed or divorced women for political or tribal reasons. The only virgin he married was his second wife, Aishah (r.a.). He married a total of 11 times, and most of his marriages were to elderly widowed or divorced women with children, entered into for political and tribal reasons. The Prophet married his nine wives after Aishah within a space of 5 years and never divorced any of the women he was married to. The Prophet did not marry younger and prettier women to fulfill his desires. In fact, he practised polygamy within the realm of spreading Islam to the communities at the time. Unlike the other men, the Prophet was allowed to keep all his wives after the maximum four wives limit was imposed upon the previous practice of unlimited polygamy, but he was eventually prohibited from adding to his wives or divorcing any of them with a view to taking another wife in her stead (Surah al-Ahzab 33 : 52).

Many, if not most, polygamous marriages today share almost nothing in common with the Sunnah of the Prophet. It would be unjust and offensive for those who contract polygamous marriages today to even compare their justification for polygamy to the reasons that the Prophet practised it. Moreover, considering the Prophet’s monogamous marriage with Khadijah, if one were to strictly follow the sunnah of the Prophet, it would appear that a man should not take another wife at all during the lifetime of his first wife!

Many Muslims also forget the significance of the authentic hadith reported in Sunan ibn Majah that that even though the Prophet himself practised polygamy, he did not allow his son-in-law Saidina Ali ibn Abi Talib, to marry another woman “unless and until Ali ibn Abi Talib divorces my daughter (Fatimah) for surely she is part of me and what troubles and agitates her, troubles and agitates me too; and what harm befalls her befalls me too.”

It would therefore appear from this tradition that the first wife is fully entitled not only to know about the proposed polygamous marriage, but also to reject it by refusing her consent, as well as to demand a divorce should the husband persist in his desire as well as to demand a divorce should the husband persist in his desire. The letter and spirit of the Qur’anic verses, as well as the Sunnah of the Prophet, is concerned with the welfare of women and children who were left unprotected after their husbands and fathers were killed in battle. At the same time, it is also anxious to prevent injustice in the family. It may be said that the type of polygamy permitted or tolerated in Islam is not a “male right” but a “female privilege”, and as such it should not be desired only by the man, but should be understood and agreed upon by all the women involved as well – the existing wife and the proposed wife.

Accordingly, it is submitted that it is not wrong or offensive to suggest the possibility of a ban on polygamy for Muslims, especially at a time when there is no social emergency as a result of war, when marrying more than one wife may be a temporary for a social problem.

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