Understanding polygamy in Islam
It is unfortunate that when people refer to polygamy the common reaction is that Muslim men can have many wives. It is untrue on many levels. Yes, a Muslim man can have more than one wife but under very specific conditions. First, however, understand that Muslims did not invent polygamy. Polygamy existed long before the advent of Islam among several civilizations; all Islam did was bring more order to the system and make it more organized and palatable to women. God does not like the idea of divorce. When the women lost their husbands during the Battle of Uhud, women were desperate. Who would feed them? How would they survive? God said that if a woman with children had lost her husband during a war, she could be married too to another man whose wife agreed to the arrangement. Polygamy was allowed mainly to protect women.
Proof of polygamy practiced long before Islam
Let’s take a look at some verses in the Bible where it states clearly in 2 Samuel 5:13 that after David left Hebron, that he ‘took more concubines and wives in Jerusalem and more sons and daughters were born to him’ – and in 1 Kings 11.3 that ‘Solomon had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines.’ These are just two references; the Bible and the Qur’an have many such references. This is just to establish that by the time of Jesus and Mohamed that polygamy was already well established. Muslims did not invent polygamy; they brought order to the system and in the process also made it more palatable for women. Women were afforded rights. They could keep their own name after marriage. They did not have to share their property or give their property to their husbands. They were assured a portion of the inheritance of the estate when the husband died. These changes gave dignity to women in Islam.
Instances where polygamy can work in present society
• Where a young woman with children loses her husband and a man of means who can provide for this woman as well as his own wife, agrees to the arrangement. Not all people abide by this, but it can work for many women today.
• Where a couple has tried for years to conceive, without success, and the wife allows him to have another wife so they can have children. The second wife in most cases will have her own flat or apartment and the husband will spend his time equally between them.
• Where a wife is ill and bedridden and the husband needs a wife to care for him; this would of course be with his first wife’s consent. Note, these can be sticky situations, but everything works with the other partner’s consent.
• Practicing polygamy by adhering to the above is far better than having a situation where a woman is standing with a crowbar at another woman’s marriage – with the end result being that the other woman might get the man, and the first wife would be stranded with no husband and no money to sustain her. Polygamy reduces cheating in a marriage and is a much more equitable solution for a woman with children who has lost her mate.