Polygamy in Islamic Law

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Muhammad and Polygamy

According to traditional sources, Muhammad practiced polygamy. Besides the numerous concubines, he married fifteen women and consummated his marriages with thirteen.[1] According to Tabari he was also accused of being a "womanizer".[2] He was also attributed the sexual prowess of many men:

Narrated Qatada: Anas bin Malik said, "The Prophet used to visit all his wives in a round, during the day and night and they were eleven in number." I asked Anas, "Had the Prophet the strength for it?" Anas replied, "We used to say that the Prophet was given the strength of thirty (men)." And Sa'id said on the authority of Qatada that Anas had told him about nine wives only (not eleven).

Reasons for Muhammad's Marriages

Islamic scholarship gives the care of widows and poor woman as a societal reason for polygynous marriages. Yet Many of Muhammad's wives were not poor or widows. In fact, one of his wives (Muhammad's cousin, Zainab bint Jash) was originally the wife of his step-son Zaid bin Haritha. As was the case with Safiyah bint Huyayy, the traditional sources indicate that many of his marriages were the results of Muhammad's desire, not compassion for widows or poor women. This is nowhere more evident than in his numerous divorces, which numbered six in total. For example; he divorced ‘Amrah bint Yazid on their wedding night,[3] due to her suffering from leprosy.[4][5][6][7] He also divorced a women named Ghaziyyah bint Jabir when he realized that she was 'old'.[8] Yet Muhammad refused to allow Ali bin Abu Talib (the husband of his daughter Fatima) to take even a second wife because "what hurts her, hurts me."[9][10] This seems to indicate that at least for his own daughter he thought that polygyny hurt women, but would not take this fact into account with regard to his own marriages.

Polygamy Permitted in Islam

Regardless of it not being acceptable for the husband of Muhammad's daughter, Islam traditionally allows a man to marry up to four wives at any one time:

And if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards orphans, then marry such women as seem good to you, two and three and four; but if you fear that you will not do justice (between them), then (marry) only one or what your right hands possess; this is more proper, that you may not deviate from the right course.

Islam also does not traditionally require that the man have the permission of his first wife before marrying a second:

It is not obligatory for the husband, when he wishes to marry another, to get his first wife's acceptance, but it is a noble trait of character and good relations for him to appease her by whatever decreases the pain which woman naturally feel in such situations. This may be achieved by smiling,greeting her warmly and speaking kindly to her, and by whatever money you can afford,if her acceptance requires it

The Acceptance of the first Wife is not a Condition for the one who wishes to marry another
FatwaIslam, Permanent Committee for Research and Verdicts: Fatawa Islamiyah Darussalam Vol: 5 No. 353

The Consequences of Polygamy

Female Genital Mutilation and & other Chastity Assurance practices

Polygamy causes Chastity Assurance practices such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), Veiling, harems and footbinding.

In polygamous societies it is only the richest and most powerful men who are able to afford to keep multiple wives. However, these high-status polygamous men face a problem guaranteeing the fidelity of their many wives - and the more wives they have the greater the problem becomes. In a monogamous marriage a husband and wife can spend much of their time with one another, and become close to one another, and their sexual and emotional needs are more-or-less proportional. A polygamous man may have two, four, hundred or even a thousand wives, whom he must satisfy emotionally and sexually, and whose desire for motherhood he must also satisfy. If one of his wive's needs are not satisfied, she may be tempted be unfaithful, and this may result in the high-status man rearing a child that is not his own. Which, evolutionary speaking, is a disaster.

In order to assure themselves of the chastity and fidelity of their many wives, polygamous men have developed a variety of Chastity Assurance practices:

  • harems - which keep wives locked away, guarded by eunuchs;
  • footbinding (as once practiced by the Chinese) - which keeps wives from being unfaithful by reducing their mobility and independence;
  • chaperoning and gender segregation - which hamper and eliminate interactions between the sexes;
  • arranged marriages - which obviate the dangers that romance and courting poses to a girl's chastity and reputation;
  • veiling - which makes girls less interesting and identifiable to males;
  • 'honour' culture - which exacts disproportionate punishments for (perceived or actual) 'un-chastity';
  • Female Genital Mutilation - which reduces a girl's capacity for sexual pleasure both physically (through the removal of the clitoris and labia) and mentally (through the effects of trauma). Where a girl has been infibulated her chastity is further guaranteed because her vaginal opening is sealed with a covering of skin, the penetration of which is extremely painful and which leads to severe hemorrhaging that is difficult to conceal.

Marriages to high status men are highly advantageous, to both potential brides and their families, who will benefit from having a high status male as a relative. The urge for women to marry into higher strata of society is called hypergyny. It is universal to all societies, but is much more intense in polygamous societies. This is probably because in monogamous societies, once a high-status man marries he is no longer available, whereas in polygamous societies a married high-status man remains available.

The high status polygamous man will require that girls who aspire to marry him conform to his expectations and standards. And a family wishing to marry a daughter to a high status man must persuade him that their daughter is 'pure', chaste and will be faithful to him. They demonstrate this by adopting (or having their daughter adopt) Chastity Assurance practices expected by that man, whether it be FGM or other practices in the above list.

The intensely hypergynous nature of polygamous societies means that the marriage practices of high-status polygamous men cascade down through the lower ranks of society, and are rapidly adopted by all families. Only the daughters of the poorest families, who can not afford to engage in such practices, are spared. These girls and their families are stigmatised as 'impure' and 'contaminating' and guaranteed to be unchaste, and will be considered as 'untouchables' and suffer from intense discrimination and persecution. Thus the avoidance of stigma becomes an added incentive for families to conform to the community's Chastity Assurance practices.

Bride-Price (mahr)

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Maps comparing the global distributions of polygamy and of dowry systems

Bride-price is a payment made by the bride-groom (or his family) to the bride (or her family). Marriages in polygamous kinship systems require that some form of bride-price be paid (mahr). This is because polygamy creates a scarcity of marriageable women. This makes unmarried girls and women a particularly valuable asset, which is realised when she is 'sold' in marriage to a husband. The scarcer marriageable women are the greater the value of dowries. This makes marriage unaffordable to low-ranking young men, even if they somehow manage to find a bride. The heros of folk tales of polygamous societies (such as 'One Thousand and One Nights') are often poor young men (such as Aladdin) struggling to find the wealth necessary to pay the bride-price of the girl he loves. The story is resolved when he becomes rich and powerful enough to marry her.

Nobel prize-winning economist Gary Becker argues in his book 'A Treatise on the Family'[11] that families of young women become the biggest supporters of polygamy because they possess an inherently scarce resource. Love matches and courtship are frowned upon because they risk reducing the bride-price (the couple may be tempted to elope, or the bride request a merely symbolic bride-price). Thus in order to preserve their market value, the chastity and reputation of unmarried women must protected by such measures as FGM, purdah, child marriage and arranged marriage. .

Child Marriage

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Maps comparing the global distribution of polygamy and of child marriage

Child Marriage is endemic to polygynous societies. One way of alleviating the 'bride famine' that polygyny creates amongst men in the lower strata of society is to bring prepubescent girls into the marriage market. Dowry further incentives parents to sell-off their daughters before adolescence, when there is a greater risk of her reputation being spoiled and her losing her economic value. And if the bride is still a child, the dowry goes to her father, not to the bride. The bride-price for a child is generally less than for an adolescent or adult woman. This makes children a more affordable option for poor and low status men. Because of the great age differences in such marriages, and the degree of power inequality between husband and bride, the personal bond between husbands and wives is not strong and there is very little companionate marriage.

In monogamous societies, the incest taboo generally extends not only to a man's daughters but also to all young women old enough to be a man's daughter. This separation of generations does not naturally occur in polygamous cultures, and is what makes childhood, as we understand it, possible.

The Polygamous family

According to Somayya Jabarti of Arab News, Saudi Arabia has the second-highest divorce-rate in the world. Abdullah Al-Fawzan, a professor and sociologist at King Saud University in Riyadh, states that polygamy is responsible for up to 55 percent of divorces. He added that the loss of trust, sincerity, compassion and cooperation were also factors in the failure of marriages.[12] The Maldives, an Islamic country with a 100% Muslim population,[13] also has the highest divorce rate in the world, with 10.97 divorces per 1,000 inhabitants per year.[14]

Islamic Defense of Polygamy

Muslim scholars often claim that the reason why Allah allowed men to marry four wives is that men are killed in battle, thus resulting in women being in more numbers more than men. They also claim that the practice of polygyny curbs adultery, thus leading to more and happier marriages and fewer divorces. Yet these claims are not supported by the facts:

World Population shows a surplus of men

Here's a breakdown of the world population according to CIA Statistics

World Population age group 15-64 years: 65.2% (male 2,152,066,888/female 2,100,334,722)[15]

This means there are 51,732,100 extra males in the world at marriageable age. Even the worst war in history did not kill off enough males to make polygamy justified. In WW2, 24 million "military" died, leaving still another 26 million spare men.[16]

GENERAL POPULATION: women and men casualties: 1,986,370,000 (probably mostly women)
Military casualties: 24,456,700

Allah creates more females than males

The ratio of births is 105 males to 100 females, so this does not seem to be the case.

External Links


  1. al-Tabari vol.9 p.126-127
  2. "....Layla’s people said, "’What a bad thing you have done! You are a self-respecting woman, but the Prophet is a womanizer. Seek an annulment from him.’ She went back to the Prophet and asked him to revoke the marriage and he complied with [her request]...." - al Tabari vol.9 p.139
  3. Al-Tabari, Vol. 9, p. 139; Al-Tabari, Vol. 39, pp. 187-188.
  4. Ibn Ishaq, cited in Guillaume, A. (1960). New Light on the Life of Muhammad, p. 55. Manchester: Manchester University Press
  5. Ibn Hisham note 918 (here he has apparently confused her with Asma bint Al-Numan).
  6. Bewley/Saad 8:100-101.
  7. Women in Islam, By Anne Sofie Roald - Page 221 [Quoted: Najla Hamadeh, Page 335-6]
  8. al-Tabari vol.9 p.139
  9. Sahih Bukhari 7:62:157
  10. "An indication of their special relationship is found in the fact that Ali never married another woman as long as Fatima was alive. Sunni sources explain this curiosity in a tradition in which Ali asks for Abu Jahl's daughter in marriage, but the Prophet does not allow him to marry her because it would upset Fatimah." - "The Image of Fatima in Classical Muslim Thought," Denise L. Soufi, PhD dissertation, Princeton, 1997, p. 51-52
  11. A Treatise on the Family Gary S. Becker, Harvard University Press
  12. Somayya Jabarti - Alarming Divorce Rate ‘Must Be Addressed Urgently’ - Arab News, October 24, 2003
  13. The Maldives is the only country after Saudi Arabia that claims to have a 100 percent Muslim population. As per its constitution, only a Muslim can be a citizen of the country. Propagating any faith other than Islam, importing/publicly carrying literature that contradicts Islam or translation into the Dhivehi language of such books and writings, displaying in public any symbols or slogans belonging to any religion other than Islam, or creating interest in such articles are all against the law and are punishable with imprisonment, fines or banishment.
  14. Highest divorce rate - Guinness World Records, accessed January 5, 2013
  15. Global Population Statistics - CIA.gov
  16. WW2 Casualties - Wikipedia.org