A Biblical Evaluation of Polygamy in Islamic Law


A Biblical Evaluation of Polygamy in Islamic Law

Jaymark John D. Molo

Adventist University of the Philippines

Polygamy[1] is the practice or custom of having more than one wife or husband at the same time. This practice has been popularized by many religions like Mormon,[2] Buddhist,[3] Hindu[4] and Islam.[5] Today, the religion of Islam is one of the strong advocates of this view. Interestingly, they labeled Christianity for being guilty of condoning such practice. This alarmed the Christians for the misrepresentations of Muslim scholars they had made to the Scriptures, especially to the Torah.[6] This paper will consider polygamy in Islamic law within their theological context. A biblical evaluation will follow after the presentation of the rationale of polygamy in Islam, with a conclusion at the end. More importantly, since the Seventh-day Adventist firmly believes in the authority of the Scriptures — the written word of the Christians will play a decisive and dominant role here.

Reasons Why Islam Permits Polygamy

The practice of polygamy in Islam comes to be one of the controversial subjects concerning women and Islam.[7] In the religion of Islam, limited polygamy is permitted;[8] whereas polyandry (where a woman marries more than one man) is completely prohibited. It has also been stated that, “polygamy is contextual and whereas monogamy is normative.”[9] That is to say, polygamy is not the rule for a Muslim life, but exceptional. Islam simply permits polygamy;[10] it neither forces nor requires it. In addition, indulgence in polygamy is made conditional on a man’s confidence that he could treat a plurality of wives and on his ability to support existing dependents. For a Muslim to be polygamous, he must first seek permission from his wife and her family; he must likewise show that he can support more wives and children comfortably and finally, he must be prepared to treat all wives equitably and justice.[11] Meanwhile, those who defend this religion, seeking to preserve this doctrine, never cease to speak of advantages of polygamy, and to maintain that it is accordance with reason. Here are prominent grounds they provide:

The Quran basically upholds the institution of polygamy. A critical point that needs to be recognized is that for Muslims, standards of
 their morality are not set by prevalent
 Western thought, but by divine revelation.[12] A verse in the Holy Koran runs this: “…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.” (Quran 4:3, emphasis added) This Koranic verse agrees to the life of their prophet, and since Muhammad is the highest moral example in Islam[13], and Muhammad was polygamous, therefore, Qur’an allows Muslims to engage in polygamy. Furthermore, it has been asserted that Qur’an is the only religious scripture in the world that says ‘marry only one’. Thus, they continue arguing that there are no other religious that instructs men to have only one wife. This presumptuous point led them to conclude that other religions (including Christianity) were highly polygamous.[14]

It was designed to protect widows and orphans as a social necessity. This rationale is explicitly grounded on the first partite of Holy Quran 4:3, we read: “And if you fear that you shall not be equitable in the matter of the orphans, then marry women suitable to you, two, three and four.”[15] The historical background for this policy was Prophet Mohammed was concerned that, in a time of great wars, wives not to be left widowed and destitute and children not be left orphaned and homeless.[16] Consequently, the Qur’an contained a series of verses demanding that widows and orphans be protected and treated fairly.[17] This demand changed substantially the practice of polygamy from a system where women and children were often abused and destitute at the death of their husbands and fathers to a system where a minimum burden of care and obligations was placed on husbands in relation to their wives and progeny.[18]

It is justified and supported by the natural law.[19] Here are following grounds for such claim:

a. The wife may be impotent of having any children for some reason of other. In a Muslim context, the presence of children is fundamental to a family. They believe that one of the major purposes of having family is to have children that can preserve the name of a family. Now, if the wife is impotent of having any children; instead of suppressing the father’s desire for having children, or to divorce his childless wife, or to adopt children – in such a case, the religion of Islam permits him to engage in polygamous model of marriage.[20]

b. There are cases and times where the wife is incapable of fulfilling her marital obligations.  A wife may fail to become a pleasant companion, as she should be, or the woman cannot give the attention or satisfaction that a man deserves and desires — in this case – polygyny is permitted. If the wife is chronically ill and cannot maintain her marital relations with her husband, should he keep her and take a second wife wherein she remains perfectly honored, cared for and provided for by her husband? Or should he divorce her? Instead of letting a man divorce her wife or loose his self-control or self-discipline and fell into immorality, deception, hypocrisy and infidelity – Islam has allowed to enter polygamy in the family.[21]

c. It is in harmony with the nature of man. Islam recognizes sex and sexual needs and provides legitimate means for their satisfaction. Thus, several Muslims argued that man by nature is polygamous. They contend that biologically, it is not possible for an average man or a woman to remain celibate throughout life. Even though they admit that it may be possible in exceptional cases of one in ten thousand. In the vast majority, they keenly noted the person either gets married or performs illicit sex or indulges in other sexual perversions.[22] This lead them to believed that polygamy also (d) addresses the social problems of prostitution and extramarital affairs common in the West.[23]

e. The number of women in the world exceeds that of men.[24]  Dr. Zakir Naik keenly notes that:

“In the USA, women outnumber men by 7.8 million. New York alone has one million more females as compared to the number of males, and of the male population of New York one-third are gays i.e sodomites. The USA as a whole has more than twenty-five million gays. This means that these people do not wish to marry women. Great Britain has four million more females as compared to males. Germany has five million more females as compared to males. Russia has nine million more females than males. God alone knows how many million more females there are in the whole world as compared to males.”[25]

Aside from basing this argument from statistics, they also observed that devastating wars have taken their toll mainly among men. The result, as Dr. Jamal Badawi observes, “is not simply more women who cannot find husbands, but even more widows who may aspire to a [cannot have] respectable family life.” Thus, a prominent scholar concludes: “If polygamy is bad, the limitation on polygamy is even far worse.”[26]

Biblical Evaluation   

In contrast to polygamous model of Muslim, Seventh-day Adventist is convinced there is a strong biblical and theological support for the doctrine of monogamous model for marriage. In this section, we will objectively evaluate the claim of Islam regarding to the belief of polygamy.

The Quran and the Torah. We partially agree to their fundamental argument (see, above), not because Christians are also guilty of using such argument,[27] but because of the truth that morality should not be set by prevalent Western thought but by divine revelation. However, an important truth should not be dismissed that Koran wholeheartedly supports the original and uncorrupted Torah (torat).[28] Now, if the Torah sets monogamous model for marriage (cf. Gen. 2:24), and prohibits polygamous model for marriage; hence, we are led to conclude that its either our interpretation to the Scripture is erroneous, or the Koran is contradictory about its claims. When we return to the Scripture, I objectively believe the latter.[29] Therefore, even though I delightfully accept their warrant (morality should be set by divine revelation), I cannot agree with their claim (polygamous model should be permitted) – according to the Koran and the Bible.[30]

Polygamy and Natural Law. It is interesting that scholars of Islam institutionalized polygamy based on natural law; however, informed and recent researches have found polygamous marriage leads to higher level of crimes, violence, poverty and gender inequality. A report in Science Daily expresses this point well, “In cultures that permit men to take multiple wives, the intra-sexual competition that occurs causes greater levels of crime, violence, poverty and gender inequality than in societies that institutionalize and practice monogamous marriage.” On the other hand, “Monogamous marriage also results in significant improvements in child welfare, including lower rates of child neglect, abuse, accidental death, homicide and intra-household conflict, the study finds.”[31] This study is a total contradiction to the claim of Islamic scholars. Furthermore, other Islamic arguments that appeal to the natural law (i.e., the number of women in the world exceeds that of men;[32] it is in harmony with nature of man, etc.) were concepts that cannot be warranted in the book of Quran. A reasonable Muslim eloquently summarizes the point: “It is to be noted that none of these arguments are advanced either by Qur’an or by Prophets traditions. The qu’ranic spirit in permitting polygamy is very clear — to help widows and orphans and not to satisfy men’s extra-sexual urge.”[33]

Divine Condition and Human Limitations. The law must be put in proper balance in the light of divine condition and human limitations. As we can observe, the law clearly states the divine condition that if a man cannot deal justly with his wives, then he must marry only one. (Qur’an 4:3bc) Consequently, I strongly believe that no one on this earth, including Muhammad, can be absolutely fair due to his human limitation. Interestingly, this argument is in agreement with the prayer of their own Prophet by praying to their Allah Almighty by saying in Arabic: “Allah humma innaka taalamu be anni aadiloo bima astatee’, wa lakinnee la aadiloo bima la astatee’,” which means in English “Dear Allah, you are well aware that I try to be just with all I can, but I can’t be just with what I can’t.”[34] This prayer means that their Prophet always tried to be fair as much as possible, but he couldn’t always do that. Now, if Muhammad is the al-Insān al-Kāmil (the perfect human) and uswa hasana (an excellent model of conduct) but his life cannot meet the divine condition because of his human limitations – thus it is reasonable that Islam should not only discourage polygamy, but also should prohibit it.

Theological and Practical Implications. Practically speaking, the Quran authorizes a man to have as many wives as he chooses, since its teaching on divorce contradicts its teaching on marriage. In contrast with the New Testament, which confines permission to divorce on the sole grounds of sexual unfaithfulness (Matthew 19:9),[35] the Quran authorizes divorce for multiple reasons (e.g., Surah 2:226-232,241; 33:4,49; 58:2-4; 65:1-7).[36] If a man can divorce his wife for any reason, then the “command” that limits a man to four wives is effectively meaningless—merely restricting a man to four legal wives at a time. Theologically speaking, a man could have an unlimited number of wives—all with the approval of God!

Conclusion 

The so-called fuller understanding of Scripture in the Koran does not live up to its claim. Therefore, we have maintained the position that God presents us normative instructions for marriage: one man was to be joined to one woman so as to become one flesh (cf. Gen. 2:24).


[1] The word “polygamy” and “polygyny” will be used interchangeably; context will play an important role.

[2] See for an extended study: Daniel W. Bachman, “New Light on an Old Hypothesis: The Ohio Origins of the Revelation on Eternal Marriage,” Journal of Mormon History 5 (1978); Lowell Bennion, “The Incidence of Mormon Polygamy in 1880: `Dixie’ versus Davis Stake,” Journal of Mormon History 11 (1984); Jessie L. Embry, Mormon Polygamous Families: Life in the Principle (1987); Lawrence Foster, Religion and Sexuality: Three American Communal Experiences of the Nineteenth Century (1981); B. Carmon Hardy and Victor Jorgenson, “The Taylor-Cowley Affair and the Watershed of Mormon History,” Utah Historical Quarterly 48 (Winter 1980); B. Carmon Hardy, Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage (1991); Stanley S. Ivins, “Notes on Mormon Polygamy.” Utah Historical Quarterly 35 (Fall 1967); Larry Logue, “A Time of Marriage: Monogamy and Polygamy in a Utah Town,” Journal of Mormon History 11 (1984); D. Michael Quinn, “LDS Church Authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890-1904,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 18 (Spring 1985); Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History (1986); Kimball Young, Isn’t One Wife Enough? (1954).

[3] Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values and Issues (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[4] The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955, in article 5: “permitted polygamy when wife could not produce a male child.” Since a son for them was considered “essential for the eventual salvation of the father”, this practice was encouraged to become one of the means of having a child. See, Robert D. Baird, “Gender Implications for a Uniform Civil Code,” in Gerald James Larson (ed.), Religion and Personal Law in Secular India: A Call to Judgment (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 153.

[5] See, Surah 4:3.

[6] See, Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1983), 184–90.

[7] Haifaa A. Jawad, The Rights of Women in Islam: An Authentic Approach (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1998), 42.

[8] Abu Ameenah Bilaal Philips, Jameelah. Jones, Polygamy in Islam (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: International Islamic Publishing House, 2005), 49.

[9] Asghar Ali Engineer, The Rights of Women in Islam (New Delhi: Sterling Publisher, 2004), 187.

[10] Broadly, Islam has five categories of Do’s and Dont’s: “’Farz’ i.e compulsory; Mustahab’ i.e recommended or encouraged
; ‘Mubah’ i.e permissible; ‘Makruh’ i.e ‘not recommended’ or discouraged; f. ‘Haram’ i.e prohibited or forbidden.” Dr. Zakir Naik concludes: “Polygyny of Islam falls in the middle category of things that are permissible. It cannot be said that a Muslim who has two, three or four wives is a better Muslim as compared to a Muslim who has only one wife.” Answers to Non-Muslims’ Common Questions about Islam (New Delhi: Al Hasanat Books, 2006), 5.

[11] Peter G. Gowing, Mosque and Moro: A Study of Muslims: In the Philippines (Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1964), 53.

[12] Robyn E. Lebron, Searching for Spiritual Unity…Can There Be Common Ground? (Bloomington, Indiana: Crossbooks, 2012), 127.

[13] Qur’an 33:21

[14] Zakir Naik, 4.

[15] See the whole text in HOLY QUR’AN 4:3 (Maulana Muhammad Ali trans., 1995) (“And if you fear that you shall not be equitable in the matter of the orphans, then marry women suitable to you, two, three and four. But if you fear that you shall not be able to do justice between the wives, then be content with only one wife.”). See, generally DR. Zeenat Shaukat Ali Marriage and Divorce in Islam: An Appraisal 117 (1987).

[16] See, Brooke D. Rodgers-Miller, “Out of Jahiliyya: Historic and Modern Incarnations of Polygamy in the Islamic World,” Wm. & Mary J. Women & L. 11 (2005): 544 (discussing the Prophet Muhammad’s recording of the revelation from Allah to allow plural wives, in response to the loss of husbands and fathers during the pagan wars).

[17] See, HOLY QUR’AN 4:1, 6:98, 7:189, 30:21 (Maulana Muhammad Ali trans., 1995) (describing men and women as similar and as having similar responsibilities); see also Azizah Yahia al-Hibri, “Muslim Women’s Rights in the Global Village: Challenges and Opportunities,” J.L. & Religion 15 (2000–2001): 37, 46 (stating that the Qur’an describes all human beings as having been created from the same “nafs”).

[18] See, Rodgers-Miller, supra note 20, 544.

[19] David L. Sillis, “Natural Law”. International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (New York, N.Y.: Macmillan, 1968).

[20] Ḥammūdah ʻAbd al-ʻĀṭī, Islam In Focus (Indianapolis, Ind.: American Trust Publications, 2003), 334.

[21] Ibid., 338-339.

[22] Laurel Richardson “Another World; More and More Single Women Are Opting for Affairs with Married Men, and the Trend Is Diminishing Feminist Progress,” Psychology Today, vol. 20 (February, 1986).

[23] Ute Frevert, Women in German History: from Bourgeois Emancipation to Sexual Liberation (New York: Berg Publishers, 1988), 257-264 as quoted by Dr. Sherif Abdel Azim, “Women in Islam Versus Women in the Judaeo-Christian Tradition: The Myth and The Reality.”

[24] Abu Ameenah Bilaal Philips, Jameelah. Jones, 48. See also, Naeem Abdullah, Concepts of Islam (USA: Xlibris Corporation, 2011), 248.

[25] Zakir Naik, 6.

[26] Jamal Badawi, Polygamy in Islamic Law (United States: American Trust Publication, 1998), 34.

[27] This argument will not commit circular fallacy mainly because Islam also believes in the Torah. See, Norman L. Geisler, Abdul Saleeb, Answering Islam: The Crescent in the Light of the Cross, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2002), 213-232.

[28] These are the following verses that prove that Koran upholds the first five books of the Old Testament: Surah 29: 45; 3:94; 5:72; 4:49-50. However, they also believed that: “No copy of the original Taurat [Torah] granted by Allah to Musa is extant. (Sura 2:75,213; 4:46; 5:14,44; 6:91; 7:169; 10:93; 11:110; 16:124; 41:45; 45:17). The Old Testament in the Bible cannot, for these reasons, be regarded as the book of by Allah to Musa.” Altaf Ahmed Kherie, Islam a Comprehensive Guide-Book (Pakistan, 1993), p. 28. Fortunately, the Old and New Testament can be historically tested to be reliable. For an extended discussion, see: Dan Hayden, Did God Write the Bible? (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2007); Josh McDowel, Evidence for Christianity (Nashville, TN: Nelson Reference, 2006); Josh McDowell, ‪The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Nashville, TN: Nelson Reference, 1999); Randall Price, Searching for the Original Bible (Eugene, Or.: Harvest House Publishers, 2007); Norman L Geisler, William E Nix Chicago, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986); Paul D Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2004).

[29] See the works of Ron du Preez, “The God-Given Marital Mandate: Monogamous, Heterosexual, Intrafaith,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 10/1-2 (1999): 23–40; Ron du Preez, “Epics & Ethics: Vital Biblical Principles for Interpreting Scripture Stories,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 10/1-2 (1999): 107–140; Ron du Preez, “Does the Bible Really Support Polygamy?,” in Samuel Koranteng-Pipim (ed.), Here We Stand: Evaluating New Trends in the Church (Berrien Springs, Michigan: Adventist Affirm, 2005), 601-620.

[30] Muslims present proof that the Taurat is corrupt by pointing to the differences in accounting of events common to both texts between the Taurat and the Qur’an. They claim that anything that contradicts the Qur’an is ‘corruption’. However this excuse is not valid, as the Torah precedes the Qur’an; thus, we must label any contradictions on the part of the Qur’an, as corruption from the original texts. Considering there is absolutely no archaeological evidence (scrolls and such) that confirms the claims of Muslims or the Qur’an, we must reject this interpretation. See also, C. T. R. Hewer, Understanding Islam: The First Ten Steps (Longdon: SCM Press, 2008), 47-59; Philip L. Parshall, Muslim Evangelism: Contemporary Approaches to Contextualization (Waynesboro, Ga.: Gabriel Pub., 2003), 145-149.

[31] University of British Columbia. “Monogamy reduces major social problems of polygamist cultures.” Science Daily, 23 Jan. 2012. Web. 6 Aug. 2012.

[32] The Encyclopedia Britannica (15th edition) Volume 7, p. 998, in the section: Genetics Human, refutably notes: “Reliably, in almost all human populations studied at birth, there is a slight excess of males; about 106 boys are born for each 100 girls. Throughout life, however, there is a slightly greater mortality of males; this slowly alters the sex ratio until, beyond the age of 50 years, there is an excess of females.”

[33] Asghar Ali Engineer, 187.

[34] See, Ni M. Fethullah Gulen, Selected Prayers of Prophet Muhammad: And Great Muslim Saints (Somerset, NJ.: The Light, 2006).

[35] Roy Gane, “Old Testament Principles Relating to Divorce and Remarriage,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 12/2 (Autumn 2001): 35–61; Richard M. Davidson, “Divorce and Remarriage
in the Old Testament:
A Fresh Look at Deuteronomy 24:1–4” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 10/1-2 (1999): 2–22; Ed Christian, “The “Hard Sayings” of Jesus and Divorce: Not Commandments but Goals,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 12/2 (Autumn 2001): 62–75; Robert H. Stein, “Is it Lawful for a Man to Divorce His Wife?,” JETS., 22/2 (June 1979): 115-121; P.H. Wiebe, “The New Testament on Divorce and Remarriage Some Logical Implications,” JETS., 24/2 (June 1981): 131-138; Joe M. Sprinkle, “Old Testament Perspectives on Divorce and Remmariage,”JETS., 40/4 (December, 1997): 529–550.

[36] Islam Grounds on Divorce: “(1) Adultery on the part of wife; (2) Abandonment and/or long absence of either spouse; (3) An attempt by one spouse against the life of the other; (4) Impotence of the husband; (5) Non-fertility of the wife; (6) Insanity; (7) Affliction with a grave chronic disease; (8) Incapacity to support the wife; (9) Cruelty; (10) Incompatibility.” Emily A. Subilo, “Islamic Laws of Marriage and Divorce as Affected by Philippine Legislation,”  Philippine Law Journal Vol. 49 (1974): 410. See also, Freeland, R, “The Use and Abuse of Islamic Law”, Volume 73, The Australian Law Journal, 130; Hasan, A, “Marriage in Islamic Law – A Brief Introduction”, (March, 1999) Family Law, 164; Hinchcliffe, D, “Divorce in the Muslim World”, (May, 2000), International Family Law, 63.

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