The concept of a Muslim man being married to more than one wife at the same time is a widely misunderstood one — perhaps especially amongst Muslims themselves. Patricea Chow-Capodieci attempts to uncover the truth amongst the various notions.
Polygamy is the practice of having more than one spouse at one time, where ‘spouse’ is either member of a married pair in relation to the other; one’s husband or wife.
Polygyny is the practice of having more than one wife at one time.
Polyandry is the practice of having more than one husband at one time.
Now, let us visit Polygyny in Islam.
What’s Love Got To Do With It?
Verse 4:3 of the Qur’an states: ‘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 (marry) only one.’
Ustaz Abdul Majeed, a part-time arbitrator at the Singapore Syariah Court and a member of the Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association of Singapore, also highlights verse 4:129 of the Qur’an, which says: ‘You are never able to be fair and just between women even if it is your ardent desire.’ However, this verse is seldom quoted in pro-polygyny circles.
The ustaz explains that verse 4:3 was revealed after the battle of Uhud in which many Muslims were killed, leaving widows and orphans for whom due care was incumbent upon the Muslim survivors (Abd Al-Ati, Hammuda, Islam in Focus, The Canadian Islamic Centre, Edmonton Alberta, Canada, 1963, p.103).
He adds that, ‘Dealing justly with one’s wives is an obligation. This applies to housing, food, clothing, kind treatment etc, for which the husband is fully responsible.’ The ustaz stresses with verse 4:3 that, ‘Polygyny is neither mandatory, nor encouraged, but merely permitted. The permission to practice polygyny is associated with compassion towards widows and orphans, a matter that is confirmed by the atmosphere in which the verse was revealed.’
So, love does have a lot to do with it. Pure and humane love towards those who are debilitated.
In Islam, should the female refuse to marry a man for any reason, she cannot be compelled to do so
Saleh Al-Saieri, a Saudi businessman, has had 58 wives in 50 years, always legally married to four at any one time.
There are no reasons given for his actions, but an article on arabnews.com states: ‘As soon as Al-Saieri gets the itch to marry again, he draws lots between the current four wives to choose which one will be divorced (to make allowance for a new one).’
Al-Saieri treats marriage like a game, and his actions have caused others to conclude that he is guilty of manipulating religious provisions to satisfy his carnal needs. Ike Sudaryono, a 51-year-old Indonesian finance director, is on the same page on this one, saying, ‘The society’s view of polygyny is extremely negative because it is usually only a sign of weakness in controlling one’s lust.’
Lubis Ratno, a 31-year-old Singaporean civil servant, agrees, with an illustrated commentary, ‘My understanding (of polygyny) is that Muslim men should only do this out of a sense of humanity, not because they are horny. But of course, being humans, many men have twisted this understanding to suit their d***s.’
For the Record
Nature demonstrates that many animal species survive through being polygynous, and humans are not excluded. Michael Hammer, a population geneticist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, says ‘Humans are considered to be mildly polygynous and we descend from primates that are polygynous.’
In Biblical texts, King David was described as having eight wives and various concubines, while his son King Solomon reportedly had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Polygyny was common among European Jews until the 16th century, and in China until the 19th century. Brigham Young, president from 1847 until his death in 1877 of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly known as the Mormon Church) had 55 wives.
Polyandry is not such a strange concept, either. The ancient Hindu epic Mahabharata depicts Princess Draupadi as the wife of the five Pandava brothers. The Masaai, a semi-nomadic indigenous African ethnic group, is also polyandrous. Even before the arrival of Christians and colonialists, African women have been open to marrying a married man because he has already proven his responsibility as a husband—and a father, too, if he has a children.
In the present day, about 15 percent of Mormons in the United States still practice polygyny, and polygamy is permissible in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.
Female proponents of polygyny argue that sharing a husband provides some status, as compared with the negative appraisals that most societies have on mistresses of married men.
There is also the argument that because women outnumber men globally, there are insufficient numbers of men available for single women. Hence, when looking for a man as a potential husband, it can be difficult for a single woman to find an unmarried man.
So if polygyny is meant to discourage illegitimate liaisons while giving women a legal status and ensuring that their welfare is attended to, why is it frowned upon by the same society that views mistresses negatively?
Cents and Sensibility
Despite a blanket understanding among the global Muslim community for the provision of polygyny in Islam, there are differing views on how it could actually work in current times.
Noreen, a married 30-year-old Singaporean bank officer, feels that practising polygyny as described by the Qur’an is easier said than done for one reason only—costs. ‘In (cities such as) Singapore, the cost of living is very high. It requires a great deal of financial means for a man to support his wife and kids.’
Izra (not her real name), a 29-year-old Singaporean business analyst, offers another viewpoint. ‘This allowance was provided at a time when women had little rights and needed men to support them. However, the situation now is vastly different. With women earning more than men, for example, the whole gender rights paradigm has to be updated.’
Sunnah is the ways, teachings and activities of Prophet Muhammad (SAW). Muslims emulate the sunnah of the Prophet in order to be good Muslims.
SAW is swallallaahu alaihi wassallam: Allah’s praise and peace be upon him.
In All Fairness
In Islam, should a woman refuse to marry a man for any reason, she cannot be compelled to do so. Hence, most second, third and fourth wives (also known as co-wives) of Muslim men would have entered the union willingly and knowingly. There is, however, disagreement about whether the same is true for the earlier wife or wives. Cherry, a married 29-year-old Indonesian wedding singer, insists that nobody asks the first wife anything, as ‘a lot of men get married again—even without the first wife’s acknowledgement’.
All the same, Abdul Rasyid Al-Fatih, a married 31-year-old graphic designer, believes that ‘oral and written permission from the first or previous wife’ has to be sought. A more common understanding, which reinforces the ustaz’s explanation of verse 4:3, is provided by Noreen. ‘In Islam, a man is allowed up to a maximum of four wives at any one time but (before that) he must be able to fulfil the needs of his first wife, providing love, care, concern and (meeting) all the financial obligations of the family he has with her.
‘Once he has achieved this, he can marry a second woman (with or) without the consent of the first wife, and his first wife cannot object to his intention to marry a second woman. On the other hand, if the man has not provided enough for the family of his first wife, he cannot marry a second woman, and thus, the first wife has the right to object to his intention to marry a second woman.’
With so many differing opinions about whether a Muslim man should or shouldn’t marry again, can somebody out there shed light on this issue once and for all? Well, yes. We contacted Ustaz Abdul Majeed again, who confirms the following: a Muslim man has to first be a good provider in every way to his wife or wives before he should obtain both oral and written permission from his earlier wife or wives, who could then not deny his wishes to marry again.
In Islam, if the first wife willingly acknowledges her husband marrying a second woman, she is a woman of high status in the afterlife and thus will be greatly rewarded since this (arrangement) is not easy for her to accept
Sharia Courts in the Region
Singapore Syariah Court
8 Lengkok Bahru #03-01 Singapore 159052
Federal Territory Syariah Court
Bangunan Sulaiman, Jl Damansara 50676 Kuala Lumpur;
Directorate General of Religious Judicature
Jl Pegangsaan Barat No 30
DKI Jakarta 10320 Indonesia;
Brunei Darussalam Syariah Court
Kementerian Hal Ehwal Ugama, Jl Menteri Besar, Berakas BB3910
Negara Brunei Darussalam;
Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers
Association of Singapore
Wisma Indah 448 Changi Road
#03-01 Singapore 419975;
Tel: 65.6346.9350, Fax: 65.6346.3450;
All’s Well that Ends Well
‘In Islam, if the first wife willingly acknowledges her husband marrying a second woman, she is a woman of high status in the afterlife and thus will be greatly rewarded since this (arrangement) is not easy for her to accept,’ shares Noreen.
Co-wives overcome jealousy and rivalry for attention from their husband with a general consensus that they focus instead on the teachings of Islam, which have valid reasons for recommending polygyny in the first place. By putting aside personal pride and self-centredness, negative feelings are kept at bay.
A blogger who is a co-wife describes her husband’s first wife as ‘a quiet lady of great generosity, with whom, to this day, I have never had any confrontation’. She continues, ‘In all our affairs, we always return to the Qur’an and the sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) if there were any differences.’ She believes that ‘a firm foundation in Islam… encourages us to overcome (our human weaknesses).’
People have often taken the intricacies of the Qur’an out of context. But for those who stick to the straight and narrow of its sanctity, it’s been proven to alleviate even the most complicated situations—like a polygynous marriage.
NOTES OF A CO-WIFE
Siti Wati (now divorced) was once a first wife in Perth, Western Australia. She shares her innermost thoughts and feelings with Sofea Famian about her experience in a polygynous marriage.
I met Ali through a friend of my father’s. Ali is an Australian convert and when I met him in 1991, he was already a Muslim for a few years. He was 25 and I was 18. When I first met Ali, he was very shy and modest. He still is, insha’allah. He was divorced from a marriage that had blessed him with two children, ages one and three. He was very affectionate to his two children, and upon witnessing that, I thought to myself, ‘That’s a husband for me.’ We got married when I was 19 years old.
THE SECOND WAVE
The subject of him marrying again came up after our second child was born, when he became confident enough to do it at the age of 27. I woke up one morning the day after Eid ul Fitr to find him sitting on the floor staring at me. He said he had something to tell me. Before he could say anything further, I asked him whether he had married again. He didn’t answer until I had asked him for the third time. Finally, he said, ‘Yes.’
MY INITIAL REACTION
At that moment, I told him to get out of the bedroom and I just cried as loud as I could, as if the whole world had collapsed in front of me. About 15 minutes later, my brother-in-law and his wife had come to console me but I told them to go home. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. When they had left, I returned to my room and continued crying. But as I cried, I realised how silly I was being. I had already known that polygyny is halal, meaning that it is permitted in the eyes of Allah. So from then on, the process of acceptance took place.
IN THE BEGINNING>
Before I became a co-wife, I didn’t know of any other women in similar marital arrangements, so I had no one to really turn to when it came to my kind of marriage. At first I was overwhelmed about having to share my possessions and my time. But after a period of reflections and contemplations, I realised that our husband, children and our worldly goods are nothing but a test for us to see how we fare in our deeds.
Ali did change after he married again—he became an even better husband than he already was. He became more loving, caring and affectionate. He tried his very best in being fair with his wives. In other words, I could not have been happier with him at the time.
ON SHARING A BEDMATE
Knowing that Ali sleeps with another woman didn’t bother me at all. In fact it made me feel happy that he is fulfilling his duties towards her. I do think, though, that it is very natural for co-wives to feel some animosity between each other. Each wife wants to be the wife that the husband loves more. But in time, we had come to really accept that both of us are our husband’s wives already, so it didn’t really matter who he loves more.
There were so many great experiences in polygyny. Firstly, the sharing of time was such a great blessing. After some time apart, when it was my turn to be with Ali, I felt refreshed from the ‘break’. Secondly, the sharing of wealth had taught me not to be self-centred and selfish. In other words, it beautified the character. Thirdly, when we had problems, it was so much easier to solve them as a family.
IN VULNERABLE MOMENTS
I overcame any problems by turning to Allah, the One that created and sustains me. I never forget that everything is from Him. He only gives you what is good for you, and He will not give you a burden more than you can bear.
POLYGYNY, TO ME
I see polygyny as a favour and a mercy that our Creator had bestowed upon women. With polygyny, Muslim women have more choices in choosing our spouses—we are allowed to marry men who are single or married. On the other hand, although Muslim men are allowed up to four wives, their choice of spouses is limited; they can only marry single women.
MY MESSAGE TO OTHERS
Muslim men who intend to take more wives, be mindful to Allah, fulfil your obligations towards Him and ask Him to give you the ability to do the required justice towards your wives. Future co-wives, always remember that your co-wife has as much right as you have; that you are both the servants of Allah, that you will be accountable for what you do, as she will be to hers, and always remember that Allah is the best Judge. And if you do want to compete, compete in good deeds and actions, and compete in righteousness.