An-Nisa · Juz 4 · Qur'an Tafseer

Lessons from Surah an-Nisa Ayah 3 [Part 2]

Lesson 3: Polygamy and Islam

Having more than one wife was something considered permissible in all religions of the world even before the advent of Islam. The custom prevailed in Arabia, India, Iran, Egypt, Babylon and elsewhere. Its natural validity cannot be denied even to this day. The Europeans of the present age tried to break away from the practice of their predecessors and made multiplicity of marriage impermissible. It resulted in the multiplicity of concubines and girl friends retained out of wedlock.

Davenport, the well-known Christian writer has deduced from the Bible that plurality of wives is not only favorable but is a source of blessing from God. Others such as Father Nixon, John Milton and Isac Taylor have supported this view strongly. Similarly, Vedic teachings permit unlimited number of wives, even in tens and thirteens and twenty sevens, at one time. Shri Krishna, a highly respected deity among Hindus, had hundreds of wives.

The truth of the matter is that a religion or law which aims to establish an infrastructure of chastity and modesty and considers the eradication of adultery as necessary has no way out except that it permits plurality of wives.

Apart from being a prevent measure against adultery, it serves as a remedial approach to the problem of comparatively larger female population in some areas as compared to that of men. If such permission was not granted, mistresses and prostitutes will proliferate. This is why nations which do not permit plurality of wives must live in rampant adultery (calling it ‘free sex’ hardly changes the reality). Even in our own time, if we look at the state of nations in Europe and America, we will see that they look down on what they call polygamy and put a ban on plurality of wives, but they permit a man to practice adultery with as many women as he can get under the cover of ‘friendship’, (and unlimited are the euphemisms invented to give it other names, such as, relationship, affair, consenting adults, union, partner to get around the ban. Saying no to marriage and yes to adultery is certainly very strange!

We can say that the custom of taking a large number of wives was prevalent before Islam without any imposition of limits. The history of nations and belief shows that no religion or law had drawn a line in this matter, neither the Jews and Christians, nor the Hindus and Aryans or the Zoroastrians.

During the early period of Islam, this custom continued without being limited. As a result, people initially took too many wives to satisfy their greed. Later on they could not do justice to all of them and these wives of theirs lived like prisoners bound in the chains of marriage. Under such conditions, the idea of an equitable treatment of wives was practically non-existent. It was all a matter of personal choice or whim which could make the darling of the day a history of tomorrow. The concern for standing rights was a far cry.

It was the Qur’an which stopped this great injustice. It restricted the plurality or multiplicity of wives by declaring that keeping more than four women under the bond of marriage was forbidden. In addition to that, stern warning was given against any contravention of the Divine command which emphatically demanded that equality in fulfilling the rights of women taken into the bond of marriage at the same time must be maintained faithfully. The words of the ayah are:

فَانكِحُواْ مَا طَابَ لَكُمْ مِّنَ النِّسَآءِ مَثْنَى وَثُلَـثَ وَرُبَاعَ

The expression “ma taba” in this ayah, as explained by Hasan al-Basri, Ibn Jubair and Ibn Malik, may the mercy of Allah be upon them, means “ma-halla” that is, women who are lawful for you.

There are others who, taking the literal meaning of ‘mataba’ have explained it to mean, ‘whom you like’. But, there is no contradiction here. It could simply mean, ‘women you like out of your natural inclination and that they be lawful for you in terms of the Shariah as well.”

On the one hand, permission has been given in this ayah that more than one wife can be conjoined in marriage in twos, threes or fours; while, on the other, after having taken the number to four, restriction was placed that more than four women cannot be taken in marriage at one given time.

This particular restriction of the Qur’an was made much more clear by a ruling given by the Prophet sallallahu aalyhi wa sallam. It has been reported that, soon after the revelation of this ayah a person by the name of Ghailan ibn Aslamah al-Thaqafi embraced Islam. At that time, he had ten wives who had also embraced Islam. Pursuant to the Qur’anic command, the Prophet asked him to select and retain four and release the rest by giving them divorce. Ghailan ibn Aslamah al-Thaqafi obeyed the command, retained four women and severed his marital link with the rest [Mishkat, p. 274, with reference to al-Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah].


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