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Islam and Polygamy

In contrast to polyandry, Islam has not totally abolished polygamy, but has restricted it. On the one hand, it has fixed the maximum number of wives, which one can have, at four, and, on the other, it has stipulated certain conditions and has not allowed everyone to indulge in having several wives. We shall discuss the conditions stipulated by Islam later and will explain why Islam has not banned polygamy.

It is surprising that during the Middle Ages, when anti Islamic propaganda was at its highest, the opponents of Islam used to say that it was the Prophet of Islam who, for the first time, invented the custom of polygamy. They claimed that this custom was the basis of Islam and the rapid spread of Islam among the various people of the world was due to it. At the same time, they claimed that polygamy was the cause of the decline of the people of the East.

Will Durant in his 'History of Culture'. Vol.1, says that the ecclesiastics of the Middle Ages believed that polygamy was an invention of the Prophet of Islam, whereas this is not a fact. As we know, the matrimonial life in most of the primitive societies proceeded according to this system. There are many causes of its emergence. In the primitive societies men were mostly busy in hunting and fighting and the rate of mortality among them was naturally high. As the number of women exceeded the number of men. it became essential to adopt this system. It was not possible to allow some women to remain unmarried, for the rate of mortality being high in the primitive societies, every woman was required to procreate children. There is no doubt that this system suited those societies, not only because of the excess of women over men, but also because it strengthened them numerically. In modern times the most strong and healthy men usually marry late in life and beget only a few children. But in the olden days the strong men could have the best wives and could procreate a large number of children. That is why this practice continued to exist for a very long time, not only among the primitive people but even among the civilised ones. It is only recently that it has gradually begun disappearing from the countries of the East. Agriculture has stabilised the life of men and reduced the hardships and perils of the ancient times, with the result that the number of men and women has almost equalised. Now polygamy, even in primitive societies, has become a privilege of a small wealthy minority and the masses have to be content with only one wife and, as an additional enjoyment, they can only indulge in adultery, whenever possible.

Gustav Leabeon in his book, 'History of Culture', says that no Eastern custom is so infamous in Europe as polygamy, nor has Europe misjudged any other custom to the extent that it has misjudged this. The European writers have believed polygamy to be the basis of Islam and the main cause of its spread. They also hold this custom to be mainly responsible for the decline of the Eastern people. Other objections apart from these, showing sympathy with the women of the East, are raised alleging that these ill-fated women are detained within the four walls of their houses, under the hard-hearted eunuchs. They further say that the slightest action on their part, which may displease the head of the household, renders them liable to be put to death. Such notions have no basis at all. '[he unbiased Europeans should know that it is the custom of polygamy that has strengthened the family relations and uplifted the moral spirit of those people among whom it is prevalent. It is due to this custom that woman in the East enjoys more respect than she does in Europe. Before proving this point, we must make it clear that this custom is in no way related to Islam. Even prior to Islam, it was practised by all the people of the East, including the Jews, the Iranians, the Arabs etc. The people who embraced Islam in the East did not derive any benefit in this respect. So far, no such mighty religion has appeared in this world as could invent or abolish such a custom as polygamy. It has not been first introduced by any religion. It is the creation of the climatic and the racial characteristics and other causes related to the way of life in the East. Even in the West, where the climate is not congenial to the existence of such a custom, monogamy is a thing which is found in law books only. In actual life there is no trace of it. It is not known how and in what way the lawful polygamy found in the East is inferior to the clandestine polygamy of the people of the West. Apparently, the former is better and more dignified than the latter. The people of the East, when they visit a European country and are confronted with the European criticism of their custom, are naturally bewildered and feel offended.

It is a fact that Islam has not invented polygamy. It has only restricted it. It has prescribed a maximum limit for it. It has laid down strict conditions for it. This custom already existed among most of the people who accepted Islam. They were only compelled to comply with the conditions laid down by Islam.

In his book, 'Iran During the Sassanian Period', Christenson writes: "Polygamy was considered to be the basis of the family. Practically, the number of wives, which a man could have, depended on his means. The poor people apparently could not afford to have more than one wife as a general rule. The head of the family had special rights as such. One of the wives was regarded as the favourite wife and enjoyed full rights. Some other wives were treated as servants only. Legal rights of these two categories widely differed. The slave girls were included among the servant wives. It is not known how many favourite wives a single man could have. But there has been a mention of two favourite wives in the course of several legal discourses. Each of them was called the lady of the house. Apparently they lived in separate houses. The husband was bound to maintain the favourite wife so long as she lived. Every son till he reached the age of puberty, and every daughter till she was married, had the same rights. But only the male children of the servant-wives were admitted to the paternal family".

In the 'Social History of Iran from the fall of the Sassanians to the fall of the Omayyads' the late Sa'id Nafisi writes: "The number of women whom a man could marry was unlimited and at times it is observed in the Greek documents that one man had hundreds of women in his house."

Montesquieu, quoting a Roman historian, says that several Roman philosophers, who were being tortured by the Christians because they refused to embrace Christianity, fled from Rome and took refuge in the court of the Iranian King, Khusro Parviz. They were astonished to see that not only polygamy was legal there, but the Persian men had intimacy with the wives of others also.

It may be pointed out here that the Roman philosophers took refuge in the court of the Persian king, Anushirwan, and not in the court of Khusro Parviz. Montesquieu has mentioned the name of the latter owing to some misunderstanding.

During the pre-Islamic period, the Arabs could have an unlimited number of wives. It was Islam that prescribed a maximum limit. This naturally created a problem for those who had more than four wives. In exceptional circumstances, some had even ten. They had to part with six of them.

From the above it is evident that polygamy is not an invention of Islam. Islam only restricted it. Anyhow, it did not abolish it totally. In the following chapters we shall discuss the causes which gave rise to this custom and shall explain why Islam did not do away with it. We shall also discuss the reasons which in modern times have impelled both men and women to rise against this custom.

Adapted from the book: "Woman and Her Rights" by: "Shahid Murtaza Mutahhari

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