Polygamy has been socially a classical issue which unremittingly draws rigorous discussions and debates among Muslim communities across the world. So often does the debate within the level of discourse end up but then result in no shared agreement. The conclusion of the debate raises three points of views. The first are views that tolerate polygamy in very loose manner. A part of it even regards polygamy as "sunnah" as in pursuance of the Prophet Muhammad's traditions. The fairness and justice, which are highly required and explicitly mentioned in the Quran, tend to be ignored and used as simply rhetorical arguments. The second view permits polygamy in very strict ways by applying a number of such conditions as the formal-distributive justice that is the relatively equal fulfillment of wives’ rights to economic and sexual needs, the necessity of receiving wife’s assent and permission for polygamy, and other several requirements. The third is a view that absolutely prohibits polygamy.
The diversity of Muslims’ views on the issue of polygamy is certainly intriguing, as it displays an incessantly burgeoning dynamics of Islamic thought. This development proves that Muslims are facing the ongoing social changes.
What is interesting about the debate and controversy over polygamy is that each opinion refers to the same sources; the Holy Qur'an Surah (chapter) al-Nisa ; 2, 3, and 129 and a number of the Prophet Muhammad’s traditions. This illustrates that the religious texts are always open to the possibilities of various interpretations. The texts are the letters that need to be voiced. In this regard, Ibn 'Arabi seemed to be the most "courageous" when he said; "Fa ma fi al Kaun Kalam la yuta'awwal" (there is no text in the world that can not be interpreted). The text should therefore be interpreted and understood through human mind, although it does not always yield the same conclusion. The differences in the way people understand and how they look upon the text also occur owing to the differences in space and time. Every human’s view and thought is reflection on space and time (social history), where and when they live. The dispute also happens as a result of the methods, among others, used to analyze the text. The differences in interpretation can even exist due to differing interests and ideologies.
Thus, in dealing with the issue of polygamy, each opinion still refers to religious dictums and then claims or reckons that each is intended and aimed to uphold religious teachings. In this respect, what the parties being involved in the controversy over polygamy need to have is willingness to mutually respect each other’s opinion. Furthermore, each party is not supposed to make one-sided claims of truth by labeling or accusing other parties as heretical, anti-Islamic or against the law of God. After the Prophet Muhammad passed away, the Muslims across the world no longer have the most authoritative figures that have been as individually and absolutely able to determine the truth of God's laws (religion, Shariah) as was the Prophet. Therefore, after his death, no more people or parties who have the right to monopolize the truth in the name of God.
Polygamy is not Just Islamic tradition
Polygamy is not a practice Islam ever spawned. Islam never initiated polygamy. Long before Islam came the tradition of polygamy had already become one of patriarchal practices of Arab civilization. This patriarchal civilization is one that places men as actors determining all aspects of life. The fate of women living in this system is subject to the definition made by men and is exploited for their benefit. In fact, not only in the regions of Arabian Peninsula did this civilization have long been entrenched, but also in many other ancient civilizations such as the Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, and even existed in other parts of the world. In other words, polygamy was not merely typical of Arab civilization, but was that of other nations’ civilization as well.
In the Arab world, the birthplace of Islam, before the Prophet Muhammad was born, women were despised and deemed worthless creatures. In its several verses the Qur'an informs about this social reality. Umar ibn Khattab had conveyed this fact by uttering: "In the world of darkness (ignorance), we do not regard women as beings who need to be taken into consideration." Human slavery, especially over women, and polygamy became culturally common practices in the Arab society at that time. When the Prophet of Islam were present amidst them, these practices remained in effect and considered as unproblematic as women’s traditional role moving around "the mattress, the kitchen, and the well" in Javanese society.
Despite the Prophet Muhammad’s knowledge that polygamy practiced by the Arabs often did much harm than good to women, but it was not the approach that Islam would implement to purge this practice by revolutionary ways. The language used in the Qur'an is never provocative, nor even radical. The transformation in Islam has invariably been gradual, accommodative and at the same time very creative in nature. The Quran and the Prophet Muhammad were always trying to ameliorate this situation through persuasive ways and intensive discussion. Not only toward the issue of polygamy, but also toward all of cultural practices humiliating humanity, did the Prophet strive to rectify gradually and continuously that a most ideal condition can be eventually achieved. The ideal condition is justice and respect for human dignity. This is the logical objective of Islamic system of belief: Tawhid (the oneness of God).
When we read the Quranic texts holistically, we can see that this holy book’s concern over women’s existence in general and the issue of polygamy in particular, emerges as for the sake of social and legal reform. The Qur'an was not abruptly sent down to affirm or justify the necessity of polygamy. Islamic statement on polygamy was made in order to eliminate this practice through step-by-step process. Two methods are used by Quran in response to this practice; reducing the number of polygamy doers and providing substantial accounts critically within a direction of upholding the fairness. As known from various sources, before Islam came a man was regarded as tolerable to have an unlimited number of wives as many as he wished. A man was also said to be normal for treating women unfairly. Within the mainstream logic at that time, the practice of polygamy with a desired number of women was perceived as something common and normal, and was not erroneous behavior, seen from the human side. Moreover, for some communities, polygamy is a matter of pride. The priviledge, honor as well as charisma of someone or a community are often gauged from a number of wives, concubines or slaves he or it can possess. Alas, women powerlessly accept this reality and can do nothing with it. They are indeed feeble to stand against the reality that harms their lives. This perhaps because they assume that these unquestionable, entrenched circumstances will benefit them, so they do not view it as detrimental to them instead. Injustice becomes unthinkable anymore. The Qur'an was sent down to criticize and deconstruct the situation by reducing the number of wives from being unlimited to be restricted to not more than four on the one hand and by demanding fairness and justice in treating wives on the other.
The information about socio-cultural facts and actions pertaining to diminishing the practice of polygamy is revealed in the Prophet Muhammad’s traditions. Some of it was that of Ibn Umar who said: "When Ghilan Saqafi converted to Islam, he had ten wives. They all along with him embraced Islam. Prophet Muhammad then advised that he take only four of them." (Narrated by Ahmad, Ibn Majah and Tirmizi). Qais bin Haris was also experiencing the same thing. He said: "I embraced Islam and I had eight wives. Then I went to the Prophet and told him. The Prophet said: "Choose four of them." (Narrated by Abu Dawood and Ibn Majah).
The Qur'anic resolution in reducing and confining the number of wives in polygamy obviously demonstrates its reluctance to permit polygamy unless qualifying for certain strict requirements of justice.
Reading the Verses of Polygamy
The Qur'anic verses that talk about the basics of legitimacy for polygamist to be allowed to marry with up to four wives can be found in Sura al-Nisa: 2-3, which reads as follows:
“And give to the orphans their properties and do not substitute the defective [of your own] for the good [of theirs]. And do not consume their properties into your own. Indeed, that is ever a great sin (2). And if you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphan girls, then marry those that please you of [other] women, two or three or four. But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one or those your right hand possesses. That is more suitable that you may not incline [to injustice] (3).”
Viewed from the background of its descent, this verse according to many exegetes was trying to respond to the cases of injustice committed by guardians or caregivers to orphans. The orphans are those who lost their fathers since their young ages. They are very dependent on others and in need of protection, care and fulfillment of their needs of affection and finance. Through this verse God calls on the guardians to earnestly provide the orphans with protection, care and custody or, to put it in a nutshell, to treat them well and justly. In terms of the wealth that belongs to the orphans, the guardians must give it back to them when they reach adulthood. The guardians are not allowed to manipulate or corrupt their property, but they are given the right to make use of the property as far as it is carried out in order to meet their needs. Mujahid, Sa'id ibn Jubayr, Ibn Sirin, Muqatil ibn Hayyan, al Siddi and Sufyan bin Husain have commented about this verse: “Do you combine your treasure with theirs then you eat it” by saying: “do not give them the thin while you take the fat.”2
A prominent Muslim interpreter, Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, quoting from other experts of exegesis, among of which was the wife of the Prophet, Siti Aisyah, pointed out that this verse was sent down in relation to the case of a man who became guardian of a rich orphan girl. He wished to marry her for the sake of her wealth, but he treated her badly, while she in fact did not like him.3
The practice of orphan care at that time was inclined to be far from fairness and justice, as the guardians often poorly managed the orphans’ social and economic rights. As well, the guardians occasionally married orphan girls who were in their custody, but without paying them dowry or, if they do, they paid it unfairly. As these cases occurred, the Quran allowed the guardians to marry two, three or four women other than the orphans.
By recognizing the specific context of the revelation of the verse, we can clearly reassert that the main intention and mission of it is to give warning and put emphasis on the guardians so as to protect the orphans, whose existence is feeble and powerless, by just, fair treatment. So this verse is not intended for the promotion of polygamy. Strictly speaking, polygamy is not the objective of this verse, nor is the initiative of the Quran. This is because, as already mentioned, polygamous marriage existed and has long been commonly practiced among Arab society at that time. Despite its allusion to and toleration of polygamy, this verse in reality just aims to let it go and yet at once to criticize the unfair, unjust practice of polygamy.
Women: Who Are They?
A question important to ask is: what is the meaning of the word "al-nisa (the women) in this verse? Are the second, third or fourth women just any women or those who become orphans’ mothers (widows)? To these questions the Quranic exegetes provide a variety of views. The following is the interpreted translation of the verse 3 of Surah al-Nisa that implies two different points of views.
The First: "And if you (the orphan guardians) fear that you will not deal justly (when you want to marry) with the orphan girls then marry those that please you of [other] women (who become mothers of the orphans), two or three or four…".
The Second: "And if you (the orphan guardians) fear that you will not deal justly (when you want to marry) with the orphan girls then marry those that please you of [other] women, two or three or four…"
To the majority of classical scholars of Quranic exegesis, the first interpreted translation is much preferable to the second. According to this interpretation, a man who wants to do polygamy is given the freedom to opt for any women the most attractive or he like the most, be they virgins, widows, or combination of both virgins and widows.
Meanwhile, the second interpreted interpretation is put forward and supported by, among very few others, a contemporary Muslim thinker, Muhammad Sahrur. He holds that women referred to in this verse are widows who have orphans.5
Sahrur’s interpretation seems unfamiliar to most people, but I think this view is an interesting possibility, and it doesn’t mean that he has no logical ground of thinking which deserves our appreciation. If the core of this verse is the advocacy of powerless orphans, so the protection for them as well as their mothers would rather make sense. These two groups; widows and orphans are the weak people or deemed weak and fragile. Thus the protection for them, which is well known in many Islamic texts, is among the very concerns of Islam. Despite that, by a legal theory he created of the theory of limit (hududiyah): "Minimum and maximum limitst", Sahrur consents to polygamy (with up to four women) in the light of considering social context. He said, for instance, that within the context of war and, therefore, the number of men shrinks or, in other word, the number of women becomes larger than that of men, polygamy is allowable by reason of demographic arguments.
Long before Sahrur, other contemporary Muslim exegetes like Maulana Umar Ahmad Usmani and Fazlurrahman have suggested views close to Sahrur’s. They argue that marrying more than one wife is permissible only with widows or orphan girls and not with any other women than them. Through this perspective, polygamy is simply justified within the context of protection for widows or orphan girls. The views of these modern Muslim exegetes are quite interesting and logical. Moreover, the facts surrounding the Prophet Muhammad’s marriage, as will be shown later, precisely represented the ideal of this interpretation. This opinion, perhaps, can be used as a consideration by those who want to do polygamy.
Polygamy: Taking Account of Women’s Voices
The following is about what is the meaning of the phrase "ma thaba lakum" in this verse? Muslim exegetes mostly stated that this phrase means "women who please you" or "women that you want” (ma syi'tum min al-nisa). This implies that men may do polygamy by marrying women who please and appeal their heart. But, in contrast to that interpretation, some commentators define "the women” in this verse as “those lawful for you". Some Quranic exegeses, among of which are by Muqatil ibn Sulaiman, al-Zamakhshari in al Kasysyaf, al Wahidi, and Ibn al 'Arabi, define "ma taba lakum min al nisa" as "the women who are lawful for you" (Ma Halla Lakum).
Another thing, which is quite interesting about the meaning of the phrase "ma taba lakum min al-nisa", is an interpretation proposed by a leading exegete, Imam al-Qurtubi, as quoted and explained rightly by Faqihuddin Abdul Kadir, the author of the book "Choosing Monogamy, Reading the Qur'an and the Prophet’s Traditions ".8. Imam al-Qurtubi offers views different from mainstream exegeses by not interpreting and translating the phrase into "the women that you like or love” just like any other interpretation or translation widely known so far, but into "the women who like and love you". This alternative exegesis introduced by al-Qurtubi asserts that polygamy may not be done purely because of man’s wish, but it needs to consider women’s aspirations. Thus, al-Qurtubi believes that man who wants to do polygamy should consider women’s rights and their pleasure as well. This is quite plausible, given the fact that marriage is a transaction (contract) that requires consensus and willingness of two parties being involved, just like any other transactions.
This interpretation is exactly feasible and in truth even plausible. The ideal of the Quran to uphold justice in polygamy (and in anythings else) may not be utterly determined by or dependent on one party, namely men in this case. The judgment about justice should be made by parties that might suffer a great loss and in polygamy the one that will come under harm is of course woman. Strictly speaking, if a man wishes to do polygamy, he ought to get woman’s permission and consent.
Taking into account women’s willingness is not just applied to the additional wife or bride, but more importantly to the current wife because she is the one to suffer a loss the most from polygamous marriage decision. Indonesia’s Marriage Law no. 1/1974 chapter 5 and Family Laws in many Islamic countries alike require the current wife’s permission for man who wishes to do polygamy. Moroccan Family Law clearly states this requirement. Even the Family Protection Law of Iran prior to the Revolution (1975) also requires that man, who wants to take a second or additional wife, get the permission from the court in addition to receiving the approval from the first or current wife.
Ideally, the willingness of those the most harmed is not just evidenced by verbal and or written statements, but also by expressions of psychological situations that surround it. It means that women’s willingness and pleasure should represent their inner state of being free from psychological lure and powerlessness, and ideological pressure and rather being fully conscious of their willingness.
Justice as a condition
Notwithstanding the above mentioned interpretations that appreciate polygamy, one thing which is supposed to receive special attention in this case is our major concern for the principle of justice as the core of Islamic teachings. Departing from the principle of justice, in reading the issue of polygamy, it seems palpable that this principle is the main mission and goal of Islam. If the first fragment of this verse emphasizes the necessity of doing justice to orphans, then the second one is about doing justice to women (wives). This is a criticism the Quran made of polygamy, a practice commonly done by people at the first time the Quran was descended. We can see it when we read the following verse that continues demanding those who want to do polygamy to uphold justice unto their wives.
"If you're worried about not being able to do justice (to the wife), let alone one man's wife or (if you still want too much of a wife) the slaves you have. This is so much closer to you do not deviate. "
This verse reiterates the word “justice” and, I think, the repetition indicates that Allah is giving a serious warning to those who want to do polygamy in order to think and reflect on their desires seriously that they may not be immersed in unjust actions.
Just as in other legal edicts, justice is absolutely an indispensable condition in polygamy which is evidently highlighted by the Qur'an. In this regard, an interesting statement was made by a leading exegete, Fakhr al Din al Razi in "Tafsir al-Kabir, in commenting on the verse "fa in khiftum an laa ta’duluu fawahidatan" (if you're worried about not being able to do justice, then marry with one woman only). Al-Razi said: "Faltazimu wa ikhtaru wahidatan wa aru al Jam’a Ra’san. Fa Inna al Amr Kullahu Yaduru Ma’a al ’Adl. Fa Ainama Wajadtum al ’Adl fa ’Alaikum bihi"(Stay and choose one women only and leave polygamy as soon as you feel unable to do justice, because the core of this issue is justice. So wherever you find justice, you have to stick to it)9. This statement was previously given by the commentator al Zamakhshari.
So essential is the Islamic principle of justice in polygamy that the Prophet Muhammad made his view on polygamists who can not do justice that they would come on the Day of Judgment with a split body. In another narration: "He will come with tilted body" .10
God ends this verse by stating that monogamous marriage is "in order that you not get closer to deviant (unjust) acts”11. From the last part of this verse it can be concluded that monogamous marriage is genuinely the peak or the end of the will of God, by which human is commanded to achieve a just marriage, something that should be continuously fought. In other words, God by His beautiful, evocative words is leading human community so as to have only one wife. Monogamous marriage is the most ideal choice of marriage to establish good husband-wife relationship and family (peacefulness, affection, grace) as told in QS al Rum, : 31. And Allah is the all-knower
This paper is the first part of a lengthy paper on "Polygamy and Slavery", which is scheduled to be published as a book.
1 ’Abd al Hadi ’Abd al Rahman, Sultah al Nas Qirâ’at fi Tauzif al Nas al Dîny, (Beirut: al Markaz al Œaqafi al ’Arabi, 1993), cet. I, h. 195. Dikutip dari karya besar Ibnu ’Arabi, Al Futuhât al Makkiyyah, II, h. 181.
2 Ibnu Kasir, Tafsir Alquran al ‘Azim, I/449.
3 See: Ibnu Jarir al Thabari, Jami’ al Bayan ’an Ta’wil Ayi al Qur’an, (Beirut: 1988), vol. VIII, h. 231-236.
4 In regard to the background of the descent of this verse Bukhari narrated that Urwah bin Zubair asked to 'A'ishah concerning the verse: "If you're worried about not being able to do justice to the orphans." She said: "O son of my sister, this orphan girl is taken care of by a person (guardian). The guardian combines the orphan’s wealth with his wealth. The guardian wants her beauty and wealth. That's why he wanted to marry her without giving her a proper dowry. So he is not allowed to marry with her unless able to do justice and provide her with a proper dowry. (If he is not able to do it), it is recommended that he marry other women. " (Ibn Kasir, op. Cit., P. 499-450).
5 Muhammad Syahrur, al Kitab wa Alquran Qira-ah Mu’asirah, (Damaskus: al Ahali), cet. IV, h. 597; Nahwa Usul Jadidah li al Fiqh al Islamy, (Damaskus: al Ahali, 2000), cet. I, h. 303.
6 Ibid. h. 600.
7 Asghar Ali Engineer, Pembebasan Perempuan, (Yogyakarta: LKiS, 2003), cet. I, h. 122.
8 See Faqihuddin Abdul Kodir, Memilih Monogami, Pembacaan atas Al Qur’an dan Hadis Nabi, (Yogyakarta: LKiS, 2005), cet. I, h. 86.
9 Fakhr al Din al Razi, Al Tafsir al Kabir, (Teheran: Dar al Kutub al Ilmiyyah), cet. II, juz IX, h. 176.
10 Read: Ibnu al Aœir, Jami’ al Usul min Ahadiœ al Rasul, (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al Turas, 1984), Hadis number: 9049, juz XII, h. 168.
11 The majority of exegetes interpret "an la ta’ulu" as "in order that you do not deviate" (an la tamilu wa la tajuru). However, Imam al-Shafi'i interprets: "in order that don’t have a lot of kids (family)" (an la takœura ‘iyalukum). See Al Razi, Al Tafsir Al Kabir, chapters IX, p. 177.