Polygamy in Islam
The subject of polygamy is regularly pointed to in an effort to demonstrate the failings of Islam and its lack of respect for women. In order to correct these misconceptions, it is necessary to point out that Islam did not invent polygamy but rather put limits on this custom that long predated the Message of the Prophet. Polyga¬my was common in the ancient world, but was mostly practiced without guidelines or limitations. The Sharī‘ah circumscribed and legitimized this practice. Such legislation reveals the inventive¬ness of the Islamic legal system. For example, on the authority of his father, Salim narrates that Ghaylan ibn Salama al-Thaqafi had ten wives when he converted to Islam. The Messenger of God [s] told him, “Choose four from amongst them to keep.”1 The primary texts discussing polygamy are of this nature, meaning they limit the number of wives to four. There are no texts, however, com¬manding a man to marry more than one woman. Therefore, in Is¬lam polygamy is not sought out without good reason. It is sought out for specific needs mentioned in conjunction with polygamy. For example, the famous Quranic verse says, “And if you fear that you will not deal fairly by the orphans, marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if you fear that you cannot do justice [to so many] then one [only] or [the captives] that your right hands pos¬sess” (Al-Nisa:3). The exegetes of the Quran say that polygamy occurs in conjunction with situations involving widows and orphans. This meaning is entirely lost when contemporary examiners partially quote the verse and ignore the context of the discussion. The verse spe¬cifically speaks of orphans and widows, and uses an “if–then” clause to stress the conditional nature of polygamy. Many contemporary readers miss this; however, the Quran does not openly invite po¬lygamy without conditions attached.
There is a huge difference between Islam commanding the marriage of four wives, as some claim today, and Islam bringing under strict legislation an already common and unfettered prac¬tice. If one delves into ancient history, it is common to read of rul¬ers who had hundreds of wives, and of these same rulers giving wives to other rulers as gifts. Similar to Islam, Jewish law permit¬ted men to marry more than one wife.
The intention of the Sharī‘ah is to examine this practice and insure the marital rights of all spouses. Thus it is strange to hear detractors of Islam targeting polygamy, while ignoring other so¬cial phenomena that present a great threat to the unit of the fam¬ily. Many non-Muslims in Western countries chastise Muslim po¬lygamy, yet their own supposedly monogamous society is ridden with single-parent homes, depression, and high abortion rates. Adultery in the West is a type of polygamy occurring outside the institution of marriage. Both the legal wife and the mistresses of an adulterous man suffer. The man’s entire family suffers, as his acts are a form of treachery and emotional abuse.