In the United States, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), an offshoot of the Mormon Church that was founded in the 1840s, encourages its followers to have multiple wives and children. The FLDS believes that a woman’s primary role is to bear as many children as possible. In 1890 the US government passed an anti-polygamy law, following which the property of the Mormon Church was seized by the federal government. Faced with this challenge, the Mormons issued a manifesto to announce an end to the practice of plural marriages. This caused a schism between the Mormons and the breakaway fundamentalist groups. Even today the fundamentalist groups in the US, Canada and Mexico continue to practice polygyny. Some 40,000 people affiliated to FLDS in the state of Utah live in polygynous families. Joe Jessop, a leader of the FLDS community in Colorado City which has nearly 6,000 members, has 46 children from five wives and 239 grandchildren. Among polygynous FLDS communities the cowives generally get along well and it is not uncommon to come across women who have given birth to 10 or 12 children.
Though Islam allows a man to marry more than one wife at a time (Quran 4:3), the permission involves several conditions and qualifications. First, Islam restricts the number of wives at a time to four. Ghilan ibn Salma, one of the Companions of the Prophet, had 10 wives when he embraced Islam. The Prophet asked him to keep only four and divorce the rest. Second, one cannot marry two sisters at the same time. Third, a man who marries a second wife is required to maintain justice and fairness between his co-wives. Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi, Nasai, Ibn Majah and Darimi report a Hadith to the effect that if a man has two wives and if he is unduly inclined towards one at the expense of the other, half of his body will be dangling on one side (as in a state of physical disability) on the Day of Judgement. The Quran says, “But if you fear that you will not be able to deal justly with the wives, then you should be content with only one wife (Quran 4:3). Further: “You will never be able to do perfect justice between the wives even if it is your ardent desire, so do not incline too much towards one of them (by giving her more of your time, affection and provision), while leaving the other hanging” (Quran 4: 129). The Prophet is reported to have said, “The best amongst you are those who are the most kind and considerate towards their wives.” Thus, Islam regards monogamy as the rule and polygyny as an exception, permissible under extraordinary circumstances.
Undoubtedly, the principles of Islamic law are universal and transcend the barriers of time and space. However, Islamic law takes cognizance of the exigencies of specific situations and circumstances, caused by changing times, which require certain relaxations and exceptions to the law. Thus, the punishment for theft in Islamic law is amputation of the hand. However, the Prophet forbade the implementation of this law during travel or war. Caliph Umar ordered the suspension of this punishment when the city of Madinah was in the grip of a severe draught. The Prophet did not refuse gifts offered by people, but Umar, after he became Caliph, refused to accept gifts and told state functionaries not to accept gifts from anyone. Imam Bukhari quotes a remark by Caliph Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz to the effect that gifts were gifts during the time of the Prophet, but now they amount to bribes.
Some Muslims justify polygamy by arguing that since women outnumber men in human society, polygamy can offset this imbalance. This is an absolutely flawed argument, which flies in the face of demographic facts and principles. The human sex ratio or the ratio of males to females worldwide is approximately 1:1. The fact that the proportion of males and females in human society is roughly the same, suggests that monogamy, and not polygamy, is the norm of human society. Islamic principles, which are in complete harmony with nature, cannot possibly consider a practice which is at variance with natural laws as universal. The following verses of the Quran affirm this universal demographic fact: And Allah has made for you mates (and companions) of your own nature, and made for you, out of them, sons and daughters and grandchildren, and provided for you sustenance of the best….(16:72); And among His signs is this: He created for you mates from among yourselves, that ye may dwell in tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between your (hearts); verily in that there are signs for those who reflect (30:21); And Allah created you from dust, then from a sperm drop, then He made you in pairs….(35:11).
Though monogamy is the ideal in the Islamic view of marriage, certain exceptional situations warrant the permissibility of polygamy. For example, in the event of a war, when many men are killed in battle, their wives become widows. If they have children, they become orphan. If these women’s relatives do not have the means to look after them, life can become extremely precarious for them. The problem can be resolved if some young, unmarried men come to their rescue and agree to marry them. If, however, this alternative is not available, and if some married men offer to take them in marriage and look after them, this would be an honourable option for such hapless women.
Suppose there is a man whose wife suffers from a debilitating illness, due to which she is unable to keep the house or look after the children. In this situation, if the husband decides to marry another woman (without divorcing her or throwing her out) and if she agrees to the arrangement, this would be a practical and humane way to deal with the situation.
On March 1, 2019, Shaykh Ahmad al-Tayyib, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque and the President of Al-Azhar University, said in an interview to an Egyptian TV channel that a great deal of misunderstanding surrounds the Islamic view of polygamy, which arises due to a lack of knowledge and understanding of the verses of the Quran and the Traditions of the Prophet (SAAW), and that in most cases polygamy involves injustice to women, children and families. He emphasized that, in Islamic view, justice towards the cowives is a precondition for a polygamous marriage just the way ritual ablution is a precondition for Islamic prayers. Therefore, if a polygamous marriage entails injustice towards the cowives, it is not permissible. He added that the argument that marriages must be polygamous is absolutely flawed. (The interview can be viewed on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GSq7Uyq--iM)
Shaykh Tayyib said that the Quran explicitly says that a Muslim who desires to have more than one wife must fulfil the condition of fairness and justice towards his wives. And if there is an absence of fairness and injustice towards the wives, it is forbidden to have multiple wives. He said that the Quran permits polygamy only under certain situations and circumstances and at the same time stipulates that each of the wives must be treated equally and fairly. He reiterated the same views on Twitter but clarified that he did not call for a ban on polygamy. In his Twitter remarks, Shaykh al-Tayyib said that women make up half of society and if men do not care for them it is as if a man is walking on only one leg. Shaykh Al-Tayyib’s remarks were welcomed by Egypt’s National Council for Women.
Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi says that the overwhelming norm for marriage for a Muslim is to marry only one woman, who can be a source of joy and comfort and who can be a companion and a confidante.
Many Muslims in the early centuries of the Islamic era had more than one wife. But these people were men of exceptional moral rectitude who treated their wives equally and fairly. However, with the passage of time, standards of morality and righteousness steadily declined and it became increasingly problematic to treat two or more wives in a just and fair manner. It is therefore advisable that one remains content with just one wife. Imam Abu Hanifah, one of the greatest Muslim jurists, reports a Hadith, on the authority of Jabir, a Companion of the Prophet, to the effect that a person with one wife leads a life of bliss (surur) while another with two wives becomes a victim of vicissitudes (shurur).