Polygamy is generally understood to be the practice of simultaneously having more than one wife. The Quran does not forbid this practice but contrary to popular belief does not encourage it either.


In many countries it is socially acceptable and sometimes desirable for men to have more than one wife at the same time. Women often outnumber men, and in times of hardship, war and other difficult situations, especially if a woman is widowed or divorced and possibly with children, it may be convenient for a woman to accept a plural marriage.


However, for most women, sharing a husband is highly disagreeable for probably the same reasons why a man may not want to share his wife with another man as in the case of polyandry, the practice of one woman simultaneously married to more than one man. Psychologically, the tendency for men to share a wife is quite objectionable and polyandry has a major predicament as any of the husbands may not be able to determine if his shared wife’s child is his, whereas in polygamy, this can never be the case. So to determine hereditary rights there can be no objection to polygamy but polyandry is forbidden as made clear in verses 4:24 and 60:10. Married women who have escaped mushrik husbands and thus by default annulled their marriage can re-marry. Even in this case a compensation (reimbursement of the mahr payment)[1] is due to the previous husband and must be paid where possible.


Women are also child-bearing and in the main child-caring partners in a marriage and because of this, have more arduous lives and their capacity to earn may also be limited. Therefore it is more practical for men, especially if they are wealthy, to take on the responsibility of more than one wife and the many children that they are likely to have. In a large household, perhaps in a joint or extended family, women can share their domestic duties too. Women can also more easily adapt to sharing a husband and often prefer to be looked after in a marriage than live as a single parent, which may have many difficulties of its own. The dignity provided by a marriage, even a polygamous marriage, is far better than promiscuous living that may arise from long term single status.


While there is nothing wrong with polygamous marriages, provided there is full consent of all partners concerned, the Quran does not explicitly encourage or forbid such arrangements.


The people who support polygamous marriage often quote verse 4:3 of the Quran as an open endorsement of the practice. It will therefore be useful to look at the various ways this verse is translated. Comments are given after each translation.


Yousuf Ali Translation “If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess, that will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice.”


When Sura 4 is read from the beginning it is apparent that this section is about orphans. This verse begins with the mentioning of justice to orphans, so is it not strange that suddenly, mid-sentence, the translator conveys that this is now about men marrying multiple women of their choice? Ali goes on to say that if you can’t deal with the prospect of more than one wife, you should marry only one captive woman, so according to him, the alternatives are: to marry up to four women or only one captive woman. What about men who may want to have monogamous marriage with a woman who is not a captive?  This is a tangled and confusing translation.


Maududi Translation “If you fear that you might not treat the orphans justly, then marry the women that seem good to you: two, or three, or four. If you fear that you will not be able to treat them justly, then marry (only) one, or marry from among those whom your right hands possess. This will make it more likely that you will avoid injustice.”


This is much the same as Yusuf’s but without the option to marry captive women, although those “whom your right hands possess” are probably considered to be slave women. The subject matter here is also mangled with orphans, women, and marriage without any real continuity, and neither of these translations show how marrying up to four women of your choice does justice to orphans.


Most translations appear to be in the same vein as above, but there are two translations that have a somewhat different angle:


Rashad Translation “If you deem it best for the orphans, you may marry their mothers – you may marry two, three, or four. If you fear lest you become unfair, then you shall be content with only one, or with what you already have. Additionally, you are thus more likely to avoid financial hardship.”


Like most of Rashad’s work, at first it seems quite reasonable, but in reality there is something that is not quite right. The perceptive reader must surely ask the question: How on earth do you marry the mother of an orphan? An orphan is a child whose parents, including the mother, have died, so unless we accept necrophilia as an act permitted by God, under normal circumstances it would be impossible to marry the dead mother of an orphan, never mind two, three or four at any one time.


Reformist Translation “If you fear that you cannot be just to fatherless orphans, then marry those whom you see fit from the women, two, and three, and four. But if you fear you will not be fair then only one, or whom you already have contract with. So that you do not commit injustice and suffer hardship.”


This is also an interesting one. According to standard dictionaries, an orphan is a child, both of whose parents are dead or have abandoned it permanently. Only a child who has lost both parents is called an orphan. The mother’s condition is usually relevant only when referring to animals. If she has gone, the offspring is an orphan, regardless of the father’s condition. Is God talking about animals or other non-human beings here? If not then why is the translator using words like “fatherless orphans”? Again, this is a hotchpotch translation, a piecing together of odd concepts to justify polygamy. It just isn’t there, and any intelligent person will see that.


So what does this verse say? Well, let’s get the meaning of the verse with a proper  exposition:


New Millennium Exposition (NME) “When you deem it best for the orphans in your care, you may marry them off in twos, threes, or fours. If you fear lest you become unfair to any of them, then you shall arrange marriage for only one at a time, preferably with someone already within your acquaintance. Additionally, you are thus more likely to avoid financial hardship.”


The verse is now clear: it’s about orphans who are under the care and responsibility of considerate men. They must look after the orphans’ interests and when the orphans come of age, marry them off in twos, threes or fours. If they cannot do this justice to all of them, then they should marry them off one at a time. Now the whole verse comes together and makes sense.


Allegations are frequently made against Muhammad for being a polygamist but it should be remembered that his first wife  Khadijah was a widow when she married Muhammad, the messenger. During her lifetime, he had no other wife but her and was married to her for 25 years. He remained in a monogamous marriage until he was 50 years old. After her death, his other marriages were for political reasons or to support widows with children. To raise a family with one woman is far better for everyone, especially the children, and unless circumstances dictate, plural marriages are to be avoided.


In verse 4:129 it is clear that polygamy is strongly discouraged as a norm because it is difficult, if not impossible, to be fair to more than one wife. The only indication that polygamy is allowed comes from verse 4:23 that prohibits marriage to two sisters at the same time, the conclusion being that if one cannot be married to two sisters simultaneously then a man can be married to two women who are not sisters, at the same time.


If a marriage is not working then divorce is the answer.  Often, in some communities, the man marries a second wife, but to be unhappily married without either partner having the opportunity to remarry is wrong. A man should not leave his wife in suspense while he gets married to a second wife. A woman who is unhappy in her marriage has an equal right to ask for divorce, as does a man.

So while polygamy is acceptable, it is essential to ensure that mutual consent must be obtained between all concerned. However, it should go without saying, as confirmed in verse 4:129, that it is objectionable to marry another woman to the detriment of an existing marriage.


Marriage: dowry and mahr

Traditionally a dowry is a gift of money or valuables given by the bride’s family to that of the groom to permit their marriage. In societies where payment of dowry is common, unmarried women are seen to attract stigma and tarnish the household’s reputation. So it is in the bride’s family’s interest to marry off their daughter as soon as she is eligible. In some areas where this is practiced, the size of the necessary dowry is directly proportional to the groom’s social status, thus making it virtually impossible for lower class women to marry into upper class families. In some cases where a woman’s family is too poor to afford any dowry whatsoever, she is either simply forbidden from marrying or becomes a concubine to a richer man who can afford to support a large household. Such an arrangement is not acceptable to those who live within Quranic values.


The tradition of giving dowries is today perhaps most well known in the Asian countries of China, Pakistan and India, where the practice is still very common, especially in rural areas, despite being prohibited by law. However, dowries have been a part of civil law in almost all countries, those in Europe included. Dowries were important social components of Roman marriages. Medieval Germans had the tradition of dowry, both working to give a start in life to the young couple, as well as to secure the bride’s future. This German tradition was followed by most people in medieval and modern Europe. Only in the few recent centuries has the dowry disappeared from law in Europe.


The converse of dowry is the German morgengab – a sum paid by the bridegroom to the bride’s parents or guardian. Its purpose was to secure the girl for such possibilities as widowhood or loss of other means to survive. There is no mention of any dowry payment or ‘bride price’ in the Quran and therefore any such practice is not Islamic.


Mahr is the groom’s gift to the bride; a security to the bride in circumstances of widowhood or a means of support in case of divorce, although the Mahr is a kind of Germanic morgengab (the Persian equivalent is called mahrieh) and is an important part of a marriage. However, it is not the same as a traditional dowry or a morgengab, in that it is the husband-to-be who gives the gift to the bride. However, unlike a bride price or Germanic morgengab, the gift is given directly to the bride and not to her father or guardian. Although the gift can be, and often is, money, it can be anything so long as it is agreed upon by both the bride and groom.


Nikah is a marriage contract between a man and a woman. This can only be valid when both parties consent and have reached puberty. Two witnesses are required and a public announcement should be made. This can be a ceremony where guests are invited to a reception following the wedding. A marriage certificate should be provided as a legal record of the event. No priest is needed to solemnize the marriage but someone to officiate the marriage should be in attendance, such as a registry officer employed by the local government.


The Quran lays down the following requirements before getting married: First of all, marriage has to be between believers. [Verse 2:221]. So, the first step is that muslims bring in themselves those qualities that are described in the Quran and match themselves with that description before getting married. Both people should be adults (i.e. past puberty). The man should be a mature and responsible person, and able to make sound decisions in life and should have sufficient resources, a job for example, so as to support a family.


The man is allowed to select a partner of his choice, thus exercising his free will.  Similarly, women cannot be forced into getting married – they also have to exercise their free will and choice. In Verse 4:21, it is stated that women have to take a contract (Arabic: meesaq) from men. A contract requires the free will of both parties. A contract in which a person is forced to do something against his/her will does not constitute a meesaq. If a man proposes to a woman directly, there is no harm in it. But secret marriages are not endorsed. Love affairs, open or secret, of any sort are also not allowed. Believing women cannot remain married to their husbands if they are unbelievers; the same goes for believing men. Marriage with a man or woman who commits adultery is forbidden to believers.


While marriage between people from different nations, cultures and races is allowed, marriage with non-muslims, that is disbelievers, is forbidden. The reason for this is simple. The Quran gives optimum values that harmonise, develop and prosper communities. These are the foundations for a successful life. For a muslim to marry a person with  lower, regressive values that conflict with the high standards set out in the Quran would be detrimental to family life and would thus impede Self development. Not only that but this also affects society in the long term.


Two people with different and conflicting outlooks cannot be successful marriage partners and therefore God forbids such unions. See verse 2:221.


[1]Mahr:This is the groom’s gift to the bride, a security in circumstances of widowhood or a means of support in case of divorce.