This essay shall aim to assess the presence of verses within the Quranic text pertaining to polygamy against the wider array of literature concerning polygamy found in the Prophetic tradition and modern legislation as symbolized in forms of ‘ijtihad’ or ‘qiyas’, which are “all forms of methodological reasoning on the basis of the Quran and Sunna”1. It shall subsequently be shown how such reasoning sanctioning polygamy has been challenged by actors in the increasingly secularised nation states of the Middle Eastern region and how such opposition is embodied in the various respective codes of legislation.
It shall be shown that whilst the Quran has sanctioned polygamy, it is nevertheless imperative to contextualise both the verses and anecdotes alluding to such a practice in order contextualise the polygamous phenomenon. Furthermore, even though the various schools of thought have endorsed the practice as legal regardless of the reasons for concluding a polygamous marriage, such a phenomenon has rightly been challenged by those states where Islamic law is pertinent to at least the civil realm of life, as they fear that the practice itself has been taken out of its original intended context, which shall be discussed at length below.
It shall serve firstly to state that the principal verse pertaining to polygamy, found at the beginning of the fourth chapter of the Quran, is placed within a wider context that addresses social components within a newly formed Islamic society described at the outset in chapter three (‘Al Imran’ or ‘The Family of Imran’) and extending into chapter 4 (‘Al Nisa’ or ‘The Women’). The context of the verse has been placed within the narrative of a specific battle, namely that of Uhud, which took place in the third year after the Hijra, or migration, of the Prophet and his Companions from Makkah to Madina2.
The verse begins in a conditional clause relating to the orphans that the preceding verse had begun addressing in the context of the property of the orphans. This was evidently relevant to the social reality that was created following the defeat at Uhud where those killed had left behind children and spouses. Thus the introduction of the verse relating to marriage in both its polygamous and monogamous form relates to justice and equity when dealing with orphans, of which the prelude is in the preceding verse.
The significance of this lies in the sequence of social prioritization placed upon man living in an Islamic utopia where he should morally consider firstly the orphan (or orphans) as a spouse bearing in mind the exceptional margin of justice that is to be accorded to the orphans owing their status, and there is consistent reference to the status and property of orphans throughout the Quranic text3. Consequently, as a result of their exceptional status, the verse alludes to the idea that those men who cannot meet the special requirements relating to orphans can thereafter marry those women who seem good to them, and it is important at this stage to note the plural presence of women, which does not only pertain to the fact that men are being addressed collectively, hence in the plural form, but alluding specifically to more than one woman per man.
This is immediately reinforced with the quantifying of two, three, or four women proceeded by one in the context of another conditional clause. The order of quantity is also significant to the analysis of this verse as the polygamous form of marriage is in actual fact established before the monogamous form. Monogamy is placed within a conditional clause where it remains as the option for the man who fears that he cannot institute equality between several women as wives.
The basis of reasoning in such a form as illustrated above is the fact that the verse could have been structured inversely, that is to say, specifying one wife in principle, unless one can institute equality in which case he would be permitted to take another one, two or three women as additional wives. It can be argued then that the structure of the verse alludes to a specific social structure envisaged in an Islamic utopia where man institutes his marital life in accordance with the social needs, in this case orphans and seemingly widows. In addition to the spousal relationship either in the polygamous or monogamous form is the pursuance of the captives of war where the verse goes on to specify that it is legitimate to pursue one’s captives.
Proceeding this small digression from the marital narrative is the assertion that limiting the number of potential wives to four at one time diminishes the chances of injustice being done by pursuing an unrestricted number of women for marital purposes4. Another significant factor to note here is the clear break that is made from pre-Islamic tribal customary practice where polygamy, though clearly still present within the Islamic model, is institutionalised through the emergence of conditions for polygamous marriage as opposed to the absence of such conditions in the tribal system.
It is thus hard to underestimate the importance of the reasons for the revelation of such a verse (or ‘asbaab al nuzool’), like many other verses in that same chapter and in the Quran more generally, when understanding the content of the verse. In the second part of the thesis, it shall serve to deal with the notion of equality within the practice of polygamy, seeing as the Quranic narrative provides no literal translation of the areas of marital life where equality is to be instituted.
Nevertheless the consensus (or ‘ijma’) defines the basic areas for exercising equality as the amount of time spent with each wife (‘qasm’) and “the right of each woman to a separate dwelling”6. Even though the Quran does not explicitly state the need for each woman to have her own separate dwelling, this was allegedly the practice of the Prophet Mohammad where several narrations of ‘seera’, or stories specifically of the Prophet, allude to the fact that the Prophet would visit several individual dwellings when visiting his wives.
Even if one were to take the Quranic text as the sole reliable text for the purpose of studying sanctioned Islamic practice, there are several chapters, of which the most obvious would be chapters 33 (‘Al Ahzab’ or ‘The Confederates’) and chapter 66 (‘Al Tahrim’ or ‘The Prohibition’), both of which speak of the wives of the Prophet, thereby giving reference to polygamous practice by the Prophet himself.
Nevertheless it is of relevance to note that the Prophet Mohammad himself had a total of eleven wives at one time, which indicates that there is a differentiation between the Prophetic realm and the general civil realm. Accordingly for example, whilst a Muslim is prescribed to fast from dawn until dusk as indicated in the Quran, narrations of the Prophet Muhammad fasting for several days continuously are apparent in the ‘seera’ thereby reinforcing this notion of differentiation.