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Polygamy: lust or love

By Ayub Maftoon - posted Friday, 18 July 2008

Just like Irfan Yusuf, I was also surprised that a team from Hong Kong was playing cricket in the Asia cup, but thanks to the big fella, he reminded me that once upon a time Hong Kong used to be part of the British Empire. Good on them for being loyal to their past, just like the “sub-continenters” are.

But I was disappointed that Mr Yusuf forgot his own ancestral background while writing an article about the sacred rulings of polygamy in Islam. It surprises me that some individuals like Mr Yusuf could offend their own faith-followers in order to convince the misinformed majority. Just like the people sitting behind the desk of SBS’s Salam café who have resorted to mocking their faith just to show that Muslims are “cool”, some of our learned individuals chose to ridicule their faith instead of appropriately and rationally debating the issues.

Yusuf has done exactly what an ordinary, misinformed - or less-informed - non-Muslim would do. As Muslims Mr Yusuf and myself are obliged to say the truth whether it’s against our interests or those of our community.


The Koran instructs Muslims: "O you who believe stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor" (4:135). "Whenever you speak, speak justly, even if a near relative is concerned" (6:152).

So instead of being apologetic for our faith, or drawing self-made interpretations of the Koranic verses, let’s argue the case in light of authoritative sources and find the real reasons behind the issue of polygamy in Islam.

First of all polygamy is a phenomenon older than Islam and can be traced back to ancient societies. Islam did not introduce the practice and there is abundant evidence that religions such as Judaism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity practiced polygamy: and it is still being practiced in some places.

In the Bible a man is permitted to marry an unlimited number of women (Exodus 21:10). According to the Bible, King David and Solomon had six and 700 wives respectively, in addition to hundreds of concubines (Samuel 5:13, Chronicles 3:1-9, 14:3, Kings 11:3).

In Islam, the ruling of polygamy begins with this verse: "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…” Verse 4:3.

It should be noted that Koran is the only scripture that commands its followers to marry only one wife if unable to do justice to any more. Koranic verses cannot be interpreted in isolation, but reasons, revelation, time and context should be considered while interpreting them. This verse was revealed in Medina, after Muslims’ migration from Mecca, where, apart from other wars, the battle of Uhud took place in which hundreds of Muslim men were killed. Consequently, a large number of Muslim widows and girls were left without husbands or potential husbands. Therefore, as a solution to the problem of widows, orphans and unmarried girls, the verse was revealed, which allowed men to marry more than one wife but with strict conditions.


This particular chapter of the Koran does not stop there, it goes further and says: "Ye are never able to be fair and just as between women, even if it is your ardent desire: But turn not away (from a woman) altogether, so as to leave her (as it were) hanging (in the air). If ye come to a friendly understanding, and practice self-restraint, God is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.” Verse 4:129.

The first verse warns Muslim men of possible injustice while giving them permission to marry more than one, and the second cautions them of potential failure in doing justice. At the same time it tells them that they will be only reckoned for those misdeeds they commit consciously, i.e. not treating wives equally, not for those that are not within the capacity of their control. Koran warns Muslims of the potential problems associated with marrying more than one wife, but does not prevent them from doing so for some specific reasons discussed here.

Karen Armstrong, a scholar and the author of A Biography of the Prophet says:

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About the Author

Ayub Maftoon is a journalist. He got his bachelor degree in journalism from Monash and has recently completed his Masters in Film and Television at RMIT.

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