Polygamy and the Qur’an


by Asghar Ali Engineer

In our attempt to codify Islamic law in India which is today quite loosely applied causing lot of problems to Muslim women, we interviewed number of prominent ‘ulama. One of our questions was should polygamy be regulated? With few exceptions most of them said ‘no’. Polygamy is needed and some even said it is exclusive preserve of man and he can take second wife even without any reason or permission of first wife.

They also maintained that polygamy is needed to prevent prostitution in the society. To check sexual corruption polygamy is a must. This raises a fundamental question: Does Qur’an prescribe polygamy to check sexual corruption or prostitution. There are two verses in Qur’an on this subject 4:3 and 4:129. In both these verses there is no even indirect hint of any kind of sexual corruption.

The First verse 4:3 was revealed, we are told by earliest commentators on the Qur’an, after the battle of Uhud in which large number of Muslim men, in fact 10 per cent of Muslim male population, was killed. This led to creation of many widows and orphans which were to be taken care of. Many of these widows had their own land and property left behind by their husbands.

Who would look after the widows and their properties.? Some relatives or guardians. So Qur’an advises these guardians to be honest and not to change their bad property (khabis) with the good (tayyib) properties of orphans. And if one goes by the words of Qur’an it advises these guardians to marry one or two or three or four of these widows (not any women) children of whom they are in charge of.

And this verse ends by saying “If you fear you cannot do justice, then marry one (wahidatan). Thus we see two things clearly: one, Qur’an has clearly stated the reason for permitting multiple marriages and two, it is conditional that justice be done and gives strict warning. This conditionality becomes clearer in verse 4:129 where it is said “And you cannot do justice between wives, even though you wish (it), but be not disinclined (from one) with total disinclination, so that you leave her in suspense…”

If both verses on polygamy 4:3 and 4: 129 are read together (and they should be read together) The Qur’an’s intention becomes clear. Qur’an’s emphasis is not on number but on justice. In our male dominated societies emphasis unfortunately is on number, not on justice. Both verses read together make it absolutely clear that Qur’an has permitted polygamy most reluctantly in certain conditions like that of war and has made it conditional on justice.

Our ‘ulama and jurists unfortunately have ignored both the conditions (that of war and of justice) and give reasons for polygamy, not stated in Qur’an at all. Sexual corruption is no where stated in Qur’an for justifying polygamy as our ‘ulama are doing today. Many of them are not even aware of verse 4:129 which says it is so difficult to do justice between all the wives or if they are aware explain it away in some ways belittling its emphasis on justice.

Some of the ‘ulama even denied that this verse was revealed after the battle of Uhud and also maintained that the verse 4:3 does not require that one should marry widows or orphans only citing a hadith from Muslim which says Hadrat ‘Aisha understood by that ‘any women’, not widows and orphans. If the Qur’an had meant any women it would require insertion of certain words which are not there.

And even if this report of Sahih Muslim be correct, how can one ignore the conditionality of justice which is stated so clearly and with so much emphasis? One Muslim scientist wrote to me that Qur’an prescribes polygamy because man is polygamous by nature. He, in his letter, argued elaborately but without substantiating his argument with any scientific evidence.

The Qur’an, on the other hand, clearly says that We have created everything in pairs (wa khalaqnakum azwajan) and it includes human beings too. Also, Qur’an lays emphasis on chastity (‘iffat) and says, “And let those who cannot find a match keep chaste, until Allah makes them free from want…” (24:33). Thus Qur’an says if you have no means to marry one wife be chaste and our ‘ulama want men to marry more than one to refrain from sexual corruption. Who should we listen to? To Allah or these ‘ulama? We can draw our own conclusion.


Institute of Islamic Studies,