Polygyny is the practice of a man marrying more than one wife at the same time. Islam did not institute polygyny but rather it regulated a pre-existing practice to ensure justice is served among spouses.1 However, in some, particularly Western societies, polygyny is considered to be an unethical practice which is punishable by law. In the UK, you can only be legally married to one spouse. If a man performs nikah with more than one woman, the subsequent marriages cannot be legally registered, which can result in complications related to inheritance, child custody, and other legal matters.2 This raises the question regarding the Sharia stance on polygyny.
It is evident from the Quranic verses that a man is permitted to marry up to four wives:
“And if you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphan girls, then marry those that please you of [other] women, two or three or four. But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one or those your right hands possess [i.e., slaves]. That is more suitable that you may not incline [to injustice].” 3
The verse offers an allowance for believers to engage in polygamous relationship but emphasises certain requirements; the most important being justice for the spouse. However, in another verse the Quran further casts doubt whether this is truly possible:
“You will never be able to maintain justice between your wives—no matter how keen you are. So do not totally incline towards one leaving the other in suspense. And if you do what is right and are mindful (of Allah), surely Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” 4
The verse reminds men how difficult it is to maintain justice, which includes equal emotional attachment, if one chooses to have more than one wife. The minimum requirement is to treat the wives as spouses and not to abandon them and their rights. In addition to the above mentioned two verses of the Quran, the conduct of the Prophet and the practices of early Muslim communities indicate that polygyny is permitted.
It is essential to recognise that polygyny is neither a unique nor an institution created by Islam. The traditional rationale for polygyny was rooted in the prevailing societal conditions where men were often the sole breadwinners, responsible for securing the basic needs of their families, including food, shelter, and clothing. Under such circumstances, the institution of polygyny was conceived as a means to address specific challenges and fulfil societal obligations. Commentators of the Quran argue that that verse 4:3, which is used to justify polygyny in Islam, was revealed to safeguard the interest of the orphans and to restrict the number of spouses one can marry.5 In reference to the prophetic conduct, particularly, it is well-established that his multiple marriages were undertaken primarily to provide for the widows of his Companions and to maintain the tribal and societal order.
In contemporary Western societies, the landscape of marital relationships has undergone significant transformation. Today, marriage is not solely based on the pretext of securing essential material needs for women, as women are equally capable of providing for themselves. While polygyny remains a lawful option, it is subject to more stringent ethical and moral considerations today. If the institution of marriage is primarily intended for the affection and emotional fulfilment between spouses, as indicated in the Quran, then the emotional impact of polygyny on the first wife cannot be ignored. It should be noted that several Muslim countries have either forbidden (Turkey and Tunisia) or have introduced stringent conditions (Pakistan, Egypt, Morocco, Indonesia, and Malaysia) for polygyny.6
As such, polygyny is permitted by the Sharia, however, a man who takes more than one wife must adhere strictly to the principles of equal treatment and fairness among his spouses, including emotional equality. According to the Quran,7 Allah created spouses so that they may find ‘comfort’ in one another and to achieve this aim it is essential that all spouses should feel valued, loved and emotionally fulfilled. Furthermore, polygynous marriages should only proceed with the informed and voluntary consent of the previous wife or wives.8
1. Polygamy refers to a person (male or female) being married to two or more people at the same time. Polygyny refers to a man being married to two or more women at the same time. Polyandry refers to a woman being married to two or more men at the same time.
2. See https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/legitimacy-and-domicile/legitimacy-and-domicile-accessible#legitimacy-polygamous-marriages
3. Quran 4:3
4. Quran 4:129
5. Tafhīm al-qur’ān 4:3
6. Muhammad Roy Purwanto, M.Roem Syibly, Tamyiz Mukharrom, Ahmad Nurozi, “Polygamy in Muslim Countries: A Comparative Study in
Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia” Advances in Economics, Business and Management Research, volume 168, 2018
7. Qur’an 30:21
8. Since marriage is a contractual agreement between spouses, they are free to modify the original agreement. If the husband initially commits not to take a second but then does so with the first wife’s consent, it is acceptable.