Polygyny is a practice where a man has more than one wife. Since ancient times in many customs and traditions around the world it was not uncommon for a man to have multiple wives, concubines, mistresses and other modes of relationships. Even today many notable people in the public domain and in positions of leadership have polygynous relationships for example, Jacob Zuma the former president of South Africa, a Christian, is currently married to 4 different women. King Mswati III, the absolute Monarch of Swaziland, also another Christian, has 15 wives. In the United States of America we know that certain church denominations such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), allow unrestricted number of wives, culminating in the popular US reality TV show called ‘Sister Wives’, which follows the day to day lives of a polygynous family from Utah.
In Islam it is best for a man to have only one wife, but Islam allows polygyny sometimes callwd polygamy. It is allowed when social circumstances make it necessary. Islam placed important legal restrictions on polygyny, limiting it to one man with four wives, and also placed moral restrictions, encouraging men to take another wife only if they are capable of fulfilling their duties. A Muslim man who takes another wife should do so to fulfill his social responsibilities, such as caring for a widowed woman, and not as a means to increase his pleasure.
During the time of the prophet Muhammed, it was common for a man to have unrestricted number of wives. However Islam placed important legal restrictions on polygyny, limiting a man to a maximum of four wives, but emphasising on equality and fairness thus if he cannot do justice between them he should marry only one.
فَانكِحُوا مَا طَابَ لَكُم مِّنَ النِّسَاءِ مَثْنَىٰ وَثُلَاثَ وَرُبَاعَ فَإِنْ خِفْتُمْ أَلَّا تَعْدِلُوا فَوَاحِدَةً
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…
Surah An-Nisa 4:3
Muhammad Asad comments on this verse:
In regards to the permission to marry more than one wife (up to the maximum of four), it is so restricted by the condition, “If you have reason to fear that you might not be able to treat them with equal fairness, then marry only one,” as to make such plural marriages possible only in quite exceptional cases and under exceptional circumstances.
Source: Message of the Quran, verse 4:3
Therefore, polygyny is placed under an important moral restriction that the husband must treat all his wives equally, which should discourage a man from taking another wife simply to increase his pleasure without the heavy implications that come with it.
The idea of one wife can be seen in the example of the Prophet. He was married to his wife Khadijah for twenty-five years and he only remarried after she passed away. His plural marriages later in his life were due to his unique mission to be an example for the Muslim community, by taking care of widows, reconciling families through marriage, freeing slaves, and educating his wives in the teachings of Islam.
In Islam, marriage is considered to be a companionship between husband and wife. The husband has complete responsibility with regards to his family’s accommodation and basic needs such as food, drink and clothing.
It should be noted for awareness that the Bible allows polygyny and places no restrictions upon it. For example, one verse reads:
Solomon he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines…
Source: 1 Kings 11:3
Jews and Christians have no basis to criticise Islam for allowing polygyny, as their scriptures do not forbid it nor place any legal or moral restrictions upon it.
In fact, most human societies practice some form of polygynous marriages. According to the Ethnographic Atlas Codebook, of the 1,231 societies under study, 186 were monogamous, 453 had occasional polygyny, 588 had more frequent polygyny, and 4 had polyandry. Therefore, the view that polygyny is immoral is based upon a particular cultural norm that is not a universally recognised majority.
In conclusion, Islam allows polygyny but with *important legal and moral restrictions*.
It is best for a man to benefit his family and the community at large to the best of his ability. Having multiple wives will give him the ability to bring joy into the lives of more people, it will unite more families and allow those who are less fortunate to have someone that takes care of them as well as provides for them. It is permissible for a man to have up to four wives if he is capable of treating them fairly and his marriages will serve the interests of the common good.
However, this places great burdens on the husband with the toughest of them being just between all of his wives.
If he fears this will jeopardise his hereafter, he should restrict himself to just one wife. This will keep him safe in the hereafter and the hereafter should always be placed before a person’s desires.