Polygamy was common in 7th-century Arabia, as it has been in many other cultures, especially for a political leader; for instance, the patriarchs in the Hebrew Bible are shown as having multiple wives, and the kings of Israel are described as having harems numbering in some cases into the hundreds. According to Muslim historians, the Prophet Muhammad’s marriages were contracted to assist needy widows and divorcees and to solidify the community of Muslims by forging alliances among the tribes in and around Medina. In light of the time and place, there was nothing unique or unusual about Muhammad (peace be upon him) marrying several women.
God, in the Qur’an, put a restriction on the number of wives permitted. It is the only scripture of the main religions to have this restriction and before this, a man at that time and in the culture of ancient Arabia, could have an unlimited number of wives at the same time. God says in the Qur’an that a man should have only wife but if required, he can marry up to a maximum of four women, unless he can’t fulfil the required conditions.
Since the Bible puts no restriction on the number of wives in earlier times, Christian men were permitted as many wives as they wished. It was only a few centuries ago that the Church restricted the number of wives to one. Polygamy is also permitted in Judaism until Rabbi Gershom Ben Yehudah (960 C.E to 1030 C.E) issued an edict against it. The Jewish Sephardic communities living in Muslim countries continued the practice till as late as 1950, until an Act of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel extended the ban on marrying more than one wife.
Prophet Muhammad, did not marry anyone else whilst he was with his first wife, Khadija. After she died, as he was the leader of the nascent Muslim community. There are many reasons for God allowing multiple marriages, However, in general, scholars have said that polygamy addresses the following gender imbalance:
1. Men are exposed to more incidents that may end their lives i.e. dangerous professions and war – which results in them leaving behind (often young) widows.
2. Average life span of females (in general) is more than that of males
3. World female population was more (at that time) than the male population
4. The need to prevent divorce of barren women
As for why women are not allowed to marry four husbands, the reasons are that it is not required to achieve this balance. In fact, it will make it worse by decreasing available males in societies with more males than females. Moreover, issues would arise in respect of who the biological father of a child is (although this not so much of an issue in current times with DNA testing).
Some Scholars are of the opinion that as the verse was revealed after a major battle (Uhud) where many Muslim men were killed, leaving widows and orphans behind, that it is more about compassion towards women and their children and that polygamy was contextual, and monogamy is the norm. However, it naturally piques the interest of inquisitive non-Muslims or those who are antagonistic towards Islam and Muslims.
We believe Allah (God) is All wise and each command has benefits to it. We, due to our limited intellect may not be able to understand certain guidelines and accept the commandments of Allah in all situations.