Polygamy and Polyandry


I am living in Vienna, Austria and working in an international organization. The majority of my colleagues are non-Muslims. While talking to them, a question came up, for which I want to find an answer of convincing grounds. The question is that why a man in Islam can marry four women at a time and a woman is not allowed to marry even two men?! I tried to convince them with straightforward examples, but unfortunately could not.

Please answer my question with reference and solid background. Thank you very much.

Name of Counsellor: Salem Al-Hasi


Thank you for your very interesting question, and please accept our sincere apology for the delay.

Among the numerous misconceptions about Islam, is that it is the only religion that permits polygamy, and that Muslims are the only people who might practice it. On the contrary, polygamy was never prohibited in Judaism and Christianity, until a few centuries ago. Besides the fact that most of the prophets mentioned in the Old Testament were polygamous - both Jews and Christians practiced polygamy throughout a long period of their history. However, when examining the teachings of both faiths, neither Christianity nor Judaism provided clear guidelines and regulations in regards to this practice.

In contrast with Judaism and Christianity, Islam dealt with polygamy more clearly. It provides legal requirements that restrain it, to a certain extent and this amounted to the discouragement of practicing polygamy.

First of all, you should know that the general norm in Islam is monogamy and not polygamy. Also, the position of Islam towards polygamy is that it is neither mandatory nor encouraged, but merely permitted. More importantly, the permission to practice polygamy is associated with compassion towards widows and orphans, and is not associated with mere sexual satisfaction. Allah says:

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, or (a captive) that your right hands possess, that will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice.

Surah 4 Verse 3

Dr. Jamal Badawi, a prominent Egyptian scholar residing and teaching in Canada,wrote in an essay titled, Polygamy in Islamic Law:

‘It is evident that the association of "polygamy" with Islam is not only unfair or biased but based on a serious misunderstanding. Polygamy was practiced, often without limitations nor regulations , in almost all cultures. It was sanctioned by various religions, and practiced, both before Islam, and for many centuries thereafter. The Mormons presently practice it - though secretly. Christian missionaries, in Africa and other areas, where polygamy is a social necessity, also allow it.

It is both, honest and accurate, to say that it was Islam that regulated this practice, limited it, made it more humane and instituted equal rights and status for all wives. What the Qur’anic decrees amount to, taken together, is a discouragement of polygamy, unless necessity for it exists.’

Now, we come to the main part of your question; which is why in Islam polygamy is permissible, whereas polyandry (a woman marrying more than one man) is prohibited. I believe that the answer has many dimensions, which are related to the physical nature of woman and her position in the society.

Yet, above all reasons, comes the fact that polygamy fits within the framework of the purpose of shari`a (Islamic law), whereas polyandry goes directly against its objectives. The purpose of revealing shari`a was to serve the interests of people (masalih al-`ibad).

According to scholars of Islam, these interests are preserving:
  1. Belief (deen)
  2. Life (an-nafs)
  3. Intellect and reason(al-`aql)
  4. Wealth (al-maal)
  5. Family and lineage (an-nasl)
All the rules, regulations, and laws in the Islamic legal system are dedicated to preserve these five major interests. They are known as the five ultimate objectives (al-kuliyaat al-khams).

Hence, the rules and regulations related to marriage and polygamy were drawn to preserve an-nasl (family and lineage). The wisdom of preserving an-nasl is to assure the recognition of the right lineage of people and their children, by which the social kinship and social network is kept sound and stable.

Since lineage through the fathers is hard to demonstrate compared to mothers, it would be saved and preserved through polygamy. On the other hand, it would be impossible through polyandry. In the case of polygamy, the father of a child is always known and therefore the lineage is easily determined. As for the case of polyandry, the father is not necessarily obvious and therefore the lineage of a child is also obscured. It was mentioned in answer Absent fathers that DNA is still not accepted as sufficient evidence to prove lineage by Muslim Jurists.

I would like at the end, to add shortly that the philosophy of dealing with body and sexuality in Islam is a very important issue here and comparative insights are very revealing. Giving the human being the ultimate control over the body without any shared norms and accepting relativist morality to rule in this domain might guarantee satisfaction of desires, but it would not allow the society to be built on strong pillars of a sound concept of the family, social coherence and also common civic virtues.

Polygamy did not disappear in modern societies, but it just became practiced outside the bonds of marriage. It may be under the label of individual choice and freedom, but is happens with no commitment, rights or responsibilities put on the shoulders of either party.

It resulted in the dissolution of norms of sexuality in orientation, preference, forms and practices. So from a realistic point of view, Islam addresses realities and sets boundaries and formulates balances of reciprocal rights and responsibilities. Needless to say, that in order to understand the social logic of Islam, this issue needs to be framed within the whole set of norms and rules upon which the Islamic society is built. If we do otherwise, our view is no longer comprehensive but partial and superficial.

Allah knows the best


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