Polygyny: Is It Fair?

By Aishah Schwartz
American Writer, Activist & Photojournalist

There is a disparity in the number of women vs. men converting to Islam, and subsequently these women are taught that they can only marry Muslim men.

"My husband has taken a second wife!

La Hawla Wa La Quwwata illah Billah(1)" the first wife sobs uncontrollably.

It's the end of life as she has known it; her perfect world.

Or is this how Muslim women react because of the negative stigma associated with polygyny in societies and cultures that over-romanticize monogamy - causing us to lose sight of the beauty of Islam and its teachings?

Let us pause to reflect on the greater good, rather than what society has us believe is the greater evil.

What Is Polygyny - or Is It Polygamy?

By definition Polygyny is a marriage in which a man is allowed more than one wife. It is one of the three forms of polygamy (plural marriage).

The other two forms of polygamy being: polyandry - wherein a woman has multiple simultaneous husbands; or group marriage - wherein the family unit consists of multiple husbands and multiple wives.

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 of polygyny as immoral is based upon a particular cultural norm that is not a universally recognized majority.

On the other hand, we have the West's monogamy, inherited from Greece and Rome where men were restricted by law to one wife but were free to have as many mistresses among the majority slave population as they wished.

In the West today, most married men have extramarital relations with mistresses, girlfriends and prostitutes. In the United States it is reported that nearly 50% of all marriages end in divorce, one of the top five reasons being infidelity. And a 500-page survey, compiled by the European Union's Eurostat statistical office in Luxembourg revealed earlier this year that Britain has the highest divorce rate in the EU.

Consequently, the Western claim to monogamy is false.

Why Polygyny?

If Allah Almighty is good and wishes good for His creatures, why did He legislate polygyny? Something which would be deemed unacceptable by society or as harmful to most women, who are so easily disposed to jealousy and envy, afflictions otherwise known as the wolf behind the door.

And yet, the un-recanted legislation lives through the Quran, the guide of Muslims in their walk through this life (dunya):

{And if you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphan girls(2), 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 hand possesses. That is more suitable that you may not incline [to injustice].} (An-Nisa' 4:3)

As Dr. Bilal Philips explains: "Divine legislation looks at the society as a whole seeking to maximize benefit. If a particular legislation benefits the majority of the society and causes some emotional harm to a minority, the general welfare of society is given precedence."

Welfare of Society

Many have argued that polygyny is not applicable in present day society, citing that the original ruling was delivered in 625 A.D. directly after the Battle of Uhud, the devastation of which resulted in a need to accommodate for an excessive number of orphaned children and widowed women left without support.

In present times, there is a disparity in the number of women vs. men converting to Islam, and subsequently these women are taught that they can only marry Muslim men. So, while we are busy calling non-believers to Islam, are we thinking about who will marry the female converts?

In the UK it is reported that the decline in available husbands has become such a problem it is now referred to as the 'Muslim spinster crisis'.

Remembering that polygyny is a form of polygamy, Dr. Amna Nosseir, Professor of Theology at Al-Azhar University, said that polygamy was indeed prevalent in the Arabian Peninsula in the pre-Islamic era, yet with the advent of Islam it became subjected to several restrictions.

"Before Islam, a man could have an unlimited number of wives and without any moral restrictions," she said. "Islam sanctioned it under specific circumstances and in accordance with a set of regulations."

Nosseir added that the problems arising from polygamy are not related to the law itself, but rather to misapplication.

"[Some] men resort to polygamy when it is unnecessary and without being fair to the women they marry." This is, sadly, undeniably true.

Regulations of Polygyny

Today polygyny is seen as an exception rather than a rule, and indeed, this is true, as it takes an exceptional man to navigate its oftentimes tumultuous waters.

But the Quran and Sunnah do not leave men ill-equipped when making a decision toward polygyny, or in demonstrating how to enjoin women in understanding what is best.

{And it may be that you dislike a thing which is good for you and that you like a thing which is bad for you. Allah knows but you do not know.} (Al-Baqarah 2:216)

Very specific guidelines for polygyny are set out in the Quran and are cited as follows:

1 - Justice or Fairness (3)

Allah says: {…but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one.} (An-Nisa' 4:3)

This verse (ayah) indicates that just treatment is a condition for plural marriage to be permitted. If a man is afraid that he will not be able to treat his wives justly if he marries more than one, then it is forbidden for him to marry more than one.

What is meant by the justice that is required in order for a man to be permitted to have more than one wife is that he should treat his wives equally in terms of spending, clothing, conjugal relations, or other material things that are under his control.

With regard to justice or fairness in terms of love, he is not held accountable for that, and that is not required of him because he has no control over that. This is what is meant by the verse , {You will never be able to do perfect justice between wives even if it is your ardent desire.} (An-Nisa' 4:129)

2 - The Ability to Spend on One's Wives

The evidence for this condition is the verse: {And let those who find not the financial means for marriage keep themselves chaste, until Allah enriches them of His Bounty.} (An-Nur 24:33)

In this verse, Allah Almighty commands those who are able to get married but cannot find the financial means, to remain chaste. One such example is not having enough money to pay the mahr (dowry) and not being able to spend on one's wife. (Al-Mufassal fi Ahkaam al-Mar'ah, part 6, p. 286)

And in support of understanding between co-wives (from hadith):

Aisha, the wife of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:

"The wives of Allah's Apostle (may peace be upon him) sent Fatima, the daughter of Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him), to Allah's Apostle (may peace be upon him). She sought permission to get in as he had been lying with me in my mantle. He gave her permission and she said: Allah's Messenger, verily, your wives have sent me to you in order to ask you to observe equity in case of the daughter of Abu Quhafa. She (Aisha) said:

"I kept quiet"

Thereupon Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) said to her (Fatima):

"O daughter, don't you love whom I love? She said: Yes, (I do). Thereupon he said: I love this one." (Al-Bukhari, 755)

Management of Polygyny

There are so many variables to consider in striving for success in any relationship, but polygyny, of course, makes a marriage all the more challenging. For sure it is not for those that are weak of heart. In fact, it takes brave hearts.

Spouses not only have to know themselves, they have to also be open to knowing and trying to understand the man they've married, as well as understanding one another as co-wives.

Many of the sisters I engaged with over the past few weeks during my investigation into polygyny, offered suggestions on how to get along with a co-wife.

One co-wife wrote to me saying: "First and foremost, remember that any co-wife or potential co-wife is your sister in Islam and already has rights from you. Don't hate the sister, thinking if it wasn't for her your husband wouldn't be remarried; he probably would, just to a different sister."

Another co-wife suggested, if possible, engaging a co-wife in conversation to learn about one another's likes/dislikes, pet peeves, hobbies, habits, etc., so that each has an idea of the other sister's personality. This is an exercise that can help prevent misunderstandings based on assumptions that oftentimes leap to a woman's mind whenever she thinks she understands something that, in fact, she doesn't.

"Keep a no bedroom-talk, no problem sharing rule. It is so easy to get carried away with this one, but I really don't think either wife needs to invite fitnah into their inter-personal relationship. Setting boundaries is good for everyone," suggested another co-wife.

My thought is this: Don't hate your co-wife for what you fear her presence in your husband's life will do; love her for the sake of Allah and what you can achieve together for His sake - and the sake of the man you both love.

Let us not dismiss the fact that the nature of the husband is also a factor in polygyny. Patience, compassion and understanding are essential to a man's success in managing his professional and personal life - and ensuring that peace and harmony reigns in his marriages.

Yes, things can get complicated - another chapter by itself - but what is there about life in general that isn't complicated?

It's important that we monitor our intentions, strive to follow through - pray, pray, and then pray some more - believing always that Allah knows best, and knowing that not every polygynous marriage ends in disaster.

Divine Revelation of Choice

Readers may be saying aloud: "I hear everything you are saying. Maybe I agree; maybe not. But what are my options? Do I have a choice in the matter? If my husband takes a second wife should I ask to be divorced?"

Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) said:

"When the Divine Revelation of Choice was revealed, the Prophet started with me, saying to me:

"I am telling you something, but you needn't hurry to give the reply till you can consult your parents."

The Prophet said that Allah had said: {O Prophet! Say To your wives; If you desire the life of this world and its glitter... then come! I will make a provision for you and set you free in a handsome manner. But if you seek Allah and His Apostle, and The Home of the Hereafter, then Verily, Allah has prepared for the good-doers amongst you a great reward.} (33:28)

Aisha said:

"Am I to consult my parents about this? I indeed prefer Allah, His Apostle, and the Home of the Hereafter.' After that the Prophet gave the choice to his other wives and they also gave the same reply as Aisha did." Aisha knew that her parents would not advise her to part with the Prophet. (Al-Bukhari, 308)

The wise husband said: "Under no circumstances am I going to abandon either of my wives. Each of them plays an important part in my life."

The Irony

While Western societies tout monogamy as the only form of legal marriage, anthropologists(4) also treat serial monogamy, in which divorce and remarriage occur, as a form of polygamy.


Serial monogamy establishes a series of households that continue to be tied by shared paternity and shared income.

Divorced or not ladies, the polygynous husband will remain married; to one or more of you, so think wisely before making your choice.

The irony is that, the wife seeking divorce falls into the category of serial monogamy; unwittingly remaining in a form of polygamy.

Let us pause then to reconsider - isn't polygyny fair?

How Muslims practice polygyny is another story.


(1) The meaning of "la hawla wala quwata illa billah" is: "There is no power and no strength save in Allah." It is said by a Muslim when he is struck by a calamity, or is taken over by a situation beyond his control, simply when he is in distress. A Muslim puts his trust in the hands of Allah, and submits himself to Allah.

(2) In pre-Islamic Arabia, guardian men married the orphan girls under their care, so the Quran says that they should direct their attention to women other than the orphans.

(3) Taken from: "The Verdicts of Division between Wives" By The Department of Scientific Research in Umul Qura University in Makkah 2009 - Translated by Abu Aaliyah Abdullah ibn Dwight - Doha, Qatar 1431 ©.

(4) Zeitzen, Miriam K. (2008). Polygamy: A Cross-Cultural Analysis. Oxford: Berg. pp. 3-17.


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