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Polygamy: Rational or Irrational?


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Disclaimer: This article is based on personal observation and could be right or wrong. My conclusion is based on a happy marriage where a husband and a wife love each other and have no major issues, yet the husband still wants to take another wife.  As for marriages with problems where husbands turn to polygamous relationships as the solution, I have no comments.

This past semester in my Arabic Communication class, our professor divided us into groups and asked us to present our opinion on polygamy. I didn\’t want to be a part of that discussion. What was I going to say? Almost everyone else in the class (including the guys) were dismissive of the idea, while I was still forming words in my mind.  The topic was complicated enough to discuss in English, let alone in Arabic!

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During my years at the University of Houston, I was one of the most outspoken supporters of polygamy. A few married sisters in the MSA tried to talk “sense” into me, but their efforts were futile; I was known to be a person of my own mind. I clearly remember the day my husband proposed to me, he informed me that he planned to take another wife later and asked if I would be okay with it. I answered, “How can I stop you from something that is allowed in Islam?” I wasn’t yet married, so how was I supposed to know what it felt like to be jealous. It was only after I became a wife that I struggled with the idea of sharing the love of my life with another woman.

My first encounter with polygamy was when my best friend went through a polygamous relationship.  I felt torn. I questioned one of the shayookh about it, and his answer to my skepticism still echoes in my mind; instead of defending or addressing the topic of polygamy, he surprisingly asked me, “Do you believe Allah is Just?” Of course I did (inshaAllah), but why would he question my belief in Allah rather than simply explaining the rationale behind polygamy?

He then supplied me with a battery of “logical” reasons: explanations of wars, genealogy, men\’s struggle during wives\’ periods/post-partum bleeding, and many more. After years of researching works of scholars, both Eastern and Western, reading various works and publications including the ones written by women supporting polygamy, and examining statistics -Islamic and non-Islamic, I have run out logical reasons that defend polygamy. One-by-one, each has been ruled out as a result of  being cornered either by Muslims or non-Muslims. I can no longer “logically” defend polygamy.

Let\’s discuss a few rational explanations:

War Zone: We are no longer in a time where men die more in war than women. The norm of warfare today is the  culture of carpet-bombing, where there is no discrimination among men, women, children, elderly; all in proximity are annihilated.

Genealogy: Yes, it’s a subject that is not totally debatable. Even with the contemporary DNA testing, there is room for error and hence the genealogy of a child can be lost. It makes sense that this is the reason why polyandry is not allowed (perhaps) but the original question ‘why polygamy is allowed?\’ remains unanswered.

Periods/Post-Partum Bleeding:  Seriously?! So if a wife is menstruating, there is nothing else she can do to satisfy her husband temporarily for 5-7 days? Even if we accept this as a “valid” factor to justify polygamy, it still doesn’t take into account what happens if a man gets married to a woman whose cycle coincides with that of his first wife? Or what if the wives give birth to children around the same time?

Men have Stronger Sexual Appetite:  I assumed this to be factual for some time and perhaps I might still agree with the fact that, in general, men have a stronger physical desire for women. However, this can vary case-by-case as well. New statistics demonstrate that men and women are not far apart in their sexual appetite. In fact, ovulating women have been found to have increased sexual desire. Other studies suggest women in their 30s also experience an increased sex drive. Since this quality can vary from person-to-person, sexual appetite cannot be used to rationalize polygamy either.

While we may run out of rational justifications for polygamy, the stereotyping against it continues to increase:

One Man for One Woman: I grew up believing there is one man for one woman and vice-versa. Remember, we’re products of our society and culture, and that is not blameworthy. We cannot ostracize “Western” culture for this ideology because it is just as much a product of “Eastern” culture too, if not more. Typically, in Eastern cultures, parents continue to advise their daughters to be patient with their husband and work on the marriage, but as soon as the husband takes another wife, the entire family forces her to return back to her parents\’ house and take a stand.

“Shared” Husband: As the practice of polygamy withers away, the mentality and personal outlook of women has also changed. Along with society, women have moved from a more group-centered reason of existence to a more individual-centered reason for existence. Not only do most women refuse to share their husbands, but the entire society has taken an antagonist view of this practice.

“Insufficient” First Wife: In many communities, once a man weds a second wife, society does not loiter in assuming fault in the first wife. Why else would her husband feel the need to find solace in another woman? People talk, families accuse, and consequently, wife number one feels she is insufficient for her husband. Her insecurities rise just as fast as her self-confidence and esteem spiral downward, leaving her feeling like an utter failure.

With all these widespread stereotypes against polygamy and apparent lack of “logical” explanations, how can we expect Muslim women to simply swallow this concept, accept it, and live happily ever after with it?

I cannot. In fact, I believe most women can’t. But I have to come to terms with it. Because no matter what my objections may be against polygamy, it is permissible in Islam, it was practiced by our beloved Prophet, sallallahu aliahi wasalam, and was common amongst the respected Companions. Who am I to object to it?

Before I proceed, let me clarify. I am not ruling out any aforementioned and other possible logical reasons for everyone. If it makes sense to any woman, by all means, accept it and be content with it. But if there are sisters who cannot find any coherent reasons for polygamy, they should not allow it to frustrate them. They are not alone.

As for me, this matter remains rationally unexplainable.  But it only humbles me to accept a far greater truth about Islam – that there are issues within the deen we may not fully comprehend. Disagreement with our logic in matters of deen cannot yield rejection. In Surah Sajdah, Allah azzawajal said:

وَلَوْ شِئْنَا لَآتَيْنَا كُلَّ نَفْسٍ هُدَاهَا وَلَٰكِنْ حَقَّ الْقَوْلُ مِنِّي لَأَمْلَأَنَّ جَهَنَّمَ مِنَ الْجِنَّةِ وَالنَّاسِ أَجْمَعِينَ

“And if We had willed, surely! We would have given every person his guidance, but the Word from Me took effect (about evil­doers), that I will fill Hell with jinn and mankind together.” (32:13)

We accept this verse as is, even though we cannot fully understand the meaning, and we make du\’a to Allah that may we be protected from being amongst those who are destined to Hellfire.

Polygamy is allowed unconditionally (so long as the husband treats his wives equally), unbound to time, place or people. To accept this fact is a part of my faith, whether I like it or not. However, Ever Merciful is my Lord Who has comforted the believers by saying:

كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الْقِتَالُ وَهُوَ كُرْهٌ لَكُمْ ۖ وَعَسَىٰ أَنْ تَكْرَهُوا شَيْئًا وَهُوَ خَيْرٌ لَكُمْ ۖ وَعَسَىٰ أَنْ تُحِبُّوا شَيْئًا وَهُوَ شَرٌّ لَكُمْ ۗ وَاللَّهُ يَعْلَمُ وَأَنْتُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ

“…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.” (2:216)

Hence, to conclude:

First, I begin by reiterating clearly that I cannot rationally understand polygamy, but I accept it because I submit to Allah azzawajal, and I believe the One Who decreed it is, without a shadow of a doubt, The Most Just and has allowed it in His Perfect Justice. I understand now the wisdom of my teacher questioning my belief in Allah’s Perfect Justice. That is the primary rope to hang on to – to submit to Allah’s Perfect Justice.

Secondly, I advise myself first and then all my Muslim sisters that polygamy is a trial from Allah, not from the husband. Therefore, like any other trial, it is a time to come closer to Allah azzawajal, with submission, patience and tawakkul. Just like any other trial, it is a time to evaluate oneself and to increase good deeds; it is not a time to rebel. More importantly (what seems like a never-ending task, ) we must strive to seperate the anger we may feel against our husbands and channel it towards accepting Allah\’s decree.

Instead of perceiving the situation as “my husband did this to me”, it should be, “it is my Rabb\’s Decree and He is testing me”. The real struggle lies in accepting it as a test rather than a “betrayal” by one’s husband. It is indeed an emotional “Jihaad” (exertion) to seperate the two. Perhaps this is also the most effective recipe to cope with polygamy.

Thirdly, I do believe that there is always khair in Allah\’s Decree; although we may fail to see it when we are being tested, the goodness always shines through. So those sisters who are tested with this, or may be tested with it, must remember that polygamy, too, has khair in it. We may fail to see it, but it is there, inshaAllah.

That day in my class, for the first time I did not justify polygamy logically. I was a bit hesitant in being so honest, but I took the courage to say, “My limited human mind cannot rationalize polygamy. I don\’t necessarily like it, but I accept it because it is a part of my faith, a faith that I undoubtedly believe in and find to be the only truth. However, Islam doesn\’t expect anyone to live a miserable life either. So if a woman cannot tolerate sharing her husband then the doors of exit from the marriage are always open for her.” After saying this, I felt relieved and strangely empowered.

Message for the Husbands:

Having said this, I do have a message for the husbands who are thinking of or are already in a polygamous relationship:

1. Please do not abuse the aforementioned three points. How a woman perceives polygamy is between her and Allah azzawajal. There are sisters who may not be able to cope with polygamy, but it doesn\’t give husbands the right to judge their imaan. Further, if the wife makes an effort to struggle through it, then recognize her situation as the one suffering through a test. She undertakes a hard journey and whether she finds peace with it has a lot to do with how a husband handles the situation.

2. What I said above is easier said than done. Most pleasing to shaytaan is to break a marriage and obviously he will take every available opportunity to arouse negative feelings and emotions in a wife. A wife may be able to ward off the waswas at times, but not all the time. Treat her as if she is human, because she is human; don\’t expect “angelic” reactions and submission from her.

3. Remember, not only does a wife fight shayateen\’s waswas but she also suffers the antagonizing society’s fingerpointing at her for being the “insufficient’ wife number one. It is easy to say ‘who cares about what others are saying\’ but the reality is very ugly. A husband must stand up for his wife if he does not want to kiss her goodbye.

4. Realize that it is natural for her to be hyper-sensitive and vulnerable to anything that others might say, especially, to what comes out of her husband’s mouth. Shaytaan will make her read assumptions into her husband\’s words and actions, so be prepared to explain calmly and patiently.

5.  Remember, it is inevitable for her to compare herself to the other wife, and to indulge in thinking, ‘Who does he love more/find more pleasing?\’ Find a way to keep her from doing that if you don\’t want her to go mentally insane.

6. There is no “right” way of jumping into polygamy. No matter what approach you take, it will hurt your first wife, but DO NOT LIE to her. She will find out, especially, if you share a good strong relationship. Many times husbands lie to keep their wives from hurting, but in reality deception and dishonesty hurt more.

7. Don\’t break her trust. Wives are better equipped to face the bitter reality than broken trust.

These are just a few quick suggestions with regards to treating the first wife. If all this is too difficult for a man to handle then I suggest he sticks to monogamy :)

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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Saba Syed (aka Umm Reem) is the author of International award winning novel, "An Acquaintance." Saba has a BA degree in Islamic Studies. She studied Arabic Language & Literature at Qatar University and at Cairo Institute in Egypt. She also received her Ijaazah in Quranic Hafs recitation in Egypt from Shaikh Muhammad al-Hamazawi. She had been actively involved with Islamic community since 1995 through her MSA, and then as a founding member of TDC, and other community organizations. in 2002, she organized and hosted the very first "Musim Women's Conference" in Houston, TX. Since then, she's been passionately working towards empowering Muslim women through the correct and untainted teachings of Islam. She is a pastoral counselor for marriage & family, women and youth issues. She has hosted several Islamic lectures and weekly halaqas in different communities all over U.S and overseas, also hosted special workshops regarding parenting, Islamic sex-ed, female sexuality, and marital intimacy.