February 7, 2002 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 82

Islamic Clerics Explain the Rationale Behind Polygamy

February 7, 2002
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 82

Nearly every year, Egyptian television broadcasts special series for the month of Ramadan, which enjoy particularly high ratings. Frequently, these annual series make media waves in the Arab world. During Ramadan 2000, for example, the character of the Coptic woman married to a Muslim in one series sparked a heated debate on Christian-Muslim relations. More recently, the polygamist Hajj Mutawali, in a series for Ramadan 2001, engendered a storm about polygamy in the Islamic world.

Polygamy is an issue that makes headlines in the Arab media every few years. Clerics and religious-leaning journalists hasten to state their various arguments regarding it. The most popular of these is theological: The Koran permits polygamy. However, since some Muslim countries, for example Tunisia, have found a way to prohibit polygamy, many clerics feel a need to buttress the theological argument with more practical rationalizations.

Following is a review of the main arguments in favor of polygamy, as presented in the Arab media in recent years:

Legalized Polygamy Is Better Than Mass Adultery in the West
One common argument is that in practice, polygamy exists in all societies, and legalized polygamy is better than mass adultery. On his Al-Jazeera television religious program, Sheikh Yussef Al-Qaradhawi, a leading religious authority in Sunni Islam, said: "There is no society without polygamy. Westerners who condemn and reject polygamy are doing it themselves. The difference between their polygamy and our polygamy is that theirs is immoral and inhuman. The man [in the West]… sleeps with more than one woman, and if [the second woman] gets pregnant, he denies responsibility for the child and does not support the woman financially. It is nothing more than lust…"[1]

Sheikh Taysir Al-Tamimi, acting head of the Palestinian Authority's Shari'a Judicial System, also emphasized this view: "…As everyone knows, in non-Islamic societies that prohibit polygamy there are many lovers and mistresses alongside the wife. I say to those who demand equality and whine about women's rights that, by permitting polygamy, Islam protects the woman's humanity and emotions, and secures her right to marry and gain honor and esteem, instead of becoming a professional paramour lacking in rights whose children are thrown onto the garbage heap."[2]

Polygamy and Sexual Appetite
Polygamy's advocates, such as Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi, claim that men's "raging sexual appetite" is uncontrollable and might lead them into adultery – as happens in the West - while women's sexual appetites are not equal to those of men. In addition, women have menstrual periods "which in some cases last 10 days or more" and during which their husbands cannot have sexual relations with them. Therefore, it has been determined that a man might have a hard time being satisfied with one woman, and that it is better to rescue him from the sin of adultery by allowing polygamy.

As Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi continued, "In societies prohibiting polygamy… there are many men whose wives have little desire… while their husbands have raging sexual appetites. What can they do? Some men's wives have lengthy menstrual periods, lasting 10 days or more, and so the husbands decide to take an additional wife…"

"Statistics and scientific studies have proven that the man's sexual energy is more vigorous. This is a fact… All women arouse a man, but not all men arouse a woman. Even among animals, the females need sex less than the males. This is the case with cows, buffalo, or she-goats; they desire the stallion, ram, or bull only when they want to become pregnant. Afterwards, their desire passes. In contrast, the stallion or ram is [always] willing. This is nature, and woman is this way too…"[3]

In an article, lawyer 'Isa Abu Libda explained that polygamy solves the problem of men with a strong sexual urge "who cannot restrain themselves when their wives are menstruating or have just given birth, and therefore it is better that they take another wife than secretly visit prostitutes." He also offered two unique pro-polygamy arguments: One, if the husband travels frequently to distant lands, sometimes even staying "a few months," it is best that he take another wife rather than visit prostitutes. Two, if a man's brother dies, under polygamy he can wed his widowed sister-in-law, thus saving her and his nephews and nieces from "disintegration and perdition."[4]

"Some husbands with [great] sexual prowess need women regularly," wrote the chairman of the Nablus Shari'a Judicial System Sheikh Hamed Al-Bitawi. "During the 40 days of [the wife's] hiatus after giving birth, or during menstruation, these men cannot restrain themselves, and they have a right to take another wife."[5]

The clerics arguing thus claim they are not concerned only about the men; women too may fall victim to a "raging sexual appetite." Jerusalem Supreme Sufi Council head Sheikh Muhammad Sa'id Al-Jamal Al-Rifa'i explained, "Perhaps some men cannot be satisfied with one woman. In these cases, if the door to taking another wife is closed to them, they will wear out their only wife [with unceasing sexual relations] or will cast their eyes upon other women… Accordingly, there is a need to allow men with such a nature to find a way of satisfying their powerful physical hunger by means of [women] permitted in marriage by Allah."[6]

Polygamy and Barrenness
Another argument often espoused is that polygamy solves the problem of men married to barren women. "What happens when a man marries a woman and finds out she can't have children?" asked Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi. "Okay, he can wait patiently for a year, two, three, or 10, but then he yearns for children. A relative of mine, a wealthy man, took a wife whom he loved, and she loved him. He lived with her for 25 years and she never had children. Then this woman, because she was righteous, told him, 'You must wed [another].' He objected but she persisted, and she herself arranged an engagement for him to another woman. He consummated the marriage and she bore him sons and daughters…"[7]

Sheikh Muhammad Sa'id Al-Jamal said: "It may happen that a woman falls ill and cannot have sexual relations or do housework. If she is dear to her husband and he doesn't want to divorce her… there is nothing to do but permit him to take a second wife."[8]

Also in support of polygamy is the claim that there are simply more women than men. Without polygamy, many women would die old maids, never experiencing the joys of motherhood. Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi, for example, said, "Doubtless, these marriages meet a certain need of the woman, and satisfy a certain desire, primarily in light of the fact that there are many more women than men require. In some countries, the number of women is greater than the number of men, especially after a war. Even in America, they say, there are 8.8 million more women than men. This is a known fact. The number of marriageable women is always greater than the number of men… What do we do with this surplus of women? We have three options: We deny women partnership and the emotions of motherhood all their lives... Or, we give [them] the freedom to do what [they] want, as the Westerners do – licentiousness and that kind of thing – and [they] are likely to get pregnant as a result of prostitution and bring bastards into the world. Or, maybe, half a husband is better than none…"[9] Personal Reasons for Polygamy Still others insist there is no need to seek out justification for polygamy. Qatari sheikh Walid bin Hadi set out the different rationales for polygamy – barrenness, demographic inequality, preventing adultery, and increasing the birth rate – but, he explained, in the final analysis every man has his own reasons: "The Prophet said: 'Do not ask a husband why he beats his wife'… According to the same principle, 'Do not ask a husband why he takes a second wife.'"[10]

Islam Restricts Polygamy

Often, polygamy's advocates say that, contrary to popular opinion, Islam actually puts restrictions on polygamy, in that it permits a man to take only four wives. Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi explained: "We prohibit adultery, while [Westerners] permit it. That's the difference. With us, polygamy is not absolute – that is, the door is not wide open. Before Islam, the door to polygamy was wide open in the various nations: the Arabs, the Romans – even in the Old Testament of the Holy Scriptures it is written that David had 300 women, of which 100 were wives and 200 were maidservants, and Solomon had 700 women, of which 300 were wives and 400 were maidservants. Namely, this was accepted. When Islam came, it imposed a single limit and a single stipulation on polygamy: that there could be no more than four wives… When a man like Ghilan Al-Thaqafi, who had 10 wives, converted to Islam, the Prophet told him: 'Choose for yourself four of them and separate from the rest'… The stipulation is that [the polygamist] be convinced that he is treating [his wives] equally… There is also another stipulation to every marriage, and that is that [the man] be able to support and protect the woman. That is, if a man wants to wed, even to the first wife, he must be able to support her – not to mention a second wife. He also needs to be physically and sexually capable…"[11]

The Question of Equality

As mentioned, the religious stipulation for taking a second, third, or fourth wife is the husband's ability to treat them all equally. This is also how Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi explains why polyandry is prohibited: "Some people say, why not allow women to be polygamous?… But we say to the man that he must treat the wives equally, and if he fears he cannot, he must be satisfied with one. How can a woman treat her husbands equally? How can she divide herself amongst them? For example, if all four want children, who gets to have the first one?"

"Additionally, a woman could become pregnant without knowing whether the father was Zeid or Amr [i.e. any of her husbands]. Okay, so today they say that there are laboratories and such things [that can determine paternity] but even if it is possible to know who the father is, how is it possible to say [to the husbands]: 'You first, the second two years afterwards, and the third eight years after that?' Is this equality? The woman cannot treat her husbands equally, but the man can treat his wives equally, if he is a man of faith, morality, and conscience…"[12]

Supporters of polygamy frequently dismiss women's rights' supporters, saying that they (polygamy supporters) are defending the right of the second wife to marry. Thus, for example, Dr. Muhammad Al-Masir, a cleric from Egypt's Al-Azhar University, said: "Some people claim that polygamy harms the rights and honor of women, although the second or third wife is also a woman!! Is the second wife of a different gender? Is she from another planet? Every woman has the right to live in the shadow of a husband who will defend her purity and honor… In the days of the Prophet, not even one woman remained without a husband – not a spinster, nor a widow, nor a divorcee… I ask our women and daughters not to be egotistical…"[13]


[1]Al-Jazeera television (Qatar), December 30, 2001.

[2] Al-Quds (Palestinian Authority), March 8, 2001.

[3] Al-Jazeera television (Qatar), December 30, 2001.

[4] Al-'Awda (Palestinian Authority), May 1, 1998.

[5] Al-Ayyam (Palestinian Authority), August 12, 1999.

[6] Al-Quds (Palestinian Authority), April 17, 1998.

[7] i television (Qatar), December 30, 2001.

[8] Al-Quds (Palestinian Authority), August 17, 2001.

[9] Al-Jazeera television (Qatar), December 30, 2001.

[10] Al-Rai (Qatar), January 5, 2002.

[11] Al-Jazeera television (Qatar), December 30, 2001.

[12] Al-Jazeera television (Qatar), December 30, 2001.

[13] Aakhr Sa'ah (Egypt), December 6, 2001.

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