A simple question: What does Islam say about polygamy? An even simpler answer: Simply that all men are entitled to marrying up to four wives at a time; but if they fear that they might not be able to observe justice among them, they better be limited to one.
But what do Muslims say about polygamy? This question is as complicated and as near impossible to answer as the former and its answer are simple and straightforward, thanks to the extremely diverse opinions of Muslims over the matter, which are most of the time driven by hundreds of factors and considerations (which usually do not include Islam itself, by the way). Most Muslims have some or the other opinion over the matter, most of which are driven by gender, age, marital status, societal considerations, personal situations and preferences, etc.; and most these people are quite strongly opinionated over it, never ready to accept any opinion or fact that might differ ever so slightly with their own views. This subject was put forth so simply and clearly by Allaah in His own Book as to not leave any chance of a doubt, and yet, Muslims have managed to convert it into such a complicated spiderweb that one shudders at the mere idea of discussing it and thereby finding oneself the target of a violent volley of concentrated hating from whosoever finds it difficult to agree with any random word in the discussion, along with all sorts of accusations that send chills down the spine of anyone.
The problem with us Muslims is that we often tend to forget or ignore what the word Muslim actually implies. A Muslim is simply one who submits to God’s will and His order, regardless of one’s own personal likes or convenience. When it comes to polygamy, however, most Muslims are found to treat it as a subject that has never been discussed before, one that is totally open to personal preferences; more often than not, this is accompanied by a strong, supposedly religious rhetoric that very strongly suggests that one’s personal idea is the only Islamic explanation of the matter as well as an act of extreme piety. It is also usually accompanied by either a flat denial or refusal of the divine rulings or a vehement attack on anyone who dares differ with one’s own preferred side of the picture, including accusations of utter disbelief. These people often forget that though polygamy (or monogamy thereof) is not a basic tenet of Islam, the denial of divine decisions or false and baseless accusations of disbelief are certainly extremely serious matters that often pose the risk of causing one to cross the boundary between belief and disbelief. While polygamy is neither mandatory nor a taboo, it is absolutely essential that all of us submit to God’s will and not seek to (mis)use so-called reason and intellect as a lame excuse to oppose or confront divine wisdom, and it is outright dangerous to falsely brand any Muslim as anti-Islamic.
The problem is not with Islam or Islamic texts, which, in turn, explained the matter without leaving any chance for a doubt. Allaah has discussed most family matters in the Quran itself, while the remaining were detailed by His Messenger – either verbally through his teachings or practically through his own family life. Polygamy, too, was verbally explained in the Quran and practically implemented by the Messenger (peace be upon him), so that Muslims for many generations had no doubt nor debate regarding it.
Today, though, there are perhaps as many views about it as there are Muslims. But they could still be broadly classified into a feminine version and another masculine one, both of which could again be classified into two, based on the respective position of each person with regard to the two main characters in any such story.
One of the masculine versions, popular with married men (especially when they are the subject) says that polygamy is an absolute (and only) Sunnah of the Messenger of Allaah – a great act of worship, without which their faith might run the risk of incompletion. Such men further seem to think that polygamy is such a goal as to permit the use of any and all means to achieve it, be it uttering falsehoods, cheating or wronging the first wife. According to this version, all women who are not absolutely happy about bringing second (or third or fourth) wives for their husbands are hardly even believers. And yet, most such men refuse to marry their own sisters or daughters to married men.
Most women, conversely, think of polygamy as a taboo and a great injustice. This group usually comprises first wives or unmarried young women. These women tend to not only assume polygamy as a very special and highly exceptional case scenario allowed to only those with extreme need, but also assume that the man needs their written permission before even thinking of marrying again. Such women, again, often have nothing against polygamy if the person concerned is a brother or another close relative (except a father, of course.)
Needless to say, the above ideas are usually only personal preferences, having little (or nothing) to do with Islam, i.e., submission. And yet, much care is usually taken to present them as a very religious notion, one that must be implemented by everyone who wants to remain a Muslim. The reality, however, is that we often forget or fail to be Muslims before being men or women, and thus think of polygamy as nothing short of either a great act of worship or a huge social injustice, forgetting that Allaah or His Messenger did not brand it as any of the two.
The pro-polygamy patriots tend to forget that the Messenger of Allaah himself lived with a single wife for most of his married life. They tend to ignore the fact that he simply laughed at the natural jealousy between his wives rather than terming them as not-so-good-Muslims. They forget the conduct of the Messenger of Allaah with each one of his wives, and that he still kept each one of them perfectly happy and content. They overlook the fact that as much as the Messenger of Allaah encouraged the first marriage, he is not reported to have encouraged anyone to perform the second or the third or fourth. They seem to not know that Quran itself advised those afraid of not being able to observe justice to be content with a single wife. They seem to forget the immense rights Allaah and His Messenger urged for wives, be it even a single one.
The anti-polygamy group, conversely, forgets that Aaishah (may Allaah be pleased with her), the best and the most knowledgeable of the women of the Muslim era, the mother of all believers, was herself the wife of a man having other wives besides her, though she was a young virgin when she married him. They seem to forget that being one among many wives did not degrade her nor could it lower her very high status. They ignore the fact that she was still the happiest of wives, as were all the wives of the Messenger of Allaah. Do they assume to be higher in status than Humaira (the nickname by which the Messenger of Allaah liked to address Aaishah)? Do they hope for respect and dignity through denying the rules that were sent down by Allaah and announced and implemented by his Messenger?
Another misconception in this regard is the idea that the second marriage is introduced as a compensation for the widower or a divorcee, or that it is a solution for those who are not blessed with children, or that polygamy is allowed because of the number of women always being higher than men. These ideas are misleading in two ways. For one, the anti-polygamy camp tends to suppose that these are necessary conditions for marrying a second time, and thus demand to know the reasons of every poor man who dares take this step. On the other hand, the men themselves tend to resort to falsehoods or lame excuses because they assume that they need a solid reason or a valid excuse for daring to marry another wife.
The simple fact, however, remains that a very intellectually strong reason is as much unnecessary for a second, third or fourth marriage as it is for the first, because multiple marriages are not an exceptional emergency case scenario but a very natural practice, as natural as the first marriage, with the only hindrance or obstacle in its way being the fear of the inability to observe justice – and a fairly strong (though only) obstacle this is!