Re-examining Polygyny in Islam
The Issue

Re-examining Polygyny in Islam: Exegesis and Clarification

The Issue” is TMWT’s exploration of what Muslim women experience and the nuances that shape them. In this instalment, Wardah Abbas re-examines the misconceptions surrounding polygyny in Islam, using exegesis from the Qur’an and Hadith to nurture conviction.

Polygyny remains one of the most controversial issues in Islam till date. It has been a topic of contention for ages. In modern times, this issue sits on the plate of critics and causes doubt in the minds of Muslim women. Questions such as why the Prophet (PBUH) had multiple wives, whether or not polygyny oppresses women, whether or not a woman has the right to choose to be in a polygynous marriage and whether or not Islam prefers polygyny to monogamy need to be addressed if only to nurture conviction in our hearts.

This essay seeks to answer crucial questions with respect to polygyny. It is important to state that what this essay does is to highlight the theoretical framework of polygyny. It is not a reflection of the realities of Polygyny in Muslim societies. It is only a reflection of the “intent” of the shari’ah and not polygyny as practised. A substantial part of this piece are excerpts from the works of scholars of Tafsir whose works are referenced below.

The evidence for polygyny is found in the Qur’an where Allah states that:

And if you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphan girls, 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].” Noble Qur’an 4:3, Sahih International Translation

There is an array of explanations for this verse of the Qur’an. There is the view of Ibn ‘Abbas and his disciple ‘Ikrimah who expressed the opinion that in the Jahiliyah period there was no limit on the number of wives a man could take. The result was that a man sometimes married as many as ten women and, when expenses increased because of a large family, he encroached on the rights either of his orphan nephews or other relatives. It was in this context that God fixed the limit of four wives and instructed the Muslims that they may marry up to four wives provided they possessed the capacity to treat them equitably.

According to Sa’id b. Jubayr, Qatadah and some other commentators, while the Arabs of the Jahiliyah period did not approve of subjecting orphans to wrong, they had no concept of justice and equity with regard to women. They married as many women as they wanted and then subjected them to injustice and oppression. It is in this context that people are told that if they fear perpetrating wrongs on orphans they ought to be equally worried about perpetuating them on women. In the first place, they should never marry more than four, and of those four, they should marry only as many as they can treat fairly.

While these two views are valid, it is important to state that they are not the most prominent explanations. The most widely agreed upon backstory, providing the socio-cultural and historical context for the verse on polygyny is highlighted below.

The Backstory

The permission to practice polygamy came after the Battle of Uhud in 625 AD, during which many men were killed and left behind orphans and widows. Surviving men were encouraged to care for these children by marrying widows.

During the Jahiliyyah period, guardians holding orphaned girls under their charge used to pick up the ones who had good looks or owned properties of value and marry them or arranged to have them married to their sons. They would fix the mahr of their choice, usually the lowest, and maintained them in whatever manner they elected, for they were the very guardians and caretakers for them. Their fathers were not there to take care of their rights who would have certainly given them in marriage to a suitable person after full deliberation on all aspects a daughter faces in married life and would have made sure that they remain happy and well-covered.

This historical occurrence is explained in the hadiths provided below:

Narrated Aisha: There was an orphan (girl) under the care of a man. He married her and she owned a date palm (garden). He married her just because of that and not because he loved her. So the Divine Verse came regarding his case: “If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphan girls…” Sahih Bukhari, Book 65, Hadith 4573

It was also narrated by ‘Urwa bin Az-Zubair that he asked ‘Aisha (RA) regarding the Statement of Allah: “If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphan girls…” (4.3)

She responded, “O son of my sister! An Orphan girl used to be under the care of a guardian with whom she shared property. Her guardian, being attracted by her wealth and beauty, would intend to marry her without giving her a just Mahr, i.e. the same Mahr as any other person might give her (in case he married her). So such guardians were forbidden to do that unless they did justice to their female wards and gave them the highest Mahr their peers might get. They were ordered (by Allah, to marry women of their choice other than those orphan girls.”

‘Aisha added, “So they were forbidden to marry those orphan girls for whose wealth and beauty they had a desire unless with justice, and that was because they would refrain from marrying them if they were lacking in property and beauty.” Sahih Bukhari, Book 65, Hadith 4574

Polygamy: An Age-Long Practice that Predated Islam

That one man could have more than one wife was something considered permissible in all religions of the world even before the advent of Islam. The custom prevailed in Arabia, India, Iran, Egypt, Babylon and among peoples elsewhere. To be short, we can say that the custom of taking a large number of wives was prevailing before Islam without any imposition of limits.

It was the Holy Quran which stopped this great injustice prevailing in the human society at large. It restricted the plurality or multiplicity of wives by declaring that keeping more than four women under the bond of marriage was forbidden (haram). In addition to that, the stern warning was given against any contravention of the Divine command which emphatically demanded that equality in fulfilling the rights of women taken into the bond of marriage at the same time must be maintained faithfully.

This particular restriction of the Holy Quran was made much more clear by a ruling given by the Prophet (PBUH). It has been reported that soon after the revelation of this verse, a person by the name of Ghailani ibn Aslamah Ath Thaqafi embraced Islam. At that time, he had ten wives who had also embraced Islam. Pursuant to the Quranic injunction, the Prophet (PBUH), asked him to select and retain four and release the rest by divorcing them. Ghailani ibn Aslamah Al Thaqafi obeyed the command, retained four women and severed his marital link with the rest (At Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah).

Citing another incident appearing as a complement of this very narration in the Musnad of Imam Ahmad will not really be out of place as it also relates to the rights of women.

According to this report, Ghailani ibn Aslamah had retained four women in accordance with the rule of Shari’ah, but during the Caliphate of ‘Umar (RA), he divorced them as well and distributed all his assets among his sons. When Sayyidna ‘Umar found this out, he summoned him and said: “You have done this to deprive these women of your inheritance which is a gross injustice. So, revoke the divorce you have given to them right now and take your assets back from your sons, and if you do not do this, then beware of severe punishment.”

Why Did the Prophet (PBUH) Marry Multiple Wives?

Right before the eyes of the Quraysh tribe of Makkah, the Prophet (PBUH) led a blame-free life in a way that he, when he was just twenty-five-years-old, married an aged widow with children (who had been widowed once and divorced once) and lived with her for the next twenty-five years of his life. It was also during this period that he used to leave home, sometimes for as long as a month, and stay in seclusion at the Cave of Hira devoting his time to the remembrance of his Lord.

All his marriages came after he was over fifty years old. The first fifty years of his life, especially his younger years and his youth, were all too visible to the people of Makkah. Nobody, not even an enemy, ever found an occasion to point an accusing finger at him about anything that could put his pristine piety and purity in doubt. His enemies tried whatever arrows they had in their quiver. They accused him of being a magician, a sorcerer, a poet, a madman, a liar and a fabricator. But, they never dared say anything, not one word, about his innocent life, about whatever could refer to any crookedness of extra-marital sex or passion.

Under these conditions, would it not be worth exploring as to why someone who had spent fifty years of his life in such righteousness and piety and in such peaceful abstinence from the good things of life, would be compelled to marry more than once? What was the urge? Anyone with the least fund of justice in him would not see any other reason behind this plurality of such marriages as being stated here. Now, let us go a little farther. Let us look at the very reality of these marriages as to how they came to pass.

From the age of twenty-five to the blessed age of fifty, Khadijah (RA) lived with him as the only wife. Summarily, we see that the Prophet (PBUH) lived with only one wife up to the age of fifty-four years. It wasn’t until after the death of Khadija (RA) that the Prophet (PBUH) married his other wives.

It is worth mentioning here that, out of all the wives he had, there was only one who was married to him as a virgin, that is, Aisha (RA). Other than her, all wives, may Allah sanctify their honour, were widows with the exception of Zainab bint Jahsh (RA) and Maimoona bint Harith (RA) who were divorced. Some of them were the ones who were already married twice and their husbands had died. This plurality, incidentally, came to pass in his later years as a responsibility on him to take care of multiple women who at the time had no spouses to cater to them. Many women lost their husbands to war while many others were divorced and single. It is reported that he even relinquished his right to sexual intercourse with some amongst them.

If he was so inclined towards fulfilling his lust, he would have married none but virgin wives. In fact, there was nothing stopping him from keeping a wife for one or two months and then taking new ones in their place. But, he never did this.

Does Islam Encourage Polygyny?

The answer is No! Polygyny is merely allowed and is not the preferred choice. The basic rule in Islam is monogamy, which means that each man marries a single woman. However, Islam does permit polygyny in order to accommodate certain circumstances where it is a better option, and as a way to reduce the number of secret affairs and illicit relationships that exist in every society. Islam simply allows these relationships to become legitimate and open, if certain conditions are met, and if the rights and interests of all parties are protected.

In fact, Islam discourages from polygyny, because it teaches that a man who is married to more than one woman must achieve a perfect balance between his wives financially and in terms of his time. The Quran explicitly instructs Muslim men that if they are afraid they will not be able to be just between their wives, then they are to marry only one woman.

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].” Noble Qur’an 4:3,

When we examine this verse of the Qur’an, we are quick to find that having more than one wife is permissible only on the condition that equality can be maintained among all wives as required under the Shari’ah, and that the rights of all can be duly fulfilled. If one does not have the capability to discharge his obligations in this manner, the rule is to keep to only one wife.

According to Majority of the scholars, most especially the Hanbali and the Shaafi’i schools of jurisprudence, it is recommended for a Muslim man to have only one wife, even if he may act justly between more than one woman.

Ash-Shirbeeni from the Shaafi’i School of jurisprudence, said: “It is a Sunnah not to marry more than one wife if there is no apparent need.” [Mughni al-Muhtaj 4/207].

Al-Maawardi, from the Shaafi’i School of jurisprudence, said: “Allaah has permitted a man to marry up to four wives, saying: {…two or three or four…}, but Allah advised that it is desirable for man to marry only one wife, saying: {…But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one}” [al-Hawi al-Kabir 11/417].

Ibn Qudaamah from the Hanbali School of jurisprudence, said in Ash-Sharh Al-Kabeer: “It is more appropriate to marry only one wife.

The author of Al-Muharrar, Barakaat Al-Majd ibn Taymiyyah] said this, based on the saying of Allaah (which means) {…But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one}.” [Ash-Sharh Al-Kabeer authored by Shams-ud-deen Ibn Qudaamah].

Imam Ghazali, from the Shaafi’i School of jurisprudence, stated: “It does not call for two wives, [since] plurality may render life miserable and disrupt the affairs of the home.” [Kitab al Nikah, Ihya Uloom ud Din]

Ash-Shaafi’i is of the view that it is desirable to confine oneself to marrying only one although it is permissible for him to marry more than one. This is to avoid being unfair by being more inclined to some of them than others or being unable to financially support them.

Shaykh Ibn Uthaymeen said: “It is safer to restrict oneself to only one wife. However, if one sees that one wife is not enough for him and he cannot maintain his chastity by having only one wife, then we enjoin him to marry a second, a third, or a fourth, until he feels comfortable, lowers his gaze, and enjoys peace of mind.” [Excerpt from Ash-Sharh Al-Mumti’]

These scholars felt that adherence to monogamy would minimise the risk of oppression because the requirement of meting out justice amongst a plurality of wives would be immensely challenging for any man. Therefore, they opined that it is preferable to avoid polygamy altogether, so one does not even come near the chance of committing the forbidden deed of dealing unjustly between the wives.

Is Polygamy a Woman’s Choice?

The stipulation that a man will not marry other wives besides a woman is a highly contested topic in Muslim communities. But according to the Majority of scholars, the shari’ah allows the wife to stipulate whether or not she’ll be willing to be part of a polygynous marriage.

This is based on the explanation that the provision for polygyny in Islam is merely a “right” which can only be exercised when certain conditions are met. If the man agrees to forego this right, then his covenant will be binding. Breach of this condition can therefore entitle the wife to annul the marriage contract.

According to Ibn Qudaamah (may Allah have mercy on him), it was narrated from ‘Umar (RA), Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqaas (RA) and ‘Amr ibn al-‘Aas (RA) that If a man stipulates that he will not take the woman out of her house or her city, or that he will not travel with her or that he will not take another wife, then he is obliged to fulfil that, and if he does not do so, then she has the right to annul the marriage.

Shaykh Ibn ‘Uthaymeen (may Allah have mercy on him) said: “If she stipulates that he should not take another wife, this is permissible.”  

Shaykh Saalih Al-Fawzaan (may Allah have mercy on him) also stated that “Among other conditions that are valid in marriage is if she stipulates that he should not take another wife. If he fulfils the condition (all well and good), otherwise she has the right to annul the marriage because of the hadeeth, “The condition which most deserves to be fulfilled is that by means of which intimacy becomes permissible for you.”


  1. Polygamy in the light of Quran: Tafsir of Surah An Nisa:3 from Ma’ariful Quran by Sheikh Muhammad Shafi’ Sahib.
  2. Opinions of Classical Islamic Scholars on Polygyny, Jewels from the Scholars by Samandar Sea
  3. Reasons Why Islam Permits Polygamy by IMRAN KHAN
  4. Marrying two, three or four women, Islam Web


TMWT is an online media platform spotlighting the stories of Muslim women of the past and present. We aim to be one of the most authoritative and informative guides to what is happening in the world of Muslim women. We hope to cover key issues, spark debates, progressive ideas and provocative topics to get the Muslim world talking. We want to set agendas and explore ideas to improve the lives and wellbeing of Muslim Women.

You may also like...

1 Comment

  1. F. A. Ali says:

    An insightful and educative piece. Thank you for this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *