The Issue

Re-examining Polygyny in Islam: Exegesis and Clarification

Polygyny remains one of the most controversial issues in the Muslim world. 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.

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 law and not polygyny as practised. A substantial part of this piece are excerpts from the works of scholars of Qur’anic interpretation 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 are agreeable to 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 during the Jahiliyah period, there was no limit to the number of wives a man could marry. The result was that a man sometimes married as many as ten women and, when he was unable to bear the expenses, he encroached on the rights of his orphan nephews or other relatives. For this reason, Muslims were restricted from marrying many wives and allowed to marry up to four only if 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 subjected them to injustice and oppression. For this reason, they were told that if they fear perpetrating injustice against orphans, they ought to be equally worried about doing the same to women. They were allowed to marry up to four but strongly advised to stick to one wife in order to do justice.

While these two views are valid, it is important to state that they are weak and 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, making it easy for the orphans to be maltreated.

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 from amongst the widows, 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. In short, the custom of taking a large number of wives was prevalent across the world before Islam without any imposition of limits.

The Quran stopped this injustice by declaring that marrying more than four women was forbidden. 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 polygynously married women must be maintained faithfully.

This Qur’anic restriction was made clearer by a Prophetic ruling. It was reported that soon after the revelation of this verse, a person called 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 retain four wives 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).

Another incident from the Musnad of Imam Ahmad relates to the rights of polygynously married women.

According to this report, Ghailani ibn Aslamah had retained four women in accordance with the law, but during the Caliphate of ‘Umar (RA), he divorced them as well and distributed all his assets among his sons. When ‘Umar found 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 older woman who had been married twice with children. They lived together for the next twenty-six 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.

The first fifty years of the Prophet’s life, especially his younger years and his youth, were all too visible to the people of Makkah. Nobody, not even an enemy, ever accused him of infidelity. 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 whatever they could refer to as any crookedness of extra-marital sex or passion.

Under these conditions, would it not be worth exploring why someone who had spent fifty years of his life in such peaceful abstinence from the good things of life, would be compelled to marry more than once? What was the urge?

Upon the death of his wife, Khadija (RA), the Prophet (PBUH) married other wives. All but one of his wives were widows with the exception of Zainab bint Jahsh (RA) and Maimoona bint Harith (RA) who were divorced. Some of them had children to cater for but lacked the wherewithal to do so. The responsibility to take care of these women fell upon the Prophet (PBUH). 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 young pretty virgin wives.

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, such as in times of war or to take care of vulnerable women, 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 that they will not be able to do justice 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,

The phrase ”or those your right hands possess” refers to the female captives of war, whose status would be elevated through marriage instead of being taken as slaves. Marriage, even if polygynous, was a better outcome for the war captives than slavery.

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 achieved, and that the rights of all can be duly fulfilled. If one does not have the ability to discharge his obligations in this manner, the rule is to marry 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 shari’ah allows the wife to stipulate whether or not she’ll be willing to be part of a polygynous marriage. She has the right to prevent her husband from marrying another woman .

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


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1 Comment

  1. F. A. Ali says:

    An insightful and educative piece. Thank you for this.

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