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Polygamy to Monogamy

Unrestricted polygamy was a rampant practice in pre-Islamic 7th century Arabia, and many other non-Islamic societies that came after. The Qur'an sought to fundamentally limit and regulate the practice of polygamy in the context of meeting specific social needs:

"If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two or three or four, but if you fear you shall not be able to deal (with them equitably), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hand possess.’ (4:3)

Although commonly believed to justify a man's right to have up to four wives as he chooses, the literal context of the verse is, in fact, quite undeniable. The verse opens with reference to a specific historical context - "If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans..." 

Classical commentators acknowledge that this verse was revealed after the Battle of Uhud, where the deaths of large numbers of Muslim males left many women and children to fend for themselves. Far from advocating polygamy as a male-oriented solution to quench his sexual appetites, polygamy was offered as a solution to a particular social crisis, where large numbers of women, children and orphans found themselves alone and without support in a society that was already highly patriarchal: 

"Seek them in marriage with gifts from your property, desiring chastity, not lust." (4:24)

Thus, the verse opens with a conditionality - "If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice..." before suggesting polygamy. This is not, then, by any means, a universal injunction permitting men to engage in polygamy in all circumstances, but a highly contingent one related to very particular social circumstances . 

Once this conditionality is present, the next question is for the male to ascertain whether he would be able to entertain multiple marital relations with justice and fairness. The Qur'an express this fundamental condition by observing that "... if you fear that you may not be able to act equitably towards all, then marry only one." (4:3)

This conditionality of just and equitable treatment is no minor matter. It is so important that the Prophet said:

"He who has two wives but does not treat them equally and shows leaning towards one of them, will be raised on the day of Resurrection in such a state that one side of his body will be dragging along the ground. He will eventually go to Hell." (Cited in Yusuf Qaradawi, The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam, Islamic Book Trust, Kuala Lumpur, 2013, p. 211)

Further down in the same chapter, the Qur'an itself states unequivocally that no man will ever be able to actually treat their wives in polygamous relationships with the justice and equity that is already demanded as an essential precondition for permitting polygamy in the first place:

"You will never be able to deal equitably with all your wives, however much you may want." (4:129)

This verse should be read in direct context with the conditionality in 4:3: 

"... if you fear that you may not be able to act equitably towards all, then marry only one." (4:3)

Given that the Qur'an itself then confirms that men will not, in reality, be able to act equitably towards all their wives, despite sincerely desiring to do so, then the clear inference from the text is that the Qur'an is exhorting men to "marry only one."

So the Qur'an does not prohibit polygamy in a direct fashion, categorising it as a sinful act, but it does establish beyond doubt that monogamy is an ideal - and that polygamy is to be considered purely as a last resort to address an acute social crisis.

The maqasid of polygamy, then, was not to function as a universal right of men in all times and places, but to protect the rights of women and children in a grossly unequal and uncertain post-conflict environment. In this context, these verses appear to have offered a way of addressing a social problem. 

Today, if similar circumstances erupt in a post-conflict environment, it would be fair to say that there are a wide range of alternative solutions to polygamy in addressing the need to protect the rights of women, children and orphans. Given the importance of justice, the Qur'anic maqasid would appear to demand that those alternatives are exhausted before polygamy is considered a viable option. In the absence of similar such conditions as prevailed during the time of the verse's revelation, it is difficult to see how the text can be used to permit polygamy in general, without ignoring the Qur'anic conditionality stated right at the outset concerning an inability to "deal justly" with orphans.