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This is a serious concern for many people, and the root of it–ijtihad, or mutual interpretation of Islamic law–is extremely important.
Dr. Shabir Ally, from Let the Quran Speak, addresses this question in the video below:
“So what is polygyny?”
Dr. Shabir Ally:
“Well, this is when a man gets married to multiple wives, as distinct from polygamy which works both ways. And polyandry is when a woman has several husbands.
So in classical Islamic law, it was well-recognized that a man could marry up to four women at once.”
“And what is the traditional ruling or circumstance behind this?”
Dr. Shabir Ally:
“Well, it seems that in past civilizations, it was often advantageous for the society for men to have multiple wives because this led to a rapid increase in the population.
And tribes wanted to become larger very quickly because the larger the tribe, the more powerful they were perceived to be, and did actually become.
Whereas a woman may just have one pregnancy at a time, a man could be the father in many pregnancies all at once if he had many multiple wives. And so the population could rapidly increase this way.”
“So the verse in the Quran that basically allows this…?”
Dr. Shabir Ally
“Yes, of course. […] What specifically the Quran seems to be speaking about is that soon after the Battle of Uhud, when many Muslims had lost their lives defending the nascent Islamic community, there were many widows and also many orphans of these fallen soldiers left behind.
The society had not developed itself yet to become a welfare state. So who was going to take care of the widows and orphans?
The Quran naturally called on men to marry the widows of their fallen comrades in order not only to take care of the widows, but especially to take care of the orphaned children.
And so hence the Quran speaks in the fourth chapter in the third verse that starts out by saying… “if you fear that you will not do justice to the orphans…”
[…] Then it says, “if you fear you will not do justice to the orphans, then marry women who are suitable to you in twos and threes and fours, but if you fear that you will not do justice then only one”.
And so that there seems to be a particular situation there and the intention was to do justice by taking care of the orphans.”
“So… I know people here in Canada who do have more than one wife. So how do you explain this? We’re looking at this from a controversial perspective for women. What right does a woman have in this kind of a situation?”
Dr. Shabir Ally:
“So what has happened in classical Islamic law is that the the Quranic stipulation “…if you fear that you will not do justice to the orphans…” was ignored. And the idea that the man could have multiple wives was just simply taken as a blanket ruling.
And […] this, of course, is linked also to the idea that the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, himself had multiple wives.
So, ignoring the social context at the time, ignoring the fact that in past societies it was very common for men to have multiple wives, Muslim scholars have interpreted the practice of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and the Quran itself to mean that indefinitely, regardless of circumstances, a man could have up to four wives.
[They] take that as a blanket sort of ruling.
And that would explain why some even in Canada—despite the fact that Canadian law prohibits this—would go around the back of the law and behind the law and they would actually have multiple wives. now this leads to some disadvantages for women […]
We spoke about divorce previously and the ease with which a Muslim man in the classical tradition can issue a divorce.
And now if he has multiple wives then it’s still easier for him to divorce one because you know he divorces one and he’s still got up to another three.
If he’s angry with one, he does not have to go overboard to try and please her because […] he will find delight in the other three. So there are actually problems with this form of marriage.[…] So here is the situation: in 7th century Arabia, women had few rights, if any. Girls were being killed off because some parents thought it was a burden to have female children…
And so in that situation, Islam was actually uplifting the status of women: whereas women had very few rights, Islam started to introduce the rights of women.
But we shouldn’t see the Quranic revelation and the prophetic example as being like the final stage in that development.
It is a very important stage in that development; it’s actually an impetus towards a greater development in the future. So we should continue that development.
And what has happened is that the rest of the world continued to develop and advance the rights of women and Muslims have tended with the classical tradition to hold on to the way in which things were back in the 7th century of Arabia, the way it was established in the prophetic example and in the Quranic revelation.
And sometimes even ignoring some aspects of the Quranic revelation as we’ve seen in the case of the stipulation “…if you feel that you will not do justice with the orphans…”.
But we have tended to hold on to things as they were interpreted at a certain time up to a couple of hundred years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.
[…] We need to have a paradigm shift in which we look more holistically and we see that the Quranic revelation and the prophetic example did not mean to be the end stage in development.
Yes, it was perfect. But just as a perfect baby will develop and grow and increase in wisdom and knowledge and experience, so, too, the Muslim community–though having a perfect religion at the time–will continue to grow and develop and learn and improve on that perfection.
It will still be perfection, but in a different way and in a more fitting way given the present circumstances in which we live.”
I hope this helps answer your question. You can also check out more from Let the Quran Speak at the link here.
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(From Ask About Islam archives)
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