Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Does Islam allow polygamy only if you can treat women fairly?

It seems yes, but….Surah 4:129 expressly states that you will not be able to deal fairly with all of your wives …

The Qur’an sanctions polygyny (from Greec polýs, "a lot", and gyné, "woman”, while polygamy from “polýs” and “gàmos”, “marriages”) under the condition that a person treats all of his wives fairly:

And if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards ORPHANS, then marry such women as seem good to you, two AND three AND four (mathna WA thulatha WA rubaAAa); but if you fear that you will not do justice (between them), then (marry) only one or what your right hands possess; …Surahh 4:1-4 Shakir

This passage is a bit perplexing and rather incoherent.
After mentioning the property of orphans and the fear of not being able to treat them fairly the text then goes on to mention marrying up to four wives. Is this a general injunction meaning that a person can marry any lawful woman? Or is it saying that a man can only marry up to four women from among the orphans? After all, Aisha herself said that this reference was initially given to address marriages with orphans:

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…" (4.3) The sub-narrator added: I think he (i.e. another sub-narrator) said, "That orphan girl was his partner in that date palm (garden) and in his property." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 60, Number 97) 

That he asked ‘Aisha regarding the Statement of Allah: "If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphan girls…" (4.3) She said, "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, "The people asked Allah’s Apostle his instructions after the revelation of this Divine Verse whereupon Allah revealed: ‘They ask your instruction regarding women.’ (4.127)" ‘Aisha further said, "And the Statement of Allah: ‘And yet whom you desire to marry.’ (4.127) As anyone of you refrains from marrying an orphan girl (under his guardianship) when she is lacking in property and beauty." ‘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 al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 60, Number 98)

the way Surah 4:3 is formulated there are three ways of understanding it: If you fear not to be able to treat the orphan girls fairly (in what regard?) then marry

(a) two, three or four of THEM (the orphan girls),
(b) two, three or four OTHER women (i.e. NOT those orphan girls), or
(c) two, three or four of ANY women.
However, if the latter option was meant, one wonders what does this have to do with orphan girls. After all, the statement is an "if ... then ..." construction, and one would expect that there is an obvious relationship between the two. This relationship is clearly missing, unless one wants to claim that only those who are in danger to treat orphans unjustly are allowed to become polygamous, while all others have to remain monogamous!!!. Even more: Why does this verse not even give the option of marrying only one woman, why does it start with the number TWO? Does that mean that all Muslims should marry at least two women, or only those who fear that they can’t deal justly with the orphans in their care have to marry at least two women? This injunction is very incoherent and raises more questions than it answers.{1}

Furthermore, is this reference suggesting that a man can have up to four wives, or is it saying that a man can actually have a total of nine wives at one time? In other words, did the author of the Qur’an use the Arabic conjunction wa (and) to mean the same as "or," i.e. that a person can have either two, three, or four wives at any time, but cannot exceed four? Or did he intend for his readers to understand by the conjunction that they can actually add up all these numbers so as to arrive at a total of nine wives at one time?

Some Muslims claim that it is lawful for a man to marry as many women as he wants. They use the following rationale:

1. "Marry of the women that seem good to you" is an absolute statement which embraces all numbers.
2. "Two, three, four" cannot be particularized for these numbers exactly, because one man can marry this number of women, and more above it. The verse is clear: marry whatever you want of women.
3. The Arabic wa ("and") implies the total of these numbers, which is nine. It can also mean eighteen.

They support their views with historical Islamic events:

Muhammad died while married to nine wives. It goes without saying that Allah commands us to "follow him," which implies nothing less than "permission."

Yet some Islamic theologians stress that only four are allowed. This is based on tradition: For instance, Ghilan became a Muslim with ten wives. The prophet said to him: "Keep four and depart from the rest." Nawfal b. Muawiya became a Muslim with five wives. Muhammad said to him "Keep four and depart from one." (True Guidance: Comments on Qur’anic Verses [Light of Life, PO Box 13, A-9503 Villach, Austria; First English Edition, 1994], Part 5, pp. 79-80)

Traditionally, Islamic scholarship has sided with the up to four wives interpretation which, unfortunately for Muslims, Muhammad expressly violated (Link;  Link)

There is another problem with this passage.
Surah 4:3 says that a man can marry more than one woman provided that he can deal fairly with them. Yet this next citation says a man will NOT be able to deal fairly with his wives:

..And if a woman fears ill usage or desertion on the part of her husband, there is no blame on them, if they effect a reconciliation between them, and reconciliation is better, and avarice has been made to be present in the (people's) minds; and if you do good (to others) and guard (against evil), then surely Allah is aware of what you do. You will NOT be able to be equitable between your wives, be you ever so eager; yet do not be altogether partial so that you leave her as it were suspended.
Surahh 4:127-130

Note the tension between these references:
Surah 4:3 states that men can marry more than one woman provided they can treat them all fairly.
Surah 4:129 expressly says that a man will not be able to deal fairly with all of his wives, and yet still permits him to have multiple spouses.

Hence, instead of telling the person to keep only one wife as a result of not being able to be fair with all of them, this reference basically justifies the unfair treatment of wives! It allows the man to have more than one wife even when he cannot deal justly with all of them, which expressly violates the stipulation of Surah 4:3 that a man cannot marry more than one woman if he cannot be fair. Because of this blatant contradiction, two different explanations have been proposed. One explanation is to suggest that Surah 4:129 revokes the permission to marry more than one wife. The other, more common explanation is to assume that fairness in Surah 4:3 refers to financial responsibility, that a man must provide for all his wives equally, whereas 4:129 is referring to a man’s inability to love all his wives the same. The late Muslim scholar Sayyid Abu A‘la Mawdudi sums all this up in his comments on Surah 4:129:

This means that it is not possible for a man to accord complete equality of treatment to two or more wives under all circumstances and in all respects. It is possible that one is ugly, the other beautiful; one is old, the other young; one is permanently sick, the other healthy; one is irritable, the other good-tempered. These and other differences are likely to make a person less attracted to one and more to another. In such circumstances, the Law does not demand that one should necessarily maintain absolute equality between the wives in respect of love, emotional attachment and sexual relationship. What it does demand is that if a husband does not repudiate marriage despite aversion for his wife, either because of his own desire or out of consideration for the desire of his wife, he should at least maintain a good relationship short of which his wife begins to feel if she is without a husband. In such circumstances, while it is natural that a person should prefer one wife to the other, this should not go to the extent that the woman remains, as it were, in a state of suspension, as if she were without a husband at all. Some point out that in this verse the Qur’an in one breath stipulates justice as the necessary condition for plurality of wives and in the other breath declares it to be impossible. On this ground they conclude that the Qur’an has itself revoked the permission to marry more than one wife. There is, however, absolutely no justification for such an inference. Such an inference would have been justified had the Qur’an merely said that: ‘You will not be able to treat your wives with (absolute) justice.’ But this statement has been followed by the directive: ‘… do not allow yourselves to incline wholly to one, leaving the other in suspense.’ This leaves no grounds at all for the blind followers of Christian Europe to force an interpretation of their liking on the verse. (Maududi, Towards Understanding the Qur’an: English Version of Tafhim al-Qur’an, translated and edited by Zafar Ishaq Ansari [The Islamic Foundation, Leicestershire, United Kingdom, Reprinted 2004], Volume II, Surahhs 4-6, pp. 91-92, fn. 161)

Mawdudi’s response failed to consider that Surah 4:3 makes no such distinction since it rather emphatically states that the condition for having multiple wives is fair treatment for all.

Moreover, many people are not aware that Surah 4:128-30 was addressing Muhammad’s failure as a husband, specifically in reference to his treatment of Sauda bint Zam’ah, who was one of his first wives after Khadijah’s death. Muhammad decided to divorce and desert her when she had become old and was no longer attractive.

We have already discussed this issue in the following posts.

Can an antecedent Ayah (verse) of the Qur’an abrogate a later one? 
Is the Qur’an clear, complete and not contradictory, about Muhammad’s multiple marriages?
Does the Qur’an allow Muhammad to marry more than the “usual “ four wives?
Muhammad’s Cruelty and Unjust Treatment of his Wives Exposed. Part I
Muhammad’s Cruelty and Unjust Treatment of his Wives Exposed, Part II

summarize all of the problems we have noted:

- The Qur’an says that marrying two, three and (or) four wives is permitted provided that they are given equal treatment, otherwise a person should marry only one wife.

- It is not certain whether this means marrying up to four wives, or whether these numbers are to be combined in order to arrive at a total of nine wives.

- It is also not certain whether this refers to marrying orphan women, that a man can only have more than one wife provided that he chooses them from among the orphans. Or whether this refers to women in general, that a person can marry more than one woman irrespective of whether she is an orphan or not.

- The Qur’an further says that a man will not be able to treat all of his wives fairly in a context that is actually allowing a person to keep his multiple wives. This is clearly a
contradiction within the Qur’an.

- Realizing this, two conflicting explanations have been proposed:
(a) Surah 4:129 has canceled out the right of Muslims taking more than one wife, which implies that Surah 4:3 has been abrogated. This explanation is an indirect admission that these texts are contradictory (a later Surahh abrogated by a former one?...).
(b) Surah 4:3 is talking about providing equally for all of the wives, whereas 4:129 is talking about not being able to love all wives the same. The problem with this explanation is that
the texts themselves do not make such distinctions. One will not find it stated anywhere that being just in one verse refers to providing financially for all wives whereas in the other passage it refers to loving them all equally. This interpretation is nothing more than ad hoc.

Muhammad, whom many Muslims claim was the walking Qur’an, failed to treat his wives fairly thereby violating the express command of Surah 4:3. He even wanted to divorce one of his wives named Sauda on the basis that she had gotten too old and was no longer attractive to him, something which is quite disturbing to say the least.

- Allah justifies Muhammad’s neglect of Sauda by allegedly sending down verses sanctioning it. Unfortunately,
this behavior by Allah’s "model for mankind" now provides a so-called divine sanction for other Muslims to mistreat wives whom they no longer find attractive.

Recommended Reading


{1} There is another interpretation proposed by a group of Qur’an-only Muslims. The writers at Free-Minds.Org
claim that S. 4:3 is permitting Muslims to marry the mother of those orphans whom they have been appointed as guardians over:

You must be the GUARDIAN to these Orphans and caretaker to their inheritance BEFORE even considering Polygamy. It is not just for a man to just pick children off the street and claim that he will marry their mother. The man must be the Guardian to the children appointed by their deceased father or because they (the Orphans) are from his blood. ...
1. Orphans placed in our guardianship are to be treated fairly.
2. If we fear biased-ness or unfairness in treatment, we MAY marry their mother.
3. We MUST pay their mother her dowry as in the case of a normal marriage.

The keen reader can see the obvious problem with this exegesis since
the verses in question make no mention of the mothers of the orphans! The word mother doesn't even appear in the Arabic text, yet the authors took liberty to insert this word in their version of the Qur’an in order to obscure this fact:

"You shall hand over to the ORPHANS* their rightful properties. Do not substitute the bad for the good, and do not consume their properties by combining them with yours. This would be a gross injustice. If you fear that you will not be equitable towards the ORPHANS*, then you may marry their mothers[sic]. You may marry two, three, or four. If you fear lest you become unfair, then you shall be content with only one, or with what you already have. Additionally, you are thus more likely to avoid financial hardship." (4/2-3) (underline emphasis ours)

The proposed explanation by these Muslims and their interpolations (more like willful tampering) to the text of the Qur’an simply provide further evidence of just
how incoherent this passage truly is.


1 comment:

  1. Your analysis of two different verses of Quran is weak. One verse is talking about dealing justly with your wives. A man’s obligation to treat his wives equally is concerned with supplying them with equal provision and equal division of time and just treatment. The later is talking about absolute equality. The verse in fact indicates that absolute justice between wives is beyond human capacity, for it involves exact equality in everything, even in the distribution of affection, love, and sexual satisfaction, which is beyond man’s power. A man may not help being attracted to one of his wives more than to the others; hearts are within the Hand of Almighty Allah Who changes them however He wills. [A man’s feelings are not subject to his will.