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Ayatollah Mutahhari’s Challengeable Question on Polygamy

In spite of that did you ever hear during your life from even one individual: “I want to marry a second wife, but I am afraid I may not be able to observe justice and equality between my wives, should I marry?”

As a matter of fact those individuals who can observe full justice with a number of wives are very few. In Islamic jurisprudence it is said: “If you fear that it may be harmful for you to use water, do not make the ablution. If you fear that the keeping of the fast is harmful for you, do not keep the fast.” These two rules of jurisprudence are known to everybody. You might have heard people saying: “I am afraid water will harm me, should I make the ablution? I am afraid that fasting will be harmful to me, should I fast?” Certainly these questions are valid. These persons should not make the ablution and should not fast.

Nevertheless, it is ordained in the Qur’an: “If you fear that you shall not be able to behave justly among your wives, do not have more than one woman as your wife.” In spite of that did you ever hear during your life from even one individual: “I want to marry a second wife, but I am afraid I may not be able to observe justice and equality between my wives, should I marry?”

I have never heard anyone saving this and I am certain that you also have not heard this. If is so easy. Our people in the full knowledge and with full intention that they will not behave with justice, marry several wives, and do it in the name of Islam and under the cover of Islam. These are the people who misrepresent and discredit Islam by their mischievous deeds.

If these persons who act according to the custom of polygyny would at least fulfill this one condition, there would be nothing objectionable in it.


The other reform that Islam enforced was that it made it a condition that there must never be, for any reason, discrimination between the wives or their children. The Qur’an most explicitly commanded:

خِفْتُمْ أَلَّا تَعْدِلُوا فَوَاحِدَةً

If you fear that you will not be equitable, then only one (wife) (4:3)

In the pre-Islamic world there was no regard for justice in any respect, neither as regards the wives themselves nor as regards their children. In a previous section we quoted from Christenson and others that in the Sassanian era in Iran polygyny was customary, and that the people believed in discrimination between wives as well as between their children. The distinguished wives were called “padshah-e zan” and they had full rights, while the other wives were called “chakir-e zan” etc. (servant wife), and their legal status was lower. The children of chakir-e zan if males were accepted as sons in the house of their father, and if daughters, were not accepted at all.

Islam abolished these customs and usages. It did not allow a lower legal status for any wife or for any of her children.

In the first volume of his The Story of Civilization, Will Durant writes, concerning the discussion of polygyny: “As the wealth of someone gradually reaches sizeable proportions, and he becomes anxious that, since his wealth will be divided into many parts, the capital of each of his children will be small, this person begins to think that he should distinguish between his original and favorite wife and his concubines, so that his legacy may become the exclusive lot of the children of his original wife.”

The result of all this is that discrimination between wives and their sons was a common thing in the ancient world, but what is surprising is that Will Durant then says, in his own word:

“Up to the present generation, roughly, marriage was of this kind in the Asian continent. Gradually the original wife takes the role of the exclusive wife, and other wives either become secret loves or else disappear altogether.”

Will Durant did not notice, or did not want to notice that it is now fourteen centuries since under the auspices of Islam, the custom of discrimination between children was abolished. The keeping of one as the main wife, and the other as secret loves is the European custom and not the Asian. This custom has of late been contagiously transmitted to Asia.

In any case, the second reform that Islam enacted was that it put an end to all discrimination, whether between the wives or between the children.

According to Islam, favoritism in any form and in any manner between the wives is not permissible. The jurists of Islam are almost unanimously of the opinion that discrimination among wives in any respect is impermissible. Only a few groups among the jurists of Islam have interpreted the rights of wives in such way which is conducive to discrimination. I feel no hesitation in saying that this view is not correct, and is against the meaning of the above Qur’anic verse. The Holy Prophet said one thing about this which both Shias and Sunnis have referred to and quoted. The Prophet said: “Anyone who has two wives and does not behave with them with justice and shows more inclination to one than the other, he will be resurrected on the Day of Judgment, and one side of his body will be dragged along the ground till at last he shall enter the Fire.”

Justice is the most excellent human virtue. To make justice a condition means requiring that people attain the highest moral strength. When we look with due attention at the fact that generally the emotions and likes of a husband are not alike, we can see that uniformly similar treatment towards each of his wives, observing justice and abstaining from discrimination, should be regarded as one of the most difficult tasks for a husband.

We all know that the Holy Prophet in the last ten years of his life, that is, during the period he was in Medina, which was the period of the Islamic wars when there were many unmarried women amongst the Muslims, married several women. Most of the wives of the Holy Prophet were widows and were of advanced age, and most of them had children by their deceased husbands. The only virgin whom he married was ‘A’ishah, who used to boast with other wives only on this count, saying that she was the only woman whom no husband, except the Holy Prophet, had touched.

The Holy Prophet observed the utmost justice with regard to each and every one of them, and never discriminated in favour or against any one of his wives in any respect, ‘Urwah ibn Zubayr, the son of ‘A’ishah’s sister questioned his aunt about the behavior of the Holy Prophet with his wives. A’ishah said: “The Prophet as a rule never discriminated against any one of us as opposed to another. He treated everyone of his wives in a scrupulously just and uniform manner. It was very seldom that he did not call daily on each and every one of his wives to enquire about her welfare. There was a rota system for every one of his wives but he did not fail to enquire about the welfare of others, and then he would pass the night in the residence of the wife whose turn it was. If it was not the turn of a wife, but it happened that the prophet waited to stay with some other wife, he used to come and formally seek the permission of the wife whose turn it was. If she allowed him, he used to go otherwise he would not. I was personally of the attitude that whenever the Prophet sought my permission, I always turned down his request.”

The Prophet even during the illness which resulted in his death, when he had no strength to move about, acted with full and complete justice. To observe justice and in compliance with the rota rule, his bed was taken each day from room to room, till one day he assembled all of his wives and sought their permission to stay in one room, and every one of them allowed him to stay in the room of ‘A’ishah.

‘Ali Ibn Abi Talib (a.s.) in the days when he had two wives, even if he wanted to perform his ablution, would not perform it in the house of the wife who turn was not on that day. Islam is so particular about justice that it does not allow one even to make a proviso on the occasion of the marriage contract with the second wife that she should live with unequal status and with unequal living conditions as compared to the first wife. This means that in the view of Islam the observance of justice and equal behavior is an obligation from which a husband cannot be absolved even by a condition arranged with the second wife. Neither a man nor a woman has the right to put in any proviso to that effect in the marriage contract.

The second wife can do this much: she can in practice, dispense with her rights but she must not agree to the condition that she does not have rights equal to the rights of the first wife. Just as the first wife also can willingly and voluntarily relinquish her rights, but she must not take any legal step to the effect that she shall have no rights.

Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (a.s.) was questioned as to whether it was possible for a man to make it a condition with his wife that he would call on her only for one hour a day, or meet her only once a month or once a week or make it a condition with her that he would not give her full maintenance equal to his other wife, and for the wife herself to agree to those conditions from the beginning? The Imam ordained. “No. Such conditions as these are not permissible. Every woman, by virtue of the marriage contract, automatically and compulsorily creates the full rights of wifehood for herself. The only thing that is permissible is that after the marriage any wife can in practice give up, of her own free will, all or part of her rights, to seek the pleasure of her husband, so that he might not repudiate her, or for some other reason”

Polygyny with this strict and severe moral condition, instead of being a source of sensuality for man, takes the shape and form of the performance of a duty. Sensuality and lasciviousness is compatible only with complete liberty and free indulgence in one’s desires. Sensuality takes the form of action when man delivers himself to the dictates of his heart, and his heart is over powered by alluring desires and fancies. The heart and its desires do not obey logic and do not reckon limits. Where the question of discipline, justice and the performance of a duty come in, sensuality and licentiousness should be done away with. These are the reasons that polygyny with its Islamic conditions, cannot in any way be regarded as a source of licentiousness.

Those who have made polygyny a source of indulgence in sensuality have made the Islamic law an excuse for a misdeed. Society has the right to take them to task, penalize them, and take that excuse out of their hands.


About Ali Teymoori

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