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Polygamy In Islam: Not A Rule

by Taha Jabir Al-Alwani

Dr. Taha Jabir Al-Alwani is President of the Fiqh Council of North America. 

In this society, women work like men and are financially independent. As a result, the law makes her financially responsible for herself during the period of separation. In cases where Muslim husbands and wives decide to separate, they should seek solutions outside the courts. It could be with the help of their elders or with respected members of the community in which they live, such as the imam or director of their local Islamic center. With the help of such people, they may be able to settle their differences. If they are unable to do so, they can at least settle their affairs, financial or otherwise, in accordance with both the Shari`ah and local laws.

If there is a possibility of danger that one of the marriage partners may physically threaten the other, then permission has been given by Allah, the Almighty, for women to complete their `iddah (the duration required for the divorce to become effective) period outside the home. Further guidance can be obtained from commentaries on the Qur'an (65:1-2) wherein, it is said:

"O Prophet! When you do divorce women, divorce them at their prescribed periods, and count (accurately) their prescribed periods: and fear Allah your Lord: and turn them out not of their houses, nor shall they (themselves) leave, except in case they are guilty of some open lewdness, those are limits set by Allah: and any who transgresses the limits of Allah, does verily wrong his (own) soul. Thou knowest not if perchance Allah will bring about thereafter some new situation. Thus when they fulfill their term appointed, either take them back on equitable terms; and take for witness two persons from among you, endued with justice, and establish the evidence (as) before Allah. Such is the admonition given to him who believes in Allah and the Last Day. And for those who fear Allah, He (ever) prepares a way out." 

The wisdom in asking the woman to remain in the home for that period is that both parties have a chance to reconsider their course of action. They could become aware of each otherís good points and perhaps, should Allah so will, reach reconciliation.

Some Muslims ask about maintaining polygamous relationships within the confines of the nationís laws. The institution of marriage in Islam is designed to foster a sound relationship between a husband and wife. This in turn could become the basis for a healthy and happy family atmosphere. It is in such an atmosphere that children may be raised in a way that allows them to acquire the best in terms of faith, practice, and character that Islam has to offer.

This, however, is not possible in homes where there is a multiplicity of relationships and all of the confusion that results from them. The situation becomes further complicated when one of the wives is publicly acknowledged, and the other, or others, are not. Such a situation is clearly not at one with the higher purposes of the Shari`ah, nor is it in the best interests of those involved. It is for these reasons that Muslims in North America and the West should avoid involvement in such relationships, especially when they almost certainly result in failure and misery. Any Muslim who has chosen to live in a country with its own customs, laws, and institutions, must attempt to find areas in which there is agreement between them and what he/she believes.

The legal presupposition in relation to marriage is that it takes place between a single woman and a single man. The Qur'an says:

"O mankind! Reverence your Guardian-Lord, Who created you from a single person, Created, of like nature, his mate, and from them twain scattered (like seeds) countless, men and women Ė fear Allah, through Whom ye demand your mutual (rights), and (reverence) the wombs (that bore you): for Allah ever watches over you." (4:1)

Polygamy should be understood as an exception to the rule rather than as the rule itself, regardless of whether this be at the societal level, or individual level. At the societal level, polygamy is permitted when the ratio of men to women is affected by such exceptional circumstances, including infertility. The perception, however, that the matter is wide open and that a man may take advantage of this permission simply to satisfy his sexual urge, is both incorrect and out of keeping with the higher purposes of the Shari`ah.

Muslims should be discouraged from this practice here in the United States not only for such ethical reasons, but also because it is illegal in all fifty states.

Muslim women should not allow themselves to fall prey to unscrupulous men who, in the name of Islam, seek only to give free rein to their sexual desires. Such men claim to be following the Shari`ah for as long as it suits them. If they find that American laws better serve their interest, they will be the first to turn their backs on the Shari`ah. The purpose of marriage must always be kept in mind: that it is a means to provide a loving home in which children may grow up as true Muslims. The sort of duplicity and self-serving attitudes that all too often accompany polygamy are anything but conducive to the creation of such a family atmosphere.

Posted October 22, 1998. This article is based on the responses provided by Dr. Al-Alwani to questions raised at a seminar organized by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) Women's Committee in Plainfield, IN, during November 1995. It was printed in the March/April 1996 issue of "Islamic Horizons"

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