Polygamy and Interfaith Marriages

By Sh Allie Khalfe (The IslamicText Institute), 2021-05-03

Polygamy and Interfaith Marriages are another set of important topics we need to be educated about. I recently shared some thoughts on a platform titled “SecondWifedotcom”. I would like to share these points here and I pray it will be of some benefit, Inshallah. Please take the time to read and may Allah bless you.

1. The first point I would like to share is that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ never married a second wife while he was married to his beloved wife, Sayyidah Khadijah al-Kubra (r.a), and this was for 25 years until the day she died. The wives he married after she passed away were all through divine commandments. These were for important reasons and none of them for pleasure at all. All of them except the youngest, Sayyidah ‘Aisha (r.a), were previously married and thereafter divorced, some twice before and most were elderly and non-virgin women. Sayyidah ‘Aisha (r.a) recalled, “I never felt jealous about any woman as I did for Khadijah. She had died three years before I married the Prophet ﷺ. He mentioned her so often, and Allah ordered him to give her glad tidings of her palace in Paradise…” This is key for us to understand as it foregrounds his immense compassion and extraordinary character in upholding her memory even after her death.

2. The Quran speaks about both interfaith marriages and polygamy (Quran, 4:3; 5:5). In the latter we read, “marry of the women who seem good to you, two or three or four…” The expert commentators of the Quran (Mufassirūn) say that polygamy occurs in conjunction with situations involving widows and orphans. This understanding seems entirely lost by modern commentators who ignore the context. As a result we find ourselves in desperate need of contextualising the culture and society in the Arabian Peninsula back then. Women were treated badly in those days and due to the barbaric and ignorant ways of people in power, the age took on the name, “The period of Jahiliyyah.” Women were placed in betting pools and married off as commodities. Women were even married off to their own brothers. One of the most graphic verses in the Quran tells us how some people sadly and hurtfully buried their infant girls alive. They held a female first born to be a token of bad luck and frowned upon it. We are reminded in stark fashion in the Quran that these innocent girls will stand in unison on the last day demanding an explanation, “For what crime were we killed?” (Quran, 81: 8-9).

3. Islam did not introduce polygamy but rather curbed it. It came to raise the status of women to such heights that paradise lies at the feet of our mothers. Women according to Abu Hanifa have the right to run businesses and rule lands. Sayyidah Khadija (a.s) ran her own business, employed men to trade on her behalf and it was this lady who sent through a proposal of marriage to the then 25 year old Muhammad. Believe it or not, according to Abu Hanifah, a woman can get married without the consent of her guardian (wali), not that it is practised but that was his conclusion. During that Jahili period, men would marry over a dozen woman at a time, so Islam came to put limits on this custom that predated the Message of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.

4. The dignity bestowed upon all human beings (al-karāmat al-insāniyyah) is one of the defining universal principles of Islam. Those who violate it only do so at the expense of violating the very essence of this beautiful and liberating dīn. The rulings on interfaith marriages and polygamy came to honour woman, not to satisfy base desires. It was never and can never be a means for men to gain pleasure at the expense of women. The jurists (fuqahā) were extremely careful and always considered the wāqi´ i.e. real world context and nexus between time (zaman), place (makān), the people (ashkhās) and the conditions (ahwāl), when speaking on behalf of the religion (dīn) and when issuing legal edicts. It is well-known that the manner in which people speak, dress, behave and marry, differs from place to place and epoch to epoch. Imam Ghazali, for example, says in his Ihya that in his time, “It is recommended to speak while eating, especially about the pious so that lessons may be learnt during the meal.” He goes on to say that “talking about God during one’s meal is better than silence.” Our custom may be different but from these differences we learn so much about the cultures of people, which Islam never came to wipe out, but rather revitalise and welcome.

5. When the Quran and Sunnah are stripped from context then extremism and ignorance masquerade as religion. Religion is quickly distorted and abused when a topic is promoted in isolation, all the while ignoring a host of other principles it is directly connected to. One cannot read a part of the Quran or Sunnah without thoroughly checking if there are restrictions, recommendations or even prohibitions on the topic. There is a principle in the Qawā’id Fiqhiyyah (maxims around which law revolves) that states: “Al-Darar yuzāl” i.e. “Harm must always be removed” and “Lā darar wa lā dirār” i.e. “Harm must not be inflicted.” Now if one’s first wife is hurt psychologically or emotionally by her husband taking a second wife, is this justice at all? What happened to the symbolism of “they are your garment and you are their garment” (Quran, 2:187). There is another Usuli Principle called “Al-‘Urf” i.e. “The Custom of the Society.” Does our climate encourage taking a second wife? Perhaps in some situations but not generally as our woman today are not accustomed to this ancient Arab practice. How can one break down the entire mind and heart of one’s first wife and take another without her consent at least? In the Hanbali madhhab it is permitted for women and their guardians (awliyā) to stipulate a condition (shart) in the marriage contract that the husband may not marry a second wife against her will. Ibn Taymiyyah says that this view is upheld in the Maliki School as well. (Majmūʻ al-Fatāwà 32/170). On the other hand a divorced woman left to fend for herself and her children may need the security and support of a partner and here the benefit of marrying a second wife is realised.

6. Sayyiduna ‘Umar (r.a) banned interfaith marriages at one point in time and likewise he prohibited the cutting off of the hand of the thief in times of famine. He did not go against the Quran but rather applied a principle referred to as “Sadd al-dar’āri” i.e. "blocking the means" as he saw the difficulty the children experienced after their Muslim father died. Do they adopt the faith of the Christian or Jewish mother or the Muslim father? There is after all “no compulsion in religion.” (Quran, 2:256). ‘Umar (r.a) also applied what would later be termed “Istihsān” i.e juristic preference for the benefit (maslaha) of the people. These were people endowed perceptiveness, profound insight, sound knowledge and justice coupled with deep insights into the well-being of people. There is no doubt regarding ‘Umar’s respect for woman. Once while rendering the Jumu’a sermon (khutbah), he said, “Do not be excessive in the dowry (al-mahr) of women.” A woman stood up during the proceeding and said, “You forbid what Allah permits? Allah says, “You are permitted to give a great amount (qintār),” (Quran, 4:20). ‘Umar knocked on his head and said out loud, “Indeed, a woman has proven ‘Umar wrong.”

7. As for the Jurists views on the matter, we find them presenting similar rulings as follows:

Polygamy is not an obligation (wājib); it is recommended (mustahabb); it is permissible (mubah); it is disliked (makruh); all depending on the situation and context. As for the Fiqh rulings, Imam al-Shāfi’ī said: “I prefer a man to limit himself to one wife, even though it is permissible for him to marry more.” (yaqtasira ‘alā wāhidah wa in ubīha lahū akthar). Imam Nawawi, a pillar of the Shāfi’ī school said: “And it is recommended to be limited to one wife out of fear of wronging them or failing to be just.” (khawfan al-jawr wa tark al-‘adl). Amongst the Hanbalis, Imam al-Bahūti said: “It is recommended not go beyond one.” (yustahabbu an lā yazīda ‘alā wāhidah). In summary, it seems the jurists rule polygamy as permitted (yajūz) in Islam but with strict conditions, one of them being that both wives are treated equally.

8. We need to become more aware of the central role played by the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ as the vehicle of revelation. His life is a clarification and explanation of the Quran, “He spoke not from himself; rather what he rehearsed was revealed to him.” (Quran, 53:3-4). Although Islam came to restrict polygamy to 4 wives, it doesn’t mean it is the encouraged position. Did you know that the Prophet ﷺ prohibited Sayyiduna ‘Ali (r.a) from taking a second wife while he was married to his daughter, Sayyidah Fatimah (r.a)? The narration in Bukhari states that the Prophet ﷺ ascended the pulpit and said: “Verily, the sons of Hisham ibn al-Mughīra sought permission to marry their daughters to ‘Ali ibn Abi Tālib. I do not give permission (repeated 3 times) unless ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib intends to divorce my daughter and marry their daughters. Verily, she is only a part of me. I am upset by what upsets her, and I am harmed by what harms her. (Bukhārī)

9. Again, in some contexts polygamy could be beneficial and this is why it is permissible with conditions. We must keep in mind that not all places, customs, cultures and contexts are the same. We should also empower ourselves with awareness of the severity of mistreating co-wives as numerous hadiths indicate that a man who is unjust with his wives will be resurrected with disfigured features reflecting his attitude in this world.

10. In conclusion, there is a big difference between Islam commanding the marriage of more than one wife, as some claim today, and Islam restricting an already common and unrestricted practice. I remind myself and all of us to respect our woman, mothers, wives, sisters and daughters, for our Prophet ﷺ made the measure of goodness in this life, tied to way we treat women, when he ﷺ said, “Honour woman; for I swear by God that none honours woman except the honourable and none despises them except the despicable.”

(أكرموا النساء، فو الله ما أكرمهن إلا كريم، وما أهانهن إلا لئيم)

Forgive me if I have said anything inappropriate. I pray these points are of some benefit.

Allah knows best and in Him alone do we find success.

Some comments

Farhaad Natha:
Fantastic post, this must go viral and on every platform

Hani du Toit:
We need more of this clarity of thinking and sound understanding to be amplified. Our women are suffering at the hands of ignorant lustful men, with willing imams, marrying them again and again, saying it’s their Islamic right. A sad state our Ummah is in. May Allah protect our sisters and guide our men to better.

Nazley Parker:
Spread The Knowledge,Spread The Deen Seperate Truth From Falsehood..

Ibrahim Ayad:
Excellent post, probably best I have seen on the issue. This should be made into an article or incorporated into books. Backed and grounded in true scholarship.

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