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Polygamy is a “system of marriage in which one person has more than one spouse” (Russell and Cohn 23). There are two types of polygamy namely, polygyny and polyandry. In polygyny, a man is “allowed to marry more than one woman at the same time” (Russell and Cohn 36). In polyandry, a woman is allowed to get married to more than one man at the same time.
Polygamy is one of the oldest cultural practices that can still be found in most cultures. However, different religions have different views concerning polygamy, especially, in the contemporary society. This paper discusses the practice of polygamy in Islam by highlighting its historical and cultural background. It will also compare the practice of polygamy in Islam and Christianity.
The Quran allows the practice of polygamy among Muslims. It allows men to “marry women of their choice in twos threes or fours, but if they (men) fear that they will not be able to deal justly with many women, then they should marry only one” (Philips and Jones 67). This statement shows that Islam allows polygamy only on the condition that the man is able to remain fair to all his wives. In this context, a polygamous man must spend his resources equally among his wives, and love all of them equally (Jones 61-79).
Given the difficulty in showing impartiality among women, some Muslim scholars believe that Muslims should be monogamous. However, most Muslims believe that the impartiality rule is only meant to strengthen polygamous marriages by preventing dissent and conflicts. It is important to mention that Islam allows only polygyny and prohibits polyandry. Thus, in Islam the term polygamy is often used in reference to polygyny.
The historical context of polygamy in Islam dates back to nearly one thousand four hundred years ago when the Quran was revealed. Polygamy was permitted to address the social welfare problems that characterized the society during the revelation period (Philips and Jones 82). The Quran permitted polygamy to enable men to protect orphans rather than to satisfy their sexual desires.
To elucidate, the Quran urges Muslims to be fair to orphans (the fatherless) by protecting their interests in the society. It further states that if “a man is not able to deal justly with the orphans, he should marry women to take care of their needs” (Al-Moghamis 119). In this regard, the Quran allowed men to marry up to four women under the condition that they must show impartiality to them (Jones 61-79).
Originally, polygamy was allowed only in the context of taking care of orphans. In the 7th century, the society was characterized with violent confrontations that pitted Muslims against non-Muslims (Al-Moghamis 121). This led to lose of thousands of lives among men. Generally, men had a high mortality rate and their life expectancy was severely reduced. Consequently, thousands of women became widows, whereas most children became fatherless.
The verses in Quran that allowed polygamy were made public immediately after the battle of Uhud, which occurred in 625 AD (Khan 91). This war led to the massacre of a large number of Muslims, especially, the men who were on the battlefield. This led to a huge gender imbalance and increased socio-economic deprivation since most women at that time mainly relied on men to fulfill their socio-economic needs. In this context, polygamy became the best solution to address the socio-economic challenges that faced widows and orphans.
A polygamous relationship was allowed to enable widows to find trusted men to protect their properties and children. Thus, the original purpose of polygamy in Islam was to enable men to care for orphans, widows, and their properties.
Over the last three centuries, the practice of polygamy among Muslims has been influenced by social and cultural factors. To begin with, polygamy in Islam is a means of discouraging prostitution and extra marital affairs (Philips and Jones 117). Islam recognizes infidelity as a crime or a deviant behavior that should not be allowed in the community. Consequently, it allows men to marry more than one woman so that they can avoid having intimate or sexual relationships with women who are not married to them. In the modern society, polygamy in Islam serves as a means of preventing the spread of deadly diseases such as HIV/AIDs.
Polygamy is also allowed on practical grounds. Several studies and national census have shown that the number of women exceeds that of men in most countries. This gender imbalance is caused by various factors such as the participation of men in wars or violent crimes that lead to their death, as well as, the relatively long lifespan of women. The problem of homosexuality also reduces the number of men who are available for marriage. Given the existing gender imbalance, some women will not be able to find spouses if men are forced to marry only one wife.
This creates a dilemma in two ways. First, it is unfair to deny women the opportunity to enjoy sexual experience simply because they are not able to find men to marry them (Khan 131). Second, allowing women to have sexual relationships with married men violates Islamic teachings. Consequently, allowing polygamy is the only practical means of addressing the problem of gender imbalance without violating Islamic teachings.
Polygamy is viewed as an alternative to divorce in Islam. The Muslim community acknowledges the fact that marriages are bound to face difficulties that can lead to divorce (Al-Moghamis 152). This includes uncontrollable situations such as infertility and sickness among married women. In this case, Islam allows men to get married to other women without divorcing their first wife.
Islam also allows polygamy to address the challenges attributed to the difference in male and female reproductive cycles. Generally, a woman’s ability to have children begins to decline after the age of twenty and ends at menopause. However, men have the capacity to father children even at the age of seventy.
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Thus, polygamy enables men to have more children, especially, in agrarian communities in least developed countries where children are a source of labor. Islam also “prohibits sexual relations during a woman’s monthly cycle” (Khan 142). This can lead to extra marital affairs if the menstrual period is prolonged. Thus, Islam allows polygamy to enable men to satisfy their sexual desires within marriage.
Comparing Polygamy in Islam and Christianity
The realities of the contemporary society have led to acceptance of polygamy in Christianity in some parts of the world. For instance, some denominations or Christian churches in Africa accept polygamy. This practice arose from the fact that the African culture recognized polygamy as a legal system of marriage (Russell and Cohn 56).
Thus, accepting polygamy was meant to attract Africans to Christianity. In this context, Christianity is similar to Islam in that they both permit polygamy. Additionally, both Christianity and Islam discourage the abuse of polygamy. They only allow it to address social and cultural problems such as prostitution and protecting widows and orphans.
Despite these few similarities, Christianity greatly differs from Islam on polygamy. First, Islam has a clear guideline on the number of women that should be married to one man and how they should be treated. By contrast, Christianity lacks clear guidelines on how polygamy should be practiced (Russell and Cohn 73). Second, polygamy is universally recognized among Muslims. However, Christians are divided on whether polygamy is or is not supported by Biblical teachings. Generally, majority of Christians oppose polygamy and do not practice it. Third, Islam makes a distinction between polygyny and polyandry whereby the former is accepted and the later is prohibited. By contrast, Christianity does not distinguish between the two forms of polygamy. Thus, Christians can prohibit or allow any form of polygamy.
Failure of Polygamy in Christianity
Polygamy cannot work in Christianity because of several reasons. To begin with, the Bible does not provide justifications for polygamy. According to the teachings of the New Testament, “each man should have his own wife and each woman should have her own husband” (Al-Moghamis 61). Furthermore, the Bible urges leaders of the church to be married to only one spouse. This perspective is supported by the fact that God created only one wife for Adam as a sign that He supported monogamous relationships rather than polygamy.
Christian scholars opine that polygamy was allowed in the Old Testament by the Mosaic Law, but not through God’s approval (Al-Moghamis 66). Polygamy emerged after the fall of man, which led to incorporation of unholy practices in Christianity. Thus, polygamy is largely regarded as a sinful act among Christians.
Given the lack of consensus concerning the practice of polygamy in Christianity, most polygamous relationships are likely to fail in Christian communities. For instance, polygamous members of a church might be forced to divorce some of their wives in order to avoid excommunication (Al-Moghamis 94). Additionally, lack of Biblical guidelines on how polygamy should be practiced paves the way for emotional and physical abuse in polygamous relationships among Christians.
For instance, some women in polygamous relationships are likely to seek divorce if their husbands neglect them. Practicing polygamy in Christianity is also difficult because of the increasing misinterpretations of the Bible. For instance, both the churches that support and those that oppose polygamy claim to have Biblical evidence to support their stance. Undoubtedly, these differences result from misinterpretation of the Bible.
Polygamy is allowed in Islam to address the social and cultural problems that face men, women, and children, without violating the teachings of the religion. Initially, Islam allowed polygamy to enable men to protect widows and orphans. In the contemporary society, Islam allows polygamy to reduce deviant or unholy practices such as extra marital affairs. Unlike Islam, Christianity does not permit polygamy although some Christians practice it. Additionally, practicing polygamy among Christians is difficult because the Bible does not provide guidelines on how it should be practiced.
Al-Moghamis, Naser. Christinaity and Islam According to the Bible and the Quran. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2002. Print.
Jones, Rachel. “Polygamy in Islam.” Macalester Islam Journal 1.1 (2006): 61-79. Print.
Khan, Maulana. Polygamy in Islam. Goodword Books: London, 2001. Print.
Philips, Abu and Jameelah Jones. Polygamy in Islam. Riyadh: International Islamic Publishing House, 2005. Print.
Russell, Jesse and Ronald Cohn. Polygamy in Christianity. Boston: Books on Demand, 2012. Print.