Polygamy means a system of marriage whereby one person has more than one spouse. Polygamy can be of two types. One is polygyny where a man marries more than one woman, and the other is polyandry, where a woman marries more than one man. In Islam, limited polygyny is permitted and polyandry is completely prohibited.
The Quran quotes: 'Marry a woman of your choice in twos' threes' or fours' but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly, (with them), then only one'.
It also says: 'It is very difficult to be just and fair between women'.
One of the most important questions that we must first answer is this: Does Islam encourage polygyny? The answer is NO. Islam merely allows it, but does not encourage it. In fact, Islam discourages from polygyny, because it teaches that a man who is married to more than one woman must achieve a perfect balance between his wives financially and in terms of his time. The Quran explicitly instructs Muslim men that if they are afraid they will not be able to be just between their wives, then they are to marry only one woman. This justice is only achieved if the man is able to provide the same amount of time to each of his wives, and the same material lifestyle.
Whatever message the Quran delivers, is absorbed by the average Muslim without a question asked. But, the more practical ones have always looked for rationality in religious diktats. That's why the question "Why does Islam allow polygyny" becomes very significant.
Lets go to the basics first. The average life span of a human being has a sexual difference. The female sex is genetically destined to live longer. This variation in longevity differs from countries to continents. For eg. the Western women live 6-7 yrs more than their male counterparts while In India this difference is very minimal. The reasons for this variation are aplenty. The female hormones like estrogen confer a protective effect unlike the male testosterone.
Females XX as against Males XY have the added advantage of the extra X chromosome which can compensate for the abnormal mutation on one of the X.
Due to this difference, at any point of time, there would be more living females than males. Many of them would thus find themselves short of partners. This is how Polygyny finds it first rational explanation.
Recent research has revealed that up to 70% of men cheat on their partners but rates of women cheating on their husbands were lower. The reality of life thus is that there are a lot of men who are not monogamous, regardless of their faith. Monogamy is the practice of having only one partner. But what is very interesting is that men who cheat on their wives usually give the reason as being a craving for more sex and sexual variation. On the other hand, women usually cite a lack of emotional connection to their husband, or that a stronger emotional connection has developed with the man they are cheating with. This adultery is regarded as sin by Islam. Once a person falls into a life of sin, and if they feel that they will not be forgiven and there is no way out, they will continue to commit other sins, thinking that they have nothing to lose. In order to prevent this from happening to anyone, Islam allowed polygyny. It is only allowed, not obligated. So those men who are content with one wife can live happily without committing a sin. Those who are able to control this desire, are discouraged from polygyny because it comes with a heavy burden of having to ensure justice and equality between wives. However, for those men who feel it is necessary for them to marry more than one wife, Islam permits them to do so without feeling guilty about it, so they can live a life of honour and dignity like everyone else. They do not have to hide, and they do not have to have secret relationships.
The other woman having the affair generally has no rights. The man can have an affair with her and not give her any of his time, emotional or financial attention. He can simply stop seeing her at any time. If he has children from her, he may deny that fact and she may have to go to court to prove he is the father. All these problems do not exist when the Islamic system of polygyny is implemented. Thus, it protects the dignity of the other woman too and prevents her from becoming a " mistress".
Lets consider an instance where a couple is not able to conceive. Some men may be able to live with this situation. Others may wish to try other solutions such as "test tube" babies or having another woman carry the baby for the couple. Others may pursue adoption of an orphan. However, some men will want to have children by a natural birth. Without polygyny, such a man either has to live the rest of his life having been deprived of this opportunity to be a father, or would have to divorce his wife and marry another woman who is able to have children. Both are very painful options. In such a case, polygyny may be a good solution whereby the couple can continue their loving marriage. and the man can enjoy the feeling of having natural biological children. In such cases the second wife generally is either a divorcee or widowed or having other issues that would make it difficult for her to get married. So, for her being a second wife is also a great option because she may otherwise have not had the opportunity to get married at all.
Another situation to consider is a man whose wife becomes seriously ill, such that she is not able to have sexual relations with her husband. It is difficult for a man to continue to live for a long period of time without satisfying his sexual needs. In such a case, without polygyny the man will either have to suppress his sexual desire, or will more likely have an affair, or he will simply have to divorce his sick wife and get married to another woman. All of these options are bad. Polygyny provides an option where the wife can continue to get the love, emotional and physical support of her husband. The husband can continue his relationship with his sick wife and provide her all the support he possibly can. At the same time, he is able to fulfill his sexual desire.
In certain societies, children provide support for their tribes and their parents, and so maximizing the number of children is essential. Polygyny is used in those societies, regardless of their faith, in order to achieve this. There are also other places in the world where brutal wars have been going on for many years, and the life expectancy of men is many years less than that of women. . This results in large numbers of widows and orphans. In those places, it is sometimes not easy or even possible for a woman to work in order to support herself and her children. The only option they have is to practice polygyny in order for those widows and orphans to be taken care of.
But why does Islam not allow women to marry more than one man???
First, it would be difficult to determine the father of any children that such a woman would have. Recently, DNA testing can be used to determine this. Polygyny does not have this problem. It is easy to determine with full certainty who the two parents of the child are. Additionally, the family structure becomes impossibly complex if both men and women are allowed to marry multiple spouses. For example, if a man marries four women, and each of those women marries four men, there would be 21 people in this family! If those men are also married to four women each, the family gets even bigger! And this marital chain can continue with no end, resulting in a complex situation that would not be manageable.
The message that is conveyed through this write up is not that polygamy should be encouraged. But it just provides some insight into this highly controversial concept as to why a religion would ever endorse and justify such a practice. The critics would rant and damn this proposition that it has a very heartless attitude towards the first wife. Also, there always is a notion that it would promote debauchery. However, even though it has many disadvantages, Islam would prefer Polygyny over adultery.
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