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Under the sharia law, marriage is seen as a social contract between a man and a woman that is legally binding. The faith does not encourage any type of monasticism or celibacy and instead promotes polygyny under the certain circumstances. This means that a man is permitted to have up to four wives at any given point in time. However, polyandry, which refers to a woman having more than one husband at a time, by contrast, is strictly forbidden.

The clause in the sharia law which permits such practice varies to a large degree throughout the Islamic world. In countries where the sharia law is more rigorously practiced and enforced we find that such martial jurisprudence is relatively common. However, in more liberal countries such as Azerbaijan, Israel, Tunisia and Turkey, where such laws have not been imposed as severely, such practices are very rare to come by but also unlawful. Tunisia is perhaps the only country to ban the practice on religious grounds, stating that the Qur’an does not support such actions. In fact, to date, the Qur’an stands as the only religious scripture to say ‘marry only one’ and it was only later that leaders of other religions restricted the number of spouses one could have.

So, if the Qur’an does dictate that you should only marry one, why then does polygyny exist in Islam?

The issue of polygyny was a way for Islamic states to address social problems such as prostitution and extra-marital relations which feature heavily in Western societies. In an effort to counter high divorce rates because of infidelity in Islam, the permission for a man to marry more than one wife allows this to be a offset due to the full recognition rights of all parties involved. Allowing for men to take responsibility for their behaviour towards women and vice versa.

Perhaps one of the most important issues that arose when trying to address social problems in Islamic states is the number of women that exceeded that of men. The surplus in previous decades is the result of wars and violence. The unbalanced gender ratios during times of conflict such as WWII led to 7.3 million more women in Germany than men. Out of this figure, 3.3 million were widows. During such times of strife and hardship not only was it necessary to have a romantic companion but more so a financial provider for the household.

Islamic scholars have also emphasised that the permission for a man to have more than one wife is only granted to those who are capable of emotionally as well as financially providing for each wife equally. They also obtain that the main purpose for the creation of such practice was for the sole purpose of taking care of women who were widowed but also children who were fatherless and even orphans. Thus, polygyny was introduced into the customs of religion as a charitable and honourable deed and rather than oppressing women and their children ensuring they were taken care of.

Has society progressed enough however, for the practice to be relevant today?

The emergence of feminism in Islam has been at the front of social reform recently. This was introduced when women realised that their roles in society could change by re-analysing the religious scriptures dictating Islamic society and ethics. This allowed women to a certain extent to break away from the patriarchal ties of Islamic society. Since, there has been considerable social reform for women’s rights in countries like Iran, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Even though, polygamy in religion has strong foundations as to why it exists, some countries such as Tunisia have banned polygyny on religious grounds and with the understanding that the practice was intended to be eliminated overtime.

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