- Putting the record straight
The polygamy debate has made yet another comeback, thanks to Iqrar Ul Hassan who is famous for fittingly titled Sar e Aam. Predictably the feminists are up-in-arms. Another outraged demographic is that of wives – some are so annoyed that innocent bystanders could be forgiven for believing that it was their own husbands who had been guilty of taking a second wife.
This has for a long time been a touchy subject outside the Arab world. The Arabs have always been less sensitive about it, but even for them there’s a time and a place for such things. One of the author’s Egyptian friends (who will remain anonymous) recounts the festivities at his wedding ceremony in Alexandria back in 2003. One activity involved quizzing the bridegroom about the contents of the Quran (as is a custom there). After successfully negotiating two or three questions, he was asked this: Mention a verse in the Quran that contains the word ‘two’. Now there are many such places in the Quran, and to an Arab who naturally knows what any given verse means, it ought to have been a cinch. Had he not experienced what is known as a brain freeze, that is. One verse kept surfacing in his mind again and again, and for the life of him he couldn’t think of another. The clock was ticking and the pressure mounting; and he had a difficult choice to make: either acknowledge in front of his family, friends, and the in-laws that his knowledge of the Book was not up to the mark; or risk answering the question with a verse that was not quite appropriate for the occasion. He decided that the former was not an option. Throwing caution to the wind, he recited 4:03 (“…marry of the women who seem good to you, two, three or four…”) Quite a few eyebrows were raised that day, but the more important reputation was preserved. For the record, the author’s friend still has just the one (original) wife.
The context of 4:03 makes it clear that rather than addressing the issue of polygamy per se, the verse principally deals with the issue of orphans, and the matter of number of wives only comes incidentally. Polygamy was widely being practiced already; and if anything, the Quran restricted it by imposing two conditions: one must be just with all one’s wives (“…if you fear you cannot do justice, then marry one only…”); and the number must not exceed four.
The feminists of course don’t like it one bit. The argument from outside Islam is simply this: why not give the same allowance to women as has been given to men? Sounds great, although the author has yet to know a woman who admits to wanting more than one husband at a time. This is not to say of course that such women don’t exist somewhere.
There’s another group of objectors (consisting of women and/or feminists) however, that places itself inside Islam and therefore tries to prove its point from the Quran. The argument takes the form of special pleading, where verse 4:03 and the first half of verse 4:129 (“You will not be able to deal equally between your wives, however much you wish to do so”) is pressed into service. It is then claimed that since the Quran itself concludes that the necessary condition can’t possibly be fulfilled, therefore there’s no room for polygamy after all. It becomes immediately clear upon consulting the Quran that suppression of the second part of the verse is deliberate, since it undoes the whole argument. It is left to the reader to see what the second part of the verse says.
The feminists of course don’t like it one bit. The argument from outside Islam is simply this: why not give the same allowance to women as has been given to men?
This sort of reasoning has implications far broader than the issue of polygamy, for if the above argument is sound (which it isn’t by any means) then it would mean that the Quran in one place allows something subject to fulfilment of a certain condition, but in a sperate place it states that the condition is impossible to fulfill, therefore contradicting itself.
The Quran famously challenges its sceptic with: “Will they not then ponder on the Quran? If it had been from other than Allah, they would have found therein many inconsistencies.” (4:82). Verse 4:03 is sometimes cited by critics of the Quran by way of an answer to this challenge. It is claimed that there’s inconsistency in the Quran because it tells (within one verse) the Muslim man to marry up to four women at a time, and then to marry only one woman. Those who offer this argument fail (or choose to fail) to see that the one is a qualification, whereas the other is a limitation. There’s no contradiction at all.
Of course, the ‘devout’ too are often guilty of exaggeration in this matter. When they claim that it’s somehow noble, or Islamic, to practice polygamy. It would be much more accurate to say that the Quran has not forbidden the practice of polygamy. Claiming anything more in favour of polygamy is not defensible.
PS: The above is just to put the record straight. The author’s personal views on polygamy are:
Muqaam-e-shauq tere qudsion ke bas ka naheen
Unhi ka kaam hai ye, jin ke hausle hain zeyaad