Polygyny Not Polygamy

Webster’s New World Dictionary defines polygamy as "the practice of having two or more wives or husbands at the same time."  Since Muslim women are not allowed to have two or more husbands, let’s find a better word:  polygyny.  The same dictionary defines polygyny as "a practice of having two or more wives at the same time."


Polygyny was practiced, often without limitations, in almost all cultures. Various religions approved of it and practiced it before and after Islam. Several of the Prophets, mentioned in the Torah and the Bible, had more than one wife.  Today it is being secretly practiced by at least 30,000 middle-class Mormons in the USA.  However, it is no secret that polygyny of another sort is also being practiced in America and Europe:  the practice of having a mistress or mistresses.  The difference is that while the non-Muslim male has no legal obligations or responsibilities towards his second, third or fourth mistresses and their children, a Muslim husband has complete legal obligations and responsibilities towards his second, third, or fourth wife and their children.

In Islam, there is no doubt that a second wife, who is legally married and treated kindly, is better off than a mistress who has no legal rights.  In addition, the legitimate child of a polygynous father, who has all the rights and privileges of a son or daughter, is better off than the unwanted or wanted illegitimate child.

As for possible reasons why polygyny is allowed in Islam, one should keep in mind that Islam is very practical in the way that it addresses life’s problems. It is a fact that wars usually take their toll mainly on men, leaving behind widows and women who can not find husbands. Polygyny provides a solution to this problem of a male shortage.

A man who discovers that his wife is barren or is chronically ill, but who wishes to have children of his own or satisfy his natural instinct in a legitimate way, while still caring for his first wife, could turn to polygyny as a solution. Allah (SWT) says in the Qur'an:

"And if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphan-girls, then marry (other) women of your choice, two or three, or four but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one or (the captives and the slaves) that your right hands possess. That is nearer to prevent you from doing injustice." (An-Nisa’ 4:3)

From this verse it becomes clear that polygyny is not mandatory, but is permitted and is Sunnah.  Dealing justly with one’s wives is an obligation and this applies to housing, food, clothing, kind treatment, etc.  If a husband is not sure of being able to deal justly with them, then he is commanded to marry only one.

Information  From Questions and Answers About Women’s Rights In Islam
Compiled By Lea Zaitoun

Polygyny in Islam

There is no doubt, that no woman relishes the thought of sharing her husband with another and that plural marriages provide a bases for jealousies to arise. However, the laws of Islam always give precedence to the general welfare of society over individual discomfort or personal preferences.  Hence, the Islamic marriage system includes polygyny to protect and provide for the ever present surplus or females in most human societies.  The institution of polygyny in the Islamic marriage system also takes into account certain undeniable aspects of human nature which affect male-female relationships. These aspects represent the natural instincts which must be present in order for men to be prepared and able to provide for the physical and emotional needs of the surplus females in society.

Conditions That Must Be Met

Certain conditions are attached to plural marriage in Islam, in order to protect the women involved because it is invariably the women who are taken advantage of in such relationships.  For example, a man may not have more than four wives at a time and each marriage contract is legal and binding, involving the same rights, responsibilities and obligations as the first contract. That is, wife number one is not the mother or chief of all subsequent wives, nor is wife number four allowed preferential treatment at the expense of the other wives.  Each individual marriage contract carries the same amount of weight in an Islamic court of law and thus men are not allowed to openly attach greater importance to one at the expense of the other.  Such behaviour would not be equitable treatment and might even be construed as oppression.

In fact the Prophet (SAW) was reported to have said:

"Whoever has two wives and leans unduly to one of them will come on the Day of Judgment with half of his body leaning." [Sunan Abu Dawud, Reported by Abu Hurairah (RA)]

So the man must live with all of his wives on a footing of equality and kindness.  In fact, the whole question of permissibility of plural marriages in Islam is tied to a given man’s ability to deal unjustly with all his wives in terms of his time and wealth.

Love and Marriage

Love, as it is known in the West, is not a prerequisite for marriage in Islam. Hence, the concept of plural marriages does not have as emotionally devastating an effect on true Muslim women as it would have on their non-Muslim counterparts, except where western influences are great. The most important factor in a truly Islamic marriage is the piety of the partners involved.  This fact was alluded to by the Prophet (SAW) in the following statement:

"A woman may be married for four reasons: for her property (wealth), her rank (lineage), her beauty and her religion.  However, you should marry the one who is religious and you will be satisfied."
[Sahih Al-Bukhari, Reported by Abu Hurairah (RA)]

Besides the reasons mentioned above, a woman may also marry for other reasons, such as security, offspring and companionship. However, love usually follows marriage, so it is better to marry a religious, pious, disciplined man and love for Allah’s (SWT) pleasure rather than to develop a pre-marital romantic fixation which often fades in time due to the inevitable trials of marriage.

Due to the emphasis on romantic love within western culture, it is difficult for people (Muslims included) to comprehend the concept of love after marriage; love for the sake of Allah (SWT) and love built on the virtues of loyalty, trust and faith in Allah (SWT).  According to Islamic tradition, the Prophet (SAW) and his companions married for a variety of reasons.  They married widows with children, divorced women and captives of war in order to consolidate and reconcile groups to the Islamic cause, in addition to marrying for the normal reasons which men marry for.

Islam as it was revealed to the Prophet (SAW) is a complete way of life which leaves no aspect of life without regulations, enabling Muslims whether male or female to stay on the correct path.  Hence, if a man is able to care for and take care of more than one wife justly, there is no sin on him if he does so. On the contrary, he should be commended for following the Sunnah of the Prophet (SAW) and fulfilling his role as a guardian of women.

Nevertheless, we must bow to the fact that love is destined by Allah (SWT) and can not be forced to appear where Allah (SWT) has not willed it. This situation is analogous to friendships which exist among members of the same sex.  We admit to having or having had deeper feelings for one or more of our friends than others, due to greater similarity in interests or greater compatibility for whatever reasons.  Similarly, parents may actually be fonder of one or more of their children than others among them;  however, parents usually refrain from showing this inclination openly and Islam forbids it. Nonetheless, our various friendships are not negated by an inevitable greater intimacy with some of our friends over others, nor does a greater inclination toward one child negate the love that is felt for all.  Man is unable to control his emotions in the ultimate sense.  They arise in him when he least expects them, hence, he can not willfully decide where his heart is going to lodge. The fact that man has no real control over love and affection is supported by a number of Qur'anic verses.  Allah (SWT) says:

"…and know that Allah comes in between a person and his heart…"
(Al-Anfal 8:24)

Allah (SWT) also says in the Qur'an:

"And He had united their (i.e. believers’) hearts. If you had spent all that is in the earth, you could not have united their hearts, but Allah has united them. Certainly He is All-Mighty, All-Wise." (Al-Anfal 8:63)

An illustration of this fact can be seen in a narration from Umar ibn al-Khattab  (RA) in which he said,

"When I once said, ‘O Messenger of Allah (SAW), what if I went to Hafsah (RA) and said to her, do not be misled because your co-wife and neighbour [Aishah (RA)] is more beautiful and beloved to the Prophet (SAW).’ He [the Prophet (SAW)] smiled approvingly." (Sahih Al-Bukhari)

In another narration, Aishah (RA) stated,

"Allah’s Messenger (SAW) used to divide his time equally amongst us and would pray, ‘O Allah, this is my division in what I possess, so please do not hold me to blame for the division (of affection) which only You control.’" (Sunan Abu Dawud)

Both Hadiths refer to the greater feelings that the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was known to have had for one of his wives over the others.  Yet, in spite of his emotional inclinations, he divided his time and wealth equally among all of them.  Thus it is recommended, based on the example of the Prophet (SAW), that all men married to more than one wife be equal in the division that they are capable of controlling, namely time and wealth.

Equitable Treatment in Regards to Time and Wealth NOT Love

The importance of equitable treatment in regard to time and wealth can not be overstressed as it is the major factor excluding the established pre-requisites for marriage, in general, that a man can weigh and assess in his day to day inter-action with his wives.  Unfortunately, there are some modern day Muslims, under the influences of western thought, who have misinterpreted some Qur'anic verses in order to support their arguments for monogamy and the abolition of polygyny.  However, the equality referred to in Surah An-Nisa 4:3 is referring to time and money.

"…If you fear that you will not be able to deal justly (time and money) with them then only one…"

(An-Nisa 4:3)

Whereas, the equality mentioned in Surah An-Nisa 4:129 refers to that which no man or woman has control over but which belongs exclusively to Allah’s (SWT) decree.

"…You will never be able to  do perfect justice  (love and sex) between wives even if it is your ardent desire." (An-Nisa 4:129)

The Prophet’s (SAW) companions, ‘Ubayadah as-Salmanee and Ibn ‘Abbas (RU), both stated that the time equality spoken of in Surah An-Nisa 4:129 refers to love and sex.  Furthermore, we must take note of the fact that even the Prophet (SAW) begged pardon for that which was not in his possession, the feelings of love, affection or sympathy which were known to be greater for one of his wives than the others.  Yes, Allah (SWT) allowed the Prophet (SAW) to marry a greater number of women than was allowed to ordinary Muslim men. Thus any attempt to forbid polygyny on the basis that a man might love one of the women more than the others is futile and baseless because this factor can not be used as a gauge for justice in Islamic plural marriages.

Time Division

The division of time amongst the wives according to Islamic law is generally made according to the nights, due to the fact that night is usually the time in which mankind relaxes from work and takes rest. During the night, people take refuge in their homes from the struggles of the outside world and men and women spend their most intimate time together.

Thus a man married to more than one wife should divide the nights among his wives while the day is his to earn a living, to take care of other people’s needs or whatever else a man wishes to do as long as it is lawful.  Whatever a man’s profession might be, he will probably be engaged in it during a major portion of the day.  The division of time is based on the time period allotted to sleep or rest.

The resting periods must be divided equally among the wives.  A man may divide the nights by giving one to each wife according to the Prophet’s (SAW) practice;  however, he may also divide them on the basis of two to each or three to each wife.  If, however, a man has four wives it would be preferable to divide his time on the basis of one night each, whereby, each wife would get a chance to be with her husband every three days.  A division on the basis of two nights would mean that each wife would only be with the husband after an interlude of six days.  Under normal circumstances, the day up until Maghrib (setting of the sun and the time of the fourth daily prayer) is considered a part of the previous night which started at Maghrib on the previous day according to the lunar calendar.

Time Rights of a New Wife

The extra free time for acquaintance given to the virgin bride is obviously needed due to the newness of marriage and sex to her, whereas the previously married bride in most cases is familiar with both and needs only a chance to become familiar with her new partner.  However, the option of seven days is also given for the widow or divorcee in order to allow for cases wherein marriage and sex may be as new to her as to the virgin. This applies in cases where her previous marriage was extremely short or even unconsummated or the lapse of time between her previous marriage and her re-marriage was great. When an already married man marries a new wife, he is allowed by law an acquaintance period with his new wife of seven consecutive days if she is a virgin and three days if she has been married previously.  He does this without making up the time for the remaining wife or wives.  This law is based on the Sahaba, Anas’ (RA) report, "It is from the Sunnah. The Prophet’s (SAW) said,

"If a man marries a virgin then he stays with the virgin wife for seven days and then divides his time equally after that. And, if he marries a woman who was previously married, not a virgin, he should stay with her for three days then divide his time equally." (Sahih Al-Bukhari and Muslim)

However, if the previously married new wife requests seven days for herself, he may also do that but he must make up the full time with the other wives. Abu Bakr ibn al-Harith reported that on the following morning after the Prophet (SAW) married Umm Salamah (RA), he said to her,

"Do not feel that you are unimportant among your people, for if you wish, I will spend seven days (with you) and spend seven with the rest of my wives or if you wish, I will spend three days with you and divide the time equally after that." She replied, "Make it three." (Sahih Muslim)

Thus as soon as the new wife has been given her time right, the husband is obliged to begin dividing his time equally among the remaining wives, by drawing lots to determine with whom he will start.

Giving Up Division Rights

A wife may give up her division right to her husband, to some of his wives or all of his wives if the husband agrees.  Since it is his right to take pleasure from her, it must be with his agreement.  This principle is based upon the fact that Sawdah (RA) [one of the Prophet’s (SAW) wives] gave her day to Aishah (RA) [another one of the Prophet’s (SAW) wives].  So the Prophet (SAW) used to add the time originally allotted to Sawdah (RA) to Aishah’s (RA) time. It is narrated that when Sawdah bint Zam’ah (RA) became old and feared that Allah’s Messenger (SAW) might divorce her, she said,

"O Messenger of Allah (SAW), I give my day to Aishah." And, he accepted it. (Sunan Abu Dawud)

If the day which is given precedes or follows the day of the wife to whom the day is given, the husband may stay with that wife for two consecutive days. But if the other wives have days in between, the husband is not allowed to put the days together without the permission of the other wives. If the right is given to the husband, he may give it anyone of the wives he wishes to. However, if a wife gives up her time without giving it to another wife or to her husband, he has to divide his time equally among the remaining wives.  What is more, the wife who has given up her turn may ask for it back whenever she wishes but she has no right to what has already passed.

Residence Rights

It is preferable that each wife have separate living quarters in which the husband visits her because that was the way Allah’s Messenger (SAW) divided his time.  In view of this fact, a husband should NOT put his wives in the same house unless they agree to a communal arrangement or the house is divided into distinct and separate apartments such as might be found in a duplex.  It makes no difference whether the house is large or small if kitchen, bathroom and other facilities are shared, because living together constitutes a type of hardship on women due to the natural jealousies which are likely to arise among them.  Such living arrangements often lead to arguments and fighting which obliterate the apparent economic benefits of living together. The wives may experience jealousy when he goes to either of them or they may imagine preferences which could lead one or more of them to experience emotional harm or inhibition.  Nevertheless if they agree, it is permissible because it is their right to decide.

Travel Rights

If the husband wishes to travel and wants to or is only able to take some of his wives with him, he has to choose among them by drawing lots as all of them have equal rights to travel with him if they wish.  This principle is based on the Prophet’s (SAW) practice as narrated by his wife, Aishah (RA), wherein she said,

"Whenever the Prophet (SAW) wanted to travel, he used to draw lots among his wives and the wife whose lot came out would travel with him." (Sahih Al-Bukhari)

The husband is then not required to make up the time spent on the trip of the wife or wives who did not travel, regardless of the length of the trip. Al-Bukhari’s collection of Hadiths further mentions that on one occasion the lots came to Aishah (RA) and Hafsah (RA).  However, if he takes two wives on a trip with him by drawing lots, he has to treat them equally in all the previously mentioned aspects of division.

Spending and Clothing Rights

It is not necessary for a husband to provide his new wife with all the luxuries already possessed by his other wives right away.  However, he is required to provide her with the basic necessities according to his means and social status.  He may, if he chooses to, provide her with any amounts of gifts as part of her dowry.  However, after marriage all gifts must be balanced.

Personal allowances are not a requirement according to the Islamic law. However, if the husband decides to give one of his wives an allowance, he should give the others the same.  Similarly, gifts should be balanced. However, if he buys earrings for one and the other has no desire for earrings, he should give the cost of the earrings to her or buy her something else of equivalent value. Spending for children is not included in the division of wealth among wives.  Hence, it goes without saying that if one wife has seven children and the other wife has two that the husband must spend more in terms of food and clothing for the larger family.


Information taken from Polygamy in Islam By Abu Ameenah Bilal Phillips and Jameelah Jones

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