Polygamy: Not a Sunnah!

Q454 :May I refer to one of your replies that polygamy cannot be considered a Sunnah of the Prophet. I feel that you should have clarified a few points particularly on the definition of Sunnah. To my mind, Sunnah includes any act performed by the Prophet as it includes what he has stated or instructed. There are categories of Sunnah, such as actions related to prayer and religious duties, and actions which relate to normal day-to-day activities of ordinary life. From another point of view, some are strongly recommended and their importance is re-emphasized in Hadith while others are not backed by a Hadith but we learn them from the Prophet's own actions. Even this latter type is a Sunnah which earns us a reward, if we perform it under the conditions and requirements applicable to any individual with the sincere intention of following the example of the Prophet. With regard to the question of polygamy, it is well known that a Muslim man is allowed to have up to four wives. He is required, however, to maintain justice among them. Considering the example given by the Prophet, is it not right to say that to have more than one wife is a Sunnah? I feel that when a man is married to two wives or more, we have a situation which tests the man and the women involved and in which they are required to show justice and patience. There is a conflict between the man's natural instinct for polygamy and the woman's possessive nature which gives her a strong dislike to share her husband with another woman. This is a most painful condition. If she does it in submission to Allah's will, she deserves a reward for it. When two women find themselves married to one man, what are their obligations to each other, to their husband and to each other's children? Is it permissible for the first wife to stay aloof when her husband marries a second time and to deny her husband the physical relationship, if he agrees to that?

A454 : This is a summary of a long letter which I have received from a lady doctor who has studied in some of the best universities in the world. She gives several arguments in support of her view that polygamy is a Sunnah recommended to us by the Prophet by action, if not by word. She seems to take for granted that it is in the nature of man to have more than one woman. In reply I would like to start with answering the specific points my reader has put at the end of her letter. I can tell her that there are no specific obligations which Islam imposes on wives who are married to the same man. Islam, however, tells every Muslim to be kind to others and to take care of young children. Therefore, it is far more preferable for these women to try to come to terms with their new situation and extend help and care to each other. This will stand them in good stead, since they will be able to look after each other's children when one of them is unwell, or when she is in the advanced stage of pregnancy, or in the early period after giving birth to a new child, or when she goes out. But not all such wives can have such an amicable relationship. People simply may not get on well with each other. There is an added cause in such situation to make the achievement of such a caring relationship more difficult. Therefore, Islam does not place any obligation on such women toward each other. Both, however, are required to maintain the Islamic standard of morality and preserve their chastity. As for the second question, I can say that if the husband forgoes his right to have a physical relationship with his first wife, he may do so. Otherwise, she may not deny him that relationship, because when she married him, she has agreed to it in the full knowledge that Allah has given him the privilege of marrying more than one wife. If he avails himself of that privilege, this does not alter the situation and she has to fulfill her marital duties. I do not agree with my reader that man is polygamous by nature. Had it been so, Allah would have changed the proportion of male to female among mankind to allow polygamy to be widely practiced. The fact that the male to female ratio is, more or less, one is to one, albeit with slight variations in different societies, is ample proof that the normal situation is for each man to have one wife. It is a fact of life that when there is a large increase in the number of women over men in a particular society, polygamy flourishes. If that society does not allow polygamy, you will find that the ratio of divorce and second marriages increases sharply. If that society is lax in observing moral values, indecency spreads. The main point which the reader raises is that of Sunnah, which means an action which the Prophet has either encouraged or recommended by word or deed or approval. We can say that a Sunnah is a recommended action which earns reward from Allah. A Sunnah may relate to religious duties and to ordinary activities. If it relates to religious practices, it is sufficient that the Prophet is known to have done something in a particular way to make it a Sunnah to follow his way. Thus, when we know that the Prophet used to sit in a particular fashion in the last sitting of a four rak'ah prayer, it is a Sunnah to sit in the same manner. He has not told us so, but by following his example we earn more reward from Allah. In pilgrimage, it is duty for a man to shorten his hair or shave his head at the end of the period of consecration. Since the Prophet shaved his head, we know that it is far more preferable to shave than to shorten one's hair. Numerous examples can be given in this regard. When such actions are backed by verbal instructions, then the action requires a stronger status which could raise it to be an obligatory one. If the Prophet did something in practice but gave specific instructions which vary somewhat from his practice, we should take the verbal instructions as having more weight. For example, the Prophet used to recite long passages from the Qur'an in Fajr prayer. He, however, instructed one of his companions who led the prayer among his people to read surahs or passages of about 12 or 13 lines. Hence, Sunnah is to read such medium length passages, unless one is praying alone or with a small group of people who are all willing to have a lengthy prayer. In his normal daily life, the Prophet may have done certain actions in a particular way. That does not mean that they constitute a Sunnah, unless he has backed these with a verbal recommendation or instruction. We know, for example, that the Prophet liked to eat pumpkins. Is it a Sunnah to eat them? What if a person does not like their taste? Is he at fault? The answer is that it is not a Sunnah to eat pumpkins and a person who goes through life without tasting pumpkins misses no reward and will not be asked about this omission, as it were. Otherwise, you would have seen vast areas of agricultural land in the Muslim world devoted to planting pumpkins so that all Muslims may follow the example of the Prophet. This is not the case, because Allah knows that He has created people with different tastes and many of them may not like the taste of pumpkins. I have chosen this as a very clear example. There are many similar ones. The fact that the Prophet married several wives falls within this category. We have no Hadith or statement by the Prophet to suggest that marrying more than one woman is recommended. No companion of the Prophet tells us that the Prophet questioned him about having only one wife or suggested to him that he should marry again. That always came from the man himself. On the other hand, the Prophet did not persuade any of his companions not to marry a second time. Therefore, we can say that this is a question left to the individual; he may marry two or three or four women, but it is open to him to limit his marriage to one woman. Indeed, this is better, because he will not expose himself to the risk of not maintaining justice between his wives. Moreover, we cannot argue that since the Prophet married so many wives, polygamy is a Sunnah. There are two important reasons for that: the first is the fact that the Prophet lived with his first wife for 25 years without marrying a second woman. Ten of these 25 years were after he became a Prophet. It is only in the last ten years or so of his life that he was married to more than one wife. Which one of the two situations is a Sunnah? If we say that it is the latter, can we support our view with any statement which shows that the Prophet considered that the latter situation was preferable to the first? Indeed, he always remembered his days with Khadeejah with more compassion and a loving memory. The second point is that the Prophet had a specific reason for each of his subsequent marriages. A detailed study of his marriages will show that there was not a single one which was motivated by the desire to simply have another wife. Each of his marriages had an additional advantage which could be a political or social or legislative nature. None of us is in that situation. Perhaps I should add a third point in support of monogamy. It is more conducive to the happiness of a family that a man be married to one woman. He is also more likely to be able to provide a sound upbringing for his children and more likely to make his wife happy and, as a result of both these factors, he is more likely to be happy himself.

Our Dialogue ( Source : Arab News - Jeddah )