Posted: May 17, 2008 in Polygamy, Questions & answers
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Islam and polygamy

Islam did not completely do away with polygamy, although it did do so as far as polyandry was concerned. Instead, it limited and restricted it. It abolished its non- restrictedness and confined it to a maximum of four wives.

Islam, moreover, laid down conditions and restrictions, and did not allow everybody, to have several wives. We shall comment upon those limits and restrictions in the coming sections, and shall likewise throw light upon the reasons why Islam did not absolutely abolish polygyny.

It is strange that in the Middle-ages, among all the propaganda that was carried out against Islam, it was alleged that it was the Prophet of Islam who introduced polygyny into the world for the first time, and it was claimed that the foundation of Islam lay in polygyny. It was asserted that the cause of the speedy conversion to Islam among the various nations and peoples of the world is the permissibility of polygyny, and it was also given to be understood that the prime cause of the decline of the east was again polygyny.

In the first volume of his The story of Civilization Will Durant writes: Medieval theologians thought that Mohammed had invented polygamy, but it antedated Islam by some years, being the prevailing mode of marriage in the primitive world. Many causes conspired to make it general. In early society, because of hunting and war, the life of the male is more violent and dangerous, and the death rate of men is higher than that of women. The consequent excess of women compels a choice between polygamy and the barren celibacy of a minority of women; but such celibacy is intolerable to peoples who require a high birth rate to make up for a high death rate, and who therefore scorn the mateless and childless woman.

“Doubtless polygamy was well adapted to the marital needs of a primitive society in which women outnumbered men. It had a eugenic value superior to that of contemporary monogamy; for whereas in modern society the most able and prudent men may marry latest and have least children, under polygamy the most able men, presumably, secured the best mates and had most children. Hence polygamy has survived among practically all mature peoples, even among the majority of civilized mankind; only in our day has it begun to die in the Orient. Certain conditions, however, militated against it. The decrease in danger and violence, consequent upon a settled agricultural life, brought the sexes towards an approximate numerical equality; and under these circumstances open polygamy, even in primitive societies, became the privilege of the prosperous minority. The mass of the people practised a monogamy tempered with adultery, while another minority of willing or regretful celibates, balanced the polygamy of the rich.”

In La Civilization des Arabes, Gustave Le Bon [4] writes: There is no custom more despised and on which more erroneous ideas have been pronounced than polygamy. For the most serious of historians, polygamy has been the corner-stone of Islamism, the principle cause of the spread of the Koran, and at the same time of the decadence of the Orientals. These peculiar assertions are generally followed by indignant tirades on the unfortunate lot of the miserable women confined to the far reaches of the harem, guarded by ferocious eunuchs, and killed without pity when they no longer please their master.

“Such a picture is the opposite of the truth, and the reader who wishes to read this chapter putting aside his European prejudices will, I hope, be convinced that oriental polygamy is an excellent institution which greatly raises the moral standard of the peoples who practise it, gives much stability to the family and, as a final result, renders the woman infinitely more respected and more happy than in Europe.

“Before embarking on the proof of this, I will recall, firstly, that polygamy is completely independent from Islamism, for it existed before Mahomet among all the peoples of the East: the Jews, the Persians, the Arabs, etc. Those nations who adopted the Koran, therefore, had nothing to gain on this score by adopting polygamy. There has never been a religion, anyway, strong enough to transform traditions to the point of creating or preventing a similar institution. It is simply the consequence of the climate, of race and the various conditions of existence particular to the Orientals …………..

“In the West, where the climate and the temperament are however very much less demanding, monogamy is no longer to be found except in the law, and no one will contest, I think, that it is very rarely to be found in the behaviour of people. I cannot see in what way the legal polygamy of the Orientals is inferior to the hypocritical polygamy of the Occidentals; rather, I can, on the contrary, very well see in what way it is superior. One can therefore perfectly well understand how the Orientals who have visited our great cities find our indignation towards them to be most strange and judge it most unfavourably.” (pp. 421-2)

Truly, Islam did not initiate polygyny but limited its number, and at the same time laid down stringent conditions for it. Amongst most of the peoples and the communities which accepted Islam, this practice was customary, and under the commandments of Islam they had to comply with the limits and the conditions ordained by Islam.


  1. Polygamy… says:

    […] Haider Ala Hamoudi wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptIslam did not completely do away with polygamy, although it did do so as far as polyandry was concerned. Instead, it limited and restricted it. It abolished its non- restrictedness and confined it to a maximum of four wives. … […]

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