In the West it is quite common to confront a speaker on the subject of Islam with the question: does Islam permit one to marry four times and keep four wives simultaneously? I have had vast experience in addressing many public and select gatherings of intellectuals in the Western world. Seldom do I remember an occasion when this question was not raised.

More often than not a lady would stand up, and, of course, with due apologies, innocently enquire whether Islam permits four wives or not. Obviously, everybody knows the answer. But, perhaps, this is the only aspect of Islam which is so widely known in the West. The other well-known aspect is terrorism, but terrorism has nothing to do with Islam.

What sort of equality between man and woman does Islam propound when man is permitted to have four wives and a woman can keep only one husband? This is another form of the same question, which I believe is only used as a ploy to wipe out any good impression about Islam, which may have been built by the speaker. In less formal assemblies, wherein civilities and courtesies are not meticulously adhered to, the same enquiry attains the nature of mockery rather than that of a simple question.

Many decades ago when I was at the SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), University of London, a Pakistani student was plagued by an English fellow student with the same question repeatedly and somehow it never failed to elicit laughter. Once, I remember, he was pushed, perhaps too far, and he suddenly turned back and asked the young Englishman: Why do you object to us having four mothers when you have no objections against having forefathers (four fathers, sic.) A pun on the word ‘four’, which effectively turned the table against the teaser.

Apparently, it was a joke, but when you examine it closely, you will discover more than a joke, for it refers to a tragic situation prevailing in societies and offers a befitting case for comparing the attitude of Islam with that of modern society. It is not only a matter for carefree student assemblies but even the serious-minded highly respected members of society do not consider it unkind and discourteous to express their disapproval of this injunction with a joke.

Not long ago, I received a letter from a senior judge in Frankfurt, whom I personally know to be a very wise, open-minded, courteous and well-meaning person. He, too, objected to the Islamic provision on limited polygamy and could not suppress the temptations to drive the point home with the help of a crude joke, or, at least so I thought.

For a fleeting moment I thought of returning the compliment of his joke with the joke about forefathers, but discretion had the better of me.

The brief answer I sent him was to the effect that first this provision in Islam of marrying more than once is not a generality. It pertains to certain situations when it becomes necessary for both preserving the health of society and the rights of women to have this provision available.

The Holy Quran is a logical book. As such, it could not have instructed Muslims to achieve the impossible. God has created men and women in almost equal numbers—with a few pluses and minuses here and there. How could a rational religion like Islam, which repeatedly emphasizes the fact that there is no inconsistency between the Act of God and the Word of God, preach something so glaringly unnatural and unrealistic, which, if attempted, would create grave situations of imbalance, insurmountable difficulties and frustrations. Imagine a small country of one million men of marriageable age and almost the same number of women. If this provision was taken to be an injunction to be followed to the letter of the law by all, then, at best, 250,000 men will marry one million women and 750,000 men will be left without a wife.

Yet, among all the religions of the world, Islam stands out in its emphasis on marriage for every man and woman. The Holy Quran describes the relationship between a husband and wife as based on love by nature and providing a source of peace for each other:

And lawful for you are chaste believing women and chaste women from among those who were given the Book before you, when you give them their dowries, contracting valid marriages, not committing fornication, nor taking secret paramours. [Holy Quran 5:6]

At the same time, the Holy Quran rejects celibacy declaring it to be a man-made institution. There is nothing to be gained from shutting oneself from the rest of the world or from punishing oneself by denying natural desires. The institution of marriage is well established in Islam, but time does not permit me to digress and discuss the various requirements of choosing marriage partners, the remedies available and the regulations of divorce, etc.

To return to polygamy, it is evident from a study of the Holy Quran that a special situation of a post-war period is being discussed. It is a time when a society is left with a large number of orphans and young widows, and the balance of male and female population is severely disturbed. A similar situation prevailed in Germany after the Second World War. Islam not being the predominant religion of Germany, Germany was left with no solution for the problem. The strictly monogamous teaching of Christianity could offer no relief. As such, the people of Germany had to suffer the consequence of these imbalances. There were a large number of virgins, dejected spinsters and young widows for whom it was impossible to get married.

Germany was not the only country in the vast continent of Europe to experience such social problems of extremely dangerous and gigantic proportions. It was too great a challenge for the post-war Western society to stem the tide and check the growth of moral degradation and promiscuity, which so naturally and exuberantly thrived on the prevailing imbalances.

As can be plainly seen by every unbiased person, the only answer to all such problematic disturbances is to permit men to marry more than once. This is not proposed as a solution to satiate their sensual desires but to meet the genuine requirements of a large number of women. If this very logical and realistic solution is rejected, the only alternative left for society is to rapidly degenerate into a growingly corrupt and permissive society.

Alas! That seems to have been the option taken by the West.

When you re-examine more realistically and unemotionally the two attitudes, you cannot fail to notice that it is not a question of equality between men and women but it is simply a choice between responsibility and irresponsibility.

Islam only permits marriage more than once with the proviso that men accept the challenge of such difficult and specific situations with full responsibility and mete out the full measure of justice and equality to the second, third or fourth wives as well:

Should you apprehend that you will not be able to deal fairly with orphans, then marry of other women as may be agreeable to you, two or three, or four; but if you apprehend that you will not deal justly and equally between them, then marry only one, or out of those over whom you have authority. That is the best way for you to obviate injustice. [Holy Quran 4:4]

The alternative is much uglier. An excessive number of women left without marriage cannot be blamed for attempting to entice and allure married men in societies, which are not deeply religious. After all, women are humans too. They have their own emotions and unfulfilled desires. Whilst the psychological traumas of war have enhanced the urge for finding someone to turn to, a life without security of marriage and home, with no life partner and no hope for children is a life which is empty. The future is as blank and bleak as the present.

If such women are not lawfully accommodated and assimilated on the principle of give and take, it can play havoc with the peace of society. They will, anyhow, illegally share the husbands of married women. The outcome is bound to be preposterous. Loyalties will be split. Married women will begin to lose faith in their husbands. Suspicions will grow. The increasing lack of mutual trust between husband and wife will rock the foundation of many homes. For unfaithful men to live with a sense of crime and guilt will further generate psychological complexes and propensity towards more crime. The noble concept of love and loyalty would be among the prime victims. Romance would begin to lose sublimity and descend to commonplace, transient infatuation.

Those who talk of equality in every sphere forget that the issue of equality becomes irrelevant in those areas where male and female are built differently.

It is only women who can give birth to children. It is they alone who can go through more than nine months of nourishing the seed of human generation for the future. It is women again who can look after their babies, at least during the early period of infancy and childhood, as no man ever could. Because of the long and extremely intimate blood relationships with their offspring, it is the women who have far more powerful psychological bonding with the children as compared to men.

If social and economic systems ignore this constitutional difference between man and woman and the corresponding difference in the role of the two sexes in society, then such a socio-economic system is bound to fail to produce a state of healthy equilibrium. It is mainly because of these constitutional differences between male and female that Islam proposes correspondingly different roles for each.

A woman must be kept free, as far as possible, from the responsibility of earning bread for the family. In principle, this responsibility must fall on the shoulders of men. Yet, there is no reason why women should be debarred from playing their part in turning the wheel of economy provided that they find themselves free to do so, i.e., without neglecting their prime responsibility of human reproduction, family care and concomitant involvements. This is exactly what Islam proposes.

Again, women in general have a weaker and comparatively frail constitution. Yet, surprisingly, God has provided them with tougher potentials in their physique. These attributes are mainly due to the presence of an extra half chromosome in their cells, which is responsible for the difference between men and women. This is obviously provided to meet the extra challenge placed on them during pregnancy, childbirth and the lactation period. All the same, this potential does not make a woman outwardly stronger and tougher.

They should not be relegated to hard menial tasks in the productive economic field merely in the name of equality or any other name. This also requires that they should be treated with more tenderness and kindness. Women should have a lesser load to bear in daily life and should not be forced to bear equal load with men in public activities.

It emerges from the above that if the task of the running of a home is a special area of responsibility to be assigned to either man or woman, a woman has obviously much greater merit than a man to perform such responsibilities. Additionally, by nature women have been assigned the responsibility of looking after the children. Such responsibility can only be partly shared with men.

Women must be granted the right to remain at home far more than men; if, at the same time, they are absolved of the responsibility of earning their livelihood, the free time available to them must be employed for their own sake or for the sake of society as a whole. That is how the concept of ‘a woman’s place is in the home’ is born. There is no question of their being tied to their aprons or imprisoned in the four walls of the home. In no way does Islam infringe the rights of women to go out in their spare time to perform any task or to participate in any healthy pursuit they may choose, providing, again, that they do not jeopardise the interests and rights of the future generation of mankind entrusted to them. Among other reasons, this is why over-socializing or the free mixing of sexes is strongly discouraged by Islam. For Islam to propose that the home is the centre of a woman’s activities is a very wise and practical solution to most ills of modern times. When women shift their interests away from the home it has to be at the cost of family life and the neglect of children.

To build a family life around the pivotal figure of a mother requires the strengthening of other blood relationships and the restoration of a genuine affinity with kith and kin. Even though each unit may live separately, this larger family concept is supported and promoted by Islam for many reasons, some of which are as follows:

1. It prevents imbalances from occurring in society.

2. If strong love and affection were promoted in the family between brothers and sisters, father and daughters, mother and sons, etc., it would naturally lead to the consolidation and protection of a healthy family unit. This natural bonding is further strengthened by a system of relationships surrounding it in the form of genuine affinity and closeness between aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, grandchildren and grandparents. New avenues of seeking warmth and healthy pleasure, derived from the consciousness of belonging, would open up for this larger family system.

3. The institution of family in such cases is less likely to be fragmented. To share a common roof in the name of a family would no longer be as meaningless as we generally find today.

The members of the family would continue to gravitate towards the central beacon of family elders; most family activities would rotate around this axis. There would be no lone individuals, forgotten, dejected and relegated to the attic or basement of social order, or, knocked out of families as useless articles.

This exactly is the Islamic concept of homes and families, which is regarded as the most important central unit in society. It is mainly because of this difference in attitudes that today we find in the modern societies of the world a much greater incidence of abandoned, old, or disabled parents considered as burdens on families.

Source: Islam's Response to Contemporary Issues by Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad (rah)