Foreign Affairs International Law

The Forgotten Verse: Why Islam Does Not Allow Polygamy

While public debate on the validity of some religious laws might not be completely encouraged or allowed in some repressive countries, there are still voices that exist and have challenged the religious legitimacy of some of these controversial rules. In Islam, for example, there is a strong argument – proposed by many reformist and feminist legal scholars throughout the years – that Islam, in reality, does NOT allow polygamy. For some curious reason, the media has ignored this idea.

The verse in the Qur’an that has been used to defend polygamy is the following: “…Marry women of your choice, two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not deal justly (with them), then only one…” (IV, verse 3). The men that have historically defended polygamy claim that they can marry up to four wives – as long as they can treat all of them “justly.”

Astonishingly enough, there is another related verse in the Qur’an that appears to have been almost entirely ignored by the political elites ruling the Muslim world in the past centuries: “Ye are never able to be fair and just among women, even if you tried hard…” (IV, verse 129).

There is a clear logical implication that one can deduce from these two verses: If you cannot be fair and just with all of the wives at the same time, then you can only marry one (IV, verse 3). Since you are never able to be fair and just among women “even if you tried hard” (IV, verse 129), then you cannot marry more than one.

Religion is a complicated matter. The Torah, the Bible, and the Qur’an cannot be read and understood straightaway. There will always be conflicting explanations for words – that is just unavoidable. But it is also undeniable that men used to be in control of religion and education many centuries ago. So it would not be surprising if they sometimes interpreted certain verses to their convenience – to continue with the oppression of who they viewed as the “weaker sex.”

Frequently, men interpreted verses of holy books in ways that allowed them to exert control over women. They convinced women that these interpretations were God’s will. But, in order to get to the rules, they had to first read the text and then make a deduction or interpretation from the holy texts. Making a deduction will always be an inherently flawed process: it is not divine; it comes from human minds. The text might be divine, but the interpretation of the text is a human exercise that is bound to be flawed.

A political intent justified by a (sometimes illegitimate) religious argument is an effective tool to persuade people to do things that they would otherwise be hesitant to do. In this case, it was definitely easier for women to accept polygamy when men convinced them that God allowed it. The problem, though, is when we ignore verses that clearly go against the religious argument we are making.

Tunisia banned polygamy in 1956. To justify the prohibition, they used this same verse 129 that has been conveniently ignored by so many others. It is time for other Arab countries to follow suit.

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