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Islam has made polygamy conditional on justice, and due to the scarcity of 'just men' who could fulfill this condition, it has recommended contentment with one wife.
4 Ekim 2023 Çarşamba

Polygamy has been present throughout history in almost every society, and there were no restrictions on the number of wives one could have. It was accepted in ancient Iran, China, India, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. Even in Roman law, living with multiple women without being married was considered permissible.

In Judaism and Christianity, there were no restrictions either. Indeed, the Torah and the Bible contain various laws and stories related to this practice. While polygamy, divorce, and the marriage of priests were later prohibited by the Catholic Church, polygamy continued to exist, especially among wealthy and noble Christians.

Before Islam, there were no restrictions in Arabia regarding the number of wives a man could have. Islam, however, limited the number of wives a man could marry to four free women.

The Quranic verse from Surah An-Nisa (4:3) states: “Marry those that please you of [other] women, two or three or four. But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one or be content with the concubines you have.” This verse permits polygamy but does not make it obligatory; it provides permission with certain conditions.

Considering the challenges in maintaining justice among wives, it is not possible for a person of sound mind who fears injustice to marry more than one woman. In fact, when the question of how this justice should be maintained was asked to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), he responded, “If you take a sip of water from one's hand, then the same should be done with the others,” emphasizing the importance of treating each wife equally.

Indeed, the Prophet Muhammad remained married to only one woman until he was fifty years old. After her passing, he married some elderly and widowed women due to various religious, social, and political obligations, but he generally married older and widowed women.

Is It Hypocrisy?

The practice of polygamy, as if it didn’t exist in their own histories or as if illegitimate relationships were less common in their societies, has been one of the most criticized issues in the Western world, leading people from Eastern cultures to develop a significant inferiority complex.

Nevertheless, some intellectuals, including Schopenhauer and Gustave Le Bon, have defended polygamy by enumerating its social, moral, and economic benefits. They accused those who criticized polygamy while turning a blind eye to extramarital relationships of hypocrisy.

For those who dislike polygamy, it seems that what truly bothers them is not the act of marrying multiple spouses but rather limiting the number of marriages to four. In a 2023 survey conducted by the British Daily Mail newspaper among British youth regarding marriage, it was observed that 30% of young people supported polygamy.

In the East, during the early 20th century, there were many debates among intellectuals about polygamy. Mansurizade Said, a Young Turk deputy, argued that polygamy was permissible, stating that something that is permissible according to religious law could be prohibited by the government. He even proposed a bill to ban polygamy.

This sparked a major debate. While Celal Nuri and Mahmud Esad cautiously supported polygamy, İzmirli İsmail Hakkı responded to the debate. Fatma Aliye Topuz, the daughter of Cevdet Pasha, defended polygamy from a feminist perspective. Even Cenab Şahabeddin highlighted the benefits of polygamy, especially in preventing prostitution and increasing the population.

However, in 1917, the Young Turk government issued the Family Law Decree, which allowed women to include a condition during marriage that their husbands wouldn't marry again.

Somethings Cannot Be Changed

Marriage is a contract based on mutual consent. When a woman gets married, she is aware that her husband may marry another woman later. No one can force a woman to accept this if she cannot tolerate it. The second woman, on the other hand, is already aware that her husband is married to another woman.

In cases where a woman has the right to divorce upon getting married, she should not have to endure this situation by divorcing herself when her husband marries again. If a man marries another woman with the condition that either this new woman or the first woman will be divorced, then whenever the man subsequently marries yet another woman, one of these women (either the new one or the first one) will be divorced from her husband.

Halide Edib, the novelist who later had an important place among the Kemalists and her husband math professor Salih Zeki Bey followed this practice. When Salih Zeki Bey attempted to marry again, Halide Edib divorced him. Alternatively, according to the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence, a woman can stipulate the condition not to marry another woman in her marriage contract.

Does It Benefit Men or Women?

Sheikh al-Islam Mustafa Sabri Efendi summarizes the reasons for polygamy in his book “Dînî Müceddidler” (The Religious Reformers ) as follows: “In Islam, monogamy is the principle, and polygamy is an exception. It is only resorted to in cases of necessity or hardship. This is because marriage in general serves three purposes:

1- The continuation of the human race, 2- Living a chaste life, refraining from violating another person's honor and avoiding adultery, 3- The proper management of household affairs, and the preservation of wealth and property.

When a woman cannot have children, the first purpose of marriage, which is the continuation of the human race, cannot be fulfilled, resulting in the interruption of the human lineage. If the wife is very old, afflicted with a disease, or has a weak constitution by nature, while the husband is strong and healthy, the second purpose of marriage also becomes void. The nullification of this purpose can lead to great evils, such as adultery. Another aspect is that if a woman is extravagant, licentious, immoral, treacherous, and of bad character, the third purpose is also lost. Therefore, polygamy was resorted to for these reasons.

The imbalance in the number of men and women in the world, with more women than men, and the shorter lifespan of men compared to women, leads to concerns about the protection and care of single and widowed women. Additionally, the desire for population growth is also a factor in allowing polygamy.”

Mehmed Zihni Efendi states in “Nimeti Islam” (his book of fiqh) that, “Marrying up to four wives is not only convenient for men but also for women because the number of women is greater.”

In “Endless Bliss” (The original of the book “Seadet-i Ebediyye”), it is mentioned that, “In nature, women outnumber men, and in wars and accidents, men tend to die more than women, meaning that there are fewer men than women. Islam allows up to four marriages with the aim of ensuring that women do not remain without husbands, securing their honor, chastity, and happiness.

In Christianity, it is prohibited for a man to marry more than one woman, which is why many men form secret marital bonds with multiple women. As a result, women are pushed into misery, and millions of children with uncertain paternity grow up without the guidance of a family, becoming a burden on society. In Islam, wealthy individuals are allowed to marry up to four wives, ensuring that children are raised in households with both mother and father, providing them with proper upbringing. This leads to an increase in family units, strengthening societal life and order. Those desiring multiple marriages also work towards becoming prosperous. This expansion benefits the business world and promotes technological advancements.”

The Rate of Polygamy

Examinations of inheritance records and population registers reveal that in the Ottoman Empire, polygamy did not exceed an average of 10%. This indicates that polygamy was not very widespread. In fact, even the rate of adultery in almost every society tends to be higher than this.

On one occasion, foreigners present in the Ottoman territories, such as the German priest Salomon Schweigger in the late 16th century or Ubicini in the 19th century, have mentioned that polygamy was quite rare in Ottoman society.

Economics professor Ömer Lütfi Barkan’s research on the inheritance records of the Edirne military treasury revealed that out of 1516 men, 103 of them were married to 2 women (6.79%), and 6 of them were married to 3 women (0.39%). Haim Gerber, Historian from Israel, in records from the 17th century, found that only 20 men were in polygamous marriages out of 2000 records. In the 16th century in Bursa, this proportion was 2.5%, and in the 17th century, it was 4.5% according to a similar research based on Sharia records.

During the classical period, cities like Adana, Amasya, Ankara, Antep, Diyarbekir, Edirne, Kayseri, Konya, Manisa, Sivas, and Trabzon had an average polygamy rate of 9.5%. Among the Turkish tribes in the southern region, the rate was 3%. In the 19th century, the rate in Damascus was 10%. In Istanbul in 1885, the polygamy rate was 2.5%. Interestingly, in conservative areas like Eminönü and Fatih, it was 1.4%, while in the more modern area of Beşiktaş, it was 3.4%.

The Ageless Husband

In Ottoman territories, the majority of polygamous marriages typically involve two wives. The primary reason for this is often the inability of the first wife to fulfill her role as a wife due to reasons such as not bearing children, illness, or old age. For example, Mithat Pasha entered into a second marriage for this reason.

Rather than waiting for the husband to divorce his wife and marry someone else due to these reasons, it was considered more natural for him to enter into a second marriage. In fact, in such cases, the first wife often reluctantly accepts this situation and may even help her husband in marrying another woman (with whom she can come to an agreement). For example, Serezli İsmail Bey’s wife once said, “I have grown old, but our husband hasn't. I married him off, and I am now at ease.”

Another reason for polygamy is to provide shelter for a lone woman and establish intimacy with a woman from the same household. Following this, there are also social marriages arranged to resolve conflicts between two families. Marriages entered into for personal pleasure or indulgence are exceptionally rare.

Three Conditions

Ibn Abidin, one of the Ottoman scholars, states: “Even if the first wife is not pleased and even if she says, ‘I will kill myself,’ if the conditions are met, it is legitimate for a man to marry for the second time. Criticizing this is feared to lead to disbelief. But refraining from marrying to avoid upsetting one's wife earns merit. This is because in a hadith, it is stated, ‘Whoever shows mercy to my Ummah, Allah will show mercy to him.’ “

In the old society, everyone knew their place, so men would strive to keep their wives content, and women would respect their husbands. Excessive jealousy was frowned upon. Journalist Ahmed Mithat Efendi, for instance, would buy the same things for his different wives, even if the first wife said, “I am old, there is no need.” Efendi would respond, “I cannot go against the Sunnah for your sake.”

When my great-uncle was young, he married a much older, lone relative for the purpose of providing support. Years later, when this woman had aged significantly, he entered into a second marriage. However, he always treated his first wife, whom he called “Cennet” (paradise), with kindness, continuously rewarding her and behaving towards her as if they were newlyweds.

Polygamy was not something that everyone could easily consider. Poet Yusuf Nabi says, “Does he find comfort who takes wife after wife?” Kınalızade Ali Çelebi remarks, “In the house of those who engage in polygamy, there is often strife and disorder.”

Islamic moral scholar Nasir al-Din al-Tusi writes, “The man is like the heart in the body of the household. Just as one heart cannot give life to two bodies, one man cannot ensure the order of two households.” Therefore, if an Eastern man had a strong desire to have children, he would take on this expense and risk his peace of mind.

Sayyid Abdulhakim Arvasi, Islamic mystic and scholar who lived in the 20th century, stated, “Marrying more than once requires knowledge, intellect, and money. If someone combines these three conditions within themselves, they can marry two wives.” However, since many men do not possess even one of these conditions, it can be easily understood why polygamy is not widespread.

Prison for Bigamists

Due to the increasing economic challenges, marrying multiple women had become almost non-existent in Muslim countries. In the 1950s, in Syria, it was as low as 1%, and in Egypt and Libya, it didn't exceed 4%.

Polygamy was banned in Turkey in 1926 and in Tunisia in 1956. In most other countries with Muslim populations, it is regulated by court approval or the consent of the first wife. Today, polygamy is also legal in countries like China, India, and Japan. A Muslim residing in Greece, Israel, the Philippines, or Sri Lanka also has the right to practice polygamy.

However, the prohibition that was foreign to the culture of society did not eliminate polygamy; it continued unofficially through religious marriages (imam nikah) at the same rate. Supposedly enacted to protect women, this ban ended up causing the most harm to women and children.

The second woman, whom everyone viewed with respect as a wife, was considered a mistress and her children were considered illegitimate in the eyes of the law. They were entitled to neither alimony nor inheritance. While having a mistress was socially acceptable, marrying a second wife was considered a serious crime. If the first wife demanded it, the second wife could be sentenced to six months in prison.

A man was compelled to register the children from his second wife as if they were the children of his first wife. It was absurd that the government had to pass a law every five years to correct the lineage of illegitimate children in an attempt to rectify this injustice.

Jihad and Jealousy

When Khadija bint Khuwaylid was on her deathbed, her husband the Prophet Muhammad said to her, “O Khadijah, in Paradise, you and your co-wives will attain high ranks.” Khadijah responded, “They are not my co-wives; they are my sisters,” outwardly expressing approval but feeling uneasy. As a woman, she naturally displayed signs of jealousy toward wives who were not present at that moment.

Fatimah bint Muhammad later asked her father, “My dear father, you always considered my mother's feelings. Why did you upset her now?” The Prophet responded, “Your mother has many good deeds. But Allah assigned jihad to men and jealousy to women. Men earn rewards through jihad, and women earn rewards by patiently enduring jealousy. I felt that your mother was lacking in this reward, so I wanted her to earn it too.” (Al-Munawi, Fayd al-Qadir; Muhammed Emin Hirevi, Maarij al Mubuwwah)

Either Take One or Remain Unmarried

Islamic scholar Abd al-Wahhab al-Sha’rani recounts: My teacher, Abd al-Aziz Dirini, used to say, “Don't marry a second time without a good reason!” because he himself had married a second time and regretted it. He would offer his advice against rushing into a second marriage without careful consideration through this poem:

“I, in ignorance, took two wives without reason,

A calamity became twofold and fell upon me all of a sudden.

I thought I would live among them like a lamb,

Hoping for double help from two female sheep.

But things went awry, I felt suffocated beside them,

Embraced and entangled with calamities and torments.

One's contentment angers the other,

Insults multiplied, ensnaring me from both sides.

Nights were divided between the two,

My eyes were pecked while seeking peace.

If you want a good life at home,

Either take one or remain unmarried, stay content in your place!”


No Solution Other Than Death

Ottoman compositor and luter Mısırlı İbrahim Efendi expresses his desire for death in this song as a way to escape from the troubles caused by having two wives:

“Marriage is a trouble, one big and one small

I’m confused, what should I do, the small one is more beautiful than the big one

I couldn't find any solution other than death, my only love

I’m confused, what should I do, the small one is more beautiful than the big one

I made them mine in one day

One is a rose, the other a bud, I couldn’t show them to anyone

Death is approaching me, I said let's die together

I couldn't find any solution other than death, my only love.”


Raw Curd Cheese

In the famous Silifke folk song, Gerali, who cannot win the hearts of two women, says:

“I ride my gray donkey, pass through the stone-lined ditch,

Don't bother me, women, I will divorce both of you.

I bought one of them a meter of lining,

The other one wants pants, my beloved, my beloved.

Oh, my Lord, take both of their lives at once,

I couldn't escape from the clutches of bad women, hey hey hey.”


Where Did He Sleep?

Someone asked a man who had two wives, “What is it like to have two wives?” He replied, “Sleeping between them is very enjoyable.” Inspired by this advice, someone else went ahead and entered into a second marriage, but life became a living hell for him. Later, he complained to the person who gave him the advice. The man responded, “I am a postal courier who works between Istanbul and Izmit. I have one wife in Istanbul and another in Izmit. I always sleep in Hereke.” (Hereke is a town located right in the middle of Istanbul and Izmit.)

Why Didn't He Get Married?

Imam Abd al-Rahman Bin Faisal University’s mathematics faculty member Dr. Aisha Saad al-Shahri takes a different perspective on polygamy in her article dated March 9, 2016:

“Men often express their desire to have multiple wives enthusiastically but lack the courage, citing excuses. Throughout human history, prophets, rulers, lords, and scholars have often had more than one marriage. Additionally, they also had many concubines. Men who could afford it lived a comfortable life. They used their strength, energy, and masculinity freely; their activity, vitality, and health increased. Thus, our ancestors lived as strong men with majesty and dignified presence.

Monogamy (having one spouse) goes against the physical and psychological nature of men. The nature of men is to be productive and expansive. Conversely, the nature of women is different. What suits her body, psychological, and mental structure is tranquility and stability; her heart does not tolerate anyone other than one man. Therefore, monogamous men often experience physical and psychological illnesses, weakness and deficiencies, lack of effort and determination, withering and stagnation, and they become inactive when their wives are tired, menstruating, or pregnant. They spend their lives in remorse and longing. Polygamous men, on the other hand, are not like this. They are always generous, never idle; their faces are always bright and cheerful.

Men's fear of marriage and taking multiple wives is not primarily due to financial or health concerns. From what I observe, the main reason is that men spend too much time at home with their wives. Many men have become domesticated and subdued by their wives at home; now, their wives dominate them. The man’s dignity and strength have disappeared, reducing him to a creature trained under his wife's authority. His wife knows everything about him – his affairs, secrets, and possessions. The Arabs used to criticize men who spent too much time at home for this reason. Due to this fear, our homes are overflowing with unmarried girls. How exalted is Allah's name, who allows polygamy to prevent corruption!“