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Customs and Culture >
Can Muslim men have more than one wife?

The practice of polygamy, or more correctly polygyny (marriage to more than one wife), is a controversial subject in Islamic societies. Many modern Islamic nations have either outlawed or strictly regulated polygamy in a variety of ways (requiring a court review and approval, requiring a wife's permission, etc.). Although polygamy is practiced in some Muslim societies, the vast majority of Muslims today are monogamous.

Although it is found in many religious and cultural traditions, we tend to identify polygamy or polygyny particularly with Islam. In fact, historically polygyny was practiced in Semitic societies in general and Arab culture in particular. It was common among the nobles and leaders in Arabian society and, although less common, can also be seen in biblical Judaism; Abraham, David, and Solomon all had multiple wives.

Polygamy was common in pre-Islamic Arabia; marriage was uncontrolled. A man could have as many wives as he wanted; women were considered inferior, had no rights, and were treated like servants. Seventh-century Arabia was the scene of frequent tribal wars and combat. When men were killed in battle, it was almost impossible for their widows and orphans, or unmarried sisters or nieces, to survive without their male protector. In this context, the revelations in the Quran regarding marriage, like other Quranic revelations and reforms regarding inheritance, divorce, serving as a witness, etc., tended to improve women's position.

The Quran permits a man to marry up to four wives, provided that he is able to support and treat them equally: “Give orphans their property, and do not exchange the corrupt for the good; and devour not their property with your property; surely that is a great crime. If you are afraid you will not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two or three or four; but if you will not be able to deal justly [with them] only one” (4:3). This Quranic command restricts a male's right to an unlimited number of wives, while also using the umbrella of marriage as a protection for women in a violent society. As Quran 24:32 says, “Marry the spouse-less among you, and your slaves and handmaidens that are righteous; if they are poor God will enrich them of his bounty; God is All-Embracing, All-Knowing.”

Another verse, “You are never able to be fair and just between women even if that is your ardent desire” (4:129), has been used in modern times by reformers to reject the possibility of equal justice among wives and to argue that the Quran really preaches that monogamy is the ideal, as monogamy is stressed in the later chapters of Quranic revelation. More conservative Muslims reject this interpretation as un-Islamic and say that it reflects the tendency of reformers to imitate the West.

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