Once in a while I come across certain non-Muslims who love to pick on the topic of polygyny, having multiple wives at a time, in Islam. And as expected, they attack the religion with it and try to show how degrading Islam is towards women by allowing him to be with more than one woman in a marriage. However, if someone were to really think about this topic in detail, you would realize how hypocritical and misinformed the west is towards this particular issue.
Polygyny in Islam
There is no doubt that Islam allows up to four wives maximum at a time as evident by the following Qur’anic verse:
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 (An-Nisa 4:3)
As clarified by the verse above that the default is just one and more than that are permissible provided one can be just. And contrary to popular belief, having more than four wives at a time is not permissible in Islam. This is further evident due to a narration by Imam Ahmad in which he recorded that Ghilan bin Salamah Ath-Thaqafi had ten wives when he became Muslim, and the Prophet said to him, “Choose any four of them (and divorce the rest)” (Tafsir ibn Kathir). So, what is it mean to be just? Well let’s look at how the prophet of Islam (pbuh) defined “just” as he is the ideal implementor of the Qur’an by unanimous agreement of all the scholars and Muslims.
Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: “Whoever has two wives and favours one of them over the other, will come on the Day of Resurrection with one of his sides leaning.” Narrated by al-Tirmidhi (1141), Abu Dawood (2133), al-Nasaa’i (3942) and Ibn Majaah (1969). Classed as saheeh by al-Albaani in Saheeh al-Targheeb wa’l-Tarheeb (no. 1949).
One of his wives, Aisha, said: The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) did not favour one of us over another with regard to division of his time and how long he stayed with us, and there was rarely a day when he did not go around to all of us, and he would draw close to each wife without having intercourse, until he reached the one whose day it was, then he would stay overnight with her. Narrated by Abu Dawood (2135); al-Albaani said in Saheeh Abi Dawood: (it is) hasan saheeh.
What the above narrations show is that a man should be able to treat them fairly with regard to spending, staying overnight and providing accommodation. If he knows that he is unable to do that or that it is most likely that he cannot do so, it is not permissible for him to marry more than one wife. In Islam men are obligated to spend on their wife’s clothing, housing, food, medical expenses and Islamic education. Even if she has her own job and makes more money than him, he has no right to demand anything from her of it except if she gives it to him out of her own free will without force. Therefore, even if she is richer than him, he still has a duty and an obligation in Islam to spend on her basic living expenses without her needing to spend even a penny of her own wealth. This is so important that once the the Prophet (pbuh) told a woman to refuse a proposal because the man was too poor:
The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) advised Faatimah bint Qays, when Mu’aawiyah (may Allah be pleased with him) proposed to her, not to marry him. He said, “He is a pauper and has no money.” Narrated by Muslim, 1480.
So in Islam polygyny is not a form of womanizing but a great responsibility on the man. He has to be able to make sure that he can treat them equally with justice especially when it comes to their basic living expenses. And he must “live with them in kindness” (An-Nisa 4:19) as mentioned in the Qur’an.
Mistresses in the West
Every now and then there comes a news story of some public figure having affairs outside of their marriage. These figures include political figures as well as entertainment stars. Just like the recent Tiger Woods story where many voices in the west were calling to leave the story alone as this is his personal life and we should simply not get involved.
What is a mistress really? What is her role in a married man’s life? Generally, a mistress has no role whatsoever except a secret extramarital sexual relationship with the man. He is not obligated to pay for her food, clothing, housing, medical expenses or take care of her in any form except what is necessary for him to continue or engage in the affair. It is a relationship based purely on lust and desire and asks for no responsibility on his part towards this mistress.
Link Between the Two?
How is there a link between these two very opposite ways of life? In the former case, the man is obligated to take care of her, provide for her and treat her with justice, fairness and live with her in kindness. It demands a sense of responsibility towards his wives to the extent that if he thinks that he will not be able to do so, then he should marry just one woman. In the latter case, the man is not obligated to take care of her, provide for her or even feel any need to be responsible for his mistress. The relationship only demands the responsibility to be able to engage in the sexually exclusive affair without getting caught. As evident to anyone with a rational mind, the two have completely opposite roles and goals.