A common belief among the Muslims in Bangladesh society that a man can marry four women was questioned at a recent workshop in Dhaka. Bringing a very important issue to light, the workshop also discussed a wide range of issues relating to Islamic treatment with women.
Thanking the organizers, Bangladesh Women Lawyers’ Association, for arranging a dialogue on such an important subject, I must also extend my gratefulness to Adviser Geetiara Safiya Chowdhury for attending it on 3 February 2007 where she said Islam has not deprived the women in any way, but Muslims have in many ways have kept women deprived.
Indeed. Many of the Islamic interpretations have been wrongly popularized in Bangladesh so that men can repress the women.
One of the topics of discussion that came up and explained in the dialogue is the issue of multiple marriages. The discussants explained and proved, with quotations from Koran itself, is that men are not actually permitted to marry more than one.
What can be truer than this?
Having said that, I must say there’s an urgent need for transmitting this message throughout Muslim societies, especially in Bangladesh, that men are really not allowed to marry more than once.
Yes, Koran does permit polygamy, but does not command one to follow that. Polygamy can be of two types. One is polygyny where a man marries more than one woman, and the other is polyandry, where a woman marries more than one man. In Islam, limited polygyny (up till four wives) is permitted; whereas polyandry is completely prohibited.
Koran is the only religion on the face of the earth that allows men having up till four wives, as it says in Surah an-Nisa, verse 3:
“Marry women of your choice, two, or three, or four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one.”
This verse has led many Muslim men feel complacent about marrying four times. The opportunists, pleasure-seeking Muslims have popularized this verse and had tried to meet their own interests. The rest of the people, who mostly abide by religions on rumours, have bought this concept.
The opportunists, however, did not teach the verse in the same chapter of the same surah where is said:
“You will never be able to be fair and just among women (wives)….” Qur’an (4:129)
Now, what message does this verse provide? To my mind, this verse makes sure that Islam does allow having more than one wife. The Koran has set conditions for multiple marriages which is that the husband should be fair with all his wives, and treat them equally, which is very not possible. Since it is not possible to be just with all wives, in practice, Muslim men should not even think that they can marry more than one wife.
Having said that, I must say polygyny permitted by the Koran is not a rule or an order but an exception. Many people are under the misconception that it is compulsory for a Muslim man to have more than one wife. No. No way. Let me repeat that Koran permits but does not command a man to have four wives. Furthermore, the Qur’an stipulates that a man is responsible for the maintenance of his wife or wives. If a man has more than one wife, he has to provide separate living accommodation for each of his wives.
Now if you look at the backdrop when Koran was revealed, we see there was no upper limit for polygyny and many men had many wives, some even hundreds. Islam put an upper limit of four wives. Islam gives a man permission to marry two, three or four women, only on the condition that he deals justly with them. So, Islam came to control having an infinite number of wives, like it was during the pre-Islamic era.
Multiple marriages lay a heavy responsibility on men: if a man has more than one wife, he must treat them all in an equal manner, emotionally and financially.
The reason for multiple wives in Islam was not to satisfy men’s desire and that’s it, but for the welfare of the widows and the orphans of the wars. During war times, many women were unable to find husbands, and they might prefer to be a co-wife than no wife.
Also, allowing multiple marriages is useful in case a man’s wife is infertile and can’t give him the chance of being a father; here he has the right to marry another wife, and leaving the choice to her whether she wants to continue being his wife if he marries another woman or not.
Many misunderstand polygyny and claim that it is one of the negative aspects of Islam, but in fact Islam sought to control and regulate the number of wives rather than give free license. And the permission given to men to have more than one wife is controlled with the conditions before marrying another wife.

Ekram is a journalist. This article was written in February 2007 and Bangladeshi newspapers refused to print it.

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