Polygamy is haraam.

I don’t really care about the outrage I’m going to spark, but before I spark it, I want to briefly mention that my understanding of haraam does not contrast starkly with halaal. In the thoughts of most Muslims, “haraam” translates to “forbidden.” Most of you know already that I subscribe to moral absolutes, i.e. I believe in the existence of universal morality. I want to emphasize that this is an entirely different question. It is erroneous to apply this structure to the dynamic of halaal/haraam, which describes the permissibility of a believer’s act specifically in relation to Allah, because while “halaal” does mean “lawful” or “permissible”—“haraam” describes the sacredness of an act.

In other words, the more sinful an act, the more sacred it becomes. Murder? Forbidden to us because human life is sacred, and thus so is the magnitude of severing a soul from its body, a sacred act reserved solely for the angels. Adultery? Forbidden to us because the love in a marriage is sacred, and thus so is the magnitude of destroying trust in its foundation. The realm of haraam encompasses that which is to remain respectfully unapproached. Arriving at this understanding was crucial to my development as a Muslim. An act being “forbidden” is uninspiring—I don’t really care. But if you tell me I can’t do something because it’s sacred, because it was not made for me to do, I …cannot describe how much I understand this in the depth of my heart.

Haraam actions are not forbidden primarily because they are harmful; rather, they are forbidden because they are sacred and the harm is a byproduct. This is of crucial importance: an object, animal, concept, act, that is haraam is meant to be met with a dreaded respect, not disgust. This is the wrong attitude to assign to the perspective of the Divine. Rather, the primary approach for us is that the act is awestriking because it is not fashioned for human beings. Haraam signifies a respectful distance from the act. (I will likely describe the meaning of halaal/haraam in a different post.)

In the Qur’an, polygamy is emphasized as not being fashioned for the human heart (“Allah has not made you with two hearts” —33:4) which is rendered incapable by Divine creation of exercising equality among multiple spouses. In fact, polygamy is made haraam on the point of justice and the incapacity of the human heart in more than just this one [33:4] instance:

And you are unable
to deal justly
among women,
even if you desire.
Do not incline [to favor one]
and exclude [the others].
And if you reconcile
and fear the God/dess
then indeed
the God/dess is ever
Forgiving and Merciful.
—4:129

4:129, like every verse of the Qur’an (including the “two hearts” verse), encompasses both broad and specific applications. It discourages polygamy, stating men could not treat women equally in marriage even if they were careful. This is because men are not Allah, and their gaze and judgment is neither Divine gaze nor Divine judgment, rendering yet another example of the meaning of haraam as an act that is uhuman or with supernatural qualities, or frankly, not one’s station. Broadly the verse employs the word for “women” instead of “wives” thereby curbing men’s unfair advantages in every institution by warning them they are incapable of being just.

Because the Qur’an was delivered to human beings, it speaks to us like us. It inhibits us with different degrees of no, whether polite or direct or incensed, but these are ultimately proclamations of inhibition—ultimately, the text is saying no.

Compare the structure of 4:129, discouraging men from marrying multiple women, with the one forbidding the consumption of alcohol (2:219): “In them [wine and gambling] is great sin and benefit for people. But their sin is greater than their benefit.” Most male exegetes read this verse as rendering alcohol haraam, yet do not extend their logic of implicit inhibition to polygamy even though every verse regarding polygamy follows the same structural reason as the “harm outweighing the benefit” in alcohol. You all know I do not contest alcohol is implicitly forbidden in this verse, but by that very logic, so are male exegetes hypocrites when they do not extend the polite inhibition to polygamy just because it’s polite.

The different weights by which the Qur’an forbids an act, but ultimately still forbids it as sacred or haraam, is another subject for its own post. The most widely cited verse regarding polygamy is 4:3.

[4:2] Give the orphans their properties
and do not substitute your defective property
with their superior property.
And do not consume their properties into your own.
That is a great sin.
[4:3] And if you fear that you will not
deal justly with orphans,
then marry amongst yourselves suitable women,
twos or threes or fours.
But if you fear
that you will not exercise justice,
then marry only one, or the responsibility possessing your right hands.
That is more appropriate
that you do not incline to oppress.
—4:2-3

I’ve included 4:2 to lend context to 4:3, which is the marginalization of women and girls. It is specifically familial and financial marginalization. 4:3 describes at least three circumstances in which the women upon its revelation found themselves: the first circumstance is as orphaned girls with property, which men are commanded not to consume into their own. The second circumstance is as marginalized women who are suitable, defined by the verse itself as women from whom these men cannot take property because the women were left with neither property nor guardianship, whom men marry to themselves amongst themselves. The third is “the responsibility possessing your right hand”—i.e. women who are under some guardianship, encompassing but not limited to slaves and captives the institutions of which marriage sought to eliminate, and thus entitled to protections by virtue so that men are less inclined to infringe on unfamiliar rights.

Male exegetes are often confused by “twos or threes or fours” but this is a natural reference to multitudes because the “you” address in this verse is not just the plural “you”—it is contextually the societal you. The “you” of the multitudes. These pairs of “twos or threes or fours” emphasize that societal address of the plural subject, just as the societal description of angels’ wings is offered in 35:1, which praises Allah “Who made the angel messengers having wings, twos or threes or fours” and “increases in creation what S/he wills.” The description is for the society of angels, a different type of contextual plural, and the numbers reference an infinite multitude of weddings, not of wives. Marry them to each other, amongst yourselves. The verb “marry” is not individually reflexive—it is societally reflexive.

It follows then the final circumstance 4:3 describes employs “wahid” to mean not just one but only—as in “one and only”—this circumstance: the circumstance in which a man has guardianship over a newly financially and familially marginalized woman. Any woman in this circumstance is the “only one” (as directly from the verse) he is allowed to marry. He cannot deal justly with orphans who have property, or with women toward whom he has no guardianship, so he can marry only women from whom he is expected to take responsibility. The recognition of “wahid” as operating as “only one circumstance” in 4:3 further supports “twos or threes or fours” as societally reflexive plurals. This happens again such as in verse 34:46, “seek truth in pairs and individually.”

The inclusion of “aw” (or) in “only one, or the responsibility possessing your right hands” operates as introducing the definition of the aforementioned noun. Take for example: “We saw the dancers, or women weaving through the air.” The latter part of the sentence following “or” defines dancer. In fact, in very previous paragraph, I was forced to repeat with in “He cannot deal justly with orphans who have property, or with women toward whom he has no guardianship,” to avoid grammatically defining orphans as “women toward whom he as no guardianship”: the latter is describing a different circumstance, not defining the first. In 4:3, the latter defines the former; otherwise, it doesn’t make sense to say a woman in just one circumstance, and then this other circumstance.

This is all very clear to me: the verse moves from orphans from whom men are not to take property; to women suitable by circumstance of familial and financial marginalization for men (societal plural) to marry; to women for whom men are responsible—women possessing the men’s right hands—and whose rights are familiar to their male guardians. Therefore the entirety of the verse remains intact in terms of context and its concern with addressing marginalized women especially in times of war. The verses emphasize justice toward women, and the feminine voice and interest is always centered to regulate male behavior.

This is the most immediate reading and easy to see. No one could read polygamy into these verses unless they really, really wanted to read polygamy into these verses, particularly since polygamy is described as humanly impossible in the remainder of the Qur’an. However, according to malestream scholars, polygamy was and is allowed in the following conditions: (1) when polygamy is used to relieve a substantial number of people living in poverty if the man who does so is able, in some sort of extravagant fantasy, to treat each wife equally and (2) some scholars are gracious enough to say woman is not forced into or to stay in marriage. When the Prophet’s daughter came to him and told him her husband wanted a second wife, the Prophet asked him not to marry again, because it would displease the Prophet’s daughter. This provides that a man cannot marry again if his wife won’t allow it.

Polygamy isn’t, however, is derived from the Qur’anic text, as I have shown. Men will pull verses to pieces for excuses: some have even suggested that polygamy is not only allowed but necessary in populations in which women outnumber men. The Qur’an simply says nothing about qualifying polygamy in societies where there are more women than men. It does, however, emphasize that men cannot deal justly with women because men are not God, despite whatever ideas they might have. In fact, verses 33:50-52 reluctantly permit the Prophet to marry women who ask to marry him and emphasize that “this is not for other believers” which further illustrates the meaning of haraam as sacred, and confirms that polygamy is in fact haraam.

This is clear, and would make nearly all polygamous marriages today Islamically unlawful. I realize there are women who are second wives in polygamous marriages who become very frustrated when no one believes that they’re happy or satisfied. I’m not making judgments on your happiness by finding it unlawful. When women aren’t abused, it’s none of my business. Rather, the source of permissibility for polygamy is not from the Qur’an. 4:3 states that orphans are to be given the entirety of their rightful properties, that men within a society are to marry financially and familially marginalized women in that society, and that men who cannot deal justly in either circumstance should only marry women in the (only one) circumstance in which they are responsible for these women.

12 thoughts on “Polygamy is haraam.

  1. Z.V.

    Hi,

    I came here from twitter after seeing that you’ve taken up the blog again. I had started to binge read it shortly before you announced its end, then got kinda sad that I was late to the party and stopped :-) glad this is back.

    Got two questions: what books did you read to get a solid foundation for exegesis? I feel lost and don’t know where to start… I also feel that my religious knowledge is superficial, and I need to improve before I can talk.
    Second question: I went back to the post in which you announced the blog’s end and actually read it through this time (yeah, I know…) – you said you were going to write another blog in the mean time. Would it be ok for me to read it? I’m interested in what you went on to do/write in the time gap, if it’s not too nosy.

    Keep going!

    Z.V.

    Like

    1. Salaam. Welcome, and thank you for reading and commenting. While I can understand feeling lost, my own personal venture into exegesis began with the Qur’an, my reading of it, and no one else’s. You might notice that this website dates back to 2011. I was rather young then, and knew nothing of Asma Barlas, who would become so influential to me, and I had only in passing years ago heard about (and not yet read) the exegetical work of amina wadud. When I began there was certainly nothing “solid” about me or my knowledge. I had taken classes in Islamic school and grossly disliked them. I’d just started college as a linguistics major, which I later changed to literature. I was very interested in debate and law.

      Rather, formulating my own understanding of the Qur’an and constructing sound arguments to support those understandings was crucial to navigating the text without influence, particularly because so much of exegesis is undoing the premises and prejudices which we harbor prior to arriving to the text, and which we certainly project onto it. It is to read it with a clean slate, new eyes, rather than merely reproducing readings with nothing of value to contribute. I read the Qur’an when I was very young (first at 5, then the entirety with understanding in preteen years) before I was introduced to Muslims’ politicized readings of it, and was shocked to learn that messages I had taken from it independently (such as the story of the people of sodom being about rape, not homosexuality) were in fact not popularized readings.

      If you haven’t started and you feel that your religious knowledge is superficial, the best way to learn is to start. It’s to write your thoughts. Evaluate the strength of their support from the text. Question your own justifications. Navigate the text with your own heart. Argue with your friends about what the Qur’an means. And, when you feel ready to learn by example, peruse Asma Barlas and amina wadud. Aysha Hidayatullah has a wonderful book. These will exemplify for you …format. And thought process. Arguments and their angles. They will not teach you how to read the text or to listen closely to yourself. The creative connections you draw between verses. The magic of your intuition.

      Remember that in this endeavor, the answers will come to you because you seek them. It has been Promised.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Z.V.

        Almost a month later, but thank you so much for the detailed answer! I wasnt expecting this – I thought you’d read a ton before you started ^^

        I guess you’re right about just getting to work and learning that way, gradually. I recently found out that this approach does a lot to minimize anxiety, and that hesitation can be counterproductive. Waiting too long can get you nowhere….

        Thanks again!

        Like

  2. W

    Your exegesis is as brilliant and articulate as always, but I am confused about one thing.
    In verse 4:23 it says not to bring together two sisters, which is commonly interpreted as (for one man) not to marry them at same time. So how have you interpreted this?

    Like

    1. Salaam. Thank you for your question. I understand it has been assumed by male exegetes that 4:23, by forbidding marriage between women who are sisters, implicitly permits polygamy with women who are not sisters. This is a logical leap. The impermissibility of a specific act does not denote the permissibility of its variants; in fact, in any other area, these would be correctly perceived as deliberate attempts to locate/create loopholes. For example, the Qur’an also in one verse specifically forbids Muslims from associating daughters with Allah. Would the same male exegetes suggest it is permissible to associate sons with Allah, as long as they are not daughters? When the Qur’an denies us a detailed act, it does not necessarily mean we can change the detail and render the act permissible.

      Thus 4:23 only confirms that polygamy is haraam by citing, as it does in the verse forbidding association of daughters with Allah, an example of it that was most familiar to people of its time.

      Like

  3. Pingback: 4:25 [muḥ’ṣanāti]: Consent is Integral to the Qur’an – the fatal feminist

  4. Pingback: 4:3 and Orphans – if oceans were ink

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