Polygamy as an institution has been discredited the world over in our times. Unlike in the medieval times, the patriarchal practice is now seen as an affront/insult to the dignity of women. In an age of increasing consciousness about human dignity and the basic rights of women, polygamy has gone against the grain of societal acceptance as an indulgence by men and worse. Critics of Islam always frown upon Islam for the perceived/alleged legitimacy it extends to men through the institution of polygamy. They argue that it militates against the notions of equality and women’s rights.
The Mujaddid of the Fourteenth Century, Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as) of Qadian engaged with the arguments of the critics of Islam in several of his writings and even defended the practice from the point of view of individual liberty and human rights. While Islam recognizes the practice of polygamy and allows men to take more than one wife at a time, as the Promised Massih (as) points out, Islam has not made it a compulsory institution or an obligatory practice on the men.
Marriage is a bilateral agreement/contract under the Law of Islam. Hence, the parties are perfectly entitled to design the conditions of agreement/rules of engagement as well. Muslim women can, if they so wish, certainly determine the conditions of their marriage and not powerless, as is generally being thought of. In the search within the Islamic tradition for the empowerment of Muslim women against the abuse of religious doctrines by the men, the viewpoint of the Promised Massih (as) has been found to be singularly useful. It is pertinent to note that in the century that followed since these observations were made by the Promised Massih (as), the family law reforms in most Islamic countries have moved in this direction as well.
For the benefit of our esteemed readers, we reproduce below the Extracts from the writings of the Promised Massih (as) reflecting upon the spirit of polygamy as permitted under Islam:
“Critics often object that polygamy involves intemperance and monogamy is the ideal system. I am surprised at their needless interference in other people’s affairs. It is well known that Islam permits a man to marry up to four wives at a time; and this is a permission, not a compulsion.
Every man and woman is well aware of this doctrine. Women have the right to lay down the condition that the husband will, in no circumstance whatsoever, marry another woman. If this condition is laid down before marriage, the husband will be guilty of breach of contract if he goes on to marry another. But if a woman does not prescribe any such condition, and is content with the law as it is, an outsider has no right to interfere. In such a case, the proverb seems relevant: ‘If the husband and wife are happy, the Qadi has nothing to do.’
Every sensible person can understand that God has not made polygamy obligatory; He has only declared it lawful. If a husband desires, for some genuine reason, and under Divine law, to avail this permission, and his wife is not happy about it, she has the options to demand divorce, and be rid of this anxiety. And if the other woman, whom he wishes to marry, is not happy, she too has the easy option to decline the offer of such a suitor. No one is under compulsion.
But if both women agree to this second marriage, what right then does an Arya have to interfere? Does this man propose marriage to the two ladies or to this Arya critic? If a woman agrees to her husband having a second wife, and the latter too is happy with the arrangement, no one has the right to interfere in the matter. This is a matter of human rights.
If anyone chooses to have two wives, he doesn’t do God any harm. The only loser is the first or the second wife. If the first wife feels that her rights as a wife will be placed in jeopardy by the second marriage of her husband, she can seek a way out of the situation by demanding a divorce; and should the husband be unwilling to comply with her demand, she can enforce separation through the court.
If the prospective second wife considers the situation to be unacceptable, she is the better judge of her own rights and interests. It is unwarranted and idle to object that justice is compromised in this situation. God Almighty has directed that a husband who has more than one wife should deal equitably with each of them; otherwise, he should confine himself to only one wife. [The reference is to Al-Nisa’, 4:4].
It is mere prejudice and sheer ignorance to suggest that polygamy is resorted to out of a desire for sexual indulgence. I have known people who were inclined towards such indulgence, but were able to save themselves by recourse to blessed system of polygamy—a system which helps such people to lead virtuous and pious lives. Failing this, many who are carried away by the fierce storm of carnal passions, end up at the doors of women of ill- fame, and contract venereal and other dangerous diseases. They indulge openly and covertly in such evil practices to which those who are happily married to two or three wives never succumb. Such people restrain themselves for a short while and then yield suddenly to the fierce onslaught of their passions like the bursting of a dam, whereby vast areas are flooded and ruined.
The truth is that actions are judged by their intentions. Those who feel that by taking a second wife they will be able to live pious lives, or will be saved from sexual promiscuity, or that they will leave behind righteous offspring, such people should certainly have recourse to this sacred institution. In Divine estimation, fornication and lustful ogling are such great sins as destroy all virtue and lead to physical suffering in this very world.
One who chooses to have more than one wife in order to hold himself back from sin, wants to become like angels. I know well that this blind world is a victim of false logic and baseless arrogance. Those who are not constantly engaged in search of virtue, and make no plans for achieving it, and do not even pray for it, are like a boil which shines on the surface but contains only pus.
Those who lean towards God, and care the least about the reproaches of the world, seek the way of righteousness as a beggar seeks bread. Those who plunge into the blazing fire of calamities for the sake of God, who are ever anguished, whose souls are melted and whose backs are broken by the effort of achieving great goals in the cause of God, He Himself desires that such people should spend some times of the day and night with their beloved wives and draw comfort for their tired and broken selves, so that they may return to their religious duties with renewed vigour. No one understands these things but those who have the knowledge and experience of this path. [ Chashma-e-Ma‘rifat, Ruhani Khaza’in, vol. 23, pp. 246-248]