Macalester Islam Journal

Article Title

Polygyny in Islam


Polygyny is an institution that has been misinterpreted, misunderstood, and misused. These faults have been with both Islamic communities and with their Western critics. However, the actual practice of polygyny itself does not seem to be as much of an issue as does the way in which it is applied. In Western literature, polygyny is often depicted as a cruel and repressive custom that sacrifices women’s freedom for men’s pleasure. Ideas of harems and tyrannical husbands are evoked. Yet, the reality of polygynous households is a far cry from these fantasies. As anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod explains, “polygyny is an institution oppressive to women in that it causes them pain,” yet the stressors that women face are not what an outside observer would automatically think of (19). Rather, they are heavily influenced by personality and individual relationships and circumstances. Indeed, it is impossible to summarize what the experience of a polygynous household is. Indeed, the motivation behind Muslim men’s decision to marry multiple women is not necessarily self-evident either. Many supporters invoke verses from the Quran as an endorsement of their position, but others focus more on the propagation of their family lineage. Still others point to economic and social factors that make polygyny a more beneficial option than monogamy. This is the case in modern African American Muslims. However, there is by no means a single opinion on the topic among Muslims. Many scholars, including modern feminists, look at the practice as archaic and misogynistic. By first examining the position of Islam on marriage in general, the positions of Muslim jurists and scholars will be contextualized. Their discussions and interpretations of the Quranic passage that mentions polygyny have influenced current law in Islamic countries. However, there appears to be a disconnect between rights that women are guaranteed in the Quran and rights that they are given in reality. Evidence for this disparity is found in the Egyptian Bedouin community of Awlad ‘Ali. Finally, modern scholars and the positions they hold will be discussed.